Arts & Culture
History Rewritten With Lightning
There are scenes in Quentin Tarentino’s new film Inglourious Basterds sure to make your heart race. The film opens with a tour-de-force of tension, in which SS Colonel Hans Landa, superbly played by Christoph Waltz, interrogates a dairy farmer suspected … Read More
There are scenes in Quentin Tarentino’s new film Inglourious Basterds sure to make your heart race. The film opens with a tour-de-force of tension, in which SS Colonel Hans Landa, superbly played by Christoph Waltz, interrogates a dairy farmer suspected of harboring a Jewish family. At first we admire the farmer, who shows remarkable calm in dealing with his unwelcome guest. But as Landa slowly tightens the screws, our confidence in the farmer lags. We feel for him, but begin searching for a way out of our initial identification. It is only a matter of time before he sells out the family hiding beneath his floorboards. By the end of the scene we have abandoned the farmer – he no longer matters to us – and transferred our emotional bond to the teenage girl who manages to flee the fate of her family members, stumbling through lush green meadows while Landa watches her with bemusement from a doorway.
Her escape, as well as the fact that Landa seems to have a reason for letting her go, prove significant later in the film. But despite that neatly articulated continuity the opening scene feels self-contained, as do many of the memorable passages in Inglourious Basterds. Because Tarantino’s talents shine brightest in the construction of sequences that could be excerpted on YouTube without losing their power, Inglourious Basterds is a film whose parts are somehow greater than their sum.
But that isn’t necessarily a drawback. Tarantino clearly aspires to produce memorable work. And the memories burned most deeply into our brain are usually the sort, as psychoanalysis teaches, that are too powerful to slot into a clearly defined chronology. They burst through whatever mental dams have been set up to hold them in place, flooding places with which they have no obvious connection. If Inglourious Basterds is a film that you can’t stop thinking about, even if it’s only in bits and pieces, Tarantino has achieved his artistic goals.
Whether those are the right artistic goals is another matter. His two-part opus Kill Bill is more fragmentary than Inglourious Basterds. But because Kill Bill is a tribute to Asian martial arts pictures famous for the skimpiness of their plots, lack of cohesion is excusable. In taking on World War II and, implicitly, the Holocaust, Inglourious Basterds invites a degree of moral scrutiny that Tarantino’s choice of genres previously helped him avoid. The fact that he continues to project the image of an insouciant amateur movie fan rather than a disciplined director, even when handling such historically delicate material, compounds the trouble.
Despite the obvious care with which Inglourious Basterds is put together – the period details in the mise-en-scene are fantastic – it still can feel cartoonish at times. The heightened sense of reality that makes the best scenes so memorable actually undermines the film’s realism as a whole. It’s the psychological equivalent of a 3-D movie, so visceral that it can seem fake. But the distance that our proximity to danger paradoxically affords us actually might be a boon. Leaving aside the question of whether anyone would want to see a Quentin Tarantino picture besotted by its own probity, the film’s volatile subject matter, which comes “pre-heightened” even before any artist seeks to heighten it, actually might be better served by his insistence on putting style before substance.
The Jewish Thing To Do?
Have his critics noticed? Tarantino has received his best reviews since Pulp Fiction, in addition to unexpectedly large box office numbers. His career, recently thought to be in trouble, is back on track. But Inglourious Basterds has still provoked the same misgivings as Tarantino’s previous directorial efforts. Some worry that its depiction of violence is excessive, others that the humor that leavens that violence might deaden viewers’ moral sensitivity. But because this is a story in which Jews take revenge on their oppressors, other concerns have come to the fore. The most heated objections to the film have come from those who worry that it makes viewers identify with characters in troubling ways. Interestingly, this charge has been levied from opposing ideological camps. Whether supporters of Israel or the sort of progressive intellectuals who relentlessly point out its failings, critics have argued that the film makes revenge too sweet.
There is nothing in the narrative to imply that the Germans in the film, most of them high-ranking Nazis, deserve sympathy for their plight. Nevertheless, the unorthodox practices of the primarily American commando unit known as the “Inglourious Basterds” – scalping their kills and carving a swastika on the foreheads of any survivors – have troubled those who believe that the distinction between “us” and “them” must encompass methodology as well as ideology.
In a fine piece for The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg expresses admiration for the film and its director, yet seems most insistent on arguing that it could never have been made by a Jew. “Given the chance, of course, I would still shoot Mengele in the face. That would be a moral necessity. But I wouldn’t carve a swastika into his forehead. That just doesn’t sound like the Jewish thing to do.” Goldberg is less bothered by the brutality of Tarantino’s “anti-Nazi excesses” in the abstract than his sense that they run the risk of inspiring sympathy for Germans who don’t deserve it. Presumably, the “Jewish thing to do” would involve preventing audiences from identifying with their persecutors’ suffering.
The Nazi Character
While it may seem silly, not to mention offensive, to complain that the film treats its antagonists too harshly, the charge illuminates a crucial dilemma facing those who depict the Third Reich. Stories in which only the good guys are fleshed out tend to fall flat. But attempts to correct this imbalance run the risk of imbuing perpetrators of the vilest imaginable acts with the very humanity they ruthlessly denied their victims. As Nazis have evolved from the stock villains of B-movies to a wider range of possible characters, understandable anxieties about normalizing German atrocities have surfaced.
To the extent that Nazi characters transcend the standardization of villainy that was once their postwar cinematic lot, in which most wearers of the Hakenkreuz were functionally interchangeable, and become distinct individuals, they elicit more complex forms of identification. Even if a character is identified as a worthy opponent, though one who must be vanquished at all costs, the reflexes of the battleground give way to more nuanced reflections on his personality. Once the goal is to outwit rather than outshoot the enemy, the dehumanization of modern warfare begins to lose its sway.
In theory, this may seem like a salutary goal. But its advocates face a conundrum. Is it better to kill people whose humanity goes unacknowledged or ones who remain in the crosshairs despite being recognized as individuals? Although legal precedent suggests that the former is preferable – soldiers are rarely prosecuted for taking the lives of other soldiers – the ethical folds of the question are not so easy to lay flat. Indeed, the popularity of fictional narratives in which a military opponent passes from anonymity to familiarity betrays deep-seated reservations about masses, even those comprised of one’s mortal enemies.
If You’ve Seen One Stormtrooper, You’ve Seen Them All
But there are two major problems with perceiving your enemies as individuals. If you persist in trying to destroy them, success can feel too much like murder. There’s a scene in Inglourious Basterds in which a German officer, regular army rather than SS, refuses to tell the commandos, who have just slaughtered his the men under his command, where a sister unit is positioned on the map. In theory, such loyalty and courage are commendable, if misguided. But the Basterds have no interest in the honor of the battlefield. They delight in the officer’s refusal because it means that the “Bear Jew,” a hulking man played by horror film director Eli Roth, can beat him into a pulp with his trusty baseball bat, a grisly spectacle from which the camera does not cut away.
Because we have noted the steely determination in the German officer’s face, a face that literally disappears under the force of Bear Jew’s blows, the impact of the scene is especially brutal. Even if the violence feels satisfying to viewers who identify with the assassin’s vengeful glee, pangs of conscience are hard to suppress. But the Basterds’ mission doesn’t allow for second thoughts. If recognizing opponents’ humanity makes you hesitate, they might well kill you first. For those who lack the resolve of those commandos, however, the best survival mechanism may be to pretend that the faces of the enemy have already disappeared. There is safety in reducing one’s opponents to components of an impersonal mass.
One of the best cinematic examples of this pragmatic approach to war can be found in the Star Wars films, in which the identical white suits of the Imperial stormtroopers – a term George Lucas chose with a keen sense of his tale’s cinematic ancestry – so hard and glossy that they hide all traces of humanity, remain inviolate even when their occupants go down in battle. Since viewers never get to see the fallen warriors inside – or even perceive a change of state through damage to the suits themselves – it is impossible to identify them as individuals and, as a consequence, to identify with them.
Although the first Star Wars film – subsequently reclassified as the fourth episode in a sextet – was released in the 1970s, a decade that saw representations of the Third Reich become less monolithic, it represents a throwback to the clear-cut moral universe of those postwar B-movies in which Germans were barely even characters, automatons who were either to be evaded or destroyed, period. While comforting for children, who prefer their badness without ambiguity, this failure to differentiate among enemies had disturbing implications for those grown-ups who welcomed the opportunity to enjoy war narratives without a guilty conscience. At a time when films like Coming Home, The Deerhunter, and Apocalypse Now were winning acclaim for their depressing depiction of the Viet Nam War’s psychological legacy, Star Wars took viewers back to a simpler time when dispatching enemy soldiers was a cause for celebration rather than a crisis of confidence.
The Reach of Reagan
Regardless of George Lucas’s politics, presumed to be of the wishy-washy liberal sort associated with the San Francisco Bay Area, his franchise laid the cultural groundwork for Ronald Reagan’s cinematically savvy reactionary program. Not only did Reagan reject the legacy of the 1960s at the level of policy, he also rejected the way that crucial decade was being represented in film.
His political genius was most evident in his capacity to recognize that most Americans, even those opposed to his conservative ideology, were starving for villains they could root against with a clear conscience. His declarations about the “Evil Empire” and regular invocation of World War II films went hand in hand, crucial components of a project to replace the disenchanted relativism of the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era with the high-contrast moral code found in traditional war movies and Westerns.
Ultimately, though, the end of the Cold War made Reagan’s map of the world obsolete before younger generations had fully absorbed its implications. Ever since, politicians in the West have been struggling, with only limited success, to fit dictators and terrorists from the developing world into SS uniforms. Ordinary citizens of the United States, Britain or Japan may recognize the danger these global outcasts pose to world peace. They may even agree with the notion that these men are the embodiment of evil. But the notion that they are somehow Nazis returned from the dead has not really stuck.
The recent Norwegian zombie film Dead Snow cleverly makes light of this failure by suggesting that even frozen, undead Nazis come much closer to the ideal than current pretenders to the throne of evil. Their flesh may be coming off in chunks. Their plan of attack may be lacking in subtlety. But their uniforms still fit the way the tailor intended. Compared to the military discipline these zombines exhibit, evident in a steadfast refusal to take death lying down, the schemes of impoverished Muslim college students in Oslo, Paris or Amsterdam seem hopelessly inept.
Perhaps it’s not that the term “Nazi” has failed to stick, but rather that it has become temporarily affixed to so many different places that most of its historical significance has evaporated. Once politicians have suggested that turbaned religious zealots, perverted oligarchs and drug-trafficking tribesmen are all current-day “Nazis,” despite the fact they neither look nor act like the stereotype, it doesn’t take much of a push to get ideologues to label anyone they oppose fascists.
The radical Left was fond of doing this during the heyday of the counterculture, one of its most shameful legacies. The difference back then was that World War II was still close enough for such exaggerations to be countered by personal testimony of those who had lived through the Third Reich. These days, when those who were adults during the 1940s are already well into their eighth decade, such witnessing is becoming increasingly rare. Both the war and the Holocaust are passing into a netherland where historical evidence blurs with cinematic reconstruction to such a degree that young people find it difficult to make contact with the reality behind the representations.
This may be why Tarantino chose to turn his latest genre exercise into a project with much higher stakes. Or perhaps he’s simply young enough himself to intuitively demonstrate what others struggle to pin down. Either way, Inglourious Basterds is a perfect example of how the injunction to always remember is being transformed by the diminishment of living memory. Hitler remains the archetype of the greatest cinematic villainy, as readily identifiable as Mickey Mouse or Marilyn Monroe. But, like those products of the Hollywood dream factory, he inhabits a realm where the facts of history are a secondary concern.
Birth of a Nation
That Tarantino is a true scholar of cinema should be apparent to anyone who notices the way his films pay homage to their predecessors. Reservoir Dogs references a wide range of heist films. Jackie Brown reprises so many highlights of blaxploitation flicks from the 1970s that you can forget it was made in the 1990s. And Kill Bill at times seems more like a catalogue of cool martial arts films than a coherent narrative. Because Tarantino is so attentive to the nuances of genre, paying as much attention to obscure B-movies as he does to canonical favorites, it’s easy to forget that this narrow-spectrum expertise, the province of fan boys and girls, is complemented by a broad engagement with film as a medium. Just because he worked in a video store doesn’t mean that his knowledge can be reduced to trivia. Like Martin Scorcese, his passion for cinema can seem indiscriminate, quick to find something to love in pictures that aren’t easy to like. But that doesn’t mean that his postmodern aesthetic is shallow.
Inglourious Basterds certainly follows in the footsteps of Tarantino’s previous work in paying loving tribute to classic war films and “Spaghetti” spins on Hollywood formula. But because it’s also the story of how lovers of film – French and German, Jew and Nazi – are brought together before the silver screen, Tarantino invites us to reflect on cinematic history as a whole. In one sense, he has simply made another film about films. Because of the subject matter, however, and the fact that he opts to bring his narrative to a climax inside a movie theater, the self-reflexivity that always lurks just beneath the surface of his work has become both more obvious and more profound.
Tarantino’s script plays so fast and loose with history, imagining an end to the Third Reich more dramatically satisfying than what actually happened, that it begs comparison to another historical film that was praised for its stylistic panache: D.W. Griffith’s 1915 feature Birth of a Nation. Although protested by the NAACP and sympathetic white intellectuals for its egregious bias against African-Americans, the film was a tremendous success. Audiences eager to heal the wounds of the Civil War thrilled at the opportunity to identify with both Union and Confederate protagonists, even if that symbolic reconciliation depended on the intesification of white supremacy. That this reconciliation also required the distortion of historical fact didn’t seem to bother most viewers either.
Because of the shorter average lifespan in the early twentieth century, Birth of a Nation shares with Inglourious Basterds the status of being a film about historical events that are no longer remembered by most of the population. Although President Woodrow Wilson, for whom Birth of a Nation was screened in the White House, probably did not make the famous declaration that it was “history written with lightning”, the statement does a beautiful job of capturing film’s power to promote revisionist history. As Thomas Dixon, the author of the unabashedly racist novel on which Birth of a Nation was based, explained, “I didn’t dare allow the President to know the real big purpose back of my film – which was to revolutionize Northern sentiments by a presentation of history that would transform every man in my audience into a good Democrat! . . . What I told the President was that I would show him the birth of a new art – the launching of the mightiest engine for moulding public opinion in the history of the world.”
That’s what critics who complain that Inglourious Basterds is pro-Israeli are picking up on. Even if they are willing to concede Goldberg’s point that the excessive violence in the film may not be a “Jewish thing to do,” they insist that it’s most definitely a Zionist thing to do. From their perspective, fantasies of revenge have played a crucial role in postwar Jewish politics. The pride taken in the IDF’s battlefield triumphs; the reluctance to make concessions to the Palestinians, despite intense international pressure; the doggedness with which both surviving Nazis and the terrorists responsible for the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre were hunted down: all can be regarded as evidence of precisely the we’re-not-going-to-take-it-anymore mindset that defines the renegades who comprise the Inglourious Basterds.
There’s a difference, of course, between revenging yourself directly on an oppressor and the pursuit of compensatory satisfaction in another setting. The latter is rather unseemly, like the actions of a boy who, humiliated by a schoolyard bully, takes his frustrations out on smaller children he can safely dominate. Critics of Israel’s foreign and domestic policy have charged that many of its most impressive military achievements – taking out Iraqi nuclear facilities, destroying Hamas hideouts with precision bombing – are the result of an overwhelming technological and financial superiority that significantly tarnishes their luster.
From this perspective, Inglourious Basterds seems dangerous because it uses a World War II narrative to fortify fantasies with disturbing present-day consequences. Goldberg explains the film’s visceral appeal for Jewish audiences – or at least Jewish male audiences – by emphasizing the transgressive pleasure it elicits. He quotes Eli Roth: “It’s almost a deep sexual satisfaction of wanting to beat Nazis to death, an orgasmic feeling.” Tarantino’s longtime producer Lawrence Bender reinforces this troubling conflation of sex and revenge by recounting a conversation he had with the director. “‘As your producing partner, I thank you, and as a member of the Jewish tribe, I thank you, motherfucker, because this movie is a fucking Jewish wet dream.’”
While such dreams may prove harmless enough when confined to the bedroom or shower, there’s always the chance that they will bolster the impetus for taking action in the real world, where true Nazis are in relatively short supply but plenty of convenient surrogates are waiting to take their psychic place. At least that’s the conclusion reached by those who fret that Inglorious Basterds reinforces the ideology of the pre-emptive strike, offense as the only defense worth having. It’s vital, they insist, to distinguish between revenge that looks to the past, seeking redress for an injury, and the sort of pre-meditated violence that looks to the future, securing advance compensation for an injury that has yet to occur. Once people are no longer able to tell the difference, they are at the mercy of demagogues.
Identifying the Bodies
What these opposing concerns about Tarantino’s approach underscore is the extent to which Inglourious Basterds exposes new wrinkles in the problem of identification. A staple of the abstract film theory that swept scholarship in the 1960s and 1970s, this topic has taken a back seat in recent years to work of narrower conceptual scope. Histories are in, while sweeping claims about the ahistorical cinematic apparatus are out. The irony in this development, however, is that it is precisely in self-consciously historical films and, more specifically, those that tackle the subjects of World War II and the Holocaust, that the structural workings of film are easiest to discern.
Playwright Bertolt Brecht’s insight that the dominant experience of drama in the West revolves around identification with characters is never more apparent than when watching a conventional war film, in which viewers are given the tools to discern distinct individuals within the masses of people on screen and then get to follow those individuals through a sequence of events that repeatedly threatens to return them to anonymity. Indeed, it’s no accident that such films often linger on dead bodies waiting to be identified. The inhumanity of modern warfare inheres in its capacity to render not only soldiers, but also civilians functionally equivalent.
But this specter of becoming “mass” men and women, deprived of character, is more insidious than that, for it goes hand in hand with tremendous advances in the capacity to identify people negatively, as members of a category being discriminated against. Again and again World War II films have presented characters living in Occupied Europe or trapped behind enemy lines who desperately hope that their disguise, their forged papers, their accent don’t give them away. Even as their plight reduces them to mere shadows, barely able to sustain their humanity, they live in fear of being singled out. And moviegoers, themselves part of an anonymous mass, identify with that fear. They want to disappear into the crowd, even as they long to shore up their selfhood by bonding with protagonists on the screen.
It’s no accident that the climactic scene of Inglourious Basterds takes place in a cinema where some members of the audience fear being detected as imposters and others luxuriate in the false confidence that fills moviegoers when the lights go down. This is the rare film that manages to be ruthlessly self-reflexive without ever making you feel the presence of the mirror. Even a seasoned cinephile, primed to make careful note of every scene in which characters are making a movie or watching a film, will have a hard time wriggling free of the identification that subordinates mind to body. The film’s key scenes, including the remarkable climax, are simply too thrilling, too viscerally realized to appraise with detachment during a first screening.
The Roller Coaster of History Is a Moebius Strip
That’s part of what makes the film what the hippies liked to call a “head trip.” By the time the viewer reaches the end of that climactic scene, the sense of being strapped into an amusement park thrill ride is so overwhelming that the film’s blatant rewriting of history feels like a higher order of truth. Some commentators on Inglourious Basterds have wryly noted that Americans learn so little history in school that Tarantino’s reckless gambit might go unnoticed. Perhaps that’s the case. But it’s also not hard to understand how moviegoers who know perfectly well how World War II ended might still find themselves transported, if only temporarily, to a twilight zone where Hitler never made it to his bunker. Just as many otherwise progressive Americans in 1915 were temporarily won over by the storytelling brilliance of Birth of a Nation, contemporary viewers can be persuaded to suspend their disbelief in exchange for narrative bliss.
In writing his screenplay Tarantino surely had the long-delayed Valkyrie project in mind, which tells the story of a nearly successful attempt to assassinate the Führer in the summer of 1944. The difference is that his “alternate ending” is pure fiction, as deliberately skewed as the Thomas Dixon story told in Birth of a Nation. But whereas Dixon sought to influence public opinion to advance an odious political agenda, Tarantino’s purpose is more complex. As the director has repeatedly noted in interviews, he thought it was high time for Jews to escape the role of victim meted out to them in one Holocaust narrative after another. But it’s doubful that his primary goal was to create a kind of political Viagra to bolster Israeli militarism. More likely, he wanted both to show how Israel became the state that it is today and deftly suggest, by telling a story in which a few stalwart Jews practically get to defeat the Nazis all by themselves, that it’s time for the nation to adopt a new narrative.
Hitler Just Isn’t What He Used To Be
There’s a reason why the scene in which the Bear Jew empties round after round into Hitler’s corpse is so disturbing. Even as viewers share in his rapture, it’s hard not get the sense that this climax – his climax, to build on Eli Roth’s metaphor – is one that can only be repeated with diminishing returns. While the increasing frequency with which terms like “national socialism” and “fascism” have been invoked in recent years indicate that World War II is very much on people’s minds, the sheer variety and frequency of the references attest to a precipitous decline in their historical relevance.
Perhaps the best example of this development, as exhilarating as it is disturbing, is in the curious afterlife of the 2006 German film Downfall about Hitler’s last days in the bunker. The product of painstaking research, full of spot-on period details, the film was both praised and maligned for its attempts to be historically accurate. In particular, many critics criticized the film for making Hitler and his associates too human.
By confining the narrative to the final days of a lost cause, Downfall’s creators constructed the perfect breeding ground for melodrama. Even though Hitler is clearly mad and his associates mostly venal and inept, their dire predicament and the time viewers spend with them in the claustrophobically close quarters of the bunker elicit a kind of structural identification, a sympathy in spite of itself à la the famous “Stockholm Syndrome”, that threatens to conceal the magnitude of their crimes. At least, that’s what Downfall’s critics have charged.
The most interesting thing about the film, though, is that it has given rise to one of the most persistent and inventive memes on the internet. The scene in which Hitler finally realizes that his forces have been utterly defeated, first in a fit of rage and then a mood of bitter resignation, has been posted many times to YouTube with new subtitles added for humorous effect. In these guerrilla clips, the actor Bruno Ganz’s over-the-top performance is appropriated for rants of all stripes, from a Republican’s lament that Sarah Palin is leaving the governorship in Alaska to a tirade about Michael Jackson’s untimely death to froth-mouthed fury about a professional football player’s decision to come out of retirement.
Whether this rebranding of Hitler’s image as the stand-in for any authority figure losing his grip constitutes a new example of the banality of evil or merely a sign that history isn’t what it used to be, we have clearly entered an era in which people surfing the internet can find themselves amusingly diverted by identifying with the figure of the Führer for a few minutes. From that perspective, Inglourious Basterds’ insistence that we remember to keep the Nazis in our sights and take pleasure in their destruction can seem downright moral.
But what makes Tarantino’s film, as its final lines imply, his “masterpiece” is not its morality so much as the way it invites us to think about morality. By making us feel the power of identification that the medium of film makes possible, as well as the consequences to which that spectatorial bondage can lead, Inglourious Basterds demonstrates how cinema makes history. The challenge it sets us is to become producers of that history, like that teenage girl who flees through the meadow at the end of the film’s opening scene, only to become first the owner of a cinema and then the principal agent of the Third Reich’s destruction.
Charlie Bertsch is Zeek‘s Music Editor. Prior to joining Zeek, he held the same position at Tikkun. He was also a longtime contributor to Punk Planet, and was one of the founders of the pioneering electronic publication, Bad Subjects: Political Education For Everyday Life. He is working on several book projects, as both a writer and an editor. He welcomes your feedback whether in comments posted here or by e-mail.