Who hasn’t dreamed about killing fascists at least once in their life? I know I have. I want to massacre the bastards by the truckloads, moral and legal constraints be damned. But thanks to Quentin Tarantino’s new revenge fantasy flick, Inglourious Basterds, I can vicariously live the experience without getting my hands dirty or suffer moral qualms.
The movie is about a fictitious squad of Jewish-American servicemen whose sole purpose is to slip behind enemy lines in occupied France in order to kill (and sometimes torture) as many Nazis as possible. Body count is important here. Led by a Tennessee hillbilly named Lt. Aldo Raines, played by Brad Pitt, they rampage through the French countryside, ambushing German soldiers, scalping them like Apaches. No prisoners are ever taken, but a token survivor is always left behind as a living monument, with a swastika carved into their forehead, to scare the shit out of the Germans. And believe me, the Germans are scared shitless, including the Fuhrer himself.
Quentin Tarantino being Quentin Tarantino, naturally, this movie does not work as a conventional narrative, but in the patented Tarantino style of going forwards and backwards. His movies often read like novels, and Inglourious Basterds is no exception.
But in addition to the novel-like elements, Tarantino has added another storyline that complements, but does not compete, with the first. The movie opens up on a French farm, with a farmer cutting wood. He is met a by a charming German SS officer named Col. Hans Larda, who is called the “Jew Hunter” for his single-mindedness to rid France of all Jews. Col. Larda is played with such evil joy by Christoph Waltz; he alone is worth the price of admission. You want to like him but are reminded that his is a Nazi, and a ruthless one at that. Col. Larda suspects the farmer of hiding Jews. With wit and the interrogation skills of an experienced detective, Col. Larda manages to squeezes the truth out of the farmer. No violence is used in the process, but the Jews, on the other hand, their fates were sealed by a hail of bullets.
There was a lone survivor of the massacre, a young girl named Shosanna Dreyfuss, played by French actress Melani Laurent, who manages to escape to Paris, where she ends up running a movie theatre playing nothing but Nazi films. All the while, Shosanna nurses a grudge that eventually develops into full-blown homicidal rage: the targets of which, of course, are Nazis, a theatre full of them, in fact.
The film is derivative like many of Tarantino’s films and include his trademarks: long dialogue scenes about philosophical issues and meditations about German films of the 1920s, unconventional camera angles, and his trademark penchant for violence. It should be said, however, that Tarantino-style violence is not the cartoonish violence that are is found in bonehead Steven Seagal and Chuck Norris films. On the contrary, it is never gratuitous. One of the more interesting aspects of the film is that more than half the movie is in both French and German. For moments, I thought I was watching a foreign film. Surprisingly, it did not detract from the enjoyment of the film at all.
But why did Quentin Tarantino decide to make a film about a Jewish revenge fantasy in the first place? It this article published in Atlantic magazine, he explains why:
“Holocaust movies always have Jews as victims,” he said, plainly exasperated by Hollywood’s lack of imagination. “We’ve seen that story before. I want to see something different. Let’s see Germans that are scared of Jews. Let’s not have everything build up to a big misery, let’s actually take the fun of action-movie cinema and apply it to this situation.”I feel the same way any book I read or any movie I see on the Holocaust, Jews are always depicted as defenseless victims. They never fight back, accepting their fate because it is God’s will, for punishment of sins, real or perceived. It is so maddening. This is one of the reasons why I admire Israel, at least it fights back whenever it is attacked.
It is true that most—some might even say all—films about the Holocaust focus on the persecution of Jews. The Holocaust was very bad for Jews; this is an immovable fact of history. But Tarantino isn’t wrong to suggest that the cinematic depiction of anti-Semitic persecution can become wearying over time, particularly for Semites.
The problem, I suppose, is both a philosophical and religious one, so I will leave it there.. Nevertheless, Inglourious Basterds is a welcome addition to both World War II and Holocaust genres, if only for its cathartic effects. The thirst for revenge must be slaked once in awhile, in my opinion, even if it is only on the silver screen.