The Tarantino Solution 2: Inglourious Basterds (2009), A Moral Defense

Posted by Charles Reece, September 20, 2009 11:11pm | Post a Comment
Page 1  (Again, BEWARE SPOILERS!)

I’m waiting for any of the enthusiasts for Inglourious Basterds to come up with some guidance about what grown-up things this movie has to say to us about World War 2 or the Holocaust — or maybe just what it has to say about other movies with the same subject matter. Or, if they think that what Tarantino is saying is adolescent but still deserving of our respect and attention, what that teenage intelligence consists of. Or implies. Or inspires. Or contributes to our culture. -- Jonathan Rosenbaum, again

Certainly, there's a difference between Bonhoeffer taking no pleasure in his decision and the viewer's finding entertainment in Shosanna's, namely that between real world events and their aesthetic use. Since Mendelsohn and Rosenbaum are film critics, I'm guessing they aren't of the "art after Auschwitz is barbaric" persuasion, so their problem is with the film's message, its delivery and reception. The Jewish devised cinematic hell to which the Nazis become condemned might even be seen as tragic if you're sympathetic to their goals. As the administer and representative of the Volk's will, Col. Landa's murdering Shosanna's family sets into motion the wheels of fate that is their (the Nazi's, if not exactly Lando's) destruction. From the Greeks to Shakespeare, tragedies, we should recall, were (and still are) performed for pleasure, or what might be called entertainment. The world of art would be a lot less interesting if it came with the book of answers that Rosenbaum demands of Inglourious Basterds. How about a quote from Vladimir Nabokov?

I presume there exist readers who find titillating the display of mural words in those hopelessly banal and enormous novels which are typed out by the thumbs of tense mediocrities and called "powerful" and "stark" by the reviewing hack. There are gentle souls who would pronounce Lolita meaningless because it does not teach them anything. I am neither a reader nor a writer of didactic fiction, [...] Lolita has no moral in tow. For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art [...] is the norm. -- from "On a Book Entitled Lolita"

Now, Rosenbaum is one of our best film critics, not some "reviewing hack," and Tarantino ain't exactly Nabokov, but everything else fits the bill. This former's criticisms, this time around, don't amount to much more than pandering moralism, and the latter, like Nabokov, is more interested in staying true to the story he's telling than whatever it might say about the real world. But this doesn't mean that his story has nothing relevant to say about whatever Rosenbaum is referring to with "our culture." The film isn't mere entertainment, or what some fanboy defense might call "just a movie," but rather a sort of parody in Nabokov's sense when he said, "satire teaches a lesson, parody is a game."

Hitler and Joseph Goebbels were admirers of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, likely hearing echos of their own call for the restoration of a soul to the dehumanizing technocracy of modernity ("the mediator between the brain and hands must be the heart!"). However, humanity, like violence, depends on the details. They didn't see an analogy of the oppressed workers at the bottom of Lang's pseudo-utopia -- who kept it running for the pleasure of the bourgeoisie and rich -- to the Nazis' use of Jewish slave labor in factories like Mittelwork where the V-2 bomb was manufactured. As Col. Landa spells out to the farmer in Chapter 1, the Jews were seen as racially other, not deserving of the moral obligation that obtains to one's neighbors in the ethnic Lebenstraum (living space). For a similar reason, American kids aren't expected to look in abhorrence at singing grapes being used to sell their own execution or anthropomorphic squirrel-operated machinery in The Flintstones. Ignoring such human traits is fine in fantasy, but not when someone tries to supplant the real with the fantastic. And, as Landa argues, the Jews weren't seen even as the equivalent of squirrels (much less the happily working and talking kind), but rats. It's this kind of rationalization that makes the bureaucratization of evil possible.

So when Tarantino parodies the burning in Lang's Nazi-favored film with Shosanna's own version, there's more going on than geeky appropriation. At the moment in Goebbel's Nation's Pride when Pvt. Zoller (the Nazi "Sergeant York") asks, "who wants to send a message to Germany?," Shosanna's image cuts in to answer that she does, commanding Marcel standing behind the screen to set fire to the film stock. The real Shosanna is already dead, killed in the projection booth by the real Zoller as she was showing a bit of compassion for the not-quite-dead wouldbe rapist, having just shot him in the back. The last bit of human compassion having been drilled out her in grieving slow motion (one of the few nods to Enzo Castellari's Inglorious Bastards), the only thing left is a mechanically reproduced image to be shown only once in a particular place, creating an aura of terror for this particular group of "art" lovers.

In Metropolis, it is the mechanical Maria who is put to the stake, having tricked the workers into destroying the machines that would keep the city functioning. I'm not going to summarize the serpentine plot of Lang's film (read it here if you dare), so suffice it to say the means-end utopia was brought down by a robot simulation of one of the oppressed (Maria) that was the bypodruct of the city ruler's faulty/inhumane ratiocinations. (That is, Fredersen, the ruler, gained possession of Hel, the love of the inventor Rotwang, eventually using her up -- she died during childbirth -- which led to Rotwang making the robot as a replacement, but it had its own demonic plans that involved taking the form of Maria.) Thus, Shosanna (and maybe Tarantino) saw the analogy that Goebbels and Hitler didn't. Define another's humanity out of your ratio-moral system and the only interaction left possible is with the robotic husk. Shosanna's moral choice in such an immoral situation was, like Bonhoffer's, to point the demonic reproduction to which she had been reduced back at the Nazis and let it take its course.

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Metropolis (2), Quentin Tarantino (13), Nazis (11), Inglourious Basterds (7), Fritz Lang (5), Cinema Criticism (32)