The Tarantino Solution 1: Inglourious Basterds (2009), A Moral Defense

Posted by Charles Reece, September 13, 2009 11:00pm | Post a Comment

So, there's been a whole lot of hoo-ha surrounding what's quite obviously the most interesting and entertaining movie of the year, Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. The moralistic critics have done their best to trivialize the white power movement's Holocaust revisionism by suggesting the film turns "Jews into Nazis" (Daniel Mendelsohn) and one wonders "what it was (and is) about the film that seems morally akin to Holocaust denial" (Jonathan Rosenbaum). On the other, "with friends like these ...," side, the defense hasn't amounted to much, either, the typical suggestion being some variation on the line that as pure entertainiment/fantasy, the movie has no morality, nor does it need it. Patooehy! I agree that entertainment is the film's virtue, but disagree that it occurs at the expense of morality. In fact, its morality grounds and justifies what Mendelsohn and Rosenbaum see as the Jews acting like Nazis, but what I call the aesthetic enjoyment of the film. Thus, I think a moral defense is in order. Be forewarned: MANY SPOILERS WILL OCCUR!

The Dreyfus Affair

What all retributive theories seem to share is the claim that the relation between crime and punishment is (primarily) conceptual (or “internal”). The justification of punishment is that punishment in itself is an appropriate response to crime. [...] Reaffirming the wrongness of the crime is good in itself, good enough (all else equal) to justify the punishment. Telling the truth about a crime is itself an important good.
                      -- Moral philosopher Michael Davis explaining the basic tenet of retributive justice

In his review, Mendelsohn is particularly offended by the final chapter that features Shosanna Dreyfus trapping --  with the aid of her boyfriend, Marcel -- the entire Nazi high command in a theater, then burning it down (referencing some science learned from Hitchcock). The fact that Shosanna is a Jew who barely escaped with her own life after watching a group of Nazis being led by Colonel Hans Landa slaughter her family in chapter one has no bearing on Mendelsohn's indignation. Violence is evidently content-free, the violent what-fer being morally equated to the violent crime. Even the dimmest of ardent capital punishment opponents should be able to free himself from Mendelsohn's mental paper bag here. That is, even if one holds that the state should never be able to kill murderers, it takes quite a bit of willpower to get mixed up on the order of events involved: there would be no state-sanctioned violence without the criminal act of murder occurring first. Now, there might be other good, moral reasons for not wanting the state to kill murderers, but they in no way make the two killings morally equivalent, or equally justified. Similarly, not all vengeful fantasies are the same, either. Here's a thought experiment:

Who do you think should be more worrisome to a neighborhood: Little Jason, who dreams of going back in time to assassinate Adolf Hitler before he became Der Führer, or little Eddie, who dreams of one day making all the whores pay for their satanic influence?

Seems pretty clear to me that some dreams of retribution are healthier than others. All too often the revenge fantasy, such as Last House on the Left, is dismissed for the pleasure the audience receives in the violent performance of retribution without considering the basis for said pleasure, namely the retribution itself. As Charles Boyer said in Arch of Triumph regarding his desire to see Charles Laughton's Nazi get his comeuppance, "revenge is a personal thing, this is something bigger." Regardless of the emotive state obtaining to the act of revenge (or its fantasy), the moral question is whether the act is just or not. Maybe it worries you, feeling elated at seeing Hitler's head being reduced to a rotten peach by the Basterds' machine guns. Or maybe, like our concerned symbolic parent Rosenbaum, it worries you that others take delight in such a thing. Worrying about pleasure, like the pleasure itself, is only tangentially related to the morality of Tarantino's fantasy. The relevant questions are: Did the Nazi high command deserve to be burned alive? If so, is there anything wrong with a Jew delivering it? And, given that history had it otherwise, is there anything wrong with fantasizing about Nazis receiving a taste of their own final solution? Since I've already pretty much answered the last question with a 'no,' I won't keep you guessing how I'm going to answer the first two: Yes and no. At least, I'll be arguing these are perfectly moral stances to hold, not to be dismissed as exploitative emotional reactions.

The only good Nazi: Charles Laughton gets his just dessert in Arch of Triumph.

There are many theories of justice (explore at your leisure), but Mendelsohn and Rosenbaum's objections are rooted in retributivism's chief theoretical rival, utilitarianism. That is, we shouldn't even fantasize about treating the Nazis as they treated others, because we lose something of our collective humanity, which is a detriment to the general good. A similar case was recently made on very real grounds by Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill regarding the release of the critically ill convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi to return to Libya where he can die (in 3 months, we're all assured). Notwithstanding al-Megrahi's continuing claim of innocence, MacAskill didn't question the conviction, but made his decision based on compassion being the greater good: "Compassion and mercy are about upholding the beliefs that we seek to live by, remaining true to our values as a people -- no matter the severity of the provocation or the atrocity perpetrated."

What was Zappa's line about hippie love? "I will love everyone. I will love the police as they kick the shit out of me on the street." Yep, compassion for the remorseless sounds like a real virtue, alright. Saad Djebbar, a lawyer for the Libyan government, suggested an alternative utilitarian interpretation of the decision, stemming from realpolitik, rather than compassion: "Rest assured that the (Scottish) government has done the UK government a great favour[.] Britain and Scotland will grow in the eyes of the Arab states."

If that makes you feel icky, you might be a retributivist. The case makes for an interesting contrast to the response of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to Madina Amin's request that her husband, the huggable butchering tyrant, General Idi Amin Dada, be allowed to return back home, as he was deteriorating in a coma. Without a lick of supposedly Western compassion, Museveni promised the General would "answer for his sins the moment he was brought back."

Perhaps Museveni should've listened to the words of his fellow Christian, Pope John Paul II, when he recommended to the poor, oppressed people living in General Augusto Pinochet's Chile, "[d]o not let yourself be seduced by violence and the thousand reasons which appear to justify it. [The Church rejects] all ideologies which proclaim violence and hate as means to obtain justice.” Achieve the greater good by turning the other cheek ... as long as it's in opposition to communism, of course. As this fellow suggests in analyzing the former Pope's moral concerns, the "greater good" for His Holiness was the church bureaucracy in Latin America, not the liberation of the people. Thus, nary a critical word was uttered regarding the dictator's murderous days in office. In fact, the Pope personally gave Pinochet communion.

Call me a Billy Jack fan, but I prefer Dietrich Bonhoeffer's conversion to vengeance when he decided to suffer a potential bad ruling at Judgment Day in order to rid the world of Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffer didn't think he'd be a better person, only that he was willing to suffer to do the right thing. I find it hard to see his desire as unhealthy, or in any way morally equivalent to Hitler's. Violence and violent desire have content. Continuing to play fair with a cheater in a card game isn't going to get you anything but less money; the game has to be stopped. Demanding some money back isn't the same thing as being cheated out of it in the first place. If a person denies you your basic humanity and is willing to act in accordance, he doesn't deserve your compassion.

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Nazis (11), Cinema Criticism (32), Utilitarianism (1), Jonathan Rosenbaum (4), Daniel Mendelsohn (1), Inglourious Basterds (7), Quentin Tarantino (17), Retributivism (3)