The Tarantino Solution 3: Inglourious Basterds (2009), A Moral Defense

Posted by Charles Reece, September 27, 2009 11:06pm | Post a Comment
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Aryan Some Differences

While its propaganda might seem dated, Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin presents a critical alternative to heroism as traditionally depicted in most films, collective instead of individualistic. Along with a wishfullfilling counterfactual approach to history and a five act structure, Inglourious Basterds shares a similar approach to the heroic act, closer to the first 20 or so minutes of Saving Private Ryan than its remaining hour and a half. (I note that two early supporters of Eisenstein's film, who helped bring it to world attention, were Goebbels and -- as Tarantino has it -- his Hollywood role model, David O. Selznick.) Eisenstein's two most prominent characters, the sailors Vakulinchuk and Matyshenko, serve more as inspirational catalysts for the inchoate revolutionary spirit than a John Wayne (or even Tom Hanks) type who dominates narrative destiny through his will. As Bill Nichols suggests in his analysis of the film (in the book Film Analysis), the idea of a revolution begins to widen across each act:

One of Eisenstein's great achievements as a filmmaker is that he provided a model for a cinema of groups, crowds, and masses rather than individuals. In Battleship Potemkin he does so by telling the story of three distinct examples of political awakening over the course of five acts. [...] Each awakening broadens the political scope of the film, from the revolt of one ship's crew through the rising up of one town to the rebellion of the entire fleet. -- p. 163-4

Indeed, as he points out, Vakulinchuk dies in the second act and Matyshenko doesn't reappear until the fifth -- hardly the kind of heroism as charismatic leadership favored by a Leni Reifenstahl or George Lucas (the latter's well-known appropriation from the former receives a nice spoof here). No matter how seemingly innocuous the fantasy (from the Golden Age Superman, despite his defense of labor, to Star Wars), there's always a whiff of authoritarianism that accompanies this great man portrayal of heroism -- that a change for the betterment of all comes solely from the determination of a few. That is, follow those so privileged by God, genetics (Aryan, Kryptonian) or midi-chlorians, not morality per se.

Eli Roth satirizes this authoritarian subtext in his film within a film, Nation's Pride. Made by Goebbels (the diegetic one, not ours), the film depicts one lone private, Frederick Zoller, fighting off the nameless hordes with nothing but sheer will and an endless supply of ammo. He even manages to plant one in the eye of Eisenstein's peasant in montage (see above), only it's an American soldier and the intended audience of Nazis is expected to identify with the person doing the slaughtering, not the slaughtered -- an Audie Murphy film injected with Schwarzenegger's steroids. That he manages to rub out exactly 300 Americans evokes Zack Snyder's chiseled fable of fascistic glory where the same number of Spartans kill thousands of others much darker than themselves. All of which is reminiscent of the young Germanic Arminius kicking the Roman Varus' ass in the Teutoburg Forest back in the year of 9 A.D., an event that would become one of the founding myths of German nationalism. By Zoller's making an explicit analogy between himself and Sergeant York -- the titular sharpshooter in Howard Hawks' film played by Gary Cooper, an actor who shared the Nazis' hatred of pinkos -- it should become pretty clear that Inglourious Basterds has quite a bit to say, not only about other films, but about the transcontinental and trans-ideological appeal of this Triumph of the Will-styled heroism.

The deification of the heroic individual isn't so bad as long as he's doing the right thing. The problem, of course, is when he's the ideological correlate of the Other, as in Roth's propaganda film. But, even there, it's a problem with a clear solution: eliminate those who are foolish enough to follow false idols, namely your enemy. More difficult to suss out is one's own idolatrous identification with Horatio Alger's brand of determination. My Brecht is showing, but it's by getting the audience to identify with the hero rather than his actions that ideology can most easily slip in, as it discourages a critical distance from the narrative subject. Because of the reverence with which we tend to hold the abstract hero, it's a short slippery slope to a Holocaust film made with the best of intentions, yet which ultimately focuses our attention more on the moral awakening of the Aryan protagonist than the long, hard work of all the oppressed Jews who made his awakening and subsequent virtuous actions possible. I wouldn't say Schindler's List is immoral, but it does show how the Great Man approach tends to give credit to the charismatic at the expense of what was in reality a collective act. Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan demonstrates the difference in enunciation when he starts with collective action:

Only to settle into the more classical hero identification:

From a sacrifice en masse to another story of guys on a mission that revolves around the character arc of a leader who's a little more important than the rest. Well, who doesn't like guys on a mission? Spielberg gives a pretty good example, even though the ending makes my teeth ache and the generic storyline is a real let down after the best war scene in cinematic history. I bring it up by way of contrast with Tarantino's own take on the subgenre. Tarantino is too big a fan of Hawks' transparent style to ever be a full-fledged Brechtian, but he's imbibed a whole lot of Jean-Luc Godard. That is to say his style isn't the more classically oriented Spielberg's. Inglourious Basterds' long scenes of dialog require identification for the tension and comedy to work. However, when he anachronistically uses disco-era font to introduce Hugo Stiglitz or plays Bowie's "Cat People" over Shosanna's preparation for her big night with the Nazis, he creates some Brechtian critical distance. Most important is the way he de-centers the typical heroic narrative.


What some friends and critics found disappointing, I thought the film's strongest virtue, namely that the Basterds aren't in the film near as much as the title suggests. Unless, as in the posters above, all the anti-Nazis are included as de facto members. But that's not who you expect; you expect the guys not introduced until Chapter 2, Stiglitz and:

By the way, whatever happened to these two?

The Basterds proper only occur in 3 of the Chapters, taking a back seat in the 4th to the British film critic turned spy, Lt. Archie Hicox, and the German movie actress, Bridget von Hammersmark -- the latter being the one who devises the plan, Operation Kino, to assassinate the Nazi high command.

Given that the other major assassination plot is hatched by Shosanna independently of the titular heroes, Tarantino proves himself once again to be -- perhaps second only to Russ Meyer (an Eisensteinian, I might add) and Andrea Dworkin -- America's foremost emasculating feminist. 


The real kicker is the ironic success of these two plans, which is nothing less than a critique of heroic identification as it's so often implemented in war films and propaganda (virile and manly, the Nazis would say). Resulting from a violent mishap at the tavern where Hammersmark meets Hickox and the Basterds, Landa comes to discover Operation Kino. He strangles the actress, kidnaps the dashing, blue-eyed leader of the Basterds, Lt. Aldo Raine, but leaves the two Basterds with bombs strapped to their legs at the theater with all the Nazis. Sensing that his team is about lose the war irrespective of Operation Kino, Landa appeals to the Americans' utilitarian ethos by cutting a deal: he'll let the bombs go off, thereby ending the war a little sooner, if he gets to live out the rest of his life as a war hero on Nantucket Island, instead of the war criminal that he is. Thus the Clark Gable/Gary Cooper hero role played by the movie's big star, Brad Pitt, is morally reduced to sitting on the sidelines, brokering a deal with the narrative's most evil Nazi. Not quite "hooray for our boys."

Stick around for the startling conclusion ...

Relevant Tags

Inglourious Basterds (7), Steven Spielberg (5), Heroism (2), Saving Private Ryan (2), Howard Hawks (2), 300 (1), Zack Snyder (2), Nazis (11), Gary Cooper (3), Cinema Criticism (32), Battleship Potemkin (1), Sergei Eisenstein (4)