Inglourious Basterds and the War on Terror

We will be cruel to the Germans, and through our cruelty they will know who we are. And they will find the evidence of our cruelty in the disemboweled, dismembered, and disfigured bodies of their brothers we leave behind us. And the German won’t not be able to help themselves but to imagine the cruelty their brothers endured at our hands, and our boot heels, and the edge of our knives. And the German will be sickened by us, and the German will talk about us, and the German will fear us.

– Lt. Aldo Raines

Most people peg Quentin Tarantino’s Oscar-nominated film Inglourious Basterds as an audacious romp of revenge through a gonzo version of Nazi-occupied Europe. I myself was captivated by the idea of a colossally southern Brad Pitt going on a spree of “killin’ gnat-zis.” Given Tarantino’s past work, many of us expected a war movie spin on Kill Bill — an adrenaline pumping orgy of retaliatory violence.

This was not what I thought I saw when I watched the movie. For one thing, it was not particularly violent, with much of the brutality implied or occurring off-screen. More importantly, though, the violence that did occur often seemed repugnant, not cartoonish and comical (as in Kill Bill). When the band of Jewish American soldiers pull off their attack on a theater full of Nazi leaders, who are locked into a burning room, it provided little emotional payoff. The sight of Americans gunning down a crowd of trapped Germans seemed ghastly, even if it’s top Nazis brass who are being shot like fish in a barrel.

In a cunning juxtaposition, the scene itself closely paralleled the propaganda film that the Nazis had just been watching — a moronic killfest that consisted almost entirely of a “heroic” German sniper shooting Allied soldiers by the dozen. Instead of story or characterization, it served up a mindless series of dead enemies, and Goebbels and Hitler are shown laughing, lapping it up, like pigs.

Is the joke on us? Are we as grotesque as the Nazis were when we get a kick out of watching the “bad guys” ruthlessly and remorselessly murdered? The movie within the movie offers a mirror for Inglourious Basterds as a whole.

If so, what is this movie about? A gang of Americans who go around beating, torturing, and executing prisoners of war, in order to sow fear in the German ranks. It sounds a lot like terrorism to me. Far from glorifying violence, it seems to show how the lust for revenge consumes and destroys. One of the lead characters, who longs to punish the Nazis for murdering her entire family, dies just as her own filmed image is projected on the big screen, laughing maniacally amid the flames of the burning cinema. In the quest to mete out punishment, haven’t these characters also resorted to inhuman violence?

One might say that the behavior of the Basterds does not qualify as terrorism, according to some technical definition. Or maybe the Basterds were justified in seeking revenge by gruesome violence, in the sense that the Nazis’ world-historical evil rendered any form of retaliation legitimate. But anyone who believes in human rights, as many of us do, would think that even the most despicable Nazi does not deserve to be summarily beaten to death with a baseball bat and scalped.

The behavior is not heroic, nor perhaps even antiheroic. Usually, it is emotionally satisfying to watch the bad guys get it, but I took from the film that the quest for revenge was dehumanizing. In a sense, it recalls the moral ambivalence of Steven Spielberg’s controversial 2005 film Munich, which portrayed Israel’s mission to retaliate against the terrorists who murdered Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. Even the decision to cast a Gentile good ol’ boy from Tennessee as the Jewish soldiers’ commander in Basterds suggests a resonance with moral quandaries of more recent vintage. When Lt. Aldo Raine (Pitt) boasts of his Apache heritage, his disregard for human rights (“Nazi ain’t got no humanity!”), and his intention to inflict cruelty on his enemies, he is a booming caricature of the gung-ho ugly American. One could be forgiven for thinking of a certain cowboy president and his love affair with waterboarding.

Tarantino might not have intended this reading — most interviews do not seem to corroborate my interpretation — but it’s hard not to draw this conclusion as you watch nearly all the characters drown in the bloodbath at the end of the film.

Whether or not it is a cautionary tale about bloodlust, Inglourious Basterds is clever, funny, and suspenseful in portraying its various revenge seekers. The film’s alternate reality version of WWII is fully realized and wonderfully absurd, and its band of protagonists — war criminals, if not terrorists — offer a compelling case study of what it means to meet a brutal foe on its own terms. When do we become like the violent killers we oppose? With the age of George W. Bush not far behind us, this is a question worth considering — and liberal Hollywood seems not to have considered it in toasting the Nazi-killers of Inglourious Basterds. Having not seen The Hurt Locker, though, I would still say I’m pulling for it to win Best Picture.