Inglourious Basterds continues to be a problematic viewing experience for me. I first saw it in theatres, and now, a year and a half later, the thing still gets under the skin, even while being an immensely entertaining enterprise.
The problem I’m having is in trying to pin down exactly what kind of behaviour is being endorsed by the film. Considering how over-the-top much of the movie is, I think it would be pretty naive to suggest that the movie is simply telling its story and letting you make your own judgments. No, Brad Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Raine is too quick-tongued and competent to be read as a historical representation, while Hitler and Goebbels are offered up as insecure, impotent weasels. No, there’s no question that we’re supposed to be cheering for the Allies, but that leaves us with some issues, such as “why?”
Inglourious Basterds, first of all, depends on a rudimentary, Western understanding of World War II. You need to know that Hitler was a big bad guy, whose scary army came along and took over France, with a serious prejudice against the Jewish people. Anything on top of that is gravy. In case we were unsure, the film begins with a small group of Nazi soldiers slaughtering a basement full of assumedly innocent Jews.
So what makes the Basterds, as Lt. Aldo’s squad calls itself, any different? I’ll let Aldo himself explain it to you.
While historically, we are aware of the barbarism that occurred during the Holocaust, we haven’t seen any of it in the film. But fine, we can assume that we’re supposed to know about the gas chambers, and various other means of murder and torture that the Nazis executed. So then why do we cheer on, feeling compelled and excited by this speech? Here is a man talking about committing acts of violence, and defacing his enemies’ corpses for the sake of purging the world of what he perceives to be a wholly unforgivably evil group of individuals. Aldo is not worried about the particular crimes that his victims have committed. No, all that matters is if that a person is wearing a Nazi uniform, and if they are, they deserve to die, be mutilated, and have their carcasses strewn about as an example to their colleagues.
So what is the difference between the Basterds and the Nazis? Their methods are similar, although the effectiveness of the Basterds would suggest that they are even more personal, even more brutal, and even more effective than their German counterparts. By this information alone, we should be rooting for the bullied Nazi soldiers. So what about this whole “Jew” thing? The Nazis are rounding up and killing people based on that person’s spiritual beliefs. The movie doesn’t go into much detail about why the Nazis are doing what they are doing, but the important presence of their propaganda minister certainly suggests an arbitrary, scapegoaty reason for their persecution. The Basterds, on the other hand, are killing people based on those individuals’ conscious choice to militarily support a regime that is willing to commit the aforementioned types of crimes.
Alright, now we’re getting somewhere. But can we really cheer for Aldo and company in their totalitarian slaughter of everyone in a Nazi uniform? Does putting on the outfit of your national army, regardless of whether or not you have committed any atrocities to support it, warrant your slaughter? Does the implied endorsement of Hitler deserve the same punishment as Hitler himself? And, giving perhaps way too much benefit of the doubt, would a soldier, simply following orders, ignorant of its implications, deserve to die? Is ignorance, or even apathy, a capital offense? I’m not saying it’s not. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t have risen up against Hitler, railing against the injustice of the Holocaust, but I am asking whether or not Sgt. Wilhelm, a brand-new father, deserves to have his head beaten in with a baseball bat, and his scalp cut off.
But maybe it’s not about that at all. Maybe we’re not cheering for the Allies because they’re the Allies. Maybe we’re cheering for the Basterds because they’re just so good at what they do. We admire tenacity, thoroughness, and honesty, all of which the Basterds, and Aldo in particular, demonstrate in spades. Aldo is dedicated to his cause, and plans to see it through to the end. While Goebbels is off boinking starlets and Hitler is throwing temper tantrums, with no connection to the real circumstances of their citizens except through propaganda films of their own creation, Aldo is down in the trenches, busting Nazi skulls, and fighting the real war. Taking this interpretation a little further, Colonel Hans Landa seems to support the idea of supporting the most talented and skilled. While Landa may not have the mean streak and penchant for artistic brutality of his opponents, he is a skilled, intelligent, well-spoken, educated man who, if he enters a situation without the upper hand, is able to gain it within seconds. For this, we admire and kind of love Landa, even if he is responsible for the slaughter of (at least, on screen) a young family and a woman by his bare hands.
Where this runs into some problems is when we meet an admirable character who is still cut down, brutally, for our eruptive entertainment. When Aldo and the rest of the Basterds are down in a ditch, questioning a German officer and his soldiers, the German officer never gives up. He demonstrates devotion, fearlessness, and an unshakeable dedication to protecting German lives. He is not unreasonable in his defiance of his enemies, rather, he is heroic in staring down certain death. But, the Basterds couldn’t care less. Instead, he is dispatched via baseball bat, acting, to his soldiers, as an example of the dangers of heroism.
So maybe we’re on a sliding scale here. You are more likely to have my support if you are not on the side of the people committing genocide. BUT, you will have my support if you are good enough at your job on team Nazi to deserve my admiration. However, this is negated if an equally or more admirable (or just plain charismatic) character decides to play the Nazi card and decide that your uniform makes you unfit for respect. Then again, wasn’t it arbitrary valuation of character based on just one aspect of a person’s identity what got us into this mess in the first place?
I don’t think I have ever written a review with so many question marks in it. But, I think it’s important to not just accept Inglourious Basterds as a fun, witty, alternative history flick. Its grounding in reality demands that questions be asked. We need to know what we’re willing to endorse in the name of whatever our militaries are fighting for. We need to be uncomfortable when even the most deserving get scalped, because violence is not something we should ever take lightly.