Sunday, March 21, 2010

Inglourious Basterds -- revenge and American terrorism

Director: Quentin Tarantino, 2009. (R)

This nominee for Best Picture Oscar is the latest revenge movie from Tarantino. Knowing the director, you can expect violence and blood, and you will not be disappointed. Brutality abounds; this film is not for the squeamish. It is also a hybrid American-foreign movie, with more than half of the dialog being in French or German with English subtitles.

But why the misspelled title? When asked in an interview, Tarantino answered, "Here's the thing. I'm never going to explain that." It was his artistic flourish and felt confident enough to keep it his artistic secret.

Tarantino divides the film into chapters, like books, with a chapter title card introducing each new segment. The opening chapter paints the picture: "Once upon a time in Nazi occupied France." This is a fairy tale of sorts. As such, historical accuracy is not required. And Tarantino does play fast and loose with history to create an interesting story that never happened.

The first two chapters introduces us to the three main characters, and set the tone for interweaving narrative elements. In chapter one it is 1941. We see the beautiful French countryside and SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), nicknamed the Jew-hunter, gently interrogating a French farmer. We also see Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), a young Jewish woman escaping from the Nazi Jew-hunter. The second chapter shows us American Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) marshaling a special force of Jewish American soldiers who will be dropped behind enemy lines as a guerrilla army sent to instill terror in the Germans.

Although Tarantino views this as much a spaghetti western as a war film, it is fundamentally a revenge film. It encompasses revenge from two perspectives: national and personal. Raine portrays the national perspective. In his "pep talk" to his new band of brothers, he says:
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. And when the German closes their eyes at night and they're tortured by their subconscious for the evil they have done, it will be with thoughts of us they are tortured with. Sound good?
His gang will be as ruthless as the worst of the Nazis. He tells his men, "We're in the Nazi killin' business and cousin, business is boomin'."

This brings up an ethical dilemma. Is it right to fight terror with terror? This is apropos in the present time of terrorism and guerrilla warfare, such as in Afghanistan and Iraq. Raine's men defied the Geneva convention and took no prisoners. But killing in cold blood soldiers who are not Nazi terrorists is murder plain and simple. And these murders are the most horrible. This is clearly incompatible with Jesus' gospel. Regardless of the concept of "just war", Raine is conducting his own unjust war. Where Jesus would turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:39), Raine will beat and carve the other cheek . . . not his, but his enemy's. Raine is none other than an American terrorist.

Raine and Landa provide a contrasting pair of soldiers, and actors. Where Brad Pitt brings a weird Tennessee twang to his role, and looks nothing like the heart-throb star of earlier movies (such as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), Christoph Waltz is a suave and educated gentleman. This makes him even worse. He is like Hannibal Lecter, a refined monster. And like that ghoul, Christoph Waltz' creepy performance earned him an Oscar (for Best Supporting Actor). Where Raine's nickname was Aldo the Apache, based on his Indian heritage and violent means of dealing with the dead, Landa's is the Jew-hunter. He is a shrewd detective who thinks like his quarry and so is effective at finding them. He can sit with his prey and play with them, like a cat toying with a mouse, a sadistic killer hiding behind a mask. Which is the real hero? Landa has all the obvious characteristics of an officer and a gentleman, but is self-absorbed and self-focused. Raine is a red-neck, a violent man on a mission. No gentleman or hero, but he has the right end in mind. Neither is the hero we look for in a typical Hollywood movie.

Shosanna represents the picture of personal revenge. Having escaped from the Jew-hunter in 1941, we later see her under a pseudonym in Paris running a cinema in 1944. She wants revenge on the Nazis in general and Landa in particular for the loss of her family. It is personal for her.

It still begs the question, is revenge ever acceptable? When it is national, it is distant, impersonal. But when our own kin have been cruelly killed, can we take matters into our hands to seek revenge? What if it is clear that justice will never be served, as in the case of Shosanna?

Revenge is a cold meal that does not satisfy. Ethically, it is not something we ought to pursue. Yet, in war there is a legitimacy to fighting against the enemy. And when civilians are placed under enemy rule through forced occupation, they have a rightful tendency to fight back. That is not really revenge, though revenge may fuel the fire, as it does for Shosanna.

Through a series of coincidental events, Joseph Goebbels picks her theater to screen the premier for his latest Nazi propaganda movie. And she hatches a plan to kill Goebbels and his cronies, one that is unknown to Raine but intersects with his own plot. There is a bitter irony as we watch dressed-up Germans vigorously enjoy seeing their sniper killing US soldiers and then we recognize that we are enjoying seeing these very same Germans die at the hands of US soldiers.

Unintended or not, Tarantino forces us to question the ethics of watching violence and killing. Should we enjoy seeing people die in stories like this? This is a tough question. Many Christians refuse to watch violent films like this one, and their conscience will prove them right (1 Cor. 10:28-29). Yet, others will feel less compelled to turn their back on such films. As long as we are watching with an eye to the message from the director and an ear for any message from the divine, we can be shrewd viewers, not taking vicarious pleasure in violence for violence sake. Tarantino has given us a well-paced and well-directed movie that makes us think. It is our job to reflect and interact with it.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

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