I saw the film Inglourious Basterds the other day, upon the recommendation of a number of friends. I left the theater feeling two simultaneous and somewhat contradictory feelings (in a word: ambivalent). On the one hand, I “enjoyed” the film: the tension-building dialogues exploding in a climactic release (apologies for the sexual undertones there), the hip, “anything goes” approach to style (anachronistic soundtrack, insider cameos, visual homage, etc.) and the powerful archetypal film characters (the bad ass soldiers, the avenging victim, the brilliant psychopath, etc.). It was an incredibly well-made film, but it also gave me exactly what I would want (on one level) from a movie about people taking on the Nazis. [SPOILER ALERT] The Nazis get SLAUGHTERED! The good guys win, and even if some of them died in the process, it was heroically in the act of destroying some of the most evil people in history.
But this is where the contradictory feeling came in. It felt wrong to enjoy the massacre of Nazis. (There was some part of me that felt like I was watching Team America: World Police without realizing it was a satire of American military arrogance.)
The scene that came back to me as I was reflecting on the film & realizing my ambivalence was when Hitler, Goebbels & the Nazi elite were watching the film within the film about the young Nazi war hero who killed 300 Allied soldiers from a tower. Repeatedly, we watch the Nazis applauding scenes of the sniper picking off his attackers (probably Americans) and we scoff at this propagandistic depiction of violence against the enemy, portrayed as inhuman, anonymous targets for the hero to destroy. Even the young Nazi hero seems to feel disdain for the way this is portrayed…
Though I did not find it ironic at the time, subsequently, we as the audience are treated to the sight of these Nazi filmgoers being burned to death & shot down like fish in a barrel by Jewish soldiers (along with a highly fetishized moment of actor Eli Roth ripping Hitler’s face apart with a hail (heil?) of bullets). It seems implicit that we will cheer this on, indeed, the whole film feels like a set-up for a moment that we can hardly believe could end this way (knowing actual history as we do). Of course, it was an “alternate history” reality we see occurring, but it felt so much more satisfying than what actually happened. However, I began to wonder how we as the filmgoers were much different from the Nazi movie audience cheering the death of Allied soldiers.
This led me to see the director of IB, Quentin Tarantino, as a sort of Joseph Goebbels figure of American populist cinema (depicting simplistic good/evil characters, giving an audience what it wants, using techniques–such as the score, B-movie conventions, etc.–to tap into the collective audience subconscious and manipulate them to the filmmaker’s ends), which oddly then, would make Harvey Weinstein, a Jew, the Hitler figure…although I suppose it’s not completely surprising as he has been seen as a bit of a fascist dictator in the filmmaking business.
The film had a number of role reversals of Nazi for Jew (Aldo referring to Nazi’s as “not human”, the brutal beatings/casual executions of German soldiers, all of the Nazi’s being burned to death similar to the crematoriums), which made me feel like I was being set up/propogandized to applaud the same thing for the Nazis which I lamented for the Jews. I may be seeing something that is not there at all, but it seems like to take this film simply as a “revenge fantasy film” for Jews (see reactions from descendants of Holocaust survivors and Rabbis here) lacks a certain amount of incredulity that a savvy director such as QT would expect. Am I supposed to resist my enjoyment of this slice of fantasy justice, or give into it and become implicitly akin to the Nazi filmgoers?
Anyhow, regardless of whether I have appropriately interpreted this sequence of scenes, I would recommend anyone else who “enjoyed” watching all of the Nazis get killed as inhuman representations of pure evil to watch a film like Stalingrad where the audience follows young German soldiers, who don’t seem as gung ho about the 3rd Reich as we usually see in films, heading to the Russian front where they are led like sheep to a slaughter. Anyone associated with the Nazi regime certainly finds themselves on the wrong side of history, but we may need to be careful to allow ourselves to be duped into seeing ANYONE as less than human…even those who we feel like are the worst people in history.