Inglourious Basterds in Gaza

The Problem With Revenge Fantasies

Quentin Tarantino’s film Inglourious Basterds is more compelling now than when it was first released in 2009.

Israeli infantry, Operation Breaking Dawn. Gaza, August 2022.

Despite the relentless self-referentiality for which the director is famous, the film does more than communicate a love of cinema for its own sake.

Part of the reason is that perception of Tarantino’s legacy has changed in light of his subsequent films Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Although the director remains controversial, the target of harsh criticism for his treatment of race and gender, he is no longer regarded as someone who peaked early.

Inglorious Basterds now feels like a crucial instalment in a decades-long project to explore the lengths human beings will go in pursuit of what duelists of a bygone age termed “satisfaction.”

Like almost all of Tarentino’s work, the film can be classified as a revenge fantasy. He mobilises our desires to right wrongs in our lives and moulds them into a collective longing for retribution, all the more potent because it comprises such heterogeneous impulses.

Throughout the director’s career, critics have taken issue with his reluctance to take responsibility for the consequences of this disturbing cinematic seduction. But it’s hard to imagine how he could have done so without betraying his artistic principles.

Whatever we think of Tarantino’s carefully cultivated self-image as someone who is too childishly in love with movies to care much about the world beyond them, it seems increasingly clear that his disengagement is a deliberate aesthetic strategy.

Only by avoiding the impression that his films have a serious message has he been able to hold up a mirror to moviegoers’ most irrational passions, the blood lust that lurks beneath the surface.

Tarantino doesn’t want audiences to reflect. He wants them to react. That is why he is such a divisive figure in the film industry, the classic example of a love-him-or-hate-him artist.

Inglourious Basterds is particularly noteworthy in that regard because of its World War II setting.

At the time of the picture’s release, Nazis remained the only villains that audiences worldwide could be counted on to hate without hesitation.

Even if individual Germans in their iconic uniforms had been turned into objects of partial sympathy, as was the case with director Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning Schindler’s List, they still represented the ultimate safe target.

That’s less clear today after fifteen years of authoritarian populist movements on the far right and the deaths of almost everyone with conscious memories of the war.

Now that politicians in Western democracies are no longer immediately banished for expressing approval of the Third Reich, stories in which Nazis remain arch-villains resonate differently than they once did.

When a picture falls back on the stereotypical bad guys from the Third Reich, as Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny did in the summer of 2023, it comes across as deeply nostalgic.

We are relieved to be rooting for the right side without any of the self-doubt instigated by subsequent conflicts.

But the biggest reason Inglourious Basterds makes a more significant impact today than it did in 2009 is not for its nostalgic deployment of Nazi villains but because of the way the film thematises Jewish retaliation for the Holocaust.

At a time when Israel’s assault on Gaza is turning a revenge fantasy into reality, a story in which a company of Jews goes on the proverbial warpath is bound to resonate.

Tarantino received his best reviews since Pulp Fiction for Inglourious Basterds, in addition to unexpectedly large box office numbers. His career, thought to be in trouble in the mid-2000s, was back on track. But the film still provoked the same misgivings as Tarantino’s previous directorial efforts.

Some worried that its depiction of violence was excessive, others that the humour that leavens that violence might deaden viewers’ moral sensitivity. But because this is a story in which Jews take revenge on their oppressors, other worries came to the fore.

The most heated objections to the film came from those concerned that it makes viewers identify with characters in troubling ways.

Interestingly, this charge was levied from opposing ideological camps.

Whether supporters of Israel or the sort of progressive intellectuals who relentlessly point out its failings, critics argued that the film makes revenge too sweet.

There is nothing in the narrative to imply that the Germans in the film, most of them high-ranking Nazis, deserve sympathy for their plight. Even the outwardly charming enlisted man Friedrich Zoller (Daniel Brühl), a self-professed cinephile, is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Nevertheless, the unorthodox practices of the primarily American commando unit known as the “Inglourious Basterds” – scalping their kills and carving a swastika on the foreheads of any survivors – troubled those who believe that the distinction between “us” and “them” must encompass methodology as well as ideology.

Writing in The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg expressed admiration for the film and its director yet insisted that a Jew could have never made it.

“Given the chance, of course, I would still shoot Mengele in the face. That would be a moral necessity,” Goldberg writes. “But I wouldn’t carve a swastika into his forehead. That just doesn’t sound like the Jewish thing to do.”

Goldberg is less bothered by the brutality of Tarantino’s “anti-Nazi excesses” in the abstract than his sense that they run the risk of inspiring sympathy for Germans who don’t deserve it.

Presumably, the “Jewish thing to do” would involve preventing audiences from identifying with their persecutors’ suffering.

While it may seem silly, not to mention offensive, to complain that Inglourious Basterds treats its antagonists too harshly, the charge illuminates a crucial dilemma facing those who depict the Third Reich.

Stories in which only the good guys are fleshed out tend to fall flat. But attempts to correct this imbalance run the risk of imbuing perpetrators of the vilest imaginable acts with the very humanity they ruthlessly denied their victims.

As Nazis evolved from the stock villains of B-movies to a wider range of possible characters, understandable anxieties about normalising German atrocities began to surface.

To the extent that Nazi characters transcend the standardisation of villainy that was once their postwar cinematic lot, in which most wearers of the Hakenkreuz were functionally interchangeable and instead become recognisable as distinct individuals, they elicit more complex forms of identification.

Even if a character is identified as a worthy opponent, though one who must be defeated at all costs, the reflexes of the battleground give way to more nuanced reflections on his personality.

Once the goal is to outwit rather than outshoot the enemy, the dehumanisation of modern warfare begins to lose its sway.

In theory, this may seem like a salutary goal. But its advocates face a conundrum. Is it better to kill people whose humanity goes unacknowledged or ones who remain in the crosshairs despite being recognised as individuals?

Although legal precedent suggests that the former is preferable – soldiers are rarely prosecuted for taking the lives of other soldiers – the ethical folds of the question are not so easy to lay flat.

Indeed, the popularity of fictional narratives in which a military opponent passes from anonymity to familiarity betrays deep-seated reservations about reducing human beings to an impersonal mass, even if it comprises one’s mortal enemies.

But there are two major problems with perceiving your enemies as individuals. If you persist in trying to destroy them anyway, success can feel too much like murder.

There’s a scene in Inglourious Basterds in which a German officer, regular army rather than SS, refuses to tell the eponymous commando unit, who have just slaughtered the men under his command, where a sister unit is positioned on the map.

In theory, such loyalty and courage are commendable if misguided. But the Basterds have no interest in the honour of the battlefield.

As their goyische leader Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) explains, they welcome the officer’s refusal because it means that the hulking “Bear Jew” (horror-film director Eli Roth) can beat him into a pulp with his trusty baseball bat, a grisly spectacle from which the camera does not cut away.

Because we have noted the steely determination in the German officer’s face, a face that disappears under the force of Bear Jew’s blows, the impact of the scene is especially brutal.

Even if the violence feels satisfying to viewers who identify with the assassin’s vengeful glee, pangs of conscience are hard to suppress.

But the Basterds’ mission doesn’t allow for second thoughts. If recognising opponents’ humanity makes you hesitate, they might kill you first.

For those who lack the resolve of those commandos, however, the best survival mechanism may be to pretend that the faces of the enemy have already disappeared.

One of the best cinematic examples of this pragmatic approach to war can be found in the original Star Wars trilogy, in which the identical white suits of the Imperial stormtroopers – a term George Lucas chose with a keen sense of his tale’s cinematic ancestry – are so hard and glossy that they remain inviolate even when their occupants go down in battle.

Since viewers never get to see the fallen warriors inside – or even perceive a change of state through damage to the suits themselves – it is impossible to identify them as individuals and, consequently, to identify with them.

Although the first Star Wars film – subsequently reclassified as the fourth episode in a sextet – was released in the 1970s, a decade that saw representations of the Third Reich become less monolithic, it represented a throwback to the clear-cut moral universe of those postwar B-movies in which Germans were barely even characters, automatons who were either to be evaded or destroyed, period.

While comforting for children, who prefer their badness without ambiguity, this failure to differentiate among enemies had disturbing implications.

At a time when films like Coming HomeThe Deerhunter, and Apocalypse Now were winning acclaim for their depressing depiction of the Vietnam War’s psychological legacy, Star Wars took viewers back to a simpler time when dispatching enemy soldiers was a cause for celebration rather than a crisis of confidence.

It’s worth noting, in this regard, that some lovers of the original Star Wars trilogy complain that the franchise lost its way when its black-and-white certainties gave way to the moral grey areas of the prequels.

Others were outraged when, in the 2015 film The Force Awakens – the first instalment in a third trilogy – a stormtrooper removes his white helmet only to reveal a black man’s face.

Like most of Tarantino’s work, Inglourious Basterds pays loving tribute to “Spaghetti” spins on Hollywood formula, such as the 1978 Italian picture Inglorious Bastards from which he borrowed the title.

Because these films featured international casts, frequently with actors who spoke no Italian, they prioritised action over conversation. Protagonists tended to be like Clint Eastwood’s laconic Man with No Name.

For all of Tarantino’s deep-seated admiration for shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later storytelling, however, his special talent is writing memorable dialogue.

This explains the peculiar frisson that animates his aesthetic. Tarantino’s characters never shut up, even when doing things that make it impossible to hear.

Although all of Tarantino’s work is filled with references, only Once Upon a Time in Hollywood matches Inglourious Basterds for representing the film industry itself.

Inglourious Basterards brings lovers of film – French and German, Jew and Nazi –  together before the silver screen, inviting us to reflect on cinematic history as a whole.

In one sense, this is just another film about films. However, because of the subject matter and the fact that he opts to bring his narrative to a climax inside a movie theatre, the self-reflexivity that always lurks beneath the surface of his work has become more apparent and more profound.

Tarantino’s script plays so fast and loose with history, imagining an end to the Third Reich more dramatically satisfying than what happened, that it begs comparison to another historical film that was praised for its stylistic panache: D.W. Griffith’s 1915 feature The Birth of a Nation.

Although protested by the NAACP and sympathetic white intellectuals for its egregious bias against African Americans, The Birth of a Nation was a tremendous success.

Audiences eager to heal the wounds of the Civil War were thrilled at the opportunity to identify with both Union and Confederate protagonists, even if that symbolic reconciliation depended on the intensification of white supremacy.

That this reconciliation also required the distortion of historical fact didn’t seem to bother most viewers either. Nor did the hiding-in-plain-sight truth that the United States was both born and reborn at the expense of its native population.

Because of the shorter average lifespan in the early twentieth century, The Birth of a Nation shares with Inglourious Basterds the status of being a film about historical events that are no longer remembered by most of the population.

Although President Woodrow Wilson, for whom The Birth of a Nation was screened in the White House, probably did not make the famous declaration that it was “history written with lightning”, the statement still does a beautiful job of capturing the film’s power to promote revisionist history.

Tarantino may not have consciously considered The Birth of a Nation when he wrote his screenplay. But the way he draws explicit attention to Joseph Goebbels’ micromanagement of the German film industry, not to mention the fact that he lets a Jewish woman (Mélanie Laurent) and her black lover (Jacky Ido) metaphorically lynch the Third Reich, suggests that Inglourious Basterds is not just an emotionally satisfying revenge narrative or another opportunity for Tarantino to show us his fetishistic devotion to genre conventions, but a commentary on the power of cinema to make history, rather than simply reflecting it.

To follow through on the analogy, Tarantino wants us to think about how nations are born through narrative, the sort of storytelling that film is peculiarly suited to perform.

Repeated references to the film career of Leni Riefenstahl, director of Triumph of the Will and Olympia reinforce the point that the Third Reich was fashioned, to a surprisingly large extent, from film.

But that isn’t the only nation that Inglourious Basterds has in mind. The fact that the Basterds scalp their German victims draws attention to the native population of the United States, which fought back against genocide just as the Jewish commandos do.

Raine, who is nicknamed the “Apache”, explicitly invokes the asymmetrical approach to warfare to which hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned Native Americans turned in their struggles against American imperialism. For a small group of soldiers trapped behind enemy lines, this strategy makes sense.

From a more contemporary perspective, however, it represents a particularly complex form of cultural appropriation. When one people who have experienced genocide masquerades as another, condemning the practice is harder than it otherwise would be.

The power of this potentially destabilizing analogy is reinforced by the realization that, even though the story ends in 1944, Tarantino is interested in telling the story of Israel’s birth or, to be more precise, retelling it.

That’s what critics who complain that Inglourious Basterds is pro-Israeli are picking up on. Even if they are willing to concede Goldberg’s point that the excessive violence in the film may not be a “Jewish thing to do,” they insist that it’s most definitely a Zionist thing to do.

From their perspective, fantasies of revenge have played a crucial role in postwar Jewish politics.

The pride taken in the IDF’s battlefield triumphs; the persistent reluctance to make meaningful concessions to the Palestinians, despite intense international pressure; the doggedness with which both surviving Nazis and the terrorists responsible for the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre were hunted down: all can be regarded as evidence of precisely the we’re-not-going-to-take-it-anymore mindset that defines the renegades who comprise the Inglourious Basterds.

There’s a difference, of course, between revenging yourself directly on an oppressor and the pursuit of compensatory satisfaction in another setting.

The latter is rather unseemly, like the actions of a boy who, humiliated by a schoolyard bully, takes his frustrations out on smaller children he can safely dominate.

Critics of Israel’s foreign and domestic policy have charged that many of its most impressive military achievements – taking out the Iraqi nuclear reactor, destroying terrorist hideouts with precision bombing – are the result of an overwhelming technological and financial superiority that significantly tarnishes their luster.

From this perspective, Inglourious Basterds seems dangerous because it uses a World War II narrative to fortify fantasies with disturbing present-day consequences.

In his essay for The Atlantic, Goldberg explains the film’s visceral appeal for Jewish audiences – or at least Jewish male audiences – by emphasizing the transgressive pleasure it elicits. He quotes Eli Roth: “It’s almost a deep sexual satisfaction of wanting to beat Nazis to death, an orgasmic feeling.”

Tarantino’s longtime producer, Lawrence Bender, reinforces this troubling conflation of sex and revenge by recounting a conversation he had with the director.

“As your producing partner, I thank you, and as a member of the Jewish tribe, I thank you, motherfucker, because this movie is a fucking Jewish wet dream.”

While such dreams may prove harmless enough when confined to the bedroom or shower, there’s always the chance that they will bolster the impetus for taking action in the real world, where true Nazis are in relatively short supply, but plenty of convenient surrogates are waiting to take their psychic place.

At least that’s the conclusion reached by those who fret that Inglorious Basterds reinforces the military ideology of Israel.

It’s vital, they insist, to distinguish between revenge that looks to the past, seeking redress for an injury, and the sort of pre-meditated violence that looks to the future, securing advance compensation for an injury that has yet to occur.

Once people are no longer able to tell the difference, they are at the mercy of demagogues.

As the current war in Gaza demonstrates, figuring out where to draw this line is extremely difficult. Hamas’s gruesome attack on Israel inspired an understandable demand for revenge. But as the civilian death toll mounts, with no certainty that the IDF can achieve its military objectives any time soon, Israel’s goal has shifted from retribution to prevention.

What concerns about Tarantino’s representation of both Germans and Jews underscore is the extent to which Inglourious Basterds exposes new wrinkles in the problem of identification.

A staple of the abstract film theory that swept scholarship in the 1960s and 1970s, this topic has taken a back seat in recent years to work of narrower conceptual scope. Histories are in while sweeping claims about the ahistorical cinematic apparatus are out.

The irony in this development, however, is that it is precisely in self-consciously historical films and, more specifically, those that tackle the subjects of World War II and the Holocaust that the structural workings of film are easiest to discern.

Playwright Bertolt Brecht’s insight that the dominant experience of drama in the West revolves around identification with characters is never more apparent than when watching a conventional war film, in which viewers are given the tools to discern distinct individuals within the masses of people on screen and then get to follow those individuals through a sequence of events that repeatedly threatens to return them to anonymity.

Indeed, it’s no accident that such films often linger on dead bodies waiting to be identified. The inhumanity of modern warfare inheres in its capacity to render not only soldiers but also civilians functionally equivalent.

But this spectre of becoming “mass” men and women, deprived of character, is more insidious than that, for it goes hand in hand with tremendous advances in the capacity to identify people negatively as members of a category being discriminated against.

Again and again, World War II films have presented characters living in Occupied Europe or trapped behind enemy lines who desperately hope that their disguise, their forged papers, their accent won’t give them away.

Even as their plight reduces them to mere shadows, barely able to sustain their humanity, they live in fear of being singled out. And moviegoers, themselves part of an anonymous mass, identify with that fear. They want to disappear into the crowd, even as they long to shore up their selfhood by bonding with protagonists on the screen.

It’s no accident that the climactic scene of Inglourious Basterds takes place in a cinema where some members of the audience fear being detected as imposters, and others luxuriate in the false sense of confidence that fills moviegoers when the lights go down.

This is the rare film that manages to be ruthlessly self-reflexive without ever making you feel the presence of the mirror.

Even a seasoned cinephile, primed to make careful note of every scene in which characters are making a movie or watching a film, will have a hard time wriggling free of the identification that subordinates mind to body. The film’s key scenes, including the remarkable climax, are simply too thrilling, too viscerally realized to appraise with detachment during a first screening.

That’s part of what makes Inglourious Basterds what the hippies liked to call a “head trip”.

By the time the viewer reaches the end of that climactic scene, the sense of being strapped into an amusement park thrill ride is so overwhelming that the film’s blatant rewriting of history feels like a higher order of truth.

This reinforces a statement Inglourious Basterd’s suave Nazi villain Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) makes during the film’s intense opening scene: “Facts can be so misleading.”

Some commentators on Inglourious Basterds wryly noted that Americans learn so little history in school that Tarantino’s reckless gambit would go unnoticed.

Perhaps that’s the case. But it’s also not hard to understand how moviegoers who know perfectly well how World War II ended might still find themselves transported, if only temporarily, to a twilight zone where Hitler never made it to his bunker.

Just as many otherwise progressive Americans in 1915 were temporarily won over by the storytelling brilliance of The Birth of a Nation, contemporary viewers could be persuaded to suspend their disbelief in exchange for narrative bliss.

In writing his screenplay, Tarantino surely had the long-delayed Valkyrie project in mind, which tells the story of a nearly successful attempt to assassinate the Führer in the summer of 1944. The difference is that his “alternate ending” is pure fiction, as deliberately skewed as the story told in The Birth of a Nation.

But whereas The Birth of a Nation sought to influence public opinion to advance an odious political agenda, Tarantino’s purpose is more complex.

As the director has repeatedly noted in interviews, he thought it was high time for Jews to escape the role of victim meted out to them in one Holocaust narrative after another. But it’s doubtful that his primary goal was to create a kind of political Viagra to bolster Israeli militarism.

More likely, he wanted both to show how Israel became the state that it is today and deftly suggest, by telling a story in which a few stalwart Jews practically get to defeat the Nazis all by themselves, that it’s time for the nation to adopt a new narrative.

There’s a reason why the scene in which the Bear Jew empties round after round into Hitler’s corpse is so disturbing. Even as viewers share in his rapture, it’s hard not to get the sense that this climax – his climax, to build on Eli Roth’s metaphor – is one that can only be repeated with diminishing returns.

While the increasing frequency with which terms like “national socialism” and “fascism” have been invoked in recent years indicates that World War II is very much on people’s minds, the sheer variety and frequency of the references attest to a precipitous decline in their historical relevance.

Nearly a decade and a half since the release of Inglorious Basterds, this climactic scene feels distressingly prophetic.

The metaphoric corpse of Hitler continues to be targeted from the left, right, and centre, while villains who are very much alive evade the consequences of their crimes against humanity.

However good this nostalgic revenge fantasy might make us feel, we desperately need new stories, ones in which victory doesn’t mean death.

Photograph courtesy of Israel Defense Forces. Published under a Creative Commons license.