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"Aldo Raine is nothing more than Adolf Hitler wrapped in an American flag."
Alexander B. Joy
The favorite way to interpret any given Quentin Tarantino film is to read it against the cinematic genre(s) that it embraces, satirizes, or deifies. One cannot begin discussing Pulp Fiction (1994) without acknowledging the influence of the French New Wave, the gangster flick, or Douglas Sirk; a conversation concerning Jackie Brown (1997) will inevitably include an analysis of the blaxploitation film or the crime drama. Therefore, it should surprise nobody that Tarantino's 2009 Inglourious Basterds has been examined as a love letter to the Leone-style spaghetti western. Tarantino himself openly invites the comparison in an interview with Dylan Callaghan: "I'm going even further with the whole spaghetti Western route — even further than I did with Kill Bill," says the director. "Inglourious Basterds is truly spaghetti Western, just set in Nazi-occupied France." Yet where Kill Bill focuses on the aesthetic of the spaghetti western, Inglourious Basterds targets the ideology behind the genre, confronting its narratives of unquestioned American exceptionalism and linking it with the rhetoric of the Third Reich. In this regard, another genre is at play in Tarantino's work: the propaganda film. Inglourious Basterds is an exercise in propaganda: it spoon-feeds its audience a variant of the same Nazi ideology that it seemingly attacks, selling Nazism to its viewers, but repackaging it in a shiny American case.
Let's begin with one core assumption: that no rational person, who thinks him- or herself to be moral, wants anything to do with the Nazis. A quick perusal of virtually any film, novel, or even video game made after WWII corroborates this assumption. Hundreds of American films use the Nazis as their primary antagonists — and a handful of them, such as the Indiana Jones movies, do not even have WWII as their focus. Every film by the German auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder alludes to Nazism in some form, ostensibly to ensure that his [primarily German] audiences never forget about it. More recently, dozens if not hundreds of first-person shooter video games, in which the player is cast in the role of an Allied soldier, pitch legions of Nazi soldiers at the player for the explicit purpose of being killed en masse. So many moral compasses are configured in opposition to Nazism that the persuasive tactic of "reductio ad Hitlerum" regularly crops up in discussions of ethics. The Nazis are the modern world's concept of absolute evil — and, of course, American media would have its audiences believe that Nazis are nothing like the consumers of that media. The Nazis are some kind of "absolute Other," unbearable, unreasonable, and unfathomable. Consequently, as critic Ben Walters comments, "few subjects are as culturally hallowed as World War II, enshrined in popular culture as the locus of the greatest sacrifice, the greatest heroism, the greatest evil, and the greatest tragedy" (21). No evil compares to the horrors of the Third Reich; no glory equals that of the Allied countries that facilitated its collapse.
Yet the eternal insistence that we post-WWII audiences could be nothing like the Nazis creates a rather problematic situation: because the Nazis are shown to be the absolute evil, and are simultaneously portrayed as "absolutely Other," media that depicts them in this fashion implicitly suggest that we are justified in using any means to exterminate them. Consider, for instance, Elem Klimov's 1985 film Come and See. Adapted from a novella by Ales Adamovich, Come and See tells the story of a young boy who joins the Soviet Partisan infantry to help defend Belorussia from the invading Nazi forces. The searing exposition shows horror after sickening horror — massacres, burnt villages, and gang rape to name a few — all of which the Nazis have perpetrated. Yet when the Partisan forces succeed in cornering the offending Nazi platoon toward the end of the film, and have induced them to surrender, the scene carries a peculiar sense of morality. The Russian commanding officer facetiously commands a Soviet turncoat who joined the Nazis to pour petrol over his captured troop — and the turncoat obliges. Shocked and offended, the Soviet infantry opens fire on the turncoat and the prisoners, killing them all. At first blush, this action occurs to "save" the Nazis from a painful, fiery death. However, the film has performed a frightening argumentative move: it has suggested that a military unit is justified in killing a bunch of unarmed prisoners who have already surrendered themselves. Since the prisoners also happen to be Nazis, the film hints that the move is warranted. The Nazis are absolutely Other, are inhuman, and must be destroyed. The Soviet Partisans — and by extension, we the audience — need not make any complex moral judgments in the matter, for their side is not the evil one.
This presentation of the Nazis as incommensurate with ourselves neglects many important ethical questions. For instance, what do we become if we embrace their destruction, as opposed to their rehabilitation? Are we still morally superior to them, as Klimov's film hints? Are we allowed to utilize whatever means are necessary to eradicate them? Can we call ourselves humane — or even human — after we do so? Tarantino proposes one possible answer to the above questions in Inglourious Basterds, and the answer is a resounding negative. The film strongly implies that we are no better than the Nazis if we stoop to their techniques and rhetoric to eliminate Nazism. Furthermore, Tarantino's film reveals that we truly are not much different than they are. Unlike the absolute Otherness of Klimov's Nazis, Tarantino's are remarkably like us — or we are remarkably like them. Inglourious Basterds conveys this point by functioning like a propaganda film, turning us into Nazis as we watch the action unfold — and thrill at its unfolding. Reading Inglourious Basterds as a commentary on propaganda helps deliver the film from the major accusation its detractors level against it: that Tarantino's work in this instance is somehow "immoral." For example, Tabletmagazine senior writer Liel Leibovitz condemns the film as "a failure not only of imagination, but of morality." Decrying Inglourious Basterds for its violence, its perceived simplicity, and its allegedly fanciful subject matter, Leibovitz asserts: "He [Tarantino] doesn't see cinema as a way to look at reality, but — ever the child abandoned in front of the television set, ever the video-store geek — as an alternative to reality, a magical and Manichean world where we needn't worry about the complexities of morality, where violence solves everything, and where the Third Reich is always just a film reel and a lit match away from cartoonish defeat."
Leibovitz's assessment is spot-on. Of course Inglourious Basterds is an alternative to reality. It is a work of cinema, and cinema has always been, in some capacity, antithetical to reality. Yet that is precisely the point behind Tarantino's film. We have a word for when a film tries to pass itself off as absolute fact, or when a film tries to compress reality into an aesthetic framework: we call it "propaganda." If one wishes to read Inglourious Basterds as if its content were the sole conveyor of meaning, as Leibovitz does, one will certainly find many worrisome aspects in it. However, if we confront the film for its formal aspects — for example, the ways it conflates the pleasure of revenge with the tactics of Nazism — we will find that Inglourious Basterds is a film highly concerned with morality. It is a study of how easily we can become re-branded Nazis if we surrender to the fantasies that Leibovitz notes.
Unlike the moral certitude that the Klimov-style WWII drama confers on its audience, Inglourious Basterds regularly demagnetizes the moral compass. Its heroes — at least the American ones — are terrible people. Possible protagonist Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) has been described by critic A. Susan Owen as "a parodically inflected pastiche of movie and television characters: he is Jim Bowie, with an iconic scalping knife, and Davie Crockett, a folksy Tennessean" (240). Owen also notes that a musical strain from the John Wayne film The Alamo (1960) opens Inglourious Basterds, thus conflating Raine's persona and actions with the ideology and heroism of the American Western (240). Therefore, Raine corresponds on some level to previous constructions of American identity; American legend and folk heroism are part of his genetic makeup. Owen, however, neglects the darker facets of Raine's construction; and oddly enough, her observation of Raine's borrowed theme music should already hint that Raine is not what he seems. Westerns are already an ideologically suspect genre, privileging the white American settler narrative of "manifest destiny" over an indigenous narrative of oppression. As such, Raine already carries a connotation of unfounded (and dangerous) American supremacy. And this is only the beginning. Raine's less-than-savory characteristics complicate the audience's relationship with the allegedly heroic lieutenant.
Raine receives the affectionate nickname "Aldo the Apache," because his idiosyncratic execution technique is scalping his fallen (and sometimes not yet fallen) foes. At his most merciful, Raine carves swastikas into the foreheads of the Nazis he releases, so that their identities will be known long after they shed their fascist uniforms. This technique parallels the Nazi strategy of pinning Stars of David to German Jews, the better to enable their identification in public. Raine's mission statement even echoes the inhuman rhetoric of Hitler himself. "Nazis ain't got no humanity," Raine tells his soldiers during his first onscreen appearance. "They're the foot soldiers of a Jew-hatin', mass-murderin' maniac, and they need to be destroyed. That's why every son of a bitch we find wearing a Nazi uniform, they're gonna die." Raine does not acknowledge the potential humanity of his enemies. Like the Jews to Hitler, the Nazis to Raine are something less than human and need to be eradicated for it. His only argument is force. Similarly, Raine's choice of soldier mirrors Hitler's: where Hitler dreamed of a racially homogeneous Aryan army to do his bidding, Raine demands that his troop consist solely of Jewish Americans.
To add to the off-putting Nazi undertones of Raine's mentality, his physical appearance strongly resembles Hitler's. The first shot of Raine clearly shows him in a full American uniform, but the camera regularly zooms in on his face. The angles of these close-up shots obscure his American headgear and cut off the garments he wears below his neckline. All that remains is his face, and some of his hair. The most prominent features of Raine, then, are his mustache (only slightly longer than Hitler's trademark facial hair) and a slick lock of hair pressed close to his forehead (much like the hairstyle associated with the German dictator).
If his words fail to equate him with Hitler, Raine's physical appearance should do the job. American viewers (or any viewer who identifies with the Allied forces) recognize that Raine is supposed to be our hero in the film. We are intended to identify with him, in much the same way we would identify with the protagonist of any spaghetti western or WWII drama. Since Raine happens to fight for the Allies — the forces of good by most accounts of WWII — his actions are supposed to advance the good Allied cause. In essence, he himself should be taken as a "good" character, yet his latent Nazi strain complicates his reception. To put it differently: Raine is allegedly good and therefore should have no evil in him, but his Nazi undercurrents suggest a great deal of evil about his person. Since the audience is supposed to identify with Raine, he stands in the film as a proxy for the viewers; in turn, his evil tendencies are theirs as well. Therefore, the audience acknowledges how like the Nazis they themselves are. Ben Walters provides another formulation of this unsettling phenomenon: "It is even suggested [in the film] that to collaborate in such barbarity is equivalent to watching its depiction" (21). In effect, to watch Aldo Raine is to collaborate with him; working with his homicidal lunacy is not a far cry from supporting Hitler. Aldo Raine is nothing more than Adolf Hitler wrapped in an American flag.
If Raine's first appearance in the film sets viewers wondering about their own moral standings, the remainder of Inglourious Basterds soon removes all doubt; the audience has much more in common with Nazism than it would ever wish to admit. In a further deviation from the Klimov model, Tarantino implicates the audience in their mindless acceptance of the good/evil binary between Allies and Axis. The film's climax in the burning cinema features a curious reversal. Prior to the fire being set, a congregation of Nazi officers and politicians watches a propaganda film, in which they cheer the repeated slaughter of American soldiers at the hands of a single German sniper. There is something monstrous about the scene, capped by Hitler informing Goebbels that he considers the film "his [Goebbels's] finest work." Then the fire is set. The cinema's projectionist has locked the doors, and the Nazis cannot escape the burning building. Raine's troops soon burst in, raining gunfire first upon Hitler and then down onto the trapped masses below.
At first blush, it is an exhilarating scene. The entire Nazi brass is demolished in one fell swoop; the projectionist, orphaned after Nazis destroy her home, finally avenges her murdered family; the historically impossible mission given to Raine's soldiers is (somehow) accomplished. Yet consider what occurs in this moment: the audience previously felt enraged as they watched a cinema full of Nazis cheer the death of American soldiers, but now they themselves cheer the brutal execution of Nazis, military and nonmilitary alike — perhaps while viewing this spectacle in a cinema, no less. The Klimov-style good/evil binary thus dissolves. The audience is proven guilty of partaking of the same pleasures that the Nazis do, and cannot hide behind their previous veneer of moral certainty; they must be equated with the Nazis onscreen. Tarantino does provide the wherewithal for audiences to contemplate their own questionable pleasure, however. Given the film's stunning break from reality, in which Hitler dies at the hands of American troops, viewers should recognize that they are watching a movie — and not partaking of reality. Thus alienated from the film's enticing world, audience members must contemplate themselves and where they stand. If they recognize themselves in the Nazis they have vilified for the last two and a half hours, they won't be particularly happy with what they see.
Like all of Tarantino's films, Inglourious Basterds is a great deal of fun to watch, but its entertainment value belies the questionable morality of finding enjoyment in what Tarantino's camera captures. Just as Pulp Fiction's violence overwhelms the viewer until the bloodshed morphs from horrifying to comical (did you laugh when Vincent Vega's stray bullet detonates Marvin's head in the back seat of their getaway car?), Inglourious Basterds ensnares us in propaganda to the point where its fascist machinations might pass unnoticed. But perhaps this is why its most exciting scene involves torching a cinema after igniting a pile of film stock — it tells us that we have the choice of feeding our growing infatuation with all that the film depicts, or of averting our eyes and burning the reel.