Each week in Eat Your Vegetables, Jonathan Sircy shares the benefit and appeal of some of the culture’s more inaccessible or intimidating artifacts.
Cultural Vegetable of the Week: Inglorious Basterds (2009)
Vegetable Equivalent: The beet
Nutritional Value: A cinematic lesson in ethical causality
Recommended Serving Size: All in one sitting, preferably while drinking a glass of milk and eating apple strudel with whipping cream
”I’m gonna give you a little something you can’t take off.” – Lt. Aldo Raine to Col. Hans Landa
Since the new millennium began, Quentin Tarantino has been obsessed with revenge. Why? My guess is the aftermath of 9/11. The emotional dynamics of vengeance have taken international center-stage, particularly with the US’s reaction to the attack on the Twin Towers.
I’m not sure if Tarantino can explore those dynamics any better than he has in this film.
Hitler has been the basic yardstick for evil for the past sixty-plus years. The Holocaust is the crime of the 20th century. The film’s startling conclusion works not only because its characters have animus towards Hitler but because the audience does too.
In this way, Inglorious Basterds works through the ways film/art/cultural representations play an active role in defining how we live in the west. When Slavoj Žižek praises cinema as ideology at its purest, as the art form that teaches us how to desire, he is talking about films like Inglorious Basterds. We get to think through the logic of revenge using recent history’s most incendiary test case.
The film features Tarantino’s chapter-based style, with each section presenting a morality drama. We see characters presented with the choice of saving themselves and letting others die or sacrificing themselves with the possibility that such a sacrifice will still not save anybody. Every choice is loaded, and no choice comes responsibility-free.
The thing that I admire most about the film, having seen it four times now, is that it enforces moral responsibility. Milton Friedman advocated the economic principle, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” Basterds shows us there’s no such thing as a free moral choice. Ideas and actions have consequences.
I felt this most acutely in the tense tavern scene. The scene is dialogue heavy as both the Allied characters and audience keep praying for the scene to end. The camera lingers on drinks and cigarettes, on the happy faces of the Nazi officers and the anxious faces of the disguised Allied soldiers. Minute upon minute passes by, the tension mounting the longer the Nazis and Allies who are posing as Nazis drink together. Quickly, things escalate and suddenly we have a British officer and a Nazi officer pointing guns at each other’s testicles. The British officer wants to take the Nazi officer outside with him, but the Nazi officer refuses. He says that if the Allied officers are to live, they will have to kill every single Nazi soldier in the tavern, including the enlisted man who became a father five hours ago. No free lunch. The stakes are huge, Hitler and the end-of-the-war huge. There will be collateral damage. Any plan that doesn’t account for that is blatantly deceitful, not only to others but to one’s self.
To alter slightly Aldo’s above remark to Hans Landa, vengeance is the moral decision you can’t take off. That’s what Aldo’s swastika carvings are all about. The Nazi soldiers will go back home, take off their uniforms, and pretend like their war experience never existed: the Nazi scar on their forehead prevents them from making that denial. This also goes for the Basterds themselves. It’s important that everyone but Aldo and Utvich get killed in the line of duty.
Tarantino ups the ante of this revenge flick even more by setting the film in 1941 and 1942, a detail I had missed in earlier screenings. This means that while the US would have started fighting (post-Pearl Harbor), the US would not have lost a majority of its men in either Europe or Asia. The film’s ending means D-Day is unnecessary. More than that, it probably makes Hiroshima and Nagasaki unnecessary.
The film’s success is directly attributable to its willingness to engage with the ideological and aesthetic possibilities of cinema itself. War never found a better proponent than film, particularly during the aftermath of World War II (cf. Vonnegut’s ruminations on this fact in Slaughterhouse-Five). For those who think Inglorious Basterds is simply a mindless propaganda film, note that the entire concluding chapter represents/critiques that simplistic kind of (and reaction to a) film, i.e., the mindless shoot-em up that glorifies jingoism and a “nation’s pride.”
I don’t think the film is morally irresponsible or needlessly vengeful. It shows that revenge bears deadly fruit. It insists on actual guilt and actual punishment. It is not a film about moral contingency. It is a film about moral culpability.