Eat Your Vegetables: "Inglorious Basterds" (Tarantino, 2009)

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

Inglorious Basterds

 “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.

About Jonathan Sircy
  • http://www.kellenfreeman.net Kellen Freeman

    This is a great post. I have to say, I love Inglourious Basterds. I wrote a curriculum for churches on the Holocaust and WWII recently for a Church History class and used this film. The main point I argued for was, can we truly cheer for the good guys when they are often more ruthless and cruel than the bad guys. The film messes with our conceptions of morality and I love it. The first time I watched it, I thought it was just an interesting movie. When I watched it again for the purpose of this project, the morality of the film jumped out at me in a way I didn’t notice before.

  • http://friarsfires.blogspot.com Brett

    This serving of vegetables may have all the nutrients you describe, but the presence of Eli Roth means they are served with poison. I do not regret passing this movie by.

  • Jared

    I honestly don’t get how the presence of Eli Roth as an actor in the film who (as far as I can tell) had no real creative input qualifies the entire movie as “poison” . . . Throwing the baby out with the bathwater via sweeping generalizations is kind of a conversation-killer.

    Actually, checking IMDb, it looks like he did one bit of creative involvement (uncredited). He directed the Nazi propaganda film-within-the-film. Which seems significant for some reason.

    So, that bit aside, I wanted to say that I’ve been reading all of these “Eat Your Vegetables” features, and I totally love them. Great writing about great movies. Just one thing . . . the title confuses me sometimes. “Eat your vegetables” implies a necessary and healthy, but not always enjoyable activity . . . but almost all of the movies you’ve written about are slices of unqualified awesome, and this one in particular doesn’t even have detrimental (to some) elements of older films like being black-and-white. It’s full of suspense and action and incredible dialogue and performances and just all-around enjoyable to watch in nearly every way . . . Is it *really* a vegetable? =P

  • Jonathan Sircy

    Thanks for the kind words, Jared.

    Re: the column: all of the lit I’ve written about (and the one painting) have skewed “vegetable” because they have the whiff of “assigned reading/viewing” about them. That’s true of the films too, though I see your point about IB.

    Here’s my litmus test. Is the cultural artifact I’m writing about a “should” or a “would”? As in, “You SHOULD watch/read/listen to this” rather than “You WOULD love this.” These are not mutually exclusive, but I do think my “vegetables” evoke “should” first.

  • http://friarsfires.blogspot.com Brett

    I’ve enjoyed the series concept also.

    Roth’s profoundly anti-human work has made me decide I don’t want him to have any of my money — it may not mean much to his payday, but it’s all I’ve got as a way to make my own statement. So I won’t pay to see anything that to the best of my knowledge, he’s had any hand in. Others can make their own choices about who and what they want to support with their resources, of course.

  • http://www.alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams

    Regrettably, I will probably never see this movie. My dad has seen it about a hundred times, and has basically told me every scene and every nuance, and he occasionally acts out the parts for me. *sigh*

  • http://amuseorbemused.com JT Adamson

    Brad…your experience mirrors mine in college in regards to any Monty Python movie. Heard so much about them I couldn’t bear to hear them again by actually watching them.

  • http://thechristianillustrator.com/ The Christian Illustrator

    Found this site recently and love it. Christians talking about ‘Inglorious Basterds.’ Common sense at last! Loved the movie and for me it was a return to form as Kill Bill left me a bit cold. Keep those vegetables coming!

  • Dalibor Sver

    Hi,
    I haven’t watched the film. As a Disciple, I am skeptical (to say at least) about this one, because of mindless gore and violence I would expect. Are you saying I should give it a chance?
    Bear in mind, that years before my baptism, I could watch any kind of movies. I loved Tarantino as a kid, I was waiting for a year to see Pulp fiction in theaters. (I can’t stand his movies now, such as Kill Bil) In fact, in the past I used to say that Abel Ferrara’s “Bad Lieutenant” (1992) is the most Christian movie of all times, because of the message, regardless of violence.
    But last few years I’m really intolerant towards R-rated movies and all that violence. So would you say this would be worth watching for me?
    Thanks
    Dalibor

  • Jonathan Sircy

    Dalibor,

    I think Romans 14:23 should be your litmus test. You can live a perfectly fulfilled, God-fearing life without eating any of the cultural vegetables I’ve written about, IB included.

    My column (and I think the entire site) is dedicated to the notion that, to extend Paul’s thought, the pop cultural meat once dedicated to idols doesn’t have to be corrupting, but that doesn’t mean IB is for everyone.


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