Inglourious Basterds: A German Fantasy, Not a 'Jewish' One
Allusions to the “Old Testament” character of Israeli behavior and knowing citations of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” are likewise entirely commonplace. See, for instance, this article from the German weekly Der Spiegel, which is titled “Israel Declares War on Terror Groups” and which appears under the heading “Auge für Auge”: “An Eye for an Eye.” The same “lust for revenge” is, incidentally, commonly attributed by German media commentators and intellectuals to America and Americans: notably in connection with the American response to the 9/11 attacks. (For an example from only two days after the attacks, see here.)
But, it will be objected, the Germans who are mutilated and murdered by the Jewish-American "Basterds" are Nazis, after all. Shouldn’t we all rejoice in seeing them get their just deserts in Quentin Tarantino’s signature blood-splattering detail? Well, I suppose it can be left to everyone’s individual conscience whether they enjoy seeing anyone have his head smashed in with a baseball bat or a swastika carved on his forehead with a hunting knife. But the fact of the matter is that most of the victims of the Basterds’ brutality and sadism are precisely not Nazis. They are members of the Wehrmacht: the regular German armed forces.
The point is even highlighted in the film. Thus, “Sgt. Donny Donowitz” notices a medal on the uniform of a Wehrmacht officer and asks him, “Get that for killing Jews?” “No,” the man coolly replies, “bravery.” Donowitz proceeds then to smash the officer’s head in. Many of the other Germans who are slaughtered and/or maimed by the “Basterds” are simple enlisted men. What possible satisfaction could be taken in that?
Moreover, the depiction of the German characters in the film does nothing to render such savagery any more understandable. On the contrary, far from being classical villains, most of the German characters are presented in a sympathetic light. The only unambiguous exceptions are Hitler and the ever smarmy Goebbels. By contrast to the caricatures of the Nazi leaders, the purely fictive German characters seem human and are as a rule even more-or-less likeable. They include not only the jovial enlisted men in the barroom scene, but also, for instance, a celebrated and lovelorn sharpshooter who openly regrets his military exploits. Even the “Jew-hunting” SS officer Hans Landa is clearly not all bad.
The nuance of the German characters has been appreciatively noted in the German reviews of Inglourious Basterds. What has as a rule not been noted is the utter superficiality and one-dimensionality of the Jewish-American “Basterds.” Indeed, though Inglourious Basterds is ostensibly about them, they are in fact barely more than extras in the film. When they are not slicing and dicing their German victims, they are only rarely on screen and they have hardly any dialogue -- especially when compared to the German-language gab fests. Only Eli Roth’s skull-crushing “Donowitz” plays a marginally more substantial role.
Moreover, to the extent there is anything in Inglourious Basterds that is recognizable as an intended joke, it is the Germans that tell the jokes and the Americans/Jews who are the butt of them. These include, for instance, a snobbish gag about the Americans’ lack of knowledge of foreign languages and even a “joke” about the small stature of one of the "Basterds." The tongue-tied Americans attempting to pass themselves off as Italians cut sorry, buffoonish figures as compared to the sophisticated and multilingual Landa.
There is even one major “joke” on America itself. Thus, in the film’s concluding sequence, Raine and two of his “Basterds” arrive at a Parisian cinema in order to carry out “Operation Kino.” Hitler, Goebbels, and various other Nazi dignitaries will be attending a film premiere and the plan is to use the occasion to kill them. A comic book-like special effect reveals that under their cloths the two “Basterds” are strapped with explosives à la Hamas or al-Qaeda. The “Basterds” will subsequently detach their explosives, but as far as we know they are still in the cinema when the subsequent conflagration takes place. The Jewish-American plot to bring down the Third Reich is, in effect, a suicide attack.
The cinema scene gives Tarantino a chance to send up the films made under the auspices of the Propaganda Ministry of Dr. Goebbels. But perhaps (were it but possible) Tarantino should not be so smug. His own film, after all, is based on an idea that comes from none other than … Dr. Goebbels -- and it was made with millions of euros in support from the contemporary German “Ministry of Culture and Media” no less! But surely the hip, post-modern “auteur” could not be suspected of making propaganda. Could he?