Americans love remembering the days of Nazi Germany—in just the last decade Hollywood brought us The Pianist, Downfall, Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, The Boy in The Striped Pyjamas, The Reader, Defiance, and Valkyrie, not to mention several dozen historical documentaries and made-for-TV specials. Computer entertainment was built on games like Wolfenstein 3D, in which players done the role of an American GI who infiltrates Nazi prisons before taking on Hitler himself. In the seventeen years since that game’s release, countless dedicated series like Medal of Honor, Call of Duty, and Brothers in Arms have mined the era for their own digital baddies. Even literature is overrun by the Third Reich’s Dramatis Personae, whether it be Gavriel D. Rosenfeld’s The World Hitler Never Made, Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, or Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream. Goebbels himself couldn’t have created a more ubiquitous cultural presence for the Party.
It’s no surprise then that Quentin Tarantino should turn his sights on Nazis for his newest film, Inglorious Basterds. Despite the trailer’s claim “once we’re in enemy territory…we’re gonna be doing one thing and one thing only… killing Nazis”, most of the movie is driven by its director’s trademark dialogue—only a small portion is punctuated by violence. What separates this film from its many Holocaust-centered contemporaries is its take on this violence. Of the two instances given of Jewish murder, the largest is visually treated as a bloodless, victimless crime. No corpses are shown after Colonel Hans Landa’s men unload their semi-automatics into the floorboards under which the Dreyfus family hides, nor is any time given in reflection to the deceased. Our attention is instead immediately drawn to the flight of Shosanna, the sole survivor of the attack, and the work of the Basterds.
Ironically, the Basterds’ crimes appear much more in line with popular depictions of Nazi brutality—they slit men’s throats, beat their brains in with baseball bats, and scalp the dead for fun. Many critics noticed this and quickly reduced it to an inversion of roles—claimed the film as a long-needed cathartic reversal and nothing more. These individuals overlooked the humanity Tarantino strove to instill in his Nazis as well as the metatextuality of the dizzying film-within-a-film-within-a-film. Before releasing a captured German private, Brad Pitt’s character asks what he intends to do with his uniform after the war ends. When he responds “Burn it”, Pitt carves a swastika in the young man’s head, stating “We don’t like that. You take off that suit and nobody’s gonna know you was a Nazi”. Vocal responses to the scar indicated enthusiasm amongst American audiences, yet Pitt’s statement incites the suit as a Nazi, not the person. Indeed, a common sentiment amongst those judged in the Nuremberg Trials was the need to fulfill orders—though they may have disagreed with the party, their hands were tied. Though higher-ups like Boorman and Hitler espoused cartoonishly-evil beliefs and personas, the majority of Nazis were men and women who felt swept up by a society they had no control over. This mentality is represented in the form of Wilhelm, a new father, and Fredrick Zoller, a professional yet sympathetic sniper. When the Basterds invade Wilhelm’s celebratory evening, he shouts “We were just celebrating—we didn’t come charging in shooting and yelling and killing! We just wanted to celebrate!”. Wilhelm is the victim of an ideology he never questioned—a pawn in a battle he unwittingly traipsed into. Tarantino utilizes these characters in humanizing the popular myth of the Nazi monster.
With the premiere of Goebbels’ Nation’s Pride, we have the mirror turned fully around—are given insight into our role as appreciative audiences for films like Inglorious Basterds. Immediately following Shosanna’s death, the remaining members of Pitt’s unit methodically murder Hitler’s two guards. Afterward we’re treated to a shot of the Fuhrer chuckling at a sniper gunning down invading Allied troops. In all three viewings I attended, audience members caught themselves laughing at the dead Nazis much as Hitler cracked up at the fallen Allied soldiers. It’s difficult to say whether they made the connection between themselves and Hitler—that regardless of party affiliation, they were nonetheless laughing at the slaughter of a human being. Like Shosanna’s face projected against the billowing smoke of a burning theater, Hollywood has exacted latent revenge against the National Socialist Party of Germany through film; like Tarantino orchestrating the tell-tale murder of Hitler, filmmakers have repeatedly concocted fictional tales of WWII Germany as a means of attaining a retribution they lack. In doing so, we’ve unfortunately lost sight of the reason we remember the Holocaust—the need to be good to one another.
Are critics wrong in reducing Inglorious Basterds to a mere cathartic role reversal? That’s certainly present. And is it impolite to laugh at dead Nazis? Well, they are Nazis. But calling the film “simple targeted violence” is downright wrong; it’s instead a brilliant humanitarian effort paradoxically masked by gallons of blood and gore—something Tarantino is quite good at.