First, I propose to you the difference between fantasy and counterfactual. A counterfactual is interested in historical causation, both the question of what could have happened (but didn’t) and what, as a result of that change, might have happened next. A fantasy, on the other hand, is not interested in any of that. Counterfactuals usually introduce (and isolate) the intervening change that causes history to play out differently, but a fantasy simply revels in the thing which is different itself. So a counterfactual might ask “Would killing Hitler, Borman, Goebbels, and Goering in a movie theater in 1945 end the war and save lives, etc?” But Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds doesn’t just beg that question, it completely ignores it: the point isn’t what causes Hitler’s death (or what is caused by it) but rather the spectacle of his body writhing as bullets rip it apart. It is a pornography of history.
Most of the movie’s reviewers have expected nothing more than that from him, and they’re not wrong. Tarantino clearly has created a particular kind of “fucking Jewish wet dream,” as his producer was quoted as calling it (in Jeffrey Goldberg’s article in The Atlantic). But most reviewers, I think, give Tarantino’s movie too little credit and stop there. Those words do get to the heart of the fantasy Tarantino has made for us: a revenge fantasy which makes Hitler into the fetish object from which all anti-semitism emanates, thereby transforming all remembered grievances (Tarantino’s producer’s “I was taunted and thrown into lockers, and I’ve never forgotten it”) into the childish fantasy of killing Hitler. But as it becomes a movie about movies, it also becomes a fantasy about fantasies.
After all, it seems worth stressing that when Inglourious Basterds kills Hitler, this accomplishes very little; he dies not in 1941, but in 1945. Not only was the war practically over at that point, but in the little time remaining before they would be liberated, the death camps could and would have operated just as efficiently without Hitler’s personal direction as with it. The movie kills Hitler, that is to say, at the point when he himself might be an embodiment of evil, but he is no longer really the proximate cause of the machine he’s created. The significance of this shift can be seen in the difference between the first and last chapters; while Landa is proud of being the “Jew Hunter” in chapter one, he has radically changed his goals by the fifth chapter, precisely because – I think – he now recognizes that the war has been lost. He therefore allows both the Basterds and Shoshanna to carry out their plots not in order to end the war, as he tells Pitt, but because it already is over and he wants to end up on the winning side.*
In other words, the movie is programmatically – even symptomatically – uninterested in any practical good or averted evil that killing the figurehead for the Nazi machine could actually cause. And so the movie changes history and saves the Jews not by eliminating the actual cause of suffering, but by replacing the historical reality of Jewish suffering with a fantasy of righteous Jewish-American violence. In other words, it does what a dream does: instead of thinking about the why’s and wherefore’s of reality, it simply fulfills the wishes which life has denied us. (As Tarantino puts it to Goldberg, in fact: “It’s what I want to see, and when I don’t see it, I become frustrated”). We, too, get what we want to see, a WWII in which there are no victims – since the only European Jews we “see” get killed by the Nazis are completely hidden by the floorboards – and in which the American victors get to clothe themselves in a moral righteousness derived from that injustice.
But there is also something deeply interesting about the notion that killing Hitler would somehow address, say, Jeffrey Goldberg’s traumatic childhood experience of anti-semitism. Hitler didn’t invent anti-semitism; the zest with which the victorious Allies retroactively piled the entirety of Western evil onto the Nazi party only concealed their own deeply bad conscience in this regard. It was, in fact, precisely the omnipresent normality of Western anti-semitism that made the Allied nations so flagrantly indifferent to the fate of European Jews at the point in time when it mattered, and only once WWII was well under way did the Allies suddenly realized they’d been fighting the Nazis to end racism. The now-common phrase “Judeo-Christian” civilization, after all, is of post-WWII coinage (replacing the previously mainstream equation of Jews with Christ-killers).
In a perverse way, in fact, you could argue that it was precisely the fact that Hitler clothed his imperial ambitions in anti-semitic terms that has since made anti-semitism as politically unspeakable as it has since become. Obviously the Nazis were evil, if the word is to have meaning, but (like Tarantino, I think) I’m talking much less about the historical reality of the Nazis than about the way that historical reality has been strategically used. After all, when an imperial power which had conquered and still ruled half the world through explicitly articulated notions of its own racial superiority suddenly begins indignantly decrying another nation’s racist imperial ambitions, something peculiar is going on: the fact that Winston Churchill, one-time Undersecretary for the Colonies, could suddenly become a figurehead for the virtuous struggle against imperialism and racism is deeply bizarre. Yet as the Nazi party came to assume official responsibility for that long history of Western anti-semitism, anti-semitism has come to be precisely as unspeakable as Nazi-ism.**
The point, then, is that we have learned to forget that anti-semitic racism was once as American as apple pie precisely by mis-imagining that Hitler was the personal source and origin of all racism in the world, the same way that we have learned to forget that Britain and France pretty much did conquer the entire world (often, explicitly in order to create “living room” for its excess population) by, again, retroactively making Hitler himself into the very alpha and omega of racist imperial ambition. We have, in other words, fetishized Hitler and the swastika so as to forget how widely shared the ideologies they represented were (and are) in the West. Making the symbol evil instead of the ideology therefore has the effect of vindicating those who only shared the ideology, the racism, and the imperial ambition. Europe and America might have conquered the world to acquire living space for the white race, you see, but at least they weren’t Nazis.
What makes Inglorious Basterds an interesting movie, then, is that it understands this, at least a structural level. To echo Traxus4420 – whose post at American Stranger you should read – the Nazis in this movie aren’t Nazis because they’re evil, but rather they’re evil because they’re Nazis, and because of how an allied victory causes “Nazi” to signify (as someone smart observed, this is a movie filled with swastikas seemingly stripped of their ideology). Just as it was by marking Nazi Germany that the West was able to take off its own Nazi uniform in a metaphorical sense, the final scene of Tarantino’s movie is literally about how marking Landa un-marks Raine: by refusing to allow Landa to repent (however self serving it may have been), the Nazi becomes the scapegoat for the entirety of Western evil. And I think the fact that Pitt plays an improbably hillbilly anti-racist vigilante is, then, precisely the point: the endemic racism of the American rural South gets displaced it onto the figure of the Nazi, with whom he has everything in common but the uniform.***
After all, the first two chapters of the movie have encouraged us to see the two figures as structurally similar: both are hunting human beings, explicitly employing terror tactics in a genocidal quest which they never even attempt to justify. My point, however, is precisely not that their actions are morally analogous, but that morality is both irrelevant and absent. We never know what Raine’s motivations are, any more than we know what Landa’s are. Both are perfectly capable of employing ideology, but it is their very cynical detachment from it that allows them do so. To them, on the other hand, the only question is how.
In this sense, the movie is about the mechanics of rendering a certain story about the war as the truth, the way one particular fiction became enshrined as official reality. After all, the movie makes it clear that the choice of which uniforms get to be shed (and which ones cannot be) ultimately gets adjudicated not by reference to any real conception of justice or truth but simply by the vaguaries of fate: it is only because Brad Pitt’s side has won that he gets to indelibly mark his defeated enemy. To put the mark of Cain on a Nazi (but not, say, the allied bombers who firebombed civilians in Dresden or Tokyo) might be a defensible argument, if we argued it, but in practice we (like the movie) don’t: justice is a function of victory. In this sense, while carving a swastika into a surrendering Nazi’s forehead is, ostensibly, an effort to render the truth about that soldier irrevocably visible for all to see, that doesn’t mean there weren’t plenty of soldiers in the German army who fought for their country rather than for Hitler (nor should we be so naïve as to think the Allied ranks were free of racism). Because the reason the current Pope is allowed to take off the swastika he wore as a child (but the surrendering soldiers which Raine marks do not) has little or nothing to do with justice and everything to do with politics.
Which is why, to wax subjective for a moment, I find it rhetorically useful to disagree with Anthony Paul Smith in the absolute strongest possible terms when he wrote that “there is something deeply satisfying about watching someone refusing to allow a soldier to take off their uniform.” Though he’s right in a descriptive sense, it is exactly this sense of satisfaction – the righteous exhilarating rush of victory – which we need to be questioning, and which Tarantino’s movie gives us the tools to question. After all, why are is that so satisfying? Why does depriving someone the possibility of expiation give us a rush? The point of the carved swastika, after all, is to deny them the ability to repent (only surrendering soldiers get marked, after all). Yet I would say, in contrast, that the notion of forgiveness is premised on the realization that – precisely because we are all imperfect – no one can be held to a standard of perfection, and there is consequently something basically un-ethical about denying someone the right to repent. Which is to say, in a world where all of us are stained with sins (by whatever standard one favors), pretending that carving swastikas on enemy soldiers or whatever is anything but an assertion of one’s own (false) moral virtue is simply a way of enabling that fiction, of enshrining it.
Yet fighting a war with an evil enemy does not make you good. That is – and here’s the crux of what Tarantino has done — unless you’ve got a propaganda machine. If you’ve got a film industry that can transform the meaningless crazy horror of violence into a political meaningful spectacle, then, in practice, it does mean that. Which is more or less what happened in the aftermath of WWII: thanks to our own propaganda machine, we’ve managed to forget all the ways the United States might have fought an evil government without becoming good in the process. Again, I’m precisely not equating the firebombing of Berlin and Tokyo with the gas chambers at Dachau, or making any kind of positive claim; I’m arguing that the movie both disputes the historical counterintuitivity of that analogy and shows us the mechanics of the process by which it becomes unspeakable.
After all, in the movie’s almost climax, we see a movie audience chortling with obscene glee at the spectacle of a movie character raining death from above down onto faceless, nameless bare life, and then, moments later, as the audience around us chortles with obscene glee, we see this very movie audience get death rained down from above them. As we chortle with glee, in other words, we find ourselves structurally in the position of the Nazi’s. This is the experience we’re supposed to have; this is how American audiences react to violent spectacles onscreen, and Tarantino knows it better than anyone else. For while this reversion is virtually inevitable, it is the very arbitrariness of that horrifies (and for once, Tarantino gives a position from which to be horrified at violence), for if we accede to the movie’s argument and enjoy the violence as morally praiseworthy, then we make ourselves into Landa/Raine himself, revelling in killing people exactly not because of what they do but because of what they are. The last shot of the movie, after all, literally puts us in the perspective of the nazi being marked, and Raine’s words, clearly, have to be from Tarantino:
There would be much more to say about the movie’s final section, the point when it becomes a movie about movies, had I the inclination or had I not forgotten most of what I originally wanted to say. But I think what makes this Tarantino’s best film, actually, is not just that he’s finally found an argument to put his obsessive film-nerd intertextuality in service of, but because it’s a good argument: by making his movie a deconstruction of the WWII-movie genre,**** he makes it about the ways that cinematic project retroactively placed coherent meaning (“the good war”) on a thing which was actually unthinkable and nonsensically violent and destructive. And because they did it by transforming history into myth, by reveling in fantasies of the past as meaningful and coherant, he can avoid getting bogged down in the nitty gritty of actual causes and causation, making a virtue of his total inability to bother with any of that stuff. Tarantino’s movie, in other words, has much more in common with Slaughterhouse Five than the movies it was actually responding to, but while Vonnegut insisted on the horrible subjective experience of violence’s senselessness, I think Tarantino’s movie is (on some level) about how an objective truth can be imposed on our subjectivities, how we come to believe that the war was, in fact, a good one.
* I really enjoy the inversion of the “impossible mission” scenario there; our “heroes” are so unbelieveably unequal to the task of posing as European (in contrast to the ridiculous facility special force types pose as German in movies like Where Eagles Dare). But the point is then simply that Landa sees through the Basterds instantly and yet still allows them to carry out their mission (sort of) while taking only an incidental sadistic interest in Shoshanna. I find that all the more villainous of him, actually; there’s something almost more terrible about receiving mercy from a nazi.
** I use the term “unspeakable” to reflect the way anti-semites generally know better than to speak their beliefs openly, a sign of that class of racism’s private nature, rather than its disappearance. There are certainly venues where anti-semitic fantasies can safely be uttered, but the establishment media has programmatically not been one of those places since the aftermath of WWII.
*** Don’t even get me started on the whole scalping thing.
**** As Brad Pitt, his own self, put it: “The Second World War could still deliver more stories and films, but I believe that Quentin put a cover on that pot. With ‘Basterds,’ everything that can be said to this genre has been said. The film destroys every symbol. The work is done, end of story.”