Sunday, September 06, 2009

Musing Pictures: Inglourious Basterds

'Holocaust revenge fantasy' is not a genre to be taken lightly. Very few films and very few filmmakers have ventured far in to this territory in the past, and certainly, no mainstream film has entered so deeply as "Inglourious Basterds." This latest film from director Quentin Tarantino ("Pulp Fiction", "Kill Bill", etc.) has received primarily positive reviews, and a healthy box office run. It has also generated a great deal of discussion, particularly surrounding its treatment (or re-treatment) of the history and horror of the Holocaust.

The film begins with an odd twist: an instantaneous blending of two genres. On the screen, text informs us: "Once upon a time, in Nazi-occupied France..." It is fairy tale and history, fiction and fact, a story where the good guys win, and a story where the ending is dispassionate. Immediately, Tarantino alerts us to the fact that what we are about to see is both far from and rooted in reality.

This dichotomy is always present and extremely important in cinematic fictionalization of historical events. Every historical re-telling must acknowledge its fictional side, or risk being seen as a mere story. Holocaust narratives require this all the more, because they are almost universally stories of individual tragedy and individual triumph, set in the context of human catastrophe. Holocaust stories can never convey the full scope of the Holocaust literally, so they resort to metaphor, ellipsis, and other devices to indicate those ideas that are beyond literal depiction. The girl in the red dress in "Schindler's List" stands in for the victims of the Holocaust who could never be fully depicted in the film.

Tarantino's Holocaust narrative does something unexpected with this approach. Instead of trying to tell a true story as a metaphor for or a window in to the broader Holocaust, he creates a very obviously fictional, fantastical story. We know (because we are told, and because we can discern) that the events portrayed in the film never happened. We also know, though, that behind the narrative lies some sort of strange truth. We don't get a history lesson comprised of facts, but we do get something more visceral.

The film's first sequence involves an interrogation between Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) and a French farmer. Landa is known in France as the "Jew Hunter", and he is on the scent of a local family he believes is hiding in the farmer's care. Landa is always polite, a seemingly pleasant, happy man. Over the course of the conversation, it becomes apparent that he is much more nefarious, and by the end of the scene, Landa's easy smile shows us just how evil he actually is.

It is easy to imagine such a scene playing out in the French countryside in the early days of the Nazi occupation. But Tarantino isn't interested in the accuracy of the moment. Over the course of the conversation, several small things happen to remind us that we are watching something other than historical re-enactment. At one point, the farmer has pulled out his pipe, and Landa asks permission to smoke his own pipe. When the farmer gives his permission, Landa pulls an enormous, outlandish, out-of-place pipe from his pocket. The effect is almost cartoonish, something more at-home in "Mary Poppins" than a Holocaust film. But it becomes a part of what Landa stands for, what he represents. Landa is a character we are meant to hate, and we are meant to understand that he is there representing an arrogant, boastful, self-confident, and totally evil aspect of the Third Reich itself. In "Schindler's List", concentration camp administrator Amon Goeth is purely evil, but he represents a very specific historical figure who himself was a part of a much larger operation. Landa, because his character is represented with these un-realistic elements, represents not a real person, but something much bigger.

Perhaps to put it in a different context, "Inglourious Basterds" represents itself as a sort of fairy tale. In fairy tales, the Big Bad Wolf is not a character meant to represent a real, historical wolf, but is rather a stand-in for the wolfish dangers of the world, the predatory sadism and greed that children (particularly children) must be wary of when out in the world (which is, itself, represented by the woods, the forest, or wherever it is that the wolf lurks).

By setting itself in this very fictional framework, "Basterds" achieves through playfulness a greater sense of Nazi evil than do other films through gory, heartbreaking realism. At the end of "Schindler's List", "The Pianist", or any of the past twenty years' worth of mainstream Holocaust films, we find ourselves very sad, perhaps even in tears, shocked by the enormity of the loss of life, the loss of humanity that the Holocaust's victims endured. It is rare that we come away from such films feeling more anger and disgust at the Nazis than sorrow for their victims. In "Basterds", we really, really hate Nazis.

Interestingly, Tarantino accomplishes this feat with very little depiction of what the Nazis did. There is only one scene in which Jews are massacred, and very little of the massacre is shown to the audience. On the contrary, it is the violence of the 'Basterds' that clues us in (again, indirectly, through obvious fiction) to the facts deep beyond the narrative.

The 'Basterds' are a group of Jewish American soldiers sent deep in to Nazi Occupied France to terrorize the occupiers. They are brutal. They kill without mercy. One of them bashes Nazi skulls with a baseball bat. Another carves swastikas in to their foreheads. They are all under orders to scalp their victims. We are shown a lot of this brutality (in Tarantino's unflinching and overblown style), and it is absolutely gruesome and bloody. But we know that there is something we haven't seen. The 'Basterds' are getting revenge, but we are forced to ask, 'revenge for what?' The full extent of Nazi brutality is the reason, of course, that they deserve their brutal fate. By asking the question, 'revenge for what?' we are led to think of the actual legacy of the Nazis, and again, the film draws our attention to the broad scope of real history while depicting events that we recognize as pure fiction.

Even in the film's final act, in which most of the Nazi high command is killed, we are provided with encouragement to be mindful of historical fact. At various moments, text appears on the screen to indicate different characters from the Nazi leadership. We recognize Hitler from popular culture, and Goebbels is introduced in the context of the narrative, but other prominent figures of the Nazi regime are identified to us, as if to say "you should recognize these people". It is, in a fictional context, an invitation to learn more about the facts, to learn the history.

Rather than giving us a picture of the Holocaust that we can walk away from and say "now I understand, now I know what it was all about", Tarantino gives us an experience that makes us feel, viscerally, just how angry we should be, and reminds us, by showing us what we know to be false, just how much we don't know of the truth of the Holocaust, of its true horrors.

In a very sophisticated way, 'Inglourious Basterds' achieves the goal of many Holocaust films -- it reminds us through ironic fiction that "we should never forget" the facts.


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