Violence as the Best Revenge: Fantasies of Dead Nazis

Violence as the Best Revenge: Fantasies of Dead Nazis

Spoiler alert: This piece gives away key plot details about Inglourious Basterds. Quentin Tarantino’s Second World War adventure, like Bonnie and Clyde, is a distillation of the movies, tall tales, and shared legends that color our view of the past. And whenever popular fiction deviates from history, there are always people ready to warn that we’re falsifying the past. It’s never a problem when high culture doesn’t hew exactly to the historical line. You won’t find anyone claiming there’s lurking danger in the historical rewriting of Richard III.

The attacks on Inglourious Basterds are a lesson not just in the class-based prejudices about who should be able to use history as the raw material of drama, but in the willed naiveté that still exists about the virtuousness of the Second World War. Above all, they’re a reminder of the moral squeamishness that, when it comes to culture, passes for refined discernment, and that, when it comes to history, passes for humanitarianism. This is criticism seeking certainties, content to be alienated from the moral ambiguities with which art and history confound us.

The title Inglourious Basterds (the misspelling a way to distinguish the picture from its in-name-only source, the 1978 Italian production Inglorious Bastards) refers to a squad of Jewish-American soldiers operating in Nazi-occupied France. Under the leadership of Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), a Tennessee moonshiner and proud descendant of mountain man Jim Bridger (teller of tall tales and husband to successive Native American women), the Basterds set out to inflict as much terror on the Nazis as the Nazis have inflicted on their victims. For Raine that means scalping the dead (his tribute to his Indian heritage) and sending the survivors back to their Nazi superiors with swastikas carved in their foreheads.

From that description it’s clear that we are in the sadistic landscape of exploitation movies, a place ruled by the mechanics of revenge. And from the words we see at the movie’s beginning, “Once Upon a Time . . . “ it’s also clear that we are in another landscape of cruel fictions, the fairy tale. There’s an outlandish, fantastical quality to these scenes. The scalpings and carvings are not the graphic atrocities that many detractors have claimed, but the sort of Guignol that makes you laugh and go “ewww” at the same time (those scalped pates are in a horror-movie shade of candy-apple red). And as Raine, Pitt squints and struts through his scenes (to quote the critic Gene Seymour, who hated the film) as a cross between the Loony Tunes character Foghorn Leghorn and Clark Gable.

In action movies and horror movies, the timing of violence is often close to comic timing. The Basterds sequences are a series of split-second sick jokes with baseball bats to the noggin and punctuations of machine-gun fire landing like punch lines. But the picture ...