Thursday, August 27, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Saw it last night. Enjoyed it. One of the major concerns of reviewers was that it was too violent, even sadistic. But for several reasons, including a cameo by Mike Myers, it's just too hard to take the film seriously enough for that charge to really stick. Some very real moments, like the inclusion of Emil Jannings, who really was awarded the title "Artist of the State" by Goebbels, ground the film in just enough fact to mean something beyond fantasy, but it was self-consciously an exercise in fantasy. Or, as some people have less generously offered, Tarantino is a parody of himself. For the same reasons, my concerns about portraying Jews as vengeful, a long-established stereotype that dominated my thinking about the film since I first heard of it, didn't seem significant.

On the other hand, there were several things that were worthwhile. Or perhaps could have been with more attention. An early speech by the "Jew Hunter" explains a particular sort (or aspect) of antisemitism. (It's early enough in the film that I don't really think of it as a spoiler. On the other hand, there are, naturally, later parts of the movie this scene relates to, which I am concealing.) This clip is shortened from what's in the film. In it the Jew Hunter explains that Germans are like hawks while Jews are like rats. Missing from that clip, however, is his explanation for why he's so good at hunting Jews. Unlike most Germans, he doesn't think it's a bad thing to be like a rat, and so he's able to think like a Jew. He goes to great lengths to compare rats to cute and cuddly squirrels to explain that there's nothing really wrong with rats -- before offering that "You don't like them [rats/Jews]. You don't really know why. You don't like them. All you know is you find them repulsive." So it isn't really that Jews are necessarily bad or even different. The Jew Hunter is the same. But not. Jews and the Jew Hunter are as alike as rats and squirrels. "Except for the tail, they even look alike."

And it really can't be that Jews are different. Even for the Nazis who went to such great lengths to explain why Jews are different, the laws they implemented went to great lengths to make it so that Jews were different. "Jews" (as the Nazis defined Jews, rather than how various German individuals would have identified) were forced to wear yellow stars, not because of difference, but to make difference. It's not Jewish difference that frightens; it's similarity. Or specifically, uncanniness. Most people have probably heard of the uncanny valley. So long as robots are obviously robots, we have no problem, but as they become too similar, we reject them as grotesque. And many antisemites have great love for Jews so long as Jews are oppressed, but they recoil at Jewish liberation.

The same is at work when Aldo carves a swastika (same spoiler disclaimer as above - it's an early moment) into a Nazi. After the war, he'll take off the uniform and become like everyone else. But even in a revenge fantasy, isn't there a real difference between an Nazi and a Jew?

On the other hand, like most Tarantino films, I don't think any theme is really carried through. There's a moment here and a reprise there. The analysis of this one moment (though there are many interesting moments and one or two elements I'd particularly like to discuss, but that really would be giving too many spoilers) shouldn't be taken as the suggestion that there's really anything heavy about the movie -- perhaps in a few years I'll return and decide -- or not -- beyond Tarantino's claim that Jews deserve an uncomplicated fantasy of killing Nazis. On that score, it delivers pretty well.

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