On Inglourious Basterds, Alternate Histories, and Possible Futures

Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds (2009) | Lantern Entertainment
Lantern Entertainment

Lieutenant Aldo Raine is in trouble. Somewhere in his attempt to lead his posse of Jewish-American vigilantes on a mission to kill the leaders of the Third Reich, something went wrong. It’s not entirely surprising given that the team, while effective in its violence, has a somewhat comically bumbling air about it. Now Raine (Brad Pitt) and Private Utivich (B.J. Novak) find themselves face to face with SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), more commonly known as “the Jew Hunter.” Landa is conniving, manipulative, and pure evil, with a reputation that precedes him. They keep their cool but anticipate no mercy.

Instead of torturing them, Landa offers to let the mission proceed as long as they ensure his safety after the war. It’s an unexpected proposal, one that reveals the SS officer as the coward and opportunist he truly is. Assuming there’s a catch, Raine and Utivich hesitate to accept. Seeing their indecision, Landa emphasizes the gravity of the situation; should the mission continue, it promises almost certain victory for the Allied forces. “In the pages of history, every once in a while, fate reaches out and extends its hand.” He sits back, throws his arms open, and asks one crucial question:

“What shall the history books read?”

A little over a year after the end of the Second World War, the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg sentenced 12 Nazi officials to death, three to life imprisonment, and four to prison terms of several decades. They acquitted three others.

The Nuremberg trials and subsequent legal proceedings in the decades following the war were highly controversial, criticized by some for their uneven application of punishment while lauded by others as an effort to promote humanity and truth in the face of evil. But what is perhaps most striking about the trials isn’t what they accomplished, but rather what they failed to achieve.

The majority of Nazi perpetrators, especially those in lower positions, were never brought to trial. Many high-ranking officials, like Dr. Josef Mengele, evaded capture and escaped to South America. Even those who received prison sentences of several years reintegrated back into German society or moved elsewhere upon their release. And notably absent from any of the postwar trials were the men most responsible for the atrocities of the Third Reich: Joseph Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler, and Adolf Hitler. All three had committed suicide months earlier when it became clear Germany would lose.

Such outcomes force us to confront the reality that justice, in the most holistic sense of the word, is intricate and imprecise, and is often never achieved at all. It requires not only punishment of those responsible but some form of restitution for those affected. What does it look like in the aftermath of heinous evil? When such evil involves the systematic mass murder of more than six million people, is justice even possible?

Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds recognizes this inherent impossibility and poses a solution only feasible in fiction. Part war drama, part black comedy, part spaghetti western, Basterds envisions an alternate ending to World War II, one that places retribution squarely in Jewish hands. And while it appears to be a movie about violence and revenge on the surface, it’s not really either. Instead, it’s a movie about myth-making—about what has happened and what has not, what could have happened and what still can.

While Lieutenant Raine and the titular Basterds work their way across Europe, Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) prepares for the premiere of the Nazi propaganda film Nation’s Pride at the cinema she operates in Paris. We’ve met her already, in the opening of the film, when Landa and his men viciously murdered the rest of her family as they hid beneath a French farmer’s floorboards. When we see her next, on a ladder changing the letters on the marquee outside her theater, Shosanna is three years older, living under a false identity, and impatient for revenge. A film premiere presents the perfect opportunity: Hitler, Goebbels, and numerous other SS officers will be in attendance and, anticipating a night of entertainment, will almost certainly have their guards down. With her lover Marcel, Shosanna plots to set the cinema on fire using her collection of highly flammable 35mm nitrate film prints as fuel.

Of course, to simply light the masterminds of the Nazi Final Solution ablaze while they become drunk on their own indoctrination would be far too impersonal. So Shosanna prepares a short film that she splices into the fourth reel of Nation’s Pride. Her face, filmed in shadowy close up, declares: “I have a message for Germany…that you are all going to die. And I want you to look deep into the face of the Jew who is going to do it.” As the spark from Marcel’s cigarette lights the towering pile of celluloid, fire climbs the walls of the theater and Shosanna’s laugh echoes amid the flames. It’s a dizzying, terrifying spectacle, yet it’s also strangely thrilling. Tarantino fully splits off from the history books; there can be no going back now. There is nothing left to go back to.

In the audience, Sergeant Donny “The Bear Jew” Donowitz and Private Omar Ulmer proceed with the Basterds’ assassination plot. Basterds is not the first film to wrest Hitler’s death out of his own hands, but it is unique in delegating two Jewish men as the righteous assassins. Standing in one of the theater’s opera boxes, they riddle Hitler and Goebbels’ bodies with bullets from their machine guns. Shosanna’s voice rings out across this scene of hellish destruction, relishing every word. “My name is Shosanna Dreyfus, and this is the face of Jewish vengeance.”

Just as Shosanna’s footage violently disrupts Nation’s Pride, Tarantino similarly upends long-established conventions of Hollywood Holocaust dramas. Such films often insist on rendering Jewish characters as passive and in need of “righteous Gentile” saviors—a trope perhaps most recognizable in Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, but appearing more recently in The Book Thief, The Zookeeper’s Wife, and Jojo Rabbit as well. These depictions risk dehumanizing and infantilizing Jewish victims in favor of reassuring contemporary audiences that, like Oskar Schindler, they too would have done the right thing.

But while these films are based upon actual events, they present what was essentially an anomaly. The reality is that the vast majority of non-Jewish Europeans turned a blind eye to Nazi atrocities. Of course, no one wants to watch a movie about bystanders during such a crucial moment in history, let alone imagine they might have been bystanders themselves. The Holocaust is often co-opted as a hypothetical barometer of our own modern-day morality: if we resist oppression today, surely we would have done the same in 1940s Germany, and vice versa. Despite their tragic subject matter, films like Schindler’s List offer reassurance and inspiration—but we should be wary of any art about the Holocaust that pushes Jewish characters to the side in its efforts to assuage some vague sense of non-Jewish guilt.

Inglourious Basterds doesn’t present a historical narrative that is any more accurate, but, unlike other Holocaust dramas, it doesn’t pretend to. While Tarantino cannot rewrite film canon as easily as he rewrites history, Basterds paints a different picture from the established Hollywood norms, one that relies instead on Jewish resistance, anger, and deliverance. In their brazen acts of defiance, Shosanna and the Basterds not only topple a regime that enforces Jewish submission, but also overturn a cinematic history that maintains Jewish passivity. Inglourious Basterds operates on these two levels for its entirety; it both imagines a different story and examines the ones we’ve already told.

There’s a serious discussion to be had about the line separating justice from vengeance, but in the case of an evil of such magnitude as the Final Solution, that line necessarily becomes blurred. Raine puts it rather succinctly: “I sure as hell didn’t come down from the goddamn Smoky Mountains, cross 5,000 miles of water, fight my way through half of Sicily, and jump out of a fuckin’ aero-plane to teach the Nazis lessons in humanity. Nazi ain’t got no humanity. They’re the foot soldiers of a Jew hatin’, mass murderin’ maniac and they need to be destroyed.” In his eyes—and in Shosanna’s, as well—such revenge, no matter how bloody, is justice. Even so, Basterds is somewhat less concerned with the form that justice takes and more so with the medium through which it is achieved: film.

In a movie where much of the dialogue is spoken in subtitled French, German, and Italian, the language of cinema becomes the universal language by which the characters understand each other. Everyone in Inglourious Basterds is a cinephile. The young German sniper Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), star of Nation’s Pride, attempts to flirt with Shosanna by pontificating on the mountain films of Leni Riefenstahl. British lieutenant Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender), recruited to assist the Basterds, is a film critic-turned-soldier. And perhaps no one is a bigger movie lover than the minister of propaganda himself, Joseph Goebbels, who uses film to inculcate a sense of Nazi fanaticism in the German citizenry.

Each of these characters understands the innate power of the cinematic medium, as does Tarantino, as does the audience, as does anyone who has ever felt themselves moved to tears, laughter, empathy, or anger while watching a movie. The ability of motion pictures to manipulate, persuade, and enrage their viewers makes them potent weapons, full of unwieldy possibility.

From Birth of a Nation and the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan to Triumph of the Will and the propaganda films that glorified Hitler’s ascent to power, film has often been used as a tool of oppression. But in Inglourious Basterds, film becomes a means of liberation. Celluloid provides the kindling for Shosanna’s arson. Editing and projection allow her message to reach the ears of Hitler himself. And Tarantino’s own filmmaking forever asserts her place in cinema history.

Many scholars have attempted to delve into the psychology behind the Third Reich. Were Nazi soldiers militant extremists motivated by a deep-seated, sadistic lust for power? Were they ordinary men under immense pressure to follow orders? Or were they simply participants in a horrific bureaucracy that, in their minds, absolved them of moral responsibility? Inglourious Basterds blatantly eschews such moral quandaries. A Nazi is a Nazi is a Nazi.

Raine and Utivich take Landa to the border of Allied territory, but we should know by now that they have no thoughts of letting him go. Instead, Raine pulls out his knife and carves a dripping red swastika into Landa’s forehead. There can be no fading back into society, no pretending he is not what he is. The failures of Nuremberg are not a possibility in the world of the Basterds.

But then, just as Raine and Utivich are staring down at us admiring their handiwork, the credits roll. We abruptly find ourselves back in a history where the Allied forces won the war but Hitler maintained control until his last breath, where entire nations turned blind eyes to suffering and oppression, where over six million people died and many of their murderers walked free. We find ourselves in a history that somehow still allows the same fascist fanaticism and anti-semitic rhetoric to continue today.

Is Inglourious Basterds merely a cathartic revenge fantasy, an illusion only possible in movies? The film’s absurdist humor—Brad Pitt’s laughable attempt at speaking Italian, Christoph Waltz’s exaggerated exclamations of English idioms (“That’s a BIIIINGOOOO!”), and the single iconic sentence “Say auf wiedersehen to your Nazi balls”—indicates that we aren’t supposed to take Basterds seriously. It’s also certainly not the only film in Tarantino’s oeuvre to make blatant revisions to history. Perhaps he just wants to give us some good escapist cinema; God knows we need it. But we’d be remiss to spend two and a half hours wrapped up in a story about just how powerful film can be, only to leave thinking it was nothing more than a movie.

I’ve spent a good part of the last five months, as I’d imagine many of us have, focusing anew on what it looks like to authentically strive for justice. My friends working in politics or medicine or education have challenging but somewhat clear roads ahead of them. They semi-regularly encounter specific procedures and policies through which they can effect change. The path I’ve chosen feels much more convoluted. My passion and my vocation lie in writing and in film; I am sometimes at a loss for what exactly I have to bring to the table. At the same time, I am unwilling to let justice be an elective in my life, an effort isolated from my day to day work, something reserved only for evenings and weekends. If Inglourious Basterds gives me any hope, it’s because it isn’t so much a vision of an alternate past as an invitation to craft an alternate future, one where justice can begin in the stories we tell, if we let it.

The art we consume often lingers in our collective memory longer than the facts we learn at school or the headlines we glance across. It shapes our understanding of experiences outside of our own in a visceral way. If, as the saying goes, journalism is the first rough draft of history, then movie-making is often its final draft. The camera can tell the stories the world ignores. The same tools that let us envision a different past can become the ones we use to create a different future.

In a 2009 interview, Tarantino acknowledges that “there’s one real big roadblock, and that’s history itself.” He then goes on to assert the contingency of history, the idea that the outcomes we think of as written in stone were once blank slates for real, complex people to act upon as they chose:

At some point…it hit me…My characters don’t know they’re part of history. They’re in the immediate, they’re in the here, they’re in the now, this is happening…What happens in this movie didn’t happen in real life because my characters didn’t exist. But if they had, this could have happened in real life.

The future is far more malleable than we like to believe. It’s up to us to shape it into something more fair, something better than what we’re leaving behind.

Our role in all this may not be as conspicuous as a giant projected face warning Nazis of their own imminent deaths. But it may involve speaking truth to power through our art. It will certainly not include assembling a team to carry out an assassination, but it will require working with others towards the achievement of a common vision, whatever that vision is. And it won’t take the form of theaters ablaze in righteous fire or swastikas permanently etched into Nazi foreheads—nor should it. But it will call for confronting evil where we see it and tearing down abusive systems where we can.

If, as writers and filmmakers, readers and audience members, we excel at anything, it is the art of imagining. We look at what is and see what could be. It takes courage to maintain hope when surrounded by hopelessness. But here’s the thing: in the midst of oppression, justice must be envisioned before it can be enacted. And it is up to us to determine the form it will take.

“What shall the history books read?”