Thursday, May 20, 2010
Inglorious Basterds (2009)
The Movie: During World War 2, a small band of Jewish, American soldiers is put together and sent into Europe early. Calling themselves the Inglorious Basterds, their mission is to wage guerrilla warfare on the Nazi army and strike fear into their hearts. This they do very well.
The Basterds become involved in a joint American/British mission. A premiere of the latest great patriotic movie put together by Joseph Goebbels is showing; and all the Nazi bigwigs will be there. This provides a great opportunity to eliminate them all in one stroke. Unfortunately, the Basterds louse up the plan, resulting in the elimination of the key players. As a result the remaining Bastards, very much less than ideal for the mission, have to complete it themselves.
Of course, more is going on than they know. Due to the infatuation the star of the movie has for the owner of a small theater, the premiere has been moved there. Unknown to any of the other players, the theater's owner is a Jew who watched her family get gunned down before she escaped. She has her own plans for burning down the theater with the Nazis in it.
“He who fights with monsters must beware, lest in doing so he should, himself, become a monster. Whenever you gaze into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 146
This new flick by Quentin Terantino is a remake of a film from the 1970s. Ironically, I actually saw the original only a few weeks before I saw my first preview for the remake. I pretty much expected it to be very different, which it was; although I was a little surprised at how they kept a bit of the original plot in. However, I also found this to be a very disturbing movie for several reasons.
First, I will point out the movie's merits before I tear into it. Technically, it was a very well done movie. The plot, for all its different points, was fairly cohesive. There were also two very good actors. The first was Brad Pitt as Lt. Aldo Raine; the leader of the Basterds. He wasn't utilized enough, but he presented a very engaging character.
The second good role was that of the main antagonist; Col. Hans Landa, the “Jew-Hunter,” as played by Christoph Waltz. I don't know whether the part was written specifically with Waltz in mind, or if he was just good enough to make the part his own; but the combination of both writing and acting create a truly wonderful villain. In my humble opinion, he was the best part of the movie.
As a nemesis for all he sets his attention on, he is charming, deceptive, and dangerously clever. Among other things, he has an amazing talent for languages; constantly switching back and forth at the most inconvenient times for his opponents. My favorite part is probably when he is confronting the team on their mission; and the remaining Basterds are pretending to be Italian because some of them speak a little bit of very bad Italian, but no German. It is a desperate ploy, and even more so when Landa, upon being told they are Italian, addresses them in the language very fluently.
That's the good. I have two major problems with the movie. My first is that the movie basically rewrites history. Now, I'm not as disturbed about it as some people are, but it does bother me a little bit. Yeah, I know, it's not very satisfying to think that Hitler suicided in the bunker where he was hiding. Getting machine-gunned down by a Jewish, American soldier is the way it should have happened. The poetic justice is preferable to the ignominious reality.
Unfortunately, most people in this country know so little history as is; and more disturbing, big budget Hollywood movies are where they tend to pick up what they do know. As George Santayana so aptly put it, those who can't remember the past are doomed to repeat it. What's worse, revisionist history erases those lessons, and only teaches lessons that the people want to believe; not what they need to realize. Don't believe me, look at the U.S. response to the 9/11 attacks. They were almost entirely based upon a mythical history the leaders wanted to believe, and not the actual events of the past that we should have examined. The huge mess this country is in right now as a result should serve as proof for my argument.
Now my main gripe with this movie, and what disturbed me the most about it. My biggest passion in life is stories, I have studied them all my life in as many forms as I could find. Our species thinks in symbols, which is basically what stories are. A story is a way to get a message across using symbols, in a way that speaks directly to our subconscious and emotions.
One of the most important lessons I have learned on the subject is that how a story is told tells you a lot about the target audience, and a whole hell of a lot more about the storyteller. The reason I couldn't bring myself to truly like Inglorious Basterds is because the message it seems to be conveying is one that I have long found to be both repulsive and terrifying. The message is this: if you are with the Good Guys, and the people you are fighting are Evil, then you can do whatever you want to them and still be in the right.
I would like to refer you to the Nietzsche quote I begin this review with. Basically it means that when you fight evil, you are at risk of becoming evil. The moment you start acting like your enemy, you've turned into your enemy, if not something worse. In short, most of the “heroes” in this movie are monsters. They shoot, stab, bludgeon, blow-up and torture not only Nazis, but innocents who happen to be in the way as well. At one point Raine even tortures a woman who is his ally. I know the Nazis were evil, I'm not disputing that; but isn't that very behavior the reason we were supposed to be fighting them in the first place?
One thing that Terantino does, that normally I would say is admirable but just adds another disturbing element to an already disturbing movie, is to show that the Nazi rank and file are, overall, just ordinary guys doing what they think is right. At one scene, the “heroes” meet their contact for the mission in a bar, where at the other table a German soldier is celebrating the birth of his first child. Of course, his guts are splattered all over the bar by the end. I do think, however, that this illustrates my point. These wars are always mainly fought by individuals who don't really know what's going on, but believe what their leaders tell them. The worst deeds in history were committed by people convinced that they were in the right, either nationally or individually. The road to Hell is, after all, paved with good intentions.
There is one scene that I think sums this up. Near the climax, the Nazi bigwigs are all gathered in a theater to watch a patriotic war movie about inspiring deeds performed by one of their own soldiers. What got me is that the movie they are watching and cheering over is exactly like at least half a million patriotic, inspiring, nationalistic war movies made in the U.S. The only difference is that if it were one of our movies, it would be an American soldier in the bell-tower sending a vastly larger enemy force fleeing. I don't know if Tarantino did it on purpose, or if it was just an accident, but this scene really makes a good point about patriotism and propaganda.
Unfortunately, that point is lost in the rest of the movie. I find Inglorious Basterds disturbing on so many levels because it is, at its core, another propaganda piece. We're Good, They're Evil. Therefore, We can do no wrong, whatever heinous deeds We wind up performing to fight Them. This is a mindset that is behind much of what is wrong with humanity, and I have trouble enjoying a movie that seeks to further that mindset.