“We’re in the Nazi killing business…and let me tell you cousin, business is a-boomin’.” – Brad Pitt as Lt. Aldo Raines
And so it is in Quentin Tarantino’s revenge-fantasy World War II movie, Inglourious Basterds. Like most Tarantino movies, the film isn’t driven by a plot so much as a premise. In this case the premise involves a group of Jewish-American soldiers (led by Brad Pitt’s character, Aldo Raines) who are tasked with gruesomely killing Nazis (pronounced “gnat-zee”) in order to strike fear into the German soldiers in occupied France. When the Basterds find out that all the top German brass will be attending the Paris premier of a new Nazi propaganda film, they make plans to infiltrate the crowd and bomb the theater. In the meantime, a young French-Jewish woman whose family was murdered by the Nazis owns the theater where the premier is to be held; she makes plans of her own to exact revenge. Who succeeds, who doesn’t succeed, and how it all plays out I won’t reveal here. Needless to say there are plenty of twists and turns, and the ending is predictably unpredictable.
Like Tarantino’s other films, Basterds borrows stylistically from a variety of genres, including Spaghetti Westerns, such as the opening scene when a menacing enemy approaches an isolated farmer and his family from a distance. It also borrows from WWII exploitation films like The Dirty Dozen, particularly the climactic scene in the theater. Like Tarantino’s other movies, the scenes are long and dialogue-heavy, almost like a series of individual short-films. There is occasional graphic violence (e.g. Nazis being scalped) and profanity, knee-slapping comedy, a (literal) 2-second sex scene, and no nudity – all typical of his movies. I’m a big fan of Tarantino, and while the Kill Bill series is still my favorite of his works, Inglourious Basterds is very good and both Melissa and I give it high marks.
The interesting aspect of Basterds is the revenge theme it shares with other Tarantino films: Butch gets revenge on Zed and Marcellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction, The Bride relentlessly seeks revenge on Bill and his gang in Kill Bill, and the girls defy the odds and get revenge on Stuntman Mike in Deathproof. In Basterds he brings revenge to the forefront, as the entire purpose of the movie is to illustrate the joys of killing and mutilating Nazis: the Basterds kill and scalp with glee – their goal is 100 scalps each; Shoshanna (the Jewish theater owner) plots revenge in meticulous, calculating fashion; the audience follows along happily, savoring every joyful killing.
In my mind this raises the question of whether or not it is appropriate to cheer when other humans are beaten with a baseball bat, scalped, and shot, even if they are perpetrators of a great atrocity. The final scene haunts and horrifies, yet at the same time I found it to be fully satisfying. I didn’t feel sorry for the scalped and beaten Nazis, as awful as their deaths might have been. Is this appropriate? Am I cheering for true justice, or selfishly enjoying the satisfaction of bad guys getting their due?
The answer is probably a little bit of both. We should certainly strive for justice – stopping evil and punishing bad guys is a noble pursuit. When we stop pursuing justice we become unjust ourselves. On the other hand, when we seek personal revenge we change justice from a noble ideal to a mere selfish desire. The Bible strongly admonishes revenge but praises justice. Paul warns against seeking revenge in his letter to the Roman church:
“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” – Romans 12:19-21
Yet “doing justice” is constantly commended. Isaiah says this:
“…learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” – Isaiah 1:17
So does enjoying the comeuppance of the Nazis fall into the category of doing justice or enjoying selfish revenge? Does relishing the deaths of “bad guys” like we do while watching Inglourious Basterds constitute an enjoyment of justice or merely indulging a fantasy of violent revenge? Paul speaks of personal vengeance, yet the Nazis did nothing to harm me personally – does that make it acceptable to applaud their demise? Do we cross the line when we’re satisfied with the deaths of wicked men and women, or does that indicate a desire for justice? What do you think?