Gloriously Inglourious

“We’re in the Nazi killing business…and let me tell you cousin, business is a-boomin’.” – Brad Pitt as Lt. Aldo Raines

Inglourious BasterdsAnd 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.

Basterds and Nazis play a drinking game with fictional actress Bridget von Hammersmark in the film's best scene

Basterds and Nazis play a drinking game with actress Bridget von Hammersmark in the film's best scene

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 Parisian theater where the penultimate scene takes place

The Parisian theater where the penultimate scene takes place

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.

The film's main bad guy, Col Hans Landa, is also its most intriguing character

The film's main bad guy, Col Hans Landa, is also its most intriguing character

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?

Signed,

Blue2 copy

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Gloriously Inglourious

  1. Wow! Mason, if you should ever decide to change your profession, put writing movie reviews at the top of your list! What a great review! I thought you were submitting a professional review for this movie (and I still think you could do that).

    You present some interesting questions to ponder. I vaguely remember (from a long time ago) that one of my theology professors said something about this subject. His focus was a little different, because he was talking about adultery and sexual promiscuity in movies. I’ve perused the Scripture and I can’t find or remember the passage that he used to give us this admonition, but I think it was Ephesians 5:1-14. His opinion was that Christians should not take pleasure in activities that the Bible calls sinful, even in movies. It stood out to me because he was talking about participating in sinful activities by viewing others do them in movies. When I read the last part of your post, I immediately thought about what he said.

    I realize that you’ve added a nuance by asking what is the proper balance and approach between the O.T. exhortations to justice and the N.T. exhortations to refraining from vengeance. I have to confess that I tend to enjoy a movie when the bad guy gets “justice,” and I tend to think “well, it’s just a movie.” I am not dogmatic about this by any stretch of the imagination, but if I were pushed to make a decision between the justice and vengeance issues, I would tend to side on the N.T. exhortations to leave vengeance to God, especially when it comes to violence and killing. But some of my distant family might point out that when I did the FB questionnaire “What theologian are you?” my result was Menno Simons. (He was a pacifist.) I also admire the lives and examples of Mohandas Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Is that a little different? Oh well, I’m opining here. While in relentless pursuit of equality and justice, they deliberately chose love and nonviolence to push for individual and social transformation. I personally find that approach to be much more powerful than violence. Is there an universal truth there that Jesus was teaching us?

    So, on the one hand I have my ideal, and on the other hand I don’t always to get up and leave movies when the bad guy is getting wiped out. I have left movies on occasion, and at least once it was because of the extreme violence.

    Sorry for the long post! You write really well!

  2. Okay, so I went back in to change a couple of things just before I clicked “submit.” I failed to look back over that LONG post and my changes left a couple of sentences messed up. Now I’m wondering how do you edit your own comments in WordPress?

  3. Don Mandy

    Well done on your review Mason. Mom and I waited to read it after we saw the movie last night. We’ve enjoyed discussing your thought provoking questions. Niether of us have a problem with “bad guys” receiving their just punishment. When the “good guys” win and stop evil, there is enough satisfaction to eliminate further desire for revenge in my mind. I accept that soldiers and innocent civilians are wounded and killed in wartime missions. Also tactics such as the brutality of the Aldo Raines character can have a purpose.

    What bothers me is the exagerrated nature of some scenes. I understand this is a frequent technique used by Tarantino. I remember the director Sam Peckinpah was one of the first to use slow motion close up shots of bloody gunshot scenes back in the 1960s. Recently I have started to worry about the effects these have to desensitize audiences. This includes subject matter, language, nudity, sex and violence.

    Directors use the impact of various techniques to accomlpish their desired results. Movies can be very powerful and directors are very good at using them. This has been understood for a long time and is seen in this movie being used by the Nazis for their propaganda as they often did. So what is the impact of “Inglourious Basterds” on it’s audience?

    The explicit nature of the scenes is OK to me, (except the sex was too graphic however brief) but the repitition and focus was too long. In “Kill Bill”, the action was fast and moved quickly while “Inglourious Basterds” lingered on details. The effect on the audience was to cause it to indulge in a fantasy of violent revenge. When the screen shows the eyes of men shooting and the body impacted and blood splattering…on and on, for a prolonged time, the viewer is taken past the point of justice or mission success.

    It seems to me that God knows we cannot achieve revenge justly. That moves us away from God instead of being sanctified to be more like Him. Since only God can remain just and unchanged while carring out revenge, it makes sense that He reserves it for Himself.

    Both Mom and I generally like the movie. It is entertaining and has the usual Tarantino cleverness and quirkyness. The actors and characters are good, especially Brad Pitt. There is a lot of fun stuff to talk about.

    To aswer your question, no, watching “bad guys” getting shot is not beyond appreciating justice and necessary war action. Getting caught up and engrossed in the violence can lead to indulging in revenge, even if you may not intend to. The nature of the movie can help cause that effect. That is my concern about the effect these types of movies have on us, especially when we like them.

    Again, good work on this. We look forward to more. Keep it comming.

  4. Thanks for once again forcing me out of my Winnie the Pooh, not thinking more than inch deep mode of thinking! As always, your review is very well written. As I thought of how satisfied I felt at the fantasy massacre that occured in the theatre, it brought to mind the satisfaction that I felt while watching the hanging of Amon Goethe in the movie Schindler’ List which was not a fantasy. Or the agreement in my mind that justice was served as I watched the execution of Sean Penn in Dead Man Walking. I think this exposes the depravity of my heart and the depravity that exists in us all apart from Christ.

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