Quentin Tarantino: Inglorious Basterds – An Antifascist Movie Masterpiece

I noticed that Austria respectively the German-speaking world played an interesting role in Hollywood film recently. In the mockumentary “Brüno” (Universal Pictures 2009), Sacha Baron Cohen plays the gay Austrian fashion journalist Brüno who introduces himself right at the beginning of the movie as being gay and coming from “Klagenfurt City, Austria”. This is an obvious allusion to the fact that the right-wing FPÖ/BZÖ leader Jörg Haider lived in Klagenfurt, was chancellor of Kärnten (Klagenfurt is the provincial capital of Kärnten), and was in the opinion of many gay. Throughout the film one finds references to the ambivalent relationship of Nazi ideology and homosexuality.

Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (Universal Pictures 2009) tells the story of a group of Jewish Americans who set out to kill as many Nazis as possible in France during the Second World War. This is Tarantino’s best film since Jackie Brown and it reaches the quality of Pulp Fiction. You will find all elements typical for Tarantino’s style: violence overdrawn into ridiculousness and combined with dialogues and jokes that in the presence of violence create a grotesque and absurd atmosphere, references to the history of film, the producer’s stylistic cross references to certain film genres (in this case: Italo-Western + anti-fascist film) and their musical scores. But there is one element that for the first time becomes Tarantino’s central element and that is the absolute strength of this film: politics, anti-fascist politics to be exact. The combination of absolute bestiality, charm, politeness, opportunism, and educatedness in the form of the figure of Nazi colonel Hans Landa, whom they call the Jew Hunter and who is played by Christoph Waltz in such an impressive manner that might well bring him an Oscar (see for example the very first scene in the movie that shows the rationality of irrationality typically for the Nazis), poses the negative pole of this film. It is opposed by the antidote that is constituted by the Basterds, Shosanna Dreyfus, owner of a cinema in Paris, and her boyfriend Marcel, who set out to not only kill Nazis, but to finally also kill Hitler and to end the war. My personal favourite character in this film is none of these, but the figure of the Bear Jew.

Some film critics have argued that putting a fictional dimension to the Second World War that departs from actual history, as Tarantino does, trivializes the horrors committed by the Nazis and that the Basterds brutality towards Nazis simply reverses the historical logic of annihilation and therefore trivializes Auschwitz. I see this film in another way. Film poses the fictional freedom to construct and reconstruct developments of history ex-post and to express what the director considers to be historically and politically desirable. What if one of the 39 assassination attempts on Hitler documented for the years 1921-1944 had been successful? History might have taken another course, the Shoah might have been circumvented or stopped. These are of course speculations, but Tarantino shows that humans have the power to make history and to make a difference in the world by engaging in political struggles. Men make their own history … and the point is to change it… Inglorious Basterds is a cinematic anti-fascistic masterpiece, it points out the importance and possibility of resistance to fascism in a world, in which the threat of fascism has not vanished, but lurks around dangerously in parts of the globe. Inglorious Basterds can also be read as a parable for the importance of the media in society – communication power. On the one hand, film, as in many Tarantino movies, is the central meta-topic within the film. “Nation’s Pride” (Stolz der Nation) is presented as Propaganda Minister Goebbels’ masterpiece of ideological manipulation. Tarantino broaches the issue of ideological media content as propaganda model of fascist systems. On the other hand he puts an explosive end to the Second World War by a movie screening, film reels, and a revenge film that shows Shosanna’s torrent of hatred against the Nazis. Tarrantino here alludes to the counter-power that media can exert. Today the key medium is not the cinematic film, but the Internet. However, the dialectic of propaganda and potential resistance in the media is still an important feature of the relationship of media and society.

For all those who think that Tarantino is due to his films not only one of the greatest feminists of our time, but now also one of the great anti-fascists of our time, and who think that he creates cinematic moments that enable thorough and profound reflections, there is a book that tries to advance the philosophic inquiry of Tarantino’s films: Greene, Richard and K. Silem Mohammad, eds. 2007. Quentin Tarantino and Philosophy. How to Philosophize with a Pair of Pliers and a Blowtorch. Chicago, IL: Open Court.

One small historical detail: Hillel Kook founded a group of Jewish people in the US known as the Bergson group that first focused on fund raising and anti-fascist propaganda, but then during the Second World War according to Kook aimed at building a Jewish liberation army that should have fought in Germany, the Committee for a Jewish Army of Stateless and Palestinian Jews (read an interview with Hillek Kook here: Wyman, David S. 2000. The Bergson Group, America, and the Holocaust: A Previously Unpublished Interview with Hillel Kook / Peter Bergson. American Jewish History 89 (1): 3-34 ). This endeavour failed, but it shows that Tarantino’s film is not pure fiction.

Adorno once wrote that producing art after Auschwitz is barbaric, whereas Slavoj Žižek other than Adorno says: “If something gets too traumatic, too violent, (…), it shatters the coordinates of our reality, we have to fictionalize it” (Slavoj Žižek, The pervert’s guide to cinema). You could say that Adorno meant that fictionalization is just a form of escape from bad reality and is therefore apolitical, whereas Žižek says that fiction can tell us something important about reality, that it contains something real, something that is more real than reality. Tarantino’s fiction is double real: It thinks about what could have happened if the reality of the Committee for a Jewish Army of Stateless and Palestinian Jews would not have come to an end, and it tells us something about the contemporary reality of our societies.

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