Watching Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" in the Trump era

10 years ago, "Inglourious Basterds" sent a message about being intolerant of Nazis that hits home today

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published May 19, 2019 11:00AM (EDT)

Eli Roth and Brad Pitt in “Inglourious Basterds” (Universal Pictures)
Eli Roth and Brad Pitt in “Inglourious Basterds” (Universal Pictures)

To celebrate the 10-year anniversary of Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" premiering at the Cannes Film Festival, I turn to movie critic Roger Ebert's old review of "Raiders of the Lost Ark." (Trust me on this one.)

We know how deeply he feels about the Holocaust. We have seen "Schindler's List" and we know about his Shoah Project. Those are works of a thoughtful adult. "Raiders of the Lost Ark" is the work of Spielberg's recaptured adolescence, I think; it contains the kind of stuff teenage boys like, and it also perhaps contains the daydreams of a young Jewish kid who imagines blowing up Nazis real good.

What Ebert wrote about "Raiders of the Lost Ark" in 2000, nearly 20 years after that film premiered, applies doubly to "Inglourious Basterds." Even though Tarantino is not Jewish, "Inglourious Basterds" evocatively captures the sense of outrage that Jews have felt for millennia at being the targets of violence, discrimination and outright oppression. Part of this comes from how the movie flips the historic roles — Jews, whom history almost always consigned to the role of victim, are here able to exact vengeance against some of their most notorious persecutors.

This happens through two plot threads: In the main one, a group of Jewish American soldiers go through Europe and murder Nazis on behalf of a part-Native American commander named Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt). The most prominent Basterds are Donny "The Bear Jew" Donowitz (Eli Roth), Smithson "The Little Man" Utivich (B. J. Novak) and Omar Ulmer (Omar Doom), as well as a former German soldier named Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger). In another plot thread Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent), a Jewish refugee whose entire family is murdered by the Nazis in the film's mercilessly tense opening scene, weaves her own revenge plot against the Third Reich. Appropriately enough for a Tarantino film, her plan involves the use of a movie theater, and eventually it intersects with the Basterds' gratifying marauding throughout Europe.

These are the main stories of "Inglourious Basterds," but as with any Tarantino film, the plot and accompanying violence — which always manages to be tastefully exploitative, a term that is not paradoxical when applied to Tarantino's masterful cinematic technique — is only half of the reason why you should see it. The other reason is that Tarantino writes some of the smartest, most memorable dialogue you will hear in any mainstream Hollywood release... and considering that "Inglourious Basterds" is about unapologetically hating Nazis, that makes Tarantino's words quite relevant to the modern political zeitgeist.

Take this opening monologue by Raine, seen by us and the eight Basterds when we first meet his character, and which IMDB managed to capture with all of Pitt's deliciously Southern delivery:

My name is Lt. Aldo Raine and I'm putting together a special team, and I need me eight soldiers. Eight Jewish-American soldiers. Now, y'all might've heard rumors about the armada happening soon. Well, we'll be leaving a little earlier. We're gonna be dropped into France, dressed as civilians. And once we're in enemy territory, as a bushwhackin' guerrilla army, we're gonna be doin' one thing and one thing only... killin' Nazis. Now, I don't know about y'all, but I sure as hell didn't come down from the goddamn Smoky Mountains, cross five thousand miles of water, fight my way through half of Sicily and jump out of a fuckin' air-o-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 dee-stroyed. That's why any and every son of a bitch we find wearin' a Nazi uniform, they're gonna die.

At the time "Inglourious Basterds" was released, I recall some of my Jewish friends being uneasy with its violence. One scene in particular that seemed to rankle was when the Basterds whooped and hollered as The Bear Jew beat a Nazi sergeant to death with a baseball bat. How is it OK for Jews to applaud violence toward any human being, even a Nazi? they seemed to ask. Shouldn't Jews strive to be better than their oppressors?

Yes, Jews should strive to be better than their oppressors — in real-world politics (hence why many left-wing Jews, myself included, have been highly critical of Israeli politics under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu). When it comes to the messages that are sent to the rest of the world, however, Jews should applaud those which are intolerant of intolerance. Nazis aren't simply people with whom we disagree, or with whom we are entangled in a complex geopolitical conflict. They are, quite simply, evil. If Nazis had their way, every Jew in the world would be dead for no other reason than the fact that they are Jewish. They deserve no respect, and any cruelty or indignity inflicted against them in our cultural messaging is richly deserved.

When Tarantino sent this message to moviegoers in 2009, it's unlikely that he imagined how relevant it would be in 2019. Bigotry has never been far removed from America's political life, but at the time America was in the opening weeks of the administration of its first African American president, Barack Obama, while the Republican president who had left office only a few months earlier was George W. Bush, who for all of his faults could never have been fairly compared to a Nazi.

Since then, America has elected a president who panders to the far right, including those who make no bones about the fact that they hate Jews. Anti-Semitic violence has been committed by right wing terrorists who openly adore Trump and what he stands for, and even though the president has been very pro-Israel and protective of his Jewish family members, that hasn't stopped him from using anti-Semitic messaging in his speeches, advertisements and other forms of political messaging. Indeed, even though he later disavowed the white nationalists and Nazis from the infamous 2017 "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, it is telling that he was willing to say there could be "fine people" at all among a movement that chanted "Jews will not replace us" even as they supposedly protested the taking down of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee (an issue that has nothing to do with Jews).

That said, it would be inappropriate to limit this survey of anti-Semitism to Trump alone. In Europe anti-Semitic right-wing movements have seen an upsurge in nations from Hungary to Greece. Even Germany, which has undergone extensive efforts to repair its image after Adolf Hitler's anti-Semitic regime, has seen an upsurge in anti-Semitic crime due to the growing power of its political right. And in the United States, of course, there have been high profile and even deadly acts of anti-Semitic violence at synagogues from Pennsylvania to California. All of these events send the message that while Trump may be guilty of pandering to Nazis and those who are like them, he is hardly alone in doing so.

As I wrote in October, after the shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue, there is a slippery slope separating a Nazi and anyone who is willing to play on stereotypes about Jewish people in general. If you're willing to engage in any kind of negative caricaturing about "the Jews," then it wouldn't take more than a slight push for you to believe in things not too different from what the actual Nazis thought.

And when it comes to that kind of intolerance, there can be no tolerance.

This brings me to the grand finale of "Inglourious Basterds," which ranks among Tarantino's best. The sentimental favorite for me is the scene in which Eli Roth shoots Hitler in the face. I write "Roth" here rather than "The Bear Jew" because, while I can't say this with certainty, the righteous anger in The Bear Jew's eyes as he blows away the murderer of six million Jews seems to come from a place much deeper than that of an actor playing a role (Roth's father wrote a touching essay about how much it meant to him to see his son kill Hitler). This scene was immensely satisfying to watch not only because of Roth's performance, but because Roth is a gifted horror director whose work, like Tarantino's, is a throwback to the boldest, most visceral and even at times iconoclastic elements of '70s exploitation cinema (I particularly recommend "Cabin Fever" and "The Green Inferno," and even have a soft spot for his "Death Wish" remake as a guilty pleasure). He is also Jewish, a fact that has not featured prominently in his work as a director but brims in every moment he's on-screen playing The Bear Jew. As someone who nearly died in an anti-Semitic hate crime when I was twelve, I can say that no single moment in "Inglourious Basterds" was more personally gratifying to me than that one.

Yet while watching the "Hostel" helmer obliterate the Führer in a hail of gunfire still brings me great joy, there is another moment in the finale that even better speaks to the needs of our time. It is the final scene in the film, after Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Watz) surrenders to Raine and Utivich. Landa is one of Tarantino's more intriguing villains, a man who does not consider himself to be bigoted toward Jews but nevertheless takes pride in his ability to hunt down Jewish victims as part of Hitler's mission. There is something malevolently narcissistic about his mentality: It assumes that, if you personally don't feel hate for a marginalized group that you're persecuting, the fact that you're persecuting them doesn't reflect poorly on you. It's the same shoddy thinking that reveals itself whenever someone who does racist things says that they don't have racism in their hearts, or someone who is caught sexually assaulting women claims that they actually feel great respect for women. There is only one rational response to this sort of thinking, namely that it is what you do that defines you, not what you privately think.

Yet Raine and Utivich, despite their admirable intolerance for Nazis, have a bit of a dilemma on their hands with Landa. Even though he is directly responsible for the deaths of countless Jews, and has committed a number of other atrocities, he was also instrumental in helping the Basterds murder the Nazi high command and end World War II. While he did these things for opportunistic reasons, he nevertheless had managed to save millions of lives, and as a result Raine and Utivich seem to agree in an unspoken way that he deserves to end the story without being killed himself. Nevertheless, as Raine explains to Landa, "if you're willing to barbecue the whole high command, I 'spose that's worth certain considerations. But I do have one question. When you get to your little place on Nantucket Island, I 'magine you're gonna take off that handsome-lookin' S.S. uniform of yours, ain'tcha?... That's what I thought. Now that I can't abide. How 'bout you Utivich, can you abide it?"

Once Utivich confirms that he can't abide it, Raine adds that "I mean, if I had my way... you'd wear that goddamn uniform for the rest of your pecker-suckin' life. But I'm aware that ain't practical, I mean at some point you're gonna hafta take it off. So. I'm 'onna give you a little somethin' you can't take off."

Cut to Raine slowly, excruciatingly carving a swastika into Landa's forehead. Throughout the film Landa has been the epitome of smug self-assuredness, swaggering from scene to scene without ever questioning that he is untouchable. Yet the Basterds treat him no differently than the other Nazis who they disfigured by carving swastikas into their foreheads... and Landa's screams are just as pathetic as their own. Because as Tarantino is making clear, it doesn't matter if you traffic in anti-Semitism out of genuine conviction or career convenience. If you're the kind of person who works with those who hate Jews, you're a Nazi, and you can't shed your Nazism simply because it's no longer fashionable to be viewed as a Nazi.

That message, alas, is far too relevant today.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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