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War, Propaganda, and Art in Inglourious Basterds

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From what I know of the historical record, I'd say that Nazi propaganda filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl by rights should have been taken out after the war and shot as a Nazi rather than having gotten off scot free as merely an artist making films and having a long happy career. I'm pretty sure that qualifies me as an evil if not heroically inglorious bastard. I'm not sure from watching Inglourious Basterds whether Quentin Tarantino would agree with me – but I bet Lt Aldo Raine would have found my judgment acceptable. Scalping that Nazi for an example would certainly have been more value to humanity than whatever nominal art she created over the next 50 years, besides being what she deserved. I'm just saying.

Inglourious Basterds movie posterMore than anything, the Inglourious Basterds movie is about movies — war movies and propaganda films. Tarantino tends to obsess in his movies over other movies and TV shows. Sometimes those things are little sidetracks, but the nature of war movies and propaganda films is a central theme of this film. His pop culture obsessions here are exceptionally well focused. Unpacking part of this Tarantino opus, I want to tease out some curious threads about movies and art. I'm not sure how much of this reflects Tarantino's intention, or how much is just short-circuiting in my no doubt frayed wiring.

The main story line concerns a new German propaganda film about the exploits of a young soldier and Nazi war hero named Frederick Zoller who single-handedly held a small town from a sniper tower and killed nearly 300 Americans in three days. Propaganda Minister Goebbels naturally made a film of his heroic exploits — starring handsome young sniper Zoller as himself. The premiere of this film is the climax of the movie.

As I left the theater after first seeing the movie the weekend of release, I had to literally stop by the snack bar for napkins to wipe the tears of laughter from my evil face. The #1 thing from the movie filling me with mirth was Zoller's faux-shy explanation of his celebrity status to the girl he's trying to impress. "They're calling me the German Sergeant York." I about fell out of my damned theater seat when he invoked the iconic "true" Gary Cooper movie. For starters, there was the immediate anticipation of some deliciously bad ending awaiting a "German Sergeant York" in a Quentin Tarantino war movie. Then as the movie is building the pure perverseness of a "heroic" Nazi soldier turned movie star kicked in.

Side note: I'd guess Tarantino went with Sergeant York because that's the biggest iconic "true story" humble American war hero movie. But it seems like the more obvious direct comparison would have been Audie Murphy, who, like Frederick Zoller, personally starred in the movie of his exploits in To Hell and Back — going on to a decently successful movie career.

But now I'm thinking, how perverse really was the idea of a Nazi Sergeant York? The film-within-a-film of Zoller's exploits is "A Nation's Pride," and it does not seem on now a couple of viewings to be overtly ludicrous or especially cheesy — basically a simple, generic war movie. Why wouldn't the Germans or anyone else in an ugly war be inclined to see one of their own as a symbol of hope and heroism?

But then again, there's good mockery of the Philistine nature of the Nazis, and their presumptions to and cluelessness about art. Professional movie critic and now British Lt Archie Hickox explains Goebbels' idea that he is beginning a new era of German cinema, which is just gussied up foolishness about making it not-Jewish — with little idea of anything in particular what this would specifically mean cinematically.

But then Goebbels himself is walking through the small Paris theater that he's accepted for the premiere of his big film. Not too bad, maybe we could "spruce it up" by grabbing a few Greek sculptures from the Louvre and scattering them around the lobby. Oh my God. That little moment says more about the crassness and callous cluelessness of Nazis than anything I'd ever know to say.

Another thing though is the importance of this propagandized art in propping up their worldview. Set as the war is going against the Nazis in 1944, Hitler thinks this uplifting film might be important enough to raising peoples' spirits that he agrees to go to Paris personally for the premiere. Moreover, Hitler in particular is truly personally moved by this generic war film. He's crying tears of joy at the artistic re-creation of his sniper wiping out scores of Americans.

But then many people are greatly turned on by mediocre or worse pieces of art because they happen to confirm some deeply held dogma, or reinforce their stupid ideologies of different kinds. Lots of pinko types managed to convince themselves that Michael Moore is a legitimate artist and that Fahrenheit 9/11 is something good despite how overtly badly made and also dishonest that piece of crap is. He was the toast of the Democrat elite, President Carter's personal guest at the 2004 convention. Affirmation for their stupid cheap prejudices overrides any reasonable critical response.

Then again, maybe partly I'm responding very strongly to Inglourious Basterds because I perceive it to be affirming some of my right wing extremist beliefs, i.e. killing our enemies and such. This is certainly an extreme right wing film if for no other reason than representing vengeful Jews as the main protagonists in a movie released in Obama's America. Eric Holder would certainly be putting together a war crimes tribunal to investigate the basterds. Also, Lt Aldo Raine is my new personal hero. Running bootleg liquor and killing Nat-zis sounds like the high life. I'm sure that this kind of response (to much lesser works of art) has had a lot to do with the popularity of many American war movies.

But I'm also curious how this film (or bootleg DVDs) will play in the Middle East. Those are some pretty powerful images at the end as Shosanna on the big screen cries, "This is the face of Jewish vengeance," as the place is burning down around the Nazis. Will this movie and these scenes be somehow useful for Islamists to use in further demonizing Jews and arousing more support and recruits? Or will these scenes of Jew soldiers scalping Nazis and Shosanna on the big screen put the proper fear of Yahweh into some heathen hearts? What has Quentin Tarantino unleashed onto the often ridiculously sensitive atmosphere of 2009 world affairs? Hey, some of these schmucks have gone on killing riots over simple beauty pageants or cartoons.

The wrongness of propaganda films doesn't even come from being factually wrong — though obviously bending, making up stuff or leaving out relevant but contradictory facts is likely to any kind of film trying to make a point. But best I can tell, there's no idea in Inglourious Basterds that the Zoller film was factually inaccurate or even exaggerated. Far as I can tell, Riefenstahl was not making up stuff that didn't happen in The Triumph of the Will. Then again, if she were really honest in her documentary filmmaking — fair and balanced like FOX News — she'd have included scenes of death camps and piles of bodies.

Besides the fact that Triumph of the Will or A Nation's Pride are cheerleading for wickedness, message movies or novels or other artistic forms tend to be compromised, corrupted or cheapened as art even when conveying a message that is good and right. The truths of human character and experience get subordinated to a message. This is true to some extent even with, for example, my beloved Ayn Rand. As right as she mostly was, and as creative and expressive a writer as she was, nonetheless critics have a legitimate point in saying that most of the major characters in her novels were cardboard cutouts. Howard Roark was a philosophical expression rather than a truly human character. The true conflicts and contradictions of human character get steamrolled to the end of making The Point.

I was caught sharply the first time watching the film by a passing point near the end of Inglourious Basterds that wasn't about art at all. The major villain Hans Landa is negotiating over the radio with an American general for terms of his cooperation and surrender. That conversation plays mostly as comedy, as the German rat ready to jump ship is nonetheless demanding (and certain to get, under the circumstances) not just to save his ass, but to get all kinds of high rewards. He's to get a full pension equivalent to his rank, and a house in Nantucket. The pure confident hubris of the listing is pretty funny. Why, he's even going to get the Congressional Medal of Honor.

The not particularly comic setup of that is what really caught my attention. Part of the deal is that the official history of the war is to reflect that Landa was in fact an American collaborator all along, and the leader of Operation Kino from the beginning. It rings very true that the Americans would accept such an official falsehood — perhaps even justifiably so under those particularly extreme circumstances. That severe twisting of facts struck me partly because I have a longstanding beef with the grotesque and documentably false twisting of history by which now nearly all Americans believe that Lincoln fought our Civil War in order to end slavery. The victors write the history books. If the government is that successful in selling this nonsense despite such documentation as Lincoln's famous Horace Greeley letter, how many lesser and undocumentable liberties have been taken with even the honorable stories of Sergeant York and Audie Murphy?

Finally, this brings us to the artistic ideas of Lt Aldo Raine, who might be perceived as being disdainful of art. He's a probably barely literate hillbilly from Tennessee, and seems dismissive of art. (On the other hand, Raine speaks with more art and wit than any of the nominal "artists" in the film.) Watching the Jew Bear bash in Nazi heads with a baseball bat is about as close to going to the movies as he gets, he explains at one point. He talks about carving swastikas unto the foreheads of the Nazis he allows to survive like they're artistic creations.

In the final minute of the film, after some explanation of his considerations, he carves a swastika unto the forehead of Landa, and it is proclaimed in the final line of dialogue as his "masterpiece." One might take that as a mere joke, perhaps reflecting a Philistine disregard for the very idea of art. But he branded this bastard for life with the truth in a manner that no official whitewash could ever cover up. Perhaps that's not art, but it's a masterpiece of elevating truth over artful lies and propaganda.

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