Some thoughts on Inglourious Basterds

Warning: contains spoilers and aesthetic criticism.

I was thinking the other day about Inglourious Basterds. It's that sort of movie; it sticks in your mind (or my mind, at least) and comes up now and again, and not just when you are watching some other old movie and realize to your delight that *that's* where Tarantino stole that shot from.

One thing I haven't seen other reviews or analysis talk about is the extent to which Inglourious Basterds is a movie about the limitations of movies. Consider:

  1. Lt. Archie Hicox seems like a perfect choice for a spy because he is a British film critic specializing in German cinema. Alas, SS Major Dieter Hellstrom notes his odd accent and non-German hand sign for ordering drinks. Had Hicox's knowledge been less superficial, he might have lived.

  2. In the finale, Shosanna (aka Emmanuelle Mimieux) and Frederick Zoller have a gun fight within the hearing range of hundreds of people who would have surely heard them had they not been watching a war film at the time. Had the audience not been distracted, they might have escaped from the death trap that Shosanna created for them.

  3. Some people have complained about the decidedly non-historical ending of Basterds on the grounds that it is fantasy. Others have defended it as alternate history akin to Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle. I don't think that's right -- alternate history starts with the change and lets the what-if play from there, while Basterds has the major ahistoricism at almost the very end and isn't at all interested in its consequences. Instead, I think Tarantino is moving up a meta-level to give yet another reason not to trust movies: they lie.

It's interesting to contrast these ways that movies lead us astray (they give us incorrect or superficial knowledge, they distract us from what's important) with another of Basterds's themes, that of the power of empathy. I'm using the word empathy in the limited sense of being to able to adopt another person's perspective, without necessarily sympathizing or sharing the emotions of that person. The character who has this quality in spades is Colonel Hans Landa, who we see using it to get inside and mess with the heads of those he interrogates; he also at one point explicitly credits his success as "The Jew Hunter" to his ability to think like a Jew.

It is striking that none of the nominal heroes of the movie (Shosanna, any of the Basterds) displays this sort of empathy; in fact, the only other character in the movie that I can recall demonstrating it is the German officer in the tavern scene who imaginatively compares the story of King Kong to the history of African slaves in America. (Not all the German officers are given empathy, though; Zoller in particular lacks any understanding of why a French woman might not want to date him.) Some of this is no doubt just Tarantino going in the opposite direction of audience expectations, but I think it is also a demonstration that empathy in and of itself is amoral, and in fact can be used for horrifyingly evil ends.