I finally saw Inglourious Basterds. I know, about time, right? I can’t believe I waited so long, but I’m glad I did because one of the things that got me about it is a result of being here.
1. I was impressed with myself that I could eat while watching a Tarantino film without regretting it. I suppose this was one of the less-gory specimens, but still.
2. I was struck by how all of the “protagonists”, for lack of a better term, lumped all Germans together as Nazis and all Nazis as terrible, terrible people. Obviously, the Nazi regime was a terrible terrible regime and the High Command did, probably without exception, terrible things in their roles. But the film took a good vs. bad, black vs. white approach. This is totally normal in WWII B-movies that use Nazis as the villains, but I was disappointed at the lack of complexity in painting the sides (although it did serve well in this particular film). The only Nazi who was almost not-that-bad was Fredrick Zoller, but even he pulled a gun on the woman we were led to believe he loved.
The film equates Germany with Nazis, all Germans are evil, all Nazis must die, therefore… It is pitted against the all-Jews-must-die rhetoric of the Nazi party, which makes sense, but I want someone to ask the question: are all Nazi soldiers believers? What about those who don’t have a choice to serve in a time of war? Is it fair to carve swastikas into their foreheads? Yes, many did horrible things and probably believed in what they were doing. But what about the ones who did it to provide for their families and preserve their own lives? Like the Frenchman in the beginning who gives in to protect his own family. Where do you draw the line? Or Wilhelm, whose son Maximilian was born just that morning – he almost goes free but is gunned down because, in the end, he wears a Nazi uniform and this makes him guilty. Does all guilt lie with all soldiers, or are those in the High Command more guilty than those below them?
Though I, like everyone like me, have almost always equated Nazis with evil, I think it’s important to think about what people do in times of crisis, the phenomenon of group-think even when it goes against personal morals, and how manipulatable the mind is. War and politics are complicated, it’s not like everyone in Germany woke up one day and decided to kill Jews. I think it’s easy to forget that. The movie, I think intentionally, shows us how the Germans-are-bad and Germany-is-evil framework is flawed. It leaves no wiggle room for dissent or defiance, or for participating under duress. A soldier is a soldier, a soldier takes commands, a soldier knows what a war crime looks like but that doesn’t mean he won’t commit it.
There was a great op-ed recently in Ha’aretz about Israeli soldiers who work in the Occupied Territories. They know what they are doing is horrible and wrong, but they do it, because doing it is better than having it done to you. It would be a sad sad thing if in the future, the world treats the Israel of today as it treats the Germany of the ’30s and ’40s; a country filled with monsters and heartless Basterds.
(I’m not really comparing Israel to Nazi Germany – my point is only that the things soldiers will do cannot always be equated with their personal morals or what they would do if they felt they had a choice.)