Sunday, September 27, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

In a recent posting I noted that we all have a little Nazi in us, and that "the callous monster arises whenever we begin to dehumanize 'the other side'".

I just caught Quentin Tarantino’s "Inglourious Basterds", which brilliant illustrates this very mechanism - not on screen but, almost magically, in the psyche of the audience itself.

[Mild, non-egregious spoiler alert below....really, the film's ending is deliberately telegraphed from miles away]

In a film within the film, a young Nazi war hero single-handedly slaughters three hundred Allies. Hitler, Goering, and the rest of the audience of Nazis laugh and cheer at the sight. While they only see a dehumanized enemy, the actual soldier (who's playing himself in the film-within-film, and watching in the audience) grows sickened as he suddenly becomes aware of the humanity of his victims. The film disgusts him, and he can't bear to watch.

Dehumanization of the bad guys has always been a foundational device in both cinema and warfare. But, conversely, film can also sensitize us (as the German soldier discovered), and Tarantino is shrewdly playing it both ways. The theater's set on fire, and a heroic Jewish soldier sprays Hitler with machine gun fire - a fresh sight never before seen on screen, offering a nearly orgasmic pang of satisfaction. Meanwhile, the panicked, fleeing, burning audience - Nazis all - is fired upon, and we, the audience, heartily applaud their demise. A happy ending!

While we laugh and cheer at the murder of the Fuhrer plus three hundred or so other inhuman Nazis, with nary a cringe in the house, perhaps a few audience members catch the joke that's been played on us.

The film critics, who've deemed the film a simple revenge fantasy, don't seem to have caught on.

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