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Saved by Cinema: 

A Review of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds

by S. Randall Toms, Ph.D.

             When we watch films or read accounts of the atrocities the Jews suffered at the hands of the Nazis, we are filled with outrage and experience a kind of helplessness, wishing that somehow, someone would have been able to have helped them or prevented the events that led to the destruction of so many innocent lives.  Unfortunately, we cannot go back in time and prevent the slaughter and suffering from taking place, or bring World War II to a swifter conclusion so that, at least, some lives could be spared.  As we view films such as Valkyrie, many viewers can’t help but hope that somehow the plan to assassinate Hitler would succeed.  In recent years, some films have been made which write an alternate history, “what-if” stories that show how history could have been different if we had the ability to turn the clock back and reshape the actions and circumstances of certain key moments.    Though we are prevented from doing so in reality, film-makers, with their God-like abilities, can create a world in which things work out the way that we would have preferred.  Though in actual history, a savior might never arrive, films can rewrite history and provide a deliverer.  One of the reasons we like film so much is that in movies, the justice that we crave, can sometimes only be found in the world of fiction.             Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds is such a rewriting of history, even, perhaps, a fairy tale.  The movie begins with the words flashed across the screen, “Once upon a time…” We even have images of Cinderella in this film, though the Cinderella in this story does not live happily ever after.  At the beginning of this horrific fairy tale, we encounter a truly despicable villain, Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), nicknamed “The Jew-Hunter,” who takes a cool, calculating pleasure in hunting and killing his victims.  (I am already beginning my campaign to see that Christoph Waltz wins the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.  His chilling, opening scene alone is worthy of an Oscar).  When one realizes that the Jews were facing the cold-bloodedness of people such as Landa, Hitler, Goering, and Goebbels, one desires that someone could come to deliver the Jews from their persecutors.

Enter, Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) and his “Inglourious Basterds” who are on a mission to kill and scalp as many Jew-hunting Nazis as they can find.  Tarantino draws the title, Inglourious Basterds (deliberately misspelling both “inglorious” and “bastards”), from the 1978 Italian film The Inglorious Bastards directed by Enzo Castellari, known for his “spaghetti Westerns” and “macaroni” war movies. Castellari’s film is in the vein of such famous war movies as The Guns of Navarone and The Dirty Dozen.  Like  Major Reisman (Lee Marvin) in The Dirty Dozen, Lt. Aldo Raine (another nod of Tarantino to the famous star of war movies, Aldo Ray), has assembled a force of Jews who torture, kill, and scalp Nazis.  Having been trained by many years of movie-going to expect that these specially assembled, cracker-jack units will accomplish their mission, we anticipate that the Basterds will succeed.  In one scene, Hitler fears that one of the Basterds, nicknamed “the Bear-Jew,” might be a golem.  In Jewish folklore, a golem is a creature, usually made out of clay, sometimes given life by the incantations of a powerful rabbi, who protects and avenges the Jewish people.   The Basterds, in particular, the baseball bat-wielding Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth) strike the fear of the legendary golem into the hearts of many Nazis.

At the same time that the Basterds are doing what they can to bring the war and the suffering of the Jews to an end, a Jewish girl, Shoshanna Dreyfus, is seeking revenge against Colonel Landa and all Nazis.   Shoshanna’s family is murdered at the beginning of the film by Landa and his Jew-hunters.  A few years after her escape, we find Shoshanna is now the owner of a cinema, posing as a Gentile with the name “Emmanuel.”  “Shoshanna” is the Hebrew form of the word “Susanna,” meaning “rose” or “lily.”  (Later in the film, Shoshanna will exact her revenge in a dress as red as a rose).  The apocryphal book of Susanna is often interpreted as teaching that God will deliver innocent sufferers, but in the case of Shoshanna’s family, they were not delivered.   She goes from being “Shoshanna” to being “Emmanuel,” meaning “God with us.” 

The first time we encounter the name “Emmanuel” in the Bible is in the story of King Ahaz and the prophet Isaiah.  Ahaz wants to make a league with Assyria because he fears the alliance of the northern kingdom of Israel with Syria.  God wants the Jews to trust in him rather than form an alliance with a foreign nation.  As a sign that God is with the Jews, Isaiah says,

“Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). 

Of course, Matthew applies this verse to Jesus at the time of his birth (Matt.  1:23).   Shoshanna, the rose, a symbol of Jewish innocence and purity, becomes, Emmanuel, the symbol that God is with his people and will deliver them.  In some ways, Tarantino’s Emmanuel is a Messianic figure who liberates the Jewish people from Hitler. 

Shoshanna/Emmanuel becomes a deliverer inadvertently.  A young German war hero, Frederick Zoller , finds her attractive, and though she rebuffs his advances, he is determined to win her affections.  Joseph Goebbels has made a propaganda film about Zoller’s heroic exploits as a sniper.  Through his Nazi connections, Zoller arranges for the premier of this biographical film to be shown in Emmanuel’s theater with all of the German leadership present, including Goering, Goebbels, and, as an added bonus, Hitler himself.  Emmanuel, God with us, sees this audience as the opportunity to destroy the German high command, exact vengeance, and possibly, bring a swift conclusion to the war.  As with most Tarantino movies, one cannot underestimate the importance of Westerns, especially the spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone.  Throughout the movie, we often hear the musical strains of Ennio Morricone, who wrote the musical scores for such Westerns as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, A Fistful of DollarsFor a Few Dollars More, and Once upon a Time in the West, the latter film deserving special attention in relation to this film which even begins, “One upon a time in Nazi occupied France.”  Lt. Aldo Raine’s nickname is “The Apache.”  When Emmanuel puts on her makeup for this most important of premiers, she begins in a fashion that would resemble a Native American applying war paint.  One of the staple plots of the Western genre is the cowboy who seeks revenge against outlaws or Native Americans who have murdered his family.  In this subversive Western/World War II film,  Inglourious Basterds portrays a Jewish woman, unknowingly in league with “the Apache” who avenges the death of her family.

 Emmanuel does not realize that the Basterds are also intending to attend the premiere and destroy with powerful explosives  the Nazi leadership.  Like two sets of Western heroes, a combination of The Magnificent Seven and The Outlaw Josey Wales, the Basterds and Emmanuel converge to execute vengeance on those who have caused such unjust suffering.   Just as it seems that their plans might succeed, things begin to fall apart for both the Basterds and Emmanuel.  As a matter of fact, we don’t expect their plans to succeed, for, after all, we know that Hitler, Goebbels, and Goering did not die in a fire at a cinema, and the war dragged on for nearly another year.  But remember, this is a fairy tale, a rewriting of history by a filmmaker who can use his God-like prerogative to conclude the story as he, and many viewers would wish it to end.  In this alternative history, Hitler, Goebbels, and Goering do die, and we would assume, many lives are saved as a result.

Some critics of Inglourious Basterds have condemned how Tarantino seems to have turned the Jews into Nazis, making the Jews as cruel and sadistic as their tormentors.  Though Emmanuel may be “God with us,” finding a way to defeat the Nazis through violence, the last images we have of her in her  own film, laughing maniacally, surrounded by flames, remind one more of a devil dragging people with her into the flames of hell.  But as with all Tarantino films, there are many layers of meaning leading to multiple interpretations of the film.  One of the great pleasures of watching a Quentin Tarantino film is noticing all of the references to various aspects of culture, especially pop culture.  In this one film, in addition to the cultural references to which I have already mentioned, we find allusions to John Wayne, the Alamo, both the 1942 and 1982 versions of the movie Cat People, David Bowie, Jim Bridger, Hugo Stiglitz (a famous Mexican actor),  Slaughter (a movie starring former NFL great, Jim Brown), Sherlock Holmes, King Kong, Scottish artist Jack Vettriano,  Austrian film director, G. W. Pabst, references to Tarantino’s own movies such as Pulp Fiction,  just to mention a few.  Many movies invite viewing and re-viewing for various reasons.  In a Tarantino film, one needs multiple viewings just to unpack all of the cultural allusions that he crams into each one of his films.  Since he makes so much use of pop culture, our own experiences with those elements of pop culture, cause us to experience and interpret his films in different ways.  For example, when he uses a piece of music from popular culture, we have already heard that piece of music many times.  We have certain emotions connected with that music.  The music may have the power to recall certain memories that were important to us in our lives.  When we hear that music in one of Tarantino’s films, we are bringing the emotions and memories of that music to the experience of his movies, and our experience and interpretation of Tarantino’s films are influenced by our past associations with this music.  His combination of various genres, including fairy tales, folk tales, Westerns, war movies, detective stories,  and cultural references provide many layers of meaning to his films, and invite a wide range of interpretations.

 All of the references that Tarantino makes to film itself make each one of his movies a celebration of film, its beauty, its power to inspire, instruct, and its ability to give hope and meaning.  When one views a Tarantino film, we often realize that the movie is about film itself.  Many moviegoers love Quentin Tarantino films because it is so obvious that that he loves film so much.   In the final analysis, Inglourious Basterds is not about World II, Hitler, or the suffering of the Jews—it is a movie about movies. 

In a film, history can be rewritten.  In a horrific world of injustice, cinema, for a while at least, can provide us with saviors and vengeance.   In the end, it is not the Basterds or Emmanuel who deliver the Jewish people from further suffering—it is cinema.   God is with us in the cinema.  Shoshanna is a cinema owner who turns her theater into a furnace, just as Nazis used furnaces as crematoriums for the  Jewish people.  Goebbels is a movie producer.  Zoller is soldier made into a movie star.    Bridget von Hammersmark is star of German cinema.  This great act of deliverance occurs in a theater.    Goebbels has invited the elite of the German people to a theater to celebrate on film the exploits of a hero of the Third Reich.    As they are watching this cinematic celebration of German military prowess, they are unaware that a Jewish girl has also prepared a film that is going to displace their filmic celebration with a film that will narrate their own destruction, while staring at an image that proclaims, “This is the face of Jewish vengeance.”   The primary weapon that is used to burn the Nazis is the highly flammable nitrate film.  While the Nazis are watching that combination of films Shoshanna has edited, we are watching a film provides a sense of satisfaction, a kind of wish-fulfillment, that the careers of prominent warmongers and Jew-hunters are cut short. Do we not take some kind of delight, at least a guilty pleasure, in seeing Hitler and Goebbels killed by Jews than by committing suicide in a bunker?  Thousands of lives are saved by cinema in a way that satisfies our desires for justice. After the Cannes Film Festival, Quentin Tarantino remarked that in Inglourious Basterds,

“The power of cinema is going to bring down the Third Reich…I get a kick out of that.” 

One of the unsettling things about this rewriting of history is that deep down inside we know that it is an exercise in fantasy.  The war did not come to such a swift end, and more Jews were slaughtered.  But in this alternate universe that Tarantino has created, the Third Reich was brought down by cinema.  In such sentiments, could there be a suggestion that cinema might have the power to prevent such atrocities in the future?  Can cinema have a moral effect that might change people  to the degree that such atrocities might never happen again?

While it may seem ludicrous to suggest that film might be looked to as a savior, Robert K. Johnston, in his Reframing Theology and Film,  has noted that films not only “influence and express our values and beliefs,” but also, “provide our myths, morals, and rituals.”  It would seem that in some ways, the cinema has replaced the Church as the place people regularly attend to think seriously about the deep issues of life, to find some form of comfort, and  to search for some kind of meaning in their lives.  In an interview with Brad Pitt and Quentin Tarantino, Pitt speaks of how wonderful it is to work with someone as knowledgeable about film as Tarantino.  In the course of the interview, Pitt says,  that the set was church, Tarantino was God, the script was the Bible, and no heretics were allowed.  Though this statement might have been made without a great deal of theological or sociological forethought, Pitt has pointed out something that serious scholars of film have been noticing for quite some time:  film has become a kind of religion with many of the same characteristics as a religion.   To paraphrase Brad Pitt’s statement about working on a set with Quentin Tarantino, it would be possible to say that, for many people, the movie multiplex has become a church in which people’s belief and attitudes are shaped.  With tongue in cheek, I’m sure, at Cannes, Tarantino said that he was god  (in the sense that he created his characters)  and that Cannes was the holy land.  Sociologists and theologians are recognizing that, for many people, going to the movies is a worshiplike  experience.  Gordon Lynch, professor of sociology of religion at Birbeck University of London writes,

“If cinemagoing is indeed a significant ritual framework for engaging with meaning-laden narratives, then we need to understand more about what audiences bring to and take from such rituals if we are to have a fuller understanding of how films genuinely function as transmitters of ideologies in peoples lived experience…. Theologians need to turn their attention from a pure focus on film texts to the ways in which people make use of films in their own personal, meaning-making activities” (112).   

Whether or not people in the Church want to recognize this fact,  the beliefs and morality of people are being shaped more by cinema than they are by Church.  The Church can respond by looking upon the film industry as the enemy, or the Church can choose to enter into a form of interreligious dialogue with film and filmmakers, recognizing and respecting the power of film.  For Christians and non-Christians, films can be part of our shared experience, a common ground through which we are both being transformed.

Far too often, the Church has only tried to make moral judgments about film or particular films.  We need to recognize that for the foreseeable future, films are here to stay and that they are having a great impact upon our culture.  The Church must do more than take a moral stand about film.  Rather, the Church should use film as a means to engage culture and even to profit spiritually by going to the movies.  To quote Gordon Lynch again,

“Such engagements need to move beyond superficial moral judgments about the behaviors of individual characters, (e. g., Is a character a good role model or not, based on whether the person lies, steals, cheats, engages in illicit sexual activity, etc.?)….  Such a contextual theology of film will therefore move beyond superficial moral critiques of characters to explore how empathic and imaginative engagement with film texts and characters contributes to our theological understanding of an authentic whole, and creative personal life….  It is perhaps as we learn to think about cinemagoing as itself a spiritual practice that we will really discover how to nurture personal, transformative theological encounters with film” (122-3). 

Theology not only helps us to understand films.  Films, in a very profound way, can help us to understand and apply  our theology in more meaningful ways.  Too often, Christians have sought to justify their film-going by saying that they were there simply to garner ammunition to oppose unchristian worldviews.  While part of a Christian response to film might be to point out  immoral and unhealthy worldviews and beliefs, the Christian can attend films as means of spiritual growth.  Through a biblically informed engagement with what is good and bad, moral and immoral in film, we can be transformed.  While few Christians today would perhaps see film attendance as a spiritual practice, pastors, teachers, and parents should, in fact, see films as opportunities for God to speak to us.  Rather than sitting by idly and bemoaning the influence of film, we should actively enter into the joy of film as a means of spiritual transformation.

Is it possible for God to speak to us in film, not only through overtly religious films about the life of Christ, but through films such as Inglourious Basterds? The final scene at the cinema in Inglourious Basterds is almost a religious service where people come to pay tribute to one of the new saints of the Third Reich.  But it was through the cinema that Emmanuel brought an end to the war.  She was willing to sacrifice herself in the theater. By burning down her own theater, which the Nazis have transformed into a temple of the Third Reich, she saved the world from further destruction.  She and her friend function  almost as Samson who pulls down the temple of Dagon on the Philistines and themselves in order that others might be liberated.    Is God with us in the movies?  Can we be saved by cinema?  While cinema, of course, can never be a substitute for the saving work of Christ on the cross and ministry of the Church to bring us to final salvation, a thoughtful interaction with cinema can be used by the Holy Spirit to save us from our sinful behaviors by poignantly presenting to us the sadness and suffering caused by human sin.  In this manner, film could serve not merely as the escapist fantasy of an alternate history, but as the means of preventing such horrors from taking place again. 

Works Cited

ychn, Gordon.  “Film and the Subjective Turn:  How the Sociology of Religion Can Contribute to Theological Readings of Film.”  Reframing Theology and Film:  New Focus for an Emerging Discipline.  E. Robert K. Johnston.  Baker Academic:  Grand Rapids, 2007.  109-125.

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