"Inglourious Basterds": The Poetics of Unexpectedness
I went to see “Inglourious Basterds” the first week it came out. The theatre was full. I was sitting next to a group of young men who were speaking in Arabic amongst themselves, and who seemed strangely elated, almost giddy with excitement and anticipation. When the movie ended, they were the only people in the audience who applauded enthusiastically. To this day I cannot quite make sense of a group of young Arabs getting so excited about a movie in which a bunch of tough Jews goes about Europe killing Nazis and scalping them. It will probably remain one of those enigmas, having to do with the least fathomable exhibitions of the human mind.
The two words of the film’s title “Inglourious Basterds” are misspelled. The correct spelling is: “Inglorious Bastards”.
If this were the title of the film, what would it signify?
Inglorious, according to the dictionary, means ignominious; disgraceful, obscure, deserving of neither glory nor respect.
A bastard started as the designation of an illegitimate child but has evolved in the popular mind to a derogatory term for a person who is mean or disagreeable.
So, when we read an “inglorious bastard”, what we should be conjuring from the noun and its adjective is a negative character, a villain to despise and shun, if possible. However, that is not quite the affect of “Inglorious Bastards”, is it? We seem to accept, apriori, a slightly ironic take on the traditional meaning of “inglorious” and “‘bastard”. What we look forward to is a sort of a lovable rogue, like Blondie from “The good, the Bad and the ugly” or more recently, Llewelyn Moss, from “ No Country for Old Men” .
In other words, audacious, sympathetic characters, pursuing morally-ambivalent goods by being thoroughly and uncompromisingly bloody-minded about it..
But what about the deliberately idiosyncratic misspelling of the titled?
Two possible explanations come to mind:
1. It is meant as an eye dialect, that is the deliberate use of non-standard spelling to draw attention to pronunciation.
2. It indicates a deeper, poetic motivation.
The acclaimed Canadian poet, Anne Carson explains in "Essay on What I Think About Most,"
...what we are engaged in when we do poetry is error,
the willful creation of error,
the deliberate break and complication of mistakes
out of which may arise
The first time I learned about Tarantino’s movie was sometime during 2008, when I read it in Noah Pollak’s post in “Contentions”. Here is what he said:
"Inglorious Bastards, in a nutshell, focuses on the escapades of eight Jewish-American soldiers who are parachuted behind enemy lines and ordered by their commanding officer to “git me 100 Nazi scalps”. It is not a Holocaust movie, as such. But it uses the death camps as a touchstone and therein lies the danger.
Of course, this would have to be made by a Gentile. A Jewish filmmaker would have the soldiers scalp some Nazis and then agonize over the moral implications of their actions for six hours, rather than getting on with the important business of scalping more Nazis."
Of course, Jews being Jewish should be superior human beings, clean of any suspicion that they might harbour anger or vengefulness towards anyone, least of all those who succeeded in decimating them.
And almost right on cue, Jeffrey Goldberg’s review of the movie fully lives up to Pollak’s prognostication:
The ending Tarantino wrote includes the mass incineration of Nazis and their wives, with Shoshanna screaming “This is the face of Jewish vengeance!” and the very last scene features one final forehead swastika-carving.
“Why isn’t that all right?” Tarantino asked me, when I noted the cruelty of that final image.
“Well, it’s torture,” I said. “Isn’t torture wrong?”
Ten seconds went by as Tarantino weighed the question.
“He’s a Nazi,” Tarantino said, finally. “They’re giving him a scar. I don’t know if I would even go so far as to call that torture. He’s scarring him. He’s not torturing him. What he’s doing isn’t so ridiculously painful.”
I asked if he’d ever had a swastika carved in his forehead.
“I’m sure it hurts,” he said. But torture, he said, is something different: an attempt to elicit information by inflicting extreme pain. In other words, the pain inflicted by Tarantino’s Jews on the Nazis was inflicted only to terrorize.”
“Given the chance, of course, I would still shoot Mengele in the face. That would be a moral necessity. But I wouldn’t carve a swastika into his forehead. That just doesn’t sound like the Jewish thing to do.”
Goldberg is treating the fantasy as a real life likelihood, (he is not the only one) and then tries to imagine what he would have done in similar circumstances, only to reject the possibility that he could ever be so vicious.
It’s not unlike all these people today who fantasize that had they lived under the Nazi regime they would surely have behaved differently; they would shelter Jews and would not betray them to the Nazis. Never mind the statistics. Tarantino, strangely enough, does try to assess this fantasy, in the first chapter of the movie.
Here is what I think:
The film is done in chapters. And the first chapter is the only segment in the movie which fully and accurately mirrors the reality of Jewish precarious existence during the Second World War in Europe. A family of Jews , sheltered by a virtuous French farmer, is found out and killed on the spot. Shoshana, the daughter, manages to escape somehow from the bloodbath and streaks across a green and freshly harvested field towards a wooded area. Landa, the spectacularly-acted Gestapo officer, nicknamed “The Jew Hunter” (a retroactive ironic fast-forward reversal play, I presume on the term “Nazi Hunter”) watches her as she runs, aiming his gun at her back. But he seems to give up on the idea that he can shoot her and lustily yells after her: I’ll see you later, Shoshana…
It is my opinion that the scene in which we watch her run for her life is a very important moment in the movie. She seems to run without arriving, running away without much distancing. There is some infinitesimal shift during those seconds which, even as I’m writing this, I cannot be absolutely sure whether I saw it or just imagined it.What I think is happening is a rupture in reality. At some point during her run, the action shifts from the actual, irreversible past as we know it, into the future fantasy which Tarantino concocted. From that point onwards, everything that unfolds is clearly in the realm of impossibility.
Of course the film is a fantasy about an impossibility: What characterized Jewish existence during the Holocaust years was their utter defenselessness, despite a few scattered and mostly unsuccessful small eruptions of Resistance, as in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, or the survival of a few hundreds Jews depicted in "Defiance".
I agree with Pollak, that this is a film whose premise could only be invented and made by a Gentile. This in turn, reminded me of a conversation I once read about, between Stanley Kubrick and Frederic Raphael, as they were working on the film script for “Eyes Wide Shut”:
S.K.: Another thing: that scene where Bill and the other guy walk away down the street. You say they're talking. What about?
F.R.: What does it matter? It's the end of the scene and they're a long way from the camera, with their backs to it.
S.K.: But what are they talking about?
F.R.: What would you like them to? They're a couple of doctors, right? So what do doctors talk about? Golf; the stock market; the tits on that nurse who's on nights...uh...holidays.
S.K.: Coupla Gentiles, right?
F.R.: That's what you wanted them to be.
S.K.: And we're a coupla Jews. What do we know about what those people talk about when they're by themselves?
Well, maybe Tarantino is giving us some insight into that mystery.
Update: January 18, 2010: The actor who plays Landa, Cristoph Waltz, won a Golden globe for his role in the film.
Christoph Waltz’s character [of Nazi officer Hans Landa] was amazing. I would have been very interested to see how, if Waltz had come to the museum, he would have been received.
Well, you know, Waltz’s son is a rabbi.
Yes. And I’m actually kind of glad about that. There are several qualities in Christoph that are very similar to Landa. Not the Nazi part, obviously, but his erudition and his cleverness. Because of that, I can actually make parallels between him and Landa and not get too worried about calling him a Nazi.
A rabbi… where?
In Israel. I had to check on a Yiddish word, and Christoph called his son in Israel, who is actually a Yiddish expert. Christoph is obviously a language expert himself as well.