(Note: I’m going to relate much of the storyline in this post. While I don’t think that really spoils the movie, if you haven’t seen it yet you might want to wait to read this.)
Quentin Tarantino makes films about film. He examines, exaggerates, and worships our most iconic film genres. And in doing so, he examines us. There is no genre more central to the American mythology than the war movie, particularly the World War II movie. All the cliches are present.
There is a small band of elite fighters led by a sexy leading man. There are victims to be saved. There are beautiful women in danger. There are good guys and there are bad guys and we all know who is who and who we are supposed to cheer for.
It is a Tarantino movie and so it is, of course, violent and funny. There are beautifully shot scenes and there is intense dialogue. But what makes the movie truly interesting are the ways in which Tarantino challenges the genre and the American mythology that goes with it.
Jews are Made Fully (In)human
The movie begins with a beautifully shot scene in the French countryside. A dairy farmer (brilliantly played by Denis Menochet) and his gorgeous daughters are visited by the Nazis. As the scene rolls on we discover that the dairy farmer is hiding Jews from his village. These are the Jews we are expecting, victims hiding in a cellar.
Every war movie needs an elite group of soldiers to follow and this movie is no different. Except in this movie the elite group is made up of Jews. The actors who play these soldiers look more like rabbinical school students than warriors who are going to scalp Nazis. Tarantino’s Jews are heroes, but they are sick, murderous, psychopaths and terrorists as well.
During the holocaust, it was the Nazis who marked Jews so that they could more easily pick them out for destruction. But I don’t recall seeing a single yellow star in this movie. In Tarantino’s world, it is the heroes who mark people.
Women Are Smart and Men are Destroyed by Their Sexism
Like all war movies, most of the central characters are men. Unlike most war movies, the two central women characters are the ones who engineer the ultimate destruction of the bad guys. Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) and Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) both design separate and eventually interconnecting plots to destroy a movie theater filled with Nazis.
Most interestingly, it is men’s continual underestimation of women that causes their own destruction. The main Nazi villain, Colonol Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) lets Shosanna get away once. He doesn’t do it out of compassion. (He has none). She just isn’t important enough to go after.
Colonol Landa prides himself on being able to read people, break people, and hunt down Jews. Yet, when he questions Shosanna, he reads nothing. He does not see that she is a Jew. He does not see that she is terrified and full of rage. He just orders the adorable blonde girl some strudel and milk. And that same blonde girl will engineer the destruction of his people.
When things go wrong for Bridget, there is a stand-off. The stand-off is between a Nazi soldier and our hero, Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt). The Nazi must decide whether or not to trust Raine (who wants to rescue the injured Bridget). It never enters the Nazi’s mind that the danger could come from the woman. He does not live to regret it.
And then there is the scene where Tarantino turns the story of Cinderella on its head. The man who is coming to find you with that shoe is not a prince, but a psycho. Sexism destroys the men, but the men still destroy the women.
The Bad Guys are More Human than the Good Guys
We see Nazis playing drinking games and celebrating the birth of a young soldier’s first child. Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl) is a Nazi hero who single-handedly killed hundreds of the enemy and who stars in a movie about his exploits. Yet he is humble and charming. And he is conflicted about having killed so many people.
Our hero, on the other hand, is not conflicted at all. Raine has completely dehumanized the enemy. His only mission is to kill Nazis. He sees the world in black and white, good vs. Nazi. He doesn’t care for rules. He experiences no remorse. He has no desire for diplomacy. We never see him being kind. We hear nothing of his family. There is nothing to humanize him. Tarantino relies solely on the likability of Brad Pitt and our willingness to see the world in the same good vs. Nazi terms he does.
The Audience is Put Under the Microscope
Tarantino rubs our willingness to overlook people’s humanity in our faces. A theater full of Nazis watch their hero as he kills person after person. The audience cheers and laughs at the carnage. We are disgusted by them. And while they sit in the theater cheering, we do the same.
We cheer our heroes as they execute a terrorist plot to kill a theater full of people, not just soldiers but wives and girlfriends and anyone else. Not only are we, the audience, laughing at merciless violence, we are rooting for men with bombs strapped to their bodies. We are rooting for suicide bombers.
And when Shosanna shows a moment of empathy, when she recognizes the anguish of her enemy, it is a fatal mistake. We accept, even expect, that the people who show the least amount of humanity survive, while those who show a moment of it perish.
It Asks Important Questions
It would be a mistake to read too much into the movie. We won’t ever know what the maker’s intent was. Still, the movie left me asking questions:
- Why do we accept simplistic answers?
- Why is it so easy to dehumanize people?
- Why do we accept the idea that recognizing others humanity is dangerous?
- Is it better to become a monster and live or keep your humanity and die?
- Why do the most peace loving of us cheer violence?
- Are any group of people more or less capable of violence?
- Does “terrorism” depend on which side you’re on?
- If we had been in Germany, would we have cheered on the soldier? (Well, I would have been in a concentration camp, but those of you who aren’t Jewish, Gay, Black, Gypsy, disabled…. Do I know anyone who isn’t Jewish, Gay, Black, Gypsy, disabled…?)
- How much of our support for the Israeli government depends on the myth that Jews aren’t capable of grotesque violence?