An Inglourious Problem
I’ll begin this reflection with a confession: I’m a Quentin Tarantino fan. I’m biased. As a lover of language I deeply appreciate the attention Tarantino pays to dialogue and narrative flow, especially when the narrative does not follow a traditional arc. And with Tarantino, it doesn’t. Roger Ebert made a convincing argument that Pulp Fiction is ultimately the tale of Jules Winnfield’s (the Samuel L. Jackson character) redemption, and the other storylines told in their strangely interwoven way serve that ultimate end. I also love Pulp Fiction precisely because it is Tarantino’s most overtly theological film. With his gross misquote of Ezekiel, Jules verbalizes every Christian’s dilemma: “I’m trying, Ringo. I’m trying real hard to be the Shepherd.”
This week there has been a lot of buzz around the entertainment industry that Tarantino’s latest film, Inglourious Basterds, may actually win the Best Picture Oscar. I hope it does. I loved the movie. I found it disturbing, unsettling, hilarious, and (best of all) different from any film I’d seen in a long time. Christoph Waltz gives a surefire Oscar-winning performance as Hans “The Jew Hunter” Landa whose job is to find and execute Jews in hiding, one of the most terrifying cat-and-mouse characters ever. Landa is a brilliant but terrifying man, a self-serving anti-Semite, a high-ranking Nazi officer, and a man whose intellect and charm are matched only by his narcissism and sociopathy. Brad Pitt plays Aldo Raine, the brutal leader of a small band of Jewish-American soldiers who ambush, scalp, torture, brand, and kill Nazis. Mélanie Laurent plays Shoshanna Dreyfus, a Jewish girl who escapes the clutches of Landa and goes about hiding in plain sight in the city.
And true to form, Tarantino frames this fanciful reimagining of World War II as a revenge fantasy. Tarantino loves revenge fantasies, but he doesn’t like them pure. Kill Bill was one long revenge fantasy told across two movies, but it was also a transformation/redemption story. The Bride is three distinct women: the assassin, a woman scorned and bent on revenge, and finally a loving mother who seeks to put her old life behind her. Tarantino made it clear in the DVD special features interviews when he said (paraphrased), “If the Bride is the same person at the end of the story as she was at the beginning, there would be no point.” The redemption stories of Jackie Brown and Jules Winnfield are also messy. But even messy, gritty redemption is not the genius of Basterds.
No, the genius is that Quentin Tarantino’s unique perspective on filmmaking allows him to do something very, very difficult. Inglourious Basterds is ultimately a meditation on evil, but a meditation that is free of moralizing or easy answers. You find yourself rooting for terrorists to win. The Basterds walk into a crowded movie theater with bombs strapped to their legs and you find yourself hoping they will succeed in blowing the theater up! But Tarantino does not fall into the trap of trying to make a political statement, or club you over the head with some heavy-handed moral. He doesn’t try to make us feel guilty for rooting for terrorists, nor does he tell us that terrorist tactics make us as bad as the others we identify as bad guys. Nope, he just lets it sit there. If we ask those questions, we ask them of ourselves later on in the parking lot of the theater or sometime later. Tarantino doesn’t have an ideology to promote or a political axe to grind. He’s just a storyteller using devices to move the story along. Are the Nazis evil? Without question. Are the Basterds’ tactics evil? Yes. Is Landa evil? Yes, and in its purest form! Even Shoshanna is no match for the temptation of revenge when the opportunity arises.
As soteriology was the fundamental question of Reformation theology (“How do I know that I’m saved?”), theology in the 21st Century revolves around maintaining credibility in a world shaped by Enlightenment and Post-Modern philosophy and around questions of theodicy (understanding God in light of incredible evil, including that perpetrated ostensibly in the name of God). While Basterds does not have an overt theological agenda, it does provide a profound reflection on the nature of both personal and systemic/corporate evil, temptation, self-preservation, and retributive justice.
Are we evil for taking sides? Is evil an effective weapon against evil? Do righteous ends ever justify evil means? Tarantino never urges us toward an answer. We just get to witness it and think for ourselves.
Sidenote: as a minister of the Christian faith, it is my firm belief that nonviolence is the preferred response to violence, that mercy triumphs over revenge, and that grace is better than retribution. While I don’t endorse themes of revenge, I do think we in the narrative-telling business can learn a thing or two from a master like QT.