Inglourious Basterds part 2
Lt Raine is huntin' Nazzis. Hitler is, predictably, upset.
Something kind of unusual happens about 20 minutes into Inglourious Basterds: the movie starts. You can feel it as you're watching it, after the slow-burn suspense of "Chapter 1," here's a scene you recognize and understand: a tough, take-charge army officer barks out the details of a secret mission to a cadre of elite soldiers. Hooray, the viewer thinks, now I'm oriented, now I know where I am, this is going to be a "men on a mission" movie, like The Dirty Dozen or Where Eagles Dare. The first scene was just a long setup for the Col Landa character, now we're going to meet the dog-faced American soldiers who are going to kick Landa's ass.
Well, as it happens, no. No, what's going to happen, actually, is that the next chapter will introduce Lt Aldo Raine and his team of "Basterds," and then, amazingly enough, the movie is going to start over, yet again, before it finally circles back around to Raine and his Men on a Mission. All of Tarantino's screenplays are daring and challenging in their structure, and at first I thought Basterds was his most straightforward and conventional. But how many screenplays introduce characters in indelible scenes, get the audience invested in those characters, then walk away from them for a half-hour or more, while it brings in another whole bunch of characters we've never met before?
Lt Raine gives his Basterds a speech, what appears to be a fairly conventional "Let's get 'em boys" speech, except that it has disturbing parallels to the scene that just preceded it. He tells his men that they will be hunting and killing Nazis -- fair enough, nobody likes Nazis. But Raine goes a little further: he says that it's okay to kill Nazis because "A Nazi ain't got no humanity." He says they're going to kill "anyone wearing a Nazi uniform," whoever they are, whatever their function in the army. That is, he reduces the Nazis to something less than human, a symbol, just as Landa reduced the Jews to symbols in the previous scene. The viewer cringes at Landa's creepy anti-Semitism, but cheers at Raine's blustery pride -- he's a plain-spoken mutt American. He doesn't pretend to be something, like Landa does. He says who he is and what he wants to do without worry or shame. He hates the Nazis in a way that Landa doesn't seem to hate the Jews, and the viewer rejoices in his straightforwardness. You know where you stand with Raine -- he may be a bloodthirsty savage, but he's on your side, and gosh, that's how wars are won.
Or is Raine pretending? Is his shit-kicking hillbilly persona who he really is, or is it a suit he puts on the same way Landa pretends to be a petty bureaucrat? My guess is, what you see is what you get: Raine wants to kill Nazis, he says he wants to kill Nazis, and he then proceeds to kill Nazis -- there doesn't seem to be a conflict between his words and actions. Even when he's asked to pretend to be Italian later in the movie, Raine can hardly be bothered to try to conceal his hillbilly persona.
He compares the Basterds to "Bushwhackers." To you and me today, "bushwhacker" may be any kind of surprise attacker, but to Raine, coming from rural Tennessee in 1944, the term would have had a very specific meaning. Bushwhackers were, in the Civil War, small civilian bands who would skulk through the night, kill people, steal property and burn towns, all outside of any military jurisdiction, for the purpose of demoralizing the enemy. They were, in fact, terrorists. And Raine, here, describes his plan in purely terrorist terms: he plans to kill German soldiers in the most barbaric and freakish ways possible, so as to frighten them, demoralize them, terrorize them.
"Sound good?" he swaggers to his men, who all respond in the affirmative. It does sound good! We just watched what that no-good slime-ball Landa did to LaPadite and that poor Dreyfuss family, we want to see those no-good lousy Nazis get what they deserve. Tarantino is, again, setting us up for what will be an extremely uncomfortable climax.
Now, having barely met any of these guys, we jump forward in time. Hitler is upset! The movie has cut from Raine laying out his plan to Hitler reacting to its effect. Tarantino, for some reason, has decided to cut out the actual implementation of the plan, even though that's what we most want to see after Raine's speech.
Hitler is in some impossibly grand office, having his portrait painted as though he's some 18th-century monarch. The portrait is important, the public image of everyone in the movie is important. Hitler was selling a dream to the Germans, and the props he employed were paramount to his sales pitch. Film, unsurprisingly, was a big part of his public-relations arsenal.
Hitler complains, hysterically, about Raine and his men, and sends out an order that no one is to ever refer to Raine's scariest man as "The Bear Jew" again. Again, public relations: Landa lets his nickname, "The Jew Hunter," precede him in order to terrorize the French countryside, while Raine let's the nicknames "The Bear Jew" and "Aldo the Apache" precede him in order to terrorize the German soldiery.
(HItler also vows to hang the Basterds from the Eiffel Tower and then feed their bodies to the "rats of Paris." Whether he means to refer to Landa's equating of Jews to rats or not, I don't know.)
Meanwhile, Raine and his men have slaughtered a patrol of German soldiers in a ravine next to a road in the woods, and are in the process of scalping them -- the better to terrorize them. A Sgt Werner is brought before Raine, and Raine interrogates him. The interrogation is disturbingly similar to the interrogation we just left between Landa and LaPadite: Raine wants Werner to give up his fellow soldiers, and Werner is reluctant to do so. Raine threatens Werner's life and Werner, unlike LaPadite, doesn't flinch. "I respectfully refuse" says Werner, which seems, under the circumstances, to be the most honorable way to respond. Landa knows what people are capable when they have no dignity, but Werner seems to be hanging onto his dignity with no problem.
Raine points out Hugo Stiglitz, a "good German" who has joined the Basterds because he, himself, has killed 13 members of the Nazi High Command. Has he? I believe he has: first, we see him kill a handful of officers, in extremely brutal ways, plus we hear a voice-over tell us it is so: it's not a matter of perspective: Stiglitz, like Raine, hates those goddamn Nazis and he wants them dead as badly as any of the Basterds.
(We Stiglitz in prison. One of the guards reads a German newspaper, one with a racist cartoon condemning the Jewish menace in Germany: another example of the popular media being used to polarize public opinion and dehumanize the enemy.)
Just as the viewer is starting to think Werner might be a decent guy after all, he says to Raine "Fuck you and your Jew dogs." So, now, do we like him better or worse than Landa, who hunts Jews like rats but doesn't seem to feel any particular animosity toward them? For that matter, does Werner actually hate Jews, or is he saying that in order to end his torturous situation, to bring swift death upon himself? The Bear Jew asks him if he got his Iron Cross for killing Jews. Werner shakes his head: "Bravery," he says, just before being beaten to death by that most American of weapons, the baseball bat.
A private, Butz, happily gives up his fellow soldiers and we chuckle: we like Butz, we kind of identify with him: he's logical, sensible: he doesn't like Nazis any more than we do, and he sees nothing wrong with betraying his fellow soldiers if it means saving his own skin. But Raine has other plans for Butz: he says "We like Nazis in uniform, that way they're easier to spot," meaning, in part, that he hasn't given any thought as to who might be wearing the uniform, what counts is the uniform itself -- the symbol. Butz betrays his own men, just as Stiglitz has, but in a weak, passive way. Regardless, Raine carves a swastika on his forehead, so that he might forever be that symbol he despises. And he carves the swastika with a ridiculously large knife, which I find to be a visual analogue to Landa's ridiculously large pipe.