Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, Ash Wednesday and the Mark of Cain

800px-Crossofashes.jpgI had just watched Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds the night before Ash Wednesday (a raucous Fat Tuesday, eh?), and was reading through various online news Ash Wednesday morning when I saw the news blip that British TV Host, Kay Burley, mistook Vice-President Joe Biden’s Ash Wednesday forehead smudge for a bruise. Rounding out the story was the background that Biden is the first Catholic vice president, and the first Executive branch figure to appear in public with the Ash Wednesday mark. Kennedy, our only other “openly Catholic” executive was never photographed with a forehead mark of the cross, though his life perhaps is a cultural landmark of mortality.
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Burley and her co-host wondered aloud whether Biden had run into a door or slipped on the ice at the Vancouver Olympics. When I saw the photo of Biden, I also didn’t think “oh right, Ash Wednesday mark,” my mind went right back to Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, which, I’d like to offer ain’t that far a jump.

Inglourious Basterds puts forth more than a few signifying foreheads. There is the central “let me give you something you can’t take off” carve a swastika in the forehead of the surrendering soldier scenes of course, but there is also a Golem story early on, and the “Indian Poker” game played in the bar scene (Native American riffs are everywhere in this film).

Each of these scenes grapple with identity, false narratives, racism, and imperialism. Yes, these scenes are embedded within a film that fetishizes revenge and puts forth bodies being clubbed to death, burned, scalped, and blown up, but it is also a film that carves open and lays bare a wound we in the west so deftly sutured closed and forgot in the wake of World War II. What I’m calling a wound here is Britain and America’s own racist and imperialistic program and the flawed sense of righteousness we stitched together from the fallen and scapegoated bodies (and ideologies) of World War II. The film does so most clearly, I think, in those scenes that rely and riff on cultural and religious markers involving foreheads that designate.

The most memorable of the film’s signifying foreheads is of course Lt. Aldo Raine’s proclivity for carving swastikas into the foreheads of surrendering Nazis. (Let’s not rush to the scalpings just yet.). Raine marks their forehead to prevent them from ever shedding their uniform, their Nazi identity, their sin.

Given that the swastika is often read as a kind of perverted cross, and the marking of the forehead has a particular religious resonance, we can read that Raine’s forehead carvings invert the Ash Wednesday observance. The Ash Wednesday marking is a highly ritualized display of absolution. Raine’s marking scenes are highly stylized rituals of condemnation intended to foreclose such absolution. Aldo’s knife is a pen (however worn the analogy) with which he carves/writes/creates a space where evil cannot repent, a person cannot be forgiven, cannot switch sides, cannot become new, cannot shed a uniform for new clothes and be cleansed.

When Hans Landa—the most inglorious bastard of the film—does indeed change sides, does accomplish everything Raine and the Basterds set out to do but fail, secures his US citizenship, his parade, his home on Nantucket Island, and his Congressional Medal of Honor, Raine tells him (in his hillbilly southern drawl) that he thinks Landa secured just compensation for someone willing to “barbecue the whole high command.” What he “can’t abide” is Colonel Landa of the SS shedding his uniform. He tells Landa “I mean if I had my way, you’d wear that goddamn uniform for the rest of your pecker suckin life. But I’m aware that ain’t practical. I mean at some point ya gotta hafta take it off!.So I’m gonna give you a little somethin you can’t take off.”

Of course, it isn’t just Col. Landa marked with the swastika in this scene but us as well. The camera moves from a close-up of Pitt’s hands as though we are the knife to the point-of-view of the submissive Nazi in the moment of being marked as if Tarantino is marking the viewer as complicit. We stare up at Pitt from the ground each time he carves the swastika on the forehead/lens of the camera. From the point of view of the camera, we are the Nazi being marked.inglourious-basterds-11.jpg

It’s not the only time Tarantino turns the interpretive tables on us. In the theater, we watch Nazis giggling with glee as hell rains down while watching “Nation’s Pride,” and a few moments later find our own blood lust satiated as hell rains down on these very same.

The sheer number of doublings in the film astound: Landa and Raine; Raine and Hitler; Raine and Shoshana (both in what they’re trying to accomplish and how Tarantino uses both as “Indian” figures. More on this later as the film’s deployment of “Imagined Indians” is one of its most obvious riffs), the Hamlet riff of a film within a film within a film (with an entire history of film in a pile lit by a match playing behind the screen of film embedded within the embedded film!.); Given these endless complications (and dozens more), I would argue the film is a great deal more ambivalent about its subject matter than the “fucking Jewish wet dream” revenge fantasy it’s been called by one of its producers.

Because if you see this film as about only vengeance or only revenge, then perhaps it is just a wet dream, vivid but not very productive and ultimately impotent. And while it is all that (a mixture of impotent rage and gratifying revenge), it’s more. Or at least that’s my claim. It’s a film that unmasks the power of film as propaganda, and in doing so unmasks the mechanisms by which meaning gets created retroactively to the event vis-a-vis the film industry. Specifically it uncovers the ways in which the west takes off it’s own racist and imperialistic history by forbidding Nazis to do the same.

It is only by marking Landa, preventing Landa’s absolution by preventing him from ever taking off his uniform/sin, that Raine unmarks himself (and us). Whatever Raine is, whatever crimes he commits, he knows he walks away from this encounter clean. Even when he kills Herrman (whose name is “sir man” or “Mr. Man” — he’s your everyman) after the war is over, after he has surrendered, after he gives Raine the Nazi gun Raine uses to shoot him. After he has killed the surrendered and unarmed soldier, the script reads:

 

[quote style=”boxed”]RAINE takes the Luger and SHOOTS HERRMAN DEAD. Col. Landa is appalled.
COL. LANDA Are you mad? What have you done? I made a deal
with your general for that man’s life!
LT. ALDO Yeah, they made that deal, but they don’t give
a fuck about him, they need you.
COL. LANDA You’ll be shot for this.
LT. ALDO Naw, I don’t think so, more like I’ll
be chewed out. I’ve been chewed out before.[/quote]

The scene enacts the ideological narrative America (in particular) produces following the war (note that Herrman’s name signifies a kind of everyman). More precisely, I should say it enacts the ideological narrative that coheres around the dozens of war films and westerns in the years following the war (many starring Congressional Medal of Honor winner Audie Murphy — the analogue to the film’s Frederick Zoller) many of course that get riffed on by Tarantino. And what these films did is to make Hitler, Nazis (and the swastika) into the fetish object that contains all our racist and imperialistic sins and burn it into oblivion with “350 35mm nitrate film prints” as does Tarantino, if slightly more viscerally.

We forget, perhaps, how normal racist and imperialistic notions were prior to World War II (specifically anti-semitic but racism more broadly). Churchill was off running around Africa as Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies clearing the way for the grand old white empire. On this side of the pond, Frederick Jackson Turner’s “The Significance of the Frontier in American HIstory” won the Pulitzer Prize in 1933, codifying the foundations of American Exceptionalism to be widely acknowledged as rooted in our complete clearing and annihilation of an entire continent, based in our own notions of our racial (and religious) superiority.

This was going to be the alliance to take a stand against German race-guided imperialist expansion? Well, there are those that have stated one of the reasons America took so long to enter the war was precisely because of our indifference to the plight of European Jews. But of course, we were the alliance to finally take a stand, and we answer that question in the affirmative. Because from this side of the war, whatever horrors we perpetrated in our long history, whatever atrocities we committed against Indians and Africans, well we might deserve a good chewin’ out, but we’re not Nazis.

I’m not claiming Hitler or Nazis weren’t evil or that they shouldn’t have been opposed, or that they were some kind of innocent victim. That’s not my intent. What I’m interested in here is the ways in which scapegoating and history gets used, retroactively. If I had to make some claim it would be that we took as long as we did to get into the war precisely because Hitler’s imperialism, wrapped together with racist claims, was so normal. More specifically, I’m saying that World War II was the occasion where Britain and America took off our racist and imperialistic uniforms and laid them all at Hitler’s feet. Only after we’d slain the Nazi goat, did such a narrative become repulsive to us. Of course I’m not claiming that anti-semitism has diminished anymore than racism disappeared with the Civil Rights Bill. I’m saying the range of acceptable narratives changed. (If I drew this line out a bit further, I’d say that civil rights and the Civil Rights Bill becomes possible only after World War II partly for these reasons.)

I’m also saying that Tarantino’s film knows this, and while playing as a revenge fantasy brilliantly complicates the notion of righteousness. It’s no accident that Lt. Aldo Raine is an inarticulate racist hillbilly Indian Jew bent on vigilante justice, who has survived a lynching (evidenced by the scar around his neck). His body is figured as part Jew, part Indian, part African slave, part Hitlerian racist (notice in his opening scene how oddly the camera angles make him look like Hitler, particularly his haircut and mustache), with a bloodlust. He’s a pastiche of every racist imperialist notion in play at the time, and perhaps today. In his character, Tarantino collapses an entire world of competing narratives that retroactively, post-World War II, inscribed this narrative into the public sphere, anointed it, and made it holy: from Audie Murphy’s hagiographic films such as To Hell and Back (doubled in Nation’s Pride) through Sergio Leone’s films (riffed on nearly everywhere in Inglorious Basterds) to John Ford’s The Searchers (the consistent use of Indian imagery in Raine but also Shoshana’s “war paint” scene as she prepares for the premiere.

[How the Golem and the figuration of the Indian figues into this must remain for another day].