Samuel said to Saul, “The Lord sent me to anoint
you king over his people Israel; now therefore listen
to the words of the Lord. Thus says the Lord of
hosts, “I will punish the Amalekites for what they
did in opposing the Israelites when they came up
out of Egypt. Now go and attack Amalek, and
utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare
them, but kill both man and woman, child and
infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”
1 Samuel 15:1-3
Quentin Tarantino is a filmmaker who brings out conflicting feelings in me. As a film lover I thoroughly enjoyed his pulp fiction alternative history to World War Two, but as a Christian attempting to base his ethics on the New rather than the early parts of the Old Testament, I am repelled by the film. Not so much for the blood and gore—we see throats cut, swastikas carved onto the foreheads of two men, and scalps being severed from the heads of Germans—as for the attitude of glee that the violence evokes in the audience. Thus I must confess my enjoyment of this film to be a guilty pleasure.
There are many strong characters in the film , with three of them dominating: Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), whom we see only briefly at the beginning of the film as she flees from the country cottage where her hidden family has been massacred by the Nazis; Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), dubbed “The Jew Hunter” for obvious reasons, who coolly persuades the farmer to betray her family; and Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), so brutal in his vendetta against the Nazis that he demands from each of his men 100 Nazi scalps, hence his nickname “The Apache.”
Somehow Raine is able to lead his band of Jewish soldiers in a series of raids in Nazi-occupied France without being captured. They even have access to tuxedos when the occasion demands—just how, we are never told (in good pulp fiction fashion—did you ever wonder how those elaborate devices such as beds that kill and showers that scald victims to death in horror stories ever were made without arousing suspicion?). The avengers in Raine’s group delight in killing Nazis with guns, knives, and in one horrific scene, with a baseball bat. The Old Testament seer/prophet Samuel would have loved these guys!
Four years after her family is killed Shosanna Dreyfus reappears as the manager-owner of a Parisian movie theater (film buff Tarantino must have had a ball decorating the lobby and halls with posters of old classic German and French films). One night as she is changing the marquee letters she is befriended by a handsome young German soldier Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), whom she brushes off with some difficulty. The next day he spies her in a cafe and joins her. When patrons, including a high ranking Nazi officer come seeking his autograph, she learns that he is a highly decorated war hero, dubbed “the German Sgt. York” (still another film reference!) because as a sniper in an Italian town he had killed 300 enemy soldiers. A movie has been made about his exploits, with himself as its star. Smitten with Shoshanna, he convinces his boss Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth), who as Minister of Propaganda is in charge of German film production, to move the premiere of the film from the Ritz to Shoshanna’s smaller theater, which gives her the idea of using the stash of old silver nitrate films stored there to set fire to the theater and kill all of the high ranking Nazis in attendance. (I don’t recall any explanation of why the film would be opening in Paris rather than in Berlin!)
Meanwhile, the British, learning of the film’s premier dispatches an officer to meet up with the Basterds, and they are in turn to meet a famous German actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), who is spying for the Allies. She has vital information for the group so that they can carry out a plan to blow up the theater—especially when it is learned that Hitler himself (Martin Wuttke) plans to attend. The rendezvous in a cellar bar does not go as planned, the sequence turning out to be both suspenseful and bloody.
The film is a little over two and a half hours long, and yet the time seems to fly by, thanks to the skills of the director and his talented cast. In respect to the latter, Brad Pitt is the star (and despite his accent, quite good), but from the moment he comes on at the beginning of the story Austrian actor Christoph Waltz owns the film. His suave, cultured, polite Nazi makes for the most memorable screen villain that I have seen since Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. Were the Devil to be portrayed in a future film, Waltz should be first to be called upon. Tarantino obviously admires a film that has been showing frequently on cable channels, The Dirty Dozen, a film that when I saw it again recently filled me with distress in that we are led to applaud the incineration of women and German officers trapped by the “heroes” in a large bunker. Thus, while seeing such films I hope that more people will be able to say “it’s just a movie,” and be able still to judge appropriately our own deviations from the Geneva Convention at Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib. If God can be found in this film, I think it must be in the tears that we see in the eyes of several of the characters at moments of betrayal and death.
1. What character impressed you the most? What was his or her fate? Were you surprised at what happened to some of them?
2. How is this film true to the traditions of pulp fiction? How is this the way in which we must view the film if we are not to be put off by its violence?
3. Compare Col. Hans Landa and Lt. Aldo Raine: basically, as far as their ethics and methods, are they that different from each other?
4. What do you think of Pvt. Fredrick Zoller? How did he seem to feel about his exploits? See any evidence that he had some regrets?
5. What movie references did you see in the film? Even a spaghetti Western? Compare the film to The Dirty Dozen. How are we led by each film to cheer what in normal life we would denounce?
6. A reading of such books of the Bible as the two Samuels and Kings reveals a total war, no mercy given, approach: what do you think of this? How do you reconcile this War God with the loving Father of Jesus?
7. How is the deal that Col. Landa makes at the end of the film a lesser of two evils? (Note that in real life Churchill did not take seriously the efforts of the anti-Nazi conspirators to negotiate an end of the war in the event that their coup plans were successful.) How is what Raine does to Col. Landa appropriate? Like a mark of Cain?
8. How do films made in the time of war usually depict the enemy? This is even more evident in the cartoons in newspapers and magazines: what features of the Nazis and Japanese were emphasized? What about Middle Easterners in films and cartoons today? How is this necessary in order to stir the populace to fight and kill? How do you think Christians should act during such times? (And how do they usually act in response to prevailing opinion?)