My characters change the course of the war. Now, that didn’t happen, because my characters didn’t exist. But if they had have existed everything that happens [in the movie] is fairly plausible.-Quentin Tarantino
While newspapers around the world, including, notably, in Germany, were keen to praise Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (IB) as a “Jewish wish-fulfilment fantasy” and a liberating vision of racial revenge, this short essay critically inspects the film’s representations of revenge fantasies and violence within contemporary (geo)politics in a post-9/11 world structured by war and violence. I read “Inglorious Basterds” through the optics of the “war on terror” and through (white) racial identification(s). The goal is to illuminate the film’s portrayal of (violent) revenge through the lens of gender, sexuality, and race critical theories through shifting (phantasmatic) geographies of war. To do this, I draw on Toni Morrison’s theory of a new white man in order to question fantasies of romantic (white man) heroism as well as to extend her thinking around parasitic whiteness to the racialization of Muslims and Jews in a post-9/11 world. The essay finishes with a commentary on German (racial) identifications with a new white man, an identity that has managed to occupy the position of (racial) victimhood via incorporation of part-aspects of racial Otherness (i.e. Ashkenazi Jewish identity and history) in order to position itself as a victim within a fight against new figurative Nazis in a post-9/11 world.
Toni Morrison’s New White Man
In Morrison’s famous work Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, the new white man takes on the central figure in American canonical literature and thus also in nationalist mythmaking since the eighteenth century. Morrison noticed that while characters of African descent were usually depicted as mute, unlikable, or hideous, they were primarily deployed as background story in plot lines, which usually centered and highlighted heroic white characters. According to Morrison, Africanism operates primarily as a foil for fantasies and fears of unfreedom, while Whiteness comes to occupy the position of representing freedom and free will. Africanism coupled with romanticism make it possible to entertain painful or scary narratives, erasing narrative ruptures by projecting (psychic or worldly) evils onto the racial Other in a bonded world. Eventually, the new white man, and thus whiteness, comes to embody the figure of the only and truly “free” subject.
In Inglorious Basterds, Naziism and World War II become narrative foils for one another and against one another. I argue that the projection of alternate histories into the past happens in order to reconcile the viewer with their own violent past by fantasizing a political revenge that has—so far—never taken place. In this sense, new figurations of violence are used as means and justification to reconcile the Subject with its own older figurations of violence. Furthermore, revenge as fantasy and as act are only required if there is an understanding that the world, as it is, is somehow irreparable: in a world like that, racist cruelty is seemingly naturalized and declared ahistorical, suggesting that what is needed is national reconciliation rather than pursuits of justice, let alone the undoing of material structures of violence. Such a revenge-and-reconciliation-narrative then serves to connect the histories of World War II with histories of the Shoah and new white man mythologies. In Inglorious Basterds, the new white man’s revenge successfully reconciled the new white world (the US) with the old white world (Europe) via the narrative of an ostensible triumph of “white multiculturalism” over “white fascism” in an otherwise still white (supremacist) but ethnically diverse state.
In this sense, the film tells us more about the era it was released (2009) than about the era in which it is set (1942). Tarantino’s film is one of many movies about World War II produced since 2000 that engage their (white viewer) subject in novel ways, highlighting the dark side of warfare, unsung resistance, alternate perspectives, and counterfactual possibilities. Produced by the (now infamous) Harvey Weinstein Company and predominantly shot in Berlin, Inglorious Basterds featured an international cast of well-known German, French, and American actors, with German as the main language spoken. Released and produced within the first decade of the “War on Terror,” Tarantino’s movie premiered in Israel in the summer of 2009, shortly following the conclusion of Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead” — a war that left over 1,500 Palestinians dead, many more maimed, and over 60,000 internally displaced. (On the Israeli side, ten soldiers died, including four who died from friendly fire, as well as three civilians. Barely any infrastructure was destroyed.) During the tour Tarantino met his now-wife and has since also moved to Israel.
Figurations of Naziism
In contrast to other cinematic portrayals of dangerous, cruel, and emotionless Nazis (as was more common before), Tarantino’s depiction of Nazis popularized new ways of representing and speaking about them. He chose figures depicting them as childlike hysterics and intellectual adult egomaniacs, enabling the viewer to experience a break from longstanding cultural anxieties about “old Europe,” white fascism and the calculus of its white intellectuals. In Tarantino’s depiction, it seems that white fascists are egocentric and impatient lunatics with an insatiable desire for stardom, falling eventually into their own self-made traps due to their neurotic or hysteric characters. In contrast to figurations of “historical” Nazi representation, the film centers an US American white hero – definitely no intellectual, but with his heart in the right place – and follows his fierce and courageous conviction to struggle for US American and European “freedom.” In such exceptional situations, violence and cruelty are portrayed as justified means against the enemies of white, multicultural civilization and freedom — a trope by now familiar to a post-9/11 world. This revenge violence, first inverted through the re-/imagining of history and then enacted by the white American hero (American military), emotionally reconciles the viewer with a history of white supremacy via the tropes of an ostensible “revenge” against those who allegedly committed its original sin (Nazis) in the past. That way, Inglorious Basterds depicts a revenge for genocide through a (white) romantic re-invention of European Jewish and white US American solidarity (brothers in arms) against German white supremacy: in short, white violence in the past is un-done through white violence today.
To a post-9/11 audience, this film might simply depict cruelty against those who are presented as enemies of freedom. Yet, even before Tarantino, such “Nazi”-figures—the enemies of freedom—had become narrative vessels for fascism and unfreedom more generally. The trope of Naziism as the narrative vessel for “the enemies of freedom” also turned (racialized) revenge against said “figurative new Nazi” in a post-9/11 world into a political need and social demand by politicians as well as by civil society writ-large. The latter then fosters and interpellates—i.e. via popular culture–-a circular logic of redemptive violence to protect (white) freedom and humanity, whilst no empathy is left for the ostensible figurative doubles of German Naziism today.
Renovations of the New White Man
It is in the latter narrative of redemptive impositions of violence where the film partakes in a renovation of the new white man. Firstly, figurations of Naziism are used similarly to Morrison’s modes of Africanism, yet, the white (Nazi) characters are actually given agency: childlike and hysterical, yet domineering and dangerous—tropes often deployed for the non-white racial Other. In order to then narratively merge fantasies of US American military violence with modern European political affects of violence, war and security in a post-9/11 world, a transatlantic alliance is imagined, in which a new white man is libidinally invested in fighting Naziism as the New Terror/-ism. At the same time, the US of the 1940s is represented as devoid of anti-Jewish racism, ushering in a phantasmic US narrative through time and space calling upon a past that didn’t exist; secondly, this new white man figure coming from US popular culture understands the intricacies of public opinion, representational politics, and minority rights. After all, finding pleasure in depictions of cinematic violence only works if it doesn’t mirror a reality we are trying to forget or declare as “past.” Thirdly, what usually works through humor, namely temporarily easing our relationship to structures of violence with a joke, Tarantino achieves through movies: violence and ironic commentary through violence is Tarantino’s main vessel enabling the movie’s narrative; violence is the reason for and goal of the movie; and, finally, while positing violence as a solution to (past) fascist/white supremacist injustice, the movie narratives also depict violence as a tool for (racial) reconciliation. In that vein, Tarantino manages to invert power hierarchies by putting violence in the hands of the underdog. How else could we imagine a pleasurable consumerist movie experience around the Shoah?
Listening to interviews, it seems that the narrative depictions in the movie also mirror Tarantino’s own self-image as a “new white man.” One who has moved “beyond” squeamishness and insecurities around race, aware of the Black and Jewish experiences with the courage to “take on” histories of racialized violence. Following the release of Django Unchained (2012), for instance, the director suggested that the silence on slavery was “kind of everybody’s fault here in America” and continued “white, Black, nobody wants to really deal with it.” Tarantino proclaimed: “I’m responsible for people talking about slavery in America in a way that they have not in thirty years.” When critically asked about his depiction of race, violence, and an abundant scripting of the N-word in Django Unchained, Tarantino responded unashamedly: “I refuse your question. I’m not your slave, and you’re not my master. You can’t make me dance to your tune. I’m not a monkey.” Just like figurations of Naziism, words such as “slave” or “master” have become narrative vessels for Tarantino to use describing (his) independence and freedom: he is not a slave, not an animal and hence not unfree. Instead, via negations of freedom he narrates himself as a “free man,” one who can do whatever he wishes, including abundantly scripting the N-word as a white filmmaker tackling racism.
Next to Tarantino’s own thinking around race, in both of his racial revenge movies (Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained) he also scripted a white man (or white government) to be the one ushering in the successful rebellions against white supremacy, thus making it a feature of whiteness and masculinity to be able to defeat whiteness (see also Richard Dyer). In Inglorious Basterds, Pitt’s Appalachian mountain character embodies what bell hooks calls the “true free thinker” persona bestowed upon an otherwise degraded “hillbilly” character of the US, the white lower class. That is how “the freedom to do things differently” is in both movies played out by white men who (can!) escape the boundaries of state sanctioned and bourgeois respectability politics: Pitt hence plays the “true free white thinker” disobeying orders and ignoring politicians who seek to make deals with Nazis. At the same time, his (hillbilly) character as a former alcohol-smuggling white lower class rebel from Tennessee is also the only man able to reconcile the “heart” of the nation with its (white) “margins” (a trope usually used by conservatives or the political right). In the movie, his character mastered “the Apache way of life” and US American military life, thence reconciling appropriated white “Indigenous belonging” with US imperialism. Such romanticized working-class hero narrative then saves America and the world from Nazis by leading his band of Jewish avengers to their sacrificial victory. Last but not least, it is the working class US hero, the new white man, and no one else, who carves swastikas into Nazi foreheads, thus becoming the harbinger and definer to mark people as Nazis and thus unfit for white freedom.
Hence, on what is likely to be a suicide mission, Pitt introduces himself and his mission to his Jewish avengers accordingly: “And y’all will get me one hundred Nazi scalps taken from the heads of one hundred dead Nazis. Or you will die trying.” On the one hand, the dialogue signals the romantic representation of incorporating non-white minorities in larger projects of white warfare in the name of “freedom.” It also represents a rational tit-for-tat logic: if minorities want “white multicultural freedom” they must be willing to die for it. On the other hand, the dialogue signals the beginning of racial reconciliation despite continuous power differences. Given the fact that Pitt’s character and his avengers have the same enemies, it seems past and present historical injuries of US racism are forgiven and relegated to the parking lot of forgetfulness.
Figurations of Jewish and Black Agency
One of the few female leads, Jewish Shoshana—who goes by the white French-reading alias Emmanuel Mimieux—is presented as a level-headed, premeditating female avenging angel. That is contrary to the portrayal of the Jewish men in the film, who thirst—almost animalistically, with red eyes—for cruel revenge against the Nazis. But when Shoshana decides to burn down the cinema with the Nazis inside, Morrison’s notion of Africanism unfolds unashamedly: throughout the scenes, Shoshana’s black lover Marcel is depicted as a flat and mostly mute character, eventually following her in her suicidal plan out of love and solidarity. In this case, Marcel is the background persona through whom the actual story—namely Shoshana’s—unfolds. It is Marcel’s Africanist persona as her lover which enables the racial marking of Shoshana’s white Jewishness via Blackness, thus marking for the viewer what is otherwise hidden from sight: Emanuelle’s racial difference as well as her non-alignment with white supremacy.
While her plan ultimately succeeds, Shoshana is killed prematurely by German sniper Zoller, whom she, in a moment of “feminine” sympathy, seeks to comfort after having shot him. One might assume that Shoshana lacked the phallic power of the new white man who is able to deploy cruelty with a touch of romantic vengeance, while remaining distant and at ease with death. She is also not allowed to enjoy her revenge in the same way as Sergeant Donny Donowitz, “the Bear Jew,” does. He, for instance, is allowed to joyously tear up Hitler’s face with bullets whilst the theater burns to the ground before he dies. Similar to the lower-class character, white American male Jewishness is depicted at the core and periphery of white American society, while Ashkenazi (white) Jewishness nevertheless gets burned in Europe. This time, however, as an act of willful and sacrificial self-immolation: in a purifying blaze, the Jewish males, females, and the Nazis get burned together, signaling the end of an era of separation. The narratives then give way to the representation of an era of reconciliation with a rather undereducated and lower-class but truly free-spirited and militant American persona guiding the way to freedom.
Muscular Judaism as White Narrative-Break to Genocide
Shoshana’s Jewish female revenge is, however, foreclosed. Imposed by the Nazi sniper, her death comes across as “less manly” than the deaths of the Jewish men who die in action, joyously and willingly. In an uncanny way, her death follows the scripting of World War II genocide: first she gets killed and then burned, rendering her death passive through a gendered and racialized gaze. The “Bear Jew” on the other hand, comes to stand in as a marker for a desirable hypermasculinity, a trope of “muscular Judaism,” introduced by Max Nordau at the second Zionist Congress (1898). Muscular Judaism called into being a “new Jew,” one devoid of the effeminate characteristics of weakness and (diasporic) statelessness. Marked by nationalist zeal and military skill instead, such a figure is also introduced in Inglorious Basterds to re-write and undo the course of the Shoah militantly and violently.
At the end of the day I claim, that it is not a defeat of white supremacist Naziism that is at the core of Inglorious Basterds’s endeavor, but a fantasy of inflicting pain on the figure of the Nazi who represents a vessel for “pure and omnipresent evil.” Furthermore, while Naziism was among the many horrific expressions of white supremacy in history, in Inglorious Basterds white or whitened characters take revenge on figurations of Naziism via a moral narrative defence of white freedom. That way, the “new white men” is performatively enacted on screen as being devoid of fascistic, anti-Black, anti-Indigenous or anti-Jewish character traits. Instead, this new white man depicted by Tarantino now fights on behalf of the racialized Other against Nazis terrorizing white multicultural freedom. Struggling with the “figurative Nazi” thus becomes a foil upon which powers of evil (unfreedom) and goodness (freedom) can be marked, seen, or even carved into people’s bodies. After all, people go to the movies, go to theme parks, or escape into online games in order to experience “whom they could be,” short-circuiting the difficulty of changing who they are in reality. Inglorious Basterds is like that: a “day-dream” about a past gone wrong, but a daydream worth writing oneself into; a “day-dream” that performatively calls into being what one isn’t: a new white man.
Conclusion: Performative Anti-Racism
Figure 1. German Antifa sticker reading “Do it like Donny! Become a Bear Jew!”
In Germany, where the film has been extremely popular to this day, character identifications have lain primarily with the Jewish male revenge fighters. One of the many Antifa stickers of the time instructed: “Do it like Donny! Become a Bear Jew!” Such identification of (white) German youth with a fictional male American Jew seems odd given the recent history.
Yet, racial identifications underline the basic structures of what Morrison calls the “parasitic nature of Whiteness.” They feed on the racialized and transform them into metaphorical symbols and objects of freedom versus non-freedom and, in Inglorious Basterds, these identifications also feed on narratives of violence and revenge. All of this plays out while the movie reverses racial hierarchies and interpellates white non-Jews (today!) into the position of a historically persecuted minority. At the same time, such interpellations center whiteness (see Sara Ahmed) as a structuring cultural, personal, and political-economic signifier, which performatively doesn’t do what it says it would. Being anti-racist is thus replaced by performative declarations of anti-racism, perpetuating racialized violence via parasitic redemption politics that identify with the lives and fates of the racialized.
Consider the example of militant convictions of the same white German Left (and others) that celebrated Tarantino’s revenge-movie: today, more than ten years after the movie, this same white German Left that identified with Donny in fighting Nazis posts stickers of one of the most in/famous Israeli tanks, Merkava, onto walls, doors, and other public spaces. Said sticker (one of many) calls upon Germans to “Save Israel” and to fight “against any type of antisemitism,” if necessary with violence. Those who don’t like such militant interpellations are called “too German”: a German whiteness that belongs to the past, too effeminate at times and unwilling to use violence, but definitely too anti-Semitic to do the last step of militant defense and attack scenarios. Similar identifications seem to be at work with Tarantino’s performative anti-racism. The Jerusalem Post quotes Tarantino speaking in his new home of Israel: “‘I love the country and the people are really nice, very nice to me and they seem excited that I am here.” Talking specifically about war, he says of missiles fired from the Gaza Strip, “I am not scared at all. Like everyone else here, I don’t really notice it.”
Figure 2. A sticker depicting the IDF tank Merkava, with text reading “if they are too anti, you are too German!”
It is, seemingly, easier and maybe also more profitable to fantasize an alternative history of white supremacist violence than trying to dismantle the structures that got us there. This includes identifying with the racialized Other in order to pursue militant conflict via racialized and displaced narrations of reconciliation through revenge on new figurations of Naziism. Performative white anti-racism also seems easier to engage with than to critique how white supremacist violence, the military industrial and state complexes, as well as their material and psychic reproductive justification(s) got us here in the first place. Today, in Germany, identifications with Merkava-style whitened Jewish masculinity stand for a new German self-image of a post-racial, militant, and redemptive German identity fighting against new figurations of anti-Semites. Across the political spectrum, this new white man identity is fighting new figurations of Nazis in Germany, Palestine, Europe, the Middle East or elsewhere in a post-9/11 world.
This work is part of the research program EnGendering Europe’s ‘Muslim Question,’ financed by the Dutch Research Council (NWO, 016.Vici.185.077).