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Film as a Weapon: Inglourious Basterds

When Nazi propagandist Fritz Hippler wrote his article “Film as a Weapon,” he was referring not to the medium’s capacity to destroy, but rather its ability to create ideas and shape perceptions—he referred to it as a “mirror in which the broad masses of the world see Germany.” He even outlined a battle plan detailing how to increase audiences and maximize “public enlightenment”—how to “…[win] people over to an idea so sincerely, so vitally, that they succumb to it utterly and never escape it.”

Though Quentin Tarantino mocks the Nazi party’s political beliefs in Inglourious Basterds, he agrees with this view of film. In his vision of World War II, Allies and Germans fight not on battlefields, but in cinemas. Faced with the faltering war effort, Joseph Goebbels, the “number two man in the Third Reich,” plans to boost morale with an inspirational movie. Tarantino never frames a traditional skirmish. He deemphasizes Hitler’s battlefront strategy, focusing almost solely on Goebbels’ cinematic efforts.

Tarantino portrays this cinematic battleground as a vital front. One character explains that Goebbels sees his work as the last line of defense against Hollywood’s Jew-controlled productions. His film-within-the-film, A Nation’s Pride, sculpts soldier Frederick Zoller into a near-mythic national icon, known even to the Allies as “the German Sergeant York.” While Zoller turns away from the reproduction of his own exploits, recalling the horror of his actual experience, the German audience cheers as the valiant young hero triumphs to a swelling orchestral score.  

Tarantino creates a figurative filmmaker to mirror Goebbels: Hans Landa, the “Jew Hunter.” Early in the film, Landa revels in his nickname, but as the Allies close in, he bemoans it as “just the name that stuck.” When Landa learns of the Basterds’ approach, he discreetly works to ensure their success. Once he has all the players completely under his control, he blackmails the Basterds, changing his own role in history: the Allies agree to officially state Landa was their double agent from the beginning, and that his cooperation directly enabled the fuehrer’s assassination.

Landa, then, is a “filmmaker” because he manipulates history in order to influence how future generations perceive him—he will be the man who ended Hitler’s reign, rather than the savage murderer of countless Jews. Goebbels, too, manipulates history in A Nation’s Pride, softening the violence of Zoller’s exploits so that his story will inspire rather than revolt. Even Tarantino himself radically alters history to demonstrate the devastating potential of his celluloid weapon: the Basterds ultimately succeed in killing Hitler.

Tarantino is not always so direct in his argument. Central to the narrative is “Operation Kino,” an Ally plan to cripple the Nazi High Command by attacking the premiere of A Nation’s Pride. The British choose Lt. Archie Hicox to command the mission—not because of his extensive counterintelligence experience, but due to his credentials as a film critic specializing in German directors. The operation is partially masterminded by Bridget von Hammersmark, a beloved German starlet. Steeped as it is in film, Operation Kino becomes more than an attack on the High Command: it is an attack on Goebbels’ very cinematic ideals. As Operation Kino propels Inglourious Basterds to its climax, Tarantino envisions a literal cinematic battleground as the premiere goes up in flames—the blaze fueled, appropriately enough, by nitrate film

[Originally written February 21, 2012.]

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