Tarantino’s film title “Inglorious Basterds” referred to a band of WWII american vigilantes out to kill as many Nazis as they could with unrestrained barbarism. One might even think that these Inglorious Basterds were deliverers of justice and judgment upon a well-deserved evil, racist nation bent on world conquest. However, as the film progressed, I became less convinced that the title of ‘Inglorious Basterds’ referred solely to this vigilante group.
Throughout the film, I found myself uncomfortably sickened by the very real portrayals of undignified human characters. There was not one that showed a redeeming quality about them — not ‘the Jew Hunter’ who methodically and nonchalantly hunted Jews like ‘rats’ or the Frenchman who sacrificed the Jews for his and his family’s self-preservation nor the Jewish survivor of a massacre who was drunk with vengeance and referred to herself as “the face of Jewish revenge” while she laughed wickedly as she burned 350 Nazis down. There was no remarkable display of sacrifice, courage, dignity or redeeming quality of compassion or mercy evident in any of the characters. And yet, what was so striking was all the portrayals were so human. Tarantino left the audience disturbed when the film ended with Pitt’s character carving the swastika onto the forehead of the antagonist, the Jew Hunter, and then marveling with a smile over what he called, “his best work.” Pitt’s character wanted this man to always be known as a Nazi so that he would be the victim of future hate crimes, ironically, an act that parallelled the Nazis branding the Jews. In a war like WWII where the perceptions of good vs. evil and right vs. wrong appears at the onset to be blatantly clear, this film challenges our assumptions of how easily we could draw pose ourselves as “the good guys.” Instead, the film brings us disturbingly to an honest look at our common human depravity (common between the oppressor, resistance and victims) and smears away the arrogance of presuming that we could be better than the others. Though the film rewrites history with a positive victory at the killing of Hitler and all his leaders, thus ending the war, we are left feeling the unavoidable impression that there were no winners. Instead, humanity is portrayed with no glory to be proud of and we were all ‘basterds.’
I believe Tarantino effectively echoed the cry of Paul who ardently made the case that we are inglorious because “we have all fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) and that we are all basterds because we were “by nature children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3). Tarantino captured the biblical truth of human depravity. The way the film ends with Pitt’s character devilishly smiling at us as if we were looking at him through the eyes of the Jew Hunter who was just branded with the swastika, we are either left with the hopeless notion that there is no hope — we’re basterds and there’s nothing more to it. Or, the end scene leaves us with a question — the question of how could we be redeemed from our own debasement. It is no wonder that redemption had to come from ‘the outside,’ God coming from heaven and stepping into our basterdly humanity (Philippians 2:5-8). And it is no wonder redemption had to incorporate re-creation, that to redeem someone meant also to make them anew, where salvation is more than a matter of acquiring more time but rather salvation is about becoming someone entirely different – even someone beautiful and worthy of glory. By the film’s final fade out, “Inglorious Basterds” gives no suggestion of the gospel but leaves us with two possibilities: we’re hopeless because this is all we are and nothing can be done about it or it sends us searching for redemption from our own depravity.