Good and Joyful Hatred, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Enjoy Killing Nazis: An Attempt at Non-Philosophical Film Criticism

Watching the documentaries of Adam Curtis one gets a sense of the scope in time and across space of movements and the acts of the powerful that lead to certain events like 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq (setting aside if 9/11 or the invasion of Iraq are genuinely an events in the philosophical sense). His most recent film [the film, It Felt Like a Kiss, has now been taken down– APS] drops the didactic element of his previous documentaries, but does not completely emulate Chris Marker’s approach, and so there is some vestige of his previous didacticism in the text that punctuates the endless barrage of images, voices, music, and sounds that flow into vision of the viewer. Yet, the loss of this didactic element means that this film one no longer gives a sense of that scope mentioned above that lead to certain events. We are no longer inscribing these images within some wider meaning through which we may escape these images and the endless boredom and violence they invoke. We no longer see a chain of events, but a single catastrophe. We have the sense of seeing, without any hope of escape, from the viewpoint of the angel of history.

A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would liked to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. – Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”

This single disasters, presented with all the paranoia of a conspiracy theorist, is the only image available to us, the only movement we are in, the only power that is in this film. A melange of images captured by news cameras, ad cameras, home cameras, and the like, all of which are only allowed to film, to bear witness to the single catastrophe.

The genre of World War II films, predominately American in style, have always served as a kind of obscuring of this single catastrophe of history. They refuse to bear the same kind of witness to it that the angel of history does, and instead attempt to inscribe it into a circle of meaning. They attempt to make this war, a kind of transcendental form of war, mean something other than what it is as a moment of this single catastrophe. They not only redeem the violence of war and genocide, but they make that violence consumable (to borrow yet again Haneke’s saying).

Inglourious Basterds is a very different kind of World War II film. Brad Pitt, in a moment of typical bravado, has said of it in relation to this genre,

“The Second World War could still deliver more stories and films, but I believe that Quentin put a cover on that pot. With ‘Basterds,’ everything that can be said to this genre has been said. The film destroys every symbol. The work is done, end of story.”

I think he’s right, and the reason why is because Tarantino’s film, autonomous from anything Tarantino might say of it, refuses both the fixed viewpoint of the angel of history and the circle of meaning that obscures the single catastrophe. As is probably clear I do not agree completely with those epistemological or ideological readings of the film as, despite many interesting elements to their reading, I think they leave something out. While I rather liked American Stranger’s review of the film, I have a rather different understanding of the film coming from, following the work of Mullarkey, a non-philosophical film criticism. One that tries to remain completely immanent to it, not to bring out what it really means, but in order to understand the affect we undergo, or perhaps that exists as the relation between us and the film, in viewing it.

Being one of those few people who was, though not a Tarantino fanboy, actually excited and looking forward to seeing Tarantino’s latest, I was still surprised to find myself moved by the movie. This strange thing, I thought after my partner (definitely a Tarantino fangirl) and I were on our way home, would require some thought. After all, it went against my views of violence which generally expects films of this quality to present it as unconsumable. Tarantino’s presentation of violence, while I think much more interesting and honest than your typical Hollywood blockbuster or your underground or mainstream horror film, is certainly something often sexy. The elegance of the fight scenes in Kill Bill, often lifted shamelessly from classic kung-fu films, is not repeated here but there is something sexual in the unreserved brutishness of the violence in Inglourious Basterds. There was, in short, something good and joyful in the hatred expressed by The Basterds’ violence against the fascist Jew-hating Nazi soliders, from the lowest ranking private to the Führer himself, and it was this good and joyful hatred that would be the focus of a full non-philosophical treatment of the film.

Somehow the film managed, in refusing to accept the viewpoint of the angel of history, to present what we many want to see and thus participate in when watching a World War II film. End the war by killing Hitler, make every Nazi solider and their family suffer, take revenge for any number of evils committed in the world but understood in the popular imaginary to be focused in the Holocaust.

That the Basterds are nearly all Jews did not, to my mind, signal that they were an acceptable Other, but instead expressed a desire to decimate every Empire of othering. They are a historical instance of the universal figure of the murdered and persecuted that struggle against a particular historical situation. To kill all fascists who have excommunicated themselves from humanity by what they have done, left undone, and allowed to be done. And, in refusing to forgive them for what they did, they refuse to forgive evil. Sure, in a Spinozist way this means that they too will die (as most do in Tarantino’s films), but they do so in a way that is obviously satisfied with this one action. They have refused forgiveness and refused to compromise with those that prey upon the weak, or who appeared to be weak, and in so doing have done something. Simply that, to do something, is the expression of this good and joyful hatred.

Now, of course I exist outside this film and so I understand the truth in seeing that these too are human beings and that their suffering is also an evil. Yet, for all that, I understood the affect of the film, what I’m calling good and joyful hatred, because when one sees the single catastrophe of history piling wreckage upon wreckage one wants, unlike the angel, not to awaken the dead, for we lack this power of the angel in the same way he lacks the strength to close his wings, instead we desire to do something even at the loss of your own life. To kill Hitler, not to save the day for America (which is yet another moment of that single catastrophe), but to do one small thing, not to merely see, and in that to conquer as much as a body can the single catastrophe of history.

17 thoughts on “Good and Joyful Hatred, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Enjoy Killing Nazis: An Attempt at Non-Philosophical Film Criticism

  1. I think that the “how I learned to stop worrying” format is perfect for this article, because the negative rewviews from the mainstream liberal film critics seem to me to go beyond petty contrarianism or other “positioning” type of issues — they evince a very palpable anxiety. There’s something about this movie that is deeply disturbing to people of a certain mindset, and that’s a mindset that I honestly can’t get inside, because I have already watched this twice in the theater and loved it thoroughly both times.

  2. I had a different read of the film, though I see your point; either way, I enjoyed it thoroughly as well, and it is surprising to read so many negative reviews. I struggled with the movie for a different reason: namely, what does watching (and participating voyeuristically in) that violence do to us? I chronicled (with too many words) my thoughts on that topic in general, but with particular reference to I.B., here.

  3. hey, nice post.

    haven’t really figured out yet how to mark ideology and express enjoyment at the same time, or maybe just didn’t allow myself the space. but i did think IB was brilliant.

    “good and joyful hatred” is a nice way of putting it. but how does the film make its violence appear this way? it seems to me it only accomplishes this by bracketing this ‘purified’ revenge story with signifiers of the american state. this is also how it avoids being reducible to a story about jews. the link to the usa doesn’t provide a sense of meaning, only universality, which meaning would only compromise. its most visible agent, aldo raine, supervises the othering of nazis that in itself is meaningless (universal). with the last POV shot and the “my masterpiece” line the film fully identifies its most (literally) significant violent acts, the swastikas to the forehead, as structurally homologous with forgiveness. matching the audience’s gaze with the nazi’s does not critique the audience’s enjoyment of violence (a la haneke) but simply (and again, meaninglessly/universally) grants us permission to enjoy the obscene violent fantasy (killing nazis without guilt, ignoring historical fact) which from the perspective of the angel of history is unconsumable. as i argue in my post, this presents a sort of theory of propaganda (much as kill bill ‘theorized’ kung fu and westerns).

    to put it another way its function is ironic, and the usa is the indisputable master of irony in the film.

  4. Traxus,

    While I liked a lot of your review this discussion of America was the part I had trouble following. First, I do want to say there is something deeply satisfying about watching someone refusing to allow a solider take off their uniform (even if they are in some sense a solider themselves). It may be othering, but in some sense there is something phenomenologically satisfying (contra Levinas) to bringing the true monstrous face of this person (like Mercedes does Captain Vidal in Pan’s Labyrinth). But, more to the point, I didn’t see as many of these American signifiers. This could have been the context in which I saw the film, namely in the independent cinema in Nottingham surrounded by the English. It seemed to me that the Basterds were American but essentially outside the Allied chain of command. In D&G terms they were a war machine. There were no American flags, no patriotic slogans, even some mocking of the Germans who wanted to die for country. I’m not saying they weren’t there, but I think I missed them.

    I should also say that I didn’t read your review as expressing any kind of liberal bad conscience, like we can find in the mainstream reviews of the movie. It seemed to me that you enjoyed it and that writing criticism is part of that enjoyment. It is an interesting discussion and only didn’t join in the conversation there because I’d rather avoid talking to some individuals who joined in early.

    Brad E,

    I did read your post, but, as I’ve said on other Christian blogs, I don’t really understand the question. Perhaps hubristically I trust myself to make decent ethical evaluations about films. So, I watched 300, and while I can admire the dude’s abs, I found the film as a whole repulsive. Now, I also take your point about what violence does beyond the individual and I specifically went to the cinema where few English douche-bag lads go because I didn’t want to sit through the Royal Marines advert (the worst racist thing I’ve ever seen on film) or hear them cheer in a way that totally missed the point of the film (or get irate over the English accents). Still, I think that those problems go far deeper than film, or at least more so than a Tarentino film, and I’m certainly not going to hold off on seeing movies because of them. I found in the course I teach as well that most of the British theology students I taght, the majority in some sense nominally Christian with a few Muslim and atheist students as well, were confused as to why I was going on warning them about the violence they would see in the films.

  5. I have not seen the movie, but I think after reading these posts I’ll try to see it tonight. Here is what I hope a viewing of the movie will help me resolve after reading these posts: one of the most impressive discussions of hatred in the American context is the chapter on the metaphysics of Indian hatred in Melville’s Confidence Man. Has Tarantino offered us a version of Indian hatred as Nazi hatred? Is everything resolved if we see hatred from the side of those who are being hunted by men like the Indian hater? Is there ultimately a vision of the apocalyptic self-destruction on both sides? Or is there a Dionysian joy that effaces all differences?

  6. I compare this movie with the recent Bond film, Quantum of Solace, which is also about fighting evil without qualms and delighting in the violence of it. The Bond film comes off better in every way. Tarantino picks an easy target – Nazis. There’s no gamble there: anyone can like a film in which Nazis die. The Bond film picks an evil corporation masking itself as an NGO orchestrating a coup in a socialist country (Bolivia) in order to take control of their water supply. It takes a position (even if people who don’t know the politics are going to miss that point). The Bond film recognizes what is at stake in these back-door wars over resources, Tarantino has no idea what’s at stake in fighting Nazism. Like Tarantino’s film, the Bond film gives us an ending in which the good guy takes action and intercedes in global politics, but unlike the Tarantino film, Bond’s intercession actually counts for something, whereas Tarantino’s film ends in 1944 (what do we get? the Final Solution still happens, Hiroshima will probably still take place, D-Day still occurred).

    The posters on this thread suggest that liberal critics can’t handle Tarantino. Perhaps not, but he’s one of them. He has a part-Native American, a group of Jews, a woman, and a black man, all teaming up to fight Nazis. Liberal multiculturalism with guns. This film simply rehashes Hollywood’s newfound obsession with Jews who kick ass (Munich, Defiance) and with killing Nazis (Valkyrie, Dead Snow, which is admittedly not Hollywood), which, I would argue, is an obsession with Israel, but traxus and I have already debated this on his blog, and I’m not going to belabor the point. For me, the only worthwhile piece of art about WWII continues to be Weiss’s Aesthetics of Resistance. I’m somewhat surprised by how much people on the left liked this film, and it makes me feel like there’s something I’m missing. But I’m not going to drop my opposition to it, and I’m certainly not going to view it as a post-ideological piece of pure enjoyment.

  7. Well, no, I never said it was a post-ideological piece of pure enjoyment. I even said I think that traxus’ review was interesting and I don’t include him in the group of liberal reviewers who were overly anxious about the film. I was only highlighting the affective aspect of the film and saying why I feel no guilt in enjoying it, even there are a number of ideological problems with it that are lacking in lesser movies (like the Bond one). I liked the liberal multiculturalism with guns bit. It’s why the affect worked for me. It wasn’t at the level of State actors (Britian, France, America and even Germany are all environments that these characters arise out of, but their actions are not British, American, French or German) that the characters took action. It was a more primal fuck you to the ideology of Nazism, not in favor of America or Israel but as human beings (I really disagree with you there and I think there is something potentially dangerous of lumping in anti-Nazi revenge films , like Basterds and Defiance, with a film like Munich which obviously does fit here in your scheme).

  8. “it doesn’t complicate things that Raine is modelling their mission after the Apache resistence?”

    it does insofar as it keeps us from reading him as essentially american, just like hans landa isn’t essentially a nazi. in some sense both are ‘just wearing the uniform,’ but their state allegiances determine the constraints within which they operate. the basterds aren’t autonomous, they’re elite commandos in an action movie. that is, they break rules (“get chewed out”) but their rule-breaking only furthers the interests of their state employers by going further than the state can authorize — no different really from mel gibson in lethal weapon or any comparable american action hero.

    in essence the cliched signifiers of the usa (raine’s bad appalachian accent, donny’s baseball bat, the boston references, their inability to speak anything but english, the simple fact that they take their orders from the usa) are all that marks the basterds as american, not any patriotic speechifying or statement of beliefs. again, this ironic attitude toward their own conformity is typical of the american action hero.

    the difference with landa (and to a lesser extent all the nazis who get a swastika on their forehead) is that as the character who in his ironic detachment from his function is most like the enlightened, ironic spectator the film works to construct for itself, his private self ultimately undermines his allegiance to the nazis (he takes the uniform off). but this contradictory position is also the one from which our enjoyment is structured: we watch these anonymous others who get to purely enjoy their revenge while displaced from full identification via (alternately) sympathy with their victim, their hollowness as psychological subjects, the ‘weakness’ of their performances vis-a-vis those of landa, zoller, shoshanna, hicox, etc. and in the last shot we are symbolically punished/forgiven for our inconsistent role as spectators, which is simultaneously our permission to enjoy ‘non-ideologically.’

    the interesting thing is that in the film, formally, the u.s.a. grants us this position. we can only enjoy violence and ‘good and joyful hatred’ by ‘ironically’ submitting to the u.s.a. yes it’s ‘just’ the uniform, but all the same…

  9. I don’t know if I can agree. You talk about a “primal fuck you” in favor of “human beings.” There’s an attempt to make this film a universal triumphalism of violence against violence. But the film ends in 1944: the major tragedies of WWII have already taken place or will still take place (Hiroshima). Berlin is spared the Allied bombing, but what does that mean? Symbolically, I think it means that the only thing the Basterds save by killing Hitler is culture, film, UFA. Saving culture but letting humanity go to shit doesn’t give me the same sense of redemption that others seem to feel with this film – saying fuck you to Nazism is an empty gesture. If Tarantino had made this film in 1948, I would be more impressed, but since it appears in 2009, when Germany has the best relations with Israel of all the European countries and when Glenn Beck compares persecution of conservatives with persecution of Jews, I have a hard time believing that there’s anything about this film that should stir us.

    You’re probably right, though, about being careful about comparing a film like Defiance with a film like Munich. There is a different argument being made. Although, I’m not sure I would stick Inglourious Basterds into the category of “freedom fighter” films, either. The characters are too typological for that.

  10. to try to make this clearer —

    basterds’ irony = empty (their difference from their state allegiance only furthers the interests of their state)

    landa’s irony = ‘full’ (his difference from his state allegiance results in betrayal)

  11. “Symbolically, I think it means that the only thing the Basterds save by killing Hitler is culture, film, UFA”

    i agree with this — but for this and my earlier points i think the closest thing to a jewish state being valorized by IB is hollywood. bringing in israel would i think require an allegorical reading, in the bad, analogical sense.

  12. oh, and one last thing, sorry — it’s also signficant that landa’s stated desires are determined by the american dream (the house on nantucket, etc.). not even his selfish act of betrayal is independent.

  13. Alright, I capitulate on Israel, although my point about German-Jewish relations was a broader point about the role of this film in the 2009 political milieu.

    In relation to the above conversation, I wanted to point out this quote from Tarantino, where he explains his view of history. I think the quote about how the Industrial Age put a stop to humanity’s barbarism is pretty revealing:

    “World War II is one of the most interesting and fascinating story subjects of the 20th century. It was the most profound thing that happened in the 20th century. We actually – humanity – stopped the return of the Dark Ages, which could have very well happened if the Nazis had been successful. Before that, it was the way it always was for countries at war: might makes right. I take your country and make it mine, and that’s the way the world was governed. Forever, all right? And the Industrial Age stopped that, but we could have gone back to that, if the world hadn’t risen up. And to me, it was just very interesting. But all the different subjects that we put in the movie pertain to World War II, whether it was the idea of American Jews getting vengeance behind enemy lines in a way that their European counterparts and uncles and aunts couldn’t, in a way that they didn’t have available to them, and even just the way that you’re dealing with Germany via filmmaking inside the Third Reich. And even just dealing with Josef Goebbels, not as the architect of evil, the way he’s always seen, but in his job as studio head…”

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