Next to Metropolis, Fritz Lang’s M is one of his most famous films. The film’s narrative (police and criminals alike searching for a child killer), the noir lighting, its breakthroughs in sound (introduced a mere four years prior), and Peter Lorre’s infamous monologue all cement M as a classic, even nearly a century after its release. Meanwhile, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds is unjustly infamous for its manipulation of history. What I find most fascinating about the two films is how they treat their respective monsters (child killers and Nazis) and how their stories reflect attitudes toward societal ills.
In M, someone in Berlin has been killing the area children, which fills the civilians with fear and paranoia and dramatically increases the police’s presence. This leads to severe crackdowns on the criminal elements who are assumed to be hiding the killer. To protect their profit margins, the crime bosses organize the beggars of the city (it appears they have a union of sorts) to implement a thorough stakeout of the city that rivals that of the police. The vigilance of one of the beggars leads to the eventual apprehension of the killer, Hans Beckert. The criminals hold a kangaroo court for Backert, with the “witnesses” in the galleys screaming for Beckert’s blood. He replies:
The Child Killer, to whom we are first introduced via a menacing shadow accompanied by an unsettling audio cue (whistling “In the Hall of the Mountain King”), is surprisingly, granted his humanity in this scene. The urges he describes are too well detailed for us to doubt his inner strife. This does not excuse his actions, but it prevents him from being dehumanized, and complicates our sense of moral justice in killing Hans Beckert through mob rule. We don’t have a problem with Beckert being sentenced to death by a court by the end of the film – we are only uncomfortable when the distinctions between true justice and vengeance blur.
M was the second-to-last film Fritz Lang made in Germany before emigrating to the United States in 1934. Released in 1931, M precedes Hitler’s Chancellorship by two years, but it doesn’t pre-date the slow boil of Anti-Semitism in the country, placing M at an interesting apex in German history. Hans Beckert’s vilification by the emotionally charged court echoes the same atmosphere that Hitler would fashion to target the Jews. In both M and real life Germany, we can see the tendency to literally kill one’s problems. On the one end of the spectrum you have the innocent, scapegoated Jews, and on the other the more complicated “monsters,” people who actually performed deplorable actions (child killer Hans Beckert and the evolving Nazi regime).
This also presents a conundrum: in light of the film’s look at humanizing a “monster,” what are we to make of the most famous 20th Century monster that would be birthed in Germany within years of M‘s release?
Which dovetails with Inglourious Basterds. Two plots to kill Hitler and the Nazi elite intersect at the cinema Le Gamaar, and along the way some Nazi soldiers are dispatched.
If there are any easy targets for depicting a guilt-free murder spree, the list would include terrorists, rapists, child molesters, Nazis, zombies, and Nazi zombies (in that order). Their transgressions are utterly beyond what we can conceive as human, and therefore people are free to punch the tickets of these beastlies.
Yet in the last decade the image of the Nazi monster has been eroding. Wilm Hosenfeld in The Pianist, Valkyrie‘s portrayal of German Army officers plotting to kill Hitler, The Reader‘s dissection of German guilt in the wake of the Holocaust, and Downfall‘s disturbing, yet recognizably human portrait of Hitler (and the mix of Hitler loyalists and the poor souls caught between Hitler and a hard place), all represent a shift in the way we look at the Third Reich. The historiography of the Nazi image has been removed from its boogeyman pedestal and re-packaged in humanized garb. Their actions are acknowledged as horrendous, but their humanity is restored so we can meditate on the worst capacities of human nature and, hopefully, learn how to guard against those tendencies.
Inglourious Basterds attempts to cap this process of humanization by presenting morally complicated German soldiers: Sgt. Rachtman, who gets killed by “The Bear Jew,” receives a romantic Western musical intro (complete with slow-mo effect as he surveys the Basterds) and replies to Raine’s request to give up his men, “I respectfully refuse, sir.” The man’s honorable, dignified manner is emphasized as “The Bear Jew” asks him if he received his medals killing Jews while caressing the Sgt.’s face with a Louisville Slugger. He calmly replies, “Bravery,” before being brutally bludgeoned to death. We cut to a wide shot of the entire scene, with the Basterds standing in a circle around the area laughing. The U.S. soldiers tasked with terrorizing the German Army are not the clear-cut good guys.
Similar scenes surround other Nazis: After the shootout in the pub, Aldo Raine appeals to Wilhelm’s new status as a father (aka, his humanity) to get him to lower his firearm, but is killed by Bridget von Hammersmark; sniper Fredrick Zoller grimaces as he sees his 250 kills portrayed in Nation’s Pride. Even Hans Landa reveals his humanity by killing Hitler – so long as he’s rewarded by the Allies (self-interest is remarkably human when compared to blind allegiance to the Führer and his ideology).
My friend Adam commented on his sense of moral confliction during the film’s final scene, where the audience for Nation’s Pride is locked in a burning cinema while the Basterds unload machine gun clips into the crowd below. At the time I pointed out that everyone there, even the women that Adam was concerned about, were high ranking members of the Nazi party and therefore not exactly what you’d call “innocent civilians.” That said, Adam’s feeling was purposefully elicited by Tarantino.
Prior to the slaughter in the cinema, Hitler is shown guffawing at the Allied soldiers dropping from the sniper fire in Nation’s Pride, mirroring the way the audience of Inglourious Basterds may react to the Nazi blood bath to come, and the power of cinema to craft murder into a joyous triumph. One might argue that Tarantino falls prey to this trap of murder as joyful s pectacle, as exemplified by the bombastic montage for Hugo Stiglitz, who early on is shown comedically butchering Nazis. Yet the aforementioned Sgt. Rachtman’s death takes place immediately after Stiglitz’s killing spree. Thus, Tarantino presents how we’ve treated German soldiers (grouped together with Nazis and the SS, however arguable their connection) in cinema and video games with Stiglitz’s rampage, then proceeds to repeatedly weaken that ethic with his complicated images of the ultimate “enemy.”
"It's not enough to survive."
These converging ideas produce a film without distinct lines of good and evil, in contrast to the traditional view of World War II (or any conflict) as a “just” war in which all the brutality is contained on one side. Aldo Raine’s singular vision of Nazi killing and terrorism (a nice subtext touch by Tarantino) may first prompt shouts of approval, but due to the humanity afforded the Nazis in his wake, Raine’s status as a good guy is far from assured. He bears too much similarity to Hans “The Jew Hunter” Landa, who too relishes his job. Any instance in which a character exhibits delight in the suffering of others marks that character as a “bad guy,” regardless of national allegiance.
In what is becoming an established sentiment, Tarantino manages to make you feel pity for the Nazis (just look at my friend Adam’s reaction). Like child killer Hans Beckert in M, the actions by the Nazi’s aren’t excused when we feel sorry for them, but we’re disturbed to see brutal vengeance being enacted against them, rather than true justice.
Ultimately, the con is to choose either side as “the good guy.” U.S. society has been acculturated to picking God or the Devil, Democrat or Republican, Pepsi or Coke, to the point that anything outside of that binary structure is discarded (sorry Ralph Nader). But it is important to acknowledge the complexity and depravity of human nature with something more complex than a simple hero/villain division. If anything, Tarantino tries to remind us not to have faith in advertising. Just because you see U.S. uniforms vs German ones, doesn’t mean it affords u.s. the unmitigated moral high ground or a blank check for our actions.
Tarantino’s approach to Nazis and Lang’s approach to child killers also reveals the repressed moral qualms concerning killing our problems. Ben Creech’s “No Time for Sentiment” is quite applicable to these images of the monstrous. When it comes to Nazis or child killers, we have to make time for sentiment, that is, refuse the vengeful urge to deny anyone’s humanity, regardless of their actions. If not for their sake, at least for our own. The lead motive for killing these problem individuals stems from a fear for our own safety (whether real or imagined).
But our fears should not drive us to dark action. In the 2004 TV series Battlestar Galactica, Commander Adama has to decide if he’s going to kill his superior officer due to concerns that she’ll harm the few humans left alive after the Cylons destroyed their planet. When he responds to his assassin’s request for the greenlight, he merely says, “It’s not enough to survive.”
If the court will allow it I would like to close with a lengthier quote from Battlestar Galactica. If the show ever had a dehumanized character, it would be the cowardly, slimy, Gaius Baltar. He’s spread across the whole series like an oozing stain, yet the show performs the most exhilarating magic trick by affording the man his humanity. Considering the nature of this article’s discussion and the scene bearing similiarities to the German occupation of France (in BSG robot overlords, the Cylons, were occupying a human settlement; the court is now condemning people for their alleged co-operation with the invading force), the following seems fitting:
Thanks to Ben Creech for helping me develop some of the ideas in this piece.