Friday, August 28, 2009

Who Won the War?

(Spoiler Warning: plot details of the movie Inglourious Basterds and the history of World War II are mentioned in this article)

Who won World War II in Europe? That's easy: the Allies. But who really won the war? You know, who made the most important contribution? Who deserves the most credit? Who was the most valuable player? Bring the question to this level and the answer may differ depending on whom you ask. There are several answers to choose from.

1. The U.S. America's money, material and manpower overwhelmed Germany while the money, in particular, kept Britain and Russia in the game when Hitler may have otherwise overwhelmed them.

2. The U.S.S.R. The Soviet Union bore the brunt of the worst Nazi attacks, took more casualties, and killed more German soldiers. Their engagement of the largest part of the Wehrmacht made it easy for the Americans to invade late in the game and surge eastward, but if not for Russia the U.S. might never had made it into Europe.

3. The U.K. By holding out alone against Hitler for a crucial year Britain bought time for both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., and their persistence made it impossible for Hitler to apply his full force against Russia in the summer of 1941, when the country might well have cracked under greater pressure.

Some students, scholars and history buffs will take the arguments further, claiming credit for specific generals or political leaders while downplaying the role of others. Russians often minimize the American and English contribution, for instance, while Americans of my father's generation had special contempt for Field Marshall Montgomery-- and my dad wasn't even in the European theater. As well, people in France and the former Yugoslavia might credit "the Resistance," those countries in particular preferring to claim as much as possible that they liberated themselves from Nazi rule. Within each resistance, of course, the credit due to different factions and leaders continues to be debated.

War is a collective endeavor, but since it isn't exactly a spontaneous phenomenon each war bears the stamp of strong individuals. There's a temptation, irresistible for many people, to see personal agency at work in clashes of nations. We want to be able to say that World War II, for instance, was won, for all intents and purposes, at this time and this place, and to credit the people who were there. Many people believe in decisive moments as well as decisive personalities, and their belief influences their perception of warfare.

In Inglourious Basterds Quentin Tarantino imagines perhaps as decisive a moment as can be imagined. Quite to the surprise of first-time viewers, Hans "Jew Hunter" Landa and Aldo "the Apache" Raine find themselves negotiating the effective end of the war in Western Europe, if not the entire European conflict. Raine has been captured, but two of his men remain inside a movie theater, poised to blow up the Nazi leadership. Landa thinks he can thwart them with one phone call, but taking the long view he thinks his postwar chances are better if he cuts a deal with the American to be in on the victory by turning traitor. He proves to be very demanding, but both Raine and his superiors think his asking price a small one to pay to pull off a decapitation strike against Hitler. Neither man knows that another plot is playing out in the same theater, where the proprietor, Shoshanna Dreyfus aka Emmanuelle Mimieux, has barred the exits and arranged for nitrate film reels to be set ablaze, turning the cinema into a deathtrap. Both plots succeed.

So who has won the war? As in history, it's a matter of perception.

1. The Allies. Tarantino's account is not as completely counterfactual as it could be, after all.

2. The Basterds. Their improbable infiltration of the movie theater makes a decapitation strike possible independent of Shoshanna's plot, but because of Raine's capture the remaining Basterds are vulnerable to Landa's phone call. But the mere fact of their infiltration makes Landa realize that he has multiple options, the best one being to play along with the plot. Even if Landa remains loyal to Hitler, however, the Basterds can still blow up the place if they see things getting hot. In such a scenario, Aldo Raine himself probably ends up a dead man, but he could still receive posthumous credit for the decisive stroke of the war.

3. Shoshanna. Her arson plot is likely to succeed regardless of the negotiations between Raine and Landa. It isn't dependent upon the Basterds, though the confusion sown once they take the offensive only helps fulfill her desire that no one escape the theater.

4. Landa. He has the power to thwart the Basterds, either by having the two men in the theater taken out (at admitted risk to everyone inside), or more reasonably by getting word to security to arrange a discreet exit for Hitler and Co. without the Basterds noticing their departure, the rest of the audience being left to take their chances. It's also possible that in the process of closing a trap on the Basterds, the men tipped off by Landa might discover Shoshanna's plot and thwart that as well. His treason at the least allows the Basterds freedom of movement, and is arguably the absolutely essential act before anything else can happen. The Medal of Honor may be a bit much for him to ask (not to mention the money, property, immunity, etc.) but the Allies definitely owe him something -- perhaps plastic surgery, at least.

The easiest answer would be "All of the Above," but my point has been that some people aren't satisfied with that kind of explanation. I think it partly suits Tarantino's purposes to leave audiences asking just the question I've asked and debating it through future viewings of his film. The intriguing thing about his achievement is that, despite his blatant fictionalization of a too-decisive-to-be-true moment in history, Inglourious Basterds insists that we recognize the role of contingency and coincidence in the film's fantastic victory. Basterds is no "one man army" story; no one wins the war singlehandedly, and no one's role is purely autonomous. After all, Shoshanna is in a position to strike a deathblow against Hitler only because of Landa's perverse decision to let her run back in 1941. Tarantino has presented a comic-book representation of the actual complexity of war, including the fact that some of the people who get credit for victories are hardly heroes, while some of the people most deserving of credit aren't around to receive it.

1 comment:

Will Errickson said...

A pretty cool take on a fascinating movie! Enjoyed reading it.