Revenge of the Powerless: Hannah Arendt, “The Battle of Algiers” and “Inglourious Basterds”

Inglourious Basterds

Note: This post contains some spoilers. If you haven’t already seen “Inglourious Basterds,” you may want to be careful.

In Hannah Arendt’s On Violence, the author makes an interesting claim. She writes that, on a political level, violence is a tool of power, but not equal to it. In fact, when violence is used as a main force of power rather than diplomacy, it seems to represent a lack of power. A political regime that has stability doesn’t need to use force against its own citizens in order to stay that way. On the flipside, revolutionary violence usually represents an outcry from people who consider themselves powerless; people who are ostracized, exploited or endangered by those in charge.

A really solid example of Arendt’s point is the movie “The Battle of Algiers,” a 1967 film directed by Gillo Pontecorvo. Filmed in a documentary style, it’s a dramatic re-enactment of the titular battle between French colonial forces in Algiers, and the National Liberation Front of Algeria that tells the story from both sides of the war (although I think it tends to be more sympathetic to the NLF than the French, who come off looking none too good). All in all, it’s a really thought-provoking movie from both an anthropological and cinematic standpoint.

The goal of the film was to show the effect of this violent situation on both the French and the Algerians, and I think it was pulled off pretty well. There are scenes of NLF members blowing up restaurants and bars, many of which contain, as we’re shown through close-ups, innocent people who have no stake in the larger conflict. The non-NLF Algerians, too, are shown to suffer at the hands of the French government, who eventually stick them in one quarter of the city that’s kept under close watch by soldiers day and night. They kill with very little regard for the larger native population.

Arendt’s two representations of political violence are on full display here, too. With the French army, we see the presence of violence as a tool of power. The French government colonizes Algeria mostly because it can, and the military is its long arm, making sure everything stays under control. The NLF represents the powerless masses, spurred to action through a mix of nationalism and frustration.

All of this makes a pretty good argument, I think, for Arendt’s points. But does it work outside of political docu-dramas? Can it, in fact, apply to fictional storytelling, too?

As it turns out, yes, it can. On the very same day that I started watching “The Battle of Algiers” with my class, I went to the theater and saw “Inglourious Basterds.” Now, while violence in Tarantino movies (and most other fictional films, for that matter) tends to be campy and there mostly for entertainment value, when examining the motivations of the characters in “Inglourious Basterds,” some interesting parallels between Tarantino’s movie and the situation depicted in “Algiers” start to show up. It turns out that many of the characters in “Basterds” fall under Arendt’s classifications, too.

From the outset, let’s just look at this from a general perspective. Since, like “Algiers,” “Basterds” is a war movie, the idea of violence as a tool of power is pretty obvious. The Nazis, of course, represent Hitler’s power over Europe. The allies represent their respective countries demonstrating their respective power. Where it gets interesting is when we examine characters like the Basterds and Shosanna Dreyfus, who could easily represent Arendt’s “violence as a lack of power” argument.

Up until the start of the movie, the Basterds (or at least most of them) were acting, we assume, as part of a larger army, powerless to do anything individually. Sure, there’s a greater cause at hand, but the fighting isn’t very fulfilling. It doesn’t feel personal or specific. Being a tool of power doesn’t really allow for much personal satisfaction. As part of the smaller, more independent Basterds, these characters are able to get away with a lot more. The victories may not be huge (excepting, of course, the movie’s ending), but they are satisfying. These men get to smash, scalp and scar the villains responsible for the genocide of their own people. Their acts of revenge make it feel as if they finally have some control over the direction of the war. It doesn’t really give them any diplomatic authority, but the fear they instill in their enemies gives them a feeling of dominance.

Shosanna’s violent behavior completely originates from a lack of power. She’s been in hiding for years from the Nazis, assuming a false identity so she wouldn’t be found out. The opportunity to get back at the people who killed her family, and have made life a living hell for her, gives Shosanna the chance to step out of her “hiding” mode and take the upper hand. It is (spoiler alert) her plan that effectively ends the war in Tarantino’s plot. Again, Shosanna’s behavior does not represent power or influence (in the grand scale of things, she’s got none of either), but acting from a lack of it.

The fact that “Inglourious Basterds” is, essentially, a revenge movie makes Arendt’s argument seem all the more applicable to its characters and message. Arendt’s ideas could even apply to Tarantino himself (spoiler alert). He kills off Hitler and his advisors at the end of the movie, something he himself could never have done, having been born in 1963. The director’s alternative view of history gives victims of World War II an ending they might have wished for, but didn’t get.

So, what can movies like “Inglorious Basterds” teach us? It’s pretty obvious that this movie exists almost purely for entertainment value. But, with the help of folks like Hannah Arendt and Gillo Pontecorvo, along with a closer reading of the events of a film, it’s possible for cinema violence to become something more than gratuitous. In the case of “Basterds,” this perspective changes a campy revisionist epic into a movie about power and revenge, and the effects they have on those who seek it.

Related Links:

Women and revolutionary violence in “The Battle of Algiers” and “Inglourious Basterds.”

A short summary of Hannah Arendt’s “On Violence.”

A video review of “Inglourious Basterds” by me and my friend Elliot