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Wednesday, September 02, 2009

"I assume you know who we are."

Last weekend I checked out both Inglourious Basterds and The Baader-Meinhof Complex. Both are stylistically two fairly different movies. But without the intent of denigrating or elevating either one I must say that on a certain level the two films are incredibly similar thematically.

On the surface they seem wildly different - QT doing his movie-movie thing about World War II and the power of big "c" Cinema. Some quibbles notwithstanding I'm beginning to feel like it was one of my favorite movies of the year as a cumulative effort (but more on that in another post). As for BMK, it a rousing action film wearing the skin of a counterculture 60's action film about the extreme leftist sentiments sparked by Western intervention in Vietnam, the perceived police state mentality of the German government, etc.

But look deeper and it's evident that both are movies about appearances and rep. In a 9.1.09 posting titled "Real of fictitious, it doesn't matter..." Jim Emerson makes a very thorough dissection of IG and the role of reputation and appearance throughout the film. Emerson postulates (and I agree with his analysis) that Tarantino crafts characters whose reputations precede them, noted by nicknames ("Aldo the Apache," "the Jew Hunter," "The Bear Jew") and even self conscious asides by the movie itself (notably Stiglitz's introductory vignette).

This common thread is shared by BMK which follows the Red Army Faction (RAF) terrorist/revolutionary group in its heyday in the late 60's and early 70's. Part of their mandate - one shared by the Basterds - is to strike fear into the German power structure, creating tension and demoralization of what they perceive as immoral and even inhuman oppressors. Point of fact, part of the RAF propaganda explicitly described the police as pigs and effectively declaring open season on the men in uniform while at the same time dissuading attacks on "the workers" (i.e. civilians).

While the RAF leadership doesn't have evocative nicknames like the Basterds, their identities are known and they have very public faces. In fact, one of the most effective tools in ultimately rounding up the RAF leadership was a sort of "catch 'em all"-style wanted poster with images of the known members of the outfit displayed with x's marking the ones that had been captured of killed by the authorities. Pay attention to the trailer as well - as much as it comes through there in the actual film there's a very pervasive rock star/outlaw swagger to the early exploits of the RAF. It's a handy bit of synchronicity that the fashions of the group members echos some of the styles seen today (skinny jeans, form-fitting clothes with a retro vibe) that's at odds with the proletarian aims of the group.

Indeed, for all its talk of anarchic abolition of controlling capitalist systems, the RAF was incredibly well-marketed in its day, with frequent distribution of flyers bearing the group's logo. Compare and contrast this to the Basterds' unique form of propagating their fear message which involves marking German survivors with swastikas on their foreheads. This act serves the double purpose of forever unmasking the Nazi soldier while also acting as the guerillas' calling card to the German people.

There's also the question of authenticity - it comes up a couple of times in Basterds as subtext (maintaining a pretense of authenticity to survive) and is part of why the characters/historical figures of BMK struggle. Shoshanna Dreyfuss a.k.a. Emmanuelle Mimiuex must maintain the mask of the Gentile to avoid extermination while Andres Baader strains in every scene to prove how dedicated he is to the proletarian struggle, often exploding at his compatriots for what he perceives as their lack of authenticity. In the middle of the film, there's even a moment where the BMK leadership doubts the authenticity of a group member and defames the person in order to have them liquidated.

The point of similarity between the two films simultaneously creates a contrasting effect as Taratino gives us these larger-than-life figures whereas by the end of BMK the characters have been reduced to an extent after making themselves mythic. One of the last lines in the latter film has the speaker telling the assembled group that their heroes weren't victims or victimized - that they weren't martyrs but instead subjects of their own choices. In this manner, we the audience and the assembled group listening to the aforementioned speaker learn that the BMK leadership was neither a cause to follow nor objects to be edified.

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