Film & Philosophy: How Can Machiavelli Explain 'Inglorious Basterds'?
Updated: Jul 1
“I'm aware what tremendous feats human beings are capable of once they abandon dignity.”
Amongst his many accomplishments, Niccolo Machiavelli’s ideas about man’s desire for power and dominance have influenced centuries of political theory. The philosopher’s famous words, “it is far safer to be feared than loved,” have been ushered by some of history’s greatest foes and tyrants. Including Hitler, who supposedly had a copy of Machiavelli’s treatise, The Prince, on his bedside.
When it comes to morality, a strong ruler must be able to discern his private life from his public persona. Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 war film, Inglorious Basterds, must have taken these concepts as inspiration in the alternate history tale that asks - what if the Jews killed Hitler?
What’s interesting in this case is that it’s not Hitler nor the Nazi Party that exemplifies Machiavelli’s philosophy. Rather, it’s the Jews themselves who prove to hold power. As it turns out, the film’s themes of vengeance, morality, and dominance can be explained by Machiavelli’s The Prince, published in 1532.
“It is not titles that honor men, but men that honor titles.”
In other words, while a government relies on order to function, it’s what you do with this established order that will define your society. For Machiavelli, man’s inherent strive for power can be achieved through immorality. Even if a man’s title is honorable - a politician, soldier, teacher - it means little if those he presides over cannot respect him. In this case, his status would be undermined by his own actions.
Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), an Austrian SS officer, is a major antagonist in Inglorious Basterds. Known throughout the region as “the Jew Hunter,” Landa is proud of this title as it is a reflection of his reputation for hunting down Jews in 1940s France. He loves his “unofficial title” because he “earned it,” as he tells Private Butz (Brad Pitt). But Landa does not do enough to secure this title amongst men. While at first, they fear him and his actions, as the movie concludes and the Jews win their fight against the Nazis, the label of “Jew Hunter” becomes obsolete.
Landa’s empty title is cemented into actuality when Private Butz carves a swastika into his forehead - forever embroidered as The Jew Hunter. This is Butz’s intention after all, explaining that if Landa were to “take off that uniform, ain’t nobody gonna know you was a Nazi.” Long after the war is over, and even once the scar is healed, “The Jew Hunter” will mean little to those he once commanded fear from. It is just a title.
"Everyone sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are."
In other words, no one will truly know another’s intentions. Abandoning value and reason is necessary for gaining power, even if it goes against what one believes. Though man can still possess these values, they must be kept hidden - and by human nature, often unassumed. In this sense, one can convince others that their intentions are true, or that they serve others just as much as themselves. There is an incentive in misleading the public of one’s private image, be it for virtue or vice.
After escaping death at the hands of the Jew Hunter years prior, Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) moves to Paris operating a cinema under the alias, Emmanuelle Mimieux. Blonde-haired and blue-eyed, she is able to pass as an Aryan and hide her Jewish identity from the Nazis.
This is ever-present throughout the film and in clever ways. In one instance, Landa offers her strudel with cream. Cream that’s made with pig fat, which Jews cannot consume because of the pork. Instead of denying the dessert, Shoshanna takes a bite to prove to Landa she is not who he thinks she is. In turn, she abandons her morals to maintain public perception and some semblance of control over Landa. Her efforts to hide her true identity allow the events of the film to progress. It’s a power play. And it works.
“If an injury has to be done to a man it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared.”
In other words, gaining ultimate power over others can only be achieved by ensuring they cannot rise up. Returning to Machiavelli’s famed quote about how it is better to be feared than loved (colloquially), one cannot solidify his place above society with the foolish idea that society will submit. He must follow through with his actions, rather than words, and that can only be achieved by solidifying the outcome to his benefit. All it takes is one strike, great enough so that there is no threat of retaliation.
Naturally, Inglorious Basterds is riddled with violence and death. After all, It’s a film about Nazi hunters and Jewish rebels - and directed by Tarantino. But death itself is not the desired outcome. Power, revenge, and, eventually, peace is what the Jews aim to achieve in this alternative history.
Perhaps the greatest example of this comes at the end of the film. Shoshanna, The Basterds, Lieutenant Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender), and all the other characters plotting to destroy the Nazi Party work in secret to make sure the movie-goers burn down along with the theater. As Shoshanna tells the audience in her film, “You are all going to die and look deep into the face of the Jew who is going to do it.” The injury here is two-fold: 1) The Nazis are destroyed by the very thing they are fighting against. 2) In knowing this, and in dying right after, their desire for vengeance is stripped away entirely. The Jews have succeeded. They’ve finished the fight.