March 3, 2010
Jews Get the Last Word as Tarantino’s ‘Inglourious Basterds’ Rewrites History
Two days after this year’s Oscar nominations were announced, Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” — a film about a band of Jews who kill Nazis — screened for an audience of Holocaust survivors.
It was at the Museum of Tolerance, and the director himself sat quietly in the third row. This was probably his thousandth screening, and on this night he seemed more interested in the crowd than in his film.
Tarantino watched as 300 Jews sat transfixed, eyes wide and jaws gaping, as Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) whipped out his Bowie knife and began carving a swastika into a Nazi’s forehead. There was a collective gasp and a few “ohs,” but no one turned away. This was too good, watching Nazis get scalped, brutalized and beaten; this is what should have happened, the audience seemed to be thinking; this is what the Nazis deserved. It wasn’t hard to sense the visceral reactions that scene provoked, especially among those who had been victimized by real Nazis: relief, revenge, disgust, pleasure. And the awkward bursts of nervous laughter. “Basterds” drew out long-buried emotions that suddenly became raw and immediate.
By imagining an alternate ending to World War II, in which Jews incinerate Hitler along with all of the Nazi high command, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Quentin Tarantino has done more than craft the ultimate Jewish revenge fantasy; he has effectively penetrated the Jewish psyche and given vent to a deep-seated Jewish rage — a rage that has been stewing through the generations since the Holocaust. There remains so much unresolved fury at Hitler’s crime that the primal urge for wish fulfillment “Basterds” satisfies is welcome, even craved, because by some small measure it evens the score - if only in fantasy - with the murderers of 6 million Jews. And in Tarantino’s world, the only morality is the morality of vengeance, so audiences are forgiven their sadistic side. Besides, what Jew is going to have any compunction about killing Hitler?
The other delight of “Basterds” is that it depicts a new kind of Jew — strong, virile and empowered. It casts off the tired portrayal of Jewish victimhood and replaces it with a new modern archetype. Though it’s tied into an American Jewish identity that is secure and powerful, it’s buttressed by the image and reality of Israel. The new Jew is not the Jew of the book, but the Jew of the sword: violent, vengeful and morally unconflicted.
Tarantino’s stylized, violent, genre film weaves together two simultaneous plots: One is the story of Jewish American soldiers led by Raine, an Apache chief, whose sole mission is to capture, torture, kill and scalp Nazis; the other tells of a beautiful young Jewish woman, Shosanna, who witnesses the murder of her family and narrowly escapes death. Later, she reinvents herself as a Parisian cinema owner, and after a chance meeting with the man who killed her family, sets in motion a plot to burn down her theater with the leaders of the Third Reich inside.
“I find it to be quite exciting,” Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and an Oscar-winning film producer, said after the screening. He turned to Tarantino, who sat next to him on stage casually dressed in sweats, along with producer Lawrence Bender, actor Eli Roth and media entrepreneur Dan Adler, who organized the event in memory of his father, Auschwitz survivor Mayer Michael Adler. “The plot, I thought, was quite ingenious,” Hier added.
Indeed, Tarantino works a clever trick. He revisits World War II through a 21st century lens, using modern realities of Jewish power to rewrite history. In this elaborate fantasy, fictional Jews are sent on a mission to avenge the Jews of history, and modern Jews are given a chance to go back in time, to do now what they wish they could have done then.
“There’s this clear sense that whatever happened to the Nazis, they didn’t come close to getting what they deserved,” author and Sinai Temple Rabbi David Wolpe said, noting how many Nazis escaped punishment. “And at least you can see it in fantasy.”
This fantasy, which the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem called “a brutal, scathing, baseless and breathtaking fabrication” (and that was meant as a compliment), has had a profound effect on the Jewish community. The film has spawned abundant commentary, in print and in conversation, among scholars, authors, rabbis, community leaders and ordinary moviegoers, who are all weighing in on its cultural impact: Is it fantasy or historical revisionism? And does fantasizing about revenge slake the desire to fulfill it?
In fact,t he film seems to provoke more than placate. At the screening, survivors met Hier’s exuberance with skepticism. One by one, they lined up at the microphone, the atmosphere intense, to vent their frustrations: “This film ignores the Holocaust!” said one survivor; “It trivializes the Holocaust; it caricatures a gruesome war,” said another.
“I can’t go along with the idea that it trivializes the Holocaust,” Hier responded. “Tarantino never set out to make a Holocaust film; he set out to make a fantasy film.”
But, for a Vietnam veteran who said he harbors his own regrets about his wartime actions, the justice of the basterds’ revenge made him feel he had “killed the wrong men.” And a young Israeli who served in the Israel Defense Forces said that for him, the film reinforced the necessity of Israel’s military duty, and allowed him the vicarious pleasure of shooting Nazis, which, to his regret, his term as an Israeli soldier never occasioned.
These deeply personal responses show that the film’s power can be polarizing. For the majority of viewers, the fantasy is provocative, enticing. Others have felt that encouraging an alternate version of true events is troubling. After all, the Nazis didn’t suffer at the hands of Jews, but the other way around. And although the film is set during the Holocaust, it contains no images of ghettos or concentration camps, showing only the murder of one Jewish family in hiding at the beginning of the film, a scene that serves as a stand-in for the entire Shoah. Tarantino’s fantasy is meaningless without knowledge of the Holocaust. So, for younger generations who haven’t seen “Schindler’s List,” “Basterds” offers a beguiling revisionist narrative that, because of its mainstream appeal, could influence thinking about the past. At screenings before Jewish audiences, inevitably the question arises: Could fictionalizing the Holocaust be harmful?
“I think it fulfills a desire but ultimately undercuts the actual experience,” said professor Lester Friedman, chairman of the Media and Society program at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and the author of three books on Jews in American cinema. “The more provocative question is: What does this do to the victims of the Holocaust? Does this deny their suffering? Does this indeed substitute a myth of power for a reality of suffering?”
After seeing the film at a screening sponsored by The Jewish Journal last November, a female survivor said she was afraid the film might be construed as true and encourage Holocaust denial. That’s when Tarantino, who had been sitting unnoticed in the audience, interrupted the ongoing discussion to respond.
Tarantino pointed out that he clearly establishes his fiction from the opening credits with the words: “Once Upon a Time ...”
“I’m telling you it’s a fairy tale right at the top,” Tarantino said, mildly annoyed. “Whoever gets it, gets it; whoever doesn’t, I don’t give a damn.”
The woman wanted to know what “facts” the movie was based on. Fortunately, Tarantino had done his homework.
“This is not a documentary, nor based on a true story,” Tarantino said. “But, the film is filled — up until the point that we kill Hitler — with tons of facts and shadowy facts, a parallel of something going on in real life.”
The director cited the film within the film, “Nation’s Pride” (which actor Roth guest-directed), which appears in “Basterds” as a propaganda film directed by Joseph Goebbels. “Pride” is meant to recall Goebbels’ real-life production, “Kohlberg,” about the Prussian-led German resistance to Napoleon. Also, the glamorous movie star Bridget von Hammersmark, played by Diane Kruger, is a parallel of Zarah Leander, the Swedish actress who starred in Nazi propaganda films but was rumored to be a Soviet spy.
“I did a lot of bedrock research, so I am able to play games,” Tarantino said, which in his mind, makes the film less like a fantasy and more an alternate history.
“It’s not a fantasy until they kill Hitler,” he said. “The fantasy comes in when I actually go against what happened in World War II.”
“Basterds” has proven to be Tarantino’s most profitable undertaking, bringing in an estimated $313 million worldwide at the box office. So while Jewish audiences are inclined to understand its meaning, it is, after all, just a movie, and the Wiesenthal Center’s Hier warns against imposing too much meaning on something that is ultimately a commercial enterprise. “Jews have to recognize that Hollywood is in the entertainment business, and they have a right to entertain their audience. It’s presumptuous for us to become the czars that tell the entertainment community what kinds of films they can make. Not every film has to be about the Holocaust,” he said.
Roth, one of the film’s stars, argues that the film is a testament to the influence of visual narratives: “This whole movie is about the literal and figurative power of cinema. The movie theater is turned into a crematorium, and the Nazis are burned at the hands of their own self-aggrandizing creation.” Roth said the film’s visceral impact goes well beyond the Jewish community. He recalled a screening in Germany, where the audience cheered the deaths of the Nazis.
“The Germans wanted to kill those characters as much as we did; they felt like they were participating in the death of their past.”
In the Bible, revenge is a significant and recurring theme: After the Israelites cross the Red Sea, which then closes in on the Egyptian army, drowning thousands, the people sing and dance. At the end of Megillat Esther, the Jews of Shushan avenge Haman’s plot against them by murdering more than 75,000 people. There are even examples of a fantasy of revenge, evident in the kinot (poetic dirges) read on Tisha b’Av. But modern Jews are uncomfortable with these aspects of the Jewish story and tend to focus on the Jewish persecution that would justify such acts.
At a screening of “Basterds” at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York last December, it was suggested during the discussion that Jews have become so mired in intellectual pursuits, they’ve lost their instinct for revenge. According to author Jonathan Poritsky, who wrote about the event on the Candler Blog, JTS’ decision to screen the film was inspired by Rabbi Jack Moline of Agudas Achim Congregation in Virginia, who addressed “Basterds” during his Kol Nidre sermon. At JTS, Moline wondered if a tradition of learning has overshadowed the drive for physical redemption. But history shows that the discomfort with Jewish military might and power was transformed by Israel’s statehood. Could it be that the existence of Israel, and the strength of its army, allows us to be comfortable with the violence of the basterds? Even Tarantino acknowledged that his concept of the post-Israel Jew might have informed characters who otherwise sprang from his imagination: Asked what comes to mind when he thinks of Israel?: “Jewish homeland. Kick-ass army.”
Indeed, the director said in an interview, it’s entirely plausible that a band of brawny Jewish American soldiers would enact a Nazi killing spree. Which is a dramatic departure from the typical depiction of Jews on screen. Since the dawn of Hollywood, Jews rarely have been cast as violent or virile figures; they were either the hapless victims or geeky comedians.
I met Tarantino late one night for drinks at the Pig N’ Whistle on Hollywood Boulevard, and he was reeling from all the buzz about “Basterds.” Next door, at the Egyptian Theatre, a double feature of “Pulp Fiction” and “Inglourious Basterds” was playing to a sold-out audience. Clad in a forest green sweat shirt, Tarantino looked like he hadn’t slept in days. I asked him how he unwinds. “Lots of drinking and Ambien,” he shot back, and then ordered a double screwdriver. When Tarantino talks about the Jews of “Basterds,” he can only explain his vision through his script, and he proceeded to act it out.
“Where I was coming from, and this is in that little speech that Aldo gives at the beginning, when he says, ‘You are in a holy war. You are fighting against an enemy that is trying to wipe your race off the face of this Earth,’ ” he recited with intense conviction, as if trying to convince me of this. “ ‘Gentile soldiers have the luxury of being soldiers; you have a duty to be warriors.’ ”
Ever since the stunning victory of the Six-Day War, Jewish military prowess has been assumed. In reaction to the Holocaust, Israelis made a concerted effort to reposition themselves as powerful.
“It was called negation of the Diaspora,” Holocaust scholar and author Michael Berenbaum said. “Israelis were trying to create an image of strong, virile, sexual and aggressive Jews.” In the Middle Ages, Jews would change their fates through bargaining or subversion, Wolpe agreed, but “the whole notion that a Jew with a rifle could be a hero could not have existed without the State of Israel.” So the image in “Basterds” of a handful of Jews triumphing over the top Nazi brass can be seen as a metaphor for modern Jews’ victories over their Arab enemies.
Tarantino, however, says that he is “ignorant” on matters of modern Israel, and that he flat out doesn’t care about the mishegoss in the Middle East. His characters, he said, are born of his imagination and nothing else. And yet, when pressed with the idea that Israel may have been an unconscious influence on the film, he responded:
“Here’s the thing that I did not know about Israel before I went there, I didn’t know — and truthfully, I got turned on by it; I dug it, I really dug it — that every young person has to go into the army. The concept behind that, I thought, was awesome. To me, what it said was,” — and as he spoke, his ebullience increased to the point where he was banging his fists on the table — “ ‘You will never, ever catch us unawares again. Never. The prettiest, most daintiest girl, the fattest boy, the littlest guy, the meekest mouse is gonna learn how to operate a gun and is gonna know what it means to be a warrior. We will never be caught sleeping again!’ — And that was cool.”
Few people take issue with the fact that Tarantino’s Jews are vengeance seekers. But that they torture? That they brutalize to the point of sadism? Isn’t it simply un-Jewish to carry out violent revenge without a trace of remorse?
“There’s something cathartic about an avenger without a conscience,” Wolpe said. “If the avenger is conflicted, you have to be conflicted too; and sometimes it’s nice to just smash the bad guys.”
“What Tarantino did was take the worst of the worst historically and give us an opportunity to not be conflicted about it. Who would be conflicted about assassinating Hitler?” Wolpe asked. “Would you pull the trigger?”
Tarantino also turns Jews into suicide bombers. During the climactic scene in the theater, two of the basterds strap explosives to their legs and take their seats. The reference is obvious and unsettling. What will the world make of this new empowered Jew? What changes for Israel when Jews are no longer perceived as victims but as dangerous and powerful?
This is what happens when a non-Jewish director infuses the Jewish experience with his own wild imagination. And plenty of people say that only a non-Jewish director could have made “Inglourious Basterds” — a Jew would be unable to tread so heavily on such a traumatic past and probably could not enact the same degree of violence.
Tarantino, of course, scoffs at this: “To me, that says, if I were Jewish, I wouldn’t be me — and I don’t believe that.”
But beyond that, the film alerts us to the possibility that any human being — Jew or Nazi — is capable of great evil. Sometimes, it tells us, cruelty and savagery are the only way to beat your enemies.
Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of CLAL — The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership — wrote in an e-mail to The Journal that he thinks “Basterds” is “the most important film of the year” and represents the end of one genre of Holocaust films and the opening of “new veins of wisdom that challenge our easy labeling of good and evil, justified and unjustified violence, as well as our self-evident definitions of torture and terrorism.
“Great films, like all great art, invite meanings far beyond the author’s conscious intentions,” Kula wrote. “And ‘Inglourious Basterds,’ by inviting us, with artistry, erudition, humor and psychological sophistication, to see how rage and anger and vengeance can turn victims into torturers and the good guys into ‘suicide bombers,’ will have a life of its own far beyond the movie year 2009 — whether it receives the Academy Award or not.
“Ultimately [it] is far more than a Holocaust film or a WWII Spaghetti Western — all names that simply domesticate and tame the destabilizing and terribly unnerving truth of the film: that we human beings, however good we think we are, have within us the diabolical capacity with intention and justification to humiliate, to hate and to be violent at levels no other living creature on the planet can even imagine.”
And Tarantino’s final word?
“If I’m in the bush in Africa with a hungry lion, I’m not gonna appeal to the angels of his better nature, right? You either kill the bear or the bear kills you.”