When the extreme horror auteur Eli Roth visited Germany to promote his 2005 hit, “Hostel,” journalists asked how he dared make such a sexually sadistic movie. Roth, now a still-boyish 37-year-old, had already cemented his reputation as one of the most successful directors to push the so-called “torture porn” genre to grisly new heights; “Hostel” pushed it even further with its tale of smug American college students who become the playthings of wealthy sadists abroad. The filmmaker was used to criticism for his over-the-top depictions of impalings, decapitations and blow-torching, but Roth — who has numerous relatives who died in the Holocaust — became enraged when German journalists asked him to justify those grisly scenes. “I said, ‘This movie is nothing but [cinematic] magic tricks, but your grandparents turned my ancestors into furniture. Into lamp shades.’ I went on and on; I couldn’t stop myself. I couldn’t believe they took that kind of self-righteous position.”
Roth’s same righteous fury appears in his portrayal of Sgt. Donny Donowitz, aka The Bear Jew, in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” in which he is perhaps the craziest basterd in a squad of vengeful American Jewish Nazi slayers.
“Donny is a Jewish guy from South Boston who is fighting on behalf of Jews who can’t,” said Roth, who still displays much of the 40 pounds of extra muscle he put on for the role. “He uses his baseball bat to pummel Nazis, so he can physically feel that sensation of cracking their skulls in.”
Tarantino, a good friend, has joked that he deliberately hired the splatter-film director to play a character with a penchant for bludgeoning. But for Roth, the movie proved more than his first major acting role: “It was like kosher porn,” he said. “It was an orgasmic feeling to swing that bat.”
Which is not to say that he didn’t take the role seriously. Because his mother’s family was all but wiped out in Nazi-occupied Austria, and his parents’ friends included survivors of Auschwitz and Dachau, Roth grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust. “We were taught that you do not buy German products,” he said. His mother, a respected painter, and his father, a psychoanalyst and psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School, encouraged him to read the many books on the time period, and at the age of 8 — the same year he saw Ridley Scott’s horror classic, “Alien” — the budding filmmaker had already read Eli Wiesel’s “Night” and knew all about Dr. Mengele’s medical experiments. “That’s why horror movies always seemed so tame to me,” he said. “I thought it was absurd when people complained about movie violence, because the default in my brain was — what about the Holocaust?
“I never saw violence in movies as real. To me it was always a representation of violence,” he added. “And I couldn’t understand why people got so upset about it when they didn’t seem upset about violence in real life.”
In person, Roth is the antithesis of what people might expect based on his sickening films. He is funny, smart and professes an aversion to germs, which he eventually hopes to spoof in a movie starring himself as the neurotic Jew he proclaims to be. Roth said he was a polite child, which his parents verified in a Boston magazine article titled, “What’s a Nice Jewish Boy From Newton Doing Making Films Like This?” In it, his psychiatrist father explains, “Eli exemplifies what Plato often said — that the good dream of what the bad do. Basically the imagination handles all uncomfortable impulses and thoughts. In his everyday life, Eli is extremely well behaved…. In his creative work, you see the other side of his imagination.”
Roth began making gruesome films at an early age. “When you live in a safe place like Newton, [Mass.],” he said, “you imagine, ‘What if people came and invaded my home and killed my family? I guess I was extra sensitive to all the horrible things going on in the world.”
Roth’s love for the cinematic side of horror was clear when he persuaded his parents to hire a magician to pretend to hack him in half with a buzz saw — as he shrieked — at his bar mitzvah reception. His cake was shaped like a film slate embellished with dollops of oozing fake blood. Roth said he felt like an alien in the upper-middle-class suburb, where other kids aspired to become doctors or attorneys. When the rabbi at his bar mitzvah announced, from the pulpit, that Roth intended to become a “motion picture writer-director,” the entire congregation burst out laughing. “It seemed to them a freakish thing to do,” Roth recalls, adding mischievously, “Who’s laughing now?”
Roth’s directorial debut, “Cabin Fever,” premiered in 2002 at the Los Angeles Film Festival, where Quentin Tarantino chanced to see it at a midnight screening. Tarantino invited the younger director to watch “War of the Gargantuas” at his home, and eventually became a mentor to Roth and a collaborator on Roth’s 2005 film “Hostel.”
Although many critics have reviled Roth for what they perceive as gratuitous violence and misogyny, others view him as a maverick and see his work as far more thoughtful than, say, the “Friday the 13th” franchise. “Hostel” was inspired by the kind of American arrogance abroad Roth perceived during the Bush administration — as well as the smug entitlement of the privileged suburban teenagers of his youth.
Tarantino also served as an executive producer on the poorly received “Hostel II” and previously hired Roth to act in the “Death Proof” segment of “Grindhouse” (2007).
For “Inglourious Basterds,” Roth also served as Tarantino’s unofficial Jewish technical advisor.
At times during “Basterd’s” six-month shoot in Berlin, life imitated art: When Roth’s parents broke their vow never to travel to Germany and visited the set, Roth was appalled when one of the crew’s drivers sneeringly referred to them as “Juden”; he had to be restrained from beating the man in Bear Jew fashion. Tarantino allowed Roth to shoot “Nation’s Pride,” the propaganda film within “Inglourious Basterds,” which screens at a pivotal moment in the movie. And while acting in the final conflagration scene in “Basterds,” Roth was nearly incinerated when a special effects fire burned much hotter than expected.
In the end, making “Inglourious Basterds” proved healing for Roth. “When we filmed the scenes where I killed Nazis, the German cast and crew were as excited about it as the Jews were — it was like we were killing them together,” Roth said. I remember [the actor who plays] Goebbels saying ‘Yeah — we get to kill those m————- today.’ They were so happy. And they wanted the deaths to be as violent as possible, because they’re tortured by the Holocaust as much as we are.”
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