The Journal will have a story this week looking at the reaction and conversation generated by Inglourious Basterds, one of this year’s Academy Award nominees for Best Picture. The movie has been in general release for several months, plus there have been screenings in Los Angeles and New York recently for rabbis and other Jewish leaders.
Rabbi Irwin Kula saw the movie this past week. Kula is the President of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a leadership training institute, think tank and resource center. Through books, television appearances and lectures, Kula has sought to bring Jewish values into the broader marketplace of ideas. He is someone we always look forward to hearing from when he’s in town—provocative, unpredictable and revelatory.
So naturally we were interested to know what he thought about a movie that has stirred such powerful emotions. Here’s what Rabbi Kula wrote in an e-mail:
Please know I think the film is the most important film of the year and will be the source of conversation, study, PhD’s for years to come. I believe it represents the end of the dominance of one genre of Holocaust films - the victim/perpetrator trope - and the opening of potentially 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 and Inglorious 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 - a quality that makes it the best movie of the year whether it receives the Academy Award or not.
Ultimately Inglorious Basterds 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. This is one of the central mysteries to this moment in the evolution of our species. As an 8th generation rabbi who knows the evil of the Holocaust from my own family’s history and who has travelled to sites of genocide and great destruction I can witness at least from my own experience as well as the countless conversations I have had about Inglorious Basterds that maybe, just maybe, a film like Inglorious Basterds can by putting a mirror in front of us and having us look into our own souls help us in solving the riddle of our darkness. Few films even attempt to do this. Worthy of the Academy Award? Yes. Yes.