Before it was released, “Inglourious Basterds” generated an uncommon amount of buzz for its daring as a Jewish revenge fantasy. Now, nearly six months after it first played in theaters, Quentin Tarantino’s World War II counter-history film has earned eight Oscar nominations, a likely place in cinematic history, and a distinguished presence in the hearts and minds of moviegoing Jews that until recently, was solely inhabited by Steven Spielberg.
And all it took was gunning down Hitler until his face exploded.
Last night at a special community screening at The Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance, internationally renowned rabbi Marvin Hier addressed the film’s growing cultural significance among a panel that included Tarantino, ‘Basterds’ producer Lawrence Bender, actor Eli Roth and media entrepreneur Dan Adler, who organized the evening in honor of his recently deceased father Mayer Michael Adler, a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp.
“Let me explain why I think it was a great idea to sponsor this film,” Hier said, addressing concerns from Holocaust survivors who were troubled by some of the film’s subject matter. “Not every film on the second World War has to be about the Holocaust.”
No one would argue that “Inglourious Basterds” is a traditional Holocaust movie, but it does presume a sophisticated knowledge of the Holocaust in order to grasp its emotional impact. Hier, who is an Oscar-winning filmmaker himself, said that historical accuracy is not a necessity in harnessing the power of cinematic fantasy. “This [film] has a certain release factor,” he said. “If only we would have been privileged to see the Nazis defeated early on; imagine that they were all gathered in a theater and we didn’t have to roll the clock until 1945 to find out that 6 million Jews plus millions of other individuals were killed by an insane man named Adolf Hitler.”
For many Jews, including Hier, the fact that ‘Basterds’ permits not only historical revisionism but also deep seeded Jewish revenge is psychologically satisfying. “I find it to be quite exciting,” Hier said. “The plot I thought was quite ingenious.” Though he did point out that there were, historically, several failed attempts on Hitler’s life, so the idea of an assassination mission is not implausible. Hier also spoke of Pinchas Rosenbaum, the son of a rabbi whose family was killed in Auschwitz and who successfully infiltrated the SS to avenge them.
Throughout the discussion, Tarantino maintained that his film was not meant to fulfill some higher purpose, but was born of his wild imagination and desire to write an adventure movie. Yet the experience of making and distributing ‘Basterds’ resonated more deeply for Bender and Roth, two Hollywood Jews who said they reconnected with their Judaism during production.
For Bender, the epiphany moment came during a screening of the film in Israel in which the audience heartily cheered the incineration of the Third Reich. “We’re sitting in an audience in Tel Aviv and I remember turning to Quentin and saying, ‘This is why we made this movie,’” Bender recalled.
Roth, who had the lucky task of killing Hitler on screen quipped, “Boy was my mother proud!” He said he became Tarantino’s “Jewish fact checker” and even had the director to his home to experience the Passover seder and “understand the Jews.” (Read, “My Son Killed Hitler,” by Roth’s father.)
“I really felt like I reconnected with my Judaism in a way that I had never experienced before in my life,” he said.
A bond developed between Tarantino and Roth, who became close friends and colleagues throughout production. Tarantino asked Roth, who is a director in his own right, to helm the Nazi propaganda meta-film that is shown in the final scene of the movie, which held great ironic significance for the young actor/director.
“This whole movie is about the literal and figurative power of cinema,” Roth said. “The movie theater is turned into a crematorium and the Nazis are burned at the hands of their own self aggrandizing creation.” He recalled the impact of the final scene on an audience in Berlin, Germany, where many still feel burdened by their national past.
“To see that there’s a generation of Germans that are so burdened by this they wanted to kill those characters as much as we did…so that any time a Nazi was killed, they felt like they were participating in the death of their past,” he recalled.
The catharsis of “Inglourious Basterds” works on multiple levels across a wide audience. During the audience Q-and-A, a Vietnam veteran confessed that he felt he “killed the wrong men” and admitted harboring deep regret about his role in Vietnam; a survivor questioned Tarantino’s handling of Holocaust subject matter as playful fodder; and yet others thanked the director for his gutsy vision.
That the film taps into the deep Jewish unconscious despite its historical play is, as Roth said, a testament to the power of film. For audiences and filmmakers alike, “Inglourious Basterds” is both primal wish fulfillment and an affirmation of Jewish identity – a new, bolder, empowered and Zionist Jew.