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.