March 3, 2010
Jews Get the Last Word as Tarantino’s ‘Inglourious Basterds’ Rewrites History
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“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.
“I will answer that,” he interjected from the back of the theater. Up front, Journal Editor-in-Chief Rob Eshmn was conducting a discussion with producer Bender and the film’s Oscar-nominated actor, Christoph Waltz.
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.