March 3, 2010
Jews Get the Last Word as Tarantino’s ‘Inglourious Basterds’ Rewrites History
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“I did a lot of bedrock research, so I am able to play games,” Tarantino said, which in his mind, makes the film less like a fantasy and more an alternate history.
“It’s not a fantasy until they kill Hitler,” he said. “The fantasy comes in when I actually go against what happened in World War II.”
“Basterds” has proven to be Tarantino’s most profitable undertaking, bringing in an estimated $313 million worldwide at the box office. So while Jewish audiences are inclined to understand its meaning, it is, after all, just a movie, and the Wiesenthal Center’s Hier warns against imposing too much meaning on something that is ultimately a commercial enterprise. “Jews have to recognize that Hollywood is in the entertainment business, and they have a right to entertain their audience. It’s presumptuous for us to become the czars that tell the entertainment community what kinds of films they can make. Not every film has to be about the Holocaust,” he said.
Roth, one of the film’s stars, argues that the film is a testament to the influence of visual narratives: “This whole movie is about the literal and figurative power of cinema. The movie theater is turned into a crematorium, and the Nazis are burned at the hands of their own self-aggrandizing creation.” Roth said the film’s visceral impact goes well beyond the Jewish community. He recalled a screening in Germany, where the audience cheered the deaths of the Nazis.
“The Germans wanted to kill those characters as much as we did; they felt like they were participating in the death of their past.”
In the Bible, revenge is a significant and recurring theme: After the Israelites cross the Red Sea, which then closes in on the Egyptian army, drowning thousands, the people sing and dance. At the end of Megillat Esther, the Jews of Shushan avenge Haman’s plot against them by murdering more than 75,000 people. There are even examples of a fantasy of revenge, evident in the kinot (poetic dirges) read on Tisha b’Av. But modern Jews are uncomfortable with these aspects of the Jewish story and tend to focus on the Jewish persecution that would justify such acts.
At a screening of “Basterds” at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York last December, it was suggested during the discussion that Jews have become so mired in intellectual pursuits, they’ve lost their instinct for revenge. According to author Jonathan Poritsky, who wrote about the event on the Candler Blog, JTS’ decision to screen the film was inspired by Rabbi Jack Moline of Agudas Achim Congregation in Virginia, who addressed “Basterds” during his Kol Nidre sermon. At JTS, Moline wondered if a tradition of learning has overshadowed the drive for physical redemption. But history shows that the discomfort with Jewish military might and power was transformed by Israel’s statehood. Could it be that the existence of Israel, and the strength of its army, allows us to be comfortable with the violence of the basterds? Even Tarantino acknowledged that his concept of the post-Israel Jew might have informed characters who otherwise sprang from his imagination: Asked what comes to mind when he thinks of Israel?: “Jewish homeland. Kick-ass army.”
Indeed, the director said in an interview, it’s entirely plausible that a band of brawny Jewish American soldiers would enact a Nazi killing spree. Which is a dramatic departure from the typical depiction of Jews on screen. Since the dawn of Hollywood, Jews rarely have been cast as violent or virile figures; they were either the hapless victims or geeky comedians.
I met Tarantino late one night for drinks at the Pig N’ Whistle on Hollywood Boulevard, and he was reeling from all the buzz about “Basterds.” Next door, at the Egyptian Theatre, a double feature of “Pulp Fiction” and “Inglourious Basterds” was playing to a sold-out audience. Clad in a forest green sweat shirt, Tarantino looked like he hadn’t slept in days. I asked him how he unwinds. “Lots of drinking and Ambien,” he shot back, and then ordered a double screwdriver. When Tarantino talks about the Jews of “Basterds,” he can only explain his vision through his script, and he proceeded to act it out.
“Where I was coming from, and this is in that little speech that Aldo gives at the beginning, when he says, ‘You are in a holy war. You are fighting against an enemy that is trying to wipe your race off the face of this Earth,’ ” he recited with intense conviction, as if trying to convince me of this. “ ‘Gentile soldiers have the luxury of being soldiers; you have a duty to be warriors.’ ”
Ever since the stunning victory of the Six-Day War, Jewish military prowess has been assumed. In reaction to the Holocaust, Israelis made a concerted effort to reposition themselves as powerful.
“It was called negation of the Diaspora,” Holocaust scholar and author Michael Berenbaum said. “Israelis were trying to create an image of strong, virile, sexual and aggressive Jews.” In the Middle Ages, Jews would change their fates through bargaining or subversion, Wolpe agreed, but “the whole notion that a Jew with a rifle could be a hero could not have existed without the State of Israel.” So the image in “Basterds” of a handful of Jews triumphing over the top Nazi brass can be seen as a metaphor for modern Jews’ victories over their Arab enemies.
Tarantino, however, says that he is “ignorant” on matters of modern Israel, and that he flat out doesn’t care about the mishegoss in the Middle East. His characters, he said, are born of his imagination and nothing else. And yet, when pressed with the idea that Israel may have been an unconscious influence on the film, he responded: