March 3, 2010
Jews Get the Last Word as Tarantino’s ‘Inglourious Basterds’ Rewrites History
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“Here’s the thing that I did not know about Israel before I went there, I didn’t know — and truthfully, I got turned on by it; I dug it, I really dug it — that every young person has to go into the army. The concept behind that, I thought, was awesome. To me, what it said was,” — and as he spoke, his ebullience increased to the point where he was banging his fists on the table — “ ‘You will never, ever catch us unawares again. Never. The prettiest, most daintiest girl, the fattest boy, the littlest guy, the meekest mouse is gonna learn how to operate a gun and is gonna know what it means to be a warrior. We will never be caught sleeping again!’ — And that was cool.”
Few people take issue with the fact that Tarantino’s Jews are vengeance seekers. But that they torture? That they brutalize to the point of sadism? Isn’t it simply un-Jewish to carry out violent revenge without a trace of remorse?
“There’s something cathartic about an avenger without a conscience,” Wolpe said. “If the avenger is conflicted, you have to be conflicted too; and sometimes it’s nice to just smash the bad guys.”
“What Tarantino did was take the worst of the worst historically and give us an opportunity to not be conflicted about it. Who would be conflicted about assassinating Hitler?” Wolpe asked. “Would you pull the trigger?”
Tarantino also turns Jews into suicide bombers. During the climactic scene in the theater, two of the basterds strap explosives to their legs and take their seats. The reference is obvious and unsettling. What will the world make of this new empowered Jew? What changes for Israel when Jews are no longer perceived as victims but as dangerous and powerful?
This is what happens when a non-Jewish director infuses the Jewish experience with his own wild imagination. And plenty of people say that only a non-Jewish director could have made “Inglourious Basterds” — a Jew would be unable to tread so heavily on such a traumatic past and probably could not enact the same degree of violence.
Tarantino, of course, scoffs at this: “To me, that says, if I were Jewish, I wouldn’t be me — and I don’t believe that.”
But beyond that, the film alerts us to the possibility that any human being — Jew or Nazi — is capable of great evil. Sometimes, it tells us, cruelty and savagery are the only way to beat your enemies.
Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of CLAL — The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership — wrote in an e-mail to The Journal that he thinks “Basterds” is “the most important film of the year” and represents the end of one genre of Holocaust films and the opening of “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,” Kula wrote. “And ‘Inglourious 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 — whether it receives the Academy Award or not.
“Ultimately [it] 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.”
And Tarantino’s final word?
“If I’m in the bush in Africa with a hungry lion, I’m not gonna appeal to the angels of his better nature, right? You either kill the bear or the bear kills you.”