Tarantino and “Basterds” Come to Israel

Quentin Tarantino winced as the young Israeli journalist took the microphone and asked what must rank as one of the heavier questions he’s ever encountered: “How do you relate to the Jewish tragedy of the Holocaust personally?”

“How do I answer that?” Tarantino replied, his eyes darting around the press conference at a seaside Tel Aviv hotel on the eve of the Israeli premiere of “Inglourious Bastereds”.  Referring briefly to his visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial the previous day, he answered tersely: “I think I respond to it as every human being should.”

In Israel, where Holocaust memory casts its longest shadow, the question was just one of many on the topic lobbed at Tarantino. The Holocaust-focused quizzing came in marked contrast to the absence of such questions at the press conference at Cannes Film Festival where he introduced the movie.

It is this ingrained Holocaust consciousness that colors Israelis’ alternating repulsion, delight, and fascination with the movie hailed abroad as “Kosher Porn,” a fantastical universe of Jewish revenge on the Nazis. It’s been playing to packed theatres and in some cities seats need to be ordered at least a day in advance.  The audiences heartily cheer, clap and laugh through their cinematic ride with a band of Nazi-scalping U.S. Jewish soldiers alongside the accompanying parallel plot of a beautiful, blond Jewess plotting her final revenge.

Critics offered up both praise and bitter words – Maariv newspaper’s Meir Schnitzer went as far as comparing Tarantino to David Irving, the infamous Holocaust denier. A divide was also seen among the regular movie-going masses.

“It’s all the talk at the water cooler, and the differences of opinion are incredible,” said Omri Marcus, a senior comedy writer at an Israeli television show describing the scene at his office. 

For Marcus himself and many others it was ultimately the real history of the Holocaust that made the movie so difficult to digest.

It was a pale, shaken-looking Erez Makovy, 31, who emerged from a darkened 500-seat theatre, filled to capacity. The crowd had gone silent watching the carnage climax in which the Nazi leadership is devoured by flames and automatic gunfire. But it broke into loud applause when Brad Pitt’s swash-buckling U.S. lieutenant character carved what became a trademark swastika into the forehead of the S.S. officer who serves as the film’s villain in chief.

“The movie left me with a bitter taste in my mouth,” said Makovy, a musician who was disturbed by the audiences’ cheers.

His friend, Itai Zangi, 27, a music producer, however, was among the laugh-out-loud, clapping masses. “It’s nice to be on the winning side, for once. I liked that he (Tarantino) turned things totally upside down.”

Nearby, also contemplating the experience, was Hila Schuman, a 32-year-old biologist. “It’s a bit too over-the-top.  For Israelis, it’s hard to take a story out of the context we know so well. So we’re left asking: Is this a parody? Is it serious? … Or is this just what revenge would look like on LSD.” 

Tarantino, in this, his first visit to Israel, said he had been anxious to see how an Israeli audience would react.

His most recent films – the “Kill Bill” series did poorly here ,with “Death Proof” vanishing just a week after hitting the screens.

On stage at the premiere at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, the lanky Tarantino pumped up the audience waving his hands and shouting out, “So are you guys ready to kills some Nazis? Are you ready to f-ck up some Nazis? Let’s get this mother f—-cker started.” 

A Haaretz reporter who attended the premiere said that Tarantino got what he was looking for, with enthusiastic cheering and laughter throughout and a standing ovation to finish it off. She added, “the excitement level could be judged by the fact that there was very little complaining, shouting or seat-shifting — all standards of the Israeli movie-going experience.”  (http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1115023.html)

Leading the anti-cheering squad has been Schnitzer, the film critic for Maariv.

“It’s not that ‘Inglorious Basterds’ denies the Holocaust. It’s not that movies cannot make up history. It’s simply that Quentin Tarantino has created yet another slasher film devoid of any morality, and this time he does it while ignoring the Holocaust.’’

Schnitzer, himself the son of Polish Holocaust survivors (and named after a half-brother killed by the Nazis), writes that the amoral universe the film inhabits allows for “the creation of a reality where a Nazi is a cultural, polite, graceful and royal figure, and the Jews are barbarians, scalping men of the jungle. It’s a ruse that [David] Irving could be proud of.’’

In part for budgetary reasons almost all Israeli Holocaust-related films have focused on the stories of survivors after the war, not the real-time action and events of the war itself.

“Israelis have a very specific reaction to films dealing with the Holocaust … as in what is permissible and what isn’t,” said Shmulik Duvdevani, the film critic for the website Y-Net, noting the special sensitivities here surrounding the Holocaust and its portrayal.

“Jews are to be portrayed as victims and movies are to tell stories of extermination, not comic ones, but tragic ones and Tarantino does the opposite, taking everything to the most radical extreme,” said Duvdevani. 

Uri Klein, the movie critic for Haaretz wrote that he preferred Tarantino’s approach, absurd and fictionalized as it was, to what he views as the sentimentality of Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List.”

It’s a film Klein says he enjoyed for its vitality and even the problems it raises, explaining, “Tarantino is not Jewish, and I have a sense he does not know what it means to be a Jew. Maybe this is why it’s easier for me to accept what he does in the movie.”

Perhaps its also part of why the lines to see it are so long at Israeli movie theatres.