Bender, Tarantino and Waltz join Jewish leaders to talk ‘Basterds’ at private screening

After Hitler got his due, you’d think a theater full of the Los Angeles Jewish community’s finest—rabbis, professionals, philanthropists—would deliver an earful to the filmmakers of “Inglourious Basterds,” the most playful and provocative riff on World War II perhaps in the history of film.

But audience reaction to the private screening at the Landmark last Tuesday was quiet and introverted.

Even a Q-and-A with producer Lawrence Bender and the film’s star Christoph Waltz didn’t spur public comment. There wasn’t a word from rabbis Adam Kligfeld (Temple Beth Am), Ahud Sela (Sinai Temple), Naomi Levy (Nashuva) or Yonah Bookstein (JConnectLA/Jewlicious)—who sat together in the front rows. AIPAC Western States Director Elliot Brandt was mum. So was L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. (Dr. Joel Geiderman, Vice Chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. D.C. loved the film but had to leave early.  Michael Berenbaum, who was the Museum’s founding Project Director, did jump in with questions).

But why?

For this crowd, many of whom have to deal with the consequences of the Holocaust and its historic significance daily in their work, the film may have been a lot to process. Hitler’s face exploding from machine gun bullets too stunning for immediate discussion. Even for rabbis. 

So while the audience warmed up, Jewish Journal Editor Rob Eshman led a discussion with the filmmakers to elicit their reactions.

When Bender first read Quentin Tarantino’s script, he wasn’t shocked; he was grateful. Bender likes to say he told the director, “As a fan, I thank you; as your producer, I thank you; as a member of the Jewish tribe, I thank you.”

“This is a Jewish wet dream!” he told The Journal last August. But he didn’t repeat that before this crowd.

Bender told the audience that screening the film in Israel was a thrill. The tension in the theater was palpable.

“Everybody there has some connection to someone beneath those floorboards,” he said, referencing the opening scene of the film in which a Jewish family hides from an SS officer underneath the floorboards of a dairy farm cottage. He recalled the “abrupt, spontaneous applause” that erupted in Israel during the final scene, when the film’s Jewish heroine taunts a theater full of burning Nazis with the maxim “This is the face of Jewish vengeance!”

“That’s when I thought, ‘This is the moment; this is why I made this movie,” Bender said.

Screening the film in Germany was also somewhat strange. Asked how German audiences responded to the film, Waltz, an Austrian-born Jew who plays the sinister “Jew Hunter” Col. Hans Landa, said: “What do you expect? Everybody to jump with their right arm raised and scream we don’t want our Adolf killed—especially by some American ‘Bear Jew’?”

The infamous “Bear Jew,” known for clubbing captured Nazis to death is played by horror film director Eli Roth, who attended the screening with his parents.

One woman in the audience, who misunderstood the film’s opening titles, 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, revealed himself.

“Okay, I will answer that,” he interposed. “I think ‘Once Upon A Time in Nazi Occupied France’ tells you—I’m telling you it’s a fairy tale right at the top. 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. And fortunately, Tarantino had done his homework.

“This is not a documentary, nor based on a true story, 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,” he said.

He cited the metafilm “Nation’s Pride,” (which Eli Roth guest-directed and) which appears in ‘Basterds’ as a propaganda film directed by Joseph Goebbels. ‘Pride’ is meant to parallel Goebbels’ real life production, Kohlberg, about the Prussian led German resistance to Napoleon. The glamorous movie star Bridget von Hammersmark, played by Diane Kruger is a parallel of Zarah Leander, the Swedish actress who worked in Nazi propaganda films but was rumored to be a Soviet spy.

“I did a lot of bedrock research, so I am able to play games,” Tarantino said. “I wanted it to be like every other movie I’d ever done.”

The film has been touted by the media as a Jewish revenge fantasy, but Tarantino sees it more as a projection of an alternative reality.

“It’s not a fantasy until they kill Hitler,” he said from his seat. “That comes in when I actually go against what happened in World War II.”

The fact that his characters rewrite the ending of World War II and change the course of history is no matter.

“If they had existed,” he said. “Everything that happens in plausible.”

That got the Jews going. For the next hour, Tarantino, Bender, Roth and Waltz hung around to entertain comments during a glourious schmoozefest.