Jews Get the Last Word as Tarantino’s ‘Inglourious Basterds’ Rewrites History
In the eyes of Jewish audiences, “Inglourious Basterds” has become the most important movie of the year—whether it wins the Oscar or not.
Beyond Tarantino’s inventive and satiating revenge fantasy, “Basterds” is a departure from a Holocaust genre that mired Jews in helplessness and victimhood. And as a result, Tarantino has helped establish a new cinematic Jewish identity. By looking at World War II reflexively, Tarantino has used the reality of modern Jewish power—embodied in the American Jewish community and the State of Israel—to solidify the archetype of the strong, empowered Jew. In bringing these ideas to the fore, “Basterds” offers modern Jews a chance to avenge the blood of their ancestors and reclaim their sense of communal power.
Check out my cover story on the cultural significance of the film as described by the director, the stars, rabbis and Holocaust scholars:
Two days after this year’s Oscar nominations were announced, Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” — a film about a band of Jews who kill Nazis — screened for an audience of Holocaust survivors.
It was at the Museum of Tolerance, and the director himself sat quietly in the third row. This was probably his thousandth screening, and on this night he seemed more interested in the crowd than in his film.
Tarantino watched as 300 Jews sat transfixed, eyes wide and jaws gaping, as Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) whipped out his Bowie knife and began carving a swastika into a Nazi’s forehead. There was a collective gasp and a few “ohs,” but no one turned away. This was too good, watching Nazis get scalped, brutalized and beaten; this is what should have happened, the audience seemed to be thinking; this is what the Nazis deserved. It wasn’t hard to sense the visceral reactions that scene provoked, especially among those who had been victimized by real Nazis: relief, revenge, disgust, pleasure. And the awkward bursts of nervous laughter. “Basterds” drew out long-buried emotions that suddenly became raw and immediate.
By imagining an alternate ending to World War II, in which Jews incinerate Hitler along with all of the Nazi high command, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Quentin Tarantino has done more than craft the ultimate Jewish revenge fantasy; he has effectively penetrated the Jewish psyche and given vent to a deep-seated Jewish rage — a rage that has been stewing through the generations since the Holocaust. There remains so much unresolved fury at Hitler’s crime that the primal urge for wish fulfillment “Basterds” satisfies is welcome, even craved, because by some small measure it evens the score – if only in fantasy – with the murderers of 6 million Jews. And in Tarantino’s world, the only morality is the morality of vengeance, so audiences are forgiven their sadistic side. Besides, what Jew is going to have any compunction about killing Hitler?
After the article appeared in this week’s issue, The Journal received two more responses to the movie, deeply felt and worth reprinting here. The first is from Sgt. Benjamin Anthony (Res.), who runs the organization Our Soldiers Speak. During his military service Anthony carried out missions and operations both within and beyond Israel’s borders, specialising as a heavy machine gunner.
Sgt. Anthony is the founder of the Israel Advocacy group Our Soldiers Speak – www.oursoldiersspeak.org – which works to bring the apolitical truth from Israel’s battlefields to the people of Diaspora. He has lectured at college campuses throughout the US and Great Britain with the aim of engaging in dialogue with all who are willing to grant him and his message audience. Here’s what he wrote:
It is a rare thing indeed to witness the confluence of awful reality with redemptive celluloid fantasy; yet that is precisely what I experienced when viewing Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Inglorious Basterds.’
His opening scene adheres to a narrative we have heard many times, and must continue to hear as often as is necessary, lest we forget. We must not tire of it.
Beginning with a serious and sinister portrayal of the callous acts of Colonel Hans Landa, Tarantino showed the viewer the murder of Jews who sheltered beneath floor boards. He outlined just how bereft of mercy that period was.
I am certain though, that even Tarantino’s masterful attempt to recreate on film what actually took place in reality will always be limited to being just that – an attempt. For such acts of evil cannot be encapsulated. That’s what I have been told time and again by the survivors with whom I have met and spoken. Some things are beyond even the realm of the movie world to harness or portray.
In that sense, Tarantino did what others have done before him and, I hope will continue to do; he tried. He tried his very best and as far as that scene is concerned, I felt he did so honestly, earnestly and brilliantly.
My interest though was piqued not by the movie’s opening, but by its climax. That for me was what went beyond anything I had viewed until that point.
How fantastic it was to see the demise of Adolph Hitler and his henchmen in the movie theatre at the hands of the gun toting ‘Basterds.’
How utterly refreshing a cinematic notion – to see the Jews fighting back and not merely resisting, but emerging with their mission accomplished, stopping evil in its tracks.
How thoroughly inspiring to see a unit dispatched to decapitate the proverbial snake of Nazi tyranny led by the brash Aldo, supported by Donny the Bear Jew Donovitz.
It was exhilarating and in my opinion, by not trivializing the horrific acts of Landa at the movie’s outset, Tarantino earned himself the right to delve into an alternative narrative; to portray it as only he could, to embellish as only he does. It is obviously a mere fantasy, but what a fantasy to indulge!
And yet, for me, the success of the Basterds was at once triumphant and tragic. For Hitler did not meet his demise in a movie theatre, nor did his henchmen. They were not stopped in their tracks, at least not soon enough.
Nor was there a band of ‘Basterds’ dispatched by the Americans to make its way across Europe in order to crush the Nazi party’s leaders.
If there was, they certainly never managed to accomplish their goals.
In truth, the free world stood by, and it stood by for far too long as the body count of innocents rapidly accrued into the millions.
Yes, tragically, the ‘Basterds’ were a mere figment of Tarantino’s imagination. And so, continuing in that vein, I thought that if he was entitled to imagine, then perhaps I am as well.
I wondered whether during that blackest of times, the Jews of that day ever dared to conceive that a militia might be dispatched by the US to destroy the Nazi party from the top down. My answer, a question; why not?
Why should they not have believed in such a possibility? Unlikely as it may have been, surely it was more likely a concept than the alternative – namely that the world would do precisely nothing.
Yet no such cadre came.
And so, once the movie had concluded, once the adrenalin within me had subsided, my questions left me with a feeling of emptiness and abandonment. I felt wounded by the reality that innocents had been forsaken. In short, the fantasy of Basterds could not endure. History’s harsh reality came crashing back to me and the feel-good ending gave way to a feeling of dejection – at least until I convinced myself to imagine for just a while longer, during the car-ride home. Seeking to return to the euphoria I felt in the theatre I confined my wondering to a path that would lead to optimism.
I wondered again about the Jews of Europe. Had they dared to believe in something far less likely than anything I had just viewed?
Did those Jews ever conceive that salvation would come from within the bosom of a people so persecuted, tortured, brutalised and ignored?
My answer is no. They cannot have done so – at least not from a platform of evidence, reality or reasonability.
Did the Jews of Poland, of Austria, of Germany and of France ever imagine a time – a mere three years after the atrocities of the Holocaust – where soldiers with names such as Pfefferman, not Aldo, would be lieutenants charged with defending against those who assail the Jewish people?
I doubt it.
Could the Jews of that blackened era ever have thought that those who lived on would know of a body of defenders who at its helm has Captains carrying names such as Horowitz, Commanders named Rosenbaum, and strategists called Schwartzman – victims none of them, heroes all?
It is very unlikely.
Could those whose families had perished ever have rationally dreamed of a time when those who ply the traditional trades of law, medicine, accountancy and finance would equally wield the tools of their own defence and determination ready to answer the call to arms whenever it is sounded, each one of them carrying a creed in their heart that beats to the rhythm of ‘Never Again?’
I cannot believe that they did. Such concepts would at best be the figments of a wild imagination. Perhaps one employed to escape the most sinister of realities – a reality in which hope seemed not to exist.
And yet, those unimagined fantasies were given their genesis in 1948 with the establishment of the modern State of Israel. They have morphed and taken shape. They are precisely the realities that prevail today and they exist in the form of Israel and her soldiers.
They are the extant result of actual events. They are not fantasy, merely fantastic! And, for as long as their existence continues we will never again be required to imagine a source from where the salvation of the Jewish People will spring. We will never need to construct a hope that is founded on the readiness of others to protect us. We have been provided with the answer; and that is to look always within ourselves.
And so, as I arrived at my home, I was left with the following thought; Yes, it is a rare thing indeed to see the confluence of awful reality with redemptive fantasy as I had seen in the movie theatre that night; but it is rarer still to have a living, breathing example of a reality that transcends even fantasy and is beyond its realms to harness or to envision.
That is what Inglorious Basterds gave me cause to see.
The protectors of Israel, though once unimaginable are a reality today. Israel is a reality today. Such realities were brought about not by the imagination, but by true heroes and pioneers.
I thank G-d for that.
Mr. Tarantino’s movie reaffirmed my pride in those who defend the people of Israel and the values we all hold dear. His movie, intentionally or otherwise, underlined why they are so needed and why abstract concepts such as fantasy and hope must never be the only courses upon which we we embark when working to ensure our own survival.
In helping me to remember that, I, as one Jew, as one individual whose grandparents fled the Holocaust, as one man who has served in the company of the soldiers of the IDF, as one sergeant from the line, I am grateful for this film and what it unearthed within me.
It led me to understand that just once in a while, reality can indeed transcend even fantasy – and on the odd occasion that it does, such a reality must at all times be protected for it is nothing short of being actually and factually glorious.