“The power of cinema is going to bring down the Third Reich. And I get a big kick out of that.”
Inglourious Basterds is, as many critics are starting to observe, both a treatise on and a demonstration of cinema as a tool of wish-fulfillment. Watching the Bear Jew beat up Nazis with a baseball bat is the closest thing Brad Pitt’s band of scalp-taking Jewish soldiers get to “goin’ to the movies”; that the Bear Jew is played by torture-porn director Eli Roth seems not insignificant. These vicarious pleasures, of visceral (and, in this case, righteous) violence, are kickass or queasy, depending on your perspective; so too is Tarantino’s alternate history of World War Two, rewrit with lightning.
The film climaxes at the premiere of a Third Reich propaganda shooter, Goebbels’s last best hope to spur Germany to victory by presenting a heroic face, in close-up. (Hitler leans in to tell him that Nation’s Pride may be his masterpiece, prefiguring the direct-address closing line Brad Pitt delivers on behalf of his director. Both Goebbels and Tarantino are presenting World War Two as a movie in which their guys act like action stars.)
The big blow-out plays a lot like that of acknowledged Inglourious Basterds precursor The Dirty Dozen: the Third Reich, including top brass, noncombatants and accessory women, is trapped while at play and then incinerated. That was a movie moment; this is a movie-movie moment, with the fire lit, as many have observed, from nitrate film, and orchestrated, as fewer have, from a projection booth. The projectionist, the maker of fantasy worlds, here plans and projects the destruction of her audience, cuing up the firestorm by cuing up a reel. (The projection booth sequence is astonishing on about a dozen different levels, especially the stunning, immediately poignant moment in which actors assume their status as ghosts preserved on celluloid — and then, smoke — with breathtaking rapidity, while we, for once, watch.)
So, the power of cinema brings down the Third Reich — knowingly — and we get a kick out of it.
The debate currently surrounding Inglourious Basterds is whether this is, you know, ok. Whether or not it’s appropriate, on a cinematic or I guess moral level, to rewrite history so that a band of Apache-like Jewish guerillas get to pump Hitler full of lead, while another Jew — who narrowly escaped the Nazis as her family was shot — cremates hundreds more. Who gets to have their wishes fulfilled by the magic of the movies? Whose fantasies — which fantasies — are allowed? If anything that’s ever happened is categorically different from everything else that’s ever happened, or so the settled wisdom goes, it’s the Holocaust.
Glenn Kenny will have none (or very little) of this: “Where were you guys when The Boys from Brazil came out?” That is: Hitler-as-boogeyman is somehow less questionable than this? What standard are we applying? It’s a rhetorical question, but one worth answering.
Too, as my colleague Henry Stewart has already scoffed, let’s not go rewriting history ourself, by pretending that other WWII movies are so worthy of the history they borrow their gravitas from. From Schindler’s List on down, you’d be hard-pressed to find a movie that treats History as gospel. (Hell, even try finding a movie that treats Gospel as gospel.)
Counterarguments, after a fashion: In Newsweek, the scholar Daniel Mendelsohn notes an alarming trend in recent World War Two movies, extending to the Hebrew Hammers of Basterds:
Tarantino’s movie may be the latest, if the most extreme, example of a trend that shows just how fragile memory can be—a series of popular World War II films that disproportionately emphasize armed Jewish heroism (Defiance) and German resistance (Valkyrie, White Rose), or elicit sympathy for German moral confusion (The Reader). If so, it may be that our present-day taste for “empowerment,” our anxious horror of being represented as “victims”—nowadays there are no victims, only “survivors”—has begun to distort the representation of the past, one in which passive victims, alas, vastly outnumbered those who were able to fight back.
A fair point: it is probably dangerous, in the longview, to pretend that we’ve always stood up to the bad guys.
This, or something like it, was also an argument A.O. Scott made against Defiance and its lionized Jewish partisans. (Defiance being, incidentally, a film I find far more offensive than Inglourious Basterds, for the way it appropriates not just the “based on a true story” label but actual documentary-film language to manipulate its audience.)
But, well. I’m not entirely sure that Jews were “rewriting history” — erasing the fact of their own victimhood in favor of a bolder narrative — when we tracked and kidnapped Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires, then tried and hanged him in Jerusalem.
But, though his memory is a little selective, Mendelsohn makes a valid point about historical irresponsibility.
Prior to that, though, Mendelsohn overreaches, suggesting that with the brutal Basterds, Tarantino is effectively “turning Jews into Nazis”; Richard Brody counters that “There’s nothing in the film that suggests that [Tarantino’s Jews] would slaughter German children, would tear German fetuses from the womb, would, in short, seek to exterminate the entire German people.” In fact, just before the Bear Jew beats a gallant Nazi officer to death, Tarantino makes the victim into a virulent anti-Semite. A bit of a cop-out, for those who prefer their pulp with some point-counterpoint moral-ambiguity cover-your-ass — like revenger’s tragedy Munich and its kid brother Defiance — but it does tend to reinforce Brody’s point, echoed by my colleague Ben Sutton: watching Nazis get killed is a guiltless pleasure.
Of course — and maybe the Munich references were a clue that this was coming — Jewish vengeance missions would only become more morally ambiguous after Eichmann.
I don’t have much time for the people who, pace what Mendelsohn implies, seek to make an equivalence between the state of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, and Nazi Germany’s treatment of the Jews; nor do I mean to suggest that the state of Israel is mostly an Inglourious Basterds-style revenge fantasy and attempted rectification of history. That’s getting awfully close to the Ahmadinejad argument.
Still, as Jeffrey Goldberg argues in the Atlantic, Inglourious Basterds may play differently in the Middle East, where fearsome Jewish power is less a fantasy — as Tarantino claims it is, quoting several Jewish friends, and though it’s easy to imagine him as a selective listener and poor reader of social cues he’s probably on to something, given that the Jewish filmmakers Steven Spielberg and Edward Zwick have both cast blond-haired, blue-eyed James freaking Bond as a righteous justice-dispensing Jewish militant — than an increasingly uncomfortable reality.
You’ll note that neither Daniel Mendelsohn nor Jeffrey Goldberg is a full-time movie critic, which seems to be the single factor determining whether a given viewer thinks that it’s ok, what Tarantino does with World War Two. (Also on their no-not-ok side: David Denby, who is probably more a belletrist in the New Yorker tradition, really, than a movie critic.) Those of us who think that a movie that reflects the movies is just as important and interesting as a movie that reflects reality, though — we dig it.
I can’t think of a movie that’s as open about its — and other films’ — counterfactual intentions as the brazenly reference-soaked, occasionally anachronistic (Bowie!), metacinematic Basterds. J. Hoberman (linked above re: Schindler’s List) decides that Tarantino’s self-assumed role as history’s rewrite man is “tasteless”, but seems to admire QT for having the stones to “admit the excitement he experienced in asserting his will over history.” And, I’d add, for j’accusing films from reputable to dis-. Tarantino once told the late Stanley Kubrick, by way of the New Yorker, that he was a “hypocrite” for claiming A Clockwork Orange wasn’t an endorsement of violence:
Get the fuck off. I know and you know your dick was hard the entire time you were shooting those first twenty minutes, you couldn’t keep it in your pants the entire time you were editing and scoring it. You liked the rest of the movie, but you put up with the rest of the movie. You did it for those first twenty minutes. And if you don’t say you did you’re a fucking liar.
With Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino is no liar.