In “Inglourious Basterds,” director Quentin Tarantino’s Jewish revenge fantasy, the Nazi-hunting death squad of the film’s title appears in only one extended sequence, and it’s quite enough, thank you. The scene demands that you root for American soldiers as they mutilate German corpses and torture and assassinate prisoners of war, and that you take B-movie delight in the slaughter of the bad guys.
But in the wake of Abu Ghraib, I’m finding it harder to laugh when GIs are shown taking the law into their own hands or, worse, carrying out war crimes under orders from the top.
And I have less patience, in light of last week’s CIA report, for the inevitable argument that in the face of extraordinary evil we have to match cruelty with cruelty or lose. (The United States won World War II, if memory serves, and with a pretty remarkable record for staying on this side of the moral red line, despite the Nazi and Japanese provocations and example.)
But that’s not the only reason Tarantino’s highly enjoyable war movie left a sour taste in my mouth. I found the central thrust of the film — the pure emotion of fantasy fulfillment — a rather cheap and hollow thrill. Brad Pitt’s Bowie knife and the (spoiler alert) conflagration that kills Hitler and his cronies don’t bring back any of the Six Million, while they do bring out the worst in me.
Maybe I’m too far removed from the Holocaust to share what Tarantino’s Jewish producer, Lawrence Bender, calls a “Jewish wet dream” of vengeance. I have no immediate family members or relatives who either lived through the Holocaust or were killed in it. I didn’t grow up taunted by anti-Semites.
And while I appreciate Tarantino’s effort to provide an alternative to Hollywood’s Holocaust canon — films that “always have Jews as victims” — the movie’s glorification of the “tough Jew” seems both tired and dated.
I don’t need a movie to affirm that Jews are able to wield power and fight back — the state of Israel has done a pretty good job of that for the past 65 years. In fact, the conversation in Israel is no longer about whether Jews have the kishkes to wage war, but whether they continue to display the restraint that was to be the signature of a Jewish army.
Tarantino says he doesn’t like all the “handwringing” in war films, but real-life Israelis are professional hand-wringers when it comes to their military, at least since Lebanon I, and certainly Lebanon II and the Gaza operation. You don’t need to agree with Israel’s self-flagellation or the conclusions of its critics to honor the humanity that undergirds this habit of introspection.
By contrast, the message of “Basterds” is, “See, Jews can be as cold-blooded and cruel as the rest of us.” Well, thanks, Quentin. That will help Israel when the United Nations or the Hague sits down yet again to contemplate Israeli “war crimes.”
Tarantino makes movies about movies, not historical or current events. So it’s probably inadvertent that the film appears at a time when some Jews want to treat current conflicts as a continuation of World War II. I don’t mean essential efforts to preserve memories of the Shoah or to monitor and condemn odious Holocaust comparisons.
I’m thinking instead of those who defend the right of Jewish settlers to move into the Shepherd Hotel in predominantly Arab eastern Jerusalem by eagerly pointing out that the building was once home to the mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini. Moving Jews into the home of this Nazi collaborator would be the ultimate revenge on the mufti’s memory, according to this line of thinking — never mind its effect on a peace process or the everyday reality of the Arabs who live next door or the daily routines of the Israeli soldiers who will be called in to guard the enclave.
I’m thinking of Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who pointedly distributed a photograph of the mufti and the fuehrer in recent weeks. Some, like former New York Sun editor Seth Lipsky, defended the move, saying the pro-Hitler mufti (who died in 1974) must remain part of the current debate because his story suggests the degree to which Palestinians refuse to acknowledge the reality of the Holocaust.
Perhaps. But I think this talk of the mufti reflects a deep desire by some to erase distinctions between Palestinians and Nazis. Doing so would make the current conflict not a territorial dispute or a human rights issue or even a religious conflict, but the latest front in the Second World War. But if you start believing that every enemy is bent on and capable of genocide, it’s not long before you accept the “Basterds” premise: that in the face of a cruel and conscienceless foe, morality and the rules of war can be gleefully and unapologetically suspended.
As wish fulfillment, “Basterds” is stirring stuff. But there are movies and there’s real life. The chuckles and applause that greet Pitt’s torture of a German soldier don’t mean we’ve forgotten the difference, right?
Andrew Silow-Carroll is the editor in chief of the New Jersey Jewish News, where this piece previously appeared.