When the extreme horror auteur Eli Roth visited Germany to promote his 2005 film “Hostel,” journalists asked how he dared make such a sexually sadistic movie.
Roth was then a 29-year-old who had already cemented his reputation as one of the most successful directors to push the so-called “torture porn” genre to grisly new heights, and “Hostel” pushed it even further.
The filmmaker was used to criticism for his over-the-top depictions of impalings, decapitations and blow-torchings, but Roth — who has numerous relatives who died in the Holocaust — became enraged when German journalists asked him to justify those grisly scenes.
“I said, ‘This movie is nothing but [cinematic] magic tricks, but your grandparents turned my ancestors into furniture. Into lamp shades.’ I went on and on. I couldn’t stop myself. I couldn’t believe they took that kind of self-righteous position.”
Roth’s same righteous fury appears in his portrayal of Sgt. Donny Donowitz, a.k.a. “the Bear Jew,” in “Inglourious Basterds.”
“Donny is a Jewish guy from South Boston who is fighting on behalf of Jews who can’t,” said Roth, 33, who still displays much of the 40 pounds of extra muscle he put on for the role. “He uses his baseball bat to pummel Nazis, so he can physically feel that sensation of cracking their skulls in.”
For Roth, the movie proved more than just his first major acting role: “It was like kosher porn,” he said. “It was an orgasmic feeling to swing that bat.”
Which is not to say that he didn’t take the role seriously. Because his mother’s family was all but wiped out in Nazi-occupied Austria, and his parents’ friends included survivors of Auschwitz and Dachau, Roth grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust.
“We were taught that you do not buy German products,” he said. His mother, a respected painter, and his father, a psychoanalyst and psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School, encouraged him to read the many books on the time period, and at the age of 8, the budding filmmaker had already read Eli Wiesel’s “Night” and knew all about Dr. Mengele’s medical experiments.
“That’s why horror movies always seemed so tame to me,” he said. “I thought it was absurd when people complained about movie violence, because the default in my brain was — what about the Holocaust?
“I never saw violence in movies as real. To me it was always a representation of violence,” he added. “And I couldn’t understand why people got so upset about it when they didn’t seem upset about violence in real life.”
Roth’s directorial debut, “Cabin Fever,” premiered in 2002, and although many critics have reviled him for what they perceive as gratuitous violence and misogyny, others see his work as far more thoughtful than, say, the “Friday the 13th” franchise.
Tarantino served as an executive producer on the poorly received “Hostel II” and previously hired Roth to act in “Grindhouse” (2007). For “Inglourious Basterds,” Roth also served as Tarantino’s unofficial Jewish technical adviser.
At times during the six-month shoot in Berlin, life imitated art: When Roth’s parents broke their vow never to travel to Germany and visited the set, Roth was appalled when one of the crew’s drivers sneeringly referred to them as “Juden.” Roth had to be restrained from beating the man in Bear Jew fashion.
In the end, making “Inglourious Basterds” proved healing for Roth. “When we filmed the scenes where I killed Nazis, the German cast and crew were as excited about it as the Jews were — it was like we were killing them together,” Roth said.
“I remember [the actor who plays] Goebbels saying, ‘Yeah — we get to kill those m———s today.’ They were so happy. And they wanted the deaths to be as violent as possible, because they’re tortured by the Holocaust as much as we are.”