When I was an undergraduate, I took a course entitled "The Bible and the Holocaust" from a short, squeaky, charismatic and funny rabbi-cum-professor, who would lecture twice a week, making jokes about feminism and Blow Pops and the president of the university. This professor, who also taught a class entitled "Quest for the Human Destiny," in which he would draw an intellectual genealogy from the Book of Ecclesiastes to Salinger, Hemingway, and the film, Shane, was not, I realized, talking to us about the Holocaust. Yes, we read Nehama Tec; yes, we watched Shoah. But for this professor, the entirety of the political and social phenomenon that took place between 1938 and 1945 could be reduced to one phrase: Hitler versus King David.
Hitler versus King David. What this phrase meant was a little bit obscure at first. We read Kings and Samuel, the stories of David fighting Goliath (our professor mentioned the fact that the Philistines were uncircumcised); the stories of David unifying Israel; the stories of David abusing his power by killing Bathsheba's husband; the stories of David impotent in his old age. David was, for Holstein, a warrior king, with imperfections, and the perfect human being. But what did any of this have to do with the Holocaust? Certainly, the Holocaust was a clear example of a minority's inability to fight back against the State, and King David represented Jewish autonomy and statehood. Certainly, there was no Jewish leader who managed to take on the Nazis in the way that David took on the Philistines. But transforming the Holocaust into this simple dualism of David/Hitler seemed to be a flashy way for our professor to recapitulate his obsession with History as the creation of great men (he once told his Quest for the Human Destiny lecture crowd that "not one of you will ever be the human being that King David was"). But it all came clear one day in one of his many anecdotes:
"I was in Israel," he told us, "on the day of remembrance. All of the sudden, it got very quiet, and in the silence, three fighter jets made a loud boom as they passed overhead. There was another moment of silence, and then, all in unison, voices rose up shouting 'Never again!'" He repeated the "Never again," a bit teary, and said, "To protect the weakest members of your society... you need your own land, your own territory!"
This is what David versus Hitler meant: the formation of a Jewish state and its securitization through military force. Holstein continually reminded us that "to protect the weakest members of society, one needs strength."
My professor will probably show Inglourious Basterds in future permutations of the "Bible and the Holocaust" class. If ever a film was meant to appeal to Israelis (and Americans) of the Avigdor Lieberman persuasion, this is that film. The two parallel narratives follow a young Jewish woman, Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), who, at the beginning of the film, escapes from Nazis while her family is murdered and who subsequently becomes the proprietor of a medium-sized cinema in Paris, and the Inglourious Basterds, about whom we know very little, except that they are an elite squad, made up almost entirely of Jews (with the exception of Brad Pitt's character, 1st Lt. Aldo Raine) with very few speaking lines (also with the exception of Brad Pitt's character), whose sole mission in Germany is to "scalp Nazis," as Aldo Raine informs us in the second scene of the film. Both protagonists harbor deep animosity toward the Nazis, for fairly obvious reasons: how could a Jew not hate Nazis, even if a few did buy into Nazi propaganda and were even members of the German military through the Third Reich? The Basterds fulfill their hatred by killing Nazis for being Nazis (sounds a bit like Erik Prince's attitude toward Muslims), while Shosanna, whose cinema is opportunely turned into the venue for the premier of a major Nazi film directed by Joseph Goebbels, Stolz der Nation, is able to fulfill her desire for revenge by burning down the theater filled with all the major members of the Nazi party, including Hitler, and presumably forcing a German surrender and ending the war on the German front in 1944 instead of 1945.
The film is not aiming at realism, and to critique it on such grounds would be worthless. But I want to ask, what does ending the war in 1944 instead of 1945 accomplish, from the perspective of fantasy? It doesn't save the Jews, because the Final Solution was kicked off two years prior. Tarantino's fantasy apparently has nothing to do with saving innocents, then. It doesn't prevent D-Day, which, as we are informed in the course of the film, has already taken place. Hiroshima and Nagasaki would most likely still occur. The only event with a major human cost that would have been likely to be prevented by such a victory would have been the bombing of Berlin in February 1945, certainly not an insignificant achievement, but I doubt at the forefront of Tarantino's mind. Indeed, the major victory of Shosanna Dreyfus and the Basterds seems to be that Jews get to kill Hitler instead of him killing himself.
This film, then, like many of Tarantino's films (is it because he is a nerd?) is about revenge. I can't be harsh on him for this. After all, I have had plenty of revenge fantasies in my life: what if we could kill Hitler before he came to power? what if we could go back in time and arm Nat Turner with M240s, Humvees, and Tomahawk Missiles? I've even outlined a film, entitled Dick Cheney Gets Tortured, in which the former VP (a character, of course) would be subjected to standard CIA interrogation techniques throughout the course of two hours. The question, though, is, What do these fantasies do, in terms of the current world, the current political climate, and arranging people's view of the world around them?
Tarantino outlined one possible response to this question, in a statement quoted by The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg in one of the more interesting reviews of the film I have read:
Holocaust movies always have Jews as victims... We’ve seen that story before. I want to see something different. Let’s see Germans that are scared of Jews. Let’s not have everything build up to a big misery, let’s actually take the fun of action-movie cinema and apply it to this situation.This is actually, despite Tarantino's claims that it never happens, an oft-repeated desire, in and out of Hollywood. In the same essay, Goldberg points to Stephen Spielberg's Munich and Edward Zwick's Defiance. In other words, the Jewish audience wants to see the stereotype broken, they want to see Jews, like De Niro's character in Casino who kick ass, who shoot people, who don't simply die en masse. Unlike these other films, Tarantino's film takes this fantasy and plays it out as fantasy, rather than revisionist (in the good sense) history.
But another question arises: what does this type of portrayal accomplish now, in this moment, when a Jewish state exists, and when Germany has paid it reparations and become its largest European trading partner? When strong Jews exist, and they patrol the border between Israel and Gaza, sometimes launching offensives into Palestinian territory? This film, like Jay Holstein's class on the Holocaust, doesn't seem to be about the Holocaust at all, just as portrayals of the Holocaust, by conservative American pundits or liberals advocating for Darfur, are often not about the Holocaust at all. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but we should be aware of it. The violence of the Holocaust often stands in for something else, and in this case, it seems to be an implicit backing of Jewish force.
This is, of course, a good film. I was even surprised at how much I liked it. There is some very good dialogue - for example, the scene in the beginning when the villian, an SS officer named Hans Landa (Christopher Waltz) recapitulates the famous dog/swine discussion from Pulp Fiction by discussing the difference between a rat and a squirrel, and asking whether there is any reason we should be more disgusted by rats than squirrels, or any other rodent for that matter. One can't help be impressed by a functionary of a racist regime asking, through animal metaphors, whether racism is arbitrary (yet he carries out his duties). Another great moment is when Eli Roth's character, nicknamed "The Bear Jew," beats a German officer to death with a baseball bat. Roth, in a movie full of actorly actors, is so un-actorly that he actually makes what would a very unpleasant scene incredibly engaging. Rather than retaining some kind of aloof cool, he begins to scream and shout, cursing and saying something along the lines of "I knocked it out of Fenway, motherfuckers!" (Not in the shooting script). There is also an amazing sense of pacing and shot composition, the kind that has led people to see the ultra-violence film as "Quentin's genre" (and the ultra-violence is, as Gerry Canavan points out, not as extreme as some reviewers would lead you to believe, certainly not as extreme as Kill Bill).
But we have to be careful with this kind of film. The temptation is to see critique where there is none, and to mistake our utter enjoyment of the film with profundity on Tarantino's part. The fact is, it recapitulates many of the arguments held in foreign policy circles about intervention and the rights of enemy combatants with no sense of critical distance at all, and it replays the fascist caricature to such an extent that the presence of non-Germans in the burned-down movie theater at the end is explicitly ruled out in a conversation between Joseph Goebbels and the star of the film-within-a-film, Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl of Good Bye Lenin! fame). We can read shades of the Bush memos on whether un-uniformed combatants count as enemy combatants and thereby can be protected by Geneva (a false argument, because international courts have ruled that you are either an enemy combatant or a civilian, and are therefore protected by Geneva no matter what), for example, when Aldo Raine tells a Nazi Gefreiter that "We like our Nazis in uniform. That way, we can spot 'em, just like that." And it is hard not to see shades of interventionism and R2P sprinkled throughout this fantasy that, ironically enough, does not save the lives of any of Hitler's victims.
Tarantino does not critique violence. He loves it. The parodies of violence in Kill Bill are not criticisms aimed at violence but criticisms aimed at film. He wants filmmakers to understand that they can make violence fun and to revel in this fact. Of course, for him, film is film and real life is real life, and I agree that one cannot draw a connection between violent acts in film and violent acts in "the real world." But I would add that the relationship between ideology and action is always an ideological one: it shapes opinions and attitudes, forming how people look at the world, in this case, one starkly divided between good and evil, as Eli Roth said in an interview with The Onion AV Club: "[My character is] not taking pleasure in killing. He’s fighting evil on behalf of those who can’t fight. He knows he’s the biggest and strongest one in the bunch, and he wants to terrorize them. But he’s doing it to stop evil." This would sit very well with my "Bible and the Holocaust" professor, who viewed human history as a gigantic contest between David and Hitler. But for those of us who are stuck in the realm of the human, this film adds nothing to the conversation.