What if you held a war movie and your title characters didn’t show up?
That’s how I feel after seeing “Inglourious Basterds.” Marketing and interviews (I avoided the reviews) left me expecting a sort of “Dirty Dozen” homage, with lots of ensemble acting and action scenes involving Tarantino’s twisted band of brothers. Instead, Brad Pitt’s squad of avengers shows up for about 15 minutes of screen time, and the array of Jewish actors assembled barely get speaking lines, and are never individualized. Even Pitt’s role seem more of a cameo than a star turn.
Instead, the movie belongs to Christopher Waltz’s oily, mesmerizing, seductive and quite mad Col. Hans Landa, the SS officer known as “The Jew Hunter”; and the central plot involves a cinema owner (Mélanie Laurent) — and lone Jewish survivor of a Landa-led massacre — who plots to immolate a theater full of Nazi brass.
I suspect a lot of this movie ended up on the cutting room floor, and Tarantino has said in interviews that he had planned a much more sprawling film than the almost 3-hour epic he delivered. You see hints of this grander scheme throughout — only one of the Basterds is given a back story, in a way that suggests Tarantino either filmed or contemplated doing the same for the others (we’ll probably have to wait for the DVD). Pitt’s character has a scar around his neck, as if from a failed hanging. It’s never explained. Why is the title misspelled? (And why is Laurent’s character’s name spelled ”Shosanna” and pronounced “Shoshana”? It’s not as if it’s a French variant — the common spelling for the Hebrew name, there and just about everywhere else, is “Shoshana.”)
I was expecting a Jewish “Sgt. Rock” with lots of Tarantino’s trademark violence, and got instead a talky alternative history in which Anne Frank survives and goes on to become an avenging angel. Which is not a bad thing — what I’ve always liked best about Tarantino’s films is not the stylized action and aestheticized violence, but the talk — reams and reams of brilliant talk, often by washed up or little known actors whose career Tarantino has rescuscitated or saved from obscurity. There are three amazing, long set pieces in “IB” in which the “action” is mostly in conversation. It starts with Landa’s terrifyingly casual interrogation of a French farmer who is harboring Jews, a scene whose violent climax is not nearly as scary as the quiet conversation that preceded it. There is a lengthy and pivotal scene in a basement tavern, in which three German-speaking Basterds play cat and mouse with another Nazi (a brilliant August Diehl). And there is Landa’s quiet conversation with Laurent’s character, over slices of mouth-watering strudel. Laurent recognizes him as the man who slaughtered her family; Landa may or may not know if she is who she says she is. Their back and forth is as heart-pounding as any chase scene or fire fight.
Nevertheless, I had to seriously readjust my expectations, and any thoughts I had about using the movie as a springboard for thinking about Jewish vengenace.
The one extended scene showing the Basterds doing what the Basterds do — the scalping and bludgeoning of Nazi soldeirs — was quite enough, thank you. The scene demands that you root for war criminals, and that you take b-movie delight in the slaughter of the bad guys. But in the wake of Guantanamo, I’m finding it harder to laugh when G.I.’s are shown taking the law into their own hands or, worse, carrying our war crimes under orders from the top. And I have less patience for the inevitable argument that in the face of extraordinary evil we have to match cruelty for 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 lines despite the Nazi’s and Japanese’s provocations and example).
As for the pure emotion of fantasy-fulfillment — as a Jew, enjoying as the Nazis get a taste of their own medicine — it’s rather a cheap and hollow thrill. Brad Pitt’s Bowie knife and the (spoiler alert) small-h holocaust that kills Hitler and his cronies don’t bring back any of the Six Million, while they do bring out the worst in me. Many in the mostly gray-haired and generally Jewish audience in the Teaneck theater where I saw the movie laughed when a terrified Nazi soldier, having witnesssed the bludgeoning murder of his comrade, quickly gives away a German unit’s position (in their defense, Tarantino is a master at comic violence). I was just queasy.
Maybe I’m too far removed from the Holocaust to share what Tarantino’s Jewish producer, Lawrence Bender, calls “a f–ing Jewish wet dream” of vengeance. I have no immediate family members or relatives who either lived through the Holcoaust or were killed in it. I didn’t grow up taunted by anti-Semites.
And the idea of this film as a corrective to the 2,000-year-old portrayal of Jews as passive victims would be welcome, if this were 1947. (Although I will acknowledge Tarantino’s point, as he explained to Jeffrey Goldberg, that “Basterds” is a corrective to the long list of Shoa movies that “always have Jews as victims”).
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 god job of that for the past 65 years. Israelis long ago proved that a Jew can wield a weapon and use it on his enemies. They proved it in spades – if fact, the 2009 conversation is not 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 doesn’t like all the “hand wringing” in war films, but real-life Israelis are professional hand-wringers when it comes to waging war. Israel’s self-image is of a military force that does what it has to do to survive and defend itself, no more. At least since Lebanon I, and certainly Lebanon II and the Gaza invasion, the public debate has been about whether Israel has violated its own ethic of defense, and allowed veangeance, perhaps, to rush ahead of its ethical ideals. 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 doesn’t have a “Jewish” agenda — his movies are always about movies, and seem to bear only a tangential relationship to what’s happening in real life. In a sense, “Basterds” is a brainless film — there isn’t a hint of introspection on the part of any of the characters or in the dialogue. The film has “ideas” only in relation with other films — how does this scene comment on, pay hommage to, or subvert Hollywood classics like “The Great Escape”? How does Waltz’s Landa stack up against Ralph Fiennes’ Goeth character in “Schindler’s List”?
So I don’t expect Tarantino intended to comment on the Jewish present. But I’ve seen signs that Jews are still fighting the Nazis, or, more to the point, fighting Palestinians as if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict represents unfinished business of the Second World War.
For example, some who defend the right of Jewish settlers to move into the Shepherd Hotel in predominantly Arab East Jerusalem point 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 — nevermind its effect on the 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.
Former Forward editor Seth Lipsky also praised Israel’s Foreign Minister, Avigdor Leiberman, for distributing a photograph of the Mufti and the Fuhrer in recent weeks. Wrote Lipsky:
Certainly the fact that the Palestinian Arabs hewed to Hitler was understood by an earlier generation as fundamental. It was marked over and over again by such great liberal institutions as the Forward newspaper. The error of the Arabs was compounded as they refused — in sharp contradistinction to, say, the Germans — to make an effort to educate their people to the facts of what happened under Hitler and what it all meant. It seems they wanted the world not to regret but to forget.
According to this view, the pro-Nazi Mufti (who died in 1974) must remain part of the current debate because he suggests the degree to which Palestinians refuse to acknowledge the extent of the Holocaust (although it’s strange that other conservative writers, although not Lipsky as far as I can tell, jumped down Obama’s throat because, in his Cairo speech, he made too strong a connection between the Shoa and the creation of Israel).
Perhaps Lipsky is right, 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 boundary dispute or a human rights issue or even a religous conflict but the latest battle in World War II. If that’s the case, the “Basterds” fantasy — in which morality and the rules of war are gleefully and unregretfully suspended in the face of a cruel and conscience-less enemy — is not an ironic movie device, but a policy recommendation.
In “Basterds,” Pitt rallies his killing squad:
“We will be cruel to the Germans, and through our cruelty they will know who we are. They will find the evidence of our cruelty in the disemboweled, dismembered, and disfigured bodies of their brothers we leave behind us.”
As wish-fulfillment, that’s stirring stuff. But there’s movies and there’s real life. My fellow Jews surely know the difference, right?