August 29, 2009

I should first admit that it took quite a lot for me to actually go see Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino’s latest about a special Army unit of Jewish avengers, led by a half-Cherokee Good Ol”€™ Boy, who rampage through German-occupied France, killing, scalping, and/or branding top Nazis, eventually slaughtering no less than the German Führer. I”€™m certainly not against counter-factual reverie, or blood splatter, and I don”€™t hold any reverence for the Nazi regime or feel uncomfortable with the Kill Adolf premise. (Indeed, I”€™d love to watch a filmic portrayal of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or one of Claus von Stauffenberg that didn”€™t devolve into a shallow action flick à la Valkyrie.) The problem is, when I saw the preview for Basterds, I simply sensed that it wasn”€™t made for someone like me, that I didn”€™t have the right disposition to enjoy it.

There I was in the theater watching a clip of “€œAldo Raine”€ (Brad Pitt sporting a cartoonish moustache and Southern accent) telling a Wehrmacht officer, “€œIf you ever want to eat a Sauerkraut sandwich again, take your Wiener schnitzel of a finger and point out on this map what I wanna know.”€ Raine, of course, wants to know the whereabouts of more “€œNazis,”€ whom he and his boys could brutally torture (though it’s clear by the context that Raine is terrorizing Army officers.) The stoic German honorably refuses, and Brad Pitt summons one of his “€œbasterds”€ with the line, “€œGots a German here who wants to die for country. Oblige him.”€ A thug in a sweat-stained wife-beater emerges and proceeds to bash the officer’s head in with a Louisville slugger. (This basterd is portrayed by a one Eli Roth, the man behind Hostel, a classic in the genre of “€œtorture porn,”€ so I”€™m told. And his character is named “€œBear Jew,”€ an evocation of the gay slang term for the fat, hairy, leather-clad men who”€™re “€œon top”€ in S&M.)  

Obviously, the scene is, at a basic level, puerile gross-out. But my question while watching it, both during the preview and the real thing, was this: With whom, exactly, are we supposed to be sympathizing? As we”€™ve all been repeatedly told, and as Aldo Raine reiterates at one point, the Germans acted with such inhumanity in their conquest of Europe that they deserve no humanity in return. (These days, if you so much as hint that you might think the firebombing of civilians in Dresden, or the nuking of the Japanese in Hiroshima, was a bit much, eyebrows are raised and it’s only a matter of time before you”€™re accused dark predilections or else “€œmoral relativism.”€) So, I guess when watching a Jew bash the brains out of a Wehrmacht officer, we Americans are all supposed to instinctively cry Yay!, just like when the home team scores a touchdown. But as I saw that repellent torture-porn auteur whale away at a dignified German officer, needless to say my sympathies weren”€™t where they were supposed to be … or so I thought. But after experiencing Inglourious Basterds, I began to wonder whether the basterds were really supposed to be the Good Guys, and whether Tarantino’s latest is far more equivocal, or rather far more subversive and nihilistic, than most in the MSM have recognized.  

Now, if you brought this up with Tarantino himself, I”€™m sure he”€™d say something coy about how his films don”€™t really mean anything, he’s just former video store clerk, yadayadayada… Don”€™t believe him. Basterds isn”€™t just Tarantino’s homage to B-grade WWII shoot-“€˜em-ups of yesteryear, like The Dirty Dozen (which includes, by the way, a scene of American soldiers murdering a cocktail party of German officers and their innocent wives, A Bridge Too Far (1977), and, of course, the Italian Spaghetti-Western-Front drama, The Inglorious Bastards (1978).

At its core, Basterds addresses that uncomfortable question asked by all serious World War II historians, and many grade-schoolers”€”Why didn”€™t they fight back? Why did the Jews allow themselves to be rounded up so easily? Why weren”€™t there more revolts at Auschwitz? To what degree was there actually Jewish collaboration in the Konzentrationslager? (The persistence of such nagging questions explains the intense interest in events like the Warsaw ghetto uprising, without question an important battle, but one that’s taken on a special aura as one of the very few instances of an organized Jewish assault on the Wehrmacht.)

Tarantino’s response to all this is to make a Lady-doth-Protest-Too-Much-Methinks tale of muscle-bound Jewish badasses shooting up Germans. Profiling Tarantino, Atlantic writer Jeffrey Goldberg couldn”€™t help but indulge in his own Freudian dream-wish of how the Second World War should have turned out:  

Early in the spring of 1944, when I was quite a bit younger than I am now, I parachuted into Nazi-occupied Poland as the leader of a team of Brooklyn-born commandos. We landed in a field not far from the train tracks that fed Jews to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. My team laid explosive charges on the tracks, destroying them utterly, and then I moved quickly on foot to the death camp itself, where I found Josef Mengele, the Angel of Death, in bed. I shot him in the face, though not before lecturing him on his sins. Before I killed him, he cried like a little Nazi bitch.

Goldberg reports that Roth called Basterds part of the new subgenre of “€œKosher porn”€… 

Okaaay. But what’s so striking about all this, again, is the depictions of victim and perpetrator. Though the Nazi Top Brass are evil buffoons, the average Germans who appear in the film”€”and usually end up tortured or hacked to pieces”€”are, to a man, upright, honest, and handsome. Teen heartthrob Daniel Brühl (famous for his sensitive, cute portrayal of “€œAlex”€ in Goodbye Lenin) is given a starring role as Fredrick Zoller, a German propaganda film idol. And it’s made clear by Tarantino that he’s genuinely in love with the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jewess who runs the movie theater, Shoshanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent). In turn, the New York Times‘s Manhola Dargis could barely put a lid on his unease over just how attractive Christoph Waltz was as an anti-Semitic mastermind of the SS: “€œMr. Waltz’s performance is so very good, so persuasive, seductive and, crucially, so distracting that you can readily move past the moment [when his character talks about how Jews are all rats] if you choose.”€

The Jewish “€œbasterds,”€ on the other hand, are all lowlife sadists straight out of the rogue gallery of Pulp Fiction, and they possess about as much moral fiber as the famous “€œGimp“€ of Tarantino’s 1994 masterpiece.  

In the German weekly Junge Freiheit, Claus Wolfschlag expresses his repulsion at the “€œAll Germans are Nazis, ergo Kill “€˜em All!”€ premise of the film, as well his contempt at the German media, who”€™ve treated the premier of Basterds as some Great Public Guilt Festival. (For evidence of this, look no further than the coverage Basterds has been receiving in Der Stern.) Echoing Eli Roth, Wolfschlag calls the film “€œpornography for anti-Germans.”€

Wolfschlag’s point is legitimate, of course; however, it kept hitting me that on a dialectical level, the film’s message might actually be the exact opposite of what it’s purported to be (and what The Producers think it is.) Basterds might offer Jeffrey Goldberg the chance to experience a kosher wet dream”€”and another opportunity for Germans to scold themselves”€”but then, as incredible as it may sound, this Bob and Harvey Weinstein-produced film includes some of the most anti-Semitic portrayals of Jews that have ever seen the light of day in America. Both Steve Sailer and Stefan Kafner have suggested that Tarantino, in many ways, puts himself in the position of Joseph Goebbels in his filmmaking. Put another way, if one were to imagine the ultimate anti-Semitic, neo-Nazi propaganda film about how the Second World War was marked by distinguished German officers being terrorized by a band of Jewish maniacs, would it look much different than Inglourious Basterds?

Nor is this kind of double meaning foreign to Tarantino’s earlier work. Much like Masters of the Universe wannabes have been, for years, quoting the Randian wisdom of “€œGordon Gekko,”€ the evil capitalist in Oliver Stone’s anti-capitalist propaganda film, Wall Street, the “€œSicilians were spawned by n——-s“€ scene from True Romance has been an endless source of insults for millions of jerks who love to make fun of their friends of southern Italian descent. That True Romance was written by Tarantino, an Italian-American, and the words were spoken in a scene of gritty realism, only act as layers of irony that allow Tarantino to get away with it all”€”much like one can present Jews as inhuman scumbags in a movie about the heroic killing of evil Nazis.     

Besides, depicting the Nazis as fascinating and seductive in fantasy revenge stories is nothing new. As Andrew O”€™Hehir described in Salon not too long ago, the kiosk clerks of postwar Israel always kept some Nazi porn behind the register:

As many older Israelis evidently remember, the then-new nation was afflicted by a perverse pop-culture craze in the early ‘60s, at a time when nearly half the population consisted of Holocaust survivors, nationalist sentiment ran high and moral codes were extremely puritanical. Yet the newsstands in the Tel Aviv bus station sold racks of semi-pornographic pulp novels known as “Stalags,” whose utterly implausible, Penthouse Forum-meets-Marquis de Sade plots ventured into the most forbidden terrain imaginable. Stalags all followed essentially the same formula: An American or British World War II pilot (generally not Jewish) is shot down behind enemy lines, where he is imprisoned, tortured and raped by an entire phalanx of sadistic, voluptuous female SS officers. His body violated but his spirit unbroken, the plucky Yank or Brit escapes in the end to rape and murder his captors.


When I was talking about Basterds the other day with a good friend, he reminded me of the classic P.J. O”€™Rourke line, “€œNobody has ever had a fantasy about being tied to a bed and sexually ravished by someone dressed as a liberal.”€ The UN’s blue-helmeted “€œpeace keepers”€ who monitor elections in Nairobi simply aren”€™t the stuff that hot S&M fantasies are made of. Blonde SS officers in tight black leather, on the other hand… Basterds isn”€™t quite Luchino Visconti’s The Damned, which features Nazis cross-dressing and taking part in orgies, but Tarantino is clearly more fascinated with the villains than the “€œheroes.”€  

When he first achieved critical fame, including an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, in the mid-“€˜90’s with Pulp Fiction, Tarantino seemed much more than just a talented hack with an encyclopedic, nerdy knowledge of the history of cinema and a penchant for retro style and gory spectacle. One might assume that the soul music, the leisure suits, the sideburns, the Jheri curls in his “€˜70s-inflicted Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown would seem either “€œretro-chic”€ or hopeless dated by “€™94 and “€™97. In fact, they create an effect that was alternately authentic, disturbing, and surreal. At some level, all of Tarantino’s characters are “€œgangsters with the souls of video store clerks,”€ capable of amusing, sometimes tedious, Seinfeld-esque meditations on foot rubs and the French people’s love of mayonnaise on fries. But didn”€™t Samuel L. Jackson’s lecture to Tim Roth on the nature of power represent something more? Or an attempt at something more?  

Anyway, after Tarantino’s long directorial absence (1997-2003) following the box-office failure of Jackie Brown, his sole effort at non-ultra-violence, he decided to restart his career by indulging in “€™70s kitsch qua kitsch and including all the ridiculously acrobatic thrills of the kung-fu drama, old and new. Hence Kill Bill, Uma Thurman’s yellow jumpsuit, and her ability to run up walls while chopping to bits Lucy Liu’s gang of bodyguards.

In this line, Inglourious Basterds is a kind of worst-of-all-possible-Tarantinos amalgam. The ambition (or pretence) of something meaningful is present, of course, with the evocation of the Jewish experience in World War II. However, Tarantino somehow manages to create a heroic Jewish fantasy that ends up making all the Jews look repugnant. He presents the Nazis as attractive, quasi-seductive, but then is never quite brave enough to encourage his audience to actually sympathize with them, and thus break through the “€œGermans = Evil”€ narrative of most every American World War II movie. 

Returning to that scene in which the “€œBear”€ cracks the skull of a stoic German general: Whom are we supposed to sympathize with, victim or perpetrator? … In the end, I think it was just about the blood splatter. 


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