Sunday, September 06, 2009

An Inglorious Movie

First the big disclaimer. I did not see ‘Inglorious Basterds’ the latest Holocaust fim by Quentin Tarantino. I do intend to, however, once the Aveilus period for my mother is over. That said I cannot let this movie go unnoted.

I have seen clips, read more than a few reviews, and have spoken to people who have seen it. I’m fairly confident that I have sufficient knowledge to make the following comments.

As I understand it - this film it is about revenge. It is movie that might even be intended to be cathartic in nature. It is a story about a group of American Jewish soldiers recruited by Aldo Raines, a southern Jewish officer in the US Army (played by mega-star Brad Pitt). He and his recruits were assigned a mission to go behind enemy lines and demoralize the Nazis!

The plan is to seek them out and then kill them in brutal and sadistic ways – spreading fear and terror about these Jews. One method of choice was to scalp these Nazis before killing them. For those who have never seen a ‘Western’ (a genre very popular in my childhood) - Native Americans - who used to be incorrectly called Indians - were depicted as savages. They had a very scary tactic that they used in battle . They would cut off the hair along with the scalp from their victims – as a sort of souvenir - before killing them.

In this movie these Jews went about this torturous method – among others – of killing Nazis. I suppose it is very cathartic for the average movie goer who has seen so many depictions of atrocities committed by the Nazis against Jews. This movie also includes an interesting and 'gratifying' version of how Hitler’s end came about – a version that is absolutely false.

The movie’s writer/director is in fact known for this type of movie. Tarantino is a celebrated director in Hollywood and his movies are very successful. He ‘kills’ people rather cavalierly in his movies with about as much sensitivity as one would have eating popcorn. Always with a lot of blood and gore.

I have no problem with this comic book attitude to violence even when it is a gory as his movies generally are. But I object to using the Holocaust as the subject of comic book violence. It is entirely inappropriate. The Holocaust was too serious to be treated in this cavalier and fanciful way. At least for those of us who are in any way connected to the victims or survivors who suffered at the hands of the Nazis.

I understand Tarantino's motive. And I do not fault it. He saw all those Holocaust movies and the images of the victims marching to their death. Sheep to the slaughter.

One can debate the historical accuracy of that. One can debate whether the systematic and hardcore approach of the Nazi guards would have even allowed for any kind of uprising. One can debate whether the victims marching to the gas chambers though strongly suspecting death actually held out hope that those gas chambers were really only the ‘delousing chambers’ that that SS guards in those camps said they were. There is a lot to debate on this issue. Hindsight is always 20/20. But the perception by many today is that the Jews would not fight back except in rare circumstances like the Warsaw Ghetto.

Tarantino decided to make a different Holocaust movie – one where Jews were not depicted like sheep to the slaughter. He wanted a movie where Jews fought back - and gave the Nazis what they deserved. ‘Inglorious Basterds’ was born. Catharsis on parade!

But it is not for movie goers to have a catharsis. Holocaust movies - even with all its depictions of horror - are still only depictions. Those of us who weren’t there cannot possibly fathom what it was really like. It is illegitimate for us to have a catharsis about it. Only an actual survivor may - and I doubt this movie will do that for them. A survivor might even feel angry at the distortions of history in this movie. He may see comic book vengeance as an insult to actual suffering of the victims! The Holocaust was not fiction that one can manipulate. It happened. It was real. One should not tamper with its essential truth no matter what the intent.

Taking the kind of license Tarantino took was therefore wrong and a mistake.

One more thing. There is the question about whether any sympathy will be generated toward Nazis because of this movies portrayal of their brutal murder by Jews. And by the same token will this movie make Jews look guilty of the very same evil perpetrated by the Nazis against them. If that happens then this movie will be a tragedy.

It remains to be seen what the public reaction will be. I hope that at worst it will be treated for the fantasy that it is. It must not in any way detract from the essential truth about the Holocaust as the most brutal and large scale mass murder of Jews by a ‘civilized’ people - in the history of the world.