Thursday, March 04, 2010

Inglorious Basterds – Revisited

Last September 9th I reviewed the movie ‘Inglorious Basterds’.

Here is a quick review of the storyline. It is a fantasy directed by Quentin Tarantino about Jewish revenge against the Nazis during World War II. Near the end of the movie Hitler and many of his henchmen undergo a spectacular demise - which is of course a complete fantasy. Though I hadn’t seen the movie I felt that I had seen enough clips and read enough reviews to form an opinion about it.

I finally saw the move a couple of weeks ago. Now that the Academy Awards are coming up (this weekend) and ‘Inglorious Basterds’ is up for Best Picture – I thought I would update my review.

I was not that far off. At the time I thought it had some cathartic value but overall I thought the movie was a mistake. The revisionism - no matter how well intended - served to undermine rather than enhance our knowledge and understanding of that period. I still feel that way somewhat.

I also feared that the brutal way in which Nazis were killed by Jews might generate some reverse sympathy for the Nazis. I can now say without reservation after seeing it - it does not.

I now believe this movie is worth seeing.

As was pointed out in an article published last Monday in Jewish this movie was more than a revenge fantasy or as Tarantino might put it -an alternate version of history. However, it was not only that. Nor was it only about some sort of Jewish national catharsis. Had that been all it was, I might still be opposed to it. After all it is not our generation’s catharsis to have. It is the survivor’s to have. And I don’t believe that survivors who saw it had one.

This film had more to it than any of that. It was in its own way a lesson about the Jewish people as they really are rather than how they were seen during the Holocaust. Jews are not depicted here as victims - or people who march peacefully to the slaughter. This movie went a long way toward reinforcing an opposite image - that of the warrior. It is the image that was generated by the Israeli soldier during the ‘Six Day War’ in 1967.

The Jewish quotes director Tarantino who spent some time in Israel and marveled at how they operate. From the Journal article quoting Tarantino:

“Here’s the thing that I did not know about Israel before I went there, I didn’t know — and truthfully, I got turned on by it; I dug it, I really dug it — that every young person has to go into the army. The concept behind that, I thought, was awesome. To me, what it said was,” — and as he spoke, his ebullience increased to the point where he was banging his fists on the table — “ ‘You will never, ever catch us unawares again. Never. The prettiest, most daintiest girl, the fattest boy, the littlest guy, the meekest mouse is gonna learn how to operate a gun and is gonna know what it means to be a warrior. We will never be caught sleeping again!’ — And that was cool.”

I think ‘Never again!’ is an underlying theme in the movie and that alone makes it worthwhile.

There are those who would criticize this very point and ask, “Is this what the Jewish people are about?” Kochi V’Otzem Yodi? This is a common criticism leveled by the right against Israeli leaders who express a positive attitude about their military prowess without mentioning God.

As religious Jews we know that there is a God above us who controls everything. Without Siyata D’Shmaya we have nothing. But as far as this film is concerned it doesn’t matter. This film is not meant to be a lesson in theology or Mussar. Nor is it any sort of religious lesson. It is a positive piece that continues to correct a historical wrong about Jews as lambs to the slaughter.

Jews are not lambs. Given the opportunity we are warriors that will not stand by and let ourselves be slaughtered. But for exceptions like the Warsaw Ghetto uprising God did not allow Jews the opportunity to be warriors during the Holocaust. Only God knows why. For reasons which I doubt that I will ever understand – God wanted it this way.

In this film our image is strong and vital. We are depicted as warriors. The image of the 1967 Israeli soldier is reinforced – right in the middle of Nazi Germany during World War II.

The revisionism is still troubling. Although Tarantino made it very clear at the beginning of the film that this movie was a fantasy - Holocaust survivors who viewed it were upset by the revisionism. One survivor said she was afraid the film might be construed as true and encourage Holocaust denial.

That is definitely a concern. As is the possibility that most young people whose only experience with the Holocaust might be through a film like this. They may end up with a false impression of it and that would be tragic. But for serious historians the vast archives of written documents detailing the truth of history will offset that. As will the archival film footage showing in explicit detail many of the atrocities the Nazis perpetrated against the Jewish people.

It is a mixed bag. But after seeing it, I must admit I enjoyed it. But with just a smidgen of guilt.