Thursday, December 10, 2009

Jewish Studies Reflection - Inglorious Basterds

Next on the docket are some musing on Tarentino's Inglorious Basterds that I did for my Jewish American History class, hope you enjoy.

Killin' Nazis:

Ideas of Revenge, Holocaust remembrance, and American Jewish Identity in Tarentino’s Inglorious Basterds

He bashes their brains in with a baseball bat is what he does. Now, Werner, I'm gonna ask you one more goddamn time, and if you still "respectfully refuse," I'm callin' the Bear Jew over here, and he's gonna take that big-ole bat of his, and he's gonna beat you to death with it. Now take your wiener schnitzel lickin' finger and point out on this map what I want to know. – Lt. Aldo Raine (IMDB)

When audiences first got a glimpse of Quentin Tarentino’s newest film, a homage to Italian “Spaghetti Westerns” and “Macroni Combat” films of the 1970’s they expected intense action, gore, and unique, witty dialogue. With Inglorious Basterds the viewer is treated with all of Tarentino’s trademark elements but also an interesting narrative on the role of revenge and particular narrative for Jewish Americans and Holocaust rememberance in the 21st century.

The film, while trailers playing up the comedy with action angle, goes much further than that in its reach. In a precedent for the director, Tarentino chose to have large portions of the dialogue of the film in French and German with subtitles. This makes the way that language is used have a particular prominence in the film and highlights the inability of American G.I.’s to be worldly, most notably when the Basterds must masquerade as an Italian film crew. Basterds follows two distinct narratives: one focusing on the Jewish American Nazi-hunting commandos the Basterds, while the other follows Shoshanna Dreyfus, a French Jew whose family was murdered by Col. Hans Landa in the films tense opening scene. The two paths intertwine with a large premiere of a propaganda film made by Joseph Goebbels, celebrating German Soldier Frederick Zoller’s heroic deeds. The Premiere has drawn all the highest-ranking members of the Nazi Party and is an opportunity to take them all out at once.

Quentin Tarentino has always been successful in delivering an homage to the bygone era of exploitation cinema to mass audiences and popularity (Kill Bill, Jackie Brown, Pulp Fiction). It has been met with pretty overwhelmingly positive results, and considered by a number of critics to be the director’s opus (Rotten Tomatoes). Tarentino has many Jews involved with the film, all Jewish characters being played by Jewish actors and produced by the Weinstein brothers. The film, in addition to Tarentino’s usual entertainment fare, tells a coherent and multi-layered story about Jewish Identity and intercultural relations.

In Basterds, Quentin Tarentino takes an incredibly creative license with historical events, the film having to take place in a parallel universe, as it gets more inaccurate as the plot continues. Tarentino, using a classic Western technique, shows the slaying of Shoshanna’s family at the hand of Hans Landa. This sets Shoshanna’s storyline off as a classic revenge tale, but with a twist: it is grounded in ideas of Holocaust remembrance. However, this is not the attitude towards Nazi war criminals that developed in the 1960’s, viewing even Adolf Eichmann as “a regular guy,” (Our Brothers Keeper? Lecture). This is a harking back to the immediate post-war period, where Nazi soldiers are criminals and monsters who deserve the ultimate punishment. Shoshanna bides her time, working as a projectionist until she has the chance to exact revenge, recording a film of her cackling laughter to play as the theatre is locked and its patrons burned alive. On the other end are the Basterds, also fictionalized as no such group of Jewish American soldiers operated behind enemy lines. They offer no quarter to German combatants, using apache style tactics (scalping German soldiers).

Nazi ain't got no humanity. They're the foot soldiers of a Jew-hatin', mass murderin' maniac and they need to be dee-stroyed. That's why any and every every son of a bitch we find wearin' a Nazi uniform, they're gonna die. – Lt. Aldo Raine (IMDB)

The Basterds, taking an eye for an eye approach seek to take their revenge upon anyone in a German uniform. While usually killing all Nazi soldiers they come in contact with, the Basterds also use a specific tactic to spread terror among the ranks. They let one of the Germans in the unit to escape back to his command, but not before carving a swastika into his forehead with a Bowie knife. Lt. Aldo Raine argues that they maybe able to take the uniform off, but they will always be marked. Donnie “The Bear Jew” Donnewitz, played by director Eli Roth. In the film, Donnewitz becomes the central archetype for role reversal of Jews as victims, the hunted becomes the hunter. Donnewitz signature move is to beat his victims to death with a baseball bat, possibly recalling the famous Jewish ballplayer Hank Greenburg, who also dispelled stereotypes (Life and times of Hank Greenberg). Showing that Jews can be strong and won’t back down and brandishing a symbol of American culture, “The Bear Jew” is rumored to be a Golem summoned by an angry Rabbi. Possibly the most significant and shocking in Tarentino’s constructed narrative is the climax of the film, where Jewish Americans mow down the high command of the Third Reich with machine guns. Tarentino makes sure to show several frames of Adolf Hitler’s head exploding, the scene fairly grisly and dark, even for the director.

With Inglorious Basterds, the theme is pretty clearly a Jewish revenge against the Nazis. Even Hans Landa, who eventually colludes with the Americans to execute Operation Kino, is not spared from brutality, receiving the mark of the swastika on his forehead. What is not certain however, is how Quentin Tarentino expects the audience to interpret this. Breaking from history, he creates a world in which it is American Jews who end the war in Europe, due to their brutality. While presenting the early post-war narrative of Nazis as evil sadists, and dealt with in a fittingly violent matter, I do not believe Tarentino is asking us to return to old attitudes. Instead, he is using the genre of the Western, a uniquely American film style to give a new lense to the old idea of WWII memory. As a product, we have an artifact that is in so many ways distinctly American. It provides us with entertainment and in many ways fulfills a desire to live in a more absolute world, where evil is punished and cruel actions are met with cruel response. The movie compels the viewer to question their ideas and motivations to the way we now look at the period of the 1940’s, and that history is alive in its reconstruction and reshaping.

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