July 9, 2020

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Inglorious Basterds (Divest This!)


Director Quentin Tarantino’s recent decision to play an active role in Israeli life (or at least the creation of more of it) got me thinking back to his 2009 actioner Inglorious Basterds (a film which, like his most recent Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, took a few small liberties with the historic timeline). 

I’ve been a fan of Tarantino since he first came on the scene with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, not because he was the last decade’s reigning film hipster, but because we shared a film vocabulary (I spent much of the ’80s and ’90s ferreting around video stores in ethnic neighborhoods for Hong Kong action flix, Filipino Batman musicals, and other treasures while he was screening the same films in the video stores he haunted).

Tarantino’s gift for dialog is usually the first thing reviewers remark on, but I’ve always appreciated his patience as a film maker. In an age when Hollywood pictures ban any scene lasting for more than twenty seconds, Tarantino’s can stretch out 15-20 minutes and consist of nothing more than characters interacting with one another in complex ways (admittedly, with many such scenes ending in some spectacular bout of violence). This aspect of Tarantino’s skill became apparent in Kill Bill, a four-hour bloodbath/extravaganza which contains fewer individual scenes than ten minutes of a Michael Bay picture. That patience is even more on display in Basterds(something I confirmed during a recent screening with the kids).

For anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, Basterdsabandons the time-travel tricks Tarantino played in films like Pulp Fictionfor parallel linear narratives.  In one, a group of Jewish operatives under the leadership of Shabbos-goy Brad Pitt are working behind enemy lines during World War II to terrorize the Nazis.  In another, Shosanna Dreyfus, a Jewish girl who escaped the massacre of her family at the hands of Nazi Jew Hunter Hans Landa (played brilliantly by Christoph Waltz) is living in Paris and runs a cinema where the upcoming premiere of Josef Goebbels’s latest propo film will be attended by the top Nazi brass (including Hitler himself).  This sets the stage for separate Dirty Dozen-style mass-assassination plots by both Shosanna and the Basterds.

Another Tarantino strength is his willingness to kill off characters mid-picture, including characters you’re convinced are central to the plot. This unpredictability left audiences (or at least me) wondering whether the joint schemes to kill off the Nazi leadership would succeed, clash or cancel each other out.

As with his other pictures, Tarantino uses this work to show off his film knowledge, with multiple references to pre-war German and French cinema. The potential pretentiousness of the film-maker’s indulgence is blunted, however, by the fact that Basterdshas much more to do with 1940’s American WWII shlock actioners than with the work of Leni Riefenstahl. My personal favorite film in this category – whose name I’ve forgotten – features a group of Chicago gangsters sent behind enemy lines where they manage to use Tommy guns and getaway cars to kidnap Hitler, tricking the SS into shooting their own Fuehrer by shaving off Hitler’s moustache (“But I AM the fuehrer!” “Shut up you swine! ” Pow!)

Sorry, where were we? Oh yes, onto politics!

When the film first came out, there was controversy over a picture that features Jews taking glee in their brutal behavior towards their victims. But since those victims are all uniformed Nazis (not German civilians), this complaint only made sense if you were willing to make a moral distinction between plain old Army Nazis and Gestapo Nazis (a la Hogan’s Heroes). Besides, as the aforementioned Dirty Dozen showed us years ago, decadent Nazis and their entourages at play (at a dinner party or film opening) are fair game.

At least one critic was suspicious over the amount of German financial backing for the film, highlighting that both Shosanna and the Basterds play into a “vengeful Jew” mythos permeating German society. I won’t pretend to understand German culture enough to say whether this trope is as widespread as that critic thought, but I will point out that the first Jewish image in the film (consisting of a family of Jews hiding under the floorboards of a French house in justifiable fear for their lives) has been played out endlessly for film audiences over the last six decades, something that doesn’t seem to have blunted European appetite for anti-Jewish fear and paranoia. If once every two generations a film features a Jew emptying a machine gun clip into Adolph Hitler’s face, I can’t say I see the harm in that.

Especially since we’re talking about an exploitation film, the type of movie which invites you to welcome the opening credits with a cry of “Pander to me!” arms thrown out.  After all, African American audiences got to spend a decade enjoying Black Belt Jones and other Blaxploitation heroes delivering roundhouse kicks to the head of bigoted Southern sheriffs. Is it too much to ask for Jews to be gifted a similar jolt at the movies once in the 75 years since the Holocaust?

I’ll admit that many audiences, Jew and Gentile, didn’t quite know what to make of depictions of Jewish strength, power and heroism, especially when such strength involves use of a gun or a knife. Which is one more thing I appreciate Quentin Tarantino for challenging us with, even if he did so merely with the intention of delivering up some explosive kicks.

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