Warning: this article contains fairly widely-known spoilers about the ending of Inglourious Basterds.
August 21st saw the release of Inglourious Basterds, the seventh film from art cinema’s enfant terrible and provocateur extraordinaire Quentin Tarantino. The misleadingly marketed story of a Jewish fugitive hiding out in Nazi-occupied France during the last years of World War II (and only tangentially the story of Brad Pitt’s titular Nazi scalpers), the film is primarily a study of the power of cinema as revolution and works as both an intense, dialogue-driven thriller and a commentary on the nature of filmmaking and its potential as a sociopolitical force.
For a Tarantino movie, it should come as no surprise that it has been met with great acclaim and a moderate amount of controversy, primarily related to both its portrayal of Jewish American soldiers, who do indeed scalp Nazis (when not carving swastikas into the foreheads of survivors), in addition to the film’s ending, wherein Tarantino pulls a fast one and has the protagonists succeed at actually killing Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, and the remainder of the Third Reich’s upper echelon, thereby ending World War II with a (literal) bang.
Daniel Mendelsohn of Newsweek claims “Tarantino indulges this taste for vengeful violence by — well, by turning Jews into Nazis.” Armond White, film critic for the New York Press, noted contrarian and all-around numbskull, says that Tarantino “manipulates WWII horror into hip pornography.” Mendelsohn, along with a number of the rah-rah-rah-Go America audience members in both screenings I’ve so far attended, are clearly missing several fairly obvious points, the easiest being that war makes monsters of us all, in favor of a political sound bite. Why acknowledge shades of gray when your readers want a headline, byline, and two or three terribly clever witticisms that indicate not only your intellectual brilliance, but also your moral superiority?
I will not play the anti-Semitism card against these critics, as it’s not nearly that simple, but there seems to be a strange standard regarding Jewish perception. When President Obama met with Iranian bloody-handed dictator (let’s call a spade a spade) Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, one of the many criticisms leveled at the president was that he was sitting down with a man that adamantly denies that the Holocaust ever happened and believes that Israel should be “wiped off the map.”
While there are always the issues of political game-playing and grandstanding to remember, Obama’s meeting with Ahmadinejad can ideally only be rationalized by Ahmadinejad’s claims to nuclear power and his indications that Iran will soon be armed with weapons-grade plutonium. Why else would our president, in addition to the larger international body of governments, meet with someone that’s essentially a shorter, far more powerful version of the KKK’s David Duke? Obama graciously and gently acknowledged the anti-Semitic authority that was taken at the barrel of a gun, and film critics like Mendelsohn and White, among others, would criticize Quentin Tarantino for turning the tables and providing an uberviolent revenge fantasy to one of history’s most common and irrationally-blamed scapegoats? I wonder if they chafe while they spend so much time riding those high horses.
It is certainly a simplistic reading of the situation, and there are, no doubt, shades of gray in both Tarantino’s film and its real-world application. But portrayal of violence is not necessarily the same as endorsement of it; many of the scenes in Inglourious Basterds imply that sadistic violence in film holds a universal appeal to German, Jew, and American viewers. But the Nazis actually lived their cruel fantasies. Perhaps the Jews deserve to at least get a revisionist fairy tale to remind them not of what did happen, but what should’ve happened.