Inglourious Basterds and the power of Cinema

by Joshua Gardner (Coordinator for the Washington Jewish Film Festival, which runs December 3-13, 2009)

Inglourious BasterdsAs coordinator of the Washington Jewish Film Festival, I have seen my fair share of Holocaust films, but I can say with certainty I have not seen anything like Inglourious Basterds before. It’s part tense World War II thriller, part over the top gore-fest and a one hundred percent Jewish revenge fantasy. Ok so maybe not yours or mine, but unmistakably Quentin Tarantino’s Jewish revenge fantasy. Which other filmmaker could center a pivotal scene in a World War II film to David Bowie’s Cat People

For those unfamiliar with the premise of the film, Inglourious Basterds focuses on a rag-tag group of Jewish-American soldiers getting revenge against the Nazi’s and a young French-Jewish survivor also searching for vengeance. These separate story-lines collide when the Third Reich decides to hold a lavish movie premiere at the very cinema the French-Jewish woman owns. The film ends with a bang with the whole cinema, Hitler and all, being mercilessly destroyed. If I remember my High School history class correctly, this isn’t exactly how it happened.

I am part of the final generation that will get to experience a Survivor’s first hand story. I think for this very reason we are seeing resurgence in Holocaust film, a final push before the wounds of time slowly heal. I think Inglourious Basterds puts itself on this very edge of Holocaust filmic history, a challenging movie that puts forth the idea that film shapes history.  After first-person narratives fade away, the Holocaust will live on through Schindler’s List and Life is Beautiful for a generation who never gets to meet a survivor. Who’s to say Tarantino’s version of history won’t be equally prolific for legions of young Jews in the future, an entertaining exercise in “what-if” theorizing.

Tarantino’s spin on the end of World War II is a cathartic re-envisioning; his ultimate ode to the power of cinema. And for all of the implications this film brings up it still manages to be one of the most disgusting, edge of your seat, World War II comedies I have ever seen. Suffice to say: it’s one for the history books.

3 Responses

  1. […] The Blog at 16th and Q about Inglorious Basterds […]

  2. I wonder what impact the growing and changing picture of the Holocaust as represented on stage and screen, has on our perception of history–could it be detrimental to the truth?. Theater J (fellow programmers of the WJFF here at the 16th Street J) has presented works such as Either Or by Thomas Keneally (author of the novel, Schindler’s List, from which the screen play was adapted) and Picasso’s Closet by Ariel Dorfman; both of these plays model their characters on historic figures and use real events as the basis for their plots and as a spring board for speculation. Like the Tarantino film and Zwick’s Defiance, the ratio of fact to fiction varies in these plays.

    Is there any danger in creating such stories from the horrors of the Shoah–even affirmative ones like that imagined by Benigni in his modern classic, Life is Beautiful? Here’s what frightens me: when all the survivors and witnesses are gone, how do we deal with the deniers who want to rewrite history for their own purposes? If the revenge fantasy is what we wish had happened and the denier’s fantasy is what the revisionist wants to believe did not happen, are they not equally likely to be confused for the truth? I can imagine that Inglourious Basterds is an antidote to Valkyrie (which cleaves more closely to history in depicting the failed attempt to kill Hitler). Tarantino never claims that his film is anything other than a fairy tale, but by adding to the mythology as the actual events recede in time, isn’t there some risk that we are contributing to the appeal of untruth and further melding fact with fiction?

    • Just want to correct something I wrote: I should have written “denial fantasy” not “denier’s” to make it parallel to “revenge fantasy.”

      By the way, a new play by Daniel Goldfarb is previewing in NYC, called The Retributionists, directed by Leigh Silverman who hails from these parts and has directed for Theater J. This play is being compared to Inglourious Basterds, not just because the words of both titles are not recognized by spell check. Unlike the film, the play is based on true events; it is about a group of Jewish freedom fighters in 1946. Theater J Artistic Director, Ari Roth has already seen it.

      On a related topic, we will host an informal reading of the 1995 drama Denial by Peter Sagal (yes, of NPR’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” fame) on Monday, October 5 at 2pm (not part of our Tea at Two series which features new works and usually takes place on Friday afternoons) about a Jewish lawyer defending the First Amendment rights of a Holocaust denier.

      On the subject of freedom of speech, check out Zero Hour about blacklisted artist/actor Zero Mostel, kicking off Theater J’s season, starting tonight.

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