By Daniel Mendelsohn
At the climax of Quentin Tarantino's latest movie, Inglourious Basterds, which is set during World War II and which is concerned, at least superficially, with Jews, you get to witness a horribly familiar Holocaust atrocity—with a deeply unfamiliar twist. A group of unsuspecting people is tricked into entering a large building; the doors of the building are locked and bolted from the outside; then the building is set on fire. The twist here is not that Tarantino, a director with a notorious penchant for explicit violence, shows you in loving detail what happens inside the burning building—the desperate banging on the doors, the bodies alight, the screams, confusion, the flames. The twist is that this time the people inside the building are Nazis and the people who are killing them are Jews. What you make of the movie—and what it says about contemporary culture—depends on whether that inversion will leave audiences cheering or horrified.
"Inversion" is the name of the game here. Tarantino, who began his career as a video-store clerk, has created a body of work consisting of elaborate riffs on second-tier genre films (blaxploitation, gangster, martial arts), every detail of which he seems to have seen and memorized. In Inglourious Basterds (the dimwitted misspelling is never explained), he's after bigger game and a more consequential subject: those gritty World War II epics in which an unlikely, ill-shaven group of hard-boiled recruits must perform some impossible mission (The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen, The Naked and the Dead, and, of course, Enzo Castellari's Inglorious Bastards, to which Tarantino's title pays homage). Here, the ill-shaven GIs belong to a group that the movies used to represent as soft-boiled—they're all Jewish—and their mission, under the leadership of a blond, cigar-chomping, decidedly un-Jewish lieutenant named Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt, playing what you might call the Lee Marvin role), is simply to ambush and kill as many Nazis as they can—and then bring back their scalps as trophies.
The problem is that the movies aren't real life, and this is where Tarantino, with his video-store vision of the world, gets into trouble. Controversies about the uses of Jewish suffering in World War II in popular entertainment—no matter how innocently such entertainment may be intended—go back at least as far as Mel Brooks's The Producers in 1968, and exploded once again in 1997 when Roberto Benigni's concentration-camp comedy, Life Is Beautiful, came out. It's possible that at least some of the discussion of Inglourious Basterds will focus on the appropriateness (or inappropriateness) of using the Holocaust, even tangentially, as a vehicle for a playful, postmodern movie that so feverishly celebrates little more than film itself.
But the real problem here is the message, not the medium. If you strip away the amusing, self-referential gamesmanship that makes up Tarantino's style, Inglourious Basterds, like many of his other films, is in fact about something real and deeply felt: the visceral pleasure of revenge. Vengeance seems to be a subject about which Tarantino the person, as well as Tarantino the filmmaker, has strong feelings; his onscreen treatment of it as something both necessary and satisfying are reflected offscreen as well. "If I had a gun and a 12-year-old kid broke into this house," he told the critic J. Hoberman in a 1996 interview, "I would kill him. You have no right to come into my house…I would empty the gun until you were dead."
In Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino indulges this taste for vengeful violence by—well, by turning Jews into Nazis. In history, Jews were repeatedly herded into buildings and burned alive (a barbarism on which the plot of another recent film, The Reader, hangs); in Inglourious Basterds, it's the Jews who orchestrate this horror. In history, the Nazis and their local collaborators made sport of human suffering; here, it's the Jews who take whacks at Nazi skulls with baseball bats, complete with mock sports-announcer commentary, turning murder into a parodic "game." And in history, Nazis carved Stars of David into the chests of rabbis before killing them; here, the "basterds" carve swastikas into the foreheads of those victims whom they leave alive.
Tarantino, the master of the obsessively paced revenge flick, invites his audiences to applaud this odd inversion—to take, as his films often invite them to take, a deep, emotional satisfaction in turning the tables on the bad guys. ("The Germans will be sickened by us," Raine tells his corps of Jewish savages early on.) But these bad guys were real, this history was real, and the feelings we have about them and what they did are real and have real-world consequences and implications. Do you really want audiences cheering for a revenge that turns Jews into carboncopies of Nazis, that makes Jews into "sickening" perpetrators? I'm not so sure. An alternative, and morally superior, form of "revenge" for Jews would be to do precisely what Jews have been doing since World War II ended: that is, to preserve and perpetuate the memory of the destruction that was visited upon them, precisely in order to help prevent the recurrence of such mass horrors in the future. Never again, the refrain goes. The emotions that Tarantino's new film evokes are precisely what lurk beneath the possibility that "again" will happen.
Tarantino's movie may be the latest, if the most extreme, example of a trend that shows just how fragile memory can be—a series of popular World War II films that disproportionately emphasize armed Jewish heroism (Defiance) and German resistance (Valkyrie, White Rose), or elicit sympathy for German moral confusion (The Reader). If so, it may be that our present-day taste for "empowerment," our anxious horror of being represented as "victims"—nowadays there are no victims, only "survivors"—has begun to distort the representation of the past, one in which passive victims, alas, vastly outnumbered those who were able to fight back. "Facts can be so misleading," Hans Landa, the evil SS man, murmurs at one point in Inglourious Basterds. Perhaps, but fantasies are even more misleading. To indulge them at the expense of the truth of history would be the most inglorious bastardization of all.
Mendelsohn is the author of The Lost: A Search For Six of Six Million.