A non-Jewish German journalist’s take on “Inglourious Basterds”
Barbara Bierach is a Sydney-based German journalist who has filed her take on Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” for J-Wire.
“Where does the fun end for you – short of the Holocaust?”
Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds”
70 years after the beginning of the Second World War thousands flock to the movies to watch “Inglourious Basterds”, the latest oeuvre by Quentin Tarantino. This film, set 1941 in Nazi-occupied France tells two interweaving stories: one of a team of Jewish-American soldiers called the “Basterds” who sneak behind the front lines to kill and scalp any German officer they can get hold of; the other about the dedication of a young French woman to assassinate the entire Nazi leadership at once in Paris. Invented characters meet historical figures such as Adolf Hitler or Josef Goebbels and Tarantino himself describes his war film as “spaghetti western but with World War II iconography”.
Many watch this cinematographic oddity in disbelief: is it really acceptable to make fun of this particular part of history? Can you really talk about the atrocities of the 40s in the vernacular of a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm by starting with the words “Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France…” These questions are not only being discussed in Jewish communities around the world, the discourse is raging in Germany, too. Reporters from “Spiegel”, Germany’s most influencial weekly grilled Tarantino in an interview: “Where does the fun end for you – short of the Holocaust?”
It’s not only German journalists like me – born in Germany in 1965 – who are uneasy with the film, but the authorities, too. They asked the distributor Universal Pictures to change its homepage and the publicity material, the display of Nazi iconography, is after all illegal in Germany. Therefore the title has had its Swastikas removed and the Stahlhelm (the “steel helmet” of the Deutsche Wehrmacht) depicts a bullet hole instead of the Nazi symbol. Also, the German site has been revised to exclude wallpaper downloads that feature the Swastika openly.
Tarantino himself remembers that every single one of his German actors warned him: “Please be sensitive! Don’t screw it up!” His position, though, is that almost all war movies of the last two or three decades concentrate on the tragedy, the helplessness of the victims, the guilt. “And almost always perfumed with violin music that highlights the disastrous misery depicted in these films.” But what’s the alternative? Laugh it all away and be done with it?
That’s not Tarantino’s intention. The Jews in his movies refuse to be victims: instead they go out to hunt Nazis. Brad Pitt stars as 1st Lieutenant Aldo Raine of the U.S. Army, aka “Aldo the Apache”. A vengeance-driven officer from Tennessee, “a voluble, freewheeling outlaw”, as one American film review put it. His antagonist, the German officer Hans Landa alias “The Jew Hunter”, is nicknamed for his keen ability to locate Jews hiding throughout France. The SS-killer turned Hercule Poirot is charming, educated, charismatic, and fluent in English, French and Italian in addition to his native German. Tarantino remarked that this might be the greatest character he has ever written. The role ultimately went to the Austrian actor Christoph Waltz, who, according to Tarantino, “gave me my movie back,” since before he felt the part was “unplayable”.
Still, the images of Jewish-American soldiers mimicking German atrocities done to European Jews remain disturbing. Or as the author and critic Daniel Mendelsohn states it: “In Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino indulges this taste for vengeful violence by—well, by turning Jews into Nazis.” True, some Jewish soldiers are portrayed as rogues, some Nazis are cultivated or as Tarantino puts it: “Everybody is everybody. There are no clear cut good guys in this movie, nor are there clear cut bad guys. There is one scene, a catharsis, when one of the Jewish soldiers is supposed to kill a German soldier with a baseball bat. Had I wanted the audience to cry out: ‘Yes, kill him, the bloody Nazi!’ I would have portrayed that German soldier as a despicable coward. But this guy is a very brave, upright soldier. My point is: The realities of war are complicated.”
Tarantino, unlike most other Hollywood directors takes his audience seriously, in more than one respect. The viewer is supposed to find his own ground in this movie, morally and aesthetically. Also Germans speak German in his film, the French speak French and the director has no qualms about confronting his American audience with the fact that there is more than one language spoken in the world. The violence of the film, though – one of Tarantino’s signature traits – is almost unbearable. It is still worth seeing, since it’s one hell of a ride, an anarchistic approach to life, war and to history. Maybe it is about time for that perspective.
To view the trailer, click the title “Inglourious Basterds“