Inglourious critics

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Back in harness after a splendid summer break, I will ease into serious business by considering the moral panic that has seized certain high-minded movie critics (e.g. the New Yorker‘s David Denby, the New York TimesManohla Dargis, and Slate’s Dana Stevens) in their respective considerations of Inglourious Basterds. The burden of their distress lies in director Quentin Tarantino’s apparent trivialization of the Holocaust. I’ll spare you the quotes–you can read them yourselves. The point to note is that, as Rutgers Jewish studies prof. Jeffrey Shandler points out (in his Jews, God, and Videotape, pp. 98-103), there has never been a piece of American popular entertainment dealing with the Holocaust–including such high-minded exercises as Schindler’s List–that haven’t come in for such criticism. As usual, Tarentino just takes the genre to the max. He does it by incorporating the Nazi war against the Jews into a send-up of the World War II escapade genre–call it a Shoah-Dirty Dozen mash-up.

From the Jewish perspective–hey, Weinstein bros!–Inglourious Basterds is best thought of as a Purim spiel, the sole traditional theatrical undertaking of European Jewry, staged during the spring holiday that is the Jewish equivalent of Carnival, that riotous pre-Lenten enactment of the world turned upside down. Purim turns the world of the Jewish diaspora upside down by destroying, with extreme prejudice, the would-be destroyer of the Jews, the Persian king’s vizier Haman. (The punishment includes Haman’s family, though this section of the Book of Esther tends to be glossed over in synagogues these days.)

All in all, Inglouriouis Basterds is a revenge fantasy very much on the order of Purim. If you’re looking for an Esther, there’s Shosanna Dreyfus, who contrives the destruction of the entire Nazi high command at her movie palace. (The Haman figure, SS Col. Hans Landa, manages to escape the ultimate fate, but ends up marked for life as the evildoer he is.) The behind-the-lines Jewish Avengers serve up a different Jewish resistance fantasy–dating to the sicarii of the first century, who killed Romans and Roman sympathizers with concealed daggers and ended up defending the fortress of Masada after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70. The squad is, to be sure, led by a non-Jew; but Brad Pitt’s Aldo Raine is part Indian, a member of one of those lost tribes, eh? He has all his men use their daggers to take Nazi scalps.

Does Inglourious Basterds pander to the primitive fantasy of doing to others what they would have done to you? Of course it does. Proper moralists are entitled to turn up their noses at such Purim-like narratives. But let us acknowledge the popular appeal–as testified by the initial box office returns in a summer of Hollywood discontent.

Update: Tarentino in an interview with the Forward: “If you’re dealing with people like the Nazis … well, you either eat the
wolf or the wolf eats you. You know? And so that’s where I would be
coming from in a situation like that. ….”