Everyone gets called a Nazi sooner or later.
Obama is a Nazi. Bush was a Nazi. Rush Limbaugh and Nancy Pelosi, too. Also health care, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the war in Iraq, Israelis and Aftonbladet. There are fem-Nazis and Soup Nazis. Hitler’s mustache adorns perfumes, wines and nightclubs.
And amid all those Nazi comparisons, there is now “Inglourious Basterds,” the new revisionist World War II revenge movie from writer and director Quentin Tarantino.
In 1941, Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) massacres the family of Shoshana Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), who manages to escape from hiding. At the same time, just before the invasion of Normandy, Tennessee mountain man/soldier Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) forms a special unit of eight Jewish American soldiers with one purpose: killing lotsa Nazis.
The most feared among the Basterds is Sgt. Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth), also known as “the Bear Jew,” a Hank Greenberg-type muscle Jew who uses a baseball bat to beat in the heads of captured Nazi soldiers. Those soldiers who cooperate are set free, but given a permanent mark of their wartime allegiances: a swastika carved into their foreheads.
Shoshana winds up in Paris, where she opens a cinema. The flirtations of an SS war hero lead her theater to be chosen for the premiere of the new Nazi propaganda film, “Nation’s Pride.” With the highest Nazi officials planning to attend, Shoshana decides to burn down the theater using her collection of highly flammable 35-millimeter nitrate films.
At the same time, the Basterds make their way into Paris, aided by British intelligence suggesting that the higher ups of the Nazi Party are gathering in a theater to watch a film premiere. Meanwhile, Landa has been placed in charge of running security for the event.
The movie is not only two stories, but also two movies. In one, Tarantino re-imagines the end of World War II, replacing actual events with heroic moviemaking. In the other, Tarantino plays out a Jewish revenge fantasy on two fronts: the Basterds and Shoshana.
Tarantino’s movies feature stock characters imagined as real people: robbers who argue about leaving tips, and hit man gangsters who quote the Bible. His previous movies all take place in alternate universes with their own television shows and cigarette brands. This is his first movie referencing actual events — the Blitzkrieg and D-Day — and featuring actual people — Hitler and Churchill — but the approach remains the same.
The Hitler in “Inglourious Basterds” is not a dramatization of the actual Adolf Hitler, leader of the Nazi Party. He is a combination of all the bumbling, screaming, end-of-his-rope, final-days-in-power Adolf Hitlers that have appeared on screen over the past 70 years, from Charlie Chaplain in “The Great Dictator” to Bruno Ganz in “Downfall.”
This forms the contradiction at the heart of “Inglourious Basterds.”
For the movie to be the ultimate revenge fantasy, the story can’t be entirely fictional; it needs the weight of the relationship between Jews and Nazis, and the context of World War II. “Inglourious Basterds,” though, only wants that weight, not its consequences.
The Holocaust and other Nazi atrocities are merely implied, not seen. We only get Aryan-looking men in SS uniforms speaking with thick German accents, and to that we must apply our knowledge of actual events to justify the violence taken against them.
While it’s satisfying to see the tables turned, to see Jews killing Nazis, it’s also hard to cheer these fictional Jews who take two shots (or 2,000) when one will do. The joy they take in killing doesn’t seem very Jewish. Tarantino said he wanted to make a movie where Jews are not victims. In a way, though, these Jews are the only victims — stripped of Jewish culture, Jewish history and Jewish identity, and defined only by a vendetta.
It’s been posted that a Jew couldn’t make this movie. In recent attempts by Jewish filmmakers to show Jewish strength, like “Munich” and “Defiance,” the Jewish characters torture themselves over the ethics of their situation. The Basterds do not. The difference between revenge and justice is humility. Vengeance is personally satisfying, grand, dramatic and fun to watch. Justice is about correcting a wrong, and often boring.
“Inglourious Basterds” is frustrating. It’s a good movie, unfolding in tense and controlled scenes that pull the audience along as they build toward a satisfying climax. But it also asks viewers to suspend a consideration of history for the sake of enjoying the suspense and violence on screen.
In that sense, “Inglourious Basterds” is part of a larger trend — gaining momentum through the efforts of both Jews and non-Jews — that has rendered Hitler powerless through overuse and exaggeration. Nearly 65 years after World War II, the Nazis are now a punch line. There is some justice in reducing Hitler to a caricature, but in doing so the world also lost the power of comparison.
In a culture where Hitler is the plaything of advertisers, filmmakers and pundits, the Nazis are not as effective as a warning. That the Anti-Defamation League loved this movie, while condemning other recent Nazi comparisons as cheapening the Holocaust, means it appreciated only the movie’s surface, while overlooking its deeper questions.
(Eric Lidji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)