Profile September 2009

Hollywood’s Jewish Avenger

With Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino has managed to create something entirely new: a story of emotionally uncomplicated, physically threatening, non-morally-anguished Jews dealing out spaghetti-Western justice to Nazis. It’s a film no Jewish director could have made.
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Nicolas Guerin/Corbis

Early in the spring of 1944, when I was quite a bit younger than I am now, I parachuted into Nazi-occupied Poland as the leader of a team of Brooklyn-born commandos. We landed in a field not far from the train tracks that fed Jews to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. My team laid explosive charges on the tracks, destroying them utterly, and then I moved quickly on foot to the death camp itself, where I found Josef Mengele, the Angel of Death, in bed. I shot him in the face, though not before lecturing him on his sins. Before I killed him, he cried like a little Nazi bitch.

Then I woke up, ate a bowl of Rice Krispies, and walked to school—the Howard T. Herber Middle School—where a sixth-grade pogromist named Patrick Harrington and his Cossack associates pitched pennies at me in a game sometimes known as “Bend the Jew,” which ended, inevitably, with me being jumped for refusing to pick up the aforementioned pennies, and also for killing Jesus. It is in part because of young Mr. Harrington and his lieutenants that I would later join the Israeli army, and that, more recently, I found myself sitting beside Quentin Tarantino’s pool in the Hollywood Hills, listening in wonder as the writer and director of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction diagnosed what he saw as the essential, maddening flaw of every Holocaust movie ever made.

“Holocaust movies always have Jews as victims,” he said, plainly exasperated by Hollywood’s lack of imagination. “We’ve seen that story before. I want to see something different. Let’s see Germans that are scared of Jews. Let’s not have everything build up to a big misery, let’s actually take the fun of action-movie cinema and apply it to this situation.”




Video: Jeffrey Goldberg contrasts Quentin Tarantino's new Nazi movie with Defiance and Schindler’s List


It is true that most—some might even say all—films about the Holocaust focus on the persecution of Jews. The Holocaust was very bad for Jews; this is an immovable fact of history. But Tarantino isn’t wrong to suggest that the cinematic depiction of anti-Semitic persecution can become wearying over time, particularly for Semites. In Judd Apatow’s comedy Knocked Up, Seth Rogen’s character praises Steven Spielberg’s Munich for featuring Jewish assassins: “Every movie with Jews, we’re the ones getting killed. Munich flips it on its ear. We’re capping motherfuckers!”

Munich, though, is a neurotic’s delight in comparison to Tarantino’s preposterous, sporadically brutal, and greatly entertaining new film, Inglourious Basterds. (The misspellings are intentional, for reasons that Tarantino won’t fully explain.) Though he opens the film with the murder of a Jewish family in a French farmhouse, he spends much of the rest of the two-and-a-half-hour film allowing his Jewish characters—including a beautiful young woman named Shoshanna, the only survivor of the farmhouse massacre—to beat Nazis, scalp Nazis, burn Nazis, and carve swastikas into the foreheads of Nazis. Inglourious Basterds is part Dirty Dozen, part Sergio Leone, part Leon Uris—but not much Night and Fog or Shoah, and certainly not much Schindler’s List. (Spielberg is too nice a Jewish boy to have a U.S. soldier tell a Gestapo officer, before shooting him, “Say auf Wiedersehen to your Nazi balls!”) The film also contains suggestions—intentional or not—of Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS and Springtime for Hitler. But Tarantino, a famously derivative filmmaker, has managed to create out of these parts something that seems entirely new: a story of emotionally uncomplicated, physically threatening, non-morally-anguished Jews dealing out spaghetti-Western justice to their would-be exterminators.

The film tracks two separate, though converging, plotlines: the revenge conspiracy of Shoshanna, who, after her escape from the almost comically evil SS officer Hans Landa, recreates herself as a cinema owner in Paris; and the deployment in occupied France of the “Basterds,” a squad of American Jewish Nazi-hunters led by an officer nicknamed “Aldo the Apache,” who is played by Brad Pitt and who is meant to be a Tennessee hillbilly, not a Jew, because even Quentin Tarantino understands that there are limits to plausibility. Shoshanna’s plan and the Basterds’ mission come together in Paris, with world-historical consequences. Suffice it to say that Tarantino brings about the end of World War II in a way that would please Jews, and most everyone else, including devotees of David Bowie, who sings “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” as the Third Reich collapses. Along the way, the Basterds terrorize German soldiers and even Hitler himself.

On one level, Inglourious Basterds is a sophisticated and knowing evisceration of fascist cinema—the war ends, essentially, in a conflagration in Shoshanna’s theater. And because this is Tarantino, scenes of unmediated gore are interrupted by debates about German movie-making, including a discussion (whose participants include Winston Churchill) of whether Joseph Goebbels runs his movie studios in the manner of Louis B. Mayer or David O. Selznick. But it is the unapologetic depiction of an alternate reality in which Jews torture and murder Nazis that made this film particularly interesting to a veteran REM-state Mengele-killer such as myself.

Early in the film, Aldo the Apache announces the goals of his unit: “We will be cruel to the Germans, and through our cruelty they will know who we are. They will find the evidence of our cruelty in the disemboweled, dismembered, and disfigured bodies of their brothers we leave behind us.” Soon enough, the Basterds are committing war crimes, beating prisoners to death and collecting the scalps of dead Germans. “Every man under my command owes me 100 Nazi scalps,” Aldo demands.

The horror-movie director Eli Roth—his film Hostel is the most repulsively violent movie I’ve ever seen twice—plays a Basterd known as the “Bear Jew,” whose specialty is braining Germans with a baseball bat. Roth told me recently that Inglourious Basterds falls into a subgenre he calls “kosher porn.”

“It’s almost a deep sexual satisfaction of wanting to beat Nazis to death, an orgasmic feeling,” Roth said. “My character gets to beat Nazis to death. That’s something I could watch all day. My parents are very strong about Holocaust education. My grandparents got out of Poland and Russia and Austria, but their relatives did not.”

Tarantino’s producer, Lawrence Bender, says that after reading the first draft of Inglourious Basterds, he told Tarantino, “As your producing partner, I thank you, and as a member of the Jewish tribe, I thank you, motherfucker, because this movie is a fucking Jewish wet dream.” Harvey and Bob Weinstein, the film’s executive producers, also reportedly enjoyed the film’s theme of Jewish revenge.

Tarantino told me he has received only positive reactions from his Jewish friends. “The Jewish males that I’ve known since I’ve been writing the film and telling them about it, they’ve just been, ‘Man, I can’t fucking wait for this fucking movie!’” he told me. “And they tell their dads, and they’re like, ‘I want to see that movie!’”

It is not an accident that it took a non-Jewish director to concoct this story of brutal Jewish revenge. It is difficult to imagine a Jew in Hollywood—each one more self-conscious than the next—portraying Jews as vengeance-seeking knifemen. Neal Gabler, the author of An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, told me that Jewish revenge fantasies aren’t entirely alien to the movie industry, but they’ve always been exercises in sublimation, Superman being only the most obvious. “Jews have gone from being nonexistent in film to being thoroughly represented, but no Jew would ever make a film like Inglourious Basterds,” Gabler said. “It’s too brazen.”

Tarantino in person is both larger and saner than he seems in his films and in his public appearances. He is a polite and enthusiastic host, and he spent part of a July afternoon with me analyzing German cinema of the 1920s, World War II iconography, and the career of Joseph Goebbels, which seems to fascinate Tarantino endlessly. (Goebbels provides one of the most amusing moments in Inglourious Basterds, crying when Hitler praises his latest film. “If Hitler says that this is the greatest movie you’ve ever done, I can see Goebbels getting choked up,” Tarantino said in explaining the scene. “When Harvey Weinstein does that, I get a tear in my eye.”) Tarantino was less thoughtful on the subject of torturing Nazis, but deliberately so. Excessive thoughtfulness, he suggested, is the reason his Jewish friends find most Holocaust movies so exasperating.

“I hate that hand-wringing shit,” he said. He had a revelation in his early 20s, he recalled, when he saw Red Dawn, a Cold War revenge fantasy in which a group of American high-school students, the “Wolverines,” battle Soviet and Central American soldiers who invade Colorado. “The Wolverines capture a soldier, and there’s a little bit of back-and-forth—should we kill him or not—and C. Thomas Howell just blows him away with his shotgun,” Tarantino recalled. “Those are the kind of things you say, ‘That’s exactly what I would do.’ It’s what I want to see, and when I don’t see it, I become frustrated, and then it feels like a movie as opposed to real life.”

He went on, “When you watch all the different Nazi movies, all the TV movies, it’s sad, but isn’t it also frustrating? Did everybody walk into the boxcar? Didn’t somebody do something?”

The recent Ed Zwick movie, Defiance, about a group of Jewish partisans in German-occupied Belarus, featured armed Jews engaging in vigorous self-defense, in a way that most Holocaust movies don’t. Tarantino said he had not seen it. “My guess is, that doesn’t go far enough,” he said. “My guess is that it’s frustrating in a whole different way.”

He is correct that Defiance doesn’t go as far as he would go, but it is something of a corrective, not only to Schindler’s List, which is a story of Christian redemption and Jewish passivity, but to the schmaltz and vulgarity of most Holocaust films, from Jakob the Liar to Life Is Beautiful. The Jews in Defiance kill Nazis, but they periodically stop to debate the merits and drawbacks of killing. When I described this, Tarantino argued that it would have been unrealistic to expect the Jews of Europe to debate the morality of killing Nazis.

I asked Tarantino if he thought the over-the-top violence of the Basterds might offend people. “Why would they condemn me?” he said. “I was too brutal to the Nazis?”

Well, scalping Nazis is a bit … much.

“One of the things that’s interesting to me is equating the Jews in this case with the Indians in a Western,” he said. “Maybe it’s not nothing that I’m 25percent Cherokee Indian. If I go do a movie of Jewish Americans fighting back in World War II, then I equate them with the other race that I am, and I use the Indian battle plan, their methods, to attack the Nazis.”

Eli Roth told me that Tarantino came to his home for Passover just as he was wrestling with the final act of Basterds.

“I was his Jewish sounding board,” Roth said. “‘Would a Jew do this, would a Jew do that?’ He kind of didn’t have an ending. But after the seder, he said, ‘I’m going home to finish.’ He understood that we are still pissedoff about things that happened to us 3,000 years ago. At the end of the seder, we talked about how the Jewish thing was to remember, that there was no absolution.”

The ending Tarantino wrote includes the mass incineration of Nazis and their wives, with Shoshanna screaming “This is the face of Jewish vengeance!,” and the very last scene features one final forehead swastika-carving.

“Why isn’t that all right?” Tarantino asked me, when I noted the cruelty of that final image.

“Well, it’s torture,” I said. “Isn’t torture wrong?”

Ten seconds went by as Tarantino weighed the question.

“He’s a Nazi,” Tarantino said, finally. “They’re giving him a scar. I don’t know if I would even go so far as to call that torture. He’s scarring him. He’s not torturing him. What he’s doing isn’t so ridiculously painful.”

I asked if he’d ever had a swastika carved in his forehead.

“I’m sure it hurts,” he said. But torture, he said, is something different: an attempt to elicit information by inflicting extreme pain. In other words, the pain inflicted by Tarantino’s Jews on the Nazis was inflicted only to terrorize.

My ambivalence about some of the excesses of Inglourious Basterds fully emerged only in the days after our conversation. I had met Tarantino less than 24 hours after I first saw the film. When I came out of the screening room the night before our interview, I was so hopped up on righteous Jewish violence that I was almost ready to settle the West Bank—and possibly the East Bank. But when my blood cooled, I began to think about the morality of kosher porn in the context of current Middle East politics. Some of this was informed by my own experience in the Israeli army, in which I saw my fellow Jewish soldiers do moral things—such as risking their lives to prevent the murder of innocent Jews—as well as immoral things, like beating the hell out of Palestinians because they could.

When Tarantino asked me how I thought his film would be received in Israel—he’s visiting for the first time this summer, to promote the film—I told him that Israelis, who have actual experience with physical power (in a way that most Jews over the course of the past 2,000 years did not), might not take to the film in the way that many of their American cousins might. Some Israeli liberals, including the country’s many filmmakers, might not like his movie very much at all.

Lawrence Bender, Tarantino’s loyal producer, is one of Hollywood’s more famous liberals—he produced the Al Gore climate-change film, An Inconvenient Truth, and he is on the board of the Israel Policy Forum, a left-leaning pro-Israel group. Bender told me he could not view Inglourious Basterds without remembering his own experience with schoolyard anti-Semitism. “I was taunted and thrown into lockers, and I’ve never forgotten it.”

I asked him to place the movie in the current stream of Jewish power politics. “Every time Quentin makes a movie, we’re accused of promoting violence,” he said. “Most people know the difference between real life and the movies. This is a movie. It’s a fantasy. It’s not meant to empower the Jews and speak against the Arabs. But on the other hand, to point out that the Jews have some degree of power today but are living in the middle of a sea of people who are basically saying that they shouldn’t be around? I have zero problem with Jewish empowerment. The whole thing is complicated. At the end of the day, the people in that auditorium”—during the film’s climax—“are Nazis. You kind of feel bad for them because they’re burning to death, but you’re not feeling too much sympathy, even for the Nazi who gets a swastika carved in his head.”

But why risk creating sympathy for Nazis at all? Why have any scene that, in Neal Gabler’s words, “conventionalizes Jews, puts them in the same revenge motif as everyone else”? Tarantino, of course, always goes too far: Sofie Fatale’s cut-off arm in Kill Bill: Vol. 1; the police officer’s sliced-off ear in Reservoir Dogs. I have a high tolerance for violence in Tarantino’s compelling fantasy demimonde. But Inglourious Basterds is the first Tarantino movie to reference real historical events. Which might be why I find his anti-Nazi excesses—there’s a concept—disconcerting. Or it might be because I don’t actually have revenge dreams anymore. They stopped sometime after I left the army, if I remember correctly. Given the chance, of course, I would still shoot Mengele in the face. That would be a moral necessity. But I wouldn’t carve a swastika into his forehead. That just doesn’t sound like the Jewish thing to do.

Jeffrey Goldberg is an Atlantic national correspondent.
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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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