Inglorious Basterds (2009)

Eyal Roth 31.7.2020

Inglorious Basterds (2009) by the prominent director Quentin Tarantino is a unique depiction of Jewish resistance to the Nazis during the Second World War.

Featuring a remarkable cast including Hollywood stars such as: Brad Pitt as Lt. Aldo Rains, and the magnificent Christoph Walz with an Oscar winning performance as the fictional S.S officer Hans Landa.

Mimicking the structure of a Spaghetti Western, this movie tells two parallel story lines that converge towards the end of the film. Both these story lines follow acts of Jewish resistance and Jewish revenge during the second world war.

The first story line begins with a scene in the French countryside where a French farmer receives a visit from an SS officer searching for a local Jewish family that was not accounted for during prior deportations. The officer, Hans Landa played by Christoph Waltz, proceeds to question the farmer as to the whereabouts of the missing Jewish family. The hidden family is then shot in its hiding place by the SS men accompanying the officer. It seems that one of the family members has survived the shooting. A young girl by the name of Shoshanna Dreifuss (Played by Mélanie Laurent) was seen escaping the hiding place in the cellar of the farm house. The scene ends with the officer shouting “au revoir Shoshanna” literally, until we meet again, and meet again they shall.

Shoshanna will find herself hiding in Paris where she will operate a mid-sized cinema and come in to contact with a young German soldier, Friedrich Zoller (played by Daniel Brühl) who was celebrated for being a very efficient sniper, and kiling over 300 enemy soldiers in three days. A film about his war exploits was to be shown in Paris in front of all the Nazi big wigs including the fuehrer himself. Friedrich will convince Josef Göbbels to have the premire in Shoshannas cinema, granting her the opportunity to avenge the death of her familiy by burning down the cinema along with the Nazi high command.

The second story line discusses the creation and deployment of a small Jewish American army Special Forces unit led by Lt. Aldo Rain (Brad Pitt). The tactical need for such a unit was not explained whatsoever. It would be remiss of me not to mention that no such units ever existed. In the opening scene for this story line the Commander Lt. Rains discloses his Native American heritage and continues to tell the recruits that their job will be wreaking havoc behind enemy line in Nazi occupied Europe, including the execution of most of the enemy soldiers they might capture, and the removal of their scalps. It later becomes clear that some enemy soldiers would be released but not before a swastika would be engraved on their foreheads. Barbaric as the swastika shaped scares might seem, Lt. Rain will explain that he took offence to the fact that Nazi perpetrators would be able to take off their uniform after the end of the war and mingle back into society, thus shielding themselves from justice. The scar would serve as the curse and mark of the biblical figure Cain.

The unit will be joined by a psychotic wayward German soldier by the name of Hugo Stiglitz and at some point by an English spy as well. Together with a German spy actress they will try to blow up the cinema where the preview of the movie was taking place, unaware of the fact that Shoshanna had similar plans.

This movie brings into attention a very unfortunate aspect of the Holocaust, the fact the most of the violence that took place during the 1940s (in the context of the Holocaust) was terribly one-sided. With the exception of the Warsaw ghetto uprising and a few other minor revolts in different extermination camps, the Nazis faced very little (armed) opposition from their Jewish victims. This lack of resistance was of course a source of much contention during the years following the Holocaust, with many voices in the Jewish community “blaming the victim” for not standing up to Nazi oppression. The term “like lambs to the slaughter” was used significantly in this context.  But as it was, the weakened disorganized and demilitarized Jewish community in Europe did not have any concrete way of forcefully resisting the Nazis, and any attempt do so was usually punished by monstrous reprisals. Inglorious Basterds supplies us with a fantastic solution to the problem of Jewish passivity during the holocaust, the clever use of fiction.

In many ways, Inglorious Basterds is quite the American film, the use of western esthetics and Native American symbolism is a clear sign of that. I would claim that there is another aspect in which this film refers U.S American culture. The United States founded after the War of Independence, was one that was built on the ethos of standing up to oppressors, owning weapons, living free or dying while trying. For the Americans that grew up with these ideals, the passivity of the Jews during the holocaust creates a dissonance. The idea of armed Jews roaming occupied Europe and planting fear in the hearts of their enemies by acts of brutality helps to reach consonance.

This movie does not only address U.S American dissonance regarding Jewish passivity during the Holocaust, it does the same for many Jews who grew up on the same tradition, the ones who grew up in the U.S but also those who grew up in Israel. The Jewish state, from its humble beginnings took it upon itself to end Jewish passivity and create the armed vengeful Jews that were supposedly missing during the Second World War. The early Zionist movement referred to this process as the creation of a “Muscular Judaism”.

The movie, as well as other works by Tarantino, brings into question the necessity and the artistic value of such violent shows of revenge. Much justified critique of this film was directed at one of the most common traits of Tarnatino’s films, the glorification of violence. One can find quite a lot of that in the film with scenes showing the removal of a human scalp and many gory exchanges of bullets and baseball bats. Some critics also describe Tarantino’s films as sadistic and obscene. At the same time, perhaps as a redeeming factor, one might also notice that in most of his films, Tarantino introduces strong and central female and black characters, and in this case, also strong Jewish characters which are often underrepresented in such films.

Critique aside, Inglorious Basterds is a highly entertaining fictional film where good prevails and evil finds its demise. With brilliant story telling elements, colorful characters, humor and outstanding cinematography the film is a true Hollywood “feel good” film that still feels completely relevant eleven years after it came out.

Eyal is a student in the M.A program Holocaust communications in Touro college Berlin who also offers private Jewish tours of Berlin


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