Saturday, August 22, 2009

Tarantino's Anti-Semitic Inglorious Basterds

Quentin Tarantino’s new film, Inglorious Basterds, has been hailed for helping to improve the image of Jews. Instead of being victims, they are for once, the spin is, portrayed as tough. This is the hype. An argument can be made, however, that this film could be seen as an extended anti-Semitic allegory.

The Jews in the Inglorious Basterds are not tough. Brad Pitt has a macho attitude he charmingly spreads throughout the film. But he is not portrayed as a Jewish character. In fact, his nickname is ‘Aldo the Apache.’ He recruits Jews to kill NAZIs. But he himself is not one. The other big killer got broken out of prison. His being Jewish is never established.

The Jewish soldiers are overwhelmingly silent. When being interrogated by the German Colonel Landa, in one of the final scenes, the Jewish character who is captured with Raine sheepishly repeats Raine’s answer rather than formulate and assert his own. Landa then mocks the Jew by letting him know that his nickname among the Germans is ‘The Little Man.’ Sitting next to the defiant, macho, southern Raine and across from the NAZI that captured them, this Jewish character’s masculinity is belittled.

In another scene we are to meet the feared ‘The Bear Jew.’ He is the Jew that the NAZI’s most fear because he beats them to death with a club. We hear his hear his club hitting the walls in a dark tunnel as he slowly comes out to kill an SS officer. When finally emerges, rather than a club he has a baseball bat. After killing the German, he parades around yelling about baseball and hitting one out of the park. He is just a stereotype of an innocent Jewish kid from Brooklyn. The feared Jew is deflated.

The only real Jewish NAZI killer is Shoshana Dreyfus. If one were looking for a vindication of Jewish masculinity, it is interesting to note that the main tough guy is a Jewish woman. The Jewish men who simultaneously kill with her are stock comic figures oafishly pretending to be Italians. Shoshana is the only consistently tough Jewish killer. Showing the Jewish woman as powerful hardly boosts the image of assertive Jewish men.

But Tarantino’s heaviest dose of anti-Semitism comes in the film’s climax. Soshana kills the NAZI high command by burning them to death in the movie theater she owns. While they burn, her face appears on a screen saying, “This is the face of Jewish vengeance.” Since Shoshana made the film, it is projected on the face of the screen, and the screen speaks for her, anti-Semites could interpret this line to mean, “film is the face of Jewish vengeance.” These anti-Semites could easily understand this as an allegory for Jewish control of the media.

For this film to be a parable about Jews and America, the Germans would need to be seen as stand-ins for Americans. The NAZIs in this film make several nasty racist slurs against black people. Since Germans of that time and place had little contact with black people, you would typically attribute such racist anti-black remarks to Americans. Subconsciously, putting American attitudes in NAZI mouths could convince the audience that the NAZIs are stand-ins for white America.

Shoshana angrily and resentfully rejects the love advances of a German (read white) soldier for being a part of the State. Her only real love interest is with her black employee, Marcel. This is offensive to the NAZI power structure and would have, at the time, challenged America’s mores too. Their love appears wholly noble. But Tarantino’s work inviting so much theoretical interpretation causes us to ask, “What is the symbolism?” “What drove Tarantino to make the love interest and co-conspirator black?” Was this, again, an attempt to compare America and NAZI Germany? Unfortunately, the Jewish – Black alliance against the power structure could lend credence to anti-Semetic interpretations.

Shoshana’s passion with Marcel finally erupts in the projection booth just as the couple is about to destroy the racist hierarchy. Thus their transgressive love is nearly projected. In fact, when her vengeance is enacted, they stand on opposite sides of that screen and communicate with each other via a bell. Shoshana stops the NAZI film entitled ‘Nation’s Pride” and projects her vengeful film in its place. Simultaneously Marcel, behind the screen, starts the fire by igniting a large pile of film. Thus anti-Semites could easily see the film as an allegory of Jews destroying the Nation via Jewish the use of white guilt, control of the media, and advocacy of multiculturalism.

My reading of this film may see symbols where none were intended. It is probably not significant that the film that plays while the NAZI hierarchy burns is black and white. But Tarantino is nothing if not a self-reflective auteur. The film’s focus on Goebbels’ use of film to bolster the nation inevitably raises questions about film’s ability to destroy the nation. In a film that has been billed as a Jewish empowerment film, some anti-Semites will notice that the vast majority of the Jewish vengeance happens in a cinema. As one famously obsessed with film theory, Tarantino should have anticipated this potential anti-Semitic interpretation.
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