Vengeance, Barbarism and Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds

Once again Quentin Tarantino has managed to produce the impossible: ‘an anti Holocaust film’. The Holocaust film genre  can be grasped as a realistic cinematic representation of the ‘Jewish victim’ (innocent and harmless individual) confronted with the ultimate brutal bureaucratic murderous ideology known as Nazism.  The genre can be realised as an intense emotional blackmail that aims to depict the history of the 20th century through an empathetic identification with a phantasmic faultless Jewish  protagonist.  Needless to say,  this genre has been rather successful. Whether it is Schindler’s List,  The Pianist, Everything is Illuminated,  The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas or any other Shoah (Hebrew for Holocaust) film, it is always Jewish innocence that faces institutional state terror.

Tarantino manages to resolve the clear discrepancy between the cinematic ‘Jewish innocence’ and the Jewish nationalist ‘murderous reality’. He does it all through a fantasy. In his imaginary setting, the Jew is a revengeful subject. He is an iconic retaliating scalping savage, Biblically-motivated murderer. In Tarantino’s latest epic, for the first time, the Diaspora Jew resembles his  Israeli nephew. Through a cinematic fictional plot, history has become a homogenous continuum in which Jewish past and Israeli present are unified into a relentless expedition of suicidal vengeance. If films indeed resemble the work of the dream and the unconscious, Tarantino’s latest can be grasped as a wake up call; it illuminates something that we insist to suppress and deny.

On the face of it, Inglourious Basterds follows a typical Hollywood WWII film genre. In the film a special unit of Jewish Americans (the Inglourious Basterds) lands in occupied France just to teach the Nazis what Jewish reprisal is all about. They ambush Nazi patrols and then kill their prisoners, exhibiting  ultimate brutality, whether it is scalping the dead Nazis or killing the rest by crashing their skulls with a baseball bat. The Basterds would always leave one German alive as a witness of their relentless brutality so he can spread out the news of Jewish terror. With a bayonet, they would carve a Swastika into the survivor’s forehead in order to make the Nazi identifiable to all after the war. This is presumably a modern take on the mark of Cain  but it is somehow a bunch of ‘inglorious humans’, who take the role of God.

The film’s opening scene takes us to German-occupied France (1941). Col. Hans Landa  (Cristoph Waltz) of the Waffen-SS a.k.a. the “Jew Hunter,” interrogates a French dairy farmer about rumors that he was hiding a Jewish family of local dairy farmers . Col Landa manages to break  the French farmer who  admits to hiding the Jews underneath the floorboards. Col Landa orders his soldiers to fire into the floorboards, killing all but the teenage Shoshanna (Mélanie Laurent), who manages to escape to the woods.  (Re dairy farmer, already then and there, Tarantino manages in a very subtle manner to set the template for his fictional fantasy to come. It would be impossible for me to argue that there were NO Jewish dairy farmers operating in occupied France at the time. However, it is certainly true that dairy farming wasn’t exactly a stereotypical Jewish occupation. We also learn at this very scene the names of the children of the Jewish family are Shoshanna and Amos. Again, this may seem to be a minor detail. But in fact it is rather crucial.  Amos is not at all a Jewish Diaspora name. It is actually a biblical name.)

Three years after her escape, Shoshanna reappears in Paris, having assumed a new identity. She also becomes proprietress of a small cinema. The film reaches its climax when Shoshanna, celebrates the opportunity to revenge the death of her family. She commits an heroic suicidal act, burning to death the entire Nazi leadership and high command who happen to gather in her small cinema to watch Goebbels’ latest Nazi propaganda film. While the Nazis burn alive and the theatre is consumed by a blaze, with Shoshanna’s face filling up the screen, laughing satanically, she is informing her Nazi burning crowed, “This is the face of Jewish vengeance.” From a Jewish perspective Shoshanna’s suicidal act can be realised in reference to the heroic Biblical Samson who topples the Philistine shrine on himself killing elders, women and children. In Tarantino’s latest, rather than Nazis burning Jews, it is actually the Jew who locks the Nazis behind doors and burns them to death.

Jew Vs Nazi

“Inglourious Basterds just made me smile forever. Quentin Tarantino is righteous and every Jew should write him a thank you note. Here’s mine” Sarah Silverman on Twitter.

One may wonder, how it is that a Jewish producer  affiliated with Israel and Zionism is standing behind such a film that portrays the Jews in such a horrifying light. The answer is actually very simple. Zionists love to see themselves as revengeful and merciless. In Israel, Samson who is nothing less than a genocidal murderer is regarded as an eternal hero. He even managed to get an IDF battalion called after him. It is not a secret that the fantasy of retribution is deeply imbued within the Zionist psyche  and Israeli politics. “Never Again” is there to suggest to Israelis that Jews will never again be sent as lambs to the slaughter. What it means in practice is that Jews will fight back and hit as hard as they can. Reprisal is a key element in the understanding of Israeli conduct. As much as the film depicts a horrifying image of the revengeful Jew, Jews and Zionists happen to support the film and even love it.

But Tarantino doesn’t  stop there. He also offers a harsh criticism of Jewish identity by drawing a comparison between the Jewish and Nazi protagonists.

Unlike the single dimensional vengeance ridden Jewish protagonists (the Inglourious Basterds and Shoshanna), Tarantino’s Nazis are mostly complex and multi dimensional.

To start with they present a duality and even a contradiction between individuality and the collective role. While the Jewish protagonists present a conviction that unified the personal and the tribal into retribution, Col. Landa, the SS ‘Jew Hunter’ actually bounces between hedonism and Nazi murderous subservience. Col Landa is also a very well mannered  Austrian, cultured,  charming man. And yet, within seconds he could turn into a monstrous beast. He interprets his behavior in terms of productivity; he is ‘doing his job’. At the end of the day, he is a detective and his task is to locate Jews in their hiding places. Col. Landa is even willing to admit that he is good at it because he is capable of ‘thinking like a Jew’: he can predict how people who ‘lack dignity’ may behave. Unlike the Jewish protagonists who can’t speak any foreign language, Col. Landa is immersed in Western culture. He speaks fluent English, French and Italian in addition to his native German. Unlike the Jewish protagonists who are focused on nothing but revenge, Landa eventually betrays the 3rd Reich just to bring an end to the war and have  peace in  Europe. Needless to mention that he also manages to secure his future in the same breath, negotiating it with a ‘top brass’ American.

Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), is another example of Nazi multi dimensional identity. Zoller is a young German Wehrmacht war hero starring in Joseph Goebbels‘ newest propaganda film. In spite of Zoller being a decorated killing machine, he is far from being proud of it. He had done it in self-defense. His real affection is cinema. It is in the cinema where he meets Shoshanna and fall in love with her, unaware of her heritage or her revenge plan. While Zoller can easily alienate himself from his role as a  Nazi hero soldier or even a killing machine, Shoshanna is not ready to even consider the possibility. She is set to fulfill her mission. She will eventually shoot him in the back and kill the Nazi leadership.

Rough guide to Tarantino’s Symbolism

Symbolism and History- as mentioned before During the film, the inglourious Basterds carve swastikas on German soldiers who are allowed to survive their ordeal.

It is not exactly a secret that the history of WWII is far from being widely accessible or freely discussed. Rather than trying to elaborate on the meaning of history and historical dynamic, we are subject to an increasing saturation of symbolism and even legislation that suggests what views are allowed to be held and what aren’t. ‘Terror’, ‘Nazis’ and  ‘Fascism’ are obviously ‘the baddies’. ‘Democracy’ and ‘Freedom’ are the ‘goodies’.  Tarantino is here to offer a harsh criticism of  the above. Carving people’s forehead with symbols (Swastikas) is a form of hegemony maintenance. As it seems, we are just powerful enough to dictate ‘a truth’. If we were instead interested in the meaning of our history, we may be able to stop the English Speaking Empire from repeating its Dresden crime in Hiroshima, Vietnam, Iraq and Gaza.

The Golem- At a certain stage, the Nazi high command is convinced that “The Bear Jew”,  a ‘baseball bat-swinging Nazi hunter’ is in fact, a vengeful Golem, summoned by an angry rabbi. In the Jewish legend, Golem is a creature made of clay and brought to life by magical incantations. In the film, “The Bear Jew” is actually Staff Sergeant Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth), second in command of the Basterds. The reference to Golem is rather significant. As it seems, even the Nazis cannot believe that a  human can turn out to be so brutal towards another fellow human being. However, the Symbolism may even be greater. The Golem has the Hebrew word ‘truth’ carved on its forehead. For the Inglourious Basterds the notion of truth is the ‘truth’ they manage to impose on others by carving Swastikas on their foreheads.

The Sabbath Goy- 1st Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), the commander of the Basterds is an American Goy who has nothing to do with Judaism or Jewishness. He is a thick accented, vengeance-driven officer from Tennessee.  It may raise some questions why it is that Tarantino had let a cowboy Goy command the Jewish Basterds. It may be possible that Tarantino is trying to suggest that Lieutenant Raine is just an outlet (or ‘a mercenary proxy’)  for Jewish reprisal. As devastating as it may sound, his relationships with his Jewish subordinates may resemble the relationships between Bush and his Neocon warmongers. It is hard to decide whether Lieutenant Raine is subject to judification or whether it is him, being a blood thirsty savage capitalizing on Jewish vengeance. One thing is rather clear, according to Tarantino’s cinematic imagery, the combination of America and Jews is far from being a healthy humanist adventure.

The Film and the Dream

Rather than looking at the content of a dream, it may as well be possible to imagine the dream looking at us as its ‘content of reality’. As it happens, in the dream, it is usually us and our so called psychic reality that is being watched and even scrutinized.  The interpretation of dreams is, in most cases, based on the assumption that in the dream, some involuntary waves of thoughts are there to throw light on the kernel of our being. It is there to bring to our attention those things we suppress and deny. This idea brings to mind Slavoj Zizek’s  return to the 1960’s slogan that ‘reality is there for those who cannot face the dream’.

The film resembles the role of the dream. As much as we tend to believe ourselves to be the viewers, from time to time, it is actually us who are being watched. Tarantino’s latest is a classic example. It is there to elevate consciousness to the realm of thoughts we insist to avoid.  It raises questions that are regarded as taboo. It provides us with an opportunity to glance at ourselves from the perspective of the unconscious. Through the fantasy it draws our reality. As in the dream, Inglourious Basterds displaces and reshapes events without any commitment to any historical truth, it is not committed to well accepted facts either. It doesn’t follow any recognized narrative, yet, it provides meaning.  The success of the film may be due to its ability to communicate with some pre symbolic reality (The Lacanian Real .  It strips us of our symbolism and symbolic order.  As a work of art it leads us closer to Being. Through violence it touches our ethical kernel and hopefully awakens our craving for kindness. For the first time we transcend beyond the discrepancy we impose on ourselves for turning a blind eye to the origin of Zionist and the barbarism and war mongering on a global scale. Through the fantasy we manage to look at evil in the eye and this is exactly where Tarantino ends his film. In the final scene the Camera takes the role of Lieutenant  Raine’s eyes (a point of view shot). We basically watch Lieutenant Raine sadistically cut with his bayonet onto Col Landa’s forehead. In cinematic language, we basically watch with horror as Lieutenant Raine carves us all with Swastikas.

Unconsciousness, according to Lacan, is the discourse of the other. It is that painful truth one tries to conceal from the other while knowing that this concealing may be impossible. From a Jewish perspective, Inglourious Basterds should have been realised as the nightmare of a bad dream coming true. It is almost impossible to deny that Tarantino is out there shouting ‘The Emperor is Naked’: he is neither a victim nor an innocent. The fact that many Jews fail to see it and instead, end up praising the film,  may stand as another disturbing indication that Zionist collective identity has managed to detach itself  from any recognized notion of humanist reality. As sad as this may sound, it explains world Jewry’s institutional support of Israel. It may also explain why Zionists  as a collective failed to internalize the meaning of the Shoa. Instead of searching for grace in themselves, Zionists keep engaging themselves in Nazi hunting and carving others with different labels and symbols.

For too many years, Zionist  lobbies around the world have managed to dismantle any criticism of Israel. They have managed to turn the history of WWII into an internal Jewish restricted research zone. They have managed to transform our knowledge of the past into a symbolic exchange, but they somehow failed to silence the dream. This is where Tarantino comes into play. Through the fantasy he manages to tell us what our reality is all about.

As much as the Inglourious Basterds, Shoshanna and the Israelis (who gathered on the hills around Gaza to watch their army spreading death) gain some pleasure out of vengeance, it is possible that through two and half hours of therapy led by Tarantino we may, after all, learn to enjoy our symptoms and say it loudly: E nough is Enough. No more Old Testament vengeance and barbarism. We want grace and mercy instead.

Gilad Aztmon is a writer and jazz musician living in London. His latest cd is In Loving Memory of America.


Gilad Atzmon’s latest book is: The Wandering Who? A Study of Jewish Identity Politics