An Inglourious Basterdization of History

10/21/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In one of the most memorable scenes from Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, Brad Pitt's character gives his army of Jewish soldiers a pep talk so rousing audiences can't resist whooping with excitement after he says, "We're in the killin' Nazi business. And cousin, business is a-boomin."

But audiences aren't the only ones cheering. Critics are eating up Tarantino's revenge fantasy just as eagerly. Roger Ebert gushed over the film, writing, "He provides World War II with a much-needed alternative ending. For once the basterds get what's coming to them."

Even the actors have gotten in on the retribution game. Melanie Laurent, who plays the film's main protagonist, told reporters she was happy to be "the face of the Jewish vengeance," while Eli Roth, who plays the head-smashing character known as "The Bear Jew", described the film as, "kosher porn, something I have been fantasizing about for a long time."

Tarantino, however, has shirked the "revenge fantasy" label, saying, more generally, "I like that it's the power of the cinema that fights the Nazis." He's clearly not the only one in the film industry. Over the past year Hollywood has treated us to an assassination attempt on Hitler and an armed Jewish uprising in Poland.

We have become enchanted, perhaps more so than ever, with the idea that the Nazis could only have been defeated by brute force, when it has been argued by a number of historians that the horrors of war itself may have been what sparked the Final Solution. Chronology suggests that it was not until the end, when Germany was suffering great defeats on the battlefield and seeing its cities torched to the ground, that extermination programs were enacted.

Movies, arguably more than any medium, reinforce the belief that superior violence was the only way to take down Hitler. For instance, the Hitler in Tarantino's film becomes a confounded and frustrated mess when he hears of the Basterds brutal exploits. In reality, however, Nazis were actually relieved when the resistance turned to violence because it gave them an excuse to use more drastic and suppressive measures. According to military historian Basil Lidell Hart, who had the unique opportunity to interview German generals imprisoned in Great Britain after the war, "other forms of resistance baffled them" because "they were experts in violence, and had been trained to deal with opponents who used that method."

Such a finding suggests a surprising truth about WWII: nonviolence, of the kind Gandhi practiced, was used successfully against the Nazis. For all the films about WWII, only a handful have depicted nonviolent resistance. Some of the best stories, however, have not yet been told on the silver screen, though not for lack of drama.

One such story begging for a film adaptation, is told in a book by Philip P. Hallie called, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There. The setting, much like the opening of Inglourious Basterds, was a small farming community, nestled in the mountains of south-central France. But unlike the French farmer in Basterds, the people of Le Chambon openly and successfully protected Jews and other peoples fleeing from Nazi oppression. By the end of the war, they had saved an estimated 5,000 refugees, approximately 3,500 of whom were Jews.

Their success was in large part due to a charismatic young preacher named André Trocmé, who led an operation that hid Jews in the homes of peasants and poor farmers, as well as seven boarding houses located in the center of town. Financial aid came from outside the village and in most cases Jews and other refugees were housed for the entire German occupation.

Trocmé also founded a private school on his strong belief in nonviolence that taught, among other things, conscientious objection, internationalism, fellowship and peacemaking. As a result, when a representative from the Vichy government came to visit the town, he was met with a letter from students declaring their intent, as Trocmé would later put it, "to protect persecuted people whenever and wherever they could."

The Chambonnais made good on that promise. When Vichy police arrived to start arresting Jews, they found themselves outsmarted. A plan to hide the Jewish population in the thick woods that surrounded the village had already gone into effect. The police scoured the area for three weeks and managed to make only two arrests before leaving. Over the next three years, under complete German occupation, the Nazis carried out only one successful raid, thanks to the townspeople's dedication.

Most, if not all, European countries have their own stories of nonviolent resistance, but they so rarely get attention. Thanks to Tom Cruise, more people know about the failure of Operation Valkyrie than the actually successful Danish resistance. It's not as if the story of ordinary people systematically stifling the Nazis through acts of industrial sabotage and general strikes, as well as saving 8,000 Jews by covertly sailing them to neutral Sweden is lacking in excitement.

The same goes for the story of a Bulgarian bishop, who along with local farmers, threatened to lay down on the train tracks to prevent Jews from being deported, which in turn convinced the Bulgarian government to back down from Nazi demands, saving 48,000 Jews from the concentration camps. Not even the grim ending of Defiance, which claims that the destructive actions of the film's protagonists and their guerrilla movement helped ensure tens of thousands of Jewish descendants, can truly match those bloodless results.

Clearly, people love watching movies about WWII. It gives them the chance to see good triumphing over evil. But nothing says we have to stick to the same stale and misleading storyline that violence is what saved us from the Nazis.

Tarantino once said, "I loved history because to me, history was like watching a movie." Perhaps it's time for him to do us all a favor and next time indulge his love for history instead of his fantasies of revenge.