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Rabbi Irwin Kula Headshot

Inglorious Basterds, Vengeance and Redemption

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Inglorious Basterds is a powerful, entertaining cinematic experience, but this is not what you want to hear from me, an eighth-generation rabbi whose father escaped the Nazis and immigrated to America from Poland in 1938 with his parents and brother, leaving most of his family behind to be murdered by the Nazis "y'mach shemam" - may their names be erased - the traditional Jewish appellation, added every time one refers to Nazis, to which Mr. Tarantino has given new meaning.

We now have a new genre of Holocaust films, a fun, action-packed Jewish revenge fantasy! After nearly 600 films to date on the Holocaust, the vast majority of which focused on Nazi evil, the persecution, and suffering of Jews, the paradigm has shifted. We now have the first primary process Holocaust film. There may be six million stories in the Holocaust but Inglorious Basterds tells the one we have been afraid to tell about ourselves: the story of what we would really like to do to those Nazis.

The film unambiguously begins, "Once upon a time...," reminding us that we are about to watch a fable, a tale, a dream, a fantasy that alas did not happen or our world would be so different. Inglorious Basterds is a flight of the imagination, a meditation on vengeance, and the cost of not owning and recognizing the feeling that lies deep beneath the surface of many of us: Kill every last one of them. Or as Aldo the Apache (Brad Pitt), leader of the Basterds, says: "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."

Oh how we wish we could! Removing the Talmudic moral complexity and parsing, the Woody Allen angst, the liberal genteelness and conservative embarrassment from the equation, what we really want is to scalp Nazis, burn Nazis, torture Nazis, murder Nazis, brand Nazis like cattlemen brand cows (or God brands Cain) with their very own swastikas, and brutally bash their heads in with baseball bats. Actually, the last act brings together two Jewish male fantasies - bashing Nazis and being Hank Greenberg. I digress. As Elie Wiesel, Nobel Laureate and most important witness of the Kingdom of Night, teaches: "Some stories are true that never happened."

Lawrence Bender and Harvey and Bob Weinstein deserve great credit for having the courage to back this extraordinary film. Yet, it takes a gentile to go where no Holocaust story has gone before. Personally, I would give Tarantino an honorary membership in the Jewish people (no circumcision required, as he's been hacking, slicing and ruminating about this Jewish vengeance orgy for over a decade) for bringing consciousness of feelings and desires that many Jews could never bring up in mixed company to the screen.

Ahhh, to simply terrorize Nazis and after killing them, to scalp them! I have no idea what gentiles will experience while seeing this movie (and I really am sorry to cluster all gentiles together, especially since Aldo Raine, part Apache Tennessee hillbilly with twang, is not a Jew), but if I'm really honest, this Jew felt twinges of excitement, thrills, chills he's never felt before seeing violence. I don't even go to action films, yet alone violent movies, as they've always turned my stomach. But this one turned me on (though when I awoke the morning after, I had this strange sense of embarrassment over having gotten so into it). Unfortunately, I really enjoyed it!

As similar as Inglorious Basterds is to other Tarantino films, the determinative difference is Inglorious Basterds makes reference to real historical events. People already either love or hate Tarantino films, so this added level of complexity will surely cause great debate. The movie surfaces a fantasy locked in the inner recesses of every Jew's consciousness: getting to riddle Hitler's body with bullets. No more passive Jews, no more persecution, no more victims led to slaughter, no need for righteous gentiles like Schindler to save us, no more overdeveloped superego and pretense of moral superiority. Finally Jews can be just as brutal as the Nazis!

If the reactions I heard the night I saw the film are any indication, most Jews will love this fantasy with great gusto or as a guilty great pleasure, which will make the difference between seeing this film as kosher porn or as a necessary stage in healing an unbearable trauma. Of course a vocal minority will offer some culturally sophisticated politically correct critique that the movie is sacrilege and minimizes and trivializes the Holocaust. And those critics may be right for those who need to see this film ten times or whose only reaction is whooping in up for scalped Nazis but seeing this film once is a must.

Simply loving or hating Inglorious Basterds misses the realization that has gnawed at me since the morning after. Is it possible that all the necessary (and noble) civilizing attempts to respond/make sense/set things right regarding the Holocaust - museums and memorials, theologies and books, curricula, conferences and anti-racist laws and have also been deflections from giving voice to and even feeling the most primal and honest response to the beating, and shooting, and hanging, and burning, and gassing of six million Jews and millions of others? Does the very fact that Tarantino gives us license to enjoy and even relish the violence against Nazis reveal a mustard seed of repression? Inglorious Basterds gives us the most satisfying and gratifying response of all: brutal, unmitigated by any civilizing norms or ideals, cold-blooded, pleasure inducing, murderous rage and vengeance.

Given that the Holocaust, understandably and justifiably, has been central in Jewish and American identity -the U.S. Holocaust Museum visited by millions each year does stand on the Washington Mall - what happens when the most primal response of all is repressed out of a mixture of shame, fear, humiliation, and taboo. What happens when this response is repressed into the third generation - the aftermath of the aftermath - who still hear the clarion call of their elders to Never Forget? Can the repressed desire of wanting to murder those basterds - morph into seeing every enemy as a marked Nazi and into paroxysms of power that indeed turn us into basterds if not bastards?

Twice in the film, Aldo Raine asks Nazis if post-war they intended to burn their uniforms and return to normal life. After each Nazi tells him yes, Aldo viciously (but with great Tarantino artistry) carves out deep bloody swastika in the Nazi's forehead and offers one of the most haunting lines in the film: "I cannot abide that (Nazis are forgotten)." Can we not abide a world in which there are no more Nazis? Do we need a Nazi mark forever etched into our consciousness to know who we are? What will it take to stop seeing the world through the prism of the Holocaust? A band of Inglorious Basterds?

If the film proves anything, it is that we have barely begun to clean up the toxic waste of the Holocaust. There is still plenty of rage and anger that has not risen to the surface. Presently, liberals and conservatives, hawks and doves have a nice happy arrangement. One side makes believe they feel no anger or fear and see evil simply as a social construction to be dealt with by understanding and diplomacy. The other side makes believe it is not nightmares from the past that have made it appropriate to see the Nazi specter in every enemy, to confuse real politic with metaphysical evil. So we become each other's containers for all our repressed and disassociated rage and humiliation and fear - with everyone seeing each other as Nazis - a cornucopia of Nazis.

Jews see Palestinians, Palestinians see Jews, Americans see Arabs, Arabs see Americans, even opponents of health care reform see Barack Obama, and supporters of health care reform see noisy town-hall opponents as Nazis. That which seems so unique has become common. No wonder Inglorious Basterds feels so good to watch. Tarantino, as he always does, has given voice to our unacceptable and dangerous urges - kill those mf's - thereby defusing much tension and anxiety. It sure feels good to finally burn them alive, but when the lights come up, we have to wake up.

Perhaps the insight of waking up the morning after experiencing this film and having to admit, "Unfortunately, I really really enjoyed it," is that we are entitled and need to admit the furious desire for pure vengeance. If we do so, we may even begin to see that healthy people do not want their grandchildren and great grandchildren to Remember the trauma they suffered rather they hope the trauma will be Remembered to be Forgotten. Invited to stare into the Face of Vengeance and admit and own we even enjoyed the killing, maybe we can begin to heal and realize the innocence of suffering can never be redeemed by the exercise of power. For if we could do anything we wanted to anyone to make things right what would we do that could make things right? The suffering of the Nazis' millions of victims can never be fully set right - that is the difference between reality and fantasy - and to think anything to the contrary leaves a world in which the only people standing are a branded Nazi and a couple of Basterds.

Thank you, Quentin Tarantino. You have reminded us, whether you intended to or not, that we are never as powerful as our greatest fantasies and never as powerless as our worst nightmares.