Inglourious Basterds – Enthralling, but lacking in Jewish content
WARNING: The following article is best suited to those who have already seen the film Inglourious Basterds, currently screening in Australian cinemas. The article (or follow-up comments) may contain spoilers; so if you have an intention to see the film and like both myself and Frank Costanza, you “like to go in fresh,” it might be best to postpone reading this article until after you’ve seen the film.
Inglourious Basterds, the new film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, has caused much fanfare, but also controversy. Perhaps the principal reason for this is that the film deliberately re-writes history. Indeed, last week the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation in association with the Research Unit in Film and Cultural Theory at Monash University held a well-attended panel discussion on this topic.
I found Inglourious Basterds, like most of Tarantino’s films, to be highly entertaining, with the entertainment primarily derived from the brilliantly written dialogue. Engaging dialogue has long been a great strength of Tarantino. Nevertheless, the film could have been so much more.
One of the big let-downs of the film was the under-development of its characters. We are teased with the introduction of what seem to be some very fascinating characters. For example, there is Hugo Stiglitz, a German who gains notoriety for killing 13 Gestapo officers. He joins the Basterds after they rescue him from his imprisonment by the Nazis. Nevertheless, we never find out his motives. Are his motives based on moral objection to the Nazi regime, or is he just a psychopath who enjoys killing authority figures?
Another example is Donny Donowitz, aka the Bear Jew, who is famous for clubbing Nazis to death with his baseball bat. Apparently there was originally a back story in the script where Donny has Jews from his hometown neighbourhood sign his bat. However, this back story never made the final cut of the film, so it is neither here nor there.
Even the lead character, Aldo Raine, aka Aldo the Apache, could have been far more developed. Here is this rather ‘uncultured’ officer from Tennesse (although admittedly, he does speak some “I-talian”) who is in command of a whole unit of Jews. Yet the interesting dynamic of having this ‘Mountain-Man’ in command of a motley bunch of mostly urban Jewish Americans is never exploited.
In terms of comparison, Spielberg’s Munich comes to mind, as this film also centres around a unit of Jews on a revenge mission. However, Munich is a film of superior depth (if not of superior entertainment value). The Jewish combatants of Munich were far more developed as characters, and far more Jewish in terms of their self-reflectivness. They cross-examine their own methods and actions, and the consequences of these, in a way that is typically Jewish. The typical Jewish character of this introspection can be evidenced simply by picking up a copy of an Israeli newspaper. However, there is none of that self-reflection in Inglourious Basterds. Furthermore, there is very little Jewish character to be displayed in any of the Jewish characters.
In case you haven’t already seen the movie but read this article anyway: See it if you like entertaining and enthralling Tarantino films with superb dialogue (as I do), but don’t expect to find anything particularly Jewish about this film. Better yet, go see the film so that you can come back to Galus and disagree with me!
Click here to view a video of the seminar.