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Inglourious Basterds – Enthralling, but lacking in Jewish content

September 29, 2009 – 10:20 am14 Comments
Donny Donowitz, aka The Bear Jew (Eli Roth) and Aldo Raine, aka Aldo the Apache (Brad Pitt). Publicity photo.

Donny Donowitz, aka The Bear Jew (Eli Roth) and Aldo Raine, aka Aldo the Apache (Brad Pitt). Publicity photo.

By Anthony Frosh

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.

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14 Comments »

  • Chaim says:

    I think the film fulfills every Jewish boys personal dream….

    I do not think he’s trivializing the seriousness of the Holocaust. As one critic wrote, “the aggressively fictional “Jews vs. Nazis” conflict in “Inglourious Basterds” is analogous to “Santa Claus vs. the Martians,” an easily readable bit of cartoon shorthand for good vs. evil”

    Did anyone see the movie ‘defiance’ as a comparison?

  • TheSadducee says:

    Frosh/Chaim/anyone else…

    Something I touched on at SJ recently was the recent rash of these “empowerment” films – they show powerful and/or resisting Jews acting for themselves against persecution or oppression or in revenge.

    Considering that the vast majority of Ashkenazic Jewry that perished in the Holocaust were pacific and/or non-violent (an extremely laudable behaviour considering the circumstances and maintained over and despite centuries of persecution) why do you think that these films have been popping up more and more often? Are they filling some psychological need or desire on the part of modern Jewry to dissociate themselves from that pacific reality or history?

    Chaim’s comment about the film fulfilling every Jewish boy’s dream struck me as being worthy of investigation.

    Is this correct? Have we as Jews moved so far beyond that pacific ideal represented and lived by that large chunk of Jewish civilisation? I know some could say its only a film etc but it is one of several similarly themed films that have been recently released which prompts my thoughts about this.

  • Chaim says:

    I don’t think we were always pacifists.. The movie Defiance is a real story about only one instance of resistance. There was also the Warsaw ghetto uprising.

    In Tanach times we were warriors..

    What about modern Israel and all its wars?

    The Torah (after the Biblical conquest of Canaan) truly tries to present a peaceful, left wing, socialistic society (unless it is threatened).

  • frosh says:

    Chaim,

    I have not yet seen the film Defiance, but I have seen a most riveting film on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising starring one of may favourite actors, the extremely versatile Hank Azaria. The title of the film is Uprising. It stirred in me a far more emotional response than did the almost comic-book style Inglourious Basterds. It might be available from a good video store. Well worth your while.

    Sadducee,

    I’m not sure pacifism is (always) the ideal. The reality is that pacifism was no way to combat Nazism, and may also be insufficient in combating various other violent movements.

  • ra says:

    “[T]here is very little Jewish character to be displayed in any of the Jewish characters.”

    Frosh, you hit the nail on the head. Interestingly, I think the other post-ers have missed the implications of your observation.

    Tarantino’s latest film isn’t about Jews at all – how often are they shown to be davening? In fact, beyond their surnames and vaguely stereotypical & recognisable “Jewish” features, they were indistinguishable from other American soldiers. Further, the only reason the plot hangs together is because Shoshana is able to mask her Judaism so effectively.

    No the film is not about Jews, nor is it an “empowerment film”: it’s a satirical depiction of American notions of justice and revenge and a strong criticism of the widespread violence across the USA. Inglourious Basterds is a merciless attack on American vigilantes who believe that, when facing a morally bankrupt and brutal enemy, any means of revenge are justifiable. By implication, Tarantino is also attacking those Jews who dream of taking a baseball bat to the butchers who brutalised their families during the Shoah.

    When I saw the film, I was struck by how much it reminded me of the Rambo-style Hollywood films: the gratuitous violence, the untold number of bullets sprayed in every direction and of course the American heroes. Make no mistake, Tarantino is just using the Holocaust as a vehicle to make his point: there are few other examples from modern history that would make for such an effective “revenge fantasy”.

    For Jews, the questions the film should make us grapple with are, when does defence become revenge, and are any means legitimate.

  • Chaim says:

    Lets get something straight. He is not Jewish and it is not a Jewish Movie. Does he even know what “dovening” is? I was commenting on the movie from a Jewish perspective not his.

    Tarantino has said that despite its being a war film, Inglourious Basterds is a “spaghetti western but with World War II iconography”
    [It’s] my bunch-of-guys-on-a-mission film. [It’s] my Dirty Dozen or Where Eagles Dare or Guns of Navarone kind of thing.”

    However he also says:

    Over the years, when I was coming up with the idea of the American Jews taking vengeance, I would mention it to male Jewish friends of mine, and they were like, “That’s the movie I want to see.

    I agree with this. To me it is about what should have happened, instead of Jews and especially the allies just standing back until it was all too late.

    Munich is a movie about revenge after the fact.

  • Sam says:

    I have seen both “Inglorious Basterds” and somewhat previous to that, “Defiance”. There is little comparison, in fact they probably are in different genres, as the treatment of a sensitive subject (to Jews, at least) is almost comic book in one, and semi documentary style in Defiance. Both were ultimately satisfyng however as one felt by the conclusion somewhat empowered, in sharp contrast to how one usually feels when hearing stories of real events from a holocaust survivor. Even then the fantasy ending of Tarantino’s movie was way over the top, even by his standards. The script and acting in both were first class. Defiance was chilling and riveting and touched one deeply on an emotional level, Ingl. Bas. was very entertaining but the audience failed to connect closely with the plot or any of the characters. The winter scenes in the Russian forest (Defiance) were incredibly realistic and one felt great empathy for the Jewish resistance in just dealing with that, let alone the corrupt Russian armed forces. Both great movies but so different.

  • ra says:

    I just realised that the seminar held at Monash Uni’s ACJC was video-recorded and can be viewed here: http://www.themonthly.com.au/inglourious-basterds-can-hollywood-rewrite-history-2036

    From Galus Australis: thank you, ra!

  • The Hasid says:

    Danny Katz wrote a great column about Inglourious Basterds in The Age a few weeks ago. He addresses Tarantino’s historical “revisionism” in his own unique way:

    “… even though we know history never turned out like this, it was really nice to imagine it for a while. Almost as if you’re watching Ben Kingsley in Schindler’s List, but it’s the brutal demonic Ben Kingsley out of Sexy Beast, and he’s clubbing Amon Goeth around the chops with a baseball bat.”

    That visual really works for me. Ben Kingsley’s a very versatile actor.

    Now I just have the niggling feeling that all that’s missing from Inglourious Basterds is The BK.

  • sandra budak says:

    oh vay Ra….. lets turn your comment its head for a moment and think about it…..
    Your Comment
    “it’s a satirical depiction of American notions of justice and revenge and a strong criticism of the widespread violence across the USA. Inglourious Basterds is a merciless attack on American vigilantes who believe that, when facing a morally bankrupt and brutal enemy, any means of revenge are justifiable”
    Now lets turn it on its head…
    “it’s a satirical depiction of Israeli notions of justice,revenge, defense and a strong criticism of the widespread violence used by the Israeli government. Inglourious Basterds is a merciless attack on the Israeli vigilantes who believe that, when facing resistance from those whose country they occupy , any means of revenge are justifiable”

  • Ra says:

    Sandra,

    Your comment raises the point other people have missed in the discussion about the movie (though I think you may have assumed I was endorsing the above interpretation).

    The issue is about Jewish protection and self-determination: does Tarantino have the right to criticise Jews for the manner in which they protect themselves? Does anyone have that right?

    And if no one has the right to criticise the manner in which Jews defend themselves, are there moral limits on what forms the defence can take? Or are there no limits of any kind, and it is survival at all costs?

    When discussions turn to Israel, critics of the IDF invariably criticise the army for failing to act morally and humanely. Opponents of these critics counter this argument by saying that the IDF’s actions protect Israel’s very existence and that the IDF generally behaves morally but that ultimately survival trumps other considerations. Your comment is important because very few people see the connection between Tarantino’s film and broader notions of Jewish protection.

    Please don’t interpret the questions above as rhetorical – I would love to read what you & others think about this.

  • I am weighing in to this discussion late, but only because I just saw Inglourious Basterds and did not wish to read your post until I had. Frosh, I would like to disagree with you!

    I do not think that any meaningful comparison can be made between this film and Munich, as they had only the most superficial elements in common. As Roger Ebert once noted (I think it was in his review of The Passion of the Christ – another personal favourite of mine), a film should be judged on what it aims to achieve, rather than on what it might have aimed to achieve. I found Munich tediously slow: the attention to characterisation made for an interesting psychological study, but a poor cinematic experience. What is more, the dialogue in Munich was so painfully aware of being ‘well-written’ that I was never able to truly believe any of the characters.

    Inglourious Basterds, on the other hand, did not aim for anything approaching realism. A spaghetti Western, indeed! (Although it’s interesting how that term has come to mean something other than what it originally intended.)

    I absolutely loved this film. In fact, I will even go so far as to suggest that this is not only Tarantino’s greatest work (the closing line, as regards his “masterpiece” might have been meant for the director) but perhaps the greatest film that I have seen this year. I was on the edge of my seat from the beginning to the end and I think that he worked the suspense marvellously. How impressive that a film can build continually and yet still feature a closing scene that is utterly satisfying! I am almost embarrassed to note that I nearly wept with joy, despite the grotesque violence! An itch, deeper than I knew I had, has just been thoroughly scratched and has left me breathless.

    The acting was sensational, the dialogue was so perfectly weighted, and there was not a wasted scene that springs to mind. The only reason that I do not think this movie will win an Oscar nomination for Best Film is that it is too left-field. It does not add to our understanding of anything, and nor does it make a serious statement about the world in which we live. It is vintage Tarantino: a gratuitous romp that proves utterly spellbinding, and that indicates that he has most certainly not lost his touch. Schindler’s List may be the greatest Nazi-era film ever made, but this is my most enjoyable.

  • frosh says:

    Hi Simon,

    I think there is less disagreement between us here than you might have hoped for :-)

    I also found Inglourious Basterds to be a more entertaining film than Munich. My point was that the characters in Munich are more developed, and (largely as a result of this) are shown to have more ‘Jewish’ personalities.

    I cannot decide if Inglourious Basterds is QT’s best film ever, but I certainly found it to be a return to form. I found the two Kill Bill films (especially Vol.1) something of a disappointment. Vol. 2 was only redeemed by the brilliance of the late David Carradine; and Michael Madsen was excellent in this too.

  • Apparantly, Michael Madsen was originally slated to star in Inglourious Basterds too, before the role was given (I think) to Brad Pitt. It’s not difficult to imagine Madsen playing Aldo Raine, and I would have liked to have seen that too! Leonardo DiCaprio was originally picked for the role of Col. Hans Landa and, although I do think that DiCaprio has come into his own as an actor, I am utterly thrilled that he was passed over for Christoph Waltz. He was incredible!

    And I’m pleased that we agree :) I think my main point is that I wouldn’t have expected any real Jewish content, as this would have added too much depth to the characters and stripped them of their “Dirty Dozen” appeal.

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