Watching Inglourious Basterds in a Room Full of Jews

· Joanthan Poritsky

Last night, the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS, the primary higher educational institution of the Conservative Movement) hosted a screening and panel on Inglourious Basterds. (To catch up on how the candler blog feels about the film, you can check Sunrise Tippeconnie’s essay, Once Upon a Time in Violence Occupied Cinema, which was written for the film’s theatrical release.) Though an appearance by Quentin Tarantino was promised, the auteur was a no show claiming a sore throat (he gets the benefit of the doubt from me). Luckily, the producer of the film, Lawrence Bender, one of QT’s hebraic guides on the project, was in attendance to discuss the topic of “Jewish Persecution and the Fantasy of Revenge” alongside Dr. Amy Kalmanofsky, a bible and horror film scholar, and Rabbi Jack Moline, a pulpit Rabbi in Virginia whose Kol Nidre sermon about Inglourious Basterds sparked the institution’s interest in hosting such an event. Also, leading the panel was the school’s Chancellor, Arnold M. Eisen. Phew, now you have all the details, so how was it?

This was my third public screening of the film, though the first one on video. I have to say, if you missed this movie on film, you pretty much missed it. But that’s neither here nor there. This was an academic event so I gave some leeway on projected quality, though I will say I’ve seen much worse in other college auditoriums. Unsurprisingly, watching the film in a room full of mostly Jews, mind you months after the film had been unleashed on the masses, was barely different from watching the film in a room full of gentiles. Duh. A great fry cook once said “peoples is peoples”, of course, these are the chosen people watching their greatest enemies slaughtered on screen with great flair. There must be something different.

Well, let’s see, the audience wasn’t quite as “in” on the jokes that a room full of film critics would be in on. There are points in the film at which I was the only one laughing hysterically, usually violent scenes, but again that happened at my other screenings. While there were no great cheers as Hitler’s corpse gets the Swiss cheese treatment, which Mr. Bender says there were at the Israeli premiere, the audience did seem to get a kick out of some of the Nazi-killing gore. “Say aufedersein to your Nazi balls”, for example, got everyone quite excited. Just as I felt at the film’s release, this is an altogether human story, not one of Jewish redemption. But don’t tell the curators of this event, because they brought up some really interesting points about the film in the context of modern (and ancient) Jewish thought.

Dr. Kalmanofsky, no stranger to Judeo-Chrisitian-pop deconstruction, opened the discussion with some fascinating points about the concept of the revenge fantasy, positing that the Jewish bible, specifically the story of the exodus from Egypt, indulges the concept of violent revenge. Besides the ten plagues brought down against their aggressors, arguably deserved, the Israelites break out in song and dance after they cross the parted Sea of Reeds, which closes and drowns the entire Egyptian faction that was chasing them. This punishment goes well beyond the tit-for-tat measures of the plagues, and remorse is not really discussed until the Rabbinic era of Judaism several hundred years after the fact. In other words, while the modern Jew may be morally inquisitive and emotionally conflicted, in the bible, living out the revenge fantasy was something very real.

Rabbi Moline proffered that the Jewish people have become mired in thought for so long that the idea of physical redemption has been lost. The saying “two Jews, three opinions” comes to mind on this point. As the concept of Talmudic discourse has proliferated, especially in the wake of the Holocaust (Why did this happen to us? Is it our fault?), Jews may have lost the instinct of revenge, which Moline points out is in fact a basic human instinct. The film provides that for a generation of Jews who view the holocaust in a new light. Inglorious Basterds represents a voice for that generation.

Producer Lawrence Bender’s input, obviously the most cinematic in this crowd, was quite interesting. After telling a story about Tarantino calling actors by their characters’ names on set which resulted in more than a few awkward moments with Martin Wuttke, the actor who portrays Hitler in the film, he joined in on Rabbi Moline’s generational perspective of the film. Looking to a specific arc from the last twenty years, he mentioned that we go from Schindler’s List to Life Is Beautiful to Inglourious Basterds. Another way to put it is from drama to comedy to fantasy. This is a concept I could write volumes about, but I’ll spare you for now. Another interesting point Mr. Bender brought up is that in both the Israeli and German premieres of the film, the audiences felt a sense of personal redemption. In both cases, the press mentioned that only a non-German/non-Jew could pull off such a film. I’m not sure that there is any validity to this point, however the fact remains that a non-German/non-Jew did make this film.

All in all it was a fascinating evening. Kudos to JTS for putting together such a relevant program. I don’t really believe that there is all that much specifically Jewish about the film, but Rabbi Moline kept harping on the fact that the film has awoken something in the Jewish community. Not a call to arms, but a call to deconstructing the meaning of the inner vengeance of a people. Polemics have always been an important pillar of Rabbinic discourse, but visceral nature is something often pushed to the side in favor of academics. Perhaps, says the Rabbi, it is a time to finally confront that urge we have to murder Hitler, to root out our enemies. Not to indulge it, but to question it.

Hell, if one little film can bring out all that from the leaders of one of the world’s major religions, it must be doing something right. What say you, readers? Fill up the comments with your thoughts on the matter.