Books and Culture

Stefan Kanfer
Memo to the Führer
A report on Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds
25 August 2009

TO: Adolf Hitler
FROM: Julius Streicher
DATELINE: Hell

Mein Führer:

Much excitement to report! The good news is piling up like copies of Der Stürmer in the good old days, when I published caricatures of the International Jew as predator and violator. Remember what we discovered in the 1930s? The secret of the Big Lie was to turn the truth on its head. Well, here we are in the New Millennium, and on the wide screen, the B.L. is more monstrous than ever! The film is entitled Inglourious Basterds (their spelling, not mine). And—are you ready for this?—it’s produced by Harvey and Bob Weinstein!

Earlier this month, before Basterds was screened for a private audience, Harvey W. told his invitees, “Please keep in mind that it’s a fable.” And what a fable it is—a revenge fantasy, actually. The plot is as elemental as a bayonet. A group of six violent American sociopaths, all of them Jewish, are under the command of Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), a gentile hillbilly with a scar on his neck and ice in his heart. After D-Day, Raine’s squad is let loose in Europe. There, its members take almost as much delight in scalping Germans as director/writer Quentin Tarantino does in showing the removal of skin and hair. One of the enlisted men, dubbed the “Bear Jew” (Eli Roth), is especially revolting. When a German officer honorably refuses to betray his fellow soldiers, the Bear bludgeons him to death with a baseball bat. The execution is shown in exquisite and sanguinary detail as audiences chortle. It goes without saying that the dirty half-dozen are licensed to kill by whatever means necessary.

Earlier in the film, we see the sophisticated and multilingual SS colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) order the execution of a Jewish family hiding in a French farmhouse. One girl survives because Landa whimsically allows her to run away. That, however, is the extent of German malfeasance. No mention is made of the Holocaust. Dachau? Never heard of it. Auschwitz-Birkenau? Chelmno? Treblinka? Sorry, Herr Tarantino isn’t very good with names. The death of 6 million Jews as a result of forced labor, exposure, brutality, disease, execution? Nicht ein wort. You, mein Führer, are played by Martin Wuttke, who turns you into a buffoon. The same goes for Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) and most of the other top Nazis.

But Tarantino’s purpose is not to comment on human events. It is to comment on cinematic events, as he did in his previous features Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill. Thus the name Aldo Raine suggests that of Aldo Ray, the veteran of many American war films. Thus the soundtrack blares “The Green Leaves of Summer,” the theme song from The Alamo, starring John Wayne. Thus the Jewish escapee, now the owner of a Paris cinema, says in classic Cannes Film Festival style: “We’re French; we respect directors in our country.”

But what Tarantino and his benefactors have done is something far more interesting than mere celluloid scholarship. They have joined the dark side. And we welcome them! Imagine a filmmaker who can trivialize Nazi crimes against humanity, make the Jews the brutal ones, evoke laughs from horror, and create a finale in which the German High Command, from you on down, are locked into a film house. Cinema Paradiso turns into Cinema Inferno when it’s set aflame, thus reversing the image of the death-camp ovens.

As our old enemy Karl Marx observed: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, the second time as farce.” Or as our new colleague Herr Tarantino states proudly: “This ain’t your father’s World War II movie.” Indeed it ain’t, mein Führer. That’s why it’s thriving at the box office. New times demand new directors, new narratives, new history. Nicht wahr?

Yours until the next farce,

J. S.

Stefan Kanfer, a contributing editor of City Journal and a former editor of Time, is the author, most recently, of a biography of Marlon Brando, Somebody.

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