Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Inglourious Basterds: The Israeli Response

This post was inspired by Matt, who in the comments to my post about why I wouldn't be watching Quentin Tarantino's Holocaust action film, Inglourious Basterds, wondered what the Israeli critical and popular response to the film would be.  Which struck me as an interesting question, and hence this post.  All quotes are my translation from the Hebrew originals, and all links go to Hebrew sites.

The Tel Aviv weekly entertainment guide Achbar HaIr (City Mouse) publishes the Reviewers' Table, which ranks all films screening in the city according to the average star rating they received from nine different sources, including the three Hebrew language daily papers (Yediot Acharonot, Maariv, and Haaretz), the two Tel Aviv guides (Achbar HaIr and Time Out Tel Aviv), the two national TV and film guides (Pnai Plus and Rating), the free daily paper Israel Today and the military radio station Galei Tzahal.  English and Russian daily papers are not represented (though the Jerusalem Post, at least, has a film reviewer) and neither is the Arab press.  Inglourious Basterds opened in Israel on September 17th (Israeli film distributors release films on Thursdays to take advantage of the Friday-Saturday weekend).  In that week's Reviewers' Table it was ranked 13th out of 31, with eight sources reporting.  Five weeks later, it is 11th out of 25, and one of only seven films to receive a review from all nine sources.  (For the sake of calibration, the top three rated films on the Reviewers' Table are the Israeli crime drama Ajami, which has also been submitted for consideration for the best foreign film Oscar, the Turkish film Three Monkeys, and Pixar's Up.  The bottom three films are Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, The Time Traveler's Wife, and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.)  With an average rating of three stars, Inglourious Basterds can be said to be a respectable critical success, but that rating conceals wide divisions between the film's individual reviewers.

Probably the most negative take on the film comes from Meir Shnitzer, writing for the daily newspaper Maariv, who compares Tarantino to Holocaust denier David Irving and, perhaps more reasonably, criticizes him for making the Nazi Jew-hunter the film's most memorable, charismatic character.
It is no surprise that Basterds relies on the cancellation of history and the glorification of evil.  The two pillars of Tarantino's work have always been the abolition and even vilification of morality and the presentation of evil as the only viable moral choice.  Since the beginning of his film career, Tarantino has consistently divorced morality from its human context through his ever-present contention that mere human existence is insufficient to define reality, and that fictional cinema (most especially trash films) is the only and perhaps most objective indicator of the existence of any sort of reality.  ... In the absence of reality and with morality abolished, Tarantino is left--as in all his other films--with a reflective world, in which he toys with the lexicon of the slasher film.  Which is why he finds it easier to make of Basterds a sort of mirror-reality in which the Nazi is civilized, polite, charming, and loyal unto death, and the Jews are barbarians who scalp and break skulls like some sort of nightmarish jungle monsters.  A reversal of which David Irving might have been proud.
 It should go without saying that Shnitzer's extreme take on the film does not represent the Israeli consensus, and was greeted with dismay and not a little bit of ridicule in the local film sites I frequent, where he and fellow reviewer Nachman Ingbar (who gave Inglourious Basterds 2.5 stars) are often derided for their conservative, old-fashioned tastes.  Interestingly, the third corner of what is widely considered to be the Old Guard triangle, Haaretz reviewer Uri Klein, gave Inglourious Basterds a four-star rave, in a long, thought-out review to which my too-brief quotation does not do justice.  Inglourious Basterds, Klein writes "exposes the ideological mechanism which drives war cinema, and by exposing it crosses all possible lines into the absurd."
The film, especially in its first chapter, imports elements of the Western, but has there been an American war film, up to and including Oliver Stone's Platoon and Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, which didn't incorporate components of the genre which has laid the foundation for the ongoing struggle between history and mythology in American society and culture, and which more than any other genre is concerned with the fundamental values of American society and their accumulating, changing meaning?  Is there, in this context, any point in criticizing Tarantino for historical inaccuracy and narrative implausibility?  The main complaint which can be laid against the film is that it doesn't criticize the mechanism it exposes.  On the other hand, the very act of exposure is itself a criticism.

Most of all, what makes Inglourious Basterds a problematic piece is of course its Jewish aspect.  There will naturally be those who argue that the film represents a minimization of the Holocaust (a word which is never uttered in the film), that it is exploitative and even carries an unpleasant whiff of fascism, and these accusations are hard to counter.  There are in the film, especially near its end, moments which deal with Jewishness in a manner that makes the soul shudder.  But in a way--and I am aware that what I am about to say may be inflammatory--what Tarantino does in Inglourious Basterds seems to me more valid and more decent than what Spielberg did in Schindler's List.

I prefer Tarantino's cinematic worldview to that of Spielberg, who genuinely believes that cinema can recreate the past, be that past the invasion of Normandy or Auschwitz.  Unlike Spielberg, Tarantino believes in the fabrication of an alternate cinematic reality, which divorces realism in favor of the imaginary and the symbolic.  There is no scene in Tarantino's film like the one in Schindler's List in which Spielberg's cameras enter the gas chambers (which turn out not to be gas chambers); and there is also no scene in Inglourious Basterds which revels in its own prettiness, like the one in which Schindler watches the little girl in the red coat walk towards her doom.
(Much as I appreciate Klein's take on the film, I have to quibble with the equivalence he draws, and which he ascribes to Tarantino, between war films and Holocaust films.  I also wonder how much credence to give his assertion that Inglourious Basterds, a film about the Jewish Holocaust, is an interrogation of American mythmaking and American bloodlust.  At best, Klein is indulging in a bit of American-bashing, a popular pastime of Israeli thinkers and non-thinkers alike.  At worst, Tarantino has committed cultural appropriation in the first degree.)

Achbar HaIr's own Avner Shavit (possibly the youngest film reviewer currently working for a major publication), joins in Klein's excoriation of straight-up Holocaust films:
The truth is that [Tarantino] is on our side: not only because, like a typical Yankee who has been raised on stories about Ari Ben Canaan, Moshe Dayan, and other Mossad agents, he describes the Jew as the only one capable of kicking the bad guy's ass for humanity's sake, but because the film doesn't mock the Holocaust so much as it mocks the attempt to represent it in film.

Inglourious Basterds is therefore a great deal less "dangerous" than all of those allegedly respectable and erudite films made on the subject, from Life is Beautiful to The Reader, which have been so happily embraced by the establishment.  After all, what did these films do but reduce the Holocaust to a single, tiny happy ending, depict the German people as victims and the Nazis as caricatures, and erase historical truth for the sake of artistry?  In other words, they turned the Holocaust into fiction, but without declaring it ahead of time and admitting it at the end.  And here comes Tarantino and announces from the get-go: the second world war is, as far as I'm concerned, a fantasy, whose existence began in my fevered brain and ends on the silver screen.  There is no other way of doing it; that's the movies.
Meanwhile, reviewer and film blogger Yair Raveh is torn, admiring the film, which he calls "[Tarantino]'s greatest display of virtuoso cinema since his debut, Resevoir Dogs," and praises for being an extraordinarily well-made piece of filmmaking, but also recoiling from its topic and treatment of it:
The film's heroes are Jews, but it is so bloodthirsty, so violent, so eager for vengeance, so filled with pleasure at the prospect of rage and brutality and agonizing death, that it is hard not to feel that deep and hidden in his heart of hearts--or perhaps not so deep and not so hidden--[Tarantino] identifies more with the Nazis.  [He] has made a film that has Jews in it, but no Jewishness.  Unless you find the idea of Jewish shahids [literally, religious martyrs; most commonly used to describe suicide bombers and other terrorists] during the Holocaust Jewish.  ... [Inglourious Basterds] is rich in cinema, but poor in humanity.  It isn't merely monstrous; it is--like its antagonist--cold as ice.
This is, to my mind, the money quote of the review, but it should be noted that it doesn't represent Raveh's ultimate conclusion.  The flip side of this response, he goes on to write, is that Inglourious Basterds is "almost criminally enjoyable," and he then proceeds to have a lot of fun identifying Tarantino's various influences and quotes and discussing its prevailing themes.  In the end, like Klein and Shavit, Raveh concludes that Inglourious Basterds "does say something meaningful about the Holocaust, or at least its representation in film."

Raveh was also good enough to report the film's box office take on his blog.  Five weeks into its Israeli run, Inglourious Basterds was still at the top of the charts, selling 15,000 tickets over the weekend and bringing its total to 200,000.  This may not sound like a lot, but 300,000 ticket sales is considered a smash hit in Israel, and because the Israeli film business still works on the long tail model (unlike the US in which the focus has shifted to achieving record-breaking opening weekend sales, after which most films' take drops precipitously), it's possible that Inglourious Basterds will continue to sell steadily for several weeks more.  Furthermore, despite the existence of a loud and vibrant Tarantino fanbase in Israel (my contemporaries, really--there was a period of several months in high school in which every conversation was guaranteed to contain at least one quote from Pulp Fiction), the profile of the average Israeli filmgoer does not match the target audience of a Quentin Tarantino film.  Films become hits in Israel if they appeal to young children and their parents or to the middle aged art-house crowd (Pedro Almodovar's films are always big sellers), and effects laden action extravaganzas often flop (Star Trek, and even Transformers 2 only sold 100,000 tickets).  That Inglourious Basterds is such a success would seem to indicate that its appeal reaches beyond Tarantino's fanbase, and that it has drawn the more youthful demographic away from their file-sharing programs and into the movie theater.

The anti-climactic conclusion of this overview is that the Israeli response to Inglourious Basterds has been, as I guessed in response to Matt's comment "[not] significantly different from the rest of the world - a lot of enthusiastic fans, and a few dissenters."  If anything, the sense I got from many of the film's more positive reviews was of a determination not to be offended, not to reach for, as Shmulik Duvdevani writes in his review in the news site Ynet, "the arsenal of demagogic weaponry" which is often the Israeli's first recourse when encountering foreign treatments of the Holocaust, and not to indulge in "self-righteous attacks."  Or it might simply be that the film's appeal is much simpler.  As the irreverent independent film site Fisheye (now sadly defunct after nine years; the Inglourious Basterds review was one of the last posted) writes: "It could be that despite the great skill devoted to its making, [Inglourious Basterds] lacks the weight and consistency that could have made it a truly whole work, but guys, they're scalpin' Nazis!"

5 comments:

Matt said...

Wow, thanks for taking the time to translate those excerpts. It's interesting that the reviewers seem focused more on the portrayal of the Jewish characters than the more basic objections regarding the use of the Holocaust in fiction that you raised.

I still haven't seen the film, so I won't comment on specifics, but I guess no matter where you are in the world Tarantino's work is viewed very differently by different generations, even different slices of the same culture. I wonder how he feels about the fact that a substantial portion of people who see his movies don't react to them the way he intends.

Victoria Janssen said...

This is really interesting, thank you!

Yann said...

I wonder whether the Basterds would have been better had the phantasmagoric Jewish marauder unit been left out of the film and it's place taken by a group of French maquis. Or the nonsensical celluloid plot made more believable..?

I couldn't digest these scenes. Wasn't the violence, I did not mind that.
I know that Jewish soldiers probably hated the Germans more than any other ones, and all the warring sides shot prisoners on occassion.. but this was pure fantasy.

I wonder whether the final scene, where the nazi leaders are laughing while watching on-screen carnage was some ironic dig at filmgoers. In the baseball bat scene with that German non-com, had the sides been exchanged, people would have howled with outrage. Yet the moral aspect would be nearly the same. (hard to blame Wehrmacht conscripts for looking out for their comrades..)

BTW, Landa, cold as ice? Makes no sense. He's so very human. The scene where he starts negotiating.. I nearly fell of my seat.

Ido said...

First I must say I've watched the film, and personally loved it. When I recommended it to my lecturer in a course about history as depicted through films, however, her vehement response was one which I will remember for the rest of my life: "I will never watch it! How DARES that man make fun of the Holocaust? How dare he imply we're no better than they are? I've lost family to those animals, and I have no desire to see their memory desecrated!" She went on for quite a while.

The reason I found this response so shocking was because I perceived her as an intelligent person who does not judge before she actually watches the material. After all, that's part of her job description. She watches countless frankly horrifying caricatures of Shylock and Fagin and calmly analyzed them, even finding relatives merits in their depiction, but here she formed a rock-solid opinion without even watching a frame of the film.

Now, I should point out that I am not saying she SHOULD watch the movie. It's her choice, of course, and if she doesn't feel comfortable seeing these subjects being discussed, then she can simply avoid it. It's that simple. What I am saying is that you can't actually judge a work's merits or faults based on speculation, your own sensitivities and what other people say about it. I detest Mel Gibson, and I firmly believe that the Passion of the Christ is the most foul, hideous anti-Semitic garbage produced since The Eternal Jew (and that includes Islamist propaganda, which should tell you something right there), but even though I more or less knew what I was getting into, I made a conscious decision to watch the film first and form an opinion later (though I am proud to say I never paid for it. Gibson may spit in my face, but he can't have any of my hard-earned salary). The problem I have with my professor is that she reflects too many reviewers who share that same Pavlovian response - either they haven't watched the movie before criticizing it, or if they have, they attack it on such superficial grounds that I can't help but be reminded of the old, cliched Israeli adage: "Don't you touch my Holocaust!"

Cont...

Ido said...

And here's the thing, and I apologize in advance for using caps in making my point: Inglorious Bastards (or however you misspell it) is NOT A HOLOCAUST MOVIE. It. Simply. Is. NOT. It is a WAR movie, a completely different genre. Honestly, you don't need a degree in cinema to figure out that it's not ABOUT the holocaust. Yes, of course the film ALLUDES to the Holocaust. You can't have most of your protagonists be Jewish and not having the issue pop up. But at its core the film is a revenge flick, not unlike Kill Bill, but taken to a larger, national scope.

As to the depiction of Jews vs. Nazis - I need to break this down a bit.

First, anyone who says Jews are presented as bloodthirsty savages or shahids either hadn't watched the movie carefully, or is a complete idiot. The film depicts soldiers going into battle behind enemy lines. They target and kill only enemy combatants. Their ultimate mission is to kill Adolph Hitler himself, possibly the greatest mass murderer in history and certainly the most notorious one. So where do reviewers get off saying these things? Because they use scare tactics? Because they interrogate prisoners and (heaven forbid!) kill enemy soldiers? Well, how exactly does any of that differentiate them from real-life partisans? I would argue that the Jews come off as much better than the Germans. For one thing, they understand the utter lack of humanity Nazism possesses, and act accordingly (as Brad Pitt's character says: "I didn't come all this way to teach Nazis about humanity. Nazis ain't got no humanity.") They recognize the attempt as futile and instead engage in using the Nazis' own tactics against them: Nazis brand Jews with the Star of David? Fine. We'll brand them with a swastika and make sure they'll have to pay the price when all is said and done. Nazis refuse to recognize basic human rights? Let's see how they like it when they're taken as POWs. So, are they degenerating to the Nazis' level, as some reviewers claim? No, and for two important reasons: they don't target civilians (the theater in the end containing the German High Command doesn't count - everyone there richly earned what was coming to him, even if he wasn't wearing uniforms), and two, they are working to end the war more quickly, thereby saving an untold number of civilians, Jews and others, from death and oppression. That's a cause worth dying for if I ever heard one.

As for the way Germans are presented, at times capable of dignity and bravery - well, exactly what's new about that? War movies, even Holocaust movies, have been doing just that for decades now. Is Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan now blasphemous for saying that, too? Is Band of Brothers? How about Europe, Europe? And make no mistake - all the main German characters are either working for the Allied side and giving their lives in the bargain, or are complete and utter monsters. Erudite, polite and charming monsters, perhaps, but that only makes them scarier. Hans Landa's complete lack of any morals (not even to his own side!), coupled with his ludicrous European gentleman's mannerisms is a stark contradiction to Pitt and his soldiers' brutal, yet honest, depiction of war.

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