I've been asked why I didn't make a Holocaust film. Well, I did make a Holocaust film. But I think that in the last twenty years Holocaust films have been very depressing [the literal translation of Raveh's text is 'bummer,' and I'm not sure what Tarantino's original word choice was] because their focus was on victimization. I came at it from another direction. I didn't work in the Holocaust film genre but in the adventure film genre.Since watching its trailer several months ago it's been my goal to ignore, as much as possible, the existence of Inglourious Basterds. I had much the same reaction to the trailer and to the film's basic concept as I did to Becoming Jane several years ago--a dull, incoherent rage--but felt that to speak with any authority on the film I would have to watch it, which I most fervently did not want to do. Better just to leave it alone, I decided. Which means that I have no one but myself to blame for even reading Raveh's report from the press conference. Having done so, however, the rage is back, as incoherent as ever. It's a happy coincidence, therefore, that Sady Doyle should choose today to discuss Inglourious Basterds (in an aside to a post about Michael Moore) and in so doing hit on some of what makes me uncomfortable about the film's premise:
Tarantino seems to have moved from flat-out nihilism to nihilism disguised as empowerment, in recent years. ... the thought of [him] applying this to World War Fucking Two was really not appealing to me. I’ve heard there’s not even that much violence in the movie, that it’s all talk-talk-talk, that it’s mostly about a girl, and you know what? Super. Great. Did you get the requisite foot fetish scene in, QT? Oh, you totally did? Awesome. But here’s the thing I can’t get around: the feeling that it’s using World War Two as a setting and Nazis as villains, not so that Quentin Tarantino can actually deal with the sobering realities of genocide and the human need for revenge and resistance, but so that literally anything the good guys do will be considered justifiable. Basically, I think he’s using the Holocaust to write himself a blank check.Which is an important point, but honestly doesn't even come close to covering all the ways in which Inglourious Basterds makes me uncomfortable. There's the stark, either/or choice the film presents between victimization and monstrousness. There's the apparent assumption that the dourness of previous Holocaust films is a bug rather than a feature. There's the triumphalism of the film's premise and particularly its ending, which seems to implicitly criticize real-life victims of the Holocaust and minimize its horror. Most of all, there is, as Tarantino himself says, the use of a Holocaust setting to tell an adventure story. To hear him tell it, the 'Holocaust film' is a genre, and he's simply taken its tropes and transplanted them to another genre. Even ignoring the fact that this genre does not suit the history it's appropriating (Tarantino is, after all, hardly the first filmmaker to twist history to fit a story it doesn't support) I find this notion, of the Holocaust as fodder, not a story in its own right but the raw material from which other stories can be constructed, utterly risible.
Perhaps even more aggravating than any of these issues, however, is the fact that it is so obviously a mug's game to criticize a Quentin Tarantino film on ideological grounds. You have to be prepared to be called a humorless killjoy for overanalyzing a humble action film, and then, if you point out that fun is being wrung out of the systematic murder of six million people, to be told that the triumphalism and empowerment of the film's plot justifies its exploitation of that history. It's a film, in other words, that defeats criticism first by asking us to ignore its historical associations, and then by trading on them. All the while, of course, it basks in a coolness so arctic that simply to suggest that it might be problematic is to distinguish oneself as hopelessly uncouth. Tarantino films are all about ironic distance--from violence, from emotion, from the campy trash he loves to imitate and recreate. To take them seriously enough to criticize on moral grounds is to relinquish that distance, and therefore to be Watching It Wrong--you've lost the game before you even started playing.
There are some huge caveats that need to be made here, and the first is, once again, that I haven't seen Inglourious Basterds. This post is about the impression I've formed of it from its promotional material and the critical response to it, and that impression may be partly or wholly mistaken. The second, and more important, is that I'm drawing the boundaries of acceptable depictions of the Holocaust much closer than I would for other historical tragedies because it has a personal association for me. To be honest, I'm comfortable with this attitude, and can at least claim that I'm not a Johnny-come-lately to it. Even back when the entire state of Israel seemed united in a collective plotz over Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful, I was eying it dubiously, and though, once again, I haven't seen the film, I suspect that critic Kobi Niv is on to something when he suggests, in his polemical and probably over-argued book Life is Beautiful, But Not For the Jews, that the reason for its popularity is simply that everyone, no matter their religion, loves a good crucifixion story. Still, the fact remains that there is a broader question of how or even whether to glorify or enjoy violence, whether in blatantly fantastical action films or in straight-faced historical films. Though I make no apologies for treating the Holocaust as a special case, it may be that I need to take a closer look at my reaction to violence in other films, and particularly ones that trade on real world tragedies that aren't part of my history.
With those caveats in place, let me just reiterate the reason I won't be watching Inglourious Basterds. It seems to me that Tarantino's answer to the perfectly legitimate questioning of his choice to make a Holocaust exploitation film is to fall back on artistic freedom as the highest possible virtue, to essentially ask "Can't I use the shape of the Holocaust, devoid of its truth, its horror, its moral lessons, to tell any kind of story I want?" To which my answer--and you may very well have a different one--is: No, you can't.