NEW YORK (JTA) — This year’s Academy Awards belonged to “The Hurt Locker,” but the festivities started out with a nod for “Inglourious Basterds,” as Christoph Waltz took home the best supporting actor statuette.
It turned out to be the only victory of Sunday night for Quentin Tarantino’s World War II revenge fantasy about a Nazi-scalping band of Jewish GIs that ends up assassinating Hitler and the rest of the German high command.
Maybe that’s the way it should be.
For even though Tarantino’s directing and screenwriting were masterful, the film belongs to Waltz and his portrayal of Hans Landa, aka "The Jew Hunter," the terrifyingly and hilariously meticulous German colonel.
His win provides an opportunity to revisit the film, looking at it through the lens of his performance.
Since the film’s release in August, critics, pundits and Jewish leaders have reflected on the question of whether it’s a healthy thing for American Jews to sit back with a bucket of popcorn and take pleasure in the on-screen brutalization and murder of German soldiers and civilians. As interesting/tedious (you decide) as the discussion has been, it’s important to keep in mind that this line of debate has everything to do with the hang-ups of American Jews and nothing to do with Tarantino’s creative agenda.
“Inglourious Basterds” is not “Munich” or “Defiance,” two other recent films that featured Jewish tough guys, but ones who are struggling with the morality of Jewish revenge. Tarantino’s Jewish soldiers — the Basterds — are not at all conflicted about terrorizing their Nazi prey. Fretting over violence and revenge just isn’t their thing. Or, for that matter, Tarantino’s (just watch a few minutes of any of his other films).
Despite the hype, “Inglourious Basterds” is not about the morality of Jewish revenge but the definition of German evil.
And in this film, Hitler and his maniacal ravings about the Jews are just a punch line. Evil is Hans Landa, and he doesn’t hate the Jews at all.
“If one were to determine what attributes the Jews share with a beast, it would be that of the rat,” Landa calmly explains, drinking a cup of milk as he politely questions dairy farmer Perrier LaPadite about whether he is hiding Jews. “The Fuehrer and Goebbels’ propaganda have said pretty much the same thing, but where our conclusions differ is I don’t consider the comparison an insult.”
Hans considers the hatred of Jews irrational and displays a measure of admiration for their ability to persevere.
“What a tremendously hostile world a rat must endure," the SS officer says. "Yet not only does he survive, he thrives. Because our little foe has an instinct for survival and preservation second to none. And that, Monsieur, is what a Jew shares with a rat.”
A few moments later the dairy farmer breaks, admitting that he is a hiding a Jewish family beneath the floorboards. Hans calmly orders the Jewish family to be killed.
No hatred, no regret.
For “The Jew Hunter,” hunting Jews is just a job — one that he happens to be particularly good at.
Whether intended or not, Tarantino is weighing in on one of the most profound debates about the motives and impulses that drove the Holocaust. On the one hand there is Daniel Goldhagen, with his thesis that Germans were willing executioners because they carried a particularly German brand of anti-semitism. On the other is Christopher Browning’s just-following-orders view that most Germans were driven by peer pressure and obedience to authority.
Landa is his own blend, an independent-thinking, somewhat sadistic German officer who is going along to get along; he’s just as happy eating strudel as killing Jews. When the war is over, he will happily take off his SS uniform and move on with his life.
But that’s something Lt. Aldo Raines, the non-Jewish leader of the Basterds, cannot abide.
Which is why the film ends not with a Nazi being scalped or Hitler being assassinated, but with Hans Landa having a swastika carved into his forehead.