Movie mogul Harvey Weinstein stands in front of a packed house. He is about to introduce a screening of his latest production, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds – a bloody revenge-fantasy depicting a squad of Nazi-scalping Jews in WWII German-occupied France – to his audience. But this isn’t just any audience. The venue is the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City – the Jewish nexus of the western world – and the crowd is comprised mostly of prominent Jews, including Rabbis, Holocaust survivors, and their offspring. Weinstein, known for his violent temper and braggadocio, is sweating bullets.
“Please everyone—“ he pauses briefly to swallow, and resumes, “Please keep in mind that it’s just a fable.”
It’s a bold move of Weinstein to pre-screen this brutal epic at a museum that bills itself as “a living memorial to those who perished during the Holocaust.” Inglourious Basterds is a slice of revisionist history in which the Jews have the last laugh, exacting revenge on the Nazi high command via scene-after-scene of mind-numbing, almost cartoonish violence (a staple of Tarantino’s oeuvre). The squad, known as The Basterds, is so bloodthirsty that at times the Nazi victims, begging for their lives, earn our sympathy. But how are influential NYC Jewry – rabbis, film critics, Jewish historians and viewers – reacting to a film described by influential Jewish publication Tablet Magazine as, “a failure of Jewish morality?”
“Inglourious Basterds is a fable of cultural wish-fulfillment; an example of the unfulfilled anger about what happened to the Jewish community,” said Huffington Post film critic and Jerusalemblueprint.com scribe Brad Balfour, a Jew himself. “On the other hand, it in some ways trivializes the Jewish experience.” Yet, Balfour feels that today, “Everything deserves criticism or even satire.”
Katey Rich, Film Editor of Cinemablend.com believes that the statute of limitations can, in this case, be lifted. “As a non-Jew, I think we’re far enough away from the Holocaust, and enough aware of its horrors as a culture, that using it as a point of satire is OK. It will be a long time before we see a movie with the same tone as Inglourious Basterds tackling, say, 9/11. You need that historical distance.”
Jim Carrey famously remarked, “My focus is to forget the pain of life. Forget the pain, mock the pain, reduce it. And laugh.” Carrey, who grew up homeless, subscribes to the commonly-held belief that humor stems from a place of pain—a belief that, according to Columbia University Professor of Jewish History Elisheva Carlebach, may justify Inglourious Basterds’ appeal. “Of course it trivializes an event to make it part of a punchline – think ‘soup Nazi’ – but it also keeps it alive in the broader culture. Jews themselves have always used humor to approach evil and pain.”
Rabbi Beth Kalisch of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on the Upper West Side felt the film could harm the legacy of such a tragic event. “I think it’s important to make sure the Holocaust doesn’t become watered down, and people are so oversaturated with it that it loses it’s meaning.” This past awards season, a glut of Holocaust-themed films, most notably Oscar winner The Reader, competed for viewers’ attention. “There is the potential of trivializing it, and of abusing the role of humor,” said Rabbi Kalisch. “When it becomes a cheap way of someone getting a laugh or getting attention, it can become problematic.”
As the lights went up at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, the conclusion of the film was met with strident applause. Many gave standing ovations, while a few others silently filed out of the theater.
“How did you feel when you watched the film?” Mr. Tarantino asked the crowd during a post-screening Q&A. “I feel so proud of The Basterds and their revenge against the Nazis,” said a beaming Vivian Reisman, whose mother was a Holocaust survivor. “How great would it have been? Maybe my grandparents would still be here.”
Inglourious Basterds is playing in theaters nationwide.