Inglourious Basterds: “An Eye-for-an-eye” Makes the Whole World Blind

In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Inglourious Basterds and the Problem of Revenge,” Jordana Horn incisively examines the theme of Quentin Tarantino’s new, fictional, revenge film, Inglourious Basterds, in which German soldiers and others in World War II are targeted by an elite Jewish-American commando unit to be killed, scalped, tortured, beaten alive, burned alive, and cruelly disfigured. While some applaud revenge and cruelty as only fair because “the end justifies the means”:

There is a not uncommon belief that the Torah sanctions revenge. But the precept of “an eye for an eye” is usually cited incorrectly, according to Rabbi Joel Roth, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. It is actually meant to refer to monetary compensation rather than bloodletting. And Leviticus 19:18 says, “Thou shalt not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people.”

Rabbi Roth notes that Jews are prohibited from taking “the law into your own hands as a matter of legal punishment.” The scaffolding of legality—a fair trial and conviction—is paramount under Jewish law. Eichmann was the one person to ever receive a death sentence in an Israeli court, and not without much hand-wringing from Jews world-wide.

For Tarantino however, “If you’re dealing with people like the Nazis . . . well, you either eat the wolf or the wolf eats you.”

The first problem is that most men in the German army were conscripts (i.e., slaves) and not members of the Nazi Party. In his film Tarantino cares little for this distinction as he tosses car drivers, cigarette girls, children, and common soldiers into the same collective pile of “swine” for barbaric eradication along with the mass murdering Hitler and Goebbels. The barbaric actions of the Nazis in the Holocaust and the bombing of London and other cities, the Soviet mass murders and the Gulag, and the Allies’ fire bombing of Dresden and Tokyo as well as the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were all “justified” by such ethically challenged arguments.

In a very insightful and revealing Pajamas Media article by John Rosenthal, “Inglourious Basterds: A German Fantasy, Not a ‘Jewish’ One,” we learn that the film was curiously produced with major German government funding from the German Film Fund (attached to the German Ministry of Culture and Media), Media-Board of Berlin-Brandenburg, and the Middle German Film Fund.

Moreover, the German contribution to Inglourious Basterds appears to have been far more than just financial. Of course, there are the numerous German actors in the cast and the many technical contributions of Babelsberg Studio, where much of the film was shot. But there is even more than that. Although Tarantino himself, as befits a celebrated “auteur,” is the sole writer credited for the script, Tarantino’s German collaborators appear to have also made a very considerable contribution to the story and dialogue. A large part of the dialogue, after all, is in German. Some is also in French. The French dialogue, however, is invariably trite and almost entirely lacking in local cultural references. It could readily be the product of simple translation and appears to be just that.

The same cannot be said for the German dialogue. The German dialogue displays the linguistic robustness of the real German spoken by real German speakers. Moreover, the scenes in German abound with cultural references that only a native German or an expert in German studies would even get.

. . . .

Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds is, in short, a very German film. But, it will be asked, what could possibly be German about a film that has been described as a “Jewish revenge fantasy,” in which Brad Pitt’s “Aldo Raine” and his band of Jewish “basterds” brutally kill and mutilate evil Nazis, cutting off their scalps as trophies? Hasn’t every Jew dreamt of bashing in the heads of Germans with a baseball bat à la Eli Roth’s “Sgt. Donny Donowitz”?

Well . . . no. And by the way: Who could possibly think such a thing? The answer is not hard to find. The “avenging Jew” is indeed a kind of stock character of the German political imagination. It has been at least ever since a certain Dr. Joseph Goebbels announced to the German public in 1944 that “the Jew Morgenthau”—otherwise known as the American Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau—was planning to turn Germany into “one big potato farm” in the event of an Allied victory over the German Reich.

The allusion was to the so-called Morgenthau Plan for restricting German industry following occupation. The Völkischer Beobachter (September 26, 1944) had a different name for the plan: “The Jew’s Murder Plan” [Judas Mordplan]. According to the Nazi party paper, it would cost the lives of some 40 million Germans.

But, it will be objected, the Germans who are mutilated and murdered by the Jewish-American “Basterds” are Nazis, after all. Shouldn’t we all rejoice in seeing them get their just deserts in Quentin Tarantino’s signature blood-splattering detail? Well, I suppose it can be left to everyone’s individual conscience whether they enjoy seeing anyone have his head smashed in with a baseball bat or a swastika carved on his forehead with a hunting knife. But the fact of the matter is that most of the victims of the Basterds’ brutality and sadism are precisely not Nazis. They are members of the Wehrmacht: the regular German armed forces. [emphasis added]

The point is even highlighted in the film. Thus, “Sgt. Donny Donowitz” notices a medal on the uniform of a Wehrmacht officer and asks him, “Get that for killing Jews?” “No,” the man coolly replies, “bravery.” Donowitz proceeds then to smash the officer’s head in. Many of the other Germans who are slaughtered and/or maimed by the “Basterds” are simple enlisted men. What possible satisfaction could be taken in that?

Moreover, the depiction of the German characters in the film does nothing to render such savagery any more understandable.

. . . .

The nuance of the German characters has been appreciatively noted in the German reviews of Inglourious Basterds. What has as a rule not been noted is the utter superficiality and one-dimensionality of the Jewish-American “Basterds.” Indeed, though Inglourious Basterds is ostensibly about them, they are in fact barely more than extras in the film. When they are not slicing and dicing their German victims, they are only rarely on screen and they have hardly any dialogue—especially when compared to the German-language gab fests. Only Eli Roth’s skull-crushing “Donowitz” plays a marginally more substantial role.

. . . .

There is even one major “joke” on America itself. Thus, in the film’s concluding sequence, Raine and two of his “Basterds” arrive at a Parisian cinema in order to carry out “Operation Kino.” Hitler, Goebbels, and various other Nazi dignitaries will be attending a film premiere and the plan is to use the occasion to kill them. A comic book-like special effect reveals that under their cloths the two “Basterds” are strapped with explosives à la Hamas or al-Qaeda. The “Basterds” will subsequently detach their explosives, but as far as we know they are still in the cinema when the subsequent conflagration takes place. The Jewish-American plot to bring down the Third Reich is, in effect, a suicide attack.

The cinema scene gives Tarantino a chance to send up the films made under the auspices of the Propaganda Ministry of Dr. Goebbels. But perhaps (were it but possible) Tarantino should not be so smug. His own film, after all, is based on an idea that comes from none other than . . . Dr. Goebbels—and it was made with millions of euros in support from the contemporary German “Ministry of Culture and Media” no less! But surely the hip, post-modern “auteur” could not be suspected of making propaganda. Could he?

As Horn correctly notes:

[N]one of that excuses the pleasure that the film’s characters seem to take in bloodletting. Historian and former United States Holocaust Museum Director Michael Berenbaum concludes that the issue is: “How do you combat evil without being reduced to that level?”

Exactly, because the end never justifies the means. The solution to hate is not hate, and the solution to Nazi ethics is not Nazi ethics. The solution is to respect human worth and dignity through love. As Mahatma Gandhi stated, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”, and as Jesus noted in the Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

And one of the best examples of this insight is how it inspired the stunning achievement under Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission he chaired in South Africa in the aftermath of Apartheid, in which hate, revenge. and bloodletting were replaced by the natural law principles of truth, justice and mercy.

HT: Paul Theroux

David J. Theroux (1949–2022) was Founder, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Independent Institute.
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