Inglourious Basterds: A German Fantasy, Not a 'Jewish' One

Nearly eight million euros. Or more than eleven million dollars at the current exchange rate.

That is the total amount of subsidies that Quentin Tarantino received from German public sources for his Inglourious Basterds. The exact breakdown is as follows: €6.8 million from the German Film Fund, plus €600,000 and €300,000 respectively from the Media-Board of Berlin-Brandenburg and the so-called Middle German Film Fund. The German Film Fund (DFFF) is directly attached to the German government’s Ministry of Culture (or, more fully, Ministry of Culture and Media). Tarantino’s haul is even greater than the €4.8 million in subsidies that the German government contributed to the making of the historical revisionist thriller Valkyrie starring Tom Cruise.

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.

This is especially true of a long central scene that takes place in a basement bar in occupied France. The scene is entirely built around a German parlor game in which each participant is required to guess the identity of a real person or fictive character whose name has been written on a card and stuck to his or her forehead.

Several minutes of dialogue are devoted thereby to “Winnetou,” the noble Indian hero of the romantic frontier novels written by the 19th century German novelist Karl May. Generations of German children have grown up reading Karl May -- but virtually no American child has. The barroom scene comes to a characteristically violent conclusion when a British agent disguised as an SS officer blows his cover by holding up three fingers to order three whiskies. In Germany, it is done rather with two fingers and the thumb.

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.

In the meanwhile, of course, the presumption of Jewish vengefulness is not normally expressed so openly in Germany -- at least not in polite company and not in the mainstream media. But it continually bubbles to the surface in symptomatic form. This is most notably the case in discussions of the Middle East conflict. In the mainstream German media, Israeli military actions are habitually described as a matter of “revenge” [Rache] or “retribution” [Vergeltung]. Virtually no attention is paid to their security benefits.