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.
Allusions to the “Old Testament” character of Israeli behavior and knowing citations of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” are likewise entirely commonplace. See, for instance, this article from the German weekly Der Spiegel, which is titled “Israel Declares War on Terror Groups” and which appears under the heading “Auge für Auge”: “An Eye for an Eye.” The same “lust for revenge” is, incidentally, commonly attributed by German media commentators and intellectuals to America and Americans: notably in connection with the American response to the 9/11 attacks. (For an example from only two days after the attacks, see here.)
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.
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. On the contrary, far from being classical villains, most of the German characters are presented in a sympathetic light. The only unambiguous exceptions are Hitler and the ever smarmy Goebbels. By contrast to the caricatures of the Nazi leaders, the purely fictive German characters seem human and are as a rule even more-or-less likeable. They include not only the jovial enlisted men in the barroom scene, but also, for instance, a celebrated and lovelorn sharpshooter who openly regrets his military exploits. Even the “Jew-hunting” SS officer Hans Landa is clearly not all bad.
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.
Moreover, to the extent there is anything in Inglourious Basterds that is recognizable as an intended joke, it is the Germans that tell the jokes and the Americans/Jews who are the butt of them. These include, for instance, a snobbish gag about the Americans’ lack of knowledge of foreign languages and even a “joke” about the small stature of one of the "Basterds." The tongue-tied Americans attempting to pass themselves off as Italians cut sorry, buffoonish figures as compared to the sophisticated and multilingual Landa.
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?