- What is a Cinema of Jewish Vengeance? Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds
The question at the heart of our panel’s considerations is that of filming the Shoah,1 which is therefore the question of the relations between the cinematic image and the possibility that it has, or perhaps does not have, to show something about, or of, the historical event which is the Shoah. To answer such a question, we need to answer three things. First, what, in general, is an artistic image for? What can it, and what in particular can a cinematic image, show? Second, what is the relation between what the cinematic image can show and the question of history, or of a historical event; that is, what does the image have to do with history? And third, what is the particularity of the Shoah as a historical event and what, more specifically, is the relation between this particularity and the question of showing? That is, if the question of filming the Shoah is of particular significance, this seems to suggest that the Shoah as a historical event is itself implicated in the question of showing and of the image in a unique way.
I cannot of course develop these questions very far in such a brief presentation, but nevertheless I would like them to inhabit the background of what follows.
The following brief remarks will focus on Quentin Tarantino’s recent film Inglourious Basterds. Tarantino’s film, I argue, might help us think about the questions mentioned above regarding the relations among the cinematic image, [End Page 64] history in general, and perhaps the historical event of the Shoah more particularly. I do not claim that Inglourious Basterds is a rigorous investigation of all aspects of these questions, but my intuition about it (and my brief points here will try to articulate more of an intuition, or a direction of questioning, rather than a fully worked-out thesis) is that it nevertheless deals, quite remarkably, with several major aspects of these questions. I am less interested at the moment in getting into the debate that has emerged in the film’s critical reception, in which it has been accused, by Bernard-Henri Lévy and Jonathan Rosenbaum among others, of being, at best, irresponsibly oblivious to the historical being of the Shoah, and, at worst, of being morally objectionable and reprehensible, even to the point of being implicated in holocaust denial. I will simply indicate that, to my mind, whether or not the film eventually proves to be a major statement about the questions that interest us, it unquestionably performs some real work, and is involved in a genuine attempt to figure out something about such questions.
A brief summary of the film is in order, although its extraordinarily baroque plot is impossible to encapsulate. Like Tarantino’s two previous films, Kill Bill and Death Proof, it is a revenge fantasy, structured around two somewhat separate storylines. The first storyline follows a unit composed mostly of American Jews, led by one Aldo Raine, a part-Apache, Tennessee-born fighter, who is intent on slaughtering and scalping as many Nazis as possible, showing them no mercy and subjecting them to the inhuman torture that he believes they deserve. The second storyline revolves around the revenge story of Shoshana, a young woman who witnessed the murder of her family by the SS when their hiding place was discovered by the Nazi Jew-hunter Hans Landa, the film’s most interesting and complex character. Shoshana’s revenge takes place during the premiere of Goebbels’ recent cinematic masterpiece, Stolz der Nation (The Pride of the Nation), which celebrates the exploits of the German war hero Fredrick Zoller. The premiere occurs at a film theater owned and operated by Shoshana (who now goes by the name Emmanuelle Mimieux); all the central figures of the Nazi regime, including Hitler and Goering, are invited. At the cost of her own life, Shoshana burns down the cinema, killing all the Nazi leaders and basically bringing about the end of the war.
As with all of Tarantino’s films, every frame and gesture in Inglourious Basterds are marked as belonging to cinema...