Warning: Spoilers below.
The guiltiest and most pleasurable jokes are insider affairs. Such is Quentin Tarantino’s Oscar-nominated Inglourious Basterds, a most guilty pleasure and fantastical joke. But what is the joke? Critical reviews of the film have varied wildly. Berardinelli and Ebert respectively saw Tarantino’s enormous risk as his life’s masterpiece and the year’s best film. The only genius that many other reviewers could uncover was self-absorbed: a professorial, monotonously slow compiling of one cinematic allusion upon another, in which apparently the actors were the only ones in the theater having a good time.
But a better time was had by all at a recent screening at the Jewish Theological Seminary, reported in Paul Vitello’s article, “Seeing Nazis Massacred, Followed by a Discussion.” He paraphrases Amy Kalmanofsky, Assistant Professor of Bible at JTS, who noted that revenge fantasies appear throughout the Bible, specifically in the books of Esther and Exodus. Both tell of plots to kill the Jewish people, which turn around on divine strings, becoming tales of horrific vengeance, one accomplished as Moses lowers his hands, the other as diaspora Jews take up arms against Haman’s kin. Both became backgrounds for Jewish holidays, the inescapably particular Passover and the wild and destructive Purim.
While I was not there that night at JTS to participate in the discussion, I imagine that the talk could easily have turned to another ancient Jewish short story. This one made it into many Christian Bibles through the years but not the TaNaKh, though it has certainly been relished by many Jews. Perhaps the sweet taste of this Galilean story even nourished the imagination of a certain Jewish peasant boy in Nazareth.
Judith, so famously depicted by Caravaggio, is the Basterds of Jewish antiquity.
One of only a few ancient Jewish books named for heroines, Judith offers an alternate, fictional history of the very real and most tragic of events in Jewish antiquity, the Babylonian conquest. Real history says that in 587 BCE Judah was invaded, Jerusalem and its Temple destroyed, and its persons of wealth and influence killed or deported.
But Judith, the fetishized protagonist – gorgeous and pious, seductive and smart, arrayed in elegant attire – has a different story to tell. She pretends to defect, chooses to be a prisoner. With her looks and wits she finds her way into the Babylonian camp, into the general’s tent. With his own sword she lops off Holofernes’ drunken head, spirited away in her handmaid’s sack. Hung upon a wall, the hideous head incites panic. The enemy flees in disarray, cut down by the emboldened Israelites, who take back possession of the once conquered lands.
Tarantino’s Nazploitation runs parallel. Its protagonist (Shoshanna), with her mélange of close-up beauty, wild fortune and elegant deception, finds her way into the fictional Nazi camp set up in her native place, the theater. The fire of her vengeful face upon the screen incites panic and the enemy’s massacre. The squad of Jewish men for whom the movie is named only share in the victory that she spearheads behind the scenes.
Perhaps written during or after the Maccabean revolts, whose success against the Greeks is commemorated at Hanukah, Judith’s entertaining drama may have had a serious side; so also for Tarantino’s Shoah-comedy. His Nazi-drama drinks not once but twice of the unfiltered milk of human life. It exposes how fascism can be polite, how civilization can be relentlessly violent in scapegoating the Other, and how cool we reckless Americans can be, even if we do only speak one language.
But most of all, the film comforts tragic victims as comedic victors. Piety, even the academic variety, has often felt obliged to whitewash the sacred texts. We so often find ourselves compelled to pasteurize, homogenize, and bleach the offensive, the particular, and the macabre. We do to the divine stories what Disney does to den Brüder Grimm. To avert this penchant is difficult, but it can happen, and it has happened in Tarantino’s film despite a comedic treatment of dreadful subject matter. What the heart and mind finds so difficult but so necessary to remember, finds a catharsis of laughs in place of tears. For insiders, this is the stuff that makes for sanity.
Paul Vitello, “Seeing Nazis Massacred, Followed by a Discussion,” New York Times, Dec. 17, 2009; http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/18/nyregion/18basterds.html?_r=1.
Roger Ebert, “Inglourious Basterds,” Chicago Sun-Times, Aug. 17, 2009; http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20090819/REVIEWS/908199995.
James Berardinelli, “Inglourious Basterds”, Aug. 18, 2009; http://www.reelviews.net/php_review_template.php?identifier=1774.
Mark Bilby is a Ph.D. Candidate in Judaism and Christianity in Antiquity at the University of Virginia, and Visiting Assistant Professor at Point Loma Nazarene University.