Looking for Laughs in All the Wrong Places

Quentin Tarantino and the Holocaust

Sean Springer

Inglourlous Basterds:

A Tale of Two Types of Pleasure

Whenever a director releases a film set amidst the Holocaust, critics will rightly discuss the extent to which the film faithfully memorializes the genocide of approximately six million Jews during the Second World War. A faithful memorial emphasizes, above all, the trauma brought about by Nazi Germany's designs to torture, enslave, and ultimately murder the millions of Jews living across Europe. And yet, interestingly enough, upon the release of Quentin Tarantino's World War II alternate history Inglourious Basterds (2009), the filmmakers


explained that Basterds provides something better than a faithful memorial. Apparently, it lets audiences, particularly Jewish audiences, live out a revenge fantasy, as expertly crafted by Tarantino. In an Atlantic essay on Basterds, Jeffrey Goldberg relays the filmmakers' testimonials:

[Eli] Roth [who plays Sgt Donny Donowitz 1 told me recently that Inglourious Basterds falls into a subgenre he calls "kosher porn."

"It's almost a deep sexual satisfaction of wanting to beat Nazis to death, an orgasmic feeling;' Roth said. "My character gets to beat Nazis to death. That's something I could watch all day. My parents are very strong about Holocaust education. My grandparents got out of Poland and Russia and Austria, but their relatives did not."

Tarantino's producer, Lawrence Bender, says that after reading the first draft of Inglourious Basterds, he told Tarantino, "As your producing partner, 1 thank you, and as a member of the Jewish tribe, I thank you, motherfucker, because this movie is a fucking Jewish wet dream." Harvey and Bob Weinstein, the film's executive producers, also reportedly enjoyed the film's theme of Jewish revenge.

Tarantino told me he has received only positive reactions from his Jewish friends. "The Jewish males that I've known since I've been writing the film and telling them about it, they've just been, 'Man, 1 can't fucking wait for this fucking movie!" he told me. ''And they tell their dads, and they're like, 'I want to see that movie!"'l

Each statement made to Goldberg implies that the film's inducement of pleasure absolves the filmmakers from any perceivable wrongdoing. For example, to the argument that Basterds exploits the trauma of real victims by treating the Holocaust as a mere pretext for an entertaining Hollywood blockbuster the f.tlmmakers can retort that the film brings satisfying pleasure to Jewish moviegoers the world over. For proof, they can refer to the film's premiere in Tel Aviv where, according to the Israeli independent newspaper Haaretz,

Tarantino's exuberant introduction was perfectly pitched at Israelis, many of whom can name the family members who perished in the Holocaust. The "chapters" of the movie showing Nazi-scalping, baseball bat-wielding Jews instilling fear into the hearts of the German army (and Hitler), as well as the bloodbath finale, elicited cheers and hearty rounds of applause, and the man himself won a standing ovation as the end credits rolled ....

Like Madonna and her devotion to all things kosher, Tarantino's latest movie should ensure him a warm welcome in the Jewish state, now and for many years to come.?

In any event, notwithstanding a modicum of discussion in the press and the blogosphere over whether the film retroactively legitimizes Nazi war crimes by glorifying a group of American soldiers who carve swastikas into their German victims' foreheads," few critics took issue with Basterds' representation of the Holocaust With few exceptions, among them The New Yorker's David Denby who accused Tarantino of "moral callousness," American critics by and large praised Tarantino's aesthetics (the soundtrack featuring four songs composed by Ennio Morricone, the performances, the cinematography, the witty dialogue, the allusions

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to spaghetti westerns, etc.) while seeming either indifferent or enthusiastic toward its comic representation of an inherently traumatic historical event. "Will Basterds polarize audiences?" Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers asks. "That's a given. But for anyone professing true movie love, there's no resisting it:'4 Echoing Travers's sentiments, The New York Observer's Rex Reed writes,

Mr. Tarantino knows how to frame a scene. The color, movement and sound are as good as in Pulp Fiction, the dialogue is a slight improvement over Reservoir Dogs' and the scene where the Gestapo invade a French farmhouse to massacre a Jewish family hiding under the floor is better than anything in Kill Bill. World War II was more serious, complex and horrifying than all this comic embellishment, but if I sound critical, I apologize in advance. I had a helluva time watching Inglourious Basterds.i

In other words, it's not so much the revenge fantasy that wins Reed over, but rather Tarantino's "comic embellishment;' an altogether different source of pleasure.

I want to distinguish between the two aforementioned types of pleasure that Basterds can be said to afford its viewers. While I do not take issue with anyone indulging in the retributive pleasure they might derive from watching Donowitz and Pfc, Omar Ulmer (Omar Doom) unloading their MP40 submachine guns on Hitler (Martin Wuttke) and Goebbels (Sylvester Groth), I do take issue with the specific way in which Tarantino has comically embellished an inherently traumatic historical event. By criticizing Basterds, I intend not to condemn the film but to call Tarantino out for his problematic use of humor, which treats the Holocaust as little more than an occasion for gaining pleasure.

The Holocaust: An Occasion to Gain Pleasure?

In Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Freud identifies three comedic forms: jokes, the comic, and humor, each of which gives us pleasure insofar as its occurrence persuades us to conserve psychic energy we customarily expend. The comedy in Tarantino's films falls into the third category, humor, giving us pleasure because "an emotion is avoided which we should have expected because it usually accompanies the situation."6 In the case of films depicting the Holocaust, we expect to grieve the victims, and yet throughout Basterds Tarantino frames episodes that one expects to find traumatic as ironically humorous. As Freud explains in a short essay published in 1927, humor uses "traumas" as "occasions ... to gain pleasure,"? He elaborates: "The main thing is the intention which humour carries out, whether it is acting in relation to the self or other people. It means: 'Look! here is the world, which seems so dangerous! It is nothing but a game for children-just worth making a jest about!'''8

In Basterds, the spectator laughs because the energy usually expended in empathizing with Holocaust victims is saved once he or she realizes that the film's traumatic moments have occurred within an ironic, contrived context. The comedy always resides, then, in the sense that "This looks like the Holocaust, but it isn't the Holocaust" For example, in the opening scene, in which Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) orders his men to gun down a

Chapter 25 Sean Springer I 285

Jewish family hiding under a farmhouse's floorboards, the film directs our attention not toward the tragic loss of lives but rather toward the ironic twist that leads to their (then presumably inevitable) deaths: Landa's decision to converse with the Christian homeowner in English because he suspects that the French-speaking Jewish family is secretly listening. This scene, in fact, is the only one in the film that offers a glimpse into a Jewish victim's trauma. The rest of Inglourious Basterds erases any trace of the Holocaust as an historical reality; instead of European Jews enduring the Nazis' brutality, German soldiers endure the brutality ofLt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) and his company of mostly American Jewish soldiers known as "the Basterds." But even with German soldiers serving as victims in place of Jews, Tarantino nevertheless diverts the audience's attention away from their trauma as well. When Raine orders the execution of a German soldier who refuses to provide valuable information, Tarantino directs our attention not toward the soldier's terror but rather toward the ironic mode of execution: Donowitz, also known as "the Bear Jew," bashing his brains in with a baseball bat.

Referring to a number of recent Holocaust-related films, including Basterds, author Steve Lipman interprets "the continuing viability of films that deign to introduce humor into the sacrosanct subject of genocide and cruelty, a tacit sacrilege in the immediate wake of the war," as a sign of "a confidence both in the abilities of the producers and the sophistication of the public." The rise of such films, he argues,

makes the statement that while artistic memorializing of the era guarantees that the survivors' legacy will not fade, their voices speak in a less-solemn tone. This points to the Jewish community's confidence in its ability to look at its collective trauma in a non-traumatic way .... 9

While reading this statement, we might wonder why one would want to describe the Holocaust in a non-traumatic way, except perhaps to coolly save the psychic energy conventionally expended toward empathizing with the victims' trauma. We might also wonder whether one can adequately memorialize the Holocaust without speaking in a solemn tone. Regardless, we must ask whether by structuring Basterds so as to divert the audience's attention away from the victims' trauma Tarantino does anything to ensure that "the survivors' legacy will not fade."

Naughty Nazis

In order to memorialize the Holocaust, we must not only empathize with its victims but also understand that it resulted from an odious ideology which manifested itself in the form of Nazi Germany. Predicated on the mythical existence of an Aryan master race and a JewishCommunist conspiracy to undermine the German state, Nazism authorized the cold-blooded extermination of tens of millions. Basterds, however, underplays the central role of the Third Reich in perpetrating the Holocaust, presenting the Nazis instead as the historical equivalent of naughty celebrities-a bunch of bad apples who have come to serve an important cinematic function, that of the perfect villains. Specifically, the film portrays Nazis not as mass murderers but as entertaining bad guys through whom the spectator can live vicariously. A conventionally "fun-loving" movie villain, the fictional Landa is a handsome, suave, witty

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polyglot who carries out his crimes with devilish glee, his arch facial expressions cutely callingup Disney's 1953 Captain Hook. "Real" Nazis receive the same treatment: Martin Wuttke's portrayal of Hitler makes the German leader out to be a frustrated crime boss, not unlike Big Boy Caprice (Al Pacino) in Dick Tracy (1990); whereas Sylvester Froth portrays Goebbels as a wisecracking womanizer whose goal in life is to have a svelte female next to him when he gobbles his schlag. One gratuitous shot, included primarily to reduce the propaganda minister to a lecher, shows Goebbels sodomizing his French translator (Julie Dreyfus).

Tarantino further elevates the Nazis to the level of humorous screen villains through the use of title cards. Goebbels is a historical character whereas the Jewish cinema owner (Melanie Laurent) is fictional; however, Tarantino blurs the boundary between history and fiction by using the same font to identify them onscreen. Legitimizing the Nazis' status as celebrities, Tarantino uses titling to identify Hermann Goring and Martin Bormann when they enter the frame. As if the shots have been taken from a paparazzo's point of view, the titles' sub text seems to exclaim, "Oh, look-an evil Nazi!" and hence implies that the characters' significance lies more in their infamy (their caricature in our tranquil postwar perception) than in the specific role each played in the Holocaust. Ultimately, the Nazis come off as glamorous historical figures instead of war criminals who helped to engineer the Holocaust.

A deliberate misspelling of The Inglorious Bastards (Quel maledetto treno blindato), a 1978 Italian film with which Inglourious Basterds has virtually nothing in common (apart from being set during the Second World War), the film's title gestures toward Tarantino's curious attitude toward the relationship between signs and their referents. As Tarantino seems to suggest throughout his film, even though the new title is a distorted copy (a "bastardization") of the original title, the relationship between the new title and its referent is just as legitimate as the relationship between the original title and its referent, the fictional story of five American soldiers who try to escape to Switzerland after being sentenced to military prison. Tarantino's title, therefore, serves as a metaphor for his film's representation of the relationship between Nazi icons and their referents (both as configured in popular culture): in Inglourious Basterds, Nazi icons no longer refer to anti-Semitic ideology and its role in the Holocaust; they uncritically refer to entertaining screen villains. Exploiting the Saussurean notion that the relationship between a sign and its referent is arbitrary, Tarantino ultimately advocates humorous resignification for the sake of an enjoyable moviegoing experience.

Further protecting himself against accusations of wrongdoing, Tarantino implicitly equates his resignification of the Holocaust with artistry. This equation occurs on each of two occasions when the audience sees Raine _sarve a swastika into a Nazi's forehead. The first time, as he and the Bear Jew stare into the camera, the Bear Jew says, "You know, Lieutenant, you're getting pretty good at that:' to which Raine replies, "You know how you get to Carnegie Hail, dontcha? Practice." The second time, Raine says, "You know something, Utivich? I think this just might be my masterpiece:' These two lines leave the lasting impression that resignification-thus, the resignification of the Holocaust-can be artistic and, hence, above reproach. Indeed, the Holocaust's trivialization apparently qualifies as artistry, certainly as entertainment, because Raine and Utivich find it funny: just before the film cuts to black, they are, to quote Tarantino's screenplay, "giggling ghoulishly"!"

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The Point-oJ-View Shot:

Trivializing Trauma

Regardless of whether Tarantino has consciously intended to hinder efforts to memorialize the Holocaust by treating it as an occasion for gaining pleasure, an application of auteur theory to his previous films reveals a consistent trivialization of trauma in them. Proponents of auteur theory hold that if a director's films exhibit a consistent structure, then by uncovering this structure we can see how it gives rise to certain meanings throughout the director's corpus. In an essay dismissive of Tarantino's films, critic Gary Groth describes their structure by noting that each of them must include:

(a) a grisly torture scene in which a witty monologue is usually delivered by the torturer to the great discomfort of the torturee; (b) intense violence alternating with goofball humor, which more often than not derives from the characters' arcane knowledge of American junk culture; (c) an unending stream of "homages" or ripoffs of dialogue, scenes, or premises from a vast array of American and European movies; and (d) a Mexican stand-off in which everyone or nearly everyone dies.!'

This list, which Groth compiled in 1 997-after Tarantino had directed Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994) and written the screenplays for True Romance (1993) and Natural Born Killers (1994)-applies to Inglourious Basterds (although not to all four feature films Tarantino went on to write and direct after Killers). A recurring motif not mentioned in Groth's list, but one that still plays a critical role in the audience's reception of Tarantino's films, is a shot made from a traumatized character's exact point of view (POV). Everyone of Tarantino's films includes at least one of these shots. In Reservoir Dogs, as Mr. Blue (Michael Madsen) shows Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) and Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) the contents of his car's trunk, the spectator first sees a shot of the three criminals looking eagerly into the camera. Then we cut to the anguished expression of a bound policeman, revealing that the previous shot had been from his Pov. In Pulp Fiction, we take the POV of a little boy (Chandler Lindauer), looking up at a U.S. Army Captain (Christopher Walken) handing him a pocket watch once owned by his father, who died in a P.O.W. camp. The POV shot in Jackie Brown is a variant: as the film cuts from Jackie (Pam Grier) and Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton) staring into the camera to the now-deceased Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson) staring back, the audience senses the trauma Robbie would have experienced upon realizing the woman he had been exploiting had fatally outsmarted him. Kill Bill (2003, 2004) includes several shots from the point-of-view of a traumatized Beatrix Kiddo (Uma Thurman): as she remembers Bill (David Carradine) about to fire a gun into her head; as she visualizes the bullet just before it rips into her; as she peeks out at two men, one of whom intends to rape her; and as she stares up at the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad after they've gunned her down. And in Death Prooj(2007), as Pam (Rose McGowan) nears death, the film cuts to her POV, in which her sadistic killer (Kurt Russell) gazes maliciously at her.

In The Subject ojSemiotics, Kaja Silverman describes the "classic" movie going experience as one in which the film "sutures" the spectator; in other words, the spectator imagines that a particular character onscreen represents his or her own subjectivity;

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The classic cinematic organization depends on the subject's willingness to become absent to itself by permitting a fictional character to "stand in" for it, or byallowing a particular point of view to define what it sees. The operation of suture is successful at the moment that the viewing subject says, "Yes, that's me;' or "That's what I see."12

Although Silverman does not mention it, I would contend that the POV s.hot "sutures" the spectator more than any other type of shot, given that I~O other sho: reqmres the spectat~r to view the world as though directly through a character s eyes. In this sense, throughout his films Tarantino provides moments in which viewers can easily indulge their desires to adopt a ch~racter's subjectivity. "[W]e want suture so badly;' Silverman expl~ins, "~e'll :ake it at any price, even with the fullest knowledge of what it entails-passi:re insertions 111:0 p.reexisting discursive positions ... ; threatened losses and false recovenes; and subordination

to the castrating gaze of the Other."13 . .

Further none of Tarantino's POV shots requires the spectator to expenence displeasure,

given that h~ repeatedly sets the POV shot within a :trikingly ironic c~~text which distracts the viewer from "the castrating gaze of the Other.' Instead of sustaining empathy for the doomed cop in Reservoir Dogs, the spectator goes on to marvel at the sud~en reve:sal of power (the criminals holding a cop prisoner); an iro~ic reve.rsal of power, With Ja~kie now in a position of power over Ordell, has the same effect in Jackie Brown; the spect~to: s e~pathy for the boy in Pulp Fiction falls by the wayside as soon a~ the Army Captall~,~ro.lllC~: reveals that he'd "hid this uncomfortable hunk of metal up [his J ass for two years ,KIll Bill s rape scene turns into a black comedy when Beatrix rips th.e rapi~t's lips. off his f~ce; ~d in Death Proof, the killer's absurdly contrived modus ope~~ndl-whlle he Sits safelr ~ a ~eath proof" driver's seat, his erratic driving sends Pam fla1~mg throughout the car s I~ten?rdiverts attention away from his victim's pain. In each instance, the net effect of situatmg a traumatized character's POV within an ironic context trivializes the character's trauma altogether, turning it into a source of pleasure. Tarantino's iron~ remi~ds the audience ~a: they are merely watching a contrivance: the irony enables the VIewer to seek refuge wlt~m the film's fiction"14 and to cease imagining themselves as victims or perpetrators of certain cultural problems (e.g, violence against women or extermin~ti~n o.fJew~). As alre~dy discussed, Basterds' ironic moments counteract Holocaust memorialization, grven that It excuses the audience from performing the psychic work that Holocaust memorializing requires.l"

Keeping in mind this analysis of Tarantino's POV shots, we see that the filmmaker handles two such shots in Basterds in much the same trivializing way. The film ends on a shot from Landis point of view, which Tarantino again situates within an ironi~ cont~xt ~.order to let viewers disassociate themselves from the Nazi's morally problematic subjectivity .. As Raine finishes carving a swastika into the man's forehead, the film takes his perspective, which shows Raine an:d Utivich admiring Raine's handiwork. The irony is that after negotiating a cushy retirement on Nantucket in exchange for h~l~in~ end the war, Landa. must live out his life branded as a Nazi. As such, the film has agam invited the spectator to Imagine him or herself as a Nazi, yet a Nazi on the verge of making it in America. Once again, the irony discourages the spectator from reflecting upon Landa's wicl~edness a~d moral depravity, as the Nazi officer in charge of tracking down a~d,,~u~de~mg Jews III France ("The Jew Hunter"). We are encouraged to laugh at the poetIC justice.

Chapter 25 Sean Springer I 289

We get another POV shot earlier in the film, when Raine calls for the executio~ of a German captive, Sgt. Werner Rachtman (Richard Sammel). From a shot of Rachtman staring stoically into the camera, the film cuts to what initially appears to be his vision but turns out to be a point-of-view shot from immediately beside his head, still sympathetic to his angle if not exactly behind his eyes. We see a darkened, arched doorway from which emerges the Bear Jew wielding a baseball bat. By dollying out and revealing that the shot is from just to Rachtman's right the camera removes us from his point of view, not as much to let us breathe a sigh of relief as to facilitate our sitting back and taking in Donovitz the Bear Jew as he slays and mutilates Rachtman. We can cheer while he screams, "Teddy fucking Williams knocks it out of the park! Fenway Park on its feet for Teddy! Fuckin' ball game! He went yard on that one!" As with the trivialization of traumatized characters in Tarantino's previous films, the German soldier's trauma in this scene turns into just another ironic contrivance once we see the Bear Jew's summative performance, in which he treats cold-blooded murder as if it were a climactic moment in a baseball game. The performance jolts the spectator away from the victim's traumatic subject position, which the film resignifies as humorously ironic.

In general, Tarantino structures the ironic POV shot like a monologue joke: in the setup, the hypothetical spectator takes a victim's point of view and prepares to expend his or her psychic energy toward painful identification with a destitute subject's position; in the punch line, and upon learning that the entire scene is an ironic contrivance, the spectator feels relief because psychic energy has been saved. The jokes of Inglorious Basterds thus excuse the spectator from directing any energy toward Holocaust memorials. Although the suturing process has the potential to force viewers to reflect upon the historical impact of victims' subjectivity, Tarantino lets viewers "off the hook:' to use Silverman's words, by implying that the Nazis' worldview and, by implication, their horrific legacy were nothing more than one of history's humorous ironies.


1 Jeffrey Goldberg, "Hollywood's Jewish Avenger," The Atlantic (September 2009), 74-77. 2 Sara Miller, "Israelis go wild for Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds," Haaretz (17 September 2009). Available online at http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spagesIl115023.html

3 See http://pajamasmedia.com/blog/inglourious- basterds-a-german-fantasy-not -a-jewishonel and http;llwww.independent.org!blog/?p=3200

4 Peter Travers, "Die, Nazis, Diel," Rolling Stone (3 September 2009), 91. Available online at http://www.rollingstone.com/reviews/movie/27 81 01091 review 129774751 linglourious_ basterds,

5 Rex Reed, "I Had a Helluva Time Watching Inglourious Basterds," The New York Observer (18 August 2009). Available online at http://www.observer.com/2009/movies/i-hadhelluva - time- watching- inglourious- basterds

6 Sigmund Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, trans. and ed. James Strachey (New York: Norton, 1963 © 1905),292.

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7 Freud, "Humour," Standard Edition of the Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. and ed. James Strachey (London: The Hogarth Press, 1966 © 1927),162.

8 Freud, "Humour;' 166.

9 Steve Lipman, "Holocaust Humor Losing Its Shtick," The Jewish Week (22 September 2009). Available online at http.r Iwww.thejewishweek.com/viewArticle/c344~a16807 I The_Arts/Film.html

10 Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds: A Screenplay (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009), 164.

11 Gary Groth, "A Dream of Perfect Reception: The Movies of Quentin Tarantino;' Commodify Your Dissent: Salvos from the Baffler, eds. Thomas Frank and Matt Weiland (New York: Norton, 1997), 185.

12 Kaja Silverman, The Subject of Semiotics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983),205. 13 Silverman, 212-3.

J 4 Silverman, 213.

15 For an intensive discussion of what memory of the Holocaust implies, opens to examination, and requires, see Jean ~ Michel Frodon, ed., Cinema and the Shoah: An Art Confronts the Tragedy of the Twentieth Century (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010).

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