The theater doors blast open, and Quentin Tarantino’s band of Jewish soldiers bursts in with fury, guns first. Showering the audience—once their oppressors—in a rain of bullets, the gunmen stand triumphantly on a balcony that deteriorates as it is licked by flames. The viewers fall to their knees at the sight of the screen’s collapse. Seats crumble and the projection booth watches over the mayhem, its handiwork. And then the moment both the soldiers and we, the viewers, have been anticipating: Adolf Hitler’s face euphorically pulverized by machine-gun fire. The final tick of a bomb cues the theater’s explosion. And with that, “Inglourious Basterds” (2009) concludes.
I don’t know if I understand the film, but I’m sure it understands me. Subversive, volatile, fascinating, even funny, Tarantino’s alternative take on World War II is a feast for the senses and the self. Set roughly after D-Day, but just before the liberation of Paris, it meets our discomfort with the iron-jawed assurance that we don’t just need to see what we’re seeing; we want to see it.
“Holocaust movies always have Jews as victims,” Tarantino has said. “We’ve seen that story before. I want to see something different. Let’s see Germans that are scared of Jews. Let’s not have everything build up to a big misery, let’s actually take the fun of action-movie cinema and apply it to this situation.”1
The outlandish cartoon that he’s created solidifies his position as a cinematic circus conductor. Yet, to reduce Tarantino’s film to the shock-and-awe campaign that critics too eagerly evoke is to miss the point entirely. This film begs to be understood, yet its originality has managed to separate from its meaning. Whether intentionally or not, Basterds marks a point of cinematic reflection that has been a long time coming, a sure sign of the generational disconnect that has been slowly taking place.
I can trace an evolution in Holocaust cinema, all culminating in Tarantino’s work of hyper-reality. Holocaust films offer us a collective chance to reflect on the historical moment. But the fascination and the danger of Holocaust cinema reside in the process of rewriting, when the cinematic and the historical come together and our connection with history is questioned. Recent Holocaust texts illustrate the decay of memory that occurs with every passing year and every passing survivor, and Tarantino speaks for us as the voice of the distant, for those who, in the years since the Holocaust, have watched history detach itself from the tangible.
In her 1977 collection of essays, On Photography, Susan Sontag writes that images are “a way of imprisoning reality… of making it stand still…One can’t possess reality. One can possess (or be possessed by) images.”2 Alain Resnais muses on this fact in his 1955 documentary Night and Fog (France), produced just ten years after the liberation of the concentration camps. In a mere 35 minutes, the film manages to cut to the heart of Nazi ideology and the horrors behind closed camp doors.
Using black-and-white archival footage, depicting the arrival of the exiled Jews by train, Resnais cuts through the lucid dark of the countryside with the razor tint of a switchblade. As he merges these images with color footage of the camps in their postwar fog, we are suddenly privy to the haunting stillness of an indifferent landscape, where once occurred such atrocity that we scarcely speak its name.
“I would have nightmares,” Resnais recounts of his time assembling the film. “It wasn’t until my time [at Auschwitz], interestingly enough, that I was freed of the demons…there was no longer interpretation; [the images] were gone and I was faced with reality.”3
Able to magnify a reality that might otherwise be ignored, film can also clarify the incomprehensible. We bear
witness to a creator’s subjectification of reality, and through this reach our own conclusions about the larger event. But in doing so, a potential paradox of catharsis and exploitation is realized. Resnais’s film, while offering a collective release by bringing attention to the atrocity, borders on this tendency. What the film does do unquestionably is ask us to consider the temporality of reflection—namely, when we look back and why.
The ten-year gap between the liberation of the camps and the release of Night and Fog allows for a particularly self-incriminating form of retrospection. Ewout van der Knaap once boldly reflected on the film’s cultural impact at the time of its release.”It was with the analysis of [Night and Fog], the process of viewing it, digesting it, that [our collective culture] was able to understand the Holocaust—that others had the ability to experience it. It created a sense of memory…it can thus be regarded as a litmus test for the state of collective memory.”4 Where Sontag speaks of the fleeting essence of memory and its relation to celluloid, Knaap claims that Resnais’s work granted us nothing short of reality, the ability to truly reflect on the horror of the Holocaust as an event.
Typically, film adaptations of history rely on the viewer’s application of their memory for the text’s progression. But Night and Fog instead works to create the memory, using its timeframe to grant a collective understanding of the event.
This was the moment the horrors of the Holocaust invaded not just Jewish history, but collective culture, where cinema transformed it into the people’s atrocity, asking us to consider the role of our collective memory, and what it means to reflect back with questions of accountability.
And then, we moved on.
The further we got from the war itself, the more our texts had to adapt. Each film wrote about the savagery of those twelve years, and the body of work gradually became more homogenous. Take for instance Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), which crafts a fictional narrative around the realities of the camps. Spielberg, who shot almost entirely on location—even going so far as to use the actual Auschwitz gates—goes a step beyond Resnais. He refuses to simply allow us to reflect on the memory, and opts instead to recreate it, depicting the atrocity “as it happened.”
But to whom is he speaking? Resnais’s film addressed both the survivors of the war and its aggressors. It spoke to a country that, just ten years prior, had been affiliated with the Nazi regime. Spielberg crafted a film for neither the war’s survivors nor its collaborators, but rather an audience that craves the kind of conclusion that Resnais couldn’t give us, because the war never gave it to us either. It sacrifices its convictions for its viewer, resigning itself into a liberal-guilt film that parades its Nazi-turned-hero as not just a moment of cinematic revision, but collective redemption. But the camera can never truly capture the history, the memory. It never went in those rooms, never witnessed those crimes. Yet we still crave the kind of simplification that the image provides.
Sontag once analogized this impulse to a model of consumption: “To consume means to burn, to use up—and therefore, to need to be replenished. As we make images and consume them, we need still more images; and still more.”5 Claude Lanzmann, the creator of the nine-hour Holocaust documentary series Shoah (1985, France), once stated that if he were ever to find a single reel of footage documenting the gassing of a Jew, he would burn the footage immediately. I never understood why, what the reasoning would be to destroy the footage of the atrocity itself.
But I realize now, as he did then, that the collective memory of the event enforces the need for something more than a recording. In the same way that my reflection can never articulate the films I’m writing about, none of the films can convey the horrors to which they refer. Instead, it’s the memory that must be preserved. The tastelessness of recreating the events bypasses cinema’s actual power to contextualize our relationship to history.
Then on the eighth day, God gave us Tarantino.
His sixth feature, Inglourious Basterds, depicts an alternative World War II, where the cinema plays a pivotal role in the defeat of the Third Reich, both in the narrative and outside it. In just over fifty years from the time of Night and Fog, Tarantino gives us the polar opposite reflection of Jewish history, the postmodern spin on memory and its malleability. If Night and Fog depicted the ambiguities surrounding spectatorship, then Basterds represents the absolute necessity of the spectator.
Consider its controversial finale. We see Lanzmann’s vow brought to life when 350 nitrate film reels are set ablaze in a movie theatre as the Nazis and Hitler himself (played with Chaplin-like excess) watch a propaganda film of their own making, Nation’s Pride. We watch them watch a fictionalized account of their history, and here Tarantino is aligning these two sets of spectators: the aggressors of the very war he’s referencing, and those that digest the history itself.
This is Tarantino’s most blatant affirmation of the film’s position as fantasy, one that could only take place in the movie theater. Resnais’s film took our detached relationship to history as a means to reflect. Tarantino’s film uses that detachment as a means simply to avoid the history itself.
But perhaps this is the most cinematically moral act of them all. Sontag cites the risk in remembering, stating that “heartlessness and amnesia seem to go together…to make peace is to forget. To reconcile, it is necessary that memory be faulty and limited.”6 Maybe this is Tarantino’s sideways attempt at Holocaust reflection in the postmodern age, crafting a way for us to truly reflect and remember: by choosing to forget.
It is now, when we have been divided from the history itself, that Tarantino is able to do what he has done. And it is in this way that Inglourious Basterds is not just unique, but necessary: a triumph of collective desire. The goal becomes simply to digest and find solace in what Tarantino himself dubs a fantasy. And it is just that, a fantasy that only film can offer.
I watch these films—Night and Fog, Schindler’s List, and Inglourious Basterds (the reflection, the revision, and the rewrite)—and am struck by how my memory uses them. These films teach me the power of conflict, both in the past and in my relation to it. They attempt to speak on a history, on a fleeting moment in time. But they speak to us, for us, about us, granting us the bemused awareness of an unavoidable truth: terrible things did happen. Resnais knew this when he gave us the memory. Spielberg knew it when he used it against us. Tarantino knew it when he blew it up.
1 Goldberg, Jeffrey. “Hollywood’s Jewish Avenger.” Atlantic (2009). Web.
2 Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. Pp. 353-354. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.
3 Knaap, Ewout Van Der. Uncovering the Holocaust: the International Reception of Night and Fog. London: Wallflower P., 2006
5 Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. Pp. 367. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.