Jewish Vengeance

Eli Roth BasterdI loved Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds — I think it was the first movie I’ve seen since Pulp Fiction where I immediately wanted to go see it again.  Not surprisingly, it is proving somewhat controversial — one friend reported that he and his mother walked out when they “realized that we were in for two-something hours of Hogan’s Heroes II,” and a number of people have noted that there is something a little uncomfortable about watching a blatantly cartoonish and unrealistic story of rampaging American soldiers capturing, torturing and murdering prisoners of war, even if they’re Nazis.  During Hitler’s big scene, I couldn’t help but think of all the frivolous Youtube homages that we’d soon be seeing based on it.

I think that one way of viewing the movie is as a thought experiment, “Under what circumstances would you approve of such behavior?”  I am pretty absolutist in my views about following the Geneva Convention etc., but it was difficult not to get caught up in the Basterds’ mission (and tactics).  And, without “giving away” the end, I will say that whereas for most of the movie I was thinking, “OK, this is silly but enjoyable,” by the end, when the Jewish Vengeance is delivered in an extreme and over-the-top manner that only Tarantino could provide (complete with an awesome meta-narrative about film-watching itself), I had a very unexpected reaction — I became totally exhilerated and ecstatic, nearly bursting into tears of joy.  It was an explosion of vengeful emotion that I had no idea I was capable of, and I’ve been hearing similar reports from other Jews who saw the movie.

This unexpected reaction has made me think about how little a role vengeance plays in the standard narrative of the Holocaust.  I’ve since been hearing stories about prisoners who were released from the death camps and then went around the countryside, marauding and pillaging, with the attitude that any nearby villagers were complicit in the crimes; I also heard a story, allegedly reported by the son of an American who was one of the first to arrive at Auschwitz, about how the prisoners barred the gates, and didn’t let the soldiers in until the prisoners had systematically murdered every single Nazi in the camp.  I have no idea if any of these vengeance narratives are true (and I’d like to find out), but if so, they are definitely not part of the well-established Holocaust victim narrative, and, like this movie, they raise some interesting questions about the limits of turning the other cheek.

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