Noah Simblist: The Nazi Fetish: Ritual Violence and the Power of Cinema in Inglourious Basterds

The Nazi Fetish: Ritual Violence and the Power of Cinema in Inglourious Basterds

By Noah Simblist

Art Papers, 2010

Hollywood has had a long, tortuous and often contradictory relationship with Nazi imagery in feature films. In the lead up to WW II, before the US got involved, Hollywood treated the rise of the Third Reich with kid gloves. But after WWII and especially in the last 15 years, America has increasingly used the Nazi, and in particular, their role as perpetrators of the holocaust, as a signifier of absolute evil. One aspect of these representations of Nazis focuses on Jewish victimhood and weakness. But increasingly Jews are seen in film as participants in active and aggressive resistance.

Two recent examples of this kind of Jewish revenge narrative are Edward Zwick’s 2008 film Defiance, which tells the story of two Jewish brothers in WWII Poland who draw on their past as brutal criminals to fight back against German soldiers. Quentin Tarantino’s recent film Inglourious Basterds focuses on a band of Jewish American soldiers that rampage through occupied France, scalping and killing Nazis.

While it took a long time for studio executives and the American government to feel comfortable with frank filmic depictions of the holocaust, these newer films are unique in their unabashed glorification of violence and retribution. Furthermore, they use violence in a way that is meant to be both pleasurable and entertaining.

A controversy in the recent wave of holocaust films includes last year’s The Reader in which Kate Winslet played a former Nazi that seduces a young teenager in post-war Germany. Critics claimed that the movie asked us to sympathize with Winslet’s illiterate character too much and that it used sex as a diversion from the blood on her hands. Critics of Inglourious Basterds have claimed that even though Nazis aren’t depicted in any way that elicits sympathy, its use of gratuitous violence is itself a moral deficiency.

The use of sex and violence that have caused controversy regarding The Reader and Inglourious Basterds can be traced back to the more overt fetishization of the Nazi in films such as the 1974 Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS which tells the story of a buxom commander of a prisoner of war camp that has a voracious sexual appetite. Each night she rapes a male prisoner and then castrates him. The 1974 film Night Porter, in which a Jewish concentration camp survivor has a sexual relationship with a former SS officer 13 years after the holocaust, also follows sadomasochistic dynamics. While Inglourious Basterds focuses more on violence than sex as a means of humiliation, the way that power and sadism function in relation to Nazism is similar.

Sex and Violence, the two main targets of censorship in film, are both about the way that the body acts as a vehicle for power. Violation, penetration and humiliation are present in both to construct positions of authority and coercion. Film in turn creates a secondary set of power relations via representation, as the viewer must also take a position in the relationship depicted on screen through transference and identification. Indeed, the ubiquity of censorship is about the fear that we might become too complicit with what we are watching.

The depiction of ritual violence has a long history within a Christian culture that is based on sacrifice of the body. But many other cultures believe that violence, along with sex, are unique vehicles to arrive at ecstasy, combining the sacred and the profane. This idea fascinated the Surealists as well as philosophers such as Georges Bataille.

In many ways that I will explore below, Inglourious Basterds is unique in the way that it brazenly embraces the use of violence as fantasy toward an ecstatic end. While there are some ways that this is deeply problematic, Inglourious Basterds ultimately puts on the table the question of whether film can enact political and personal change precisely because of its ability to elicit emotions.

Film has the possibility to bear witness and record unspeakable crimes with the hope that truth itself can have some redemptive function. Film also promises that the pain of this documented loss can be supplanted by the pleasures of catharsis. We like to think of this model of film as something between education and entertainment. But film also can act against truth, creating a fictive construction that passes for the real and thereby supplants it. We call this propaganda even though it passes for education and acts like entertainment.

Theodor Adorno famously declared that "writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric."[1] The problem for him was precisely the problem with creating pleasure through beauty in relationship to an event for which we should only experience pain and grief. He was worried about the exploitation of Jewish suffering by the culture industry. The dilemma with this stance is that in its extreme form it could lead to silence and forgetting.

In her 1977 collection of essays “On Photography” Susan Sontag also dealt with this problem in the wake of the Vietnam war, warning against the aestheticization of horror. Furthermore, she worried that the proliferation of photographic images of violence threatened to deaden their effect. Indeed, the use of Nazism, swastikas and cries of fascism have been so widespread and against such disparate ideological positions that it has become difficult to tell what specific meaning these verbal and visual labels have. George W Bush railed against “Islamofascism” while his detractors on the left referred to his draconian policies as fascist. Even in Israel/Palestine it is difficult to keep straight who is a Nazi. Israelis on the right compared Yasser Arafat to Hitler and even the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to a Nazi collaborator for the heretical position of negotiating for a peace settlement. While on the other hand, many Palestinian groups have labeled Israeli policies as ironically compared to the Third Reich. If everyone is a Nazi then what does the metaphor mean? Can the label still maintain any allusion to the depths of absolute evil if it is spread so thin?

The mechanical reproduction of images, Sontag explained, leveled all images and made them equal. But in her 2003 book Regarding the Pain of Others, published as the Iraq war was ramping up, she reversed this position allowing that images of violence could and maybe should sometimes mobilize activism.

Quentin Tarantino’s work is about the flood of images that Sontag described. He weaves allusions to countless examples of film history using a unique brand of postmodern pastiche. In particular, he has made a career out of a deep love of exploitation movies, especially those that use extreme forms of gore and violence. The question is whether his films are actually exploitive, either by effacing the sanctity of victims of violence or by nullifying the potential power of documenting their suffering. Does Inglourious Basterds exploit the real suffering of victims of the holocaust or the American soldiers that died in WWII? The answer is quite complicated.

But before we get too far, let’s go over some of the plot. Inglourious Basterds is divided into five chapters. The first involves a scene in which an SS Officer, Colonel Hans Landa interrogates a French dairy farmer to see if they are hiding Jews in their house. Once he finds that they are, all but one of the family is killed. The lone survivor is a teenage girl named Shoshana. Three years later, Shoshana is living in Paris and has assumed the identity of Emmanuelle Mimieux who runs a movie theater.

Shoshana is approached by a Nazi war hero about the theater hosting the premier of a German propaganda film based on his experiences as a sniper. The German propaganda minister Joseph Goebels decides to attend this film as well as the top ranking officers in the Third Reich, including Adolf Hitler. Shoshana hatches a plot to burn down the theater and to kill all of the Nazis in it as revenge for the deaths of her family and the Jewish people.

Meanwhile, we are introduced to an elite squad of Jewish American soldiers charged by their Lieutenant Aldo Raine, who is not Jewish but part Cherokee, to kill and scalp 100 Nazis each. These Jews relish their mission with vengeful zeal but always leave one Nazi alive to tell the story of these Inglourious Basterds. But this soldier is always marked by a swastika carved into his forehead.

Eventually the Allies find out about the gathering of the Nazi elite at Shoshana’s movie theater and lead by the Basterds, they scheme to blow up the theater and end the war. The film ends in a pyric display of an alternate history in which guns, explosives and a fire set by flammable filmstrips destroys the theater and along with it the Nazi high command. In addition to this, Shoshana and two of the Basterds are martyred in the process.[2]

There are two sets of catharsis at play in the image of Jews killing Nazis. There is Bataille’s brand of ecstasy in the simple display of bodies being ravaged. But there is also transcendence implied by the transformation of the imagined Jewish body from weakness to strength. This change is deeply connected to the role that Zionism played in the perception and performance of the Jewish body since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.

Until the holocaust, Jews were perceived in western society to be pale, bookish, small and averse to violence. But the emergence of the new Jew in the state of Israel created another possibility – a body and a people that were strong, tanned and self-reliant, feared and even hated as oppressors. This tipping point is evident when we compare Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film Schindler’s List to his 2005 film Munich, which told the story of an Israeli assassination squad in the 1970’s charged with hunting down the members of the Palestinian group Black September. In Munich, as with the recent Israeli film, Waltz With Bashir, this transformation brings with it the troubling moral dilemmas associated with unbridled Jewish revenge.

But Inglourious Basterds harbors no moral qualms. The Jewish vigilantes in Tarantino’s film relish the gruesome task of taking an eye for an eye. It is this lack of ethical questioning that relegates the film to the category of representation that Sontag warned us against. In the end, we feel numb to the power and consequences of violence, basking instead in the glow of aesthetic spectacle.

Perhaps this is a consequence of the culture industry as a setting for Tarantino’s film. While the plot and filmic allusions are complex, the moral drive of the film is quite simple. Inglourious Basterds assumes that the war is reduced to good guys and bad guys and that the pleasures of revenge are simple and self-evident.

One of the first films to deal with Nazism was Charlie Chaplain’s The Great Dictator, which used humor to reveal that horror often takes the form of the ridiculous and the irrational. In the art world, the work of Tamy Ben Tor and Artur Zmijewski provide an alternative to Terrantino’s approach with a similar emphasis on the absurd.

Tamy Ben Tor, an Israeli artist, currently based in New York uses low-tech short videos that like Terrantino weave together disparate sources. But she lets the disjunctions remain apparent, creating oblique scenarios that barely make sense. In Baby Eichman Ben Tor is dressed as a male character in a blonde wig playing the recorder in front of German propaganda imagery of bucolic Bavarian landscapes from the 1930’s. A voiceover says “We didn’t know that the man with the mustache was evil….We thought that our neighbors went on vacation and left us their clothes…We didn’t know that our leader was an idiot. We were told that he was a genius.” Like Chaplain playing both a Jewish barber and Hitler, Ben Tor passes as an Aryan and speaks from that position in German and other Central European languages to reveal the absurd positions of Germans who turned a blind eye to the final solution. Then a male voice says in Hebrew, “all anyone cares about is themselves…although this is what the devil says…it’s all a kind of pornography that people embrace the disasters of others…it makes them feel good.” The next image is an old age home in Israel where Jewish grandmothers sing songs in Hebrew.

What does this mean? Is she implying, like Sontag, that representations of the holocaust run the risk of not only becoming entertainment but by fetishizing these images they run the risk of becoming pornography? By playing these opposite positions herself is she warning that we all have the potential for the sadism practiced by Nazis?

In Gewald, Ben Tor plays an orthodox Jewish woman who is hunched, bucktoothed and wearing a traditional head covering. Speaking in a thick Brooklyn accent, going back and forth between English, Hebrew and Yiddish, in front of a wooded backdrop, she says, “Why should we leave Egypt? Why go to a desert surrounded by all these hostile hateful Arabs – what are you crazy? Here we are surrounded by civilized enlightened people. They would never do anything to us. They know how we have contributed to culture and enlightenment…Yeah, there are self hating Jews in Hollywood just like everywhere else – but without the Jews America would not be a superpower today.” The next scene begins with images of pigs and then Ben Tor is dressed up as a German folk dancer in front of a kitschy Bavarian backdrop.

What is implied is that nowhere is safe, there is a strange smiling sadism behind these messages that equate the willful ignorance of Germans in WWII and American Jews today. The Brooklyn woman speaks the same words that German Jews did before the holocaust who assimilated and believed that they were more German than Jewish and as a result were safe from anti-Semitism.

Language in Ben Tor’s work is both hallucinatory and off-putting. She moves back and forth so quickly between German, Hebrew, English, Gibberish and Yiddish, sometimes with and sometimes without subtitles that it is difficult to keep track of what’s going on. But even if we all did speak all of these languages fluently, we wouldn’t understand what they were saying. The point to these cultural mashups that put on display the fearful, hateful, and paranoid delusions of her characters, is that the histories of the holocaust and the Arab-Israeli conflicts are absurd exercises in contradiction and insanity. By focusing on irrational and disjointed narratives, these short videos are much more realistic representation of the psychology of loss. It is this abstraction from the real as a means to approach a more accurate representation of the unspeakable crimes of the holocaust that lead the Romanian holocaust survivor Paul Celan to write poems that were cryptic and oblique, littered with invented words that bear impossible witness to his past.

Artur Zmijewski is a Polish artist that similarly delights in revealing what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil.” In his 1999 project “A Game of Tag” Zmijewski filmed a group of people in two rooms. One of them was a neutral space and the other was a gas chamber from a former Nazi concentration camp. He asked the participants to take off their clothes and play a game of tag. As we watch them slowly begin to run after one another, we can see that some are reluctant and ashamed of both their nakedness and the implicit tastelessness of playing a game in a space with such a horrific history.

This bold and possibly sacrilegious scenario dared the participants and us as viewers to confront the horrors of the holocaust in a new way. The lightheartedness of the game underlines the ugly truth that stains the space that they play in. It does so more than a predictably solemn narrative of what happened within those walls. While still denied by some, the ubiquity of stories from the holocaust allows us to share an inherent history that haunts the space of the gas chambers. This allows us to understand the waves of implication behind the simple act of playing tag in this space.

The problem with the use of violent revenge in Inglourious Basterds is that it follows very predictable patterns of desire. When Shoshana and the Basterds strike fear into the hearts of their oppressors, destroying them and even martyring themselves in the process we are meant to feel some sense of resolution. There is no acknowledgement of the guilt of the survivors nor is there any nod to what happens to one’s murderous nature after vengeance is served.

One could write this off as irrelevant to Tarantino’s interest in film as a formal exercise but he clearly believes in the power of cinema. Inglourious Basterds doesn’t just contain countless allusions to film history. It also uses a movie theater and even film itself as a weapon against the evil of Nazism. Shoshana starts the fire in her theater with spools of film that a voiceover explains is an incredibly incendiary material. The problem with this acknowledgement of power that rests within the medium of film is that it bolsters the argument for censorship. When Sontag revised her initial argument that photography was powerless, she was left with an ambivalence about this power. Film can change minds and has the ability to reveal truth. It can take the form of propaganda and entertainment but the representation of violence can be most powerful if it is paired with its complicated ramifications.

Right before Raine carves the swastika on his Nazi survivors he asks them if they will ever take off their uniforms. Informing them that someday they will, he says that he wants to make sure that they are forever marked for what they are. The mark of the swastika carved onto Landa’s forhead in one of the final scenes in the film is the main gesture that implicitly lives into the future. Like the mark of circumcision that acts as a testament to man’s covenant with God, the scar left on Landa does not only bear witness to his identity, it also acts as a mark of the ritual itself. This ritual marks not only Landa but also the Jewish Basterds and the scar acts as a testament to their brutality, marking a covenant that these Jews have made with their oppressors turned victims. So what is the nature of this covenant? One day the Basterds will also shed their uniforms and this ritual serves as a reminder that the power has shifted. They are no longer victims. While Landa will have to live a life in shame they are now the ones with power. The question is how they, these new Jews, will use it.


[1] Theodor Adorno, “Cultural Criticism and Society”[1951], in Prisms (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press 1981), pp 17-34 Translated by Samuel and Shierry Weber
[2] It is interesting to note that two of the Basterds strap hidden explosives to themselves, an ironic image that today brings to mind Palestinian suicide bombers. But historically, the Jewish guerilla fighter has some real examples like the Irgun that bombed the King David Hotel in 1946.