With Quentin Tarantino’s latest cinematic obsession, Inglourious Basterds, I couldn’t help but think, “There you go, society — a gory flick about killing Nazis — let’s see you fume and fuss over that one.” I really must learn to stop goading the easily incensed.
In a recent issue of Newsweek, author Daniel Mendelsohn questions the wisdom of a film where Jews are shown to be exacting bloody revenge on their tormentors. To his lasting credit, Mendelsohn does not go the fuming moralist route, but only questions whether this is appropriate considering this particularly vile chapter in human history. The implication is that showing Jews engaging in brutal revenge scenarios can do nothing for the memory of a people so kicked about by history’s brutes.
The New Rape/Revenge Movie
Discussing the overblown reaction international censors had to Hostel Part II, director Eli Roth (who also has a starring role in Basterds) told me in The New Horror Handbook that, at one point, he found himself in a room full of German reporters who asked him, “‘How could you do this, how could you make something so violent?’” Roth told them, “There is no violence in my movies, it’s magic tricks!”
Roth was discussing the gore effects in his film, of course, but he could just as easily have been discussing movies themselves. Inglourious Basterds is quite the slight of hand indeed — a reimagined history where the massacred get a little of their own back. It’s also one with a pretty rich heritage.
Tarantino’s love of the grindhouse cinema of the 1970s is widely known, and very understandable. Some of the movies he namechecks in interviews — Lady Snowblood, Thriller! A Cruel Picture, the list goes on — are rape/revenge thrillers, an odd little subgenre you generally don’t see too much of today, aside from the odd remake, The Last House on the Left being the most recent.
However, the rape/revenge flick is fairly limited in its appeal. You can show any variety of brutal business when it comes to your typical horror fan, and he or she won’t bat an eye. But there are few out there, male or female, who really have any desire to watch the rape necessary to kick off a rape/revenge flick. It hits too close to home for too many people. Decapitations, sure. But not…that.
The genius of Inglorious Basterds is that Tarantino has taken one of the great universal rapes of recent memory, the destruction of millions of people, and set it up as the rape portion of a brand new rape/revenge flick. Best of all, he doesn’t have to dwell on the off-putting fate of the Nazis’ victims in the first part of the film as he would have to if it were an actual rape, because all the gory details are instilled in nearly every audience member. That leaves him plenty of time to focus on the revenge portion which, let’s face it, is why we ever bother to turn up to such cinematic events.
Do We Want to See the Victims Become Victimizers?
This is all very well, of course, but hardly addresses Mendelsohn’s Newsweek piece, and it does deserve to be addressed. He boils the question down this way:
“Do you really want audiences cheering for a revenge that turns Jews into carbon copies of Nazis, that makes Jews into ‘sickening’ perpetrators? I’m not so sure.”
The real question is, “Why is this concept so dangerous?” And this is where I have to fault the author for his piece — for what he doesn’t explore in this rather lengthy article.
The implication is that depicting the Jews brutally fighting their tormentors not only falsely portrays historical fact, it also somehow betrays what Jews have done since the Holocaust: bear testament to what was done to them so that it will never happen again. I don’t think that the 21st century moviegoer believes that a Tarantino flick is going to be historically accurate any more than they believe that brutal genocides will never happen again.
Not convinced? Suppose we revisit Inglourious Basterds‘ newfound similarity to the rape/revenge flick and employ Mendelsohn’s argument? Let’s require I Spit on Your Grave‘s brutalized heroine to slink away to some undisclosed berg so she can spend the rest of her life locked in therapy, or consign Thriller‘s press-ganged prostitute to live out her life in the flesh trade, without so much as a color-cordinated eyepatch to register her displeasure with the whole horrible arrangement?
“Do you really want audiences cheering for a revenge?” When the alternative is yet another movie that tells the world’s abused that they can best serve their fellow men and women by suffering with quiet dignity, I know what my answer would be. Do you?