Inglorious Basterds and the new wave of "tough Jews" in movies
Have you ever wondered what life would be like if you hadn’t taken that job, or gone to that school, or moved to that neighborhood?
In other words: what if you were living in an alternative reality?
Alternative history is a genre with a long pedigree, especially in the realm of science fiction. After all, who can resist wondering, “What if…?”
The epic saga of the Second World War, with its action, tragedy and larger than life heroes, has inspired many “alternative histories,” from the “City on the Edge of Forever” episode of the original Star Trek, to the 1992 novel-turned-miniseries Fatherland, which depicts a world in which the Nazis defeat the Allies. The promise and allure of the subject matter is so great that two British teenagers who’d lived through the Blitz filmed their own alternative history movie, over the course of eight long years, on that same theme: It Happened Here: The Story of Hitler’s England (1966).
Now, acclaimed director Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction) has joined the long list of filmmakers who can’t resist making their own WWII fantasy-action flick.
Tarantino’s latest release is Inglorious Basterds (and yes, the misspelling is intentional.) Inspired by a schlocky 1970s Italian “macaroni combat” action picture of the same name, the movie is Tarantino’s homage to the “misfits on a mission” movies of old, like The Dirty Dozen.
Jewish revenge fantasy
This time around, the heroes are a Jewish-American revenge squad wreaking havoc throughout German-occupied France, not only killing but also scalping their Nazi targets.
In a parallel storyline, a beautiful young Jewish woman whose family was slaughtered by the SS somehow takes over the Paris cinema where Goebbel’s latest propaganda film will debut with Hitler himself in attendance. She plans to trap the audience of high-ranking Nazis inside and burn the building to the ground. “My name is Shoshanna Dreyfus,” she announces at one point in the film. “And this is the face of Jewish vengeance.”
At the press conference following the film’s debut, one journalist asked if Inglourious Basterds was a “Jewish revenge fantasy.” Eli Roth, who directed the Hostel horror movies and is acting in this movie as one of Tarantino’s “basterds,” said the notion of Jews getting even with Hitler was “kosher porn. It’s something I dreamed since I was a kid.” In the movie, Roth gets to live out his childhood fantasy: he plays the baseball bat-swinging “Bear Jew,” who some of the film’s Nazis believe is a vengeful golem.
Obviously, I’m not advocating vigilante justice, or suggesting that anybody scalp their enemies in real life. The point is: the whole concept of the film challenges stereotypes. After all, moviegoers are more accustomed to seeing wimpy Jewish males on the big screen — and I for one am tired of it. In a world in which Jews are under constant threat, is “wimpy” really the image we want to convey? Indelibly personified by Woody Allen back in the 1960s, this stock character still appears in movies and TV shows, such as Ben Stiller comedies and Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Jews with attitude
The 21st century iteration of this familiar character retains traces of nebbishness, but also displays an edgy attitude reminiscent of Richard Dreyfuss’ scruffy, hyper, cocky Jewish characters of the 1970s. Seth Rogan, Paul Rudd and Jonah Hill, three stars in Jewish director Judd Apatow’s constellation, seem to channel Dreyfuss’s satirical outlook and boundless energy in his flicks like The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Superbad.
The Hebrew Hammer (2003), starring Adam Goldberg, paved the way for a new kind of swaggering Jewish hero on film. He’s sexy because he’s Jewish, not in spite of it. The movie plays with African-American and Jewish cultural touchstones: the Hammer drives a pimped-out white Cadillac with Star of David headlights; his license plate reads “L’Chaim” and his fuzzy dice are really dreidels. After saving some Jewish children from older Christian bullies, he tells them solemnly, “Stay Jewish.” The result is the first “Jewsploitation” film.
Swaggering Hebrew heroes turn up in other comedies: Hot Rod (2007) stars Andy Samberg as an Evel Knievel-inspired stuntman — not exactly a profession commonly chosen by Jews. In You Don’t Mess With Zohan (2008), Adam Sandler is a former Mossad agent who dreams of becoming a hairdresser.
“Jews with attitude” aren’t restricted to comedies, but their appearances in dramas are rare. The Raid on Entebbe was made back in 1977. Recently, however, the character of the armed, defiant Jew has made a reappearance. Edward Zwick’s recently released Defiance is about four Jewish brothers from Poland who escape the Nazis and go on to rescue fellow Jews. (As an English Jew, I have to admit I got considerable nachas seeing Daniel Craig (a.k.a. James Bond himself) kicking Nazi tuchas alongside Liev Schreiber!)
And now Inglorious Basterds, set to hit the big screens this summer with unabashedly Jewish characters as a major selling and plot point. The movie is sure to inspire a tingle of “What if?” wish fulfilment in audiences, Jewish and non-Jewish alike.
Today’s generation likes its Jewish heroes tough, an attitude captured in the comedy Knocked Up, in which Seth Rogan’s Jewish character praises the controversial Stephen Spielberg drama, Munich. “Every movie with Jews, we’re the ones getting killed,” he enthuses to his friends. “Munich flips that on its ear!”
Closer to home, I know two young Jewish boxers who defy all the nebbish stereotypes and challenge mainstream perceptions of Jewish manhood. Dmitry Salita is an undefeated junior welterweight boxer who also happens to be an Orthodox Jew, as is Yuri Foreman, who will be competing for the light middleweight championship this fall.
Jews can’t all be boxers, but we do need to embrace and honor physical courage as a worthy aspect of Jewish masculinity. Too often Jews demean physical prowess in favor of the mental variety, but in our world today — with Iran flexing its nuclear muscles and enemies plotting to bomb synagogues in our very own neighborhoods — the Jewish people should learn to celebrate the “tough Jew.” Maybe movies like Tarantino’s will play a part in changing this attitude for the better.