BERLIN — In Germany, World War II and Holocaust films are meticulously combed over by small armies of critics, historians and public intellectuals. The historical accuracy and ethical messages of “Schindler’s List” and “The Reader,” for example, were debated for months on end. The liberties that Tom Cruise’s “Valkyrie” took with historical reality made German experts shake with indignation. “Life is Beautiful” was panned for its use of comedy in connection with an issue so somber — and it dived at the box office, too.
And now there’s Quentin Tarantino’s Nazi-era splatter film “Inglourious Basterds,” which — to my great surprise — has rocketed to the top of the German charts and even charmed the country’s most discerning film critics. When I showed up at my neighborhood theater in Berlin, the ticket line reached out to the curb. Once inside the jam-packed theater, I found myself as intrigued by the reaction of the German cinema-goers as I was by the film. It was plain from the bursts of laughter and applause that they thoroughly relished all two-and-a-half hours of it, even though the graphic, blood-soaked farce would appear to break every German’s rule for political correctness.
Germans’ reaction to “Inglourious Basterds” is especially intriguing as the cast is studded with the country’s best and most famous actors: Til Schweiger, Daniel Bruhl and Martin Wuttke, among others. Moreover, large parts of the film were produced in the legendary Babelsberg studios outside of Berlin, the very same place where the German Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (“Triumph of the Will”) made her films. And something most viewers probably didn’t know: State-financed German foundations that subsidize German film helped pay for the extravaganza to the tune of $11 million.
But does “Inglourious Basterds” — and the German public’s reaction to it — really tells us anything about Germany today, about the Germans’ earnest attempts to atone for their past? Have the decades of earnest soul-searching come to an end? After all, yet another generation has come of age since reunification, one even further removed from the Nazi era’s crimes. Does the reception of “Inglourious Basterds” mean Germans are open to thinking in new ways about the Nazis and the crimes of the Third Reich?
The initial reaction of my two German, film-going companions was that this B-movie collage had nothing to do with today’s Germany and certainly not with World War II. It was, like all of Tarantino’s work, a film about film — the wartime setting just a vehicle for his meta-genre spoofing. Most of the reviews made much the same remark, and then — as I did with my friends over a beer — went on to discuss the many ways “Inglourious Basterds” freshly examines those questions that have obsessed critically minded Germans since 1945.
For a start, neither my friends nor the reviewers felt in the least personally offended by the anti-German cliches of the foaming-at-the-mouth, anti-Semitic, heel-clicking Nazis. In fact, the Germans I spoke with identified not with the Germans but with the Basterds themselves: the Brad Pitt-led band of American Jewish partisans who club Nazis to death with baseball bats and collect their scalps as trophies.
“Hurray! They’re torched!” wrote one reviewer from the weekly Die Zeit about the final scene, when Hitler, Goebbels, & Co. are incinerated in a Paris cinema. This writer saw the film not as one solely of Jewish retribution but as a revenge fantasy for Germans born since the war who have been made to feel guilty for a war and crimes that they had no part in. No wonder everyone clapped, concluded one reviewer: “For postwar Germans the story is an orgy of self-righteousness.” One of Germany’s foremost critics, Georg Seesslen in the magazine Der Spiegel, noted that “Inglourious Basterds” was the first film to actually show Hitler die. Why, he asks, had no one ever thought of killing off Hitler on the silver screen? By the end of “Inglourious Basterds,” he wrote, Hitler is “more than dead. He is kaputt — all shot up, burned and chopped to pieces.” All other films symbolically left the book open, thus turning Hitler’s evil itself into a spectre that never perished. By implication, Germany could never be “normal” because Hitler lived on, at least on film.
According to Seesslen, the genius of “Inglourious Basterds” is that it “has the audacity to ignore history.” In some cases, he argues, pure cinematic fantasy can do a better job of getting to the truth than historical authenticity: fiction trumps reality.
Yet, another review commends Tarantino for finally debunking the insinuation that Hitler embodied some unique kind of wickedness from which the rest of humanity is immune. During the film, for example, most people in the audience seem not to object to the gory death sentences that the Basterds mete out to the Nazis. Who feels sorry for fascists? But Tarantino, he argues, turns the tables on the viewers. The sadistic cruelty of the Basterds is much the same as that of the Nazis. Yet since the punishment appears justified, the viewer finds himself identifying with the violence in a way that one could never identify with much the same brutality when perpetrated by Nazis. Hitler’s evil and the Nazis’ cruelty suddenly become less singular.
As the beer garden conversation with my friends extended into the night, it surprised me how open-minded the Germans are about “Inglourious Basterds.” I can’t imagine that even 10 years ago such a film would have been taken seriously. Now, 65 years after the war’s end, the Germans — with a little help from Tarantino — are finding new ways to think about their complicated past.