‘Inglourious Basterds’: Is Quentin Tarantino trivializing the Holocaust?


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Andrew Klavan is a gifted thriller novelist who happens to be a political conservative. And because he’s a right-winger, he happens to think that Hollywood is chock-full of leftist dilettantes who disrespect all sorts of important cultural icons, from the 9/11 terrorist attacks to the Holocaust. This attitude has led Klavan to take aim and fire at will on Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Inglourious Basterds,’ which won the top prize over the weekend from the Screen Actors Guild. Here’s what Klavan had to say about the film, which he finally got around to watching on pay per view:

‘I found it an appalling movie--really, appalling. I can’t remember the last time I used the word offensive about a piece of art. Art never offends me, well, hardly ever. But this film isn’t offensive in any petty ‘Piss Christ’ way.... This is offensive in the moral, ‘Let them eat cake.’ sense: that is, it exhibits an understanding of human suffering so shallow it falls outside the bounds of civil discussion. Look, you don’t need me to tell you this: there was this thing called the Holocaust, right?.... For Tarantino, no matter how talented, to address the issues inherent in the event as pure fodder for storytelling, to think his squirrelly man-on-man torture fantasies or his video geek understanding of life provide an adequate moral response to that level of history--I don’t know, man--it just felt to me like he was molding toy soldiers out of the ashes of the dead.’


Of course, it’s not enough for Klavan to bash Tarantino alone. Like most conservatives, he sees Tarantino--who as far as I can tell doesn’t have a political bone in his body and probably couldn’t name two members of Barack Obama’s cabinet--as part of the Hollywood lefty uber-class who is guilty, as Klavan puts it, of responding ‘so shabbily to 9/11’ and of making movies ‘that gave aid and comfort to our enemies while our soldiers were in the field.’ Exactly which movies gave aid and comfort to our enemies remain unnamed, since it’s always easier to issue a broad and sweeping slander than be specific.

But Klavan does make one very specific point. He says that either because of celebrity, money or crazed leftist politics, ‘too many of our artists seem to have been sapped of their understanding of suffering and history.’ Hence the stylized savagery of ‘Inglourious Basterds.’ For me, this is simply the latest example of why so few conservatives ever distinguish themselves in creative fields like music or filmmaking the way they have in investment banking or talk radio. They either detest pop culture or have such inflexible rules about how it is supposed to be created that they end up stuck on the outside, looking at the filmmaking process with either scorn or derision.

It’s why so many conservative commentators ended up loathing Jim Cameron’s ‘Avatar.’ Unlike millions upon millions of moviegoers who found themselves enthralled by the film’s visual imagination, conservative pundits could see only the movie as a political statement about things they abhorred. It didn’t fit their rigid definition of what kind of cultural experience people should enjoy. I can only imagine what Klavan would’ve thought of Ernst Lubitsch’s ‘To Be or Not to Be,’ which gleefully mocked Hitler and Nazism in 1942, even as the horrors of the Reich were in full sway, casting Jack Benny as a vain Polish actor who finally gets to play his biggest part impersonating Hitler.

The film’s spoof of the Führer came too close to the actual events for the film to be a hit. But it’s now considered a comedy classic because of the same kind of artistic daring that makes Tarantino’s ‘Basterds’ a mini-classic of its kind today. To try to wall off the saga of Hitler’s evil persecution of the Jews with all sorts of elitist rules about how that story can be told only diminishes its power instead of elevating it.

‘Inglourious Basterds’ photo by Francois Duhamel / The Weinstein Co.