Within the space of a few days last week, I saw two very different films related to the Holocaust, but I see value in exploring the two in tandem. One is “A Film Unfinished,” a documentary about a Nazi faux-documentary; the other is last year’s Quentin Tarantino spoof, “Inglorious Basterds,” which I saw on the Showtime cable network. The former makes the Nazi cameramen into honest documentarians despite their intention; the latter fictionalizes World War II in an outlandish way, to make Jewish characters into uber-avengers who shorten the war by wiping out most of the Nazi leadership in a fiery climax.
If “Inglorous Basterds” were simply a spoof, it would be in exceptionally poor taste and not worth commenting upon. Instead, it is surprisingly serious and even riveting. Fortunately, it is not just about the buffoonish squad of mostly Jewish “Golems” (the Hitler character even uses this term in an exasperated conversation about them) commanded by Brad Pitt as a cartoonishly crude Tennessee goy with Cherokee blood who has them scalp their German victims. Its most compelling revenge fantasy is that of French actress Mélanie Laurent as Shosanna (it kills me not to fill in another h after the second s, but this is how her name is presented online) the sole survivor of a French-Jewish family slaughtered three years before by the “Jew hunter,” SS Colonel Landa.
Filmmaker Yael Hersonski takes the raw footage of what ultimately was an unproduced Nazi propaganda film, found in an East German archive, and uses it to strain truth out of what was meant to be a lie. The Nazis had intended to document life in the Warsaw Ghetto in May 1942, a couple of months before massive deportations began to the gas chambers at Treblinka. But their purpose was to show how well “rich” Jews were living, and how callous they were to the impoverished, starving masses in their midst—a patently false premise, given that all were imprisoned and starving to various degrees, and all were equally slated for death.
The reality of the Holocaust as seen in “A Film Unfinished” underscores the emotional validity of the fantasy revenge scenario of “Inglorious Basterds.” History provides Jews with every reason to want to revisit such events, this time witnessing the acts of Jewish avenging angels.
In a real sense, this is what Israel has become to many of us. Back in 1948, and for me as a teenager in 1967, Israel’s exceptional military prowess was a tremendous source of pride. Israel’s failure to use its military advantage to try harder to forge peace in the early 1970s, began to intervene in my consciousness when I realized that Prime Minister Golda Meir had not engaged with very public peace overtures by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Later I learned that Golda may also have missed the possibility of a peace treaty with Jordan’s King Hussein, then an unofficial ally of Israel, who had in fact offered a peace treaty, but not on terms that Israel saw as sufficiently advantageous at the time.
I do not question the need for Israeli military power to have prevailed to prevent the country’s destruction at its birth, and to ward off very real threats from the Arab world in ensuing decades. But the wars in Lebanon and Gaza in more recent times, although largely provoked by the other side, illustrate the limited utility of Israel’s military strength. We should also by now have gone beyond the emotional needs of a historically oppressed people to only have faith in physical power; diplomacy and compromise must also have their place.
Still, I don’t want to be seen as preaching. The concrete threats and hateful propaganda from so much of the Muslim world–and especially the Nazi-like rhetoric emanating from Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah–have the understandable effect of making us feel frightfully vulnerable again. In fervently advocating a peaceful path for Israel, I want not to excuse these Jew-hating (or “anti-Zionist”) enemies, who make peace activism so much more difficult.
Happy New Year/ Shana Tova! May this coming year end our fears and substantially advance our hopes for peace.
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