August 15, 2009



yeah and of course when malcolm gladwell commented on the morals of atticus finch you agreed w the criticism that they're fictional characters but now it's different right


Tim, if you think the two pieces are somehow equivalent, then so be it. I think there's a tremendous difference between the two essays which will be obvious to most, if not all, readers.


Not having seen the movie, all I can do is respond to the logic of Mendelsohn's review.

The first quibble I have is that Mendelsohn writes as though Tarantino made a chop-socky Holocaust movie. But from everything I've read, Inglorious Basterds is not a Holocaust movie per se. It's a kitsch take on the American war movie, which I think is something quite different, and so a lot of Mendelsohn's outrage is thereby neutralized.

It's also strange given Mendelsohn's alleged reverence for the reality of history (as opposed to Tarantino's "video store clerk" irreverence for same) that nowhere in the review does he mention that the stereotypes Tarantino is playing with in IB are the same bestial stereotypes of the Nazis created by US war propaganda. The Nazis, Japanese and Italians were savagely lampooned as sub-human creatures, with full-on racist imagery liberally applied. Given this indisputed fact, it's a self-refuting argument to convict Tarantino of not being true to history by resurrecting this propaganda and turning it into a movie.

Of course Tarantino is bringing his pulp sensibility to Inglorious Basterds, just as Spielberg brought his schmalzy sensibility to Schindler's List. Perhaps what is shocking to Mendelsohn about IB is the utter lack of sentimentality it takes to a subject that is otherwise swaddled in layer upon sugary layer of sentimentality and jerking at heart strings. Is Schindler's List, for example, any more an honest portrayal of the Holocaust than IB? I think not, since that film focuses on the experience of the incredibly tiny minority of Jews in Europe who survived the Holocaust. Instead of forcing us to meditate upon the millions who were not saved, we are offered the heartwarming, suspenseful story of those happy few who found a Hollywood ending.

Mendelsohn writes as though kitsch has been largely absent from representations of the Holocaust, when in fact it forms the heart of that tradition in Hollywood. It's become so bad that now studio executives talk openly of having to have a "holiday Holocaust movie" in the can for the holiday season. Given this tradition, can we really blame Tarantino for producing his own version of WWII kitsch? I think not.


On any level the film fails.

Poorly written, lacking in the rhythm of "Jackie Brown" or "Reservoir Dogs", and lazily filmed, it may be time for QT to take a lot of time off, which may happen if this film does not make a profit for the Weinsteins.


Martha Southgate

Not having seen the movie, I can't truly comment fairly on it but I can say that Mendelsohn's essential point--at least in this excerpt--seems to me to be a critical one and one we forget at our peril. What's more, I find it frustrating that for all his technical facility, Tarantino remains so simple-minded in so many ways. He's such a ...video clerk (in the most adolescent, simple minded aspects of that stereotype--and yes, I know it's a stereotype. An apology to all the intelligent, nuanced video clerks out there)that it's maddening. I wish he'd grow up and put his immense skill with composition of the frame and creating tension to better use.

(The Other) Niall

"Mendelsohn writes as though kitsch has been largely absent from representations of the Holocaust, when in fact it forms the heart of that tradition in Hollywood"

I can only agree with my namesake. The clucking and tutting from the critical gallery only makes me want to like the film.

Should we dismiss Raiders of the Lost Ark or Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade on the grounds that they are unserious? Or should we start from the proposition that they are unserious and move on from there?


Niall -

Or The Last Temptation of Christ, which riled up a lot of Christians when it came out. And that film dealt directly with the heart of Christian doctrine and history. I wonder what Mendelsohn thought of that movie?



With respect to both Nialls, who are admired commenters here, I must disagree with both, in that I feel that they do not give sufficient weight to the key notion of rewriting the Holocaust narrative. The comparison with Schindler's list in inapt, since the story actually did happen - it's recorded history. Did Spielberg take some liberties? Sure. But it happened. Similarly, the cartoon Nazis of the Raiders series do not propose to tell a real-life story. (Interestingly, after he made Schindler, Spielberg said he'd never again make a cartoon Nazi villain.)

I recommend to all Lawrence Langer's superb Preempting the Holocaust, in which he talks at great length about the dangers of movies on the subject. Where he does agree, in part, with Niall, is that these movies inevitably focus on redemption and survival, which is not the overarching narrative of the Holocaust.

Also, DM acknowledges IB's kitchy forebears (he singles out the dreadful "Life is Beautiful"), so I don't think that criticism is fair.

Finally, I do think that Tarantino is, in the end, a sadistic hack, much more in thrall to his masturbatory visions of violence than any devotion to any sort of narrative, counter-factual or otherwise. He's a misfit with a big budget, not much more.



Mendelsohn recognizes certain extreme examples as Holocaust kitsch. But he clearly sees them as outliers, not the norm. Whereas my claim is that kitsch is the norm for Hollywood's treatment of the Holocaust (European cinema is, however, another matter).

My specific point about Schindler's List is that even though the specific events narrated actually happened, focusing our cinematic encounter with the Holocaust on the minuscule number of Jews who survived the Holocaust in Europe is itself a falsification of what the Holocaust was all about. Schindler's List does *exactly* what Mendelsohn criticizes IB for doing: For turning the Holocaust into a hero narrative (which is, I suppose, why he is also critical of Defiance), and in doing so falsifies the essence of the Holocaust experience, which was the failure to survive. And if that is what Mendelsohn means by kitsch, then we have to convict Spielberg of it as well.

Also, do we know that IB is in fact a movie about the Holocaust? That's the biggest question in my mind. If it's not, are we being accurate and fair discussing it as though it were? I guess I'll find out this Friday.

Lastly, no one has engaged my point that Tarantino is drawing on actual US anti-Nazi war propaganda in his film. Think of all the crass ditties about Hitler and what we would do to him that flourished during WWII. THink of all the crazed and crude, dehumanizing images we produced to fuel support for the war. Since all of this is itself historical, can we really convict Tarantino of leaving history behind when he makes a movie based on this historical POV? Don't think so.


Niall, I think your point is a good one, in that IB is probably not, broadly speaking, a movie about the Holocaust. I doubt QT sees it that way. But I think it occupies a murky space because it can be seen as a "Holocaust corrective" of sorts. I suppose one can legitimately ask, well if Roth can do counter-factual (Plot Against America), why can't Tarantino. I guess my short answer is I trust Roth's artistry, whereas in Tarantino I find little more than puerile bloodlust. The truth is, when I first heard about the film, it actually struck me as being more akin to pornography than anything else.

As for your propganda question, I wonder if you give him too much credit. In interviews I've read, especially the big New Yorker profile, he seems a real film savant, totally disinterested in the rest of the world - current events, history, etc. One must give him the benefit of the doubt that it's possible he's engaging with this material, but I would be very shocked, indeed, if that were really the case.



I can think of lots of good reasons to dislike IB. I just don't think Mendelsohn is offering us any. And, sure, Tarantino is a film geek who lives in an echo chamber of kitsch. It just seems to me that the violence and childishness of much WWII agitprop would appeal to him for precisely these reasons.

I also think you are making the fantasy nature of the film too central to Mendelsohn's critique of it. After all, he criticizes Defiance as well for romanticizing the Holocaust, and that film is absolutely based on historical facts.

I will let you know what I really think of the movie once I've seen it. BTW: Tarantino is going to be at Amoeba this Thursday for the release of the IB soundtrack. We should show up and ask him whether it's a Holocaust film or not...


That is a seriously brilliant idea, Niall.

You make some excellent points. I look forward to your thoughts on the movie, since I'm unlikely to see it.

I'll also see if I can persuade Daniel Mendelsohn to pop by here and address these questions.

(The Other) Niall

"Interestingly, after he made Schindler, Spielberg said he'd never again make a cartoon Nazi villain."

Well, that is an interesting point for a couple of reasons, but if the Nazis in Raiders "do not propose to tell a real-life story", then please tell me how Tarantino is telling a real-life story here?

Also, are we only forgiving Raiders of the Lost Ark on the grounds that its director subsequently thought better of treating Nazis as cartoon villains? What's to forgive? Fair enough, Spielberg wouldn't do it again, but is it particularly dishonorable that he did it once (or twice)?

Now I realize that the Holocaust - quite aside from being a difficult subject to discuss in itself - is a specific talkboard toxin, so I apologise to Mark if I'm taking this conversation into problematic areas, but even taken at its worst estimation I'm not at all clear what real-life damage a piece of calculated pulp like Inglourious Basterds can do. I don't see what succor it could give to Holocaust deniers, for instance; and I don't see how it argues against or mitigates an actual genocide. That your time may better be spent reading The Plot Against America than watching Inglourious Basterds doesn't make the latter dangerous - and I'm concerned that some of the debate about Inglourious Basterds would have the film be not just vulgar (which it is) but outright vulgarising.


I was mulling this over on the bus from work, and I thought of another counter example. The first wave of the AIDS epidemic in the 80s was very much a holocaust for gay men - one that ocntinues to this very day. So I suppose we should condemn any comic, shticky takes on the AIDS epidemic as crimes against memory, and against the fallen. Yet I don't recall anyone making this argument - least of all gay men - when the archly comic Jeffrey (penned by the inimtable Paul Rudnick)appeared in theaters. A film that lampoons many aspects of the culture of AIDS in the 80s. Was I, as a gay man, mortified and offended? Hardly. No one else was either. Certainly critics were.

So, again, I'm wondering why we should treat IB differently.


More reviews coming in. David Denby's in the New Yorker is disappointingly shallow and dismissive.


He offers no real analysis of the film or of Tarantino's oeuvre, only broad denunciations of both, unsupported by anything.

Far more insightful are the reviews from Germany.

David Kleingers

And Georg Seeßlen:

...both offer very thoughtful analyses of the film, and both engage in the historical analysis necessary to give the film its due (something neither Denby nor Mendelsohn have bothered to do).

Kleingers explores the history of anti-Nazi propaganda in Hollywood, and quite correctly (and obviously) sees Tarantino as commenting on and appropriating this tradition (dots no US critic has been able to connect).

Seeßlen's review - the longer and more philosophical of the two - engages two issues that have inflamed US critics, Tarantino's hermetic enclosure of the Nazi issue in the self-referential world of film, and the ahistorical nature of the narrative itself. Both have prompted much harrumphing from US critics, but Seeßlen has a positive and subtle response to both. He sees Tarantino constructing a meta-cinema within which the Nazi use of cinema is parodied and dissected. Tarantino, according to Seeßlen sets up a dialectic between fantasy and the real, each destroying and redeeming the other.

On the issue of veracity, he points out, rather archly, that everyone fawned over Valkyrie, which was a movie about HItler's triumph over death and heroism. Yet no one was offended by that. Wie sagt man "Oh snap!" auf deutsch?

The stark difference in subtlety and thoughtfulness between German critics and American critics is (or should be) embarrassing for the latter.

I hope these reviews get translated into English, so that the New Yorkers can read them.

Alvy Singer

I don't catch what Mendelsohn is saying. Oh. Yeah. That he probably hasn't catch what is referencing IB (Renoir, Chabrol, Hawks) and don't know nothing about exploitation culture, about nazixploitation. I don't read nothing about the nouvelle vague episode or about Leone. Why?

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