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Germans' surprising reaction to "Inglourious Basterds"

Throwing political correctness to the wind, Berlin film-goers relish Quentin Tarantino's rewriting of Nazi-era history.

Brad Pitt signs an autograph on a skateboard as he arrives on the red carpet for the German premiere of the film "Inglourious Basterds" in Berlin, July 28, 2009. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)

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.