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