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'Inglourious Basterds' and the Problem of Revenge
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AUGUST 21, 2009

'Inglourious Basterds' and the Problem of Revenge


'Please keep in mind that it's a fable," producer Harvey Weinstein said, almost pleadingly, to the audience before the lights went down. The film being screened last week was "Inglourious Basterds," the newest blood-soaked Quentin Tarantino movie about a fictitious group of Jewish-American soldiers sent to France to kill as many Nazis as possible during World War II. The standard A-list was in attendance: Mr. Tarantino, Mr. Weinstein and his brother, Bob, as well as several stars of the film, including Eli Roth. The venue, however, was somewhat unusualthe Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, which bills itself as a "living memorial to the Holocaust." About a third of the audience were children of Holocaust survivors, a museum trustee estimated.


Not 15 minutes after watching a grisly scene in which a Nazi propaganda film's premiere audience is burned to death in a movie theater, the crowd applauded at the film's conclusion. But Mr. Weinstein's nervousness was justified. Several audience members walked out as soon as the lights went up. "How did you feel when you watched the film?" Mr. Tarantino asked the audience after the movie, prompting even more applause. How should they feel?


Jonathan Blake, a rabbi at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y., said he found the film "wickedly entertaining." Discussing it afterward, he mentions Amalek, an enemy nation discussed in the book of Numbers and Samuel and distinguished for its singular cruelty against the Israelites. The Amalekites trace their family tree from Esau, and rabbinic tradition extends Amalek's descendants to some of the Jewish people's most-loathed oppressors, including the Roman emperors and Hitler. According to Deuteronomy 25 17: 19 , Jews are commanded to blot out the memory of Amalekthat is, to struggle against their oppressors. Rabbi Blake says that Jews can "take pride in 'sticking it to the bad guy.'" Though "pulverizing heads with a baseball bat is not what the Scripture had in mind," he suggests that the Nazi-bashing of "Inglourious Basterds" "is not out of sync with the spirit of the Amalek tradition." And the movie, he adds, "has nothing on the blood-soaking orgies of violence that are the Bible's depictions of warfare."

Others in the audience were not as thrilled by the movie. One young man noted that watching Nazis beg for their lives provided him with little satisfaction. The film does not pretend to be history and certainly does not make any attempt to be in sync with Jewish teachings. But it raises questions about the propriety of acts of retribution under Jewish law. Rabbi Blake's application of the Amalek tradition here is far from a definitive. "There's something in that gusto that's scary," Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard, professor of Jewish Law at Fordham University, said to me about the premise of the film. "You like it too much."


There is a not uncommon belief that the Torah sanctions revenge. But the precept of "an eye for an eye" is usually cited incorrectly, according to Rabbi Joel Roth, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. It is actually meant to refer to monetary compensation rather than bloodletting. And Leviticus 19:18 says, "Thou shalt not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people." Rabbi Roth notes that Jews are prohibited from taking "the law into your own hands as a matter of legal punishment." The scaffolding of legality a fair trial and conviction is paramount under Jewish law. Eichmann was the one person to ever receive a death sentence in an Israeli court, and not without much hand-wringing from Jews world-wide.


Ms. Horn, a lawyer and writer, is at work on her first novel.

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