The Stakes in Holocaust Representation: On Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds

By Suleiman, Susan Rubin | The Romanic Review, January-March 2014 | Go to article overview

The Stakes in Holocaust Representation: On Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds


Suleiman, Susan Rubin, The Romanic Review


Despite its unalterable march into past history, the Holocaust remains an object of fascination to contemporary novelists and filmmakers as well as to the public. Along with works that are recognized as enduring masterpieces (Lanzmann's Sboah, David Grossman's See Under: Love, Kertesz's Fatelessness), this fascination has produced dozens, if not hundreds, of films and novels that deserve to be forgotten quickly. In the wide terrain between these two extremes, one finds a small number of works that have enjoyed worldwide success even while provoking passionate critical debates: what some viewers or readers consider as an important artistic achievement, others consider as a piece of commercial marketing with no artistic merit, or maybe even as an insult to civilized values. Jonathan Littell's 2006 novel, Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones), featuring a former Nazi as first-person narrator, was extolled by some extremely distinguished critics and received two major literary prizes in France before becoming an international publishing phenomenon, but it was also trashed by other, equally distinguished readers. Similarly divided opinions greeted Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List (1994), Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful (1997), and most recently Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds (2009).

Such contested works--we could call them crisis works or "weathervanes"--point to unresolved ethical and aesthetic issues concerning representations of the Holocaust. What can or should be shown or told in a work of art dealing with a historic event that has been called unrepresentable? Even more importantly, what can or should not be shown or told? When Schindler's List first came out, a number of commentators--foremost among them Claude Lanzmann--expressed outrage at the sequence where a group of women deported to Auschwitz are shown naked, entering a room that looks as if it could be a gas chamber. Such a representation is, according to Lanzmann, positively obscene--not to be shown. (1) By showing it, Lanzmann contended, Spielberg had committed both an artistic sin of bad taste and a grave ethical lapse, even if the room in question turned out to be an actual shower room, not a gas chamber.

If the question raised by Schindler's List was "What can be shown?" then the question raised by Benigni's Life Is Beautiful was "How should it be shown?" Negative criticisms of that film emphasized its unrealistic way of depicting the concentration camp where Guido and his son are imprisoned: the camp looked too manicured, not at all like the real thing. And whoever heard of a Jewish inmate who succeeded in keeping his young child hidden for weeks or months in a Nazi concentration camp? Such criticisms focused on the criterion of historical authenticity--and once again, the issue was both ethical and aesthetic. Those who criticized this aspect of the film maintained that it is ethically reprehensible to go against historical facts in representing the Holocaust. The other, related theoretical issue concerned humor: Was humor, and the comic in general, an acceptable mode for treating this most serious subject?

Those who defended Benigni's film declared not only that the artistic imagination must brook no limits, including that of factuality, but that comedy could be a powerful means of expression, even about the Holocaust. The eminent specialist of Holocaust literature Sidra Ezrahi argued that since Benigni presented the film from the start as a "fable," it should be interpreted as a comic counterfactual story, a kind of Purimspiel that presented a "meliorative" version of history and that should not be interpreted with "dead-minded literalism." Ezrahi saw in Benigni's film--as well as in several other comic representations of the Shoah, such as Radu Mihaileanu's film Train of Life (also from 1997) or Jurek Becker's novel Jakob the Liar (1969)--a continuation of the tradition of Jewish humor that one finds in the stories of Sholem Aleichem, for example. …

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