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Inglourious Basterds is hardly the first movie to place World War II in the context of American show business. (Each in his way, movie stars John Wayne and Ronald Reagan made a career out of playing soldier while the war was actually on.) Basterds' coarse, ranting, ridiculously caped Hitler certainly contributes to the war's vaudevillization, but the notion of Hitler as screaming infant was more eloquently demonstrated several years ago, when a hilarious meme swept the Internet, subtitling a key tantrum from Downfall, the 2005 German drama of Hitler in the bunker: Bruno Ganz's disheveled führer was made to browbeat his generals about everything from his lost Xbox to the Superbowl upset to Obama's victory (in the guise of Hillary Clinton). With the evil genius of the 20th century already a joke everywhere outside of Germany—and perhaps even there—Tarantino's particular genius has been to provide a suitably regressive scenario for the sandbox war that cost 50 million lives.

The Producers might seem an obvious precursor, but there's a difference between victim and victor mocking Hitler. European Jews were losers; decimated by the war, their only victory was in individual survival. Where the Brooks scenario involves dancing on the monster's grave (a contemporary Purim play), the Tarantino scenario is less cathartic than bizarrely triumphalist. Even something as untalented as Levy's My Führer has a modicum of therapeutic value—if only for being created by a German Jew in Germany. Levy's fantasy conceives Hitler as a grotesque brat, and a Jewish protagonist, plucked from the Auschwitz death mills for the express purpose of bolstering the führer's confidence, as the lone adult in a world of Nazi buffoons. By contrast, Inglourious Basterds basically enables Jews to act like Nazis, engaging in cold-blooded massacres and mass incineration, pushing wish fulfillment to a near-psychotic break with reality.

Tarantino's movie ends with its corniest character (Pitt) proclaiming that a particular Old Testament barbarism just might be his masterpiece. As I wrote from Cannes, this movie could well be Tarantino's—if masterpiece is taken to mean the fullest expression of a particular artist's worldview. At Cannes, Roth characterized the movie as "kosher porn." Tarantino was less provocative and more grandiose—"The power of cinema is going to bring down the Third Reich. . . . I get a kick out of that!"—but he, too, was reveling in the compensatory, reductive aspect of the movies.

Brad Pitt, Nazi hunter
Francois Duhamel/The Weinstein Company
Brad Pitt, Nazi hunter

Details

Inglourious Basterds
Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino
The Weinstein Company and Universal
Opens August 21

ALSO
Inglourious Basterds: The Quentin Tarantino Interview
by Ella Taylor

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Here is an alternate World War II, in which Jews terrorize and slaughter Nazis—a just Holocaust. Schindler's List comforted audiences with similar, albeit less outrageous, reversals (the list is life, not death; concentration camp showers gush water, not gas). However devoted to movie magic, however, Spielberg would never be so tasteless as to admit the excitement he experienced in asserting his will over history.

jhoberman@villagevoice.com

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