Serious Men, Inglourious Basterds

Given that Hollywood executives generally greenlight as few new ideas as possible, the same cinematic idea can often be represented within the same season as a themed pair. There was that period when both the Lord of the Rings movies and the Star Wars prequels were nipping at each other’s heels for box office supremacy. Then there was the year of the two Truman Capote films, Capote and Infamous. And who could forget the summer when two “end of the world” movies, Armageddon and Deep Impact, came out within six weeks of each other? These are but a few examples.

Competing versions of similar ideas are so often released in quick succession that one can’t help but make comparisons between them, whether the films are connected by genre or similar subject matter or not. Nowadays, a vampire movie is not so much a vampire movie, as it is but one entry in the Twilight/Harry Potter/Narnia/Lord of the Rings Industrial Complex. If you don’t like a movie of any particular genre, just give it a few weeks. Like public transport, another just like it will be along shortly. Then again, genre or gimmicky subject matter can easily play to a film’s strength, or at least provide more fodder for nerdly discussions with fellow cinephiles.

Such a comparison between two films perhaps only tenuously connected must have happened in film nerd roundtables everywhere in 2009 with the release of Inglourious Basterds and A Serious Man. Quentin Tarantino’s WWII fantasy-revenge film about a band of Jewish-American guerrillas cutting a reign of terror through Nazi Germany was like the fulfillment of a prophecy foretold by Seth Rogen’s character in Knocked Up. In praising the Spielberg film, Munich, Rogen’s character said what I think a lot of cinema-literate Jews had been thinking to themselves for years. “Every movie with Jews,” says the Rogen character, “we’re the ones getting killed. Munich flips it on its ear. We’re capping [people]!” Perhaps under the influence of the Armageddon/Deep Impact effect, and whether appropriately or not, it was inevitable to compare Basterds and that year’s other film about Jews grappling with worldly trouble. In this case, however, the comparison is weirdly apt.

Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man are very different in many ways, yes. Yet there is something of the Coens’ hero Larry Gopnik in the faces of the Jewish-American soldiers as they wreak havoc upon their would-be Nazi overlords. While Inglourious Basterds is about a band of freedom fighters standing against the murderous decadence of the Nazi Party, rather than one man’s inward crisis with the riddle of existence itself, there is a profound and personal moral center to the Basterds’ struggles, a “seriousness.” The motivation behind the their reprisals against Nazi tyranny can, in fact, be understood by way of Larry Gopnik’s wheedling moral pontifications. Both the Basterds and Larry Gopnik are contemplative of the role of the upright man in a society gone wrong.

The deliberation of Larry Gopnik’s spiritual conundrum makes for the majority of the action of A Serious Man. Gopnik is a good man, intelligent, faithful, steadfast in his convictions. Yet by the time we begin our time with him, his life has become a shambles. His wife hates him; his children view him as a non-entity, good only for fixing the television antennae; his students make unfair demands; and the string of rabbis to whom he turns in his hour of need offer nothing in the way of comfort. How can Hashem be punishing him, someone who has always tried to do right? In one scene, Gopnik sits by a public swimming hole with an unnamed female friend, recounting his troubles. Gopnik echoes the skyward directed exhortation made throughout the film, “I didn’t do anything!”

This line is important both for its comic effect, and its more “serious” complaint against Hashem. As much to his estranged wife as to a Columbia House Record Club representative demanding payment, Gopnik speaks to a spiritual winnowing. This is a process unknown to Tarantino’s opportunistic Nazis. In Basterds, this “seriousness” is perhaps best understood in how these most dependable of movie villains are portrayed. Tarantino’s Nazis are eloquent, appreciative of the finer things, though their laughter comes on with a forced desperation. The Jews in this film, on the other hand, say little but stand by with stone-faced resolve.

Tarantino’s film is set in the waning months of World War II, when a German defeat has become a foregone conclusion. The Nazi government is entrenched but beset on all sides by enemies, wedged between both a western and eastern front. All who wear the Nazi uniform seem to understand that brute strength will no longer be enough, and this realization in the film is a reflection of Tarantino’s opinion of the Nazi in modern cinema; we have all seen the goose-stepping, Macht schnell-ing Nazi before. We know his tricks. Tarantino shows us the affable, the wry Nazi who can talk his way out of danger but for the “seriousness” of those who remain unamused.

Consider the first scene in Basterds, in which the imminent conflict goes entirely unstated. Tarantino’s penultimate “New Nazi,” Col. Hans Landa, unexpectedly drops by for a visit to the home of a dairy farmer, who is housing hidden Jews. The farmer, Landa himself, and we as observers, all know who and what a Nazi is, what the “traditional” Nazi’s role in this particular scenario would be. The standard Nazi regalia on Landa’s uniform, the sun glinting off of the stormtroopers’ gunmetal, the loud heel-toe report of the colonel’s boots on the farmhouse floor, all are meant to signal that this is no friendly chat. Yet Col. Landa doesn’t seem like a monster. He greets the dairy-farmer warmly, speaks fluently in both French and English, insists that the investigation is just a duplication of office work as he tidies up the old files of his predecessor. While the farmer is clearly on his guard, he seems hopeful that Landa is not the penetrating scourge his reputation would suggest. And so the effect of Landa’s almost girlish chattiness is one of contrast between what all involved know historically and what we see on the screen. (Tarantino deals with this dynamic much more explicitly in the film’s historically revisionist finale.) In the course of the conversation, Landa arrives, both organically and inevitably, on the subject of why he has earned the name “The Jewhunter” in occupied France. He explains that he is so proficient at finding Jews because he can “think like a Jew.”

Where he compatriots dismiss Jews as inhuman, he admires their resourcefulness, or what he perceives as “the depths to which one can sink when all dignity is abandoned.” Where we are used to Nazis screaming and bludgeoning, Landa’s racist rhetoric is conversational, subtle. Nothing is so chilling than Landa’s admiration of Jews as a “worthy adversary.” Finally, the colonel dispenses with the Emily Post intimidation routine; he always knew that the family in question was hiding under the floorboards. The farmer is undone by this charming monster; the Nazi’s politeness has primed him for the brutality we all knew was coming. So why did Landa go through the patronizing theatre of having a conversation? Because for Tarantino, a Nazi meeting his opponent head-on and without the niceties of social interaction would be too pedestrian a version of these, being the worst villains in all of cinematic history. These villains are villainous not because they seethe and slaver but because they smile and talk about the weather. These Nazis’ scariest attribute is their humanity.

The true Jewish presence in Basterds is how they react to their Nazi oppressors. Such a reaction is deftly delivered by Melanie Laurent’s Shoshanna in her sidestepping the romantic propositions of the German hero Private Zoller. Through tales of his warlike exploits, Shoshanna knows Zoller to be a man to be reckoned with. No less overbearing is Zoller’s status as a Nazi solider in occupied France. The institution to which he has pledged loyalty has already won her and her country militarily. Zoller is smart enough to know that if he wants to win her in other ways, he will have to make light of his threat as occupier, that he will have to kill her with kindness. He comes at his final quarry not with force but by waylaying her with every bit of charm he can muster. He tries every approach, the annoying suitor, the young man put upon his superiors, even the boyish admirer. (How strange to watch a Nazi try so hard to be liked!) But she shows him only contempt; she has more “serious” matters on her mind.

Likewise, this quiet resolve is communicated effectively by Eli Roth in his portrayal of Donny “The Bear Jew” Donnowitz. In the film, Donnowitz is recruited along with the other Basterds to be dropped into Germany to herald the coming onslaught of the Allied Forces. In this capacity, and as he gains notoriety in his execution of captured Nazi soldiers with a baseball bat, Donnowitz becomes a folk hero whose larger-than-life presence takes on special power even to the Fuhrer himself. And every iota of this power is evident in the scene where we watch him earn his reputation.

The problems of A Serious Man‘s Larry Gopnik are more prosaic, the Basterds’ more apocalyptic in portent. Yet both stem from the same basic issue, Jewish men interacting with the troubles of the world. Larry Gopnik is a man trying to be righteous in a culture sometimes menacingly indifferent to basic morality; the Basterds strive to maintain their ethnic identities against a culture that has shattered itself against nationalistic idols. Whether through the steadfastness that comes through tradition or the strength to stand up against the coming tide of modern monsters, the Jews of both films strive to maintain their identities against foes both spiritual and painfully practical.