Do film directors and writers have an obligation to stay true to history when depicting the events of World War II? IAIN MITCHELL tries to find an answer
Marked with the trademark stylish cinematography, gratuitous violence and self-indulgent dialogue and pop culture references you’d expect, Inglorious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino’s eagerly awaited sixth film as writer and director, was generally well received by critics as a stalwart entry into the Tarantino catalogue.
However, not everyone was impressed. Tarantino has never been a stranger to controversy, with his arguably gratuitous, even gleeful portrayals of violence for comic effect, but ‘Basterds’ has one marked distinction from his previous films – its historical context. Set in the German-occupied France of 1941, its heroes are a French-Jewish girl seeking retribution for the slaughter of her parents by the SS, and a band of vigilante American soldiers committing themselves (with large knives) to torturing and killing every Nazi they come across.
By modern standards this might seem generally innocuous (last month I went to see Saw VI – it made Tarantino’s films seem about as brutal as an episode of ‘Murder She Wrote’), but should it be? After all, combine the subject matter with what we now take to be typical Tarantino fare and you have what the man himself describes as a “spaghetti western but with World War II iconography”. It’s not difficult to see how Tarantino could be accused of trivialising the devastation of the Second World War in his efforts to produce a cowboy movie.
Granted, anyone who has seen the film is under no illusions that Tarantino is presenting a depiction of history akin to that found in text books. But there’s no denying that a historical slant on a movie, for whatever purpose, alters its fabric. People watch Kill Bill and wince at Uma Thurman’s Bride character as she mercilessly ploughs through dozens of henchmen with a samurai sword, or in Reservoir Dogs when Mr. White mutilates an innocent police officer, but in these cases the root of this violence solely lies intrinsically within the plot, and thereby in the mind of the director. In other words, it is entirely fictitious, and we can leave the cinema comforted by that knowledge. However, when the opening scene hinges on the slaughter of a family of hiding Jews, or when we view the ‘Basterds’ butcher and mutilate German soldiers, the feeling is very different. These gruesome ideas aren’t the brainchildren of our friend Quentin, but rest on the crux of dreadful and real history.
Especially in Germany where attitudes towards World War Two media are still extremely sensitive (Before Downfall in 2005, the role of Adolf Hitler had never been dramatised by a German actor) the film was met with some concern. Tobias Kniebe, film critic for Süddeutsche Zeitung, attested “This is pop culture encountering Nazi Germany and the Holocaust with unprecedented force. The effects of this collision are utterly unpredictable.”
It seems to be a debate on the line of the director’s artistic freedom versus responsibility towards history. But surely if such critics are going to criticise Tarantino for colliding pop culture with history, he can’t be judged alone.
At the risk of sounding horrendously cynical, a high-budgeted, well produced and acted film based on the events of the Second World War, and especially the Holocaust (think Sophie’s Choice) seems to be guaranteed a perfect enclave in the Hollywood canon; an emotive piece that appeals to the Oscars, simultaneously a touching tribute to those whose lives were lost, but at the same time somewhat shielded from being scrutinised due to its hugely moving subject matter. This is something picked up on in an episode of Ricky Gervais’s Extras where Kate Winslet (playing a tongue-in-cheek spoof version of herself) insists “if you do a film about the Holocaust, you’re guaranteed an Oscar!” Ironically, last year Winslet went on to win an Oscar for The Reader, a film dealing with the effect of the Holocaust upon the next generation of Germans.
Of course I am in no way implying the only reason directors of Holocaust movies make them is because they know the topic will bring in big bucks and scoop awards, but what if these hugely successful films aren’t entirely true to the events.
Last year’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a good example. The basic premise of the film, that two boys, one German and one Jewish, become friends through the fence of a concentration camp, entirely contradicts the facts of what Holocaust survivors have testified to be the reality. I don’t deny that the film (and the book on which was based) had good intentions, but there can be no getting past the fact that it is sentimental nonsense.
Such a view was exemplified by Manohla Dargis of the New York Times, who wrote in response to The Reader, “You have to wonder who, exactly, wants or perhaps needs to see another movie about the Holocaust that embalms its horrors with artfully spilled tears”.
Even the tour-de-force of Holocaust movies – Schindler’s List, sees its titular character augmented and distorted to almost mythical proportions in order to tie in with this sentimental myth. Again, it’s easy to dismiss such cynicism as missing the point of these films. They are not meant to be entirely accurate, and indeed it is necessary for some details to be embellished, otherwise the filmmaker couldn’t condense it into the scope of their vision. If we accept this outlook, I fail to see how Tarantino is any more reprehensible than any other film-maker who has dared to touch the Holocaust with a ten-foot bargepole.
But in my mind, this is where the distinction lies, and why Tarantino is in fact less reprehensible than most. Some viewers will be disturbed by Tarantino’s unique spin on the Holocaust of course, but the viewer is at no risk of thinking that what transpires on screen ever transpired in reality. This is not the case for a myriad of Holocaust films, many which greet the viewer with those powerful, yet misleading words ‘a true story’, before going on to deviate from fact extensively.
As soon as a director tells the story through a camera it has been altered in some way, and therefore history as a necessity must be diluted in order to serve the purposes of cinema. But if history is diluted, then we are at risk of confusing it with myth. And that, in my view, would be the real crime.
However, if historical complacency arises, it is the fault of the viewer, not the filmmaker. While the memory of the Holocaust must be preserved, this shouldn’t be done through films. If we allow ourselves to believe that the view of the Holocaust we are viewing on the cinema screen is real history, we only have ourselves to blame for blinding following what’s served to us. In the words of Manohla Dargis, such films are not concerned with informing us of the truth, but “about making the audience feel good about a historical catastrophe that grows fainter with each new tasteful interpolation”.
In a present day where it seems that only five years are required before the first“tasteful interpolation” of September 11th hits our screens, I don’t think these words could be more relevant, or foreboding.