I watch plenty of Nazi films.

I don’t say that loudly at parties. As someone with Jewish heritage, I don’t say that in front of family. Or anyone.

I’m not alone: Hollywood is obsessed with goose-stepping, leather clad, dehumanized piles of…

I don’t enjoy Nazi movies, but I can’t stop watching. I know a few possible reasons.

It’s their fantastically-tailored uniforms. It’s shallow, but some viewers love detailed costume design, myself included.

It’s the fact that movie Nazis act angry, broody, militaristic, fussy, exaggerated, disturbed. They’re cartoons.

(Tarantino treats most Nazis in Basterds like cartoons. One might claim he’s mocking and dehumanizing Nazis. How many times have Jews been portrayed as dehumanized crowds on trains headed for death camps?)

It’s that they’re a universally recognized ethical nadir. Whether Brownshirts, SS, or others were believers, enlisted, conscripted, eager participants or coerced by social pressure…

If you claim some Nazis were less culpable than others, true.

If you suggest one Nazi has no culpability and another has all, you’re using the same excuse top Nazis used at the Nuremberg trials (and other major trials that took place after Victory in Europe). In that trial, they consistently claimed they followed orders they didn’t agree with and true responsibility rested with superiors. That argument should enrage all rational people. No matter how advanced in rank officers were, they claimed someone higher up was responsible.

Most Holocaust movies don’t offer Jews vindication. I’m not turned on by victimhood by proxy. These films don’t invite well-deserved rage. They’re draining, depressing, predictable, uninteresting. Jews are often cannon fodder in them.

Am I behind the victimized times by getting no pleasure out of victimization by proxy? Holocaust movie suffering doesn’t engage my identity as a Jew.

Cannon fodder characters appear in films to inspire pity, sorrow, or pain, and are executed or die without having motivations or personalities. Jews in Holocaust flicks are usually cannon fodder.

(Tarantino got criticized for treating Nazis this way. How many times have Jews been mowed down by machine guns in Holocaust films?)

Why are Holocaust films popular?

One reason’s simple. Hollywood loves painful, hopeless stories, no matter how many times they’re told. This is typical Hollywood trolling for “high art” and box office success. While it’s overdone, the Holocaust is low-hanging fruit. I understand this motivation, even if it’s shallow.

The other reason is more sinister. Perhaps some Hollywood creatives want to continually inspire non-stop vague pain in Jewish audiences.

One of the most overrated examples of high art Holocaust film genre is Schindler’s List (1993).

In my opinion, List is art. Despite its grueling length, it tells a worthwhile story: good choices, even after evil choices, still count. It’s beautifully filmed, too. Is Oskar Schindler’s position a morally sound one? Sure.

There’s lots of Jews in List. They’re not just cannon fodder as in other Holocaust films (though cannon fodder Jews appear in List). But Jewish characters don’t drive the plot of List. The plot is Schindler’s moral dilemma, his guilt, his loss of wealth, the danger he brings on himself while employing 850 Jews in his factory (and benefitting from their labor for portions of the film). The plot is Amon Goth’s moral dilemma, despite the fact Goth isn’t engaging with the ethical discourse between Schindler and himself.

This remind anyone of American History X (1998), where Danny turns life around in one day due to a history assignment and a heart-to-heart with Derek? And focusing on the Vinyard brothers’ guilt/shame, not the suffering of those they’ve hurt? Guess it’s me.

This is Nazi-pain, stories where a Nazi’s guilt gets more meditation than living conditions of Jewish prisoners. Or fates of legally-immigrated supermarket employees, also.

It’s not just List, and Nazi-pain isn’t the only problem.

You get the same feeling from Jacob the Liar (1975 and 1999) and The Pianist (2002). (The Pianist is, in fact, incredible, but has the additional problem that it was directed by a pedophile.)

These films are about Jews who make the best of their situation. The soft-heartedness mixes nauseatingly with horror.

I’m torn on Cabaret (1972). Can’t I enjoy naughty dancing and ignore this beer garden Nazi Youth fucker? I’m still collecting my thoughts regarding JoJo Rabbit (2019), because that black comedy Nazi child drama captured my heart in a conflicting way.

The worst is Life is Beautiful (1997). Cutesiness with genocide sans satire? No thanks.

No, changing my mind, The Book Thief (2013)

Never mind, The Sound of Music (1965) is my least favorite Nazi film. Must I watch the von Trapps sing their way to the border of Switzerland where they’ll inevitably be captured by Swiss Guards?

But List avoids cutesiness. List is about suffering. List is a great Holocaust flick, about the moral dilemma of a Nazi war profiteer. For over three hours.

Basterds isn’t quite that long.

The difference is I don’t sink into depression while watching Basterds as I do during List. I enjoy some well-deserved rage instead.

The difference is also film critics complained that Basterds contained gratuitous violence and lacked moral depth. List got no such criticism.

(Anybody walking into a Quentin Tarantino film not expecting gratuitous violence doesn’t know what film they’ve walked into.)

Should I be surprised many of criticisms came from Jews?

What moral depth do critics want? Let’s indulge them. Let’s imagine Basterds engaged in an overt moral conversation.

Let’s pick the Louisville slugger scene.

Sgt. Rachtman and two other Nazi soldiers are captured by the Basterds. Lt. Raine introduces the group. Rachtman knows the group’s reputation, especially of Raine, Hugo Stiglitz, and Sgt. Donowitz. Raine asks Rachtman to provide information the Basterds need to navigate upcoming territory. If he doesn’t, Donowitz will beat Rachtman to death. Rachtman respectfully refuses.

An unspoken moral point is addressed. Raine could kill Rachtman after his first refusal, but gives him opportunities to reconsider. This won’t end in Geneva Convention-friendly results, but Raine treated Rachtman respectfully. Critics claiming this didn’t happen weren’t watching.

Donowitz strides out of the tunnel brandishing his Louisville slugger like a biblical Maccabee, maybe Judah the Hammer himself. I didn’t know until I re-watched this film for this review how much I’d needed a warrior Jew in film. Maccabees were the most well-known warrior Jews. I could be wrong, but that’s what I think Basterds is referencing.

(Don’t get me started on why many major Hollywood Bible dramas have been made about Christ, but none about a century of Jewish resistance and rebellion. Don’t get me started about why the commemoration of a bloody internal military conflict became a Christmas knockoff.)

Donowitz prepares to plant the slugger in Rachtman’s head. He first asks if Rachtman’s iron cross was earned for killing Jews. Rachtman responds it was earned for bravery. Donowitz nods his head slightly, squares up, and swings the Louisville into Rachtman’s skull.

Donowitz’s gesture is seen often in cowboy and samurai flicks to indicate an honorable man has listened to his enemy’s opinion, paused to think, then acted. It’s a well-recognized gesture that indicates a split-second reflection. Again, critics missed this.

Should Donowitz have gazed skyward melodramatically beseeching Yahweh with muttered snatches of Talmud? Should he refuse to swing and spare Rachtman?

No, that would be more sanctimonious than Quentin could allow.

Tarantino characters who make religious statements don’t express belief in strict Biblical doctrine. In Pulp Fiction (1994), Jules recites a passage from Ezekiel before he executes yet another of Marcellus’ rivals. Later, after his moment of clarity, he discusses divergent interpretations of that passage. Jules’s final explanations sound arcane.

But in Basterds, we avoid heavy Old Testament talk altogether, because Donowitz and the others don’t need a moment of clarity. If they’d had one, they’d have quoted the Zohar.

The fact that Donowitz doesn’t take the moral high road reflects the ethics of Basterds. Rachtman is offered choice. Rachtman’s choice is honored. The choice isn’t easy, but approached fairly by all parties. Donowitz needn’t beckon to G-d to ask if he should swing.

It’s not that these critics don’t observe the ethics of Basterds. It’s that critics want the Basterds, who are Jewish Guerillas (Maccabees), to be self-pitying. They can’t watch Nazi films where Jews don’t self-pity.

Did I mention there’s a sinister side to Holocaust films?

Hirshberg kills the second Nazi, assuring the last Nazi will talk. Are critics of Basterds unaware this is a commentary on methods American G.I.s used on Vietcong POWs?

Should Donowitz collapse to his knees while a single tear rolls down his cheek and wail at an unfair G-d who created a world where he became his oppressor? Surely, he should drink heavily or whisper a prayer over a single candle.

No, that’s melodrama Tarantino doesn’t sink to.

Donowitz is stoked. He compares himself to Willie Mays.

Critics who compare the violence the Basterds visit on Nazis to Nazi atrocities shoot themselves in the foot.

I don’t understand why I must discuss the fact that National Socialists persecuted not only Jews but other demographics without justification. I say National Socialists persecuted demographics because it had nothing to do with actions of any individuals. Nazis blamed social ills on these demographics then exterminated them.

The Basterds are persecuting Nazis in accordance with their actions and provide opportunities to make choices regarding their fates. It’s more equivalent to capital punishment under a judicial system. It’s not democratic, but it has some semblance of justice. That doesn’t equate them with Nazis. There’s a difference between genocide and retribution based on individuals’ actions.

But doesn’t Raine carve a swastika into the remaining soldier’s forehead, as he does to all Nazis the Basterds leave alive, to send a message back to Hitler?

Yes, for the reason the international community brought ex-Nazis to trial at Nuremberg. Private Butz wants to burn his uniform after the war to escape his association with Nazis, but he still holds responsibility for his actions. His humiliating scar means he’ll never escape that responsibility.

Heavy-handed? Tarantino uses cartoony action and humor in his films, and that should be expected. But it’s a satisfying statement: reformed fascists shouldn’t have escaped the stigma of their actions. Obviously, justice works differently today, but every time white supremacists who are convicted of violent crimes get off without punishment today, some Jews might feel like I do: this allows these dangerous people to commit violence acts again.

Raine doesn’t want to deal fairly with Nazis. He’d rather scalp each on sight. But Raine is most interested in killing as many Nazis as possible, which requires being strategic.

Rachtman isn’t the only Nazi the Basterds negotiate with.

Their mission is botched when they try to rendezvous with Bridget von Hammersmark, their spy within the German film industry, in a basement tavern (which ends a fantastically choreographed multiple-shooter shootout).

Sgt. Wilhelm, who wasn’t their target, is left alive; so is Bridget. Raine attempts to negotiate with Wilhelm to rescue Bridget without sacrificing the other men, even explaining how to avoid a Mexican standoff. Wilhelm doesn’t negotiate properly, but Raine almost recovers the situation. Von Hammersmark kills Wilhelm after he insults her. It’s Von Hammersmark’s unethical decision, however.

The ethical code of the group is strategic. It doesn’t reflect how the Basterds wish to behave. That’s why Raine double crosses Col. Landa after their deal. Once Hitler’s dead, there’s no reason to bargain with Landa, since Germany’s surrendering.

I guess critics are right: Hitler gets no opportunity to bargain for his life. The disguised Basterds start shooting Nazis with machine guns inside Shoshana’s overcrowded theater.

Are critics unaware this is a reference to Edge of Darkness (1943), wherein a Norwegian town resists Nazi occupation? There’s a machine gun priest in Edge, think that’s more controversial.

What did critics expect? Did they want the Basterds to pray while strapping dynamite to their calves? Should Shoshanna Dreyfuss pray?

Shoshanna prepares to get revenge/commit suicide/kill Nazis in classic heroic fashion. She dresses herself in warrior red, except it’s an evening gown and lipstick. She’s prepared to play her own film before she will set her nitrate films, her movie screen, and her theater ablaze.

Shoshanna meditates on her choice with her lover Marcel, but not to self-pity. They meditate strategically on the best way to execute her plan: they’ll die, so how many Nazis can they take with them?

They don’t light candles and whisper prayers. They don’t entreat G-d for guidance on the ethics of their choice. They choose, they act.

Pvt. Zoller doesn’t offer Shoshanna the courtesy Raine and the Basterds offer Nazi officers. Zoller thinks that Shoshana is actually a French woman named Sophie. Still, he assumes Sophie will respond to his romantic and sexual advances since he organizes the premier for Sophie’s theater. But he never asks to date or sleep with her. He thinks she’ll offer this automatically.

He’s arrogant enough to confront her at the premier in the projection booth. He’s the subject of the film as a wunderkind war hero and portrays himself in his film. He enjoys praise from others, then thinks he deserves sex from Sophie.

Shoshanna would’ve slept with Zoller for the opportunity to execute Hitler, but he never asks. The fact he never asks for love or sex is telling. The Basterds clearly state what will happen if certain actions are or aren’t taken, Zoller never asks for what he wants before getting angry. He’s unaware Shoshanna plans to burn down the theater with Nazis in it; he simply wants the glory of persuading (or forcing) her into sex in the projection booth. Shoshana shoots him, Zoller shoots her, Marcel successfully lights the theater on fire and also dies.

Shoshanna edits her own film over the Nazi propaganda, then burns the theater down with nitrate films. Nitrate film has an infamous history as a dangerous flammable film.

Shoshanna sacrifices art to beat propaganda. That’s a clear statement: Tarantino knew Basterds couldn’t be a high art Holocaust film like List. But the film fights propaganda. That’s a worthwhile sacrifice. If “high art” Holocaust films leave Jews feeling victimized, it’s not worth making “high art.”

When watching Basterds in the theater, I didn’t feel the familiar violent depression I experienced watching “high art” Holocaust stories. Instead, I cheered.

Since then, I’ve discovered I love watching NaziHurt (that’s not an official genre). Cliché as they are, I’ll relish the Indiana Jones franchise films and enjoy cheap jollies from Overlord (2018). I’ll confess also that I believe those who take Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1975) too seriously should question their sanity.

Still, I can’t shake my interest in Nazi films.

I watched Downfall (2004), but Hitler’s whiny. I almost enjoyed Defiance (2008) and may watch again. Conspiracy (2001) is unnerving the way board meetings of major corporations are. I’ll probably re-watch Skin (2018) soon.  Judgement at Nuremberg (1961) and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (three episodes, made for tv film, 1968) might be best.

Am I wrong for liking Basterds?

Yes, I’m unethical for enjoying watching Nazis suffer. I enjoyed every unethical second.

I need Inglourious Basterds for all its violent, unforgiving vengeance.

Why do I?

The obvious reason is one everyone knows: Nazi ideology lives and thrives. Whoever says “let the past be the past” doesn’t recognize white supremacists are descendants of Nazis. They need to recognize the obvious.

Having been raised in a Jewish family, I was taught Nazis exist. They just don’t flaunt uniforms anymore.

Instead, they have groups, clubs, bookstores, motorcycle gangs and marches. They’ve got cryptic tattoos. They have 14 words and celebrate 88’s birthday. They’ve got websites, forums, social media platforms (when they’re censored off one, they make their own).

I believe in the First Amendment for everyone, including Nazis. Usually, they’re smart enough not to say they’re going to hurt anyone. Legally, they can talk about hating whoever they please. They can spread all the demeaning, dehumanizing stereotypes they please.

Sometimes they fuck up. They threaten violence or tell their audience to commit violent acts. That’s called inciting imminent lawless action. That’s not protected by the First Amendment. Sometimes, they’re prosecuted or fined.

Is that enough? No, but I’ve no choice but to accept it.

Being raised in a Jewish family, I was also taught hate can’t heal hate. Being angry at them means hating them, and hate could turn me into my oppressor. We Jews had to take the moral high road or be equivalent to white supremacists.

They’re right: hate cannot heal hate. They’re wrong: anger isn’t hatred.

I don’t hate white supremacists. If they vowed to abstain from violence, I wouldn’t like them, but I’d stop being angry. Anger is directed at actions. If they magically all agreed to abstain from violence, I’d have to agree to let white supremacists otherwise live as they choose.

But they’ll never promise this, so I’ll be angry. My anger isn’t equivalent to their hatred.

This is why film critics attacked Basterds in the first place: they posit a false moral equivalency between anger and hatred, and posit a false moral equivalency between self-pitying, self-effacing behavior and morality. Both contentions are mistakes. The ethics of film are obvious, what’s missing is the self-abuse.

This review was a long-winded way to say I need Inglourious Basterds because, just like the Jewish Guerillas, I refuse self-pity. I won’t equate my anger with hatred. I won’t apologize for my anger. When Nazis threaten violence or encourage others to commit violence, they’re not exercising First Amendment rights. Knowing that gives me some vindication.

Is Basterds a violent, nonsense film in which dehumanized fascists are brutally tortured?

Yes, but it’s directed by Quentin Tarantino, who references film, art, and literary history throughout all his films. It’s still smart cinema.

Most importantly, it trades making “high art” for making a WWII flick where tough Jewish soldiers needn’t pity themselves or question taking righteous action. That’s a worthwhile trade.