TREATMENTS OF WORLD WAR II IN FILM
Revision as coping mechanism in The Great Dictator and Inglorious Basterds
BY Adam Young
Historical films often present their own views of the “facts” of an event, and none more commonly than films that depict World War II. The fictionalization of historical events in film is not necessarily against the spirit of historicism; Robert Rosenberg has noted that these films can “open up the possibilities of history itself” (Pingree 104). The motivation for historical revision may be to escape the terrible truths of the war and its unfathomable misery:
The memory of the holocaust has been constructed as an elusive, unstable entity by both Germans and Jews. Shortly after the war, Hannah Arendt wrote that the past had become a matter of opinion, rather than fact, for many Germans. More recently, Holocaust deniers in several countries have adopted to their own purposes relativist and postmodern assertions regarding the instability or nonexistence of facts about the past, said to be as elusive as memory itself…the very nature and unprecedented scale of the destruction has tended to put into question the capacity to remember, represent, and reconstruct it. Atrocity becomes elusive precisely because it is ubiquitous, inconceivable because it is fantastic, faceless because it is protean. Devastation of such proportions destroys not only the mechanisms capable of measuring its scale but even the ability to imagine it. (Bartov 798)
This kind of revisionism can be problematic as it assumes that artistic license trumps other, more humane, considerations. There is a tendency among some filmmakers to use the war as fodder for their own creative agenda; sacrificing historical veracity for convenient plot devices.
Two films that perform a radical revision of World War II are The Great Dictator (Chaplin 1940) and Inglorious Basterds (Tarantino 2009). Both present highly stylized and fictional accounts of the war’s resolution, each using humour in the portrayal. In the course of each movie’s altered histories Jews impersonate Nazis and / or employ Nazi techniques. The fictionalized resolution in TGD, which was released at the outbreak of the war, is a sympathetic device, one that is inspired by hope and that undermines the power of the Nazis; in IB, released seventy years later, the counterhistory is motivated by revenge and “conventionalizes Jews, [putting] them in the same revenge motif as everyone else” (Goldberg). Tarantino’s fictionalized war sacrifices history and morality in the pursuit of a dark entertainment.
The Great Dictator, like all of Chaplin’s films, is both comedy and astute social commentary. The film was released during the second year of World War II. It opens with the main character, a Jewish barber, rescuing an officer during the final days of World War I. The barber is wounded and remains comatose for twenty years, during which time the dictator “Adenoid Hynkel” (cf. Adolf Hitler) has risen to power. The barber attempts to resume his life, unaware of the growing anti-Semitism in his country, and is soon prosecuted by soldiers. He fights back, and is saved by the intervention of the officer whose life he saved. They decide to overthrow Hynkel’s regime, and are hunted by the police. They escape when the barber impersonates Hynkel himself—in the moving last scene, the barber as Hynkel gives a speech to the nation, imploring them to “rise above their hate, their greed, and their brutality.” That Chaplin’s film was made five years before the close of the war makes this ending extremely poignant to the modern viewer.
Inglorious Basterds is the fictionalized account of a successful assassination plot to kill Hitler and the Nazi heirarchy. A woman whose family was murdered by Nazis has become the owner of a cinema in Paris during the Occupation. She is given the opportunity for revenge when her theatre is chosen for the screening of a German propaganda film; all of the Nazi command (including Hitler!) are present, and she sets fire to the cinema, killing the assembled crowd. A parallel plot tells of a band of Jewish soldiers assembled under an American officer whose mission is to pursue guerilla tactics to hunt and kill Nazis behind enemy lines. Todd McCarthy writes that “While World War II has probably inspired as much fiction as any other single topic in film history, "Inglourious Basterds" is one of the few to have brazenly altered history to such an extent”.
The use of comic touches is common to both films. Chaplin’s film is overtly and innocently humorous; he employs humour to underline the hypocrisy of the Third Reich and to highlight the vulnerability of Hitler’s victims. The audience sees that the Nazis are ridiculous; Chaplin’s humour undermines the power of the German army. IB employs a gallows humour, most notably during the exchanges between the leader of the Basterds, Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), and the Nazis that his company is slaughtering, to a markedly different effect. The dark humour during scenes of torture does nothing to undermine the genocidal Nazis, rather, the audience becomes complicit in an amoral revenge fantasy. The film becomes a vehicle for Tarantino’s gallows humour; Brandon Colvin argues that the only meaning of the film is comedy.
Both films contain Jewish characters that “become” Nazis. In TGD, Chaplin ultimately ends the war by impersonating Hitler and calling for peace during a speech to the German masses. Tarantino’s use of the Holocaust to invoke a role-reversal revenge fantasy is more problematic. Aldo Raine’s troupe of soldiers employ cold-blooded torture techniques in their hunt for Nazis; they brand their victims with swastikas. Daniel Mendelsohn writes “In Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino indulges this taste for vengeful violence by—well, by turning Jews into Nazis…To indulge [these revenge fantasies] at the expense of the truth of history would be the most inglorious bastardization of all” (2). Jeffrey Goldberg is equally uncomfortable with Tarantino’s switch, asking whether it is an advancement to portray Jews behaving as badly as Nazis. He cites Neil Gabler in wondering “why have any scene that…conventionalizes Jews, puts them in the same revenge motif as everyone else?” (2).
Revisionism itself was a Nazi tool. The Nazis systematically censored and rewrote history as it suited them. Leslie Kolakowski warns that “if the Nazis had won, we would have had a revisionist scholarship pointing out Hitler’s good sides” (Fitzpatrick 687). Bernard-Henri Lévy draws parallels between the film and Holocaust deniers when he laments that “in the joyously macabre pranks of ‘Inglourious Basterds’ lie the beginnings of historical revisionism”. The revisionism of IB points to a disturbing tendency in Hollywood to view the Holocaust as fodder for dramatic license. Levy continues
The truth is that Nazism is becoming a new playing field for the amusement of the bad boys of Hollywood, whose moguls, like Berkeley’s God instantly renewing his Creation, have decided they are entitled to decree what is real and what is not. Since stories make the world go ’round, they tell themselves, reality is merely another form of fiction. Art comes out on top. Not memory. Nor, even less, morality.
Representing the “truth” of any historical event is difficult, as truth is relative. However, the creation of a “counter-history” should not be capricious:
what distinguishes a legitimate revision from a revisionist confabulation? [...] No historiographical endeavour may presume to "represent" reality---if by representation we mean a corresponding system of things and their signs. Every narrative is, in its way, an exercise in "worldmaking". But it is not arbitrary. (Funkenstein 79)
These films, both exercises in world-making, reflect the problems that arise when filmmakers take on history, especially a history so painful as the Second World War.
Bartov, Omer. 1998. Defining Enemies, Making Victims: Germans, Jews, and the Holocaust. The American Historical Review 103, no. 3 (June): 771-816.
Colvin, Brandon. 2009. Tarantino: A Funny Ole Basterd. Out 1: Film from the Inside Out. Retrieved from http://www.out1filmjournal.com/2009/09/tarantino-funny-ole-basterd.html
Fitzpatrick, Sheila. 2008. Revisionism in Retrospect: A Personal View. Slavic Review 67, no. 3 (Fall): 682-704.
Funkenstein, Amos. 1992. History, Counterhistory, and Narrative. In Friedländer, Saul (ed). Probing the limits of representation : Nazism and the "final solution". Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Goldberg, Jeffrey. 2009. Hollywood’s Jewish Avenger. The Atlantic Monthly, September. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/09/hollywood-8217-s-jew...
Lévy, Bernard-Henri. 2010. Opinion: Hollywood's Nazi Revisionism. The Wall Street Journal, March 5, sec. Commentary (U.S.). Rretrieved from http://online.wsj.com/article/SB1000142405274870418720457510209031253545....
Mendelsohn, Daniel. 2009. Tarantino Rewrites the Holocaust. Newsweek, August 31. Retrieved from http://www.newsweek.com/id/212016/page/2
McCarthy, Todd. 2009. Inglourious Basterds Review. Variety, May 21. Retrieved from http://www.variety.com/review/VE1117940323.html?categoryid=31&cs=1&query...
Pingree, Geoffrey B. 1999. Review: Visual Evidence Reconsidered: Reflections on Film and History. The Public Historian 21, no. 2: 99–107.