Saturday, September 19, 2009

Gloury Rules, Revisited: The Basterdization of a History already Basterdized

What Inglourious Basterds is definitely not: Shoah. This is something not to either film's detriment.

In my previous post on Basterds I stated that the film draws power both from how the audience's knowledge of Nazi occupational hazard (ahem) informs the dire gravity of the deceptively trivial meandering between characters, as well as the way the film's direct correlation to the history it inverts is less a denial than a comment on its unattainabilty.

Yet defending the film by suggesting it defines itself in what it is not can only go so far. The absences that inform the film are narrow in scope, and the wider, unacknowledged gap is generally taken for granted in the film's discussion. Some critics, like Jonathan Rosenbaum and Daniel Mendelsohn, accuse the film of holocaust denial. Yet the scope of their accusations is entirely confined to that of the film's, thus cementing the parameters to which the sanctimony can pertain. And what they pertain to is a narrow definition of the Holocaust, mainly that it concerns 6 million jews instead of 12 million humans.

Mendehlson is the author of Lost: The Search for Six in Six Million, where he documents members of his family who died at the hands Nazis (note: Godard had plans to adapt this, which works as a further example of his disregard for the subjects he deconstructs). In his article "When Jews Attack", he posits a few things: the best revenge/prevention of future reiteration is by serving the truth as the Jews have apparently been primarily occupied with doing since (no mention of Israel), and adorning Jewish heroes with Nazi traits stokes vicarious celebration of SS cruelty, not only denying history but setting the foundation for the repitition of its errors.

On the one hand, this is fairly incongruous, as the particularization of said cruelty as Nazi in character suggests it can't be repeated while the omen for the ignorant is its reawakening elsewhere. Yet the particularization is not necessarily an authoritative defining of said cruelty, but ascribing it a specific historical place and washing hands of its time-locked stain. This unfortunately relates to two subsets of holocaust analysis, the assumption of singularity in cruelty, defined as German, and that in which said cruelty can and never should be understood. The latter is the M.O. of Claude Lanzmann's Shoah, a film who's scope offers a historical precedent in the discussion.

The following I think is fairly revealing not about what Shoah did accomplish but what Lanzmann thought he was accomplishing. On the question of why the Jews were killed he coins the "obscenity of understanding," saying that "not understanding was my iron law" while filming and that "blindness...was the vital condition for creation. Blindness has to be understood here as the purest mode of looking, of the gaze, the only to way to not turn away from a reality that is literally blinding." Further, "the project of is not only obscenity, it is real cowardice, because this idea of our being able to engender harmoniously, if I may say so again, this kind of violence, is just an absurd dream of nonviolence. It is a way of escaping, it is a way of not facing the horror." Which explains why he said trying to understand Hitler is immoral.

For me, this illustrates less a reverently post-modern capitulation than an attempt to authoritatively engender confusion as a self-perpetuating discourse, Lanzmann being the fountain from which it pours forth. Perhaps his method is a maintenance of objectivity by lack of generalities, but his immersion in facts as phenomena cannot be called comprehensive in that his facts were narrowed to one strata of his film's titular atrocity.

Shoah's method is another peculiarity in that there is no actual imagery from the holocaust. Why? Because "image kills the imagination." Considering the imagination of Robert Faurisson this is not a bad proposition. That's not to deny the method its brilliance, as it has its power.

The film works as a series of interviews with subjects who fall into three assigned categories of survivors, bystanders and perpetrators, conducted for the most part on and around the camps and ghettos as they are today. It's understated but vicious. Conversational teeth pulling is done via translator to evoke the atmosphere and behavior of the neighborhoods surrounding the death camps, as well as to catch a predator cam engagement with nazis themselves, all bearing direct reflection on the remarkably vivid recollection of a dying collective memory.

What nags, though, is that the power of these non-illustrated anecdotes is drawn from the footage not on display. Lanzmann's method would be severely undermined had it not been preceded by night and fog, or really any documentary evidence of the horrors of the holocaust. Therefore, Shoah, even on the grounds of its praise, cannot be the definitive document of holocaust analyses, only, even still, a great contribution to the discourse. On the grounds never broached in discussion of it, it can't be definitive based on its exclusion of the other six million: homosexuals, communists, gypsies, the disabled, the list goes on.

The film's definition of Shoah rests on a narrowly defined, restrictive interpretation that only concerns the plight of the Jews, arguably the cornerstone of Nazi wrath, but not the entire wall. Considering the film's intentionally ponderous length of 9 1/2 hours, the exclusion is an insult to the rest of the victims' legacy. No time is spared to discuss how the wanton destructive anti-semitism might have slipped over into political, sexual and pan-ethnic repression.

One interview subject, Raul Hilberg, was a pioneer of sorts in Holocaust research at a time when it was unpopular. His book, "The Destruction of European Jews" explores as its title dictates. That's excusable, as the goal has strictly defined parameters which he has broken elsewhere. Shoah names itself after the whole thing and then stops short and then even where it stops short it stands back. Considerably different is HIlberg's thesis on Jewish extermination:

As a result of an organized undertaking, five million people were killed in the short space of a few years. The operation was over before anyone could grasp its enormity, let alone its implications for the future. Yet, if we analyze this singularly massive upheaval, we discover that most of what happened in those twelve years had already happened before. The Nazi destruction process did not come out of a void; it was the culmination of a cyclical trend. We have observed the trend in three successive goals of anti-Jewish administrators. The missionaries of Christianity had said in effect: You have no right to live among us as Jews. The secular rulers who followed had proclaimed: You have no right to live among us. The Nazis at last decreed: You have no right to live.

Hilberg's work came into disagreement with the other subset, of wholesale German character assassination, more recently when Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's WIlling Executioners denied decades of tempered, comprehensive and in-depth holocaust analyis to pin the impetus for the Holocaust on deep-seated German desires. Taking off from the fact that many of the gunmen in shooting operations weren't trained specialists but ordinary cops turned firing squads, the holocaust was really a manifestation of the German will to kill.

In Hilberg's article, The Goldhagen Phenomenon, the notion is dispelled in a few ways. For starters, not all of the shooters were German but also "Romanians, Croats, Ukrainians, Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians in significant numbers" which then partly harkens back to the extra-German character of anti-semitism, with the atrocities committed elsewhere including Romanian Odessa Massacre of 70,000 Jews and the far earlier Russian Pogroms. Further, not all the victims were Jews, including the fourth of Germany's mental patients practiced on to get ready for the main event. Also, Hitler's father, not a Jew-hater!

Another important knock not deployed is the way the film doesn't extend its villainization over to the Allies. The one scene Churchill appears is merely part of a running gag mocking historical figure cameos in period pieces, which entirely ignores how Churchill's dogma overlapped with Hitler's regarding anti-semitism. One can be found in this Independent UK article about his 1937 blaming of the "hebrew bloodsuckers" for their misery. Another example is from Nicholas Baker's Human Smoke, collecting vignettes reflecting on WWII's origins:

That doesn't even begin to touch on Churchill's proclamations on what means justify colonialism's ends, yet another historical precedent for genocide in Germany (replete with numbered concentration camp status) as their 1904 extermination of the Herero and Namaqua tribes in Southwest Africa is both a reflection not just on their tendencies for extermination but on how Aryan notions of superiority overlapped with general European disregard for the considered-inferior subjects peopling the lands it played cartography with.

Rosenbaum, to his defense, has an interesting bit about colleagues who got worked up over William Styron's novel Sophie's Choice (presumably for the way Styron inserts himself into a collective history via a semi-autobiographical but almost wholly fictional coming of age tale, he doesn't say) but got behind Inglourious Basteds. The choice of the novel is interesting in that its examination of the holocaust extends the scope from Jewish victimhood to Polish suffering/complicity in the legacy of what the holocaust put Sophie, a gentile Polish citizen, through, to the legacy of slavery on Styron's avatar, who inherits a fortune that dates back to the benefits reaped from a slave auction. As a centuries spanning example of the human capabilities for cruelty, surely the copious amounts of deviant/inventive torture from that institution debunks German singularity.

The question should be, "wouldn't it have been more effective if they had a homosexual, a gypsy and a communist in league with the basterds?" Certainly. But considering what we've got, would it not have been immensely satisfying to know that Werner Von Braun had needed to worry about make-up assistance when making those "science is fun!" Disney reels?