After nearly 50 years of movies about suffering and Nazi brutality, the Jews are finally, apparently, winning the Holocaust. With “Inglourious Basterds,” the Jews of the cinematic Holocaust have at last thrust aside moral or philosophical victories for a good old-fashioned ass-kicking.
This development has been some time in coming. Quentin Tarantino’s latest phantasmagoria comes on the heels of “Defiance,” the action-packed tale of a band of Jewish resistance fighters, and on a pair of takes on the Israeli cult of machismo — “Munich” (critical-dramatic) and “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan” (comical-wistful).
The shift was captured nicely by Ben Stone (Seth Rogen) in the 2007 comedy “Knocked Up”:
Every movie with Jews, we’re the ones getting killed. “Munich” flips it on its ear — we’re capping motherf—–s. Any of us get laid tonight, it’s because of Eric Bana and “Munich.”
Of course, “Munich” was intended to be a meditation on the moral corrosiveness of violence and an ideology of victimhood, but never mind that. This is a far cry from “Annie Hall,” where Woody Allen’s character drags his goyish girlfriend to see the four-and-a-half hour Holocaust documentary “The Sorrow and the Pity.”
There were perfectly good reasons for all the movies about Jewish pain, suffering and death. For starters, by and large, that is what actually happened, particularly during the Holocaust. But the Holocaust and its depiction in the movies also helped cement the notion, for Jews and non-Jews alike, that Jews are existentially vulnerable, whether by pogroms, Nazis or intermarriage.
But being a 21st-century Jew in America, particularly a young, assimilated one, doesn’t really have much to do with vulnerability. The shiksa tail that Alexander Portnoy fretted over even as he chased it presents no moral dilemma to the confreres of “Knocked Up.”
And in many ways, that’s healthy. It means less useless guilt and paranoia, and fewer overprotective Jewish mothers. It means that Jews can spend less time worrying and more time living their lives. It means that Jews feel normal.
But there are dangers to the new Jewish hero fantasy. For starters, the natural corollary to an empowered Jew is a helpless, or hapless, Nazi, as in the innocent illiterate of “The Reader.” That is, of course, another historical lie, and a more insidious one than the escapist fantasy of an oppressed people dreaming of beating up the oppressors.
More subtly, and perhaps more seriously, the reinvention of the Jew as action hero risks sacrificing a fundamental part of what it means to be Jewish. To be an action hero is to be immortal. To be Jewish is to know mortality all too well. Traditionally, the great Jewish adversary has been not man but God. Through the ages, and particularly after the Holocaust, Jewish thinkers have returned to the troubling question, what kind of God would create a universe so capricious and so cruel? That willingness to challenge God is heroism of a different and much deeper sort. The reward lies not in getting the girl, but in the wisdom that comes from knowing that in life, there is no guarantee of a happy ending.
Anthony Weiss is a staff writer at the Forward.