Inglourious Basterds has been called the "ultimate Jewish revenge fantasy," in every review and blog post I have seen. I am not interested in adding my two cents to the debate about whether revenge fantasies are "good for the Jews" or "bad for the Jews." Instead, I would like to offer a different angle on the film.
Last week I wrote about the deficit of "kick-ass Jewish women" in film, and Sylvia suggested that Shoshana of Inglourious Basterds fit the bill. Now that I've seen the movie, I completely agree. The true hero of Inglourious Basterds is the heroine: Shoshana Dreyfus, a kick-ass Jewish feminist.
Before we get started, I need to warn you that there are spoilers ahead. Okay, let's keep going.
In the opening scene of the film we watch Shoshana Dreyfus' family get killed by the Nazis after being betrayed by the French family that was hiding them. Shoshona escapes, and goes on to own a cinema in Paris, passing as a gentile thanks to her blonde hair. When a Nazi film is set to premiere at her cinema, she quickly concocts a plan to burn the theater down, killing all the high-powered Nazi officials, including Hitler, inside. Though Shoshana proves to be the most effective Nazi-killer in the film, her revenge is motivated by more than just anti-Semitism. In burning down the theater, Shoshana is also burning down the patriarchy.
Shoshana's struggle is not simply a Jewish struggle. Even as a convincing gentile woman, she faces oppression because she is a woman living in a world controlled by men. Her family was dependent on a man for survival. They are betrayed by a man, and executed by men. Men decide that she will premiere the Nazi film, and men tell her how to run her theater. A young German soldier takes an interest in her, and refuses to leave her alone despite her assertive rebuffs. When the soldier refuses to accept that "no means no" and resorts to violence to prove his dominance, Shoshana simply shoots him. Take that, you would-be rapist! I also found it deliciously subversive that Shoshana's love interest is a black man, similarly undermining the power of the white male.
Shoshana's feminism is especially pronounced in comparison to the character Bridget von Hammersmark, the only other significant woman in the film. Hammersmark, a German actress, uses her sex appeal and her charm to help bring down the Nazis. Perhaps ironically, her endeavors fail and result in the 'inglourious deaths' of a few Basterds, and as well as her own.
Although Shoshana is killed before her plan is fully carried out, she is present at the climactic end in the form of a homemade film spliced into the Nazi movie. The film is a closeup of her face as she says: "My name is Shosanna Dreyfus... and you've seen the face of Jewish vengeance." Then the theater is consumed by flames and Shoshana's sadistic laughter. I know I said I wouldn't go there, but her laughter seems to suggest that women are allowed to enjoy violent, sadistic revenge fantasies too.
About whether Tarantino's film is "good for the Jews," I do not care to speculate. However, I will make the claim that the character of Shoshana Dreyfus is good for Jewish women. Shoshana's story highlights the fact that Jewish women are doubly marginalized by their gender. The Jewish revenge fantasy might be to kill the Nazi oppressor, but the Jewish woman's revenge fantasy includes a second enemy: the patriarchy.