Foxman: ‘Inglorious Basterds’ deserves Oscar

Today it seems that films about the Holocaust and events surrounding it abound. Almost with a bizarre regularity they reach the big screen in twos or threes. They are made by major Hollywood studios and independents; they feature known and unknown actors. Most attempt to dramatize “true” events. It is hard to imagine there was a time when it was not so.

For many years after the end of World War II and the truth became known about the Final Solution it was a subject most filmmakers avoided. The horrors of the Holocaust were still too raw; the images seen in newsreels not yet ready to be placed on the big screen. Several Holocaust films that were made and had a profound impact, including “The Diary of Anne Frank” (1959), “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961) and “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” (1971), told their stories through words rather than images of the horror.

As the number of survivors and witnesses dwindled and we moved farther away from the Holocaust one filmmaker conceived of how to have an audience understand the history through dramatization. The filmmaker was Steven Spielberg; the film was “Schindler’s List,” winner of seven Academy Awards, seen by millions and used as a teaching tool since it appeared in 1993.

After Spielberg’s incredible portrayal of the horrors of the Holocaust one might have thought that the subject was exhausted for filmmakers. How else could they produce an account of the Holocaust in a way that had not been done before, through a story to which new and younger audiences could relate?

Could humor be used for such a serious and sacred subject? As a Holocaust survivor, I thought not. That was until I screened Roberto Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful.” Never done before and knowing he could be subject to great criticism, Benigni co-wrote, directed and acted in a film employing humor and pathos to tell the story of an ordinary Italian Jew and his family sent to a Nazi death camp. Humor and the Holocaust – an oxymoron in terms! Yet Benigni made it work. The film was seen around the word and received the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1998.

Fast forward more than a decade and 70 years after Hitler began getting his Final Solution into operation. Putting a new twist on the Holocaust genre for a new time and a new audience was none other than the renowned filmmaker Quentin Tarantino. While he opens his “Inglourious Basterds” with a scene repeated untold times during the Holocaust — a Jewish family hidden by a Christian family is discovered by a Nazi commandant and executed – the film morphs into an allegory about good and evil and the no-holds-barred efforts to defeat the evil personified by Hitler, his henchmen and his Nazi regime.

Employing drama, comedy and romance with the quintessential Quentin Tarantino touch, the film is entertaining, yet thought-provoking. Hopefully the millions who see it will understand the horrors of the Holocaust and echo my view of “if only it were true!” Like its predecessors “Schindler’s List” and “Life is Beautiful,” “Inglourious Basterds” should be recognized with an Academy Award.

Abraham H. Foxman is National Director of the Anti-Defamation League and author of “The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control.”