Film festivals in the evolution of a common transnational identity

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Towards a transnational history

Inglourious Basterds was shown in competition at the Cannes Film Festival the same year as A Prophet. It offers more than just a film in which one of the main actors, Christoph Waltz, juggles with languages (one of the reasons why he won the 2010 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor). Tarantino said it was a mark of our times that characters speak their own native languages, not just English, and the strength of Hans Landa, the SS officer played by Waltz, is to be able to switch between languages. Interestingly, people in the audience seem to have enjoyed the moments in which Waltz changed language. The scenes of violence, so typical of Tarantino’s work, were also seen as expected codes that provoked laughter in the cinema.

But, apart from these aspects, Tarantino’s film goes on to reveal a new way of dealing with history. At first viewing, the film, which is set in German-occupied France during the Second World War, might be disturbing because of the liberties it takes with historical facts. Hitler, Goebbels and many other Nazi officials are killed in a cinema that the ‘Basterds’ wanted to blow up. Nevertheless, this form of historical revisionism did not lead to significant protests because, although the film was intended as a satire of war films and westerns, the sense of history was respected and no sympathy was shown towards the Nazis (Seeßlen 2009). Still, the renowned film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum found the film ‘deeply offensive as well as profoundly stupid’. He felt that ‘the film seem[ed] morally akin to Holocaust denial, even though it proudly claim[ed] to be the opposite of that’, adding ‘It’s more than just the blindness to history that leaks out of every pore in this production (even when it’s being most attentive to period details) or the infantile lust for revenge that’s so obnoxious’ .3

Asked about how he decided to diverge from history, Tarantino answered:

I had no idea I was going to change the course of history until I came to that point in the movie. I started thinking “My characters don’t “know” they’re not a part of history. My characters don’t “know” there are things they can’t do. I’ve never had that kind of guiding principle on any of my characters, ever. And now was not the time to start. So there’s a moment toward the end of the movie where history goes one way, and I go another. My take on that is my characters have changed the course of the war. That didn’t actually happen, because my characters didn’t exist. But if they “had” existed, everything that happens in the movie is quite possible.’ (Rodriguez 2009)

Inglourious Basterds could be compared with a much more controversial film which was screened during the last Berlin Film Festival, Jud Süss—Rise and Fall (Jud Süß: Film ohne Gewissen) by director Oskar Roehler. First of all, Jud Süss was the title of a short novel by Wilhelm Hauff published in 1827 on the rise and fall of a Jewish banker and financial strategist Joseph Süß Oppenheimer. In 1939, Joseph Goebbels decided to use the plot in a new cinema version, and the resulting film, directed by Veit Harlan, was the main propaganda film of the Nazi era, seen by more than 20 million people, including soldiers at the front. In the 2010 film, Oskar Roehler put the actor Veit Harlan at the centre of the plot. He portrays a man who is forced to accept Joseph Süß’ role and, in order to make the character more agreeable, the script re-writes history: his wife becomes ‘half-Jewish’ and Harlan hides a Jewish gardener. The whole film depicts the Nazis as being obsessed with sex and parties. The film was booed in Berlin, and during the press conference that followed the first screening, Roehler justified himself by saying he had made a fictional film, not a documentary. The press reactions were unanimous and in this case the revisionist-act was considered a way of legitimizing holocaust deniers and other abusers of history.

Tarantino took much more liberty with history than Roehler, but he did not try to make likeable a character such as Harlan, who sympathized with the Nazis. Two other films dealing with history earned kudos at international festivals for their transnational character. The first was The White Ribbon, by the Austrian director Michael Haneke, awarded the ‘Palme d’or’ at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. The plot is set in a Protestant German village between 1913 and 1914. The children are victims of a patriarchal society in which religion has ruined human relationships and impeded individual development. Many Europeans saw the film as more than a ‘German story’, as was suggested by the complete title of the film, Das weiße Band, Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte (The White Ribbon, A Children’s Story). Besides its wonderful black and white photography, the film illustrates the conditions that give birth to Fascism. The proto-Fascist society portrayed has many common traits with contemporary societies in terms of the instruments of oppression, violence and coercion.

Whereas The White Ribbon, which is a co-production between four European countries (Germany, Austria, France and Italy), was considered as dealing with a European topic, Lebanon, directed by the Israeli Samuel Maoz, was more clearly anchored in its context: the 1982 war in Lebanon. The success of the film (awarded the Golden Lion) probably resides, technically, in the fact that almost everything we see on the screen is viewed through the eyes of the four-man crew of an Israeli tank. Regarding the contents of the film, the portrayal of some soldiers as humane did not prevent the director from mentioning that the Israeli army violated Arms Conventions by using, for instance, phosphorus ammunition against civilians. Even if some critics deplored the complete absence of Arab views on the conflict, obviously due to the director’s choice of perspective, the general meaning remains a message of peace, comparable to that of Paths of Glory, by Stanley Kubrick (1957).

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