From the Mind of Mikel

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‘Once Upon a Time in Nazi Occupied France’: History as Fairy Tale in Inglourious Basterds


‘Once Upon a Time in Nazi Occupied France’: History as Fairy Tale in Inglourious Basterds

I’d like to suggest, at the outset, that there are three key viewing positions for any “history film”; three positions a viewer may take in relationship to this kind of film.

Firstly, there is (let’s be blunt) The Naive Audience: the “Naive Audience” is entirely credulous. They see the information onscreen as absolute truth of what that historical period was like. Because they’ve seen, for example, Schindler’s List, they feel they know everything about the Holocaust.  This kind of viewing position receives all the historical information without any question about its veracity. After all, this person would argue, the filmmakers can’t say this is “Based on a True Story” unless it was, right?

Secondly, there is The Critical Audience. The “Critical Audience” views all films about any historical topic as suspect. Single errors (for whatever reason) will result in the entire films’ dismissal. The posts in the Coliseum in Gladiator were actually from the Circus Maximus and therefore the filmmakers didn’t know what they were doing. [I reviewed a collection of essays on Gladiator written mostly by Classicists and each chapter pointed that out to me!] In particular, the “Critical Audience” is worried about the “Naive Audience” response; they are concerned that there are people out there with “wrong information”. The “Critical Audience” congratulate themselves on their intellect and are concerned that those people who aren’t as smart as they are might believe the errors.

The third position is The Curious Audience. The “Curious Audience” is inspired by a film to know more about the topic. Maybe they’ll take university history classes. Or read a book by a historian. If their interest is peaked, they’ll read more. Engage in the topic. They will not let the film’s inaccuracies and dramatic licence deter them from their enjoyment of both the “actual” history and the films. Even if the “Curious Audience” doesn’t follow up on the history, they remain sufficiently sceptical to not “believe everything in the film is 100% accurate”; but still lack the overall cynicism to throw the film-baby out with the historical bathwater. Unfortunately, the “Curious Audience” tends to also be silent; or at least quieter than the “Critical Audience” who tend to be “shouters”.

The History Film  Audience

Thinking about Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 film, Inglourious  Basterds we can situate much of the film’s criticism: the “Naive Audience,” who believes everything they see without question, will conclude that Hitler was killed in 1944 in a French cinema and that he was shot at close range repeatedly by a Jewish American commando. The “Critical Audience” responses are fury at such a crass fabrication of historical details and dismiss the film outright. They point to the “Naive Audience” wandering around like village idiots content in their “wrong beliefs”. The “Curious Audience” enjoy Tarantino’s fiction for what it is, and perhaps contemplate why Tarantino tells his story in the way he does.

The sad fact is, I don’t believe the “Naive Audience” actually exists. At least, I’ve never met “that guy”; “that guy” who is so incredulous as to believe any historical drama is a definitive and final word on a historical moment. “That guy” is an illusion, a chimera invented by the “Critical Audience” to justify their own self-congratulatory and sanctimonious superiority. I’m willing to suggest that most people fall into the “Curious” category, but we all know people who are members of the “Critical Audience,” and they’re usually pretty full of themselves. “Well, if you’ve read about the subject like I have…” The “Critical Audience” exists only to ensure that they are thought to be the smartest people in the room.

vlcsnap-2013-06-14-20h10m39s54I’m assuming we all fall into the “Curious” category; we shouldn’t be bothered by Inglourious Basterds historical inaccuracies, because Tarantino did not make a “historical film”. We know the film isn’t going to be historically accurate because of the title of the film’s first chapter: “Once Upon a Time … in Nazi-occupied France”.  By using the traditional opening of a fairy tale, “Once upon a time…” Tarantino outlines immediately the correct key in which to situate the film.

Back in 1997, Roberto Benigni attracted a lot of criticism for his Holocaust “fairy-tale” La Vita e bella; while Benigni’s film occupies a strange place between historically situated events and the elements of his fantasy, Tarantino allows no such ambiguity. Part of the criticism levelled against Benigni was that the fairy-tale mode was completely inappropriate for a film detailing an Italian perspective on the Holocaust. And in fairness to Tarantino, while the Holocaust remains perpetually in the background of the film, the industrialized extermination of European Jewry is never given centre stage.


The thing about fairy-tales is that everyone assumes they know what they are. Myths, legends and fairy-tales are all used mostly interchangeably with one another, despite actually being very different things with different functions. In order to understand how Inglourious Basterds works as a fairy-tale, we need to understand what fairy-tales are.

The American anthropologist William Bascom, back in 1965, published a simplified schema distinguishing the key three forms of “oral prose narrative” (as he called them): myth, legend and fairy-tale or folktale. Myths were a culture’s sacred stories, stories which defined the culture and explained the universe for them. Legends, on the other hand, could be sacred or secular, but unlike myths, took place in our recognizable world; there is a historical anchor to a legend that myths do not have. Myths, in contrast, take place in some kind of “otherworld”, before the world is as we’ve inherited it. Legends we can plot on a map. Rabbi Loew, for example, is the subject of legend because Prague exists and we can travel there to see it with our own eyes. In Prague is the Altneu Synagogue where, in the attic, the Golem is said to remain. The Garden of Eden, on the other hand, is a myth because there is no historical or archaeological corroboration for that story; it has been suggested that it probably referred to the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, but there is no hard evidence to verify the story in Genesis.   With both legend and myth there is a degree of belief involved; however this is not to suggest belief in the literal truth of the Golem or the Eden stories. Stories embody ideas and it is the cultural ideas that these stories embody which are important, not their literal truth or fictionality. Both legends and myths suggest a figurative truth: what does it mean to say that G-d lead the Israelites from Egypt? Did the Exodus ‘actually’ happen? The question is moot. What does it mean to say the Israelites are G-d’s ‘Chosen People’ and the discursive possibilities which open up with that question are what is actually more important.

Fairy-tales, on the other hand, are self-consciously fictional narratives; they are ahistorical and “a-geographic” – that is, they occur in a fictional time period in fictional places. The “Nazi-occupied France” of Inglourious Basterds is not the historical France during the Nazi occupation during World War II, but a fictionalized and idealized time and place. The magic words, “once upon a time”, like the Fairy godmother in Disney’s Cinderella and her ‘Bippity-boppity-boo”, magically transform a real place and time into a self-consciously fictional world.  Tarantino’s script effectively re-works the central story (in folklore, we’d call it a tale type) of Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen, and I’m unaware of much serious criticism of the earlier film for being fictional. Had Inglourious Basterds advertised itself as “Based on a True Story”, there would be grounds for dissent; but quite the opposite, Tarantino uses “once upon a time”. Parenthetically, it’s worth noting few films use “based on a true story” anymore and tend to use the woollier “inspired by true events” to allow greater creative freedom with the facts. So, it is worth repeating, it is not just that fairy tales are fictional narratives, but that they are self-consciously fictional narratives; that is, the tale teller and the listener agree what follows in the account will not be “true”.  How that signal is given is a fascinating study in its own right.

Before moving on to how one recognizes a fairy-tale film, it is probably worth noting that “fairy-tale” is problematic word, particularly in its colloquial usage. To anyone who has studied folk narratives (academically or as a fan) can attest to, very few of the so-called “fairy tales” contain any fairies at all; the term is a bit of a misnomer. The “fairy tale” is a 19th century invention where traditional and orally circulated fictional narratives were deemed only appropriate for bourgeois children; they lacked the sophistication of modern literature, but seemed to amuse the children and the child-like (i.e. the ‘peasants’ who told the stories).  Furthermore, folktales (i.e. the real ones collected orally from the “folk” and fill up archives around the world) were never intended exclusively for children. Fairy-tales for children is likewise a 19th century invention; mostly these stories told of adult concerns and adult fears. Scarcity of food, poverty, oppression, rebellion are not the topics of “children’s” stories, although they’ve become them due to Victorian bowdlerization and sanitizing the originals.

So “fairy tale” is seen by folklorists as a pejorative term. Bascom uses folktale, but recognizes that both myth and legends are also folktales, so the term doesn’t sufficiently denote this class of fictional narratives. Within Folklore Studies, the agreed upon term is the German Märchen, after the Brothers Grimm’s use in their Kinder- und Hausmarchen. Mostly I use “fairy tale”, simply because it is more commonly understood, even though problematic.

In theory, any fictional film could be considered a “fairy tale”, but indiscriminate labelling would lead to more confusion than clarity. At the level of fiction though, we can begin by exploring how and in what ways does a particular film recognize its own fictional mode? Ultimately, this is a function of visual rhetoric. Should a film try to convince us of its narrative veracity, then we are probably looking at a legend-film. If key images in the film convince us of larger, symbolic resonances, then the film may be trying to convince us of its mythic nature. So how does a third class of film narrative try to convince us of its fictionality? What, visually, does a film do to reassure us that what is being shown is not real?

Once the fictional nature of the “fairy tale” film has been identified, we next need to consider the purposes of that kind of narration. Most stories can be retold in different modes, in different genres. Why was this particular mode or genre chosen to convey those particular ideas? In other words, why tell a particular story as a fairy-tale? The psychoanalytic approach as espoused by Bruno Bettelheim, for example, posits that fairy-tales enable the child to become socialized. The horrific journeys fairy tale characters travel are psychological negotiations that children must make in order to grow into healthy and functional adults. Fairy-tales reflect children’s deepest darkest fears and Bettelheim warned that to deny children these fears risks potentially making them more susceptible in their adult years. Bettelheim notes,

In order not to be at the mercy of the vagaries of life, one must develop one’s inner resources so that one’s emotions, imagination and intellect mutually support and enrich one another. Our positive feelings give us the strength to develop our rationality; only hope for the future can sustain us in the adversities we unavoidably encounter” (Bettelheim  1999:269)

The theory, which is equally applicable to adults as it is to children, is that the violence and horror in vernacular fictions underlines and reinforces the idea that life itself, to quote Thomas Hobbes, is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. And children shouldn’t be protected from this awareness, but, through the mediation of children’s fairy-tales, where often it is the littlest that defeats the ogre and saves the day. For adults, although Bettelheim doesn’t go there, we can extend this approach to consider how horror movies (for example) condition and recondition adults in much the same way. Adults too need the ritualistic dramas of grown-up fairy tales to progress through the daily charnel house that is modernity.   But this is something that the folk have known for hundreds of years.

The psychoanalytic approach to fairy-tale analysis has been heavily criticised by social historian Robert Darnton in his The Great Cat Massacre. For example, Erich Fromm interprets “Little Red Riding Hood” as being about adolescent sexuality based on analysis of the story’s key symbols. For Darnton, the problem with this analysis is that none of the symbols Fromm states as particularly salient occur in the orally collected narratives, they appear only in their literary and reified forms (Darnton 1999:281). Bettelheim comes across even worse: Darnton criticizes Bettelheim for treating fairy-tales as if they were patients on the analyst’s couch, ignoring the realities of oral collections as consisting of variant texts, not literary products (1999: 283).

Whilst Darnton recognizes the fairy-tale is a fictional genre, he notes that this does not preclude it discussing real issues facing the cultures which tell those tales. Eugen Weber also noted that folktales “can tell us a great deal about real conditions in the world of those who told and those who heard the tales” (Weber 1981, 96).  Weber continues, suggesting that the human emotions of the folktale should be read as real emotions of the folk themselves. “A careful reading of the [Grimm’s] collection reveals a number of recurrent themes: hunger, poverty, death, danger, fear, chance …” (Weber 1981, 96).

So, to summarize then, fairy-tales are self-consiously fictional narratives, which announce their own fiction textually (in the actual text itself).  They are not the same thing as myths or legends. These were never intended exclusively for children’s consumption and originally spoke of adult concerns and fears. While we may be tempted to read these stories psychoanalytically, such analysis often makes unsubstantiated claims about meaning which need to be taken with a grain of salt. That being said, it wouldn’t be inappropriate to interpret these narratives as ritualistic dramas which put the world to right by its conclusion.Finally, despite the genre’s fictional mode of presentation, fairy-tales often discuss real (adult) emotions and fears.


inglourious-basterds9Inglourious Basterds

I remember sitting in my office, sometime around January 2009, when I first saw the trailer for Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and my initial reaction to the trailer was that if Tarantino achieves even half of what he promised in the trailer, this was going to be one of the greatest films of all time. When I finally saw the film in August later that year (after 8 months of anticipation), the results far surpassed my hopes. And I do consider this to be a remarkable piece of contemporary cinema.

I also recall that around that time I read a criticism of Tarantino’s work which accused him of “grindhouse elitism”; that his films were only for that minority of people who were as “cool as he was” and could understand all of his exploitation movie references. I don’t have a problem with this, because apparently I am as cool as Tarantino; and I can live with that. I was thinking about that criticism when Inglourious Bastserds started. vlcsnap-2013-06-14-20h11m11s119This title card came up on screen: “Chapter One: Once Upon a Time … in Nazi-occupied France”.  The next image was the one on the left of the screen. I immediately had a bizarre connection in my mind with the image on the right, from Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. vlcsnap-2013-06-14-20h15m41s25Somehow my brain went from “Once Upon a Time” to Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, but the image echoed Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The shot on the right isn’t even the first shot of that film; it’s the first shot of the second section of the film, where we are introduced to Lee Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes (“the Bad” of the title). vlcsnap-2013-06-14-20h32m20s11That initial connection was further suggested by the next few shots; both Landa and Angel Eyes are seen arriving from a distance in similarly composed shots. vlcsnap-2013-06-14-20h14m52s28The heart in both sequences is also echoed in that both are tense interrogation sequences: vlcsnap-2013-06-28-12h01m50s156Landa talking to LaPadite and Angel Eyes with the Mexican farmer.vlcsnap-2013-06-28-11h54m27s34 This opening sequence of Inglourious Basterds has a very strong Spaghetti Western vibe to it; [play clip] like the Italian westerns, there is very little dialogue (which is odd for a Tarantino movie, and which he more than makes up for once we’re introduced to Landa) and the music is quite evocative. The music in question comes from another Italian western, The Big Gundown by Sergio Sollima, also starring Lee Van Cleef. The Ennio Morricone score also samples Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” giving this sequence not only a Spaghetti Western quality, but a German on too.

While the Western genre is often associated with myth, at least from an American perspective, the Spaghetti Westerns, in their appropriation of this American mythos, becomes much less ‘authentic’. For it to be considered myth, these films must embody the most significant of a culture’s beliefs. A similar dynamic of mythic appropriation can be seen in the work of the German author Karl May’s 19th century Western novels. And like May, the Spaghetti Western filmmakers, in appropriating these narratives, transform them into fairy-tale-like fictions.  Sergio Leone’s use of “Once Upon a Time” in the title of his 1968 western reflects this fairy-tale quality.

This fairy-tale quality of “Once upon a time” adds a texture to the film wherein Tarantino is free to refashion Europe in the 1940s anyway he likes. By opening the film like this he creates a discursive resonance for the film; we need to understand what the Spaghetti Western did to American mythology in order for Tarantino to translate it back to Europe. Without understanding that flow of transnational cinematic histories, the film would become nonsensical (which for many it was). Tarantino avoids suturing us into a historical recreation of Nazi-occupied France with his magic fairy-tale words. Effectively, Inglourious Basterds does to the “War in Europe” what the Spaghetti Westerns did to “the Old West”. And like any good storyteller, Tarantino’s game of references winks to the knowing cineastes in the audience.

Echoes of The Searchers?

Echoes of The Searchers?

Inglourious Basterds has two key storylines, both of which connect up at the end. In one, Shoshanna Dreyfus, a French Jewish girl, narrowly escapes being massacred along with her family hiding in the cellar of a local farmer, Pierre LaPadite. Shoshanna reinvents herself as “Emmanuelle Mimieux” (a double wink, referencing both the erotic Emmanuelle film series and American B-movie actress, Yvette Mimieux) who owns a Parisian cinema and is, as they say, hiding in plain sight. The second storyline takes its inspiration from the Robert Aldrich 1967 war movie, The Dirty Dozen.  In case any of you are unfamiliar with Aldrich’s film, here is the original 1967 trailer.

Clearly, Tarantino has based his “Basterds” on Aldrich’s Dozen

Picture1Inglourious Basterds is meant to play like the guys-on-a-mission World War 2 adventure movies, not as a recreation of a specific historical event. While the fairy-tale allusions in the first chapter may be, I’ll grant you, obtuse – you need to know your Spaghetti Westerns to see the connections – the second chapter is classic Hollywood fiction. While the actors in “Chapter One” may be largely unknown to American audiences, and the Jewish-American soldiers in “Chapter Two” might not be household names, I would imagine that most people would recognize Brad Pitt as Lt. Aldo Raine. Some might even recognize Hostel director, Eli Roth, as Sgt. Donnie Donowitz. The casting of movie stars in movie star-type roles creates a fictional frame; while Pitt is an excellent actor (and very good in this film), we are always aware we’re watching Brad Pitt. He is too famous now to disappear in a role. Because we are watching Pitt chewing up the scenery in a self-consciously over-the-top performance, we are aware of the fictional mode of the story.

Picture2More traditional fairy-tales permeate the film as a whole. Shoshanna catches the eye of a handsome young German sharpshooter, Fredrick Zoller, who, for his valiant actions against the Allies, has become a hero of the Third Reich. The film based on his exploits (and in which he stars, playing himself) has just been made and Joseph Goebbels is in Paris to organize the film’s premiere.  Zoller insists that the film’s premiere be moved to Shoshanna’s cinema in order to attempt to woo her. With the highest ranks of the Reich due to be in attendance, Shoshanna conspires with her lover and projectionist, Marcel, to take full advantage of this opportunity and to burn the cinema down with all the Nazi brass inside. Tarantino reworks the traditional fairy-tale, so that the charming Prince has the ball at Cinderella’s place, and she uses the opportunity to extract her revenge for the enslavement of her people.

Picture6Col. Hans Landa (Christopher Waltz, in an Oscar-winning performance) takes on the role of the film’s Big Bad Wolf. Nicknamed “The Jew Hunter”, Landa has made his reputation on being able to root out hidden Jews throughout France, including being responsible for the massacre of Shoshanna’s family at the beginning of the film. Shoshanna is as much Little Red Riding Hood as she is Cinderella; always trying to keep one step ahead of this Wolf. For her big night, the night she destroys the entire Nazi high command, she dons a vibrant red dress to underline this connection. Tarantino, with seeming incongruity, has David Bowie’s title song from the Paul Schrader remake of Cat People playing on the soundtrack; a song conspicuously of the early 1980s, despite the faux-40s setting, further avoiding any chance of mistaking his intention for historical accuracy. Picture3Somehow, the Bowie/Cat People connection works: If Landa is the Big Bad Wolf and Cinderella is going to burn the ball down, who better than a Red Riding Hood Panther Lady to stop him?

Shoshanna’s story merges with the Basterds’ on this prestigious night; they too have infiltrated the premiere and also plan on taking out the Nazi big-wigs, including the Furher, who is in attendance. Neither knows of each other’s plot; neither knows the other at all. The Basterds were able to infiltrate the screening with the help of German movie star and spy for the Allies, Brigit von Hammersmark. Picture4In an earlier sequence, where VonHammersmark first meets the Basterds in a cellar bar in a small French town, what should be a quiet rendezvous turns into a massacre. In the melee, she loses a shoe. Just as Shoshanna is able to play both Little Red and Cinderella, Landa is able to play both the Big Bad Wolf and a (not so charming) Prince Charming, when he ascertains that the Allies’ spy he is looking for is the actress. In a scene right out the classic fairy-tale, Landa discovers the lady he’s been looking for by the shoe fitting (literally) the spy’s foot.


So What’s It All Mean?

I’m going to show a rather long clip – and warning, it’s incredibly violent. This is the Basterds in action, doing what they do.

Within the fairy-tale nature of the film, by setting this sequence in the woods, near an old bridge or aqueduct, the Basterds are like a vengeful seven dwarves. The music is, again, Morricone’s score for The Big Gundown. But in the middle of the sequence, intercut to fill us in, is a strange narrative segue into the story of Hugo Stiglitz. Picture7Hugo Stiglitz is the name of a Mexican born star of exploitation movies throughout the 1970s & 80s; who Tarantino honoured by naming this character after. The segue is made further strange by having it narrated by an uncredited Samuel L. Jackson, the font Stiglitz’s name is written in evokes a 1970s exploitation quality, and even the music segues into Billy Preston’s score for the Blaxploitation movie, Slaughter (starring Jim Brown, who was also in The Dirty Dozen).

Because we are never encouraged to read the film as historical reconstruction, we need to read it allegorically. By virtue of any fictional representation involving some degree of fantasy, understanding the unreality of the film requires consideration of that fantasy as an extension of what cannot be said effectively any other way. Fantasy gives voice to what cannot be stated otherwise. Inglourious Basterds makes manifest a re-empowering of historical Jewish victimization. It is hard to resist psychoanalytic interpretations sometimes – of seeing the scalping of the dead Nazis as symbolic castration in the name of revenge – but such an interpretation is hardly hidden, it is hardly subconscious. Tarantino’s film gives us World War 2 as we would have liked to have seen it; a revenge fantasy that recognizes Nazi anti-Semitism, but with no mention of the death camps.kucharski_a_poster

The French fairy-tales Darnton discusses, where in this fictional world, peasants win against wealthy landlords through guile and intelligence, where the smallest of children can bring down the mightiest of giants, are consciously inverted fantasies of their daily experiences. The problem with psychoanalysis (as grand theory) is that what is ascribed to be unconscious is usually very conscious. The folk were never fools, despite the number of fools in their stories. Contrary to Freud’s bourgeoisie, these peasant storytellers knew exactly what they were saying and why they were saying it. Any element in an orally transmitted story (folklorists would refer to it as a motif) could not persist across time and space unless it served a definite purpose. Otherwise, it would have been forgotten. What persists is what is important. So, as Darnton argues, to find out what a story means, often all one needs to do is ask the storyteller; they probably have a pretty good idea. If the storyteller is unavailable, because the story in question is from an archive, one needs to identify those aspects in the text itself which gives evidence to what the storyteller felt the story meant.

the_bear_jew_by_walkington-d36hf45In the same way that Tarantino constructs his World War 2 ahistorically and anachronistically, specifically through his use of music and other non-diegetic elements of the film, the horrors of the Nazi death camps, despite no specific references to them, is always in the background. The Basterds themselves, as a commando unit of Jewish-American soldiers, is recognition of this. When Donnie Donowitz, the Bear Jew, bludgeons to death Sgt Rachtman, he first asks of the sergeant whether or not he received his Iron Cross for killing Jews. The image of the Bear Jew in particular, in his muscle shirt carrying a baseball bat, is an image of Jewish physical strength and brutality to rival any Israeli Sabra. The carving of the swastika on the foreheads of those few the Basterds leave alive is a direct reference to, historically, how easily, after the war, Nazis were able to disappear or were even welcomed with open arms by the governments of the United States, Canada and many other Allied countries. If there really was an Aldo the Apache and Bear Jew carving swastikas onto the heads of all enemy soldiers they encountered, denying what one did during the war would have been much more difficult. As with all fairy tales, Inglourious Basterds puts the world to right.

This is the Face of Jewish Vengeance

The dénouement of the film is possibly the most controversial aspect of Inglourious Basterds. Shoshanna has locked all the doors to her cinema and taken her collection of nitrate prints behind the screen to be set alight. She has filmed a short insert which she edits into “Nation’s Pride,” the Fredrick Zoller film. Meanwhile two of the Bastserds, including Donowitz, are still in the cinema, with dynamite bombs strapped to their legs, trying to finish off their mission, even if it costs them their lives.  Warning again- this sequence is pretty violent

Having Hitler killed in this sequence, rather than the suicide in his bunker the following year,  while entirely ahistorical (and some critics have accused Inglourious Basterds of being “irresponsible” because of this), works within the film’s fairy-tale logic. History, in this case, is much less satisfying; this is how Hitler should have died, Tarantino seems to be saying. Donowitz not only shoots the Fuhrer at close range with a machine gun, we cut back to him, lying dead on the floor as Donowitz liquefies his face with bullets. Tarantino is not trying to rewrite history (another frequent criticism of this film), because the true magic of the film is its dialogue with history. Inglourious Basterds is not a replacement for history, and trying to dupe the “Naïve Audience” as such. The film only works if the historical record is equally known.

Shoshanna is able to have the last word, despite her actually dying in the projection booth after having been shot by Zoller. In many respects, with so much metacommentary on the part of Tarantino, one could posit the argument that cinema creates a kind of immortality. Much like the criticism of killing Hitler in this sequence, the true horror of Shoshanna’s vengeance is that she kills the Nazis in a Nazi-like method: by locking them in a closed building and setting it on fire. Shoshanna’s actions have an Old Testament aura of justice to them. Her vengeance isn’t just for killing her family, but in the ahistorical awareness of what the Nazis actually did to the Jews. Her face fills the screen-within-the-screen as it burns, literally sacrificed by fire: Holocaust. And as the smoke billows through the cinema, with the projector still running, Shoshanna’s projected face becomes three-dimensional and almost like the Great and Powerful Oz in the 1939 film.



Inglourious Basterds is a film which has been heavily pilloried for its historical inaccuracies, specifically killing off Hitler in 1944 in a Parisian cinema. But chastising the film for that is unnecessary; films like The Dirty Dozen, which Tarantino’s film is indebted to, were never made to be seen as anything other than fictions. As a fiction film, however, Basterds has many similarities with fairy-tales – not just fairy-tale motifs within the film, but fulfilling a function akin to fairy-tales. Namely, to offer vernacular entertainment which wears its anachronistic fantasy on its sleeve.

Perhaps the controversy is based on a cultural discomfort of publically expressing some of our violent fantasies at how we wished World War Two had happened. Like being caught playing soldier with oneself and then vehemently denying you were doing anything of the sort. I’m sure I’m not alone at having fantasied about what we’d have done if we had a time machine, or a machine gun, or a time machine with a machine gun. And the skills to use both of them. Playing Inglourious Basterds is a fantasy that partially expresses our own cultural frustration at feeling powerless to do anything in light of what we now know happened to European Jewry under the Nazis.  And is part of the frustration some people have with the film that a non-Jew so thoroughly realized our fantasy, almost as if he’d read our childhood diaries.

Finally, we also have to trust, and this is perhaps my most important point, that just as we know a particular film might be fictional, or only part of the story, or a poor interpretation of history, that we’re not the only ones with that information. We don’t have to be the “Critical Audience”; if we’re the “Curious Audience”, we facilitate discussion, not end it.


Works Cited

Bascom, William. 1965.The Forms of Folklore: Prose Narratives. Journal of American Folklore 78: 3-20.

Bettelheim, Bruno. 1999. The Struggle for Meaning. In M. Tartar (ed). The Classic Fairy Tales. London: W. W. Norton, 269-273.

Darnton, Robert. 1999. Peasants Tell Tales: the Meaning of Mother Goose. In M. Tartar (ed). The Classic Fairy Tales. London: W. W. Norton, 273-280.

Weber, Eugen. 1981. Fairies and Hard Facts: The Reality of Folktales. Journal of the History of Ideas,  42.1: 93-113.


Jewsploitation: Self-Stereotyping and Discursive Jewish Representation in The Hebrew Hammer

The Hebrew Hammer 6

Jewsploitation: Self-Stereotyping and Discursive Jewish Representation in The Hebrew Hammer

Jonathan Kesselman’s 2003 comedy, The Hebrew Hammer, advertised itself as the first “Jewsploitation” movie. The film follows the adventures of Mordechai Jefferson Carver (Adam Goldberg) – the titular “Hebrew Hammer” – who tries to stop Santa’s evil son, Damien (Andy Dick), from destroying Chanukah. While the film is a parody of the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s, its exploding of classic Jewish stereotypes enables discussion about Jewish representations and the nature of Jewish identities.

images (1)What is “Jewsploitation”? Obviously, it’s a semantic parody of Blaxploitation, but if that’s all it was, the word wouldn’t resonate as much as it does. Blaxploitation was the name given to the cycle of Black-oriented American genre films produced in the first half of the 1970s (roughly 1971-1975). Films like Shaft, Superfly, The Mack, Black Ceasar, Foxy Brown all featured predominantly African-American casts, many using African-American screenwriters and directors, and made stars out of actors like Fred Williamson, Pam Grier and Richard Roundtree. The “exploitation” element of Blaxploitation did not refer to the exploitation of a Black work-force on these films; it referred to the marketing strategy these B-movies used to exploit contemporary social issues. They exploited an audience’s desire to see something different while still working within vernacular cinematic genres, like gangster movies, horror movies, action movies, etc. The draw for an audience was seeing African-American characters living like everyday African-Americans and dealing with social issues the Black community faced on a regular basis – drugs, sex industry, institutional racism, etc. Blaxploitation was about seeing Black people leading Black lives, but within a vernacular (exploitation) cinema context – that is, movies everyday people want to go and see.

Does this work for “Jewsploitation”? What kind of film would Jewish filmmakers produce for Jewish audiences?  Actually, the YidlYiddish-language cinema produced by Joseph Green (in Poland) and Joseph Seiden (in the US) throughout the 1930s fit the bill nicely – they were unique, low-budget, genre pictures (mostly melodramas or musicals), for a niche audience that either experienced or was experiencing similar social issues and changes. The difference between the Yiddish-language cinema of the 1930s and Blaxploitation of the 1970s is largely generational: the appeal of the Yiddish movies tended to be to an older audience, while Blaxploitation appealed to a younger demographic.  In this regard, The Hebrew Hammer is more of the latter than the former; more youth-oriented films, than films produced for an older audience – as are a number of the films I’ll be discussing in this talk.

The generational division is a significant one; interest in bubbe-movies (if I can coin the term) by younger generations of Jews appeal out of nostalgia, not contemporaneity. Nostalgia for old world Jewishness is popular, but it is almost always backwards looking. Judah Cohen noted the recent emergence of a generation of North American Jews which embody this idea of ironic Jewish exploitation – Jewsploitation:

The ‘new’ Jewish culture aimed specifically at instilling a sense of Judaism where such expression had traditionally been absent … Often using the term ‘radical’ to describe their activities … projected images, attitudes and sounds that simultaneously celebrated and subverted popular Jewish stereotypes. Urban-dwelling Jews in their twenties and thirties served as the main target: those seen to base less of their identity on the Holocaust, who married later in life, and who portrayed a sense of alienation from both denominational life and the existing Jewish infrastructure (Cohen 2009: 2).

For a number of North American Jews of a particular generation, myself included, who have trouble identifying with either the two key identity markers in “Received Judaism” – the Holocaust & Israel – there has been an ontological crisis of how one defines oneself as Jewish in the modern world. Cohen sees this generation’s actions as “youthful reactions to what they perceived as an ossified, even self-effacing Jewish identity” (2009: 3).  Such reactions include the creation of a kind of “American Jewish ‘hipster’ culture … [which is heavily] associated with blackness (African-American culture)” (2009:3). This generation of “American Jewish hipsters”, according to Cohen,

… also evidence deeper aspects of cultural activity attributed specifically to the Jewish experience: most notably a publically negotiated, bipolar sense of Jewish masculinity, as well as an often overt agenda aimed at transforming perceptions of Jewish tradition in order to preserve them (2009: 3).

Cohen continues with the suggestion that this “hipster” culture is a direct counter to the Israeli Sabra image as an embodiment of Jewish masculine virility (2009:4). Parenthetically, the Israeli Sabra image was created specifically as a counter to the “Victim-Jew” image that emerged in the post-Holocaust world.

you_dont_mess_with_the_zohan_ver3In the Adam Sandler comedy, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan (2008), Sandler plays “the Zohan,” a super IDF operative who embodies the virile masculine Sabra. Despite his legendary status in Israel, what Zohan most wants to do is move to New York and become a hair stylist. Zohan is able to achieve this, working in feminizing hair industry while still keeping his virile masculinity intact. Here’s the opening sequence to the film

Zohan is created to be the ultimate Sabra; cool even by Israeli standards. He is self-assured, sexy, equally capable of winning a tug-of-war contest against a bull and barbecuing fish on the beach (naked!). Despite his abdication to New York and the world of women’s hairdressing, that hyper-masculinity remains in place. As enjoyable as Zohan is, as a movie, Sandler is not part of this “New Jew” movement; his Zohan does not directly challenge the image of the Sabra as an embodiment of Jewish masculinity. Zohan may be an exaggeration, but the Israeli roots of that exaggeration are never challenged.  Adam Sandler’s comedy in general, and You Don’t Mess with the Zohan in particular, merely extend the existing ontological paradigms which define Jewish identity.

Discourse Analysis

Discourse analysis emerges as a reaction – within philosophy – to traditional Marxist dichotomies, like truth/falsity, as simplistic and limiting (Purvis & Hunt 1993: 479).  Rather than ideology operating to impose a ‘false consciousness’ on an unaware populace, ideology operates “discursively”. That is,

… discourses impose frameworks which limit what can be experienced or the meaning that experience can encompass, and thereby influence what can be said or be done. Each discourse allows certain things to be said and implies or prevents other things from being said (Purvis & Hunt 1993: 485).

Rather than two binary opposite positions, whereby one either agrees or rejects, a multiplicity of interpretive strategies to make sense of the world exist. However, each of those positions has their own ideological concerns. Far be it from “everyone having their own opinion”, an ascription to a fictional idea of freewill, discourse analysis recognizes that only a finite number of interpretive strategies are ideologically allowed to exist, and each of those have their own ideological rules and obligations. The ontological problem of Jewish identity, of being caught between the Holocaust and Israel, is an ideological one; that those are the only two paradigms possible for Jewish identity to attach. The “New Jew” hipster image is an ideological challenge to those limiting paradigms, despite it having its own ideological problems too (specifically its American-centric, New York-centric assumptions). You Don’t Mess with the Zohan does not challenge those ideological discourses, but is complacent within them.

Discourse analysis recognizes that identities, positions and their attendant ideologies have a tendency to shift. They are not unmoveable or unchanging. To be either in agreement with/or react against any particular position ignores the fluid nature of such positions.

Discourse is constitutive of social relations in that all knowledge, all talk, all argument takes place within a discursive context through which experience comes to have, not only meaning for its participants, but shared and communicable meaning within social relations (Purvis & Hunt 1993: 492)

The question one must engage with, in any discursive process, is to identify and understand the context of that discussion particularly as it impacts on both utterance and reception of those ideas. I may appear more conservative to a left winger than when I have a similar conversation with someone on the right. I may appear more Jewish in my interactions with a non-Jew than I am in a Jewish context (where I probably come off almost Presbyterian). This flow of discursive positioning demonstrates the greater complexity than to (simply) dismiss me (or accept me) as a “left-leaning-Jewish-liberal”.

In Stuart Hall’s “Encoding/Decoding”, he advocates a discursive approach to cultural studies, by which he suggests begins with the realization that media texts do not present reality, but represent discourses about reality. Hall’s example is a typical evening news broadcast. While today we may be cynical about unbiased and factual reportage on Fox News, the same interpretations could be made about the revered BBC.  We depend on our news programmes to offer truthful accounts of what is happening around the world. What we see on the news is “real”. For Hall, rather than a presentation of reality, a news broadcast is a carefully constructed, ideological text. When watching the news, we aren’t given any information about what is happening in the world as much as we are given a series of narratives which tell us what is acceptable to know about what is happening in the world. This is not to level accusations of bias against the BBC (although such accusations are definitely possible), because no news broadcast can avoid all biases. The news does not present “truth” but representations of truth.  The repercussions of Hall’s approach can be applied to any and all communication – face-to-face or mass mediated.

The same discursive approach holds true for racial and ethnic images in film and on TV. The “sociological communication” model, which was popular in late 1970s tended to see racial & ethnic representations in overly simplistic binary paradigms: a representation was either racist or not.  To say a film is racist, or avails itself to racist stereotyping, is to fall into this analytical trap. Hall’s advocacy of a discursive approach – the so-called “Cultural Studies” model – recognizes the importance of context and constructedness of these representations. A film – whether fictional or factual – is not presentation of reality, but construction of discourses about reality.

Borat-Movie-Wallpaper-001Consider the Sasha Baron Cohen film, Borat. Here is a film which puts a fictional character into the “real world” with the intention of demonstrating specific discourses about American culture.  To what extent are these sequences contrived? Were there many problems with consent for using private citizens’ images in a commercial film? Were they paid? Was there a poor production assistant who ran after people to get their signature on a release form after Borat had done something to them? To what extent are people playing to the camera? What Borat represents is an erasure of that assumed line between fiction and factual. To say this sequence is real but that sequence is contrived is a meaningless game to play with the film. What can we say about the film’s representation of reality, of a ‘real America’? Each sequence of the film opens the discursive possibilities for public debate.

In the “Running of the Jew” sequence in Borat, we see Borat’s feature for Kazakhstan National Television’s coverage of what is purported to be an annual folk festivity. Clearly this is an anti-Semitic sketch. And yet it is still funny (I find it funny, anyway). Part of the discursive analysis of the sequence is recognition that Baron Cohen is a practicing Jew; so the anti-Semitism is unlikely to be actual. And yet it is there. To see the sequence as a commentary on anti-Semitism, specifically playing with Eastern European/Balkan stereotypes of peasant anti-Semitism, is to open the film up for discussion. The comedy is exaggerated to the point of absurdity – Mrs. Jew laying her Jew Egg, which the children need to crush before the Jew-Chick hatches – opening up a commentary on cultural ignorance in Eastern and Balkan European countries. But that commentary is extended to demonstrate, later in the film, how ignorant Americans are of the world to be taken in by Baron Cohen’s character.

Jewsploitation as Discourse

Jewish humour as self-deprecating (and potentially reflecting self-hatred and masochism) comes from Sigmund Freud’s Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious written in 1905. This is not the place to outline extensively the Orthodox Freudian theories of joke-telling, but what interests me is the seemingly ubiquitous acceptance of his theories on humour. Jews tell Jewish jokes due to a profound sense of shame and hatred that they are Jews. There is also a sense that Jewish humour beats the anti-Semite to the punch, by denigrating oneself before the anti-Semite denigrates the Jew further. Nor is this the place to outline the problems, fallacies and sheer errors in these assumptions.  If Freud (and others) were right, then the “Running of the Jew” sequence in Borat reflects a profound self-hatred in Baron Cohen; that the grotesque exaggerated Jews in the festivity are how he sees himself unconsciously. And when we laugh at that sequence, we are recognizing its truth for us too.

The criticism of Freud and others I do want to focus on, however, is the assumption of a unified and coherent “Jewish character” or “Jewish Mind” which can be understood as applying to most, if not all Jews. Such an existence is of course absurd. But contextualized within discourse analysis we can see the fallacy in assuming a single meaning or character to Jewish humour: the joke either is anti-Semitic and self-deprecating or it is somehow psychologically liberating. That there are only those two options which are generalized across all Jewish experiences is nonsensical. Discourse analysis, however, enables a more nuanced and complicated response to sequences like the “Running of the Jew”.

Jewsploitation then is the self-conscious reclamation of the stereotypes and exploding them to absurd levels. Rather than simply evidence of Jewish self-hatred, quite the contrary, these films celebrate the grotesquery of the stereotypes in order to frame them as stereotypes. The “grotesque realism,” to appropriate Bakhtin’s phrase, of the “Running with the Jew” is its exaggeration.  The exaggeration is funny because of its construction as stereotype. And it is through the stereotype that the discursive dimension opens; the image lacks any direct referent in reality other than other grotesque stereotypes. The stereotype becomes as empty as the papier-mâché “Jew-heads”. In a later sequence, Borat and his producer Azamat stay over in a B&B which they didn’t realise was run by Jews.

The stereotypes expressed by Borat and Azamat in reference to Jews are juxtaposed by the lovely and generous elderly Jewish couple who run the B&B. Discursively, the anti-Semitism expressed by Borat and Azamet are less reflections of reality and more commentaries on, not just their reality, but also anti-Semitism in the larger world; racist perceptions of Jews, the film discursively suggests, are equally absurd.

Harold_And_Kumar_Go_To_White_Castle__001Another area of Jewsploitation can be found in the “Harold & Kumar” movies: Harold and Kumar are a Korean and Indian “odd couple” friends who mostly of smoke dope and eat at the White Castle brand of hamburger restaurants. All three of the “Harold & Kumar” films are written by the team of Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Scholssberg, and feature two secondary characters Rosenberg and Goldstein (Eddie Kay Thomas and David Krumholtz, respectively), who are likely based on the writers themselves. Rosenberg & Goldstein are slacker figures who also smoke a substantial amount of weed.  When we first meet them in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004), the apartment they share features some intriguing Judaica.

For the American Jewish ‘hipster’ that Judah Cohen discussed, Rosenberg and Goldstein subvert the normal stereotypes of Jewish characters: they’re dope smoking, sex obsessed, slackers. But it is the inclusion of the ‘girly’ mezuzah and shofar modified into a dope pipe that is particularly noteworthy. Both items (presumably manufactured for the film) subvert the norms of both artefacts. And Harold & Kumar 2yet, both the shofar and the mezuzah are at home in this Jewish household. The mezuzah in particular has retained its traditional/religious usage, despite being made profane with the naked woman.  The holiness of the shofar too is likewise subverted. And yet, both men’s heads remain covered. Seeing Rosenberg & Harold & Kumar 1Goldstein as discourse (including the intentional echoes of Shakespeare’s Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern from Hamlet) is to recognize traditional Judaism subverted potentially for greater relevance to those contemporary Jews who find it difficult to engage with the traditional “Jewish infrastructure”.

In the second “Harold and Kumar” movie, Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008), our titular heroes are arrested as terrorists en route to Amsterdam. Rosenberg & Goldstein are brought in to be interrogated by Homeland Security due to their friendship with Harold and Kumar.

The folklorist William Hugh Jansen coined what he called “the esoteric/exoteric factor”. Esoteric, as most of us know, refers to insider knowledge; what a member of a particular group knows about that group. Exoteric, on the other hand, is a bit more slippery; it refers to what insiders think outsiders know about that group. This is not say exoteric is what outsiders actually know, but what insiders think outsiders know. Everyone with me on that? In the clip from Guantanamo Bay, NSA agent Ron Fox (Rob Corddry) thinks Jews are going to be easily interrogated if you throw loose change on the table. This is a Jewish perception (due to the screenwriters) of what (certain) American Jews think non-Jews think about Jews; this is an exoteric belief. It’s also such an obvious one as to be fairly uninteresting. Goldstein and Rosenberg’s collecting up the change at the scene’s conclusion is one of the key moments of cinematic discourse here; it opens the text up to question whether or not the film is holding up cultural stereotypes even as they’re being critiqued, or are they just being pragmatic, claiming Fox’s change, in partial recompense for the racist insult?

So far so obvious. There is another level to the sequence, however; a more subtle one which complicates both the film and its racial discourses. The fourth man in the room is Dr. Beecher (Roger Bart), a consultant working for the NSA who, throughout the film, is continually embarrassed by agent Fox’s behaviour. We can read this sequence (and the entire film) as American fears that the rest of the world views the US as if it were a nation of agent Foxes. Such is one of the film’s larger exoteric fears. Dr. Beecher’s presence in the scene seems to be a subtle recognition of an esoteric American view suggesting equal embarrassment by Fox. There may also be a not-so-subtle swipe at Fox News involved here too. Throughout the three “Harold & Kumar” movies, despite the slacker-stoner comedy façade, actually has quite a bit to say about race in contemporary America.  They are much more clever films in this regard than might be gleaned at first appearance.

In the third “Harold & Kumar” film, A Very Special Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas (2011), Harold and Kumar meet up with Goldstein and Rosenberg in a New York White Castle.

Through Goldstein’s conversion to Christianity, screenwriters Hurwitz and Schlossberg are able to further play with the exoteric comedy in Jewish perceptions of how Christians respond to Jews. The exoteric factor is illuminating in an assumed refraction of cultural traits. Goldstein’s litany of Jewish attributes he is now free from as a result of baptism – Jewish neurosis, self-hatred – is a suggestive index of contemporary Jewish discourses. Suddenly, as a Christian, Goldstein can now go hunting, fishing and sailing, nor is he worried about bad investments. The gag that Goldstein still wants the 87cents for the bill, while a cheap shot, has a larger repercussion of whether or not it’s possible to erase one’s birth culture.  And like the two previous “Harold & Kumar” movies, Goldstein (and Rosenberg) still have their heads covered.


The Hebrew Hammer

Now we finally get to our feature attraction, Jonathan Kesselman’s 2003 film, The Hebrew Hammer. As I noted at the outset, the film is parody of the Blaxploitation films which were part of the American exploitation landscape in the early 1970s. Kesselman assembles a crazy quilt of Blaxploitation clichés and then replaces “Black” with “Jew” – hence the initial meaning of Jewsploitation. Here is how the film opens:

The first thing I want to draw your attention to are the words which first appear on the screen: “This film is dedicated to all the Jewish brothers and sisters who had enough of the gentile”. The message is a direct parody of the opening of Melvin Van Peebles pioneering film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song (1971), which read “This film is dedicated to all the Brother and Sisters who had enough of the Man”.


“The Man” in the context of early 1970s vernacular cultures, was the hegemonic forces which dictated racial and cultural inequality across the United States. In The Hebrew Hammer, “the Man” is replaced by “the gentile”, but that one gag is more discursive than first appearances might suggest. In a similar relationship to African-American resistance to white hegemony trying to “keep the black man down,” is the Jewish resistance to “the gentile” trying to “keep the Jew-man down”. From its very first moments, The Hebrew Hammer is opening up the discursive possibilities of “New Jew” cultural politics.

tumblr_md3h5lhT4b1qb9ambo1_1280In the flashback sequence to the nightmarish “Hanukkah Past”, well-meaning gentile teachers crudely mispronounce Jewish names and the Jew is made to feel like a complete outcast amongst his or her peers. I would imagine most North American Jews who grew up under gentile hegemony can relate to this sequence. This certainly could have described my memories of my own school days. Of course, when we think back as adults, most of our teachers (at least this was true for me) went to a great deal of effort for inclusion of all races, religions and cultures. And most of my friends from primary school were a racially mixed lot. So this sequence does not reflect a kind of historic reality to growing up Jewish in North America. What it does reflect is a strong emotional memory; of what it felt like to be culturally different and excluded from celebrating Christmas with one’s friends. From a more historical materialist perspective, of course any Jewish child dressed in Chassidic garb would have been going to a Jewish school to begin with; little Mordechai’s costume is more a reflection of how we felt others viewed us (the esoteric/exoteric factor).

The image of Santa stomping on the plastic dreidel (and I think I had that dreidel as a child) and flipping little Mordechai the bird as a segue into the “Hebrew Hammer” theme is a defiant rejection of victimization. Mordechai, as The Hebrew Hammer, becomes the protector of the Jewish community, almost like a golem.  Of course, the song itself is a parody of Isaac Hayes’ Oscar-winning theme song from Shaft. The song and opening credits function to illustrate the nature of the parody the film is developing.

In the film, Mordechai is brought in by the Jewish Justice League in order to prevent Santa’s evil son, Damien, from destroying Hanukkah. In this next clip, we are introduced to the Jewish Justice League.

In much the same way that Borat reclaimed Jewish stereotypes  and by exaggerating them rendered them relatively harmless, this sequence directly confronts another cache of Jewish stereotypes: Jewish media conspiracies, Holocaust documentaries to create good will towards Jews, overly sensitive to denigration, an absent “coalition of Jewish athletes,” Steven Spielberg, etc. Jewish actor Peter Coyote (and I’ll confess to a little Jewissance when I discovered he was a member of the Tribe) sports the Moshe Dayan eye-patch and tends to talk with a mouthful of cream cheese. By directly confronting these stereotypes, Kesselman is able to expose them as absurd despite the occasional kernel of truth. These stereotypes resist the simplistic lies/truth dichotomy.

In the next clip, Mordechai attends a meeting at the Jewish Justice League, but as security precautions, he must undergo various trials to prove he is truly Jewish.

The stages of these trials, both literally and symbolically, create a discourse about Jewish identity: he must have a Hebrew name, be able to list all the elements on a Seder plate, demonstrate musical aptitude, be circumcised and be able to whine better than both a Buddhist and “the Dying”. While, again, these are all crude stereotypes, as an aggregate they suggest a definition of Jewish identity. But such a definition is not unproblematic; nor does it conform to the rules of Halakhah. Jewish law is here the unspoken template to which The Hebrew Hammer is playing with by suggesting a more experiential and vernacular discourse on Jewish identity.

The final clip I want to show you is probably my favourite sequence of the film.

The sequence in Duke’s underlines the fantasy of the parody, being able to walk into a bar, order a Manichewitz (Black Label), and with a “Shabbat Shalom, Motherfuckers” teach a gang of neo-Nazis to respect the Jew. And where can I get a pair of those Magen David spurs? But the central aspect of this sequence in the film is the elderly African American man Hammer speaks with outside the bar. It is Melvin Van Peebles, the writer-director and star of Sweetback, and his line “they bled your mamma, they bled your papa, but they won’t bleed you” is the poetic refrain of defiance from the film. Elsewhere in the film, Hammer teams up with Muhammad Ali Paula Abdul Rahim of the Kwanza Liberation Front, played by Mario Van Peebles (Melvin’s son and a director in his own right). To have both Van Peebles appear in a low-budget, independent film with a niche market at best, speaks to the film’s credibility.

What makes The Hebrew Hammer such a significant film is the cultural legitimacy is its parody of Blaxploitation on the one hand, but more importantly the discursive analysis which opens up about Jewish identity and Jewishness.   


Jewsploitation, beyond the marketing hook for The Hebrew Hammer, are contemporary Jewish comedies aimed at American Jewish ‘hipster’ audiences. These are not movies for our bubbes. They open the discursive possibilities, or reflect those discourses already being heard from the Jewish margins, about Jewish identity. While the crude stereotypes may overwhelm some with their vulgarity, Jewsploitation is a recolonizing of those discourses about Jewishness. The vulgarities of the representations are to explode the truth claim by making them, and their presentation, absurd and therefore harmless.  They may be stereotypes, but now they are our stereotypes; we own them and we can play with their meanings.

For those of us uncomfortable with “Received Judaism” and the cultural associations that accompany those labels, Jewsploitation is an ontological playground where we can test our identities. It is worth noting, at least in passing, that following on from Judah Cohen’s work on Jewish hip hop artists, that the Jewsploitation discourses are gender biased – there’s not a lot of evidence for women’s voices here. I don’t believe women are excluded, but more scholarship needs to be produced celebrating women’s roles within Jewsploitation. If, as Cohen noted, Jewsploitation enables new masculinities to be celebrated, so to do new Jewish femininities need to be encouraged. I don’t know what form that will take, but that is because it is not my place to define what those will be. I’m excited to see their emergence.

Discourse analysis, despite its advantages over traditional Marxist dichotomies, still reflects ideological struggles. Hegemony only allows certain voices (and in part, this may be why there is a gender imbalance in the scholarship).  Jewishness as discursive process has an advantage over traditional paradigms insofar as it embodies the potential for a multiplicity of voices to be heard. Those marginal voices may have to struggle and resist aspects of Jewish hegemony, but those absences and ruptures, resistances and defiance need to be accounted for.  No cultural text can reproduce reality; it can (and does) represent commentary on/about our cultural categories of “the real”.

A few years ago, I edited a special issue of the journal Shofar (25.4, 2007) called “Cool Jewz: Contemporary Jewish Identity in Popular Culture”. At the time, I saw Jewish popular culture shifting and the essays in that issue reflected aspects of those changes. Now, six years later, I think I finally understand this phenomenon. The Jewish legacy many of us inherited made (some of) us feel awkward and uncomfortable. Our identities were pre-decided and we were never consulted. “Oh, you’re Jewish. You must be this kind of person or that kind of person”.  As our generation ascended (and I have no doubt that the various phenomena I’m discussing is largely generational) and we began to make our own platforms, developing our own voices and our own complexities. Would that I could be so confident in my identity to define what a Jew is.  For me, and I don’t think I’m alone with this, the fact that our identities are discursive, prone to shifting, is actually liberating. We can communicate with one another in an almost endless diversity of expressions. And Jewsploitation is part of these discourses.


Works Cited

Abrams, Nathan. 2012. The New Jew in Film: Exploring Jewishness and Judaism in Contemporary Cinema. London: I. B. Tauris

Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1984. Rabelais and his World. London: John Wiley and Sons.

Ben-Amos, Dan. 1973. The ‘Myth’ of Jewish Humor. Western Folklore 32.2: 112-131.

Cohen, Judah. 2009. Hip-Hop Judaica: the problems of representin’ Heebster heritage. Popular Music 28.1: 1-18.

Freud, Sigmund. 2002. Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious. London: Penguin Classics.

Hall, Stuart. 2009. Encoding/Decoding. In Meenakshi Gigi Durham & Douglas M. Kellner (eds) Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks. London: John Wiley and Sons.

Koven, Mikel J (ed.). 2007. Special Issue: Cool Jewz: Contemporary Jewish Identity in Popular Culture. Shofar 25.4.

Koven, Mikel J. 2010. Blaxploitation Films. London: Kamera Books.

Jansen, Wm. Hugh. 1959. The Esoteric-Exoteric Factor in Folklore. Fabula 2.2: 205-211.

Purvis, Trevor & Alan Hunt. 1993. Discourse, Ideology, Discourse, Ideology, Discourse, Ideology … British Journal of Sociology 44.3: 473-499.

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