In one of the most memorable scenes from Quentin Tarantino's new movie Inglourious Basterds, Brad Pitt's character gives his army of Jewish soldiers a pep talk so rousing that audiences can't resist whooping with excitement after he says, "We're in the killin' Nazi business. And cousin, business is a-boomin'."
Such vengeful emotion feeds into the "revenge fantasy" label many critics have given the film. Tarantino, however, has been more reserved about his intentions, saying, "I like that it's the power of the cinema that fights the Nazis."
He's clearly not the only one in the film industry so imbued. Over the past year Hollywood has treated us to an assassination attempt on Hitler and an armed Jewish uprising in Poland.
Movies, arguably more than any medium, reinforce the belief that superior violence was the only way to take down Hitler. For instance, the Hitler in Tarantino's film becomes a confounded and frustrated mess when he hears of the Basterds' brutal exploits. In reality, however, Nazis were actually relieved when the resistance turned to violence because it gave them an excuse to use more drastic and suppressive measures.
According to military historian Basil Lidell Hart, who had the unique opportunity to interview German generals imprisoned in Britain after the war, "other forms of resistance baffled them" because "they were experts in violence, and had been trained to deal with opponents who used that method."
Such a finding suggests a surprising truth about World War II: Nonviolence, of the kind Gandhi practiced, was used successfully against the Nazis. For all the films about WWII, only a handful have depicted nonviolent resistance. Some of the best stories, however, have not yet been told on the silver screen, though not for lack of drama.
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One such story begging for a film adaptation took place in a small French farming village, quite similar to that in the opening of Inglourious Basterds. But unlike the French farmer in the movie, the people of Le Chambon openly and successfully protected Jews and other peoples fleeing from Nazi oppression. By the end of the war, they had saved an estimated 5,000 refugees, about 3,500 of whom were Jews.
Most, if not all, European countries have their own stories of nonviolent resistance, but they so rarely get attention. Thanks to Tom Cruise, more people know about the failure of Operation Valkyrie than the actually successful Danish peaceful resistance.
It's not as if the story of ordinary people systematically stifling the Nazis through acts of industrial sabotage and general strikes, as well as saving 8,000 Jews by covertly sailing them to neutral Sweden, is lacking in excitement.
The same goes for the story of a Bulgarian bishop who, along with local farmers, threatened to lay down on the train tracks to prevent Jews from being deported, which in turn persuaded the Bulgarian government to back down from Nazi demands, saving 48,000 Jews from the concentration camps.
Clearly, people love watching movies about WWII. It gives them the chance to see good triumphing over evil. But nothing says we have to stick to the same stale and misleading storyline that violence is what saved us from the Nazis. Tarantino once said, "I loved history because to me, history was like watching a movie." Perhaps he could do us all a favor next time and indulge his love for history rather than his fantasies of revenge.