February 21, 2010

Film and the Theatrical in 'Inglourious Basterds': Part 5

In the previous four entries in this series, I've attempted to break down Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds by chapters, each chapter a new scene in the grand theatrical performance that is this film. In doing so, I've highlighted the theatricality of many scenes and sequences, the themes of film history colliding and co-mingling with historical reality, the importance of cinema as identity for many characters and the combination of two meanings of the word "theater" (a place for drama and a setting for battle) typifying the essential nature of the film.

The fifth and final chapter, 'Revenge of the Giant Face' is the most cinematographically complex chapter in the film, utilizing extensive parallel editing to convey the convergence of all the film's major characters. The storylines that merge are: 1) Shosanna's and her boyfriend and projectionist Marcel's (Jacky Ido) preparations to screen Nation's Pride and blow up Le Gamaar with the Nazi high command inside; 2) Frederick Zoller attending the premiere as Goebbels' special guest, with Hitler also in attendance and Landa acting as security chief; 3) three members of the Basterds Aldo Raine, Donny Donowitz, and Omar Ulmer accompanying Allied spy Bridget von Hammersmark disguised as an Italian stuntman and Italian cameramen, respectively.

The resistance is weaponized.

The chapter opens with a scene cut like a music video as Shosanna prepares for the premiere in her quarters above the theater. The scene is a transformation, Shosanna arming herself with makeup, with a veil, with the props and costumes of an actress to play a part--to set the stage. Shosanna marks herself a warrior with rouge that obviously connotes an actress’ backstage preparation while the placement of the makeup calls to mind Aldo’s Apache resistence.

Shosanna’s preparation sequence collapses two meanings of theater. Firstly, the theatrical experience, as she is preparing to play a role, a subterfuge, on the surface entertaining a theater-full of her enemies while playing host to their whims. Secondly, this first surface meaning is infused with the “theater of battle” mentality that was previously province of the Basterds. In this final chapter, the two connotations are embodied in the figure of Shosanna Dreyfus and the physical extension of her character, her theater Le Gamaar.

Melanie Laurent as Shosanna Dreyfus as Emmanuelle Mimieux...
and Rosel Zech as Sybille Schmitz as Veronika Voss

Shosanna is dressed similarly to Veronika Voss, the fading film star in Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss. The fictional Voss is based on real-life '20s-'30s German actress Sybille Schmitz, whose fall from the spotlight and suicide from sleeping pills was mirrored in Fassbinder's film. The intertextuality of Shosanna's costume accentuates the theme of cinema as identity, as well as providing in-text clues to her fate. Although von Hammersmark is the official ingenue actress in the IB-universe, Shosanna puts on as much of a command performance as she does, and like Voss/Schmitz, commits a suicide of sorts. Unlike a flame-out actress, however, Shosanna's act is more akin to a warrior's suicide mission, like a Kamikaze taking the enemy down in flames with her. When Marcel sees Shosanna after her transformation, he spins her around and coos, “Oh la la, Danielle Darrieux.” This is another references to film history, to French film star Danielle Darrieux (who is still alive at 92) and was the height of glamour and sophistication during the 1940s.

After Shosanna’s preparations for the premiere, the film shifts its focus to von Hammersmark and the Basterds, who, because of the disaster at La Louisianne the previous night, have had to replace Lt. Hicox and the two German-speaking members of the Basterds with Lt. Raine, The Bear Jew and Pvt. Ulmer now disguised as members of an Italian film crew. The problem is that von Hammersmark was wounded the shoot-out and is now sporting a cumbersome leg cast and Aldo, Donowitz and Ulmer’s Italian is less than stellar (and in Ulmer’s cast, non-existent).

These hurdles could have been surpassed, however, if it was not for Landa, always the bloodhound, having investigated the crime scene at La Louisianne, knows von Hammersmark is a spy. He corners the party in the lobby and launches into another piece of investigatory theater, much to the alarm of the Basterds’ and to von Hammersmark’s peril. The multi-lingual Landa spouts off Italian, running circles around the confused imposters. It’s a scene of uncomfortable comedic effect, so over-the-top and ridiculous it’s hard not to laugh at Raine’s hillbilly Italian, even though the audience is simultaneously aware Landa has ensnared our heroes completely.

Like other characters in Inglourious Basterds, Raine, Donowitz and Ulmer find their aliases in the annals of film history. Aldo Raine introduces himself to Landa as Enzo Gorlomi, the birth name of Enzo G. Castellari, the Italian director of The Inglorious Bastards, the 1978 war film from which Inglourious Basterds takes its name. Sgt. Donowitz takes his alias from Antonio Margheriti, an Italian director and one of Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth’s favorites. Margheriti himself cameos in the film as one of the Nazis at the Nation’s Pride premiere. Omar Ulmer’s false identity is as Dominick Decocco, a name that doesn’t occur in film history, although that may not be necessary as he is already named for Austrian expat and film noir director Edgar G. Ulmer.

Landa quickly dispatches of von Hammersmark having produced the shoe she misplaced at La Louisianne. Landa is quickly gaining ground on the Basterds, eliminating one chess piece afteranother. After Bridget, Landa orders Raine brought to him, although by this time, Donowitz and Ulmer have safely reached their seats in the theater with dynamite strapped to their legs. Landa's capture of Aldo Raine brings certain themes full-circle. Landa re-instates his love of play-acting and games, after he has hooded Aldo, taunts him saying, "Caught you flinching!" Once Landa transports Aldo and another Basterd, Pfc. Smithson Utivich (BJ Novak), he and Landa exchange aliases. Having never met face to face before, the two men only know of each other through the circulated gossip of the front. Each man is more a character, or caricature of their roles and they greet each other as such:

"So you're Aldo the Apache."/"So you're The Jew Hunter."
Landa toying with his prey.

In contrast to the first scene with M. LaPadite, Landa reacts unfavorably to his unofficial nickname. Of course this reaction is as unauthentic as the one earlier. Each is a calculated response to appeal to the interrogated subject. It is in Landa's best interest to humanize himself in front of Aldo and Utivich so that they will be more amenable to his proposed detente. Landa soliloquies:

-"I'm a detective. A damn good detective. Finding people is my specialty, so naturally I work for the Nazis finding people and yes, some of them were Jews, but Jew Hunter? Hmph! Just a name that stuck."

Here is the return of Landa's conception of his own identity, a Nazi Sherlock Holmes. Whether or not he truly believes what he says, or that he values his investigation and interrogation skills as much as he professes, we have no real way of knowing. It is certainly clear that Col. Hans Landa is a master manipulator, a man who would be equally comfortable on the stage as on the battlefield. Landa proposes an end to the war. If he is absolved of all the sins he committed as a Nazi, he will not stop the bombs from blowing up Le Gamaar, and WWII will end that night. Raine is sufficiently suspicious, asking incredulously, "That's a pretty exciting story. What's next? Eliza on the Ice?" This is another film reference, to a Mighty Mouse cartoon in which the tiny hero saves Eliza, the slave protagonist of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Ultimately, Raine acquiesces, speaking over the radio to his OSS commander. However, no one at the theater is aware of the deal. Shosanna and the Basterds' original plans are already well underway.

Meanwhile, back at Le Gamaar...

In a perverse twist of irony, Shosanna's identity is brought closer to Zoller's as they both become united by film, literally glued together during the Shosanna's editing process, as demonstrated by the still above. At the same time, they are equally divided by the film's exhibition. As Shosanna watches Nation's Pride, its sadistic violence serves only to strengthen her resolve and confirm in the audience's mind the righteousness of her, and the Basterds', act of terrorism. As she watches, Shosanna becomes more comfortable with her initial assumption that Frederick was just a uniform.

Counteractively, as Zoller watches Nation's Pride, he grows more and more discomfited by the glorified images of slaughter and the raucous cheers and applause of the Nazi crowd. Zoller excuses himself from the screening and visits Shosanna in her projection room. Curiously, while rejecting his current on-screen identity, Zoller has already acceded to his post-war identity as a film star, stating:

-"For the other films I do, I intend to endure evenings like tonight, in the proper spirit. However the fact remains this film is based on my military exploits. And in this case, my exploits consisted of me killing many men. Consequently, the part of the film that's playing now...I don't like watching this part."
Although this speech endures and humanizes Zoller slightly to the audience, Shosanna is unmoved. She still does not grant him entry to the projection room. Enraged, Zoller pushes his way in.
Zoller has begun to buy into his own legend. He is a powerful and masculine figure on screen...
...so he must be in real life, as well.

Shosanna is able to distract Frederick enough to grab the gun in her purse. She shoots him point blank. Believing Zoller dead, Shosanna continues projecting the feature, waiting for the intercut footage and the signal for Marcel to ignite the flammable nitrate film behind the screen.

Tarantino juxtaposes images like these above to heighten the tension in preparing for the climax, as well as to emphasize the dual nature of violence in Inglourious Basterds. One is the traditional violence of mechanized warfare (slightly untraditional for enlisted men--as Aldo notes earlier in the picture, his is an Apache resistance utilizing what Landa later calls terrorist acts), manifested by the Basterds' self-immolating explosives. The other is the film as weapon, the flammable nitrate film that represents Shosanna's self-sacrifice. She is willing to destroy her cinematic identity as theater proprietor Mimieux to bring down the Nazi high command (although in an ironic twist, not Landa, the man directly responsible for the murder of her family).

Tarantino intercuts the drama of Shosanna and Zoller with shots of the Nazis enjoying the film. This puts us, the audience, is an uncomfortable viewing position. Much as Tarantino challenged the viewer in the second chapter, daring us to laugh and cheer as The Bear Jew beat a Nazi to death with a baseball bat, in this sequence, he is daring us not to enjoy the exaggerated patriotism of Nation's Pride. There is a disquieting replication of audiences, as the Nazis mirror our position as a theater (or home-viewing audience).

Shots of Hitler laughing tears of joy as Frederick Zoller recreates sniping dozens of American troops hard to watch--harder still because of the previous hyperbolic representation of Hitler as a buffoon and tyrant. Are we laughing at Hitler laughing at us? This sequence represents a unique and purposefully undefined position of spectatorship for the audience enjoying Inglourious Basterds. Further complicating this position is the fact that when Hitler congratulates Goebbels on Nation's Pride, it represents another set of character that are brought together by film or theater in IB. Even those characters the audience is meant, or perhaps not meant, to hate, share a common bond with our heroes and Basterds who define themselves in filmic language and through play-acting.

Meanwhile, back in the projection booth...

Zoller groans. Shosanna feels a pang of regret. Perhaps she shouldn't have shot this Nazi? After all, he does love Max Linder...Of course, because Shosanna's is a sacrifice and they both would have died anyway, and because theirs is a thinly-veiled Romeo & Juliet story, she approaches him. But because this is a Quentin Tarantino film, not a Shakespeare tragedy, Zoller shoots her. They both die. But not before Shosanna changes reels and signals via pre-recorded film:

"Marcel, burn it down."/"Oui, Shosanna."

Thus begins the gruesome, fiery and controversial ending to Inglourious Basterds. Everyone in Le Gamaar is burned to death, although Hitler gets his face rather graciously machine-gunned off by Donowitz and Ulmer before the dynamite on their legs adds to the pyre. The destruction of theater-as-church (remember Goebbels comment that Shoshanna's theater has a church-like reverence rarely seen) consumes Nazi and Jew alike. The grand finale brings the house down, literally of course. Theater and film are ultimately the great leveler, and as Tarantino argues, as powerful a weapon as any BAR, Mauser or explosive.


Some brief conclusions: After tracking the themes of film and theatricality in Inglourious Basterds, it's clear there is evidence for the conclusion that the film is steeped in film history. This is apparent when you consider how many characters are named for film stars and directors, how many characters have connections to film and theater, either in their true identities or as adopted aliases. I've tried to prove that Tarantino effectively blends the theater of war with the conventional theater of plays and drama. Christoph Waltz's Col. Hans Landa is the central character in the film, the character around which the narrative universe revolves. We can extrapolate his attitude towards the theatricality of interrogation and the performance-based nature of the character to define the film as a whole. The net effect of all these factors is a rejection of historical reality in favor of a meta-reality, that is the reality of film and film history. Thus, it is a mistake to view Inglourious Basterds as a WII film, or perhaps as merely a WWII film, for historical accuracy is not its province. Its true nature is the emotional reality of theater-going, the collective ecstasy of living through the figures on screen, a companion of the celluloid characters as much as with the man or woman in the seat next to you.

Film and the Theatrical in 'Inglourious Basterds': Part 4

Chapter four, 'Operation Kino' continues the fusion of film and theater in Inglourious Basterds. Kino is the German word for cinema, more evidence to suggest the mixing of theater as a place for performance and theater as a place for battle. The operation in question is launched by English officers Ed Fenech (Mike Myers), named for French actress Edwige Fenech and Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender). Both men are played as slightly exaggerated caricatures of WWII-era British officers, all "Jolly good" and stiff upper lip and that.
The hyperreal performances of Myers and Fassbender are unnerving at first, but gradually come to make sense in the pantheon of IB play-acting. As discussed previously, almost every character is during some sort of performance, from Aldo Raine's speech-giving theatrics to Col. Landa's interrogation-as-performance piece to Shosanna pretending to be Emmanuelle Mimieux to Pvt. Zoller's uncomfortable transition from young soldier to Goebbels' golden boy and Nazi matinee idol.

In another layer of film reference, Hicox is a film critic, writing pieces for a magazine called Films and Filmmakers and publishing two books: Art of the Eyes, the Heart and the Mind: A Study of German Cinema in the '20s and Twenty-Four Frame da Vinci, "a subtextual film criticism study of the work of German director GW Pabst." He was chosen for Operation Kino, in fact, because of these credentials, another example of the marriage between film and war in Inglourious Basterds. The OSS has gotten wind of the move from the Ritz to Le Gamaar for the Nation's Pride premiere (although they are unaware of Shosanna's simultaneous assassination plot) and assigned Hicox to meet up with the Basterds who will assist him in accompanying their double agent. That double agent is German film ingenue Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger). Like Zoller, von Hammersmark is another amalgamation of political and cinema history, based on Hungarian actress Ilona Massey and UFA star Zarah Leander who was rumored to be a Soviet spy during the war.

During this briefing with Fenech, Hicox compares Minister of Propaganda Goebbels with Hollywood mega-producer (some might say tyrant) David O. Selznick, whose total control over films alienated Alfred Hitchcock among other directors but did lead to massive successes like Gone With The Wind. The irony of the comparison comes from the fact Goebbels, who in addition to running the German film industry, was one of the chief architects of the Holocaust, would probably react none too kindly to being compared to the Jewish Selznick (however accurate the comparison may be).

However, the bulk of this chapter takes place during Hicox's rendezvous in the tavern La Louisiane. The scene gathers our principals: Hicox, von Hammersmark, Aldo Raine, Major Hellstrom, and the two German-speaking members of the Basterds Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger) and Wilhelm Wicki (Gedeon Burkhard). Wicki is named for two German directors, GW (Wilhelm) Pabst and Bernhard Wicki. Stiglitz is named for Mexican film star Hugo Stiglitz. The Basterds and von Hammersmark are meeting there to discuss the fact that Hitler to attending the Nation's Pride premiere and to prepare for their undercover attendance of said premier. However, they did not anticipate the tavern would be crawling with Nazis, due to the unfortunately coincidence of several servicemen celebrating the birth of one of their friends' new son.

Figuring prominently in the scene is a card game where the characters wear a playing card with the name of a real or fictional famous person and try to guess who they're wearing by asking the other players. The game is thematically significant because it emphasizes the theme of aliases (characters named for figures in film history, characters saddled with dual identities), doubling, spying, and play-acting infused in Inglourious Basterds.
Von Hammersmark is consistently interrupted by the reveling Germans, unable to share the information of Hitler's attendance. Unbeknownst to them, Hellstrom has heard Hicox admonish the soldiers and noted his strangely accented German. Hicox invents a cover story culled from film culture. His accent, he explains, hails from the base of the moutain Piz Palu, the setting of the Pabst-directed, Riefenstahl-starring film that was earlier playing at Shosanna's theater. Hicox's knowledge of German film history informs his duplicitous identity and aids in his skill as a soldier.

It is Hellstrom who manipulates the scene, much as Landa might. He suggests the five of them play the card game, further postponing their meeting. Hellstrom utilizes the game as an interrogation technique, testing the patience of the spys and hoping for a mistake. This elaborate construction of a theatrical scenario pays off for the SS Major. In fact, it is his insufficient knowledge of German culture, not film culture, that betrays Hicox and his friends. While ordering more drinks, Hicox mis-signals the English three, not the German three, which Hellstrom immediately identifies.
From that point on, the performative aspects of the Basterds' identities are stretched to the breaking point. Stiglitz has clearly had enough of the masquerade; sitting next to Hellstrom has agitated him beyond reason and triggered flashbacks to the torture he endured at the hands of Nazi officers. He wants nothing more than to hack Hellstrom to death right then and there. Hellstrom and Hicox are engaged in an exaggerated theater of manners, each knowing the jig is essentially up. Von Hammersmark is trying desperately to charm the Major into believing he has imagined the whole encounter.

It is Hellstrom again who signals the cessation of theatrics:

The game-playing is at an end and the failure of theater signals the necessity of violence.

The ensuing massacre leaves everyone in La Louisianne, the French barman and his daughter, the celebrating German officers, Hellstrom, and the Basterds, dead. Only von Hammersmark survives to tell Aldo the tale. Their backup plan takes center stage in the next and final chapter, where the Basterds' fondness for bloodshed finally come together with Shosanna's thirst for revenge.

Film and the Theatrical in 'Inglourious Basterds': Part 3

So far in this investigation of film and theatricality in Inglourious Basterds,  I’ve covered two definitions of “theater:” first, the place where drama is performed and the action performed there; second, an arena of battle; e.g., the “theater” of war. These two definitions pertained to the first two chapters of the film, ‘Once Upon A Time…in Nazi-Occupied France’ and ‘Inglourious Basterds.’ The first chapter was neatly theatrical, a perfect one-act play. The second chapter shared elements of theater but also introduced the importance of film and movie-going within the narrative. The Basterds compared watching The Bear Jew murder Nazi soldiers to “going to the movies.” In the third chapter, titled ‘German Night in Paris,’ “going to the movies” will become literalized and the physical locale of a theater will become the central setting of importance in the film.

The first signal of the transformation from theater to film is the immediate explicit references to films and film stars, courtesy of our two lead cinephiles Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent) and Pvt. Frederick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl). As soon as the chapter starts, in their conversation, there are references to French silent comedian Max Linder, Charlie Chaplin, Austrian director Georg Wilhelm Pabst, and the German actress and director Leni Riefenstahl

As the two young people stand outside Shosanna’s theater, Le Gamaar, they are ensconced in cinema history. Above their heads is the glowing marquee, emblazoned with the titles of films and names of directors; all around them the streets of Paris are plastered with film posters of screen stars historical (Gloria Grahame) and fictional (Inglourious Basterds’ Bridget von Hammersmark).

From the very first frame of the chapter, CINEMA is declared paramount...The fusion of theater & film in Shosanna's Gamaar. 

The tension in this scene comes from the fact that Shosanna is in disguise in Paris as Emmanuelle Mimieux and Zoller, who has a crush on her, does not know she is Jewish or her history with Col. Landa. In turn, Shosanna does not know that Zoller is the star of Nation’s Pride, Joseph Goebbel’s (Sylvester Groth) newest propaganda film, based on his exploits wherein he sniped over three hundred Allied forces from a bell tower in Italy. 

Shosanna and Frederick typify one of the central themes of Inglourious Basterds: cinema as adopted  identity. Her refuge comes in the form of a literal theater and her nom de guerre, Mimieux, is Tarantino's reference to Hollywood actress Yvette Mimieux. His cinematic identity is revealed in a scene with Shosanna. Frederick is still interested in Shosanna and seeing her in a cafe window, stops by to chat. She can vaguely disguise her repulsion at the sight of his Nazi identity.

Mistaken identity? Frederick views his identity as a masquerade; his true love is cinema. Shosanna's masquerade is as theater proprietor.

Frederick reveals that he is the famous war hero and star of Nation's Pride. His references to Sergeant York and Van Johnson further solidify the theme of cinema as identity. Alvin York was an American WWI hero, whose famous slaughter of 28 German soldiers and bravery in battle lead to the 1941 Howard Hawks film Sergeant York, starring Gary Cooper. Its release during WWII was a huge boon to wartime spirits and became the highest-grossing film of that year. Van Johnson was an actor whose poor health precluded service in WWII. However, this was actually quite a windfall as Johnson became the go-to actor for fresh-faced war heroes in films during the war and post-war years. This sort of symbolic national movie star has further basis in reality in the form of Audie Murphy, whom Frederick Zoller is clearly based upon. Like Zoller, Murphy was a handsome young soldiers whose bravery and skill on the battlefield earned him the accolades of an entire nation and an opportunity for movie stardom. 

In the next scene, Shosanna is invited (more like coerced) into joining Zoller, Goebbels and SS Major Hellstrom (August Diehl) for lunch to discuss moving the premiere of Nation's Pride from the luxurious Ritz to Shosanna's Le Gamaar. During this scene, it is clear the weight and import the concept of theater is in the film. It marks a pivotal turning point in the film, as the introduction of the theater acts as a lure to all the other characters in the diegesis. Shosanna and Frederick, the Nazi high command (including Goebells, Hitler and Landa), and later the Basterds will all converge on Le Gamaar. I mentioned Landa, and he is introduced later in the lunch scene which functions as a kind of recursion to his first interrogation with M. LaPadite. He and Shosanna are alone and Landa manipulates the props in the scene with aplomb. The strudel and cream are now legendary symbols of Landa's terrifying investigative prowess. 


Attendez la creme.

The final piece of this chapter is Shosanna's decision to take matters into her own hands and set in motion a plan of action that coincides with the Basterds', although unwittingly. Whatchu talkin' 'bout, Shosanna?

O RLY? How?

As Shosanna kindly elucidates for the audience, nitrate film is supremely flammable. Thus, the filmic becomes weaponized. The theater is now the theater of battle. During his inspection of Le Gamaar, Goebells remarked that Shosanna's theater was almost church-like. Tarantino is mixing the sacred with the profane here. We'll see the realization of these two "theaters" in chapter five. There's also some interesting territory to explore in terms of the theater being the church and blowing it up being a burnt offering, a sacrifice that will turn into self-sacrifice. In the next entry, we'll return to the Basterds and see how play-acting skills are essential in the success of their mission to go incognito in Nazi-occupied France.