If there’s a sure thing at this year’s Academy Awards, it’s Christoph Waltz winning Best Actor for his performance as Nazi Colonel Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009). IB was one of my very favorite films of last year and Waltz was the maniacal glue that held the whole thing together. If anyone deserves the Oscar, it’s him. The other night I was roaming the dials and clicked onto an interview with Waltz on "Charlie Rose". Speaking of Tarantino’s ideas about Landa, Charlie Rose showed an earlier clip of QT on the show. Tarantino was talking about how Landa perceives himself as the ultimate detective and said this:
Everything he [Landa] does is some version of an interrogation and every piece of interrogation is a piece of theater.
Well, that’s interesting, I thought. Having seen IB three or four times already, I had already noted it’s a film steeped in film culture so much so there’s celluloid practically coming out its ears. But, theater, this was something different.
I dug deeper. I found an interview with Christoph Waltz where he addressed the theatrical construction of Inglourious Basterds:
/Film: I’d like to ask you, because you have many years spent in the theatre. And Eli says that actors will be performing scenes from Quentin’s script on the stage for years to come. [Ed. note: 100 years by Roth's precise calculation. Ha.] And in particular, he mentioned your scene, your introduction at the start, in the French farmhouse. Do you see Inglourious Basterds translating to the stage?
Christoph Waltz: Absolutely! I do think that is possible. Yes. Not the whole film, however. There is so much happening that is very, very, exclusively for film, it’s filmic, that it would really be…it would be violating the movie. But the first scene, by all means. And many of the individual scenes could very well be put on the stage. The first scene is essentially a one act play, and it’s not very short as such. I would not be surprised if the first scene is played on stages in the future.
What I’d like to investigate in a series of articles are the themes of film and theatricality at play in Inglourious Basterds. Popular reception of the film has been on the level of a revenge flick, which it certainly is, but there is more at work here than is first apparent. I think IB is probably Tarantino’s most complex film to date. This is certainly the case if we eliminate Jackie Brown (1997), which he adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel, leaving only his original works.
These entries will be divided as the film is, into chapters, which, although a literary construct, take on a more theatrical scene and act structure in Inglourious Basterds. But more on that later.
The first chapter, titled ‘Once Upon A Time…In Nazi-Occupied France’ is the perfect example of the theatrical stucture of Inglourious Basterds. As mentioned above, the meeting between Col. Landa (Waltz) and Perrier LaPadite, French dairy farmer covertly housing Jews under his floorboards (Denis Menochet) is a one-act play, stationary in setting and almost entirely conversational. Landa’s interrogation of M. LaPadite takes almost twenty minutes of screentime and is executed in the most exacting, minute detail, the SS Colonel squeezing LaPadite and the audience till the breaking point.
As Tarantino noted on "Charlie Rose", each Landa interrogation is a different performance. In this one, he is excessively polite and neatly official in his duties. Landa manipulates the objects of his profession, his pen and ink, his ledger with the names of the Jewish Dreyfus family, like props in a drama. Each moment and movement is calculated to extract the most information from LaPadite.
The tools of Landa’s trade become weapons he wields to ensnare his enemies. One element of theater Landa revels in is his nickname, the Jew Hunter. He knows M. LaPadite is aware of his “unofficial title,” and wheedles the Frenchman to reveal it. Landa revels in his nickname with a silky sense of pride. He establishes himself as the predator, allowing M. LaPadite to fill in the other side of the equation: he is the prey. As we’ll see in later chapters, when interrogating others, Landa will have an opposite reaction to his nickname. It’s another example of his eminent play-acting ability.
The central prop in this scene, however, is the comedic reveal of Landa’s pipe. After M. LaPadite has lit his own modest corncob pipe, Landa asks permission to smoke his own, in a deceptively servile gesture. The humor of the moment comes with the fact that the pipe he smokes is a giant Calabash. The absurdity of the contrast between the two mens’ pipes creates an uncomfortable, tension-breaking laughter in the audience but for Landa, it is one in a string of chess moves leading to M. LaPadite confessing he is harboring Jews on his property.
The Calabash pipe is cited as evidence to support a connection between Col. Landa and Sherlock Holmes as detectives, the large Calabash being, as Tarantino noted in the "Charlie Rose" interview, “the Sherlock Holmes pipe.” In public perception, this is true, however the Landa/Holmes relationship is complicated by the fact that the Calabash is not the type of pipe Holmes smokes in Conan Doyle’s stories and novels. In the Holmesian canon, Sherlock smokes various pipes, most of the time favoring a small, black clay pipe or a long cherrywood "when he was in a disputatious rather than a meditative mood" (The Adventure of the Copper Beeches). In fact, the Calabash was an invention of stage actor William Gillette who played Holmes at the turn of the century. It is theorized the switch was made to suit the audience, which would have less trouble seeing and hearing Gillette on stage with a pipe that sloped away from his face than one that jutted out in front of it. The Calabash was adopted by other stage and screen Holmes’, establishing the mental image, along with the Deerstalker cap, of the world’s most famous consulting detective.
All this back-story lends another layer of metatextuality of Waltz’s performance of Col. Landa, a man who fancies himself a Nazi Sherlock Holmes, a detective for hire, and a damned good one. Perhaps it was Tarantino’s and Waltz’s intention to include the Calabash because of its history on stage as another layer of theatrical reference to a character already defined by his play-acting. Perhaps the filmmakers were unaware of the connection. Either way, it is an interesting connection to the history of stage and screen performances that helps to inform and enrich Inglourious Basterds with meaning.
Eventually, Landa intimidates LaPadite into revealing the Dreyfuses hiding under his floorboards. With intensity, Landa commands LaPadite, “I want you to follow my masquerade, is that clear?” Landa is able to bully the farmer into submission with the strength of his theatrics. Quite simply, Landa prevailed in the interrogation because he was the better actor than M. LaPadite.
The scene comes to an end much as it began, reinforcing a curtain open/curtain close motif. Landa is such a powerful theatrical presence in fact, that he even commands stage directions, motioning for his Nazi troops to come into the house and shoot the Dreyfuses.
Curtain up on the LaPadite's farm...and curtain down as sole survivor Shosanna escapes.
Landa conducting the figures on the stage...and signaling the Dreyfuses' exit.
The closing lines of the scene, “Au revoir, Shosanna!” signal the exit of Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent) who will become one of the major players in the rest of the film. Waltz’s Col. Landa has commanded the stage for the entire first chapter of Inglourious Basterds and will continue to do so with each subsequent appearance on screen.