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.


  1. I'm absolutely adoring these IB posts! I never thought about viewing the film in the way you're proposing but it adds a whole different level to the film.

    Keep up the great posts! I can't wait to see what film you take on next.

    Sonya (honey_child on LJ)

  2. Wow, thanks!! And thank you for posting the first ever Sales on Film comment. Haha. Hopefully there will be many more to come.