February 21, 2010

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.

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