February 21, 2010

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.

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