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A Return to Basterds: The Monstrous Artist

Ian David Philpot

Stephen Swanson returns to his series investigating Inglourious Basterds. In this and the final entries, he will look at a central opposition between the “artistries” of Col. Landa (Christopher Waltz) and Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent) and how they show QT’s significant opinions on the artistic process and the power between the creator and audience both in the cases of each of these characters and between Tarantino and his viewers. Landa and Dreyfus illustrate the dangers and potential of artists who both come from positions of social, political, or cultural power or weakness. This week focuses on the use of Landa’s character in this exploration.

The Tension of the Setting

Col. Landa’s arrival at the farmhouse of Pierre LaPadite (Denis Menochet), in the opening scene, establishes Tarantino and Waltz’s focus on the power of stories and artistry to attract and repel or to protect or destroy, often at the same moment. One watches the beautiful countryside and hears elegant music. However, the soundtrack also contains the sound of Pierre’s chopping of wood, both bucolic and potentially violent. The visual of him chopping steadily and shirtless both highlights his individual strength and his vulnerability. The farmhouse has an unobscured view of the surrounding fields which is both commanding and holds the potential of threat in the distant treelines. Just as Tarantino pans through these elements, the sight and sound of an official, black car invades the frame, slowly making its way to towards Pierre’s place of strength and vulnerability. Politically, Landa’s status as occupier holds all the cards, but practically speaking Pierre’s knowledge and history in the place also give him both vulnerability and potential strength

The Tension of the Men

Landa and his fellow-Nazi escorts immediately threaten, visually and literally. Landa’s polite request to enter the house does not fool Pierre or the audience familiar with the Nazi-officer archetype, creating a tie in perspective that Tarantino, Waltz, and Menochet play throughout the scene. Landa continues the performance of the archetype, with both Pierre and the viewer, as he asks for Pierre’s daughters to wait outside, at once attempting a commonality, since his colleagues are outside, but also a threat as he praises the daughters’ beauty and asks Pierre to place them out of his protection and with the soldiers with guns. He requests milk, praises the cows, and identifies Pierre’s status as an excellent dairy farmer and father in the region but drinks like a child. Landa methodically removes the tools of bureaucracy: pen, paper, filling the pen, and highlighting the mere formality of the meeting. Pierre prepares his pipe and smokes, and Landa removes his ridiculously proportioned meerschaum pipe and begins the process of smoking it. His performance simultaneously comforts his immediate and cinematic audiences. Landa shows his mastery as an actor just as Waltz performs the same feat.

The Tensions of the Artist

These elements all contribute to an audience who both immediately knows and recognizes where they are and what’s happening but also that they cannot make assumptions about the progression of elements of the story and performances. The aware audience, along with Pierre, knows the inevitable result of this visit. Landa/Waltz’s ability and power align to create a character both perfect and monstrous who only toys with Pierre’s hope to persist in silence and brevity to protect the Jews beneath his floorboards. The appearance of reason only barely covers the terrible truth that lies beneath, the goal to extinguish a people, and the joy Landa gets in playing with people, treating them as characters and props in the performance of his beloved identity as the “Jew Hunter”.

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Stephen Swanson teaches as an assistant professor of English at McLennan Community College. Aside from guiding students through the pitfalls of college writing and literature, he spends most of his time trying to remain reasonably aware of popular culture, cooking, and enjoying time with his wife and son. He holds degrees in Communications, Film, and Media and American Culture Studies from Calvin College, Central Michigan University, and Bowling Green State University, respectively. In addition to editing a collection, Battleground States: Scholarship in Contemporary America, he has forthcoming projects on Johnny Cash and depiction of ethics in contemporary film noir.