on The Assertion of Power and Dominance: Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds (2009) by Luke Marcus Rosen

Worldwide, the protagonists of our lives fight for power and dominance in their quest for leadership, status and wealth. Similarly, the characters within the worlds of the films by Quentin Tarantino struggle with these very same things; and Tarantino masterfully uses the consumption of food and drink within his stories for his characters to assert their power and dominance. How do these characters declare themselves as top dog in Inglourious Basterds? By luxuriously indulging in culinary pleasures to establish their position on the social totem pole, spoiling themselves to these simple and exquisite hallmarks of nutrition, Tarantino is able to further convey to the audience who these characters are on the inside, where they stand, and how they utilize sustenance to establish their power and dominance over others.

The answer can be found as quickly as the first six minutes into the film. French dairy farmer Perrier La Padite (Denis Ménochet) receives a visit from SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) who must conduct a thorough investigation of the farmer’s premises, suspected of hiding Jews in Nazi-Occupied France during the Second World War. The farmer greets the Nazi colonel with dignity and respectful resilience, although trembling on the inside once its revealed to the audience he is really hiding Jews underneath his floorboards. Having traveled a great distance and knowing the man he is speaking to is a dairy farmer, Colonel Hans Landa asks for a glass of “delicious milk.” The situation is uncomfortable; La Padite’s daughters serve Landa milk, and he graciously drinks it in silence, in one large gulping. (00:06:00) Landa’s high-ranking position in the German military demands the utmost respect from victims of the occupation, and he utilizes his position and the long silence that accompanies his chug of milk to his advantage; seated, he drinks the milk and lets his finishing of the glass be the determination of when and how the conversation may proceed: he is in direct control of the situation at hand. Tarantino even amplifies the sounds of his gulping to further isolate this silence, only adding to the uneasiness of an already tense predicament. Without a burp, without contention and without a dull moment, Landa praises the farmer’s family and his cow with an eloquent remark in the farmer’s native French: “Mister, to both your family and your cows… I say, Bravo.” The transference of his compliment to the farmer as another indication that Landa is the authority figure in the room.

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Later in the conversation, Landa asks La Padite to excuse his daughters so that the interrogation can begin. As they discuss the whereabouts of a Jewish family that has gone missing, La Padite asks Landa if it will disturb him if he smokes; a subtle indication that La Padite (even in the comforts of his own home) must ask an invading Nazi if it is acceptable to do something that wouldn’t otherwise need permission. The simple questioning gives way to who has more power in the room. As La Padite packs and smokes his pipe, he discusses the rumors of the Jewish family’s escape, detailing who they are, and how old they were. Landa goes into an analogy between Jews and rats, in hopes to procure a reaction from La Padite. Then, Landa asks to smoke his pipe—pulling out a rather large, impressive Meerschaum Calabash pipe. Compared to La Padite’s, Landa’s pipe is much larger in this mystery detective’s tale of who’s pipe is bigger; that can seemingly run in a million directions. The inner Sherlock Holmes is revealed in Landa; a cunning detective at heart, able to traverse a range of human emotions and pinpoint the very information he was looking for in the first place. Another moment of silence as Landa fetches the matches to light his pipe. He speaks in between puffs; another use of silence in his quest for asserting power over La Padite; “Now… my job… dictates… … … that I must have my men enter your home… and conduct a thorough search before I can officially cross your family’s name off my list… and if there are any irregularities to be found, rest assured there will be, that is unless you have something to tell me that makes the conducting of a search unnecessary.” (00:17:20) Landa corners La Padite with his words, all while indulging in his pipe, asserting his power at each puff of the way. An astute eye would notice La Padite has stopped smoking his pipe; perhaps his system cannot handle the hardship thrown at him. Perhaps Landa is making him sick. As the grandfather clock ticks the seconds away in the background, the dairy farmer’s eyes swell with tears, and the case is officially closed. Landa was successful in determining that La Padite had sheltered enemies of the state. 

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Meanwhile, a rogue troupe of elite Jewish-American commando soldiers makes their way on a glorious warpath against the Nazi machine. Led by Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) of the First Special Service Force, we peer in on their escapade as they overtake a bunker and hold German soldiers in captivity. While eating a bagel, Lt. Raine questions a German sergeant (Richard Sammel) who does not give in to Raine’s questioning. Raine summons the Bear Jew (Eli Roth); a Jewish-American soldier who kills his subjects with a baseball bat. Bagel in mouth, Lt. Raine claps for the Bear Jew, knowing exactly what is about to take place. (00:34:18-00:34:52) No exchange of power had occurred; the German sergeant remained prisoner, Lt. Raine remained the high-ranking officer of the victorious army, but the bagel gives the audience insight into the character of Lt. Aldo Raine. Chances are, watching a man get his brains bashed in by a baseball bat would make a viewer sick to their stomach. Not Lt. Aldo “the Apache” Raine; he watches with delight as his victim suffers a terrible death. His conviction in violence is so resolute, he’s able to keep his appetite as the violence ensues. Through this small detail, we can understand and qualify the kind of violence Lt. Aldo Raine is capable of. 

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Later, a Jewish escapee finds herself back under the gun when she is forced to attend a meeting with Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth), his interpreter/fetish object (Julie Dreyfus) and a German war-hero turned movie actor for a German pro-war film (Daniel Brühl). Shosana Dreyfus, (Mélanie Laurent) operating a cinema in occupied Paris under the name Emmanuelle Mimieux is forced to hold the screening in her theatre due to the war-hero’s infatuation with her. The real tension does not yet take place; the last person to the party has not arrived yet. But the assertion of power and dominance is prevalent throughout. Mimieux is offered champagne from an expensive bottle; poured into a gold-rimmed champagne glass, all indications of the bountiful wealth around her—of the power she could attain by simply abandoning her faith and her dead family, and courting the war-hero as her own.

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Following the explanation of the plan, Colonel Hans Landa arrives and it is revealed Landa would supply the security for the event. Having “informally met” in the opening act, the scene between Landa and Mimieux makes for a tremendous, powerful piece of cinema: compromising Mimieux’s cover that would perhaps be blown. While Goebbels and the war-hero get up to leave, Mimieux is politely held down by Landa: she is now trapped at the dinner table and an assertion of power, reveal of character and an exchange due to circumstance is about to commence.

As Landa asks Mimieux his first question as the detective, the waiter interrupts. Landa orders for the both of them: not just a sign of the times but also serves as a clear disposition and acknowledgement of who’s really at the wheel here. And not just the ordering for her, but Landa administers his first test: a glass of milk. He will see if she observes the Jewish law to not consume dairy after meat. Mimieux answers his questions with a frog in her throat, very clearly anxious. A crisp strudel is served, and Landa forces Mimieux to wait for the cream on top before digging in. Another right hook in Landa’s subtle fistfight for asserting dominance in the scene. He pours sugar into his espresso, taking his time just as he did in chugging the milk in the first act. More sound design from Tarantino as the tiny speckles of sweet sugar hit the cup of espresso—as Tarantino’s heightened reality comes to a boil. And as each of Landa’s important questions are let out, the waiter always interrupts: to take the order, deliver the food and administer a spoonful of cream on top of the strudels. The sequencing of these events is far from coincidental. With a deep breath, Mimieux cuts into her strudel and goes in for her first bite. As she eats her eyes widen from the flavor, and perhaps from getting over the shock that she’s consuming dairy. The tension created by such a simple, luxurious treat is so palpable on screen. While Landa consumes gorgeous mouthfuls of strudel, Mimieux cannot bring herself to have a second bite. During the shooting of the scene, Tarantino directed Christoph Waltz to understand one thing about the scene. “I want you to devour the strudel… I don’t want the audience to know ‘do you know? Do you not know?’ It can all be conjecture… I want you to do one thing, and one thing only. Concentrate on eating the strudel.” (Quentin Tarantino Talks About Food and Their Power in Movies) 

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In the same way Landa speaks between smoking his pipe in the first act, he speaks in between mouthfuls of strudel. Afterwards, he baits Mimieux into his second and final test, “I did have something else I wanted to ask you.” Landa observes Mimieux’s look of grave concern carefully as she reacts as naturally as she can to his remark. The suspicion of her heritage is confirmed for Landa in this very lethal moment. Having received everything he needs, Landa continues, “But right now, for the life of me, I can’t remember what it is. Oh well, must not have been important.” (01:00:38) Landa puts his cigarette out in Mimieux’s unfinished strudel and leaves her, as she weeps as soon as he is out of sight.

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In one of cinema’s subtlest mini-cameos, Mike Myers dressed as a British intelligence officer not named Austin Powers but named General Ed Fenech has a drink with Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) before the briefing of Operation Kino; an operation to assassinate Hitler. “What shall we drink to, sir?” Asks Hicox. “Well, umm, down with Hitler.” Replies General Fenech. They toast each other and take a swig. No power asserted amongst each other, but a hopeful dominance that Britain will one day win the war by bringing Adolf down. “All the way down, sir.” Hicox adds.

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Operation Kino is underway. Lt. Hicox rendezvouses with Lt. Aldo Raine and his crew of Basterds to meet a German actress/British spy under the name Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger). As the crew clinks their tankards and gets progressively more drunk, a high-ranking officer of the SS (August Diehl) interrupts their festivities, pointing out Lt. Hicox’s peculiar accent. After slightly defusing the situation, the high-ranking SS officer joins them at the table, paying close attention still. When Hicox orders three whiskeys with the American way to signal three with your fingers, the high-ranking officer catches on and Hicox’s cover is blown. In the process of ordering a thirty-three year old bottle of Scottish whiskey, Hicox had unintentionally given away his last hope to remain incognito as a German officer, and without even consuming the drink yet, all power was transferred to the high-ranking officer —the only true German at the table. Another use of silence as the German officer eyes all of them, before he raises his Walther P38 under the table to call the Brit’s bluff. Stuck in a Mexican standoff, Hicox switches to his native tongue English. “There’s a special room in hell reserved for people who waste good scotch. Seeing as I may be wrapping in the dull momentarily…” he drinks, “I must say, damn good stuff, sir.” (01:32:23)—the conceit an acknowledgement of the power transference from him to his authentic German counterpart. A large gunfight ensues and everyone, besides Hammersmark, loses their life.

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Before screening the German propaganda war film for a room full of high ranking Nazi officials as well as Hitler (Martin Wuttke), Mimieux and her projectionist Marcel (Jacky Ido) shoot a roll of film with the intention to splice their addition into the movie at the moment they intend on burning down their own cinema with Nazis trapped inside. Knowing they are embarking on a far-fetched quest to destroy a basket full of Nazi eggs, Marcel and Mimieux converse on how they plan to do it—over lunch. “But how do we get it developed?” Marcel asks. “Only a suicidal idiot like us would develop that footage.” (01:47:29) Mimieux chews her food as she ponders his question. “We find somebody who can develop and process a 35mm print with a soundtrack. And we make them do it… or we kill them.” Her ruthlessness and disgust for Nazis clearly conveyed, we get true sense of Shosana Drefus’s opinion on the Nazis—a reveal of character. Although, it’s safe to assume she’s hated Nazis from the start. Her revenge—coming soon. 

The Nazis gather in the lobby of Mimieux’s cinema to celebrate the film on the night of the screening. Colonel Hans Landa is on the scene to meet Hammersmark, who is in a fresh leg cast. Landa’s suspicion is already raised, as he found a woman’s shoe and Hammersmark’s own autograph in the basement where the Operation Kino rendezvous had failed. Hammersmark introduces Landa to her “three friends from Italy” who are really three of the Basterds: Lt. Aldo Raine, the Bear Jew, and another Basterd (Omar Doom). Landa asks about Hammersmark’s fresh leg cast, and detects her lying by asking where in Paris had she been climbing mountains. The conversation is already off on the wrong foot, as it were. 

None of the Basterds really speak Italian, and Landa corners them all when he begins to speak in their “native” language. Landa exerts his power in the vocabularies he is exercising from a whimsical, romantic tongue as the Basterds stupidly stare at him with disgust. From Lt. Raine’s first “Hello,” any audience member can detect they are not who they say they are. The Basterds hold their screening pamphlets and cards, Hammersmark holds her hands in anxious contempt, and Landa a glass of exquisite champagne. It is obvious he holds all the power and status in this conversation. (01:53:50) Another test from Landa forces the Basterds to say their names multiple times adds insult to injury. “One more time, but let me really hear the music in it!” After much gusto and forced over-pronunciation, Landa finally accepts who they are, (knowing they really aren’t) and asks for their tickets to see where exactly they are sitting. He has exercised his power over them, and now knows exactly where they’ll be in order to secure them before the real action begins.

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Operation Melt the Nazi Basket at the Cinema otherwise known as Operation Kino is compromised. Lt. Aldo Raine and one of his co-horts The Little Man (B.J. Novak) are captured by Landa, and they sit tied to a chair next to Landa at a table with a telephone, fine wine, and three glasses. After their captivity masks are removed, Landa asks them, “Tell me Aldo, if I were sitting where you’re sitting, would you show me mercy?” Detective Landa at work once again. Due to the circumstance he has all power in this situation, yet is possibly alluding to a brighter, more favorable outcome. “But if I don’t pick up this phone right here, you may very well get all four. And if you get all four, you end the war—tonight.” (02:07:33) All four meaning if Landa doesn’t call the cinema and alert his security of the operation, the operation would succeed, and Aldo’s remaining forces untouched by Landa’s security still at the cinema would be able to carry out their plan to kill Hitler, Goebbels, Goering, Bohmann, all in attendance. As well as a bunch of Nazis. “So gentlemen, let’s discuss the prospect of ending the war, tonight.” (02:07:45) Landa removes the cork from the wine bottle with grandiose style, administering his captives a bougie drink, and treats them as his equals. Through the offering of this celebratory wine, he intends to transfer some of his power back to the Basterds, provided that he receive a generous severance package from the Allies and that his loose ends are squared away by the victorious forces to be. Skeptical, Lt. Aldo Raine doesn’t buy it. Landa drops a remark far too hubristic for our civilization to comprehend. “In the pages of history, every once in a while fate reaches out and extends its hand. What shall the history books read?” (02:10:29)

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Tarantino rewrites history with Inglourious Basterds; a truth I did not appreciate upon first watching. But it was a realization that brings me to why I watch and rewatch Quentin’s films time and time again. The realization being that as artists, we are capable of changing history and influencing power in ways unimaginable and unattainable by any other means. Tarantino’s unique knack for utilizing the very sustenance that gives us life and energy is the way he allows us to transfer and communicate our power; a characteristic I have rarely seen executed so powerfully in all of cinema. Just ask Jules in Pulp Fiction when he snatches a Big Kahuna Burger from his enemy, or the rotten-toothed Calvin C. Candie who lives and runs a slave plantation known as Candieland as he sips Polynesian Pearl Drivers with rum in Django Unchained. For those who wish to become legend and follow in Tarantino’s footsteps, one must critically analyze these uses and transform them for the generations to come. 

Bibliography

Stern, Howard. “Quentin Tarantino Talks About Food And Their Power In Movies.” www.youtube.com/watch?v=O8jUYv_S9RE. Accessed 21 Apr. 2019.

Tarantino, Quentin, and Lawrence Bender. Inglourious Basterds. The Weinstein Company, 2009.