Quentin Tarantino’s World War II historical fiction revenge film, Inglourious Basterds, makes specific stylistic choices with regard to language which significantly affect the quality of the film by providing characterization, generating thematic tension, and even directly influencing the plot. Generally speaking, the choice of which language to use in a film is almost done by default, particularly in films where only one language is spoken. Many films which directly portray speakers of different languages interacting choose to ignore the challenges associated with that problem in favor of easily advancing the plot. But, in Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino’s masterful use of language moves beyond a mere aspect of style, and doubles as a strong indicator and generator of specific elements of subject: plot, characterization, and tone. In this piece, we will analyze three scenes which typify how Tarantino takes advantage of language to enhance the story with this unique and fascinating stylistic choice.
The opening scene to the film provides the audience with our first example of this particular use of language, and also aptly introduces us to the nature of the problem in the first place, setting us up for much more to come. In this scene, we are introduced to Colonel Hans Landa of the SS, portrayed by Christoph Waltz (who won an Oscar for best supporting actor for this role) as well as a French dairy farmer, Perrier LaPedite. On a basic plot level, this scene shows Landa interrogating LaPedite regarding the whereabouts of members of a neighboring Jewish family who have gone missing. During the interrogation, it is revealed that the family is hiding under the floorboards. Landa discovers this and the family is executed, except for the eldest daughter Shosanna.
This scene begins with both Landa and LaPedite speaking perfect French, with subtitles to assist the audience. This decision by Tarantino should not be overlooked, as forcing an audience to read subtitles can easily backfire, either by scaring them away from the get-go by word of mouth, or by causing their attention to lose focus during the scene. Aware of this, we get an almost tongue-in-cheek request from Landa: he apologizes to LaPedite for his poor understanding of the French language, and asks to switch the conversation to English, which he is excited to hear that LaPedite knows quite well. As the audience, we are initially struck with how ridiculous this request is, as Landa has spoken perfect French from the beginning of the scene, but we are aware that this will make the scene easier to follow for us. Initially, we view this as a slightly awkward, but definitely funny way for Tarantino to move away from subtitling the entire scene.
Of course, we are woefully mistaken. As the scene continues and LaPedite provides his knowledge on the Dreyfus family, a simple camera movement takes us from the English conversation down through the floorboards where we see them hiding in a crawlspace. The tension in the scene skyrockets, and we are now fearful for both the hidden family and LaPedite. Still, the scene continues in English and adopts a slightly confrontational tone as Landa waxes philosophical about how the Jewish spirit is personified by the rat. Then, the climax of the scene occurs as Landa finally breaks LaPedite and correctly identifies the location of the Dreyfus family. Here, Landa reveals his ruse by asking, “Since I haven’t heard any disturbance, I assume that while they’re listening, they don’t speak English?” This is the point when the audience realizes that Landa’s earlier ham-fisted excuse to converse in English was not Tarantino’s lazy (or funny) solution to the problem of an entire scene with subtitles, but instead a masterful manipulation by Landa in order to conceal this climactic moment from the Dreyfus family.
Let’s imagine this entire scene spoken in English, as though Landa and LaPedite were communicating in a common language and Tarantino chose to make it as easy as possible on the audience – how does this version of the scene suffer? First, without the request to switch languages from Landa, we lose a definite moment of humor and the subsequent tone that is set from that interaction. That familiar, almost tongue-in-cheek tone remains throughout the scene, but is slowly eroded as Landa’s interrogation becomes more pointed and adversarial and the Dreyfuses’ hiding place is revealed. And, once Landa’s plan becomes clear, the tension almost snaps as we realize that this is not humorous at all, but precise and ruthless. Without the various shifts in language, we would lose much of this journey and the scene would have to play out very differently, if only because Landa would find it difficult to extract information from LaPedite while keeping that information from the hiding Dreyfus family. Also, this scene establishes the intelligence of Landa, providing characterization in a subtle but effective way and laying the groundwork for similar scenes later in the film where his language mastery will play an important role. This single stylistic choice in the opening scene informs aspects of subject by generating tension and humor, providing details of character, and figuring critically in the plot itself. More importantly, it piques the attention of the audience with regards the language elements of the film, indicating to us that this motif will be important throughout.
The second scene where language is important is far more subtle, but also includes Colonel Hans Landa and Shosanna Dreyfus (now under the name Emmanuelle Mimieux; I’ll continue to refer to her as, “Shosanna”). This is the diner scene where Fredrick Zoller convinces Joseph Goebbels to relocate the premier of his film to Shosanna’s movie theatre. This scene begins as Shosanna is led into the diner at the hands of the police. She is initially unsure of why she is being detained, but learns that she has been summoned before Goebbels at the behest of the smitten Zoller to be interrogated about the specifications of her theatre. Midway through this scene, Landa shows up and continues the interrogation while Shosanna attempts to remain calm while answering his inquiries.
Here, the choice of language contributes to tension by linguistically isolating Shosanna from the rest of the characters and the audience. The only languages spoken in this scene are French and German, and until Landa arrives, communication is mostly through an interpreter who relays Goebbels questions to Shosanna . This establishes to the audience that Shosanna does not understand German and puts her in the unique situation as the only person who does not understand the conversation (both on screen and in the audience, as we get subtitles). In fact, there is a stretch in this scene where only German is spoken for nearly two full minutes, none of which is understood by Shosanna. If we imagine ourselves in her place, unsure of what is being discussed, we are first confronted with confusion, which transforms to terror when Landa appears and speaks at length about Shosanna in German with the other characters at the table. Again, Tarantino’s decision to use language in a nuanced way generates additional tension in this scene which could not exist if every character were speaking English.
Landa effortlessly moves between languages and switches to French to ask Shosanna more questions about her and her theatre. There is an interesting contrast between this interrogation and Goebbels’. Goebbels spoke German and had to be translated through an interpreter, but Shosanna was reasonably comfortable and at-ease during this portion of the interview. Despite the fact that Landa speaks to her in her native language, these questions feel more pointed, more intrusive, and more dangerous. This language shift, from Shosanna’s perspective, should make her more comfortable, but it clearly does not. This may suggest that while the particular language being spoken certainly plays a role in Tarantino’s story, we cannot ignore the content of what is being said, nor the context of the conversation. Regardless, it is clear that language has dramatically added to the tension in this scene, while also adding some commentary on how ease of communication is not necessarily indicative of an increase in safety or security, an idea upon which Tarantino capitalizes in the next scene.
The final scene, which showcases Tarantino’s fascinating decision to take advantage of spoken language, involves the most subtle linguistic concept – that of an unfamiliar accent. I am speaking, of course, of the scene in the bar, where the stylistic choice to have everyone speak in German plays the most direct role in the plot that we see in the entire film. In this scene, the two native German-speaking Basterds (Hugo Stiglitz and Wilhelm Wicki) team up with Lt. Archie Hicox, who speaks German as a second language, ostensibly for his profession as an analyst of German cinema. Their mission is to meet a German actress, Bridget von Hammersmark, who is their contact for Operation Keno, a secret plot to assassinate the leaders of the Nazi party during Frederick Zoller’s film debut. This meeting takes place in a basement bar where von Hammersmark is drinking with some German soldiers, and one of them notices that Hicox has a peculiar accent which he cannot place. The Basterds attempt to intimidate his curiosity away, but a commanding officer named Major Hellstrom picks up the line of questioning. Despite the Basterds’ attempts to assuage Hellstrom, Hicox unwittingly holds up the wrong three fingers (index, middle, and ring) when ordering some Scotch whisky, outing himself as a non-native (a native German would hold up the thumb instead of the ring finger in this instance). This leads to a veritable bloodbath, with only von Hammersmark escaping alive.
It is astounding how important language is to the plot of this scene. In the previous scenes we have looked at, language was a source of tension or characterization, and that is true here as well. But, the power that language has to propel the plot in this scene is unrivaled throughout the rest of the film. The characters in this scene were chosen because they spoke perfect German, which makes them the ideal spies, not only for the contact with von Hammersmark, but for the entirety of Operation Keno. Without this prerequisite, any member of the Basterds could be in this scene, and while their subsequent deaths would be tragic, they would be nowhere near as significant to the success of the mission. Therefore, Tarantino’s specific use of language here places dramatic restrictions on how the story must unfold from this scene onward. It dictates which Basterds must be present, and magnifies the importance of their demises, to the point that Aldous is practically resigned to abandon the mission after these three are lost.
Since Tarantino has shown us that he treats language-based tension seriously, the audience willingly believes that Hellstrom has an ear for German accents and has no trouble placing the birth towns of the two German-born Basterds, but struggles with the imposter Hicox. From this simple yet subtle point, we are treated a magnificent scene fraught with tension generated not because of what the characters are saying or doing, but because one of them happens to speak with an odd accent. The banter which follows with the questions game couldn’t be more ridiculous for the situation, and yet throughout we worry that it is merely a ploy that Hellstrom is using to trick Hicox into slipping up somewhere. It is significant that it is a non-verbal communication that finally confirms Hellstrom’s suspicion. Language has been treated with respect throughout this film, by both film-maker and characters – and Hicox is a well-studied spy quite capable of passing as German in a linguistic sense. Still, Tarantino hangs his entire plot on the idea that communication is more than just verbal, and again suggests that ease of communication is not paramount in deciding the fate of these characters.
Finally, I think it is important to attempt to imagine this bar scene being spoken in English. Not only is the entire plot-point absolutely impossible, there would be no tension, no subterfuge, no reveal at all. In effect, the scene would have to be completely re-imagined. There is a possibility that the “English 3” still fells the Basterds, but how would the entire scene lead up to that? This scene is only possible due to Tarantino’s choice to have the characters speak German. It generates tension, absolutely drives the plot, and ultimately leads to the climax of the film. It is without a doubt the most powerful scene in the film, and would be impossible without German being the spoken language.
Choice of language in a film is usually automatic. In movies where multiple languages can be spoken or interact, a director can choose to ignore it completely and have everyone speak English. If some characters must speak in a foreign language, a director can easily use subtitles to allow the audience to understand what is being said, but derive no true dramatic, thematic, or character dividends from those subtitles. Tarantino leaps beyond these trite solutions to language use and takes full advantage of the available tension that results from language use in times of war and espionage. Ultimately, an Inglourious Basterds where everyone speaks English, or where characters speak their native language at face value is a woefully different and worse film. If one were to watch this film while imagining it completely in English, it become evident just how important Tarantino’s choice is to the success of the movie as a whole, and that it would be a different movie absent this choice. That difference shows us how aptly Tarantino has used a peculiar aspect of style to inform the subject of his film, a feat which cements Inglourious Basterds as one of the greatest films of this century, and one of the most intriguing films to ever analyze the tensions inherent between speakers of different languages.