Do you speak my language? (Inglourious Basterds)

by on Aug.23, 2009, under Movies

I don’t think I’m going to wait to synthesize my thoughts on Inglourious Basterds into one review-like piece.  Lucky me, I don’t have anything else to write about. Forthwith, the trickle, to stop when the well runs dry or Big Josh calls the plumber. I’ll try to keep spoilers after the jump.

Impressively, IB features dialogue in multiple languages, instead of what Matthew Yglesias called “Hollywood’s more conventional ‘Nazis speaking to each other in German-accented English.'” Main characters speak English, French, and German; Nazi officer Hans Landa rotates effortlessly between all three and even dips into Italian in one scene.

The first “chapter” of the movie is one long scene, close to twenty minutes, almost entirely given over to conversation. Landa visits the home of a French farmer; his purpose, which he presents as mere formality, is to make sure that his predecessor didn’t overlook any details pertaining to the Jews who used to live in the district.

For the first three pages (in the draft hosted at cineobscure, the scene runs 17 pp; I’ll use the screenwriter shorthand of 1 page=1 minute of screentime), Landa converses in French, subtitled. Then abruptly, he says:

COL LANDA

Monsieur LaPadite, I regret to inform you I’ve exhausted the extent of my French. To continue to speak it so inadequately, would only serve to embarrass me. However, I’ve been led to believe you speak English quite well?

PERRIER

Oui.

COL LANDA

Well, it just so happens, I do as well. This being your house, I ask your permission to switch to English, for the remainder of the conversation?

In the audience I sat in, we all laughed. No one wants to see a whole subtitled movie, so make use of a clunky pretext and be more “inclusive” to the audience.

However… (ahead there be spoilers)

…over the next eight pages of the scene, Landa slowly draws the truth out of the farmer: he’s hiding the Dreyfus family beneath his floorboards.

COL LANDA

Point out the areas where they’re hiding.

The Farmer points out the areas on the floor with the Dreyfuses underneath.

COL LANDA

Since I haven’t heard any disturbance, I assume that while they’re listening, they don’t speak English?

PERRIER

Yes.

COL LANDA

I’m going to switch back to French now, and I want you to follow my masquerade – is that clear?

PERRIER

Yes.

Colonel Landa stands up from the table, and switching to FRENCH says SUBTITLED IN ENGLISH:

COL LANDA

Monsieur LaPadite, I thank you for your milk, and your hospitality. I do believe our business here is done.

The Nazi officer opens the front door, and silently motions for his men to approach the house.

The movie’s first blast of gunfire follows as Landa’s men kill the family beneath the floorboards. The language trick, which felt like a cheap but fun joke about the devices of communication and inclusion in movies set in foreign lands, turns out not to function for our inclusion, but for the exclusion of the Jews whose presence Landa suspects. The mirror-image of the filmmaker’s gambit is the murderer’s. We’re in on the joke. The Jews are not.

Tarantino makes movies about movies, sure. Inglourious Basterds is no different. And yet.

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