The development of conflict in Inglourious Basterds

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“Oooh, that’s a bingo. Is that the way you say it, that’s a bingo?”

 Foreign language as a catalyst for conflict in Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds_That's a bingo!

“A man who knows two languages is worth two men.” French Proverb

Negotiations are an important part of any war. Even more important is the ability to effectively convey one’s demands during them. One of the more comical scenes in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds occurs during negotiations between two of the movie’s rivals: Colonel Hans Landa of the Nazi SS and Lieutenant Aldo Raine of the American mercenary group, the Basterds. When Landa correctly guesses that the Basterds are overseen by an American General he exclaims, “oooh, that’s a bingo. Is that the way you say it, that’s a bingo?” to which Aldo replies, “you just say, bingo” (Inglourious 145). Colonel Landa’s struggle with English slang demonstrates a theme that runs throughout the movie: the use and misuse of foreign languages. World War II forced the contact between numerous ethnicities and, consequently, numerous languages. The impact of the exchange of languages during the war is displayed quite clearly throughout Inglourious Basterds. French, German, English, and Italian are spoken in the movie and their usage promotes character development and is the catalyst for the emergence of conflict in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.

In the first scene of the movie Colonel Hans Landa visits the home of a French dairy farmer, Monsieur LaPadite. Initially the Colonel speaks French to the famer. It has been determined that to successfully speak a language one must internalize the culture of the particular language[1]. When Landa speaks French he attempts to coincide with French culture to make LaPadite more relaxed, and we realize that Landa internalizes the culture of all the languages he learns so that he may speak them successfully. This idea is reflected when he remarks, “the feature that makes me such an effective hunter of the Jews is…I can think like a Jew” (11). Through his proficient language skills Landa connects with and thinks similarly to a variety of people. This personality trait is important as it explains Landa’s cunning ways and underhanded tactics that, through use of foreign languages, will facilitate conflict in the movie.

Soon into their conversation, Colonel Landa asks permission to switch to English and apologizes, “I regret to inform you I’ve exhausted the extent of my French” (6), even though he speaks the language quite well:

Inglourious Basterds_ I regret to inform you

We realize the full extent of the Colonel’s request to speak English when he asks the farmer if he is hiding his Jewish neighbors beneath the floorboards. Landa recognizes that the family does not speak English; therefore he chooses to direct the conversation in that language so that they will not panic and attempt escape. This act demonstrates how Landa uses his talent in language to his advantage; he is quick-witted in numerous languages and is therefore able to manipulate a variety of people in the war. It has been determined that the ability to successfully learn a second language coincides with heightened intelligence[2]. Thus, Landa’s skills in French and English are our first perception into his cunning intelligence that will promote the development of conflict in the movie. Landa uses his language skills to provoke Monsieur LaPadite into confessing, in English, that the family is indeed hiding beneath the floorboards.

Inglourious Basterds_shooting

Landa orders his men to shoot the family while they quietly hide beneath the house

Furthermore, this interesting shot angle from above enhances the conflict facilitated by Landa’s use of English. We gain a greater feel for Landa’s intensity and violence towards his enemies as chunks of the floor fly upwards towards the camera and the family is massacred below.

Later in the movie, German actress turned British spy, Bridget Von Hammersmark, waits in a bar for three Basterds disguised as German soldiers: Hicox, Wicki, and Stiglitz. Upon their arrival the group discusses plans to infiltrate the premier of the Nazi propaganda film, Nation’s Pride. However, a drunk Nazi Sergeant consistently interrupts them. Eventually, Hicox, who is a Brit disguised as a Nazi Captain, has had enough of the drunkard’s ploys and snaps in German, “you might not have worn out your welcome with the fräulein with your drunken, boorish behavior, but you have worn out your welcome with me,” to which the Sergeant replies, “excuse me, Captain, but your accent is very unusual” (97).

Inglourious Basterds_ accent is very unusual edit

Suddenly, a legitimate Nazi Major, Hellstrom, emerges from a back room of the bar and explains, “I too have an acute ear for accents. And like him, I too find yours odd” (98). The following situation demonstrates both the power of language proficiency and the destruction that follows a mediocre ability in a language and its customs.

Because it is his maternal language, Hellstrom is naturally skilled in German mannerisms, but since Hicox is British he can learn the language well enough to speak but not enough to convince the Major that he indeed hails from Germany. Eventually, Hellstrom suggests the group has another drink and Hicox orders three glasses:

Inglourious Basterds_ 3 glasses

The camera focuses on Hicox’s hand in order to highlight his fatal mistake

This simple gesture confirms Major Hellstrom’s suspicions that the men are imposters because, as Bridget explains, Germans gesture three in this way:

Inglourious Basterds_ german 3 glasses

The Major’s interaction with the Basterds in this scene provides us insight into his character. For example, Major Hellstrom’s ability to recognize simple gestures is indicative of his keen observance and heightened reasoning skills. In addition, the use and misuse of foreign language in this scene facilitates conflict in Inglourious Basterds; it is the catalyst for the downfall of the Basterds as a group and for the death of Bridget once Colonel Landa discovers her shoe at the bar and recognizes that they were involved in the deadly actions that transpired.

Inglourious Basterds_ shoe

Landa finds the “glass slipper” that incriminates Bridget and the Basterds

The collapse of the Basterds and Bridget Von Hammersmark continues at the premier of Nation’s Pride. Because all of the German-speaking Basterds were killed in the gunfight in the bar, Lieutenant Aldo, Donowitz, and Hirschberg devise a plan to pose as Italian filmmakers that are Bridget’s guests. They plan to use this disguise to infiltrate the Nazis because “Germans don’t have a good ear for Italian,” (122) and therefore they should not be suspected. What they do not know is that Landa has recently discovered Bridget’s connection with the bar massacre and subsequently is already suspicious of her. While socializing before the movie, Landa approaches Bridget, and she explains that her guests are Italian and do not speak a word of German. To their dismay, Colonel Landa speaks to the men in very advanced Italian and drills them with questions in the language, as shown in this video.

Landa once again demonstrates his skill in foreign language, which puts him a step ahead of everyone else he encounters in the movie. The men’s inability with the language confirms Landa’s suspicions about Bridget and the Basterds, and he is able to use these suspicions to his advantage. Landa strangles Bridget for working with the Basterds and then begins negotiations with Aldo and Utivich. Landa requests that Aldo relay a message to the United States stating that if they grant Landa citizenship and recognize him as a double agent working for the US then he will allow the Basterds to continue with their plan to kill Hitler:

Inglourious Basterds_Hitler killed

The Basterds fill Hitler with lead

This situation presents yet another instance where proficiency in foreign language facilitates conflict in Inglourious Basterds. Most importantly, Landa’s skill in languages in this scene provides the most definite insight into his character. Initially, it appeared that Landa worked full-heartedly for the Nazi cause, dedicating his skills in foreign language and sly, witty character to the Third Reich. In reality, his actions after foiling the Basterds’ plans demonstrate that, in fact, Landa works for no one but himself. Thus, the use of foreign language in this scene not only creates the extensive conflict in the movie with the deaths of the Nazis, but ultimately defines Landa as a selfish individual that has always worked for a way to achieve self-promotion rather than for the Nazi cause.

The use of various foreign languages is significant throughout Inglourious Basterds. Characters that are multilingual, particularly Colonel Hans Landa, posses sly personalities that are used to manipulate others for their own benefit. Simultaneously, a lack in multilingualism leads to the downfall of characters. However, in the end, the movie also displays that multilingualism can only aid one so much; Landa is eventually cornered by the Basterds and they carve a swastika into his forehead so that he may never use his abilities to manipulate others again.

Inglourious Basterds_swastika carving

Landa about to receive a “uniform he can’t take off”

Landa uses his skill in language against his enemies, but it ultimately leads to his downfall as well, which suggests that the abundant use of foreign languages in Inglourious Basterds is the catalyst for conflict in the movie.

Works Cited

         Brown, James D., Gordon Robson, and Patrick R. Rosenkjar. “Personality, Motivation, Anxiety, Strategies, and Language Proficiency of Japanese Students.” Motivation and Second Language Acquisition. 361-98. Google Books. Web. 11 Feb. 2013. <http://books.google.com/books?id=7MELVJorM6AC&gt;.

        Inglourious Basterds. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Perf. Christoph Waltz, Brad Pitt. Universal Pictures, 2009. DVD.

        Inglourious Basterds. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Perf. Christoph Waltz, Brad Pitt. Universal Pictures, 2009. Transcript.

Sharp, Alastair. “Personality and Second Language Learning.” Asian Social Science 4.11 (2008): 1-9. CCSE. Web. 12 Feb. 2013.


[1] http://books.google.com/books?id=7MELVJorM6AC

[2] http://www.ccsenet.org/journal/index.php/ass/article/view/783

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