The Charming Psychopath of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS

There are so many types of villains in the movies- mobsters, monsters, scoundrels, crooks, creeps, vixens, killers… and they come in all persuasions of evil, smarmy, spooky and scary. The variety of ‘bad guys’ reminds me of the scene in Mel Brooks’ BLAZING SADDLES (1974) when Harvey Korman as Hedy (err, that’s Hedley) Lamarr rounds up every nasty ne’er-do-well in the wild west. Check out this clip of:  “Boy Is He Strict” Video.

The Bandit needs no stinkin' badges. Along with Slim Pickins and Harvey Korman, we see villainry in western parody.

This bandit needs no stinkin’ badges. Along with Slim Pickins and Harvey Korman, we see villainry via the western parody.

A truly outstanding villain is pure cinema gold. Audiences root for the courageous and upstanding hero or heroine to save the day and we crave happy endings. But we clamor for a hard-fought battle of good vs. evil along the way. Let’s face it, the good-doer protagonist earns no glory without a truly heinous antagonist in equal measure of nasty.

When I think of all the memorable villains in film, I’m mesmorized by  the charming ones. There’s something fascinating about the hustle of a highly social persona who draws in his/her victims. There’s no need for lurking in dark shadows or ill manners when they lust the dance of enticement, right in the bright spotlight. Christoph Waltz as Colonel Hans Landa in Quentin Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) is a perfect example of this particular hybrid of the charming psychopath of the silver screen.

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The story takes place in a parallel universe of nazi-occupied France during World War II where a small troop of Americans, nicknamed the ‘Basterds’, seek to fulfill a heavy thirst of redemption against ‘nazi Jew hunters’ with a bloody vengeance. The year is 1941. We are introduced to their unique nicknames and fighting styles- like “the Bear Jew” who prefers bashing SS skulls with a baseball bat, or their other trademark of scalping nazis upon capture. When it comes to a universally known symbol of villainy, you can’t get much more iconically evil than the nazis.

Tarantino is known for a flair for violence in his filmmaking. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is no exception to this reputation and we see violence coming from both sides. This renegade band of soldiers’ gruesome approach to justice is an unorthodox secret weapon. Yet as vile as their violence may be, I can’t help but taste some sour but sweet satisfaction as the Basterds serve up their revenge on the nazis.

While there are many scenes depicting the plotting schemes of the Basterds to counteract the Third Reich’s occupation in France (including a grand plan to take down an entire movie house filled with members of the SS and Hitler himself), some of the most eery and disturbing moments come from Waltz’ portrayal as Landa.

NOT DINNER TABLE CONVERSATION Scene:

In this opening scene, we feel the extreme tension build when a dairy farmer and his family receives a visit from the nazis. Here we get an intimate introduction to the Landa method of the social predator. He starts in by following a strict adherence to formality of cordial manners. He initially speaks in their language (French) not his own (German), then later asks his permission to continue the rest of the discussion in English. He smiles warmly. He’s not just polite, he’s highly complimentary. He’s enjoying himself as he closely examines the farmer and his family, expectant that they should respond in kind like a neighbor dropping in. After this facade of politeness and respect, he firmly controls the conversation and the tone by painstakingly taking his time through every single step of an interrogation. The audience feels the mounting tension in pace with the farmer, Monsieur Perrier LaPadite (Denis Menochet).

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Landa continues his upper-hand by letting it be known to the cautious farmer that there’s absolutely nothing that he can hide from him- in ecsquisite detail as he lights his pipe. Cooly and calmly confident, Landa has complete control. He’s snared his victim into a corner. Swiftly, the Jewish family trapped under the floor boards is gunned down in a shower of bullets. One of the hunted has escaped through the crawlspace, Shosanna (Melanie Laurent) is covered in mud as she runs for her very life across the open field in a John Ford-esque door frame shot. Landa has a clear shot within range, but he chooses to wait; holding his gaze upon her with his pointed gun without squeezing the trigger. He wants this moment to linger, then he calls out to her just to let her know he chose to savor in her horror. She flees but does she ever fully escape from his haunting threat? See a snippit of the scene here and note how the music adds to the emotional horror, as the strings reflect to the chaos and building tension.

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Like a cat that toys with the mouse, Landa loves the game. It’s not enough for him to catch and kill his victims, he desires to tease and play with the victims’ fears. It whets his appetite by manipulating them into their false sense of security by exhibiting his prowness for charm and social manners. He then turns the table as he eliminates any hope for his victim. But not before he takes little pauses to express child-like joy in watching them squirm. He literally cooes and squeals at times.

I LOST MY APPETITE AT THE CAFE Scene:

In this scene, Shosanna finds herself in another horrific predicament. She’s now operating a local movie theater when a popular German actor/nazi officer has taken a shine to her. He insists that she tag along with him when he joins several SS officers at a local cafe, including Hans Landa. Reunited with her demon tormentor, the tension is nearly unbearable as she finds herself facing the exact same nazi that ruthlessly killed her family.

Yet again, he brings on the charm; showing off his intelligence, culture and appreciation for the ‘finer things’ via his joy for a special dessert. While he regales in his delectable desire for cream topping, she is barely holding it together. Of course she recognizes him instantly and hopes he doesn’t recognize her. The horrors of their last encounter is washing over her in contrast to each of his probing questions masked as superficial chit-chat. This excrutiating verbal dance can be seen in this Video clip.

THE ITALIAN JOB:

In yet another tense scene, the German actress/double agent Bridget Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) who is working with the ‘Basterds’ attends the premiere film screening for the grand plan of nazi destruction. She introduces Hans Landa to three of the ‘Basterds’ who are working undercover, as Italian filmmakers- Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) as a stuntman, and the other two, Sgt. Donny (Eli Roth) and PFC Omar (Omar Doom) as camera men. Playing with his food like a killer whale with a baby seal, Landa tosses them about and watches them squirm and flail in their awkward attempts to deceive him.

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The Basterds trio pretend to only speak Italian (eventhough they only know a few words between them) assuming the Colonel doesn’t know a single word. But this smooth killer is too slick. Not only does he speak fluent Italian but he further toys with them by asking them to repeat their names, as much as three times over- just to show he’s the one in charge of this ruse. When she lies to him about how she broke her ankle, he laughs hysterically to the point of making a scene. He knows her explanation is incredulous and he drives home that point, abundantly. Another controlling tactic. [See the clip here.]

THAT’S NO GLASS SLIPPER and NO PRINCE CHARMING Scene:

When Hans Landa methodically unveils Von Hammersmark’s  betrayal, he begins the hunt as before. At first he keeps his usual strict code of manners and formality. But he closes in faster this time. Less time spent enjoying the victim squirm. Just enough time to watch her slip into the shoe found earlier where nazis where gunned down in a basement pub (his confirmed evidence of her working with the Basterds). It’s not long before he leaps into his primal side. The beast is now unleashed. His dark side, which is ever-present but usually masked in a different method, is now completely exposed. He feels no need to play the game here- he goes straight for the kill. [See clip here. *Note profanity alert.]

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For any of you who have yet to have seen this film, I chose to only highlight a few scenes as opposed to a detailed synopsis of the full film, in order to focus on this unforgettable villain. But don’t worry, this nazi may have mastered serial killer charm, he also receives his own branding of justice and come-uppance in the end.

Christoph Waltz was relatively unknown to American audiences yet a seasoned actor of the stage before landing this part. It was this talented portrayal of Hans Landa that quickly turned him into an ‘overnight sensation’. He followed by working additional great roles, including partnering again with Tarantino as an atypical hero in DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012). He continues to be a fan favorite at the box office and has become a household name.

This was my contribution to THE VILLAIN BLOGATHON hosted by the lovely ladies at Speakeasy, Shadows & Satin, and Silver Screenings. Explore each of their blogs for complete listings of each day’s recaps (April 13-17) with fascinating contributors. Enjoy!

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Breaking Codes and Keeping Secrets in THE IMITATION GAME (2014)

ImitationGame_poster

The 87th annual Academy Awards, or The Oscars as it has been coined since 2013, broadcasts just hours from now. Many say this year’s line-up of nominees have all but secured the winners for the main categories. For Best Picture, initially buzz suggested BOYHOOD will be the clear winner. Based on ticket sales some main streamers are vying for AMERICAN SNIPER. But most recently BIRDMAN seems to be the favored choice. I’d prefer to discuss a Best Picture nominee that isn’t getting as much hoopla as its contenders, yet I believe it deserves a closer look.

To be so profoundly moved by a film and yet trepidatious to scribe a review may sound bizarre. But that’s exactly what I faced after screening Morten Tyldum’s THE IMITATION GAME (2014). The reason is simple. I didn’t want to spoil what I experienced for fellow film goers by giving away key points. And yet my desire to express my thoughts on this wondrous film is too strong to keep all to myself. So, here we go.

[WARNING: If you have not seen THE IMITATION GAME, read no further. Instead, go to your local participating movie house and see this film. ASAP. Then come back here and continue reading. All others may proceed…]

THE IMITATION GAME (2014) is the true story of Alan Turing (portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch), not your ordinary run-of-the-mill, socially-challenged, genius code-breaker. It’s WW2 in England. Hitler and his evil forces are hammering hard and have the upper hand thanks to an ingenuis machine built to incript coded messages, aptly named ‘Enigma’.

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So her majesty’s top military enlists a team of brilliant code-breakers of various strengths and dysfunctions. One of the teammates, Keira Knightly as Joan Clarke, has to be ‘snuck in’ under the guise as part of the secretarial pool because of the sexist code of the times. How on earth could an attractive young woman who is so brilliant that she beats the instructor’s record be seen using her brain to fight Hitler with a bunch of men when it’s her job to get married and birth babies, right? As for Turing, his introduction is reminiscent of Cumberbatch’s “Sherlock” character in his offensively socially unaware Aspbergers ways and equally brilliant. If he wasn’t so brilliant and so desperately needed, he would have been fired before he was hired by Commander Denniston (Charles Dance). The team soon discovers Turing doesn’t ‘play well with others’ and he ostracizes himself immediately.

With an obsessive determination, Turing stays on task and the others eventually realize the genuis of his quirky methods. But the process to counter the Enigma with the ultimate code-breaking machine (the precursor to the first computer) of his own making takes time. During these years, obstacles present themselves.

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In these sexist times, Clarke feels pressure from her family to fit the female stereotype so Turing agrees to an engagement so her family doesn’t deem her an old maid and she can continue working on the project. Clarke and Turing work well together and respect each other but there’s no love chemistry- he agrees to the arrangement as a matter of necessity and convenience. Meanwhile, a spy is suspected and later discovered to be in their midst. When Turing discovers the traitor, he is forced to keep it secret as British Intelligence follow the Soviet spy’s work. And throughout the entire project, Turing gets constant pressure from Commander Denniston threatening to shut him down and he eventually succeeds.

But not before Turing’s wonder machine ultimately works, just in the knick of time. And to keep the Nazis from upsetting our Allies’ tracking, this team must keep it all very secret; even after the war’s end, including destroying all evidence of its existence and never taking credit.

As if this journey was not a fascinating enough peek into landmark events of our past, the rest of the film reveals an ugly side of history that many before this film were unaware. When I asked my more tech-savvy friends, they had already heard of Turing’s contributions to computer science, but not of the details of the extensive obstacles and secrets Turing endured but more specifically not of the injustices he faced regarding his homosexuality.

The ‘spoiler’ here that many like myself did not see coming was that Alan Turing, shortly after creating an intregal force in stopping Hitler, was forced to take chemical castration as punishment for his sexuality in order to continue his work. His code-breaking machine was named after his secret boyhood crush that was a sad tale in itself. And while his friend and collegaue Joan Clarke attempted to help create a cover via a marriage of convenience, he needed to be himself.

The Sexual Offences Act of 1967 was the legal step finally taken to decriminalize homosexuality in the United Kingdom. A legal righting of a grave wrong that sadly came too late. At the end of the film, after facing public shame of facing criminal charges for his homosexuality, after enduring years of extraordinary work with no credit, after enduring the hormonal effects of being a man placed on estrogen therapy, after years of keeping such deep war secrets of espionage that even his own team members were unaware, Turing ended his own life in 1954.

This story is both heart-breaking and inspiring. What’s most fascinating about this biopic is that here is a man who was critically responsible for ending the European campaign in WWII and likely saving millions of lives, yet I had never heard of him in that context. And what’s worse is this man of such profound significance to our world, was stopped short of reaching even greater contributions simply due to bigotry.

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It’s the realization of that which opened the flood gates for me. As the credits rolled and the tears trickled down my cheeks, I wondered if he felt all alone. That perhaps his only true moment of feeling love and appreciation was in that boyhood friendship that yearned for more, or perhaps via his own obsessive tinkering- unfortunately both cases being essentially unrequited. A film that tells such a thought-provoking story and invokes such emotions, is certainly Oscar worthy.


This post was written as a contribution to the 31 DAYS OF OSCAR BLOGATHON month-long celebration in coordination with TCM, hosted by Aurora of ONCE UPON A SCREEN, Paula of PAULA’S CINEMA CLUB, and Kellee of OUTSPOKEN & FRECKLED. Check out all four weeks of informative and enlightening posts: ACTORS, SNUBS, CRAFTS, PICTURES/DIRECTORS.

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STALAG 17 (1953)

stalag 17 poster

Billy Wilder was an Austrian born filmmaker/writer/director… and all-around cinema genius. Born Samuel Wilder on June 22, 1906 in Sucha, Austria, Wilder went from being a Viennese reporter to a free-lance writer in Berlin where he started working on film scripts in 1929. As Hitler rose to power, Wilder moved to Paris to direct his first film, as he feared his Jewish ancestry would threaten his existence in nazi occupied Germany. Via his film connections including friend Peter Lorre, he made a new home the United States. Once in the U.S. he found great success in writing and directing films. But it became a very personal film for Wilder when he made STALAG 17 (1953).

Robert Straus and Billy Wilder poke fun on the set of STALAG 17

Robert Straus and Billy Wilder poke fun on the set of STALAG 17

Billy Wilder giving direction to Otto Preminger

Billy Wilder giving direction to Otto Preminger

His parents, Berl and Gitla Siedlisker died at the hands of nazis. He discovered that his stepfather had died at a concentration camp in 1942 and his mother was murdered a year later in another concentration camp, Plaszow. Additionally, his grandmother died in 1943 in a Jewish ghetto. While he generally avoided discussing this dark and tragic topic openly, this horrific tragedy no doubt left and imprint on his life. His successes grew with films across the 30’s and 40’s and into the 50’s. But it was during the early 1950’s with films like ACE IN THE HOLE (1951) and STALAG 17, Wilder felt free to take a more cynical, personal cause approach to his filmmaking.

STALAG 17 was originally a play written by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski which ran on Broadway, as directed by Jose Ferrer, for 472 performances. When Wilder took it the big screen, Paramount wanted to downplay the German negativity to avoid offending West Germany audiences, so they suggested making the German officers Polish. Wilder refused. And despite solid profits from STALAG 17 (1953), Paramount felt less generous in sharing to make up for the financial loses from ACE IN THE HOLE (1951), which experienced less than stellar performance at the box office. (A film that was ahead of its time and is much more appreciated today.) Wilder made this his last film with Paramount.

This story is based on reflections of the real experiences from Stalag 17B in a POW camp in Austria. The big screen version begins with a voice-over narrative, as several Billy Wilder films did. At the POW camp where the entire story takes place, we are introduced to a cast of characters from one of the barracks and the nazi guards:

William Holden… Sgt. JJ Sefton

Don Taylor… Lt. James Dunbar

Otto Preminger… Oberst von Scherbach

Robert Strauss… Sgt. Stanislaus “Animal” Kuzawa

Harvey Lembeck… Sgt. Harry Shapiro

Richard Erdman… Sgt. “Hoffy” Hoffman

Peter Graves… Sgt. Frank Price

Neville Brand… Duke

Sig Ruman… Sgt. Johann Sebastian Schulz

Michael Moore… Sgt. Manfredi

Peter Baldwin… Sgt. Johnson

Robinson Stone… Joey

Robert Shawley… Sgt. “Blondie” Peterson

William Pierson… Marko the mailman

Gil Stratton… Sgt. Clarence Harvey “Cookie” Cook

[Warning: the following Synopsis will likely contain spoilers…]

Stalag 17

Stalag 17 confrontation

The men have planned an escape for two of the prisoners. They all discuss the details of the route inside the barracks: from a secret opening under the stove, over to the latrine, to an underground path to a spot near the fence by the woods nearby. The men show a unified presence to support the escape plan – all but one, Sgt. Sefton. Sefton is a hard-core cynic and the camp’s unapologetic black market profiteer. Instead of a ‘good luck’ send-off, he immediately starts taking bets against the two men making it successfully out of the camp. He’s certain they’ll fail, claiming the odds are not in their favor.

Unfortunately, Sefton’s predictions ring true as the entire camp is called to the muddy yard the next morning and the Nazi Commandant displays the two dead bodies in the center for all to see. As punishment, the guards make them fill in the escape tunnel and remove their stove. They can’t figure out how the guards figured out their plan. Two more prisoners are added to this barrack, including an officer, Lt. Dunbar, that reveals to the group how he foiled the nazis via destroying an integral point of transport. Sefton knows Dunbar from his past; when he attempted but failed to make officer level. He makes verbal jabs at Dunbar for being a spoiled little rich boy who he suggests bought his way in to being an officer. At mail call, a prisoner on crutches with a missing leg is able to smuggle in a radio. They briefly listen to details of the troop movements, before guards approach and they hide the radio.

The men let loose in the barracks

The men let loose in the barracks

Shapiro and "Animal" combat the Stalag 17 tension with their own Betty Grable dance

Shapiro and “Animal” combat the Stalag 17 tension with their own Betty Grable dance

Nazi guard Sgt. Schulz announces a representative from the Geneva Convention will be making a visit soon. Just in time for Christmas, they’ll all receive a good delousing and new blankets. From the reactions its obvious they are expected to lie about their actual conditions during this visit and the blankets won’t be around for long. Schulz is one guard in particular the POWs enjoy teasing:

Shapiro: Hey Schultz, sprechen Sie Deutsches?

Sgt. Schulz: Ja?

Shapiro: Then droppen Sie dead!

another funny exchange…

Sgt. Schulz: How do you expect to win the war with an army of clowns?

Lt. James Skylar Dunbar: We sort of hope you’d laugh yourselves to death.

Their secrets, including the radio and Lt. Dunbar’s recent maneuvers against the nazis continue to find their way into the guards’ knowledge.  Dunbar has been taken by Nazi guards and is being tortured to reveal more details. At this point, they know someone from inside the barracks must be a mole betraying them. The tension in the barracks are growing thick. From Sefton’s cynical attitude and his ability trade favors, they assume he must be the betrayer and all the men band together to beat him. Sefton maintains his innocence, keeping a low profile.

Sefton (William Holden) starts to make a discovery

Sefton (William Holden) starts to make a discovery

 

a simple lightbulb is the key to the treason puzzle

a simple lightbulb is the key to the treason puzzle

But soon, during a Christmas celebration that is interrupted by an air raid, the mole slips up as Sefton stays behind and hidden when the real traitor makes his contact with Schulz, revealing how he exchanges information- via a lightbulb and the chess set pieces. Now that Sefton knows the enemy’s identity within the barracks, it’s not long before he finds an opportunity to reveal his true colors. It’s also the ideal time to show his own true character, as maybe not as much of a bad guy as all had thought, by helping Dunbar escape himself.

It’s in signature Billy Wilder fashion to tackle a subject like this, one so dark in reality (one that also must have been such a personal journey), and with complicated characters that are not so ‘black and white’ in morality.  But then he twists it so it’s funny and entertaining with his witty dialogue and characters that draw us in because they often surprise us in the end. He takes an anti-hero like Sefton and turns him into the most brave and honorable character by the film’s conclusion, despite himself.

He adds flavoring of characters like Shapiro and “Animal” who deliver the funniest moments throughout with their chemistry and friendship, Animal’s obsession with Betty Grable, and some profoundly real moments too. In example when Shapiro brags that his multiple letters received are love letters as a result of being so popular with the ladies, yet it turns out the letters are repeated overdue bill notices of his Plymouth being repossessed.  And in another ‘harsh reality meets dark humor’ moment, another POW reads his wife’s letter in which she reveals how a baby just showed up at their door and she chose to keep it- a baby that astonishingly possesses ‘her eyes and her mouth.’ He tells himself and his fellow bunkmate he believes it. Later on we see him speaking out loud, repeating that, “I believe it” as he tries to convince himself and wrestles with, struggling to see if this is something he can live with.

These are all heartfelt touch points that Wilder shares with us in his own, and very brilliant way. This review of STALAG 17 (1953) is my birthday tribute to Billy Wilder who was born 108 years ago today. It is shared with other brilliant Wilder films in the BILLY WILDER BOGATHON that Aurora of ONCE UPON A SCREEN and yours truly are hosting today. Here is the full list of participants.

kirk with billy big

 

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