One of Tarantino’s signature nuances is his treatment of actors. Tarantino intentionally leaves ambiguity and the opportunity for improvisation, likely inspired by the French New Wave film movement. In two similarly structured interrogation scenes, the mise-en-scene acts as springboard for the manifestation of character attributes, which each actor can approach differently. The appropriate selection of props is crucial to induce the most meaningful response from Tarantino’s actors and drive the narrative.
Tarantino employs this technique in the opening exposition of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. Colonel Landa of the SS transforms the humble home of Perrier LaPadite, a French dairy farmer, into an interrogation room. LaPadite offers wine as a gesture of hospitality, which Landa refuses, requesting a glass of milk instead. This odd gesture tips the audience off to Landa’s off kilter personality for milk is an atypical request for a guest of his stature. Tarantino opts for milk instead of wine because it offers Christoph Waltz a greater array of possible symbols to introduce into the narrative.
The glass of milk takes on a dual nature in relation to the character it encounters. The milk comes in a clear vessel to reflect its transformative power, and milk’s color bears significant symbolic weight. White is favored as the blank slate for most endeavors, therefore it is the perfect color to have alternate meanings projected upon. The properties of the color white permit its versatility. It lacks a hue and encompasses the entirety of the color spectrum. Therefore, white can be understood as a submissive color that is ripe for a symbol of surrender. Alone, white can be a powerful symbol, but Tarantino pairs it with milk, a symbol of innocence in its own right.
To understand the character of Colonel Landa, we can look at the manner in which he drinks the glass of milk. He jumps on the opportunity to demonstrate his prowess and superiority of race by chugging the glass of milk. Milk is a rich beverage and if consumed too quickly, can cause severe discomfort. Landa scoffs at this notion and throws it back like a shot of strong alcohol complete with an animalistic snort.
Landa requests a second glass of milk but switches up his game. This represents the versatility of the symbol established by Tarantino. This time around, the milk becomes an inferior object—set off by Tarantino’s composition and lighting choices. LaPadite fetches the glass of milk and the camera pans to the floorboards revealing the Dreyfus family. Tarantino cuts to the glass of milk in LaPadite’s hand, framed by the bars of a ladder, thus making a visual connection between the imprisoned Dreyfus family and the milk that is now a symbol of surrender.
Landa opts not to chug this second glass of milk. Instead he places the glass underneath the lone overhead lamp, which has now become an interrogation lamp. The glass of milk, representing innocence, is under scrutiny by Landa, and represents both LaPadite and the Dreyfus family.
Then, a game of animal fables is initiated by Colonel Landa to close the investigation. He poses the fable:
“Now, if one were to determine what attribute the German people share with a beast, it would be the cunning and the predatory instinct of a hawk. But if one were to determine what attributes the Jews share with a beast, it would be that of the rat”.
Tarantino leaves one character without an animal identity: LaPadite. The word coward derives from the Anglo-French “cuard” which originally stems from the Latin “coe” for tail. “Turning tail” or “tail between the legs” is a common expression of cowardice. Landa determines the attribute that LaPadite (French) shares with a beast, is that of the cow. LaPadite has no choice but to turn away and hand over the Dreyfus family.
Later on in the film, in the café, Colonel Landa’s motive for the second round of interrogation is to revert Shosanna back to a childlike state through visual cues. To place her in that mindset, he orders two very important items to act as emotional triggers: a glass of milk and an apple strudel. The glass of milk recalls the first interrogation and subsequent slaughter of her family. The apple strudel brings her into a childlike state by referencing the well-known German fairy tale, Snow White.
At the crux of Snow White, two symbols bare importance for a classic tale of good and evil. The color white represents purity, innocence, and good. The apple becomes a corrupted entity employed by the villain to vanquish the heroine. Colonel Landa, as the villain, lulls Shosanna into a false sense of security by acting as if he does not recognize her. However, he uses visual props to psychologically poison her.
Landa senses Shosanna’s discomfort and prolongs it by forcing her to wait for cream, another variation of the glass of milk, to place on the dessert. Christoph Waltz chooses a condescending tone to state the request, indicating he is taunting Shosanna.
As the cream arrives, Tarantino chooses a close up shot, marking it as an emotional trigger. Now, Shosanna, much like Snow White, is hesitant to indulge in the dessert offered by the villain (Landa). In the fairy tale Snow White, the white part of the apple remains pure while the red part contains the poison. Apple strudel, an Austrian pastry, has a filling that contains only the white part of the apple. Therefore, Shosanna is not fated to perish yet, but when the color red appears, it will mark her demise.
In the final act of the film, Shosanna’s wardrobe choice for the night of the premiere is a red dress. She is shown in the mirror applying red lipstick, signifying that she has now bitten the red part of the apple. Shosanna is doomed for death. If we follow the fairy tale, Shosanna should be revived. She is. Immortalized by the screen, Shosanna’s image cuts into NATION’S PRIDE and she has a voice again. Ultimately she is triumphant.
Quentin Tarantino invests a great amount of trust in his actors. He purposely wrote the characters for INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS with no actors in mind. Therefore, the characters could achieve an undetermined potential that could be triggered by varying combinations of props, lighting, and mannerisms. As Louis Pasteur once said, “chance favors only the prepared mind”. Tarantino supplies the proper tools with which his actors can discover unorthodox ways to manifest their characters within a story, unlocking deeper meaning for the audience to analyze.