Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Monday, March 01, 2010

Villain of the Year

For this year's Oscars, the only nomination I really care about after all the smoke settles is Christophe Waltz as Waffen SS Colonel Hans Landa of Tarantino's INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009). Is that my fault or Hollywood's? Am I out on a limb in saying that the only interesting characters coming out of Hollywood these days are villains? Even while smiling politely, Hans Landa exudes a kind of menace that makes his every microgesture burn its way into our cortex, the way, say a frightened 1st grader might focus trapped laser beam attention on every nose hair of his irate elementary school principal.

When it comes to Nazis, Hollywood's never before really found a groove, muddled by whether to have them speak German with subtitles or speak English; and if English how much of a German accent? As for characters, we either get slimy sadists or military career officers who use discipline and regalia to distract themselves from the realization that they're a) the bad guys and b) losing. Now I'm sure both kinds of Nazis existed aplenty, but Quentin Tarantino reminds us in BASTERDS that there were lots of shades and colors within the black: men of culture and distingu√©, for whom vices like pride, lack of empathy, and bullying arrogance were encouraged by the times to the point of snow-blindness. As Patton knew, sanity can be a hindrance when it comes to war, just like compassion can doom a gangster (ala Tony Montana in the 1979 SCARFACE) and by having a Nazi be the most charming male character in the film, Tarantino muddies and exasperates our genre expectations until we finally settle into a state of fearlessly sadomasochistic amorality as if by default. Landa is all the more charismatic and reprehensible for the way he's able to stay recognizably human--polite, full of jokes and pithy insights--while pursuing a ruthless, horrific genocidal agenda with cultivated dispassion.

I confess I've been watching a lot of the History Channel lately, and its endless WW2 documentaries. It's fascinating to consider how there were once villains of such a globally spectacular level of evil that nearly all the world--rich, poor, commie and conspicuous consumer alike--were united in righteous anger against them. Even as late as 1939, America was determined to stay neutral regarding Europe's latest fracas. We were still recovering form the modernist hangover of "The Great War" and were totally uninterested in anything outside our own borders. When we finally shook our leviathan's slumber and stirred to sluggish action, it was not unlike your Incredible Hulk: at first he is just the pacifist Bruce Banner and then-- yo, you done got him all mad, and green and with the smashing and the nuking and the roaring. When the smoke clears, of course, no one went back to being pacifist neutral and we had become mountainous petro-nuclear hulk trying to pretend he was just an ordinary meddling observer from the UN, the Hulk wearing glasses and trying to smash only with judicially sanctioned gingerness.

And so, the Nazis, the ultimate villain for all times, so gleefully proud of being the bad guys they even dress in black and wear skulls on their caps, leaving in their retreat, for the allies to find and weep over, atrocities still unrivaled in the pantheon of inhuman barbarity, a permanent rip in the fabric of our basic core decency that, in a way, manages to continue to work as a warning that whatever we may repeat of history, let us not repeat this one thing, let us never get that horrible, at least not on such a vast and organized scale. With the film footage of the holocaust in constant History Channel rotation, racism's gruesome endgame is ever in our face. Sometimes the only way to deal with such horror is through repetition-compulsion, watching Nazi documentaries over and over again (thus the History Channel's maligned nickname, 'The Hitler Channel') like scratching a sore that heals only by never fully scabbing over. To submerge oneself in WW2 history is to climb a roller coaster that takes us through that open sore into our darkest reptilian core.

Thus Landa becomes the ultimate in hipster evil -- smart enough to know what he's doing is wrong, and yet hip enough to go with the flow, to adopt a sportsman's disinterest in issues of life or death, or even national loyalty, to turn evil into an art form beyond mere petty bullying and sadism. Landa's character operates from a feeling of superiority harnessed to a bemused noblesse oblige, but there's a master hunter's disinterest in any actual outcome. The game, the puzzle, is the thing. He languidly talks a farmer into giving up the Jews he's sheltering, yet lets one of them escape, like a fisherman throwing back the "too small" fish to catch another day, aiding in a sense human evolution by only killing the slow

We can become so fascinated by the gaping black hole of evil that Nazis blasted into our collective humanity, that we can surely become them if we're not careful --but just as surely we can be re-affirmed in our collective goodness. The genius of the Landa character is how he manages to register on both counts, drawing us into evil and repelling us at the same time. We identify with him as we identify with RICHARD III in Shakespeare or Prince Prospero in Poe's MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH. -- a man too smart for his time and knows it, to the point that he positions himself outside convention and so treats all of life as a daydream meant for his own wayward indulgences. By the end of the film, Landa's presence onscreen has become so intimate that we feel completely trapped by him, like a slow, relentless, cheerful "just doing my job" IRS auditor or homicide detective setting up camp in our living room, the type who talks slower and slower as our guilty hearts quicken to panic, and no end in sight, or a lover who seems to suck the air out of our lungs even as we're drawn into their charismatic orbit.

It is especially through drawing attention to language--always a key element in Tarantino--that this sense of intimacy manifests itself. Landa speaks French, German, English and Italian during BASTERDS, and each with great relish and a sense of poetic appreciation, his tongue rolling through the French vowels like a hot bath, stopping on a dime to switch over from one tongue to the other, taking advantage of other people's lack of understanding to tease and prolong their (and our) suspense. Education and fearless confidence make us admire him even as we despise and--most importantly--fear him. The result is a muddled locus of identification that we're not used to outside of gangster pictures, wherein underdog class conflict and anti-authoritarianism give the bad guy at least a few admirable traits. The only aspect of the Nazis that is not reprehensible by contrast is their unabashed relish in that reprehensibility.

In Tarantino's war we're encouraged to identify with Landa but also with his prey: the weary farmer who just can't sustain his stoic front over a prolonged glass of milk; the German actress/spy who leaves behind a telltale shoe; Shoshana, his escaped Jew now disguised as a theater owner in Paris. By first fearing, then identifying with (due to his charm) and then fearing him again as our identification moves to these other figures, we dredge up the kind of Stockholm Syndrome repulsion-attraction that can put is in the thrall of the worst of monsters if they're charismatic enough (i.e. the irresistible MILF hotness that is Sarah Palin, lower right, man I love her deep reds and blacks).

The fact that every non-Nazi who saw them, no matter what their rank or nation, were so unabashedly horrified by the concentration camps is, in the end, testament to a common humanity that transcends iron curtains, class and color divides.  No amount of crying and moaning softly into one's pillow--even today, over half a century later--can lessen the horror of the Final Solution. It is this horror and endless grief, however, that brings us all together. What else can one do? If you're not traumatized, on a personal level, by the Nazi genocide, just watch the Hitler Channel for a few days and let it all sink in. Then revisit INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS and appreciate just what a daring high wire act Waltz and Tarantino really pull off, getting you to laugh wryly even as the horrors of the war are branded on your soul, creating a character so insinuating and inescapable it feels like he's somehow followed us home from the theater and is making us, for what it's worth, proud and happy to be a human being capable of sorrow, pity and deep, deep horror.

PS. After that, if you're still not devastated, come and see COME AND SEE (1985)

P.P.S. When researching last week's Leo di Caprio entry, I learned he was originally considered for BASTERDS as Hans Landa. Can you imagine? I'm curious to know if he backed out (my guess he was too worried about his good guy reputation and ever-more-limited glumby range.) Anyway, I sure am glad Waltz got the part, and I sure hope he wins der Oskar!


  1. Good article, and I don't think anyone has a chance of beating Waltz. If the Academy fucks up and gives it to afterschoolcartoon villain Stanley Tucci or someone of the like, I'll lose my shit.

  2. EK:
    Another great essay! While I wasn't as big a fan of IB as everyone else seems to be, Waltz's Landa is definitely a memorable character--I love your comments about him being "too smart for his time."

    BTW, a WWII flick that I think is more intense than Come & See is Tarkovsky's My Name Is Ivan (a.k.a. Ivan's Childhoon). After seeing that, I was glad the Red Army kicked the shit out of the Nazis.

    Keep up the good work!

  3. I second both comments - if Waltz doesn't win, every Academy Award statuette should get recalled and melted down; and, yes, 'Ivan's Childhood' is a brilliant and unforgettable piece of work.

    I think the only other charismatic and non-pigeonholed Nazi Hollywood has given us is Paul Scofield as von Waldheim in Frankenheimer's 'The Train'.

  4. Thanks Neil and Ivan. I actually just recently saw IVAN and it was surely an inspiration for Come and See, in fact I think Come and See has many oblique references to it... and probably a lot of films that came after it. I was going to try and write about Ivan's Childhood, but it's so damned artsy and I'm sure so much has already been written on it, it seemed redundant. That kid was amazing! Right up there with that kid in THE TIN DRUM.

    And Simon, I second that emotion re: Tucci, whom I abhor (nothing against his thesping, he just comes from that Kevin Kline self-satisfied fusspot style that gets on my nerves.

  5. I vote for the same villain. One of the best performance ever seen


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