Wait for the Cream:
Food and Drink in Inglourious Basterds
“As a writer, I demand the right to write any character in the world that I want to write. I demand the right to be them, I demand the right to think them and I demand the right to tell the truth as I see they are.” -Quentin Tarantino
Tarantino uses various aspects of mise-en-scene to develop the characters and scenes in Inglourious Basterds. The arrangement of everything that appears in the camera frames — actors, lighting, decor, props, costume — is referred to as mise-en-scene. Specifically, for this film, we are most concerned with analyzing Tarantino’s use of food and drink as substantial props to build suspense in a couple of high-stakes scenes.
I want to most directly focus this analysis of food and drink as it relates to Colonel Landa. Interestingly, “mise-en-scene” is a French word. Landa himself is a polyglot, as he is fluent in German, French, and English. This could be the most paradoxical characteristic of the movie, because Landa tends to use unspoken language as his greatest means of communication. Although the Colonel is multilingual, he gravitates towards implied conversation — food and drink, and the surrounding symbols and innuendos — as his preferred form of dialogue.
The first food and drink elements displayed in Inglourious Basterds are a tobacco pipe and milk. The opening scene in the film is lengthy, around fifteen minutes long, and highly significant. It is important to first understand Landa as a theatrical character, before evaluating the connotation of the glass of milk. Upon his arrival in the farm house, Landa portrays himself as a simple-minded bureaucrat, pulling out his paper and pen — leading Perrier LaPadite to believe the visit is merely a formality. At this point, it is clear to the audience the authority the Colonel has. We can see the fear in LaPadite’s eyes, as well as his daughters’, and we can practically feel the tension in their body language. As if sensing the authority of the Colonel weren’t enough, we can also gather this information from his obvious Nazi uniform.
What’s more interesting is after Landa has posed as a bureaucrat, he pulls out a pipe. The pipe is an element of mise-en-scene to be noted; the Colonel’s pipe is larger than LaPadite’s. While the difference in the men’s pipe size can be categorized as an underlying sexual reference, it may also be understood as extended assertion of power by Landa over LaPadite. The presence of the pipe can also be described as a reference to Sherlock Holmes; the Colonel is carrying out his visit in such a way that it could be deemed an investigation. He could be alluding to the fact that he is all-knowing, and anything he may not know right now, he will eventually.
Landa’s continuous proclamation of power in the opening scene is what makes the food and drink here so imperative to the film as a whole. LaPadite offers the Colonel some wine upon his arrival, but the Colonel refuses. As part of his refusal, he requests a glass of milk. The fact that Landa refuses wine for milk could have several explanations. My personal favorite comes from Roland Barthes’ essay, “Wine and Milk”, in which he writes, “Some American films, in which the hero, strong and uncompromising, did not shrink from having a glass of milk before drawing his avenging colt…” Despite what we Americans may believe, to the Nazi soldiers Landa was indeed a hero; he is obviously strong and uncompromising. Barthes later claims that milk is, “cosmetic, it joins, covers, restores….. its purity, associated with the innocence of the child, is a token of strength… calm, white, lucid, the equal of reality.” Once again, while we could argue against the validity of these statements in reference to Landa, for the Nazis, this description fits him perfectly. To us, he is the opposite of pure for his relentless hunt and decimation of Jews and Jewish families. To the Nazi soldiers and officers, it is for the same reasons that they view him as pure. He is pure for unwavering from his duty to his country, and always completing his job to the best of his abilities. And so, the notorious glass of milk is introduced into the film. It could represent the Colonel’s purity as a Nazi soldier, or it could represent Perrier LaPadite’s purity for trying to help the Dreyfus family… or it could represent the purity of the Dreyfus family themselves, being so ruthlessly hunted by the Germans without reason.
In chapter three of the movie, Colonel Hans Landa and Shosanna Dreyfus meet once more — but this time, at the Chez Maurice in 1944. Landa asks to speak to the young girl privately, but ensures it is of no consequence and only a part of his job to discuss security matters with her for the Nazi movie premiere to take place at her theatre. Landa carries himself much like he did in the first scene — he proclaims his power over Shosanna, takes control of the situation, and manipulates the conversation where he wants it to go. The conversation is entirely in the Colonel’s favor. The nature of the conversation never includes any security measures, it instead is comprised of Landa interrogating the girl about her cinema and family history. This scene leaves the audience all asking the same question — could Colonel Landa know that this young cinema owner, Emmanuella Mimieux, is actually Shosanna Dreyfus, of the Dreyfus family that he murdered three years prior?
Landa speaks to the waiter and orders for himself, then for Shosanna as well. Ironically, he orders German strudels for them both and he orders a glass of milk for Shosanna. A glass of milk. The glass of milk has made its return. When the waiter arrives with the strudels, Landa guides Shosanna’s actions like a puppet — he orders to her to “wait for the cream.” He is, once again, proclaiming his role as the dominant character in the scene. He can see the fear and unease that Shosanna is experiencing, and in an almost antagonistic way, he tells her there is no reason for her to feel intimidated. He could be ordering milk for Shosanna to allude to her purity, as if she were actually an innocent French girl that inherited a French cinema. However, the milk could have simply been ordered as a nice complementary beverage to the strudel. The cream on the strudel is also important because whipped cream is not kosher. Although it is likely that Shosanna’s family were secular Jews, this notion to ensure she had cream on her strudel could have been a test. It is impossible for us to be sure without knowing the denomination of Judaism practiced by the Dreyfus family.
It is most likely that the presence of these dairy products can be accredited to Landa alluding to the fact that Shosanna is the daughter of a dairy farmer. He could have also ordered milk for her because that is what he had for himself on the day of her family’s massacre. How Landa exits the scene could be used as evidence to prove that he, in fact, did not know Emmanuelle’s true identity. As he leaves the table to exit the scene, he squashes his cigarette in the strudel. While the camera focuses on the strudel with the ashes and cigarette butt, the audience is given time to assume that maybe the strudel and cream were of no consequence to him. He could have given Shosanna a hard time in this scene because of his blatantly destructive personality, which he shows with the unnecessary destruction of his unfinished pastry. This last gesture by Landa could be illustrating his frustration with Shosanna’s fluid answers to his questions. He expected her to crack under the pressure, but she emerged victorious, causing the Colonel much frustration. The intensity and suspense of this scene is all released at the close of the scene; after Landa has left, and Shosanna breaks down into tears.
Given the setting of the film, Nazi-occupied France during World War II, it was undoubtedly a struggle for Tarantino to manage the linguistics of Inglourious Basterds. With much of the dialogue being spoken in German, and occasionally French, subtitles were required for a large portion of the movie. Because of the language barrier in Inglourious Basterds, food and drink became the object of social manipulation within the film.
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