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The face of Jewish vengeance

(This character study is part of the Pompous Film Snob’s blog event, a myriad of character studies on the sociopaths, hookers, weirdies and more that populate Quentin Tarantino’s world of Film. Visit Frank’s blog post for the complete list.)

Trauma has a profound effect on Shoshanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent).

“When anger rises, think of the consequences.” ~~Confucius

Shoshanna Dreyfus, “Inglourious Basterds”

Anger is a dangerous emotion, one that can push people to their breaking points and beyond. But more dangerous than anger is the combination of anger and grief. Both are unpredictable at best; together, they pack enormous potential for explosion. And the longer anger and grief are repressed, the bigger the boom will be and the greater the fallout. In that respect, one story thread in Quentin Tarantino’s wildly revisionist/gloriously twisted WWII epic “Inglourious Basterds” — the story of bent-on-vengeance Jewish orphan Shoshanna (Mélanie Laurent) — isn’t just splashy, lurid, violent entertainment. Shoshanna’s story is a case study (and maybe a bit of a cautionary tale, too) of how powerful repressed emotions can be.

The anger and grief that Shosana eventually feeds on to fuel her vengeful plot came to her honest. To avoid certain death in concentration camps, Shoshanna and her family fled their home and went on the run, hiding in any home that would take them. In the opening of “Inglourious Basterds,” Shoshanna’s family has found refuge underneath the floorboards of a home in France. They have learned to become good at disappearing into the scenery around them. But Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), infamously and deservedly known as “The Jew Hunter,” has tracked the family to their hiding spot and orders his subordinates to shoot. Shoshanna is the sole survivor of the bloodbath, and Landa lets her escape unscathed. He seems to understand that living is a far more effective punishment than a bullet to the back of the head. At the time all Shosana feels is fear, but years later her fear has turned into a rage that roils and churns underneath her placid, pleasant face. There are fleeting glimpses of this turmoil in her clipped, then harsh dismissals of young Nazi war hero Pvt. Zoller (Daniel Brühl), an overeager suitor who volunteers her theater as the spot for the premiere of a film about his exploits. Later, in an excruciatingly tense meeting with Landa — who probably recognizes her, but we can’t be certain; his cool stare belies everything and nothing — and Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) himself, she barely conceals her anxiety, then breaks down the moment Landa leaves the table. Laurent’s control in this pivotal scene is plain remarkable. The Jew Hunter’s sudden reappearance stirs up long-buried emotions and hammers a thin crack in her façade. That one small fissure is all it takes to for the anger and the grief to bubble their way up to the surface.

This is a film just for the Nazis.

When those feelings resurface, it doesn’t take long for Shosanna to shape them into a vengeful plot to end all plots. In a way, the same man who took away her power gives it back to her. The anger, the need for revenge, trumps the fear. The same woman who cowered in that café, the very picture of meekness, has become the quiet leader of la résistance. Shoshanna’s wrath spurs her to action, and the damage, intentional and collateral, is steep. She replaces her silence with a battle cry: “You are all going to die. And I want you to look deep into the face of the Jew that is going to do it!” At the end it’s less about taking down her family’s killer as it making every living Nazi feel her wrath.

That’s not to suggest that Tarantino fancies himself a shrink; probably he gets off on watching chicks kick ass and take names. This is a director lambasted by feminists for his macho, shootout-heavy films. Still, the fact is that script for script, Tarantino writes women scorned like nobody else in the business. With every film, the women unleash more and more hell. He got off to a rollicking start with Alabama (Patricia Arquette), the tough-as-nails prostitute who delivers a brutal lashing to the goon who’s hunted her down. The Bride/Beatrix Kiddo (Uma Thurman), heroine of the “Kill Bill” films, dispatched every assassin who had a hand in her near-fatal shooting, including her mentor and lover. In 2009, Tarantino wrote his strongest character yet: a diminutive, delicate-looking woman who did her part and then some to give World War II the ending it should have had. She identified herself, to the Nazi glitterati trapped in the burning theater, being pelted with gunfire, as the face of Jewish vengeance. It is not a face — or a character — anyone will soon forget.

24 Responses

  1. Excellent writeup, M, although I’m less than enthused about the film or this character/performance. I’ve been touting Kruger as my favourite since last Summer and the sentiment has only grown since.

    I still wonder how Shoshanna did acquire theatre, though.

  2. I knew when I was doing a write up on Butch that you and Darren and Hatter would make me look bad in comparison. Great piece!

    It’s a shame Laurent didn’t even get a Best Supporting Actress nod over Cruz for Nine.

  3. Although I enjoyed some of the exchanges in Inglorious, the final scene left me feeling a bit sick and I couldn’t help but feeling that it was a shallow, though understandable, reaction to Shoshanna’s story.

    • I felt sick, too – something about watching people trapped and slaughtered. But it was a pretty damn cool revisionist ending, and I like that Shoshanna dies before she can see it. Because her SEEING it isn’t the point; her DOING it is.

  4. A well written and thought out piece concerning not only the character of Shoshanna, but also how the forces that drive her can affect each and every one of us. Have you seen the movie Black Book by Paul Verhoven? If not, I think you should check it out. It’s not as revisionist/sensational as Basterds, but it does deal with Jewish vengeance and it’s got plenty of plot twists, violence, sitcky situations, and subtitles. Well worth the watch.

  5. Shoshanna is an amazing character, and the most fascinating of a fascinating film (even more so than Landa). She’s basically the Bride made “real”, a character whose own vengeance literally consumes her. Great write-up.

    • @ Unrulytravller — “Black Book” is one of the suggestions that popped up in “Movies You Might Like” on Netflix because I liked “Inglourious Basterds.” I flirted with actually including some quotes from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but that seemed too clinical. And then I’d have to explain why I OWN one of those!

      @ Darren — I’m glad you agree about Shoshanna. I think because her character is quiet and doesn’t let us in on her thoughts and motivations, people peg her as dull or uninteresting. But really, aside from Landa, Shoshanna fascinated me more than most anyone else in “Inglourious Basterds” … except maybe Fassbender’s Lt. Hickox or Schwieger’s Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz.

  6. another excellent and insightful analysis here. Very good points made about what human beings are capable of doing when pushed to the emotional brink. A strong film, no doubt and her character is a very complex one. I enjoyed this, as I do most all the articles I read on here. Kudos to you. and yes, I think QT just enjoys having very strong feminine characters who know how to kick masculine ass out the window….

  7. I think Laurent’s face is uber-interesting. She reminds me a lot of the young Uma in Pulp — not in resemblance, but in that certain gorgeousness that is not traditional yet undeniable. Exotic but girl next door. A model that chose a simple life.

  8. Tarantino’s women are some of the best female characters in filmdom. Excellent discussion you’ve started here with Shosanna. She’s so even and precise (other than the cafe scene, of course), which makes her all the more intimidating when you realize her intentions.

  9. It seems like there’s really only any strong women characters in Cameron, Mann and Tarantino films.

  10. Tarantino’s taken a fair amount of heat on the good deal of violence to women in his movies, hasn’t he? Or maybe that’s a product of my imagination.

    • @ Ruben — Nicely put! I can’t wait to see where her career goes from here.

      @ Luke Fitz — Tarantino knows how to write ’em and film ’em. They may suffer at the hands of men, but they make the men suffer just as much.

      @ Marshall — I think he has, and maybe some of that is warranted. But his female characters give as good as they get, and sometimes better.

  11. Excellent, M. But I always thought Landa let her go because he figured a blood-covered, pennyless girl with no papers living in the woods, with winter approaching and Nazi soldiers still combing the areas, she wouldn’t make it long anyway.

  12. […] Meredith analyze the face of Jewish vengeance in Inglourious Basterds (M. Carter @ the Movies) […]

  13. Loved Lauren’ts performance in this. It was unfortunate that Inglourious Basterds was somewhat overshadowed by other movies last year & I was surprised that it didn’t receive some more Oscar noms, particularly “for “Shoshanna.”

    • Yep, she would have been my “outside bet” for a Supporting Actress nod, but I figured the performance wasn’t “showy” enough.

  14. […] Carter on Shoshanna from Inglourious […]

  15. Excellent write up. I risk heresy when I say “Basterds” is my favorite (dare I say, best?) Tarantino film and if not for Landa, Shoshanna would certainly be my favorite QT character. Incredible character.

    • I’m glad all these Shoshanna supporters are coming out of the woodwork — she and Landa are in my top 5 Tarantino characters for sure.

    • I’d agree with you there, QT’s best by a long shot. Tense, witty, so well written and the peppering of humor (whether intended or not I’ll still never know).

  16. Good on you Mer for recognizing such a fantastic performance/character.
    Although I believe your brilliant write up her eclipses the subject in question:P

    So incredible was the dinner table scene with Landa where she had to keep it together. She was on the breaking point the whole time…one of those scenes where you forget you’re holding you breath. Just stunning.

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