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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.