Language in the movies

(Posted by John)

Check out this clip of an interview with Quentin Tarantino and Brad Pitt.  They’re talking about Tarantino’s film, Inglourious Basterds.  If you don’t know, the movie is a World War II revenge fantasy in which a group of American soldiers, led by Brad Pitt, undertakes a plot to kill Hitler.  It’s a pretty fantastic movie, especially for the way it uses language as a tool. While most World War II movies avoid the language issues that might arise (everyone speaks English—their accent reveals where they’re actually from), Inglourious embraces language as a means both to drive the plot and to develop suspense. (watch from 12:06, where the clip starts, to about 13:45)

In his movie, Tarantino’s talking about building suspense in particular in a couple of scenes. The first one is the opening scene of the movie, in which the movie’s Jewish heroine is hiding under the floorboards of a neighbor’s house in France.  An SS agent comes in search of Shoshana and her family.  He is able to draw out a confession from the homeowner without alerting the hidden family that he’s found them out. And he’s able to do it because he switches from French, which the Jewish family understands, to English, which they don’t. Here’s a clip from part of that scene, after Landa has switched to English.

Here is the exchange that happens a bit later:

SS Col. Hans Landa: You are sheltering enemies of the state, are you not?

Perrier LaPadite[softly] Yes

Col. Hans Landa: You’re sheltering them underneath your floorboards, aren’t you.

Perrier LaPadite[tears forming in his eyes] Yes

Col. Hans Landa: Point out to me the areas where they are hiding. [LaPadite points with his pipe; Landa walks over and stands on top of that area, gesturing with his own pipe for confirmation] Since I haven’t heard any disturbance, I assume that while they’re listening, they don’t speak English.

Perrier LaPadite: Yes.

Col. Hans Landa: I’m going to switch back to French now. I want you to follow my masquerade, is that clear?

Perrier LaPadite: Yes

Col. Hans Landa[in French] Monsieur LaPadite, I thank you for the milk and your hospitality. I do believe our business here is done. [walks over to the door and opens it] Ah, ladies. I thank you for your time. [booted Wehrmacht soldiers troop inside and position themselves] We shan’t be bothering your family any longer. So, Monsieur, Mademoiselle, I bid farewell to you and say: adieu!        [Soldiers open fire on the floorboards, killing the Dreyfuses]

Another scene, probably the most suspenseful of the whole movie, is at a German bar behind enemy lines. A group of Allied soldiers are meeting an informant (Frau Hammersmark) there, but they’re interrupted by a nosy SS officer.  He becomes suspicious of the undercover Allies by detecting subtle differences between the accent that the British officer speaks German with. He doesn’t ultimately discover the man’s nationality, though, until the Brit asks for “three glasses” using the British/American hand signal for “three” (index, middle, ring fingers), instead of the German one (thumb, index, middle).

(The most relevant parts are the first 3 minutes and  ~10:20-11:00. The whole scene is there though–it gets graphic at the end, so beware.)

The idea of using linguistic data as a sort of defense goes back to biblical times and the story of the Shibboleth. One side in a war couldn’t pronounce the sh sound at the beginning of the word shibboleth, pronouncing it instead as sibboleth. This alerted the other side that they were dealing with their enemies.

Gilead then cut Ephraim off from the fords of the Jordan, and whenever Ephraimite fugitives said, ‘Let me cross,’ the men of Gilead would ask, ‘Are you an Ephraimite?’ If he said, ‘No,’ they then said, ‘Very well, say “Shibboleth” (שבלת).’ If anyone said, “Sibboleth” (סבלת), because he could not pronounce it, then they would seize him and kill him by the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites fell on this occasion.
—Judges 12:5-6, NJB
Of course, things like this are always easier to explain with a West Wing clip:
Anyway, I think that Tarantino makes a good point–as he says, I don’t buy that Clint Eastwood speaks perfect German. Those differences in language should be exploited to make a better movie…though I hope our military isn’t taking any cues from Brad Pitt as Aldo, trying to speak Italian.
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