(Warning: spoilers ahead.) Critics like Jim Emerson have mentioned how the film is self-consciously divided into five chapters, which shift focus from character to character, from the SS Colonel Hans Landa to the Jewish US army unit known as the ‘Basterds’ and the escaped Jewish cinema owner Shoshanna Dreyfus. Its 147 minutes are packed with typical Tarantino nods to previous World War Two films and to film history in general. The reason I had originally wanted to see it was because I had heard it was multilingual – which it is, subtitling long stretches of dialogue in French, English, German and a smattering of Italian. Most of the main characters (Landa, Lapadite, Zoller, Hickox, von Hammersmark, Stiglitz and Wicki) move easily between languages. By filming in several languages the film recalls Second World War films like The Longest Day (1962), Von Ryan’s Express (1965), Battle of Britain (1969) and A Bridge too Far (1977). But the juxtaposition of languages alone doesn’t account for the importance of translation as a theme in the film.
The film opens with French dialogue, subtitled in English. The ‘Jew-Hunter’ Colonel Hans Landa is genially interrogating a wary French farmer, Perrier Lapadite. Landa’s French is elaborately and self-consciously fluent – lots of conditionals and subjunctives and elaborate frills. A farm isn’t a farm, it’s an ‘exploitation laitière’, and so on. After several minutes of this, Landa preposterously claims, just as elaborately, that he has ‘run out’ of French, and asks whether they can continue in English:
COLONEL LANDA: Monsieur LaPadite, je suis au regret de vous informer que j’ai épuisé l’étendue de mon français. Continuer à le parler si peu convenablement ne ferait que me gêner. Cependant, je crois savoir que vous parlez un anglais tout à fait correct, n’est-ce pas?
COLONEL LANDA: Ma foi, il se trouve que moi aussi. Puisque nous sommes ici chez vous, je vous demande la permission de passer à l’anglais pour le reste de la conversation.
[Monsieur Lapadite…] […I regret to inform you I’ve exhausted the extent of my French.] [To continue to speak it so inadequately would only embarrass me.] [However, I’ve been led to believe you speak English quite well.] [Yes.] [Well, it just so happens, I do as well. This being your house…] […I ask your permission to switch to English…] […for the remainder of the conversation.] [By all means.]
This transparent device to allow a shift to English dialogue is a wink to the many narrative ‘excuses’ used in order to allow the speaking of English out of context in Hollywood films. But we discover later in the scene that the speaking of English has a second purpose, to lull the Jewish refugees hidden in the farmhouse into a false sense of security. According to David Bordwell, this opening sequence of the film is fully 18 minutes long; much longer than its narrative function would seem to justify. By exaggerating the use of French and then ostentatiously foregrounding the shift into English (which will be followed by a return to French at the end of the scene), the film asserts its membership of an existing film tradition, in which translation is given little importance, and then subverts it. Translation links the film with previous films on the same theme, and it is also the plot device enabling the massacre of the Dreyfuses to take place and resulting in Shosanna’s escape, which sets the plot of the film in motion.
Translation continues to structure the narrative in the rest of the film. In the second section, we find the Basterds toying with a German patrol. Raine offers the captured Sergeant Rachtman the services of not one, but two interpreters, the Austrian refugee Wicki and the German turncoat Hugo Stiglitz. Rachtman is happy to refuse to co-operate in English, but an interpreter will be needed to interrogate the terrified Private Butz, who doesn't speak English. Tarantino’s camera plays up the three-cornered dialogue between Raine, Butz and the interpreter Wicki, panning rhythmically backwards and forwards between them.
Back in Paris, the conversation between Shosanna and Goebbels at the restaurant is interpreted by Goebbels’ interpreter Francesca. Francesca’s character isn’t important for the plot but she is thematically important for one very short scene only a second or two in length. An apparently gratuitous cutaway to a shot of Goebbels and Francesca having sex places Francesca in a long tradition of sexualised screen linguists and interpreters (see e.g. Le Mépris, American Gigolo; The Pillow Book). The scene is brutal. In its brevity, it's dismissive of the interpreter's role and of her point of view. Indeed, in a film so full of polyglot characters she's pretty surplus to requirements.
It’s in the fourth section of the film that the importance of language really comes to the fore. English officer Archie Hicox is picked to lead the Allied mission to bomb the cinema on the basis of his fluency in German. In the almost agonisingly drawn-out scene at the Louisiane, shot entirely in German, Hicox’s German is thoroughly tested. It is his ‘accent’, both acoustic and gestural, which ultimately lets him down. This scene references language-as-plot-point in films such as The Great Escape (we remember when Gordon Jackson’s character is recaptured because he unthinkingly responds in English to a German officer) but also many Second World War films in which language is treated more cavalierly.
Language is just as important in the film’s fifth and final section, where multilingualism breaks down. Raine and two of the Basterds try to infiltrate the film premiere disguised as Italians, despite hardly speaking a word of Italian. (Bridget von Hammersmark’s sardonic remark about the poor language skills of the American characters is another nod to the linguistic sins of Hollywood.) The revelation that on top of perfect German, excellent English and superb French, Landa is also fluent in Italian threatens to scupper the whole plot, and it would, except for the fact that, as so often, the code-switcher also switches sides. Landa’s departure from the cinema in search of a deal with the Allies finally heralds a break with the film’s multilingual theme.
The film’s intensely self-conscious code-switching reflects a growing tendency to mix languages even in Hollywood film. It’s unusual not in kind, but in degree. The most enjoyable part of the film for me was the way it plays with language, parodying the language management devices of earlier films and flaunting the ways in which foreign languages can contribute to narrative interest, humour, suspense and characterisation. Lots of critics have pointed out that it's a film about film itself. I wonder why nobody has seen fit to mention that it's also all about language and translation in the cinema.