Thu. Jun 13th, 2024

A Cinematic Icon of Villainy

Portrayed by Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds, Hans Landa is often hailed as one of the greatest villains in cinematic history. Instead of instilling the usual fear associated with unseen creatures, his presence in the film evokes a different kind of fear. He takes us back to a time when villains carried out their job duties in a world where danger was not an anomaly but the norm. Throughout the film, he is always seen wearing a uniform, which, while typical for a man in his position or any military role, adds an extra layer of terror for the viewers and the residents of Paris. Sitting across from a Nazi in uniform is undoubtedly not a pleasant experience. Besides his uniform, Hans appears somewhat inconspicuous in his appearance, handsome, and well-groomed. However, his uniform radiates an aura of evil.

Pleasant Facade

In our initial encounter with Hans, he immediately displays two defining personality traits that persist throughout the film: his disarming charm and meticulously crafted politeness. Hans exhibits extraordinary friendliness and politeness as a genuinely good man. Without the intimidating uniform, one might easily mistake him for a pleasant individual. However, the illusion crumbles with his speech, gestures, and uniform. His threatening mannerisms may only be apparent if one pays close attention. Even if noticed, they may not appear menacing at first glance. For example, when introduced to LaPadite’s daughters, it is evident that the girls feel uncomfortable in his presence. Some might easily dismiss it as mere discomfort due to having an SS officer in their home. However, his gaze on them is deeply unsettling. He mainly focuses on Charlotte as he approaches them, holding her hand and maintaining prolonged eye contact. When seated, his eyes shift between the girls but linger on Charlotte for a few seconds longer. When Suzanne pours him a drink, he grasps her wrist while speaking. Again, he fixates his gaze on Charlotte while LaPadite talks to him, leading to an uncomfortable exchange of glances between the girl and her father. When Suzanne pours milk for him, Hans scrutinizes the girl from head to toe. His gaze lingers between her and the glass before he drinks the milk in one go. Through these actions, Hans instills a sense of threat without explicitly making verbal or physical threats. He does not need to convey his intentions to LaPadite regarding his daughters directly. His gestures and presence speak volumes.

The Banality of Evil

For a man in his position concerning someone’s daughters, these actions highlight an essential aspect of Hans’ capacity for manipulation and intimidation, which is also related to his abilities as a detective. Every move he makes is deliberate and calculated, from his gaze upon someone’s daughters to his choice of words. Another striking example is when the girls leave the house. He requests to switch from French to English. At first, one might assume he is being honest. However, it is another tactic he uses to take advantage of LaPadite. By switching to English, we gain insight into a concept that partially describes this character, namely the banality of evil.

This concept was discussed by political theorist Hannah Arendt in her book titled Eichmann in Jerusalem. In the book, the author argues that Adolf Eichmann, deeply involved in the Holocaust events, committed heinous crimes not driven by sociopathy, intense anti-Semitism, or extreme fanaticism but rather by personal ambition for success and advancement in his profession. While the author acknowledges that Eichmann likely held anti-Semitic views, she argues that it was not the primary driving force behind his actions. The book presents that sometimes evil arises as an unintended consequence of everyday actions, not fueled by intentional malicious intent. Although the book may be controversial, like many others, the portrayal partially applies to Hans, as seen in the scene with LaPadite where he conducts business pursuing Jews in a businesslike and professional manner, in line with the concept of the banality of evil, though not to the extent of Eichmann as described by Arendt. While Eichmann is known for his limited intelligence, Hans, on the other hand, is somewhat anti-Semitic and opportunistic but far from lacking intelligence.

The Hangman’s Pride

After completing his job, Hans expresses pride in his position and shares his views on Jews. He is puzzled why Reynard Heidrich does not like his nickname, The Hangman, as he believes it is a title he deserves. It aligns with the banality of evil, where Hans takes pride in his accomplishments in his profession. His diatribe comparing Jews to warriors and German rats to eagles shows some anti-Semitic sentiment. At the same time, there seems to be a level of respect he holds toward Jews as well. When he pulls out his pipe, the famous Calabash Meerschaum associated with Sherlock Holmes, it might initially elicit laughter, as it probably did for many viewers in that scene. However, Quentin Tarantino explained why Hans uses the pipe in an interview. He revealed that Hans does not smoke, but pulling out the pipe is another power play he uses during the interrogation.

At the precise moment when he starts telling LaPadite that he has found the truth and succeeded, he takes out his pipe. As he speaks to LaPadite about his findings, we observe his facial expression subtly changing from polite and faintly smiling to cold and firm, without mercy. At this moment, we realize that his use of English during their conversation was merely a strategy. Hans has been toying with LaPadite all along. Every gesture, word, and movement he makes has a purpose. His ability to manipulate people through his subtle actions and words is evident. According to Tarantino, every scene with Hans is an interrogation. Tarantino describes Hans’ interrogations as a form of performance, a theater. The concept becomes clear if we look back at the scenes with Hans. Although his demeanor is not exaggerated, his tactics appear highly calculated when considering that all these interrogations are a show for Hans, as if he is directing and writing the performance himself.

To conclude this scene, we notice two essential elements of Hans’ character for different reasons. These two elements are “au revoir” and “adieu.” In French, both “au revoir” and “adieu” are used to bid farewell to someone, but in different contexts. “Au revoir” is used when we expect to meet them again soon, while “adieu” is used when we are uncertain if we will ever see that person again, with the rough meaning of “farewell.” The significance of this difference lies in Hans shouting “au revoir” to Shosanna, which is a clear threat, indicating his determination to find her. In the next scene, we witness Hans meeting Shosanna, in line with his parting message before. Before sitting down, he faces resistance from Fredrick Zoller, who questions whether a private soldier like Zoller can question the orders of a Colonel. Instead of escalating the situation, Hans wisely asks if Zoller is too sensitive. This last remark is significant because it once again shows his politeness. Hans does not react with offense or anger. He firmly maintains his composure with politeness, upholding the image of a civilized man. This characteristic is subtly present in the earlier scenes and is evident in every scene involving Hans, effectively portraying his nature.

Meticulous Memory

In the following scene, we see Hans investigating the shooting at the bar. The scene starts with him inspecting Hugo Stiglitz, and his comments here relate to the banality of evil. He merely comments that Hugo is wearing a uniform with a higher rank than before. He is taunting him, and it is a definite reference to how characters trapped in the banality of evil react to situations like this. Then, he examines the other bodies and, from memory, recognizes who they are, suggesting that he might know who Shosanna is if he has seen a picture of her. Regarding this scene that reveals a new aspect of his character, there is not much. However, we can see him in a situation reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes, where he tries to piece together the crime scene puzzle with meticulous attention to detail, showcasing his expertise in the field beyond interrogations.

The next scene with Hans is a prime example of the two previous elements: his theatricality and his tendency to taunt the people he interrogates. As we realize that he knows that von Hammersmark is in the bar, this scene turns into a game for Hans more than anything else. In the first scene, Hans speaks to LaPadite about how he enjoys his unofficial title as the Jew Hunter because he feels he has earned it. Here, we witness his affection for this title as he relishes the opportunity to play with his prey and savor every moment of the torment he inflicts on his victims. Typically, someone representing the banality of evil might be dull and indifferent, merely carrying out their duties as part of their job without any enjoyment. However, this is different with Hans. He is more like an animal enjoying playing with its prey. This aspect is further evident in the next scene, where he again toys with von Hammersmark. He could have simply killed her by closing the door. However, he chooses to torment her, savoring the remnants of her happiness before ultimately killing her.

Why did he kill a woman who assisted in carrying out the plan he intended to execute? When Aldo Raine questions Hans about von Hammersmark, he says that she got what she deserved and implies that when dealing with someone like von Hammersmark, we get what we pay for. It might make von Hammersmark’s murder more understandable, as it suggests that Hans has some concern for the system he has helped maintain for years. Perhaps Hans and von Hammersmark had some conflict in the past.

Disarming Vigilance

In a previous scene in the film, when speaking with LaPadite, Hans mentions that he enjoys the unofficial title bestowed upon him. However, in this scene, he dismisses the title, considering it a silly and exaggerated nickname created by his enemies to tarnish his reputation. He shares his affection for the title with LaPadite as if speaking to a deaf person or, more appropriately, someone who has already passed away.

Whether Hans ordered to kill or secure LaPadite after he killed the Dreyfus family is unclear. Nonetheless, Hans knows that what he conveys to this man holds no significance and feels comfortable revealing the dreadful truth. It clearly shows that Hans’ speech to the Basterds was merely a deception, a manipulation he exploited when he saw an opportunity to do so. Hans uses his skill in the art of conversation to try to reach an understanding with the Basterds. He employs friendly and polite language, interspersed with American phrases, to disarm their vigilance and skillfully negotiate with the high-ranking American military personnel to secure a peaceful post-war life, eradicating the possibility of punishment from the winners.

Art of Manipulation through Language

His linguistic prowess, manipulation, and deceit enable him to shed his Nazi persona and create a new identity that allows him to retire peacefully. However, in the final scene with Hans, we witness that what lies within someone may be more challenging to discard than a uniform. Sometimes, one’s true nature marks their soul, and some individuals need to display those wounds for everyone to see.

So, what does all this mean for Hans? It makes him a skilled, sadistic, articulate, and clever detective who takes pride in his identity and actions. He is a predator who uses deceit and manipulation to trap his victims, unbeknownst to them until it is too late. He is a chameleon who adapts to every situation he faces, exploiting everything and everyone, regardless of how insignificant they may be. He is a frightening figure in his uniform, instilling fear in anyone who lays eyes on him and a more disturbing impression because he is solely interested in himself, and his presence brings doom to those who dare cross paths with him.

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