LaPadite vs Landa in an epic pipe-off.
For a minute or so, it looks like the protagonist of Inglourious Basterds is going to be Perrier LaPadite, a humble French dairy farmer just trying to eke his way through World War II in the French countryside with his daughters. Into LaPadite's island of relative calm comes Col Hans Landa. The opening scene of Inglourious Basterds is over 15 minutes long, which is extraordinary in and of itself. 15 minutes is a huge amount of screen time to spend on a scene, especially an opening scene, especially a two-handed opening scene where one of the characters will never be seen again. That's just the beginning of the daring and audacity of Quentin Tarantino's screenplay.
The scene is one long suspense beat, a pattern that will be repeated throughout the movie. Over and over, Tarantino slowly ratchets up the tension until is is almost a relief when the tension explodes into violence. Which is, as it turns out, one of the things that elevates Basterds to the level of high art -- Tarantino repeatedly uses the audience's desire for release against it. The movie doesn't merely use violence, it's about violence, particularly violence in movies, or in popular culture anyway, and the way it can be used to manipulate an audience, or a populace. It repeatedly gets you longing for violence and then, by the time it shows up, it's not what you wanted or expected it to be. The movie as a whole doesn't offer up easy answers, rather it asks extremely uncomfortable questions.
Shortly into the first scene, it becomes clear that LaPadite isn't the protagonist, Landa is. LaPadite is reactive, Landa is the one driving the scene every step of the way. The performances in Basterds are extraordinary, and Christoph Waltz as Landa is extraordinary even by the standards of the rest of the movie, but the performance, if I may be so bold, rises from the ingenuity of the screenplay.
Landa comes into LaPadite's humble abode and gently insinuates himself into his family. He is polite, complimentary and even gracious. Why do we know that he's actually a ruthless killer, a monster to be reckoned with? Two reasons. One, he's wearing a Nazi uniform, and everyone old enough to see Inglourious Basterds knows that Nazis are evil (a supposition the movie will go on to exploit to its fullest). Two, we know Landa is scary because LaPadite and his daughters act scared around him. Landa actually has to go pretty far out of his way to put LaPadite at ease: he poses as a gentleman, a connoisseur, a gossip, a harmless bureaucrat. He drinks milk, he invites LaPadite to speak English with him.
(Audiences take the English-speaking as a "movie joke" at first. Of course, Landa has an agenda, from the very beginning: he knows the people hiding in the house, whom we haven't met yet, don't speak English.)
What does Landa want? He wants to kill the Dreyfusses, the Jewish family LaPadite is hiding under his floorboards. Landa knows the Dreyfusses are there, he knows exactly where they are. He could just order LaPadite into the yard and have his men pry up the boards, but he doesn't. Instead, he draws out his joshing, smug interrogation to excruciating lengths. He puts on a show, in short, for an audience of one, he performs. He pretends to be a bureaucrat with his pen and file, and then he takes out his enormous pipe. The audience takes his pipe as a sexual joke -- Landa's pipe is bigger than LaPadite's -- but it's actually a character beat. Landa smokes the pipe because he believes himself to be Sherlock Holmes, the world's greatest detective. Or rather, he poses as Holmes, for reasons yet unclear. To us, he is a Nazi, we see only the uniform, but in his own mind he is a detective, on the hunt for dangerous criminals -- the Dreyfusses. (In an act of cultural precognition, he also imitates Columbo -- he pretends he is ready to go, then does the "oh, one last thing" bit.)
He says he's proud of his nickname -- "The Jew Hunter." Later on, he'll claim that he hates the nickname. Two possibilities: either he's lying one of the times, for the benefit of effect, or else he changes his mind between the beginning of the movie to the end. He seems to me to be a very theatrical character, who breathes performance and layered meanings, who says whatever he says to any given person in any given situation.
Landa slowly backs LaPadite into a corner with his equating of Jews with rats. He's a salesman, in a way, and the thing he's selling is "the revealing of the Dreyfusses." A salesman will tell you, you start off asking questions that can only be answered as "yes" until you finally get your mark into a corner, and they're so used to saying "yes" that by the time you spring your trap they're afraid to say "no." May I come in? Of course. May I have a glass of milk? Why not. May I compliment your daughters, speak English with you, ask you a few harmless questions, smoke a pipe with you? Yes, yes and yes. Do you hate rats? Well, yes, I suppose. Aren't Jews a lot like rats?
The dehumanizing of The Other is an important tactic in war, and, not coincidentally, in drama. A dramatist routinely places audience identification with one character or another, the result being we want one character to succeed over another. In an excellent drama, everyone is right, everyone has their reasons, and everyone acts intelligently and resourcefully. It is the conflicting agendas of the principals that gives rise to drama. But there are very few WWII movies -- very few war movies in general -- hell, very few movies in general -- that bother to create excellent drama. Rather, characters are labeled "good" or "bad" so that the audience knows who to "root for." Basterds stretches this tendency to ridiculous extremes, ending up as an examination and critique of cinematic art.
LaPadite is, of course, torn. He wants to protect the Dreyfusses, but he wants to protect his daughters, and himself, more. What Landa finally sells LaPadite is his life. He's aware, he says, of what humans are capable of when they no longer have dignity. Well, he should -- he spends fifteen minutes stripping away LaPadite's.
Finally, Landa reveals his agenda -- he has known from the beginning that the Dreyfusses are under the floorboards, and he is here to kill them. There was nothing LaPadite could have done to save them, Landa was merely toying with him the whole time. Why? No reason is given, the drama of the scene seems to be there in order to set up Landa as a character, to set up one of the Dreyfusses, Shoshanna, as a character, and to present the stakes of the movie in a remarkable and effective manner. On a character level, Landa's performance seems to be there because, well, that's what he enjoys doing, toying with people, taking the stage, going through his performance before springing the trap. His toying with LaPadite ties him to Jules in Pulp Fiction: one recites a Bible verse before killing someone because it sounds cool, the other behaves like a detective from popular fiction because it pleases him to do so.