Meet Col. Hans Landa, an Austrian SS officer assigned to the Sicherheitsdienst, the intelligence arm of the Nazi Party. He is unremarkably built, has a phlegmatic aura about him and walks with the poise of somebody who is singularly focused on the mission assigned to him . He takes pride in the epithet of the “Jew Hunter” which he has earned for specializing in ‘hunting’ Jews while serving in the army. Sadistic and charming in equal proportions, Col Landa is menacing, more due to his Sherlockian way of interrogation as against any brute force. He plays with words, uses idioms to converse and slowly but surely coils the rope around the necks of those he suspects to be involved in some wrongdoing. The first fifteen minutes of the 2009 release Inglorious Basterds is a cinematic masterclass in how to build palpable tension and the establishment of character through minimal use of action, instead relying on conversations and a meandering camera which puts the audience in the uncomfortable setting of the dilapidated county house of Monsieur LaPadite.
Alfred Hitchcock once explained the method of injecting tension in a scene. He mentioned that a seemingly harmless scene of a few people sitting around the table, talking about the most mundane of stuff can be made into an intense race for survival if we, as an audience are made aware of a ticking bomb underneath the table. Instead of a bomb blast, which will only cause mild jump scares, a ticking bomb gets our pulses racing as we expect the inevitable. Quentin Tarantino uses this very template and seamlessly creates an intense interrogation scene involving Col Hans Landa and a poor French peasant. What works magic in the scene is the slow but careful dissemination of information to the audience. We start of by having minimal information about the settings, but as the scene develops we understand the sinister motives of the Colonel and the camera moves below the surface revealing the hiding Jew family, and we, the audience have a horrid realization of the impending fate of the innocent Jews. Tarantino’s camera lingers slowly but surely in the scene, giving ample dialogues and freedom for nuances to Col Landa (Christoph Waltz) to solicit the desired information.
Tarantino demarcates power between the peasant and the Colonel by using the Calabash (Tobacco Pipe). A similar power show is used in Django Unchained where Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) uses a skull to demonstrate his dominance of the proceedings, but more on it later. Here we notice that the peasant is smoking away on his unassuming tobacco pipe in the initial part of the scene, but when Colonel Landa takes out his shiny and impressive Calabash, the peasant stops smoking and hides his tobacco pipe. That establishment of power quickly topples the initial languid nature of Col Landa and builds tension almost simultaneously. This interrogation scene will go down in history as a crafty piece of direction and acting and Waltz deservedly won numerous accolades for his portrayal.
Even in the more aggressive Pulp Fiction interrogation scene, featuring Jules Winfield (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent Vega (John Travolta), Tarantino works the camera to lay the foundation of fear as the scene develops. The initial discourse is relatively gentle with no music but once the camera moves to the point of view of the interogatee, Brett, the sheer dominance of Jules is evident. He looks down with his piercing eyes and shoots one of the other characters present in the house. As he raises his voice, we hear echoes that adds to the seriousness of the scene ultimately culminating in the brutal killing of Brett, but not before Jules quotes the Bible in one of the most famous scenes in movie history. Camera angles dictate the tension in this scene. And Sam Jackson’s blood red eyes leave a lasting impression.
The most important aspect of Tarantino’s interrogation scenes is information or the lack of it. As an audience, we are fed with information in small proportions throughout such a sequence while we keep guessing if the antagonists have any more knowledge than us. A great example of this is the climatic scene from the movie Django Unchained where Calvin J. Candie manoeuvres the conversation to extract information from King Schultz (again the brilliant Christoph Waltz) and Django (Jamie Foxx). Candie knows the hidden motives of his guests but are the guests aware of the danger they are getting into? The to and fro of that scene is deliciously directed. It’s a match like no other as we watch the brilliance of Leonardo DiCaprio versus the suave Waltz even as Jamie Foxx stares on at the battle of wits between the two. The final shootout was inevitable but so unpredictable. The anticipation of an action is more chilling than most action sequences.
In Reservoir Dogs too, the movie unfolds as a series of repartees and intense set ups but it is the gruesome interrogation scene which disgusts, angers and sends shivers down our spine all at once. Tarantino uses blood in gallons. He has never shied away from showing graphic imagery to the audience. And during this scene, the chopped ear comes as a shock to many viewers. Although, in hindsight, we should have been ready. What works for this scene is how Mr Blonde (Michael Madsen) suddenly breaks into a dance with a razor in hand. It borders on psychotic and as an avid Tarantino fan, I know that most of his leads are on the edge, mentally and physically.
Quentin Tarantino is a legend whose signature cannot be missed in any of his movies. Be it bloodshed, suave protagonists, freaky villains and western set ups, he builds a scene with care but also indulges wherever he feels the need. His interrogation scenes are testament to the fact that you don’t need lavish sets and furious action to get the adrenaline pumping, it can also be achieved through a Calabash/ Razor or a human skull
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