Wait for the Cream: Food as a Vehicle for Power and Intimidation
By Oliver Eisenbeis
Quentin Tarantino has developed a very distinct signature style over his past 30+ films. He’s known for his morally ambiguous plots, his realistic and vulgar dialogue, and most recognizably, his gratuitous use of violence. Tarantino has also perfected the use of food as a tool of power. Every one of Tarantino’s films contains at least one memorable food or beverage: for Pulp Fiction, it’s the hamburger; for Jackie Brown, it’s the screwdriver; and for Inglorious Basterds, it’s the infamous strudel and milk. In each film, the specific food defines the characters. What characters eat and how they eat it tells us about appetite, morals, and principles. The appearance of food suggests crucial moments and allows characters to make rules or impose rules on others. For Quentin Tarantino, food is ultimately another way for characters to assert dominance.
Food as a vehicle for authority is a theme that is played out through the entire length of Inglorious Bastards, starting in Chapter 1. It’s 1941 and Colonel Hans Landa (Cristoph Waltz) of the SS is inspecting a farmhouse in Nazi-occupied France. Before questioning the patriarch of the family, Landa asks for a glass of milk and finishes it in one gulp. By having this moment played out over one long take, the unsettling sounds of Landa’s gulps pierce through the silence and demand the attention of the viewer. Immediately, we can tell that Landa is incredibly self-confident, but also somewhat sadistic. He is the only one sitting in the room, yet he now holds all of the power in the scene. The importance of milk is again enforced when Col. Landa asks for another glass. At this point, we know the French farmer is hiding a Jewish family underneath his floorboards. As the farmer pours Landa more milk, Landa fawns over his own nickname, “the Jew Hunter.” However, instead of showing the Nazi colonel finish the glass of milk again, Tarantino shows us the eyes of Shoshanna, one of the Jewish girls hiding under the house. The suspense conveyed through this cut is immense. We know that Landa knows there is a family hiding under the floor, but the question is when, if at all, will he act on it? The answer is revealed shortly thereafter, but the girl, just witnessing the slaughter of her family, escapes.
Milk’s symbolic power resurfaces again at a French restaurant. Shoshanna has since moved to Paris and changed her name to Emmanuelle Mimieux. She now runs a cinema, one that Nazi leadership wants to use for the premiere of a new propaganda film. She gets trapped into sitting at a table with Col. Landa, who interviews her as the acting security officer for the film premiere. What follows is one of the most loaded food scenes in Tarantino’s entire body of work. Landa orders two strudels for himself and Emmanuelle, as well as a glass of milk for the mademoiselle. Emmanuelle’s eyebrows immediately rise. We know she recognizes Landa as the man who murdered her family, but does Landa recognize Shoshanna as the girl that got away? By having him ordering for her, Tarantino gives Landa all of the power in the scene. Emmanuelle responds to his questions only when asked, but avoids eye contact and appears as if she’s glued to her chair. Landa further taunts her by making her wait for the cream to arrive before they can eat the strudel. He makes the rules and has the authority to impose them on others. Centered on the strudel, this scene is intensified by the waiting—for the whipped cream, for her answers, and for Landa ultimately to figure out Emmanuelle’s real identity. They are the only characters in the shots and the pacing matches the dialogue: slow, calculated, and rich with tension. As Landa finishes up his dessert, he puts out the cigarette in the cream on top of his strudel, one final display of power before exiting the scene. It is the ultimate intimidation scene full of dramatic irony and suspense, yet produced in such a way that the dominance is a result of the strudel.
Ultimately, Tarantino notes that he finds restaurant scenes ritualistic, one of those rituals being the establishing/balancing of power over food (Tarantino). He wants audiences to leave his films hungry, wanting to eat the foods that they just saw—regardless of the opinions the audience has just projected on said food. For example, even though I watched a Nazi colonel do unforgivable things to innocent people throughout the movie and I recognize that the strudel is a piece used by said character for sadistic power, I still really do want strudel. Leave it to Quentin Tarantino to take a mundane, childlike combination of foods such as strudel and milk and twist them to have atrocious associations while still making them appear visually delectable.
Inglorious Basterds. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Perf. Brad Pitt, Melanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz. Universal Pictures, The Weinstein Company, A Band Apart, 2009. DVD.
Yellow King Film Boy. “Quentin Tarantino Talks About Food And Their Power In Movies.” Online Video Clip. Youtube. Youtube, Oct 17, 2017. Mar 8, 2018.