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In Inglorious Basterds Lt. Hicox is an English officer who speaks German fluently yet with a mild accent. Speaking a language fluently requires a lot of practice with native speakers and so spending a lot of time with them. So I'd expect that he should know German culture well enough to not order "three glasses" with a wrong gesture (which was the key to the failure of his covert operation).

How is it possible that he speaks German fluently (and so had exposure to native German speakers) and then gives himself away by using the wrong gesture?

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I'd say this gesture was something so subtle and unconcious that it just falls below any cultural assimilation. He has "counted to three" in the "British way" all over his life and even excessive exposure to German native speakers and culture probably won't change such a highly non-descript and intuitive gesture. You can speak fluently in a language and be acquainted with many of its cultural subtleties and might still not be aware of the most subtle an non-descript differences. It's not that if you do it the "wrong" way among a bunch of natives everybody will shout "hey, you're counting wrong". In most situations nobody will notice and thus nobody would have ever told him how to do it "properly". That's because in all but this particular covert operation nobody would have cared about how he counts to three.

Add to this that Hicox actually wasn't a professional spy trained for such situations. He was really only a British soldier who happened to have good knowledge about German movies and language (maybe even mainly from movies). It is true that they would have to face a situation amongst many German officers sooner or later (yet on a film fest, a métier Hicox would be much more familiar with). But in this particular situation they weren't prepared for any German soldiers at all, let alone such a cunning officer like Major Hellstrom, who continuously needled them and tried to bring them into revealing situations. Lt. Hicox just wasn't prepared well enough for this battle of wits and espionage where even the slightest misbehaviour counts (The situation may not even have gotten that far hadn't he spoken with such an Irish accent, which actually aroused Hellstrom's attention in the first place).

(As a counter example, I for myself think to speak English pretty fluently, even if maybe with a slight accent (though not stronger than Michael Fassbender's either), and have quite a bit of knowledge about Hollywood movies. This might even be sufficient to play an American film expert on a quest to bomb the Academy Awards. Yet I never ever heard about this difference in counting to three until this movie and would indeed intuitively order my drinks in the "German way" even when sitting in a bar full of U.S. officers.)

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"natives" will definitely notice the "wrong way of counting". I know because I'm one. Thought I would not necessarily say anything about it... And yes, the difference is pretty explicit. Like I said, everybody would think it's wired, but that doesn't mean they'd say anything about it. – Lukas Knuth Jul 1 '13 at 22:40
@LukasKnuth And so am I but to me this never occured that explicitly. – Napoleon Wilson Jul 1 '13 at 23:09

Well me and my wife both took German in high school and were taught by a native German. He told us the way that Germans count one with their thumb instead of with their fore finger. I always remembered this and she didn't. We both visited Germany through a student exchange program and became fluent in the language. While watching Inglorious Basterds I noticed the slip up right away she had no idea until after the shooting stopped and it was explained on screen. As Christian Rau it's one of those small cultural differences that aren't always noticed or commented on even when surrounded another culture. What's stranger to me in that scene is the Nazi jumps automatically to these are enemy soldiers due to such a small cue.

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"What's stranger to me in that scene is the Nazi jumps automatically to these are enemy soldiers due to such a small cue." - Well, I'd say he had a suspicion all the time (which is demonstrated by his ongoing questionings and his tries to bring them into revealing situations). He just needed some proof to confirm it, however small that was. In the end I think he actually ordered the drinks exactly for the purpose of checking that clue. – Napoleon Wilson Apr 30 '13 at 15:34
But interresting that you learned this counting difference in school, because the movie was the only time I ever heard about this difference. – Napoleon Wilson Apr 30 '13 at 15:37

I don't have any references to point to, but my original thought was that a large part of Lt. Hicox's German had come from watching German films. The gaps in his cultural knowledge were the result of his lack of exposure to native speakers.

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Tarantino is a Director who is a homage maven. My thought is the slip up by Hickox is a nod to the Director John Sturges and his work in the 1963 WWII epoch "The Great Escape". If you recall, in that film, Bartlett and MacDonald evade capture after escaping from the Stalag. They slip away, but they are caught while boarding a bus after MacDonald blunders by replying in English to a suspicious Gestapo agent who wishes them "Good luck" in English. Similar to the blunder made by Hicox. Like in the game "Simon Sez"... They couldn't help themselves.

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This seems more an opinion about why the scene exists as opposed to the OP's question about why the character messed up. – Meat Trademark Sep 9 '14 at 1:39
@MeatTrademark Though, this might work as an answer to explain the necessity for a supposedly unrealistic scene from a writing standpoint. But I agree that it needs a bit more elaboration in that direction to really work as an actual answer on its own. – Napoleon Wilson Sep 9 '14 at 8:43

I have a German friend and he counts starting with his index finger. He says that although it is typical for Germans to count in the way depicted in the film, it is not cast iron.

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