Right from spelling the title intentionally wrong, Tarantino makes it clear that he’s in no mood for minor insignificant things like how others spell or perceive things, especially history.
He wants you to see the world through his manic eyes and suspend your disbelief at the prospect of what history could’ve been, if he had his way with the Time Machine.
Be it Americans beating Nazis dead with baseball bats, skinning Nazi scalps and wearing them around the belt as trophies or reducing Hitler to a terrified caricature, Tarantino provides a cathartic release and gratifies the world’s need for revenge and the unanimous animosity towards Hitler. Violence has never been more cathartic and this film is living proof that history is often re-written by winners.
There’s a childish innocence to this irreverence. Remember when you were a kid and played with toys? You always made your favourite toy beat the crap out of the ugly toy. We showed our hatred for the bad guys by painting them stupid, making it a blatantly one-sided battle.
So how do you make an intentionally one-sided film gripping while portraying villains, in this case – the Nazi top management – as a bunch of silly, stupid idiots.
Tarantino does this by creating a proxy villain Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), also known as the Jew Hunter, who right in the first scene, claims that he does not think like a Nazi. In other words, he’s smarter than his race.
He does not even believe in their ideology as he makes amply clear that Nazis may not agree with the comparison. The Jew Hunter calls himself a detective later in the film and we realise that he’s a man smart enough to know when to switch loyalties. Surely, a man as smart as him will not pick the team that’s losing.
But to appreciate the larger story, let’s begin from the structure of Tarantino’s screenplay. Despite being two and a half hours long, Tarantino employs only five chapters.
So simple that Inglourious Basterds is a textbook deployment of the classic five-act structure: Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action and Resolution.
But what’s interesting is that all five chapters do exactly the same thing. They put the hunter and the hunted with a confined space, lets the audience in on where the cat and the rat/s are positioned, builds up tension, cooks up the pressure till we can’t take it anymore and lets it explode with a sudden release – usually a quick intense burst of violent action.
It’s also the story of the rat that burns down an empire of cats.
Exposition: Chapter One – Once Upon a Time In Nazi Occupied France
“What a tremendously hostile world that a rat must endure. Yet not only does he survive, he thrives. Because our little foe has an instinct for survival and preservation second to none… And that Monsieur is what a Jew shares with a rat.” – Col Hans Landa
The superimposed text tells us everything we want to know. The year is 1941 and a young woman turns pale looking at the SS officers heading towards their house on the hill.
Beethoven’s Fur Elise fuses in quite smoothly with Morricone’s guitar as she goes in to tell her father, who in turn asks them not to panic and get inside the house. The man tries to stay calm as he waits with bated breath.
Tarantino who usually uses pop music that people are familiar with, this time around employs Beethoven.
Now, Tarantino hasn’t just used Beethoven’s Fur Elise (Not Moonlight Sonata as previously mentioned – corrected by Krishnan Subramanian) as it is. It is an interpretation, an instrumental piece called ‘The Verdict,’ by Ennio Morricone, the veteran composer of many spaghetti Western films, to hint at the potential of gunfire around the corner. A perfect, smooth mix of epic classiness of Beethoven with the rugged sonic bizarreness of Morricone – music that can give you goose bumps given the tense situation.
A father with three daughters has a notorious officer of the SS visit him and we get the notion that the man knows more than his face gives away.
Tarantino sets it up as an ordinary routine enquiry in French before he stumps us by making the investigator switch to English, a language the auteur writer-filmmaker is most comfortable in, to get us to the juiciest part of the conversation – the reason the Nazi officer has come to his house: To make sure that the Frenchman isn’t harbouring a Jewish family.
Soon enough, Tarantino lets us in on a secret when he pans the camera down the table they are seated at, and even below the ground surface as we find a Jewish family hiding in fright. Now, we know there’s just a wooden floor that separates the hunter and the hunted and the Jew Hunter is classy, confident and almost dead sure about what his instinct.
The conversation that plays out is paced slow, punctuated with sinister all-knowing smiles by the Nazi and we have our heart in our mouth wondering if he would successfully intimidate a well-built calm looking man smoking a pipe into submission and surrender.
So imagine our horror when he does and how coldly, Hans Landa switches back to French while signaling his men to open fire and spray bullets into that wooden floor instantly killing some of the family members, except one.
Now, Hans Landa is an evil man and supremely confident of getting his kill that he lets the sole survivor of the massacre get away with a menacing smile and a scream of “Au Revoir, Shosanna”.
So ends Chapter 1 with the perfect exposition of the two characters who are significant to the story. The Hunter simply called The Jew Hunter and the hunted is a Jewish girl called Shosanna. Will the Hunter get his prey? The cat and the rat chase begins.
Rising Action: Chapter 2 – Inglourious Basterds
“Nazi ain’t got no humanity. They’re the foot soldiers of a Jew-hatin’, mass murderin’ maniac and they need to be dee-stroyed. That’s why any and every every son of a bitch we find wearin’ a Nazi uniform, they’re gonna die.” – Lt. Aldo Raine
Chapter 2 introduces us to rising action in the form of the titular bunch of the “Inglourious Basterds” who are gaining notoriety for the bloody trail of dead Nazis they leave behind. We are introduced to Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), the suave American Lieutenant, who tells his men that he hasn’t come all the way to teach the Nazis lessons in humanity because the Nazi knows no humanity and that they have to be destroyed.
Moments after Raine tells his men that they owe him 100 Nazi scalps each, we get an idea of their savagery through Hitler’s annoyed over-the-top reaction that makes him look like a caricature. The motive is extremely clear at this point. Tarantino wants you to laugh at the idiot. Hitler is a cartoonish buffoon.
Soon, we get a first-hand account of the barbaric ritual of the Basterds skinning Nazi scalps when Raine and his men question a senior Nazi officer about the squad of Germans, their exact location and ammunition to facilitate another ambush.
When the Nazi respectfully refuses, we are introduced to the key heroes of the Basterds.
Stiglitz is introduced with a newspaper headline and quick montage of assorted visuals of him killing Gestapo officers. And Sgt Donny Donnowitz, also known as the Bear Jew (Eli Roth) is an emotional killer who clubs his victims to death with his baseball bat.
We are witness to the intensity of the raw violence delivered personally by his bare hands, in contrast to the covert gun-fire from the last Chapter – the acts themselves making it amply clear who the heroes are and who the bad guys are.
No better line to sum up the rising action than:
“You probably heard we ain’t in the prisoner-takin’ business; we in the killin’ Nazi business. And cousin, business is a-boomin’.” – Aldo Raine
Climax: Chapter 3 – A German Night in Paris
Shosanna is living in Paris three years after the massacre, running a cinema under a fake identity. The chapter begins with her packing up for the day when a young German officer tries to make conversation with her, the lines indicating that he’s interested in her romantically (and he doesn’t really suspect her).
He’s a charming young soldier and if he wasn’t the enemy, maybe she would’ve considered going out with him.
Ever after she snubs him, the soldier persists, stalks her and we find out that he’s some sort of a German war-hero Frederick Zoller who killed scores of soldiers sitting on top of a 300-feet high watch-tower called the Bird’s Nest (the term used to describe the tower more than clarifying how safe the sniper was sheltered).
We realise she now hates him more. So we are once again disturbed when German soldiers show up at her cinema and ask her to just come along with them.
We are temporarily relieved that this was Zoller’s way of wooing the girl. The war-hero turned actor and hero of the film ‘Nation’s Pride’, a film based on his act of “bravery” wants the premiere of his film at her cinema. His director Goebbels, the man second in command to Hitler and the Minister for Information and Propaganda, has his reservations but Zoller successfully convinces him.
And before we know it, Shosanna hears a familiar voice and freezes. The Jew Hunter. Only that he does not recognise her. Or so we hope. Once again, Tarantino milks the scene with the explosive chemistry of placing the Hunter and the Hunted in the same frame as Hans Landa has a few questions about her cinema, her family history and the black man who works at the cinema.
Tarantino cooks it powerfully with the visuals and his intimidating body language (Watch how he extinguishes his cigarette in his strudgel with cream, something he seemed to be fond of). He also drops a bombshell by telling Shosanna he meant to ask her something but can’t remember what it was. The tension here is released not through literal violence but as relief when she pees her pants.
The very next scene, Tarantino reveals the girl’s agenda – she wants her revenge. And she will have it. The hunted will turn into the hunter and kill the people responsible for the death of her family.
“Marcel: [in French; subtitled] What are we talking about?
Shosanna Dreyfus: [in French] Filling the cinema with Nazis and burning it to the ground.”
Things have reached a climax, there’s no going back and hiding anymore. She must have her revenge.
Falling Action: Chapter 4 – Operation Kino
What were the Basterds doing meanwhile? They were planning to blow up the venue on the day of the premiere too with the help of a spy – a German actress called Bridget Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger).
Bridget had called for a meeting with two of the Basterds at an inconspicuous tavern.
“Yeah, in a basement. You know, fightin’ in a basement offers a lot of difficulties. Number one being, you’re fightin’ in a basement!” – Lt. Aldo Raine
Lt. Raine expresses his concern about the choice of a basement as a meeting place and once again, we know there could be trouble given the nature of the hunted meeting out in the open in the presence of hunters when we see the tavern infested with German soldiers playing a game with their favourite star Bridget.
Bridget seems to be a smart actress, playing along with the drunk soldiers, hoping not to arouse any suspicion on what she could be doing there. When one of them refuses to let the lady alone, one of the Basterds tells the German curtly not to disturb the officers, his accent making the soldier smell something fishy.
Soon, tension mounts and we realise that there was a senior Nazi officer who was listening to everything going on. He joins the party to investigate and before we know it, another long random conversation that has our heartbeats racing with the explosive nature of the discussion.
And soon, the violent explosive release of tension: A Mexican standoff involving testicles follows is resolved with a shooting spree that leaves most of those at the bar dead.
Bridget is shot in the process and though Raine manages to get her out of there to a veterinarian, they leave her shoe behind, enough for Landa to know that Bridget had a role to play in the shootout.
Resolution: Chapter 5 – Revenge of the Giant Face
“My name is Shosanna Dreyfus and THIS is the face… of Jewish vengeance!” – Shosanna Dreyfus
Shosanna’s decision to have her revenge through film is only a metaphor for Tarantino’s desire to avenge the death of thousands of Jews at the hands of the Nazis through his weapon – film, if not literally, at least artistically.
Film is the medium where he can legally unleash a fictional genocide and go on a Nazi-killing-spree.
He can pump bullets and drill holes in Hitler’s face with no questions asked and provide a cathartic release to decades of anti-Nazi angst.
He can make it look like the easiest thing on the planet given how many people wanted to see Hitler dead, including his own men. Or at least the smart among his men, like Hans Landa.
Like the rest of the film, the Hunted and the Hunters share a confined space in a movie hall as the roles reverse in the course of the chapter and Tarantino triggers bloody mayhem, rewriting history through this beautifully shot segment that also resolves the tragic unrequited love story of the guilt-ridden German war-hero smitten by the charming Shosanna without really knowing that she was a Jew.
Landa bargains his way with a whole list of demands including a home in Nantucket Island with the OSS but will the Basterds let him live?
Of course, as long as Landa can be spotted in a crowd with a Swastika screaming from his forehead that he’s a Nazi.
As Aldo Raine tells his fellow Basterd soon after carving out a nice little bloody Swastika on Landa’s forehead with his knife, we can almost hear Tarantino say that line from behind the camera.
“You know what, Utivich. This may just be my masterpiece.”
Nobody could’ve rewritten history with such panache and wicked joy.