Inglorious Basterds: A Cinematic Celebration and Commentary

By: Eric Gregory

*****This analysis contains spoilers*****

Quentin Tarantino's 2009 film Inglorious Basterds was met with widespread praise from Critics and audiences alike upon its release.  It was nominated for eight Academy Awards including Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture, winning one, Best Supporting Actor for Christoph Waltz .  Despite its accolades, this film is an under appreciated  gem of the 21st century.  This essay will analyze two of the film's main themes and hopefully provide you with a better understanding of what the film is really all about: which is that Inglorious Basterds is both a Celebration of cinema, as well as a contemporary commentary.

If you take a look a look at his past films, Tarantino is well known for paying homage to virtually hundreds of films.  Films that are both old and new, foreign and domestic.  Basterdsis no exception.  Prior to Basterds, Tarantino's films generally featured a retro opening prior to the opening credits or scenes.  Generally, one of the first images you see in his films is the red "feature presentation" screen accompanied by crackling retro music.  

This was a common screen to see before films in the 1970's.  Basterds was the first Tarantino film to be released by Universal Pictures.  Immediately prior to the opening credits, the Universal logo is shown as it is does before all Universal films.  Following the logo is a second Universal logo sequence, only this time, Tarantino used the retro Universal logo to kick off the film with a retro feel.  This feeling is continued throughout the opening credits with a classic musical composition from famed Hollywood composer Nick Perito.  Immediately following the opening credits, the screen reads "Once Upon A Time…..In Nazi-Occupied France."  This is a nod to one of Tarantino's favorite directors, Sergio Leone.  Leone Directed six films including the "Dollars" trilogy starring Clint Eastwood, as well asOnce Upon A Time In the West (1968), and Once Upon A Time in America (1984).  Chapter One is also very similar to Leone's Good/Bad/Ugly as that film also begins with an interrogation and murder, as well as Once/Upon/West as a family is visited by a gang of men and murdered.  Leone's films consistently feature a strong theme of revenge, which is reflected in Basterds with Shoshanna's portion of the story as well as the Basterds avenging the atrocities perpetrated against the Jews by the Nazis.

Probably Leone's two most famous trademark in his five western films is his cinematography that builds tension very gradually (especially during duels and Mexican Standoffs), as well as his films' scores composed by Ennio Morricone.  We'll begin with the cinematography.  Leone's duels always start with a long shot with the camera gradually getting closer until the camera is focused on the characters faces.  The camera sometimes even zooms in to the point of just the eyes.  The film Shoshanna makes for the Nazi's is comprised of a single shot extreme close-up of her face.  Leone's influence on Tarantino has also shown up in earlier films such as Kill Bill Vol. 1 and with an emphasis on 2 as the sequel is basically a Neo-Spaghetti Western.  Take a look at the pictures below of Leone'sThe Good The Bad and The Ugly (1966) Basterds, and both volumes of Kill Bill (2003,2004).  One could even say that Tarantino is poking a little fun at these extreme close-ups when "The Bride" plucks out Elle Driver's eye in Vol. 2.

Tarantino has a way of building tension slowly and methodically, as Leone did.  In Chapter One of Basterds, the questioning of Monsieur Lapadite grows very slowly from friendly to hostile.  Lapadite and "The Jew Hunter" could be read as two men dueling with words instead of six-shooters.  The cinematography also focuses on the two characters faces when Lapadite admits he is hiding the Dreyfuses underneath his floor boards and is accompanied by slowly building music that finally crescendos when the soldiers start shooting the floorboards.  Another great example of slow building tension is the scene where the "Bear Jew" (played by Eli Roth) beats the Nazi soldier to death with a bat in Chapter Two.  The Bear Jew lets his presence be known by knocking the bat against the wall inside of a dark tunnel.  It seems like Roth is going to hide in the darkness for an eternity until slowly but surely the knocks become faster and louder until he finally steps out into the light and makes his way over to the kneeling German soldier.  

This is followed by large facial close-ups of Roth and the Nazi until the latter is finally beaten to death.  This scene is accompanied by a piece called "La Resa," or "The Surrender" composed by Morricone.  La Resa was first used in the 1966 Spaghetti Western The Big Gundown.  Morricone did not actually score Basterds, but Tarantino handpicked four pieces of Ennio's for this film.  

Perhaps the scene with the largest buildup of Tension is in Chapter Four when three of the Basterds rendezvous with Bridget Von Hammersmark in the basement saloon.  Once again dialogue is the main focus for roughly 20 minutes. After Sgt. Hicox (played by Michael Fassbender) unintentionally blows their cover, the scene explodes with gunfire and violence in a "Mexican-Standoff-On-Steroids" kind of way.  In case your wondering, a Mexican Standoff or "MS" for short, is when three or more characters have weapons, usually guns, pointed at each other.  The most famous MS is at the end of The Good The Bad and The Ugly.  This is one of Quentin's favorite films of all time.  Tarantino has many examples of MS's in his films including: The end of Reservoir Dogs (1992), The end of Pulp Fiction (1994),and The end of Jackie Brown (1997).  Immediately following the bloodshed in the basement, another Mexican standoff presents itself between young nazi soldier Willhelm, Von Hammersmarck, and Lt. Raine.  Aldo even points out the situation to Willhelm and says a Mexican standoff "was-not-the-deal."  

As mentioned earlier, Tarantino draws a lot of his music from older films with an emphasis on Morricone.  One Morricone song featured in Basterds is called "Un Amico," which is from a 1973 Italian crime film called Revolver.  Other pieces featured that are Non-Morricone songs include: "Tiger Tank" from Kelly's Heroes(1970)," "Slaughter" from the 1972 filmSlaughter and "White Lightning" from the 1973 film White Lightning which was also used inKill Bill.  It is also worth mentioning that Kelly's Heroes is also a WWII film with a "Men on a Mission" plot very similar too Basterds.

Aside from Cinematography and music, Tarantino references dozens of films throughout Basterds in a variety of ways.  Almost all the characters in the film are either involved with film or reference film in some way.   For example, Brad Pitt's character Lt. Aldo Raine is a nod to American actor Aldo Ray who was type cast in the 1960's as a "tough guy" with a raspy voice, similar to Pitt's character.  In Chapter Four, the Bear Jew is given the Italian name Antonio Margheretti, who was an Italian filmmaker best known for his Sci-Fi, Horror, Spaghetti Western, and Action films from the 1960's through the 80's and into the 90's.  Diane Kruger plays an actress named Bridget Von Hammersmarck.  Michael Fassbender's character Sgt. Hicox is a British film critic who wrote two books.  One book is a study of German cinema in the 20's while the other is a "sub-textual" study of German director G.W. Pabst.  He also says he studied German cinema under the Third Reich, specifically the German film studio UFA and Filmmaker Joseph Goebbels.  Goebbels, as you may know, was Hitler's right-hand man and head of German propaganda.  The entire second half of the film is built around the premiere of Goebbels' new film Nation's Pride starring another character within the film named Frederick Zoller, played by Daniel Bruhl.  At the premiere, Goebbels introduces Zoller to Emil Jannings.  Jannings was a German/Austrian actor best known for being the first man to win the Oscar for Best Actor and the first Oscar ever given out.  It is also mentioned that Goebbels might be able to turn Zoller into the "German Van Johnson."  Van Johnson was a major American film and TV star throughout the 40's and 50's.  Hugo Stiglitz, played by Til Schweiger, was a Mexican actor most famous in the 70's and 80's.  And how can you forget about Shoshanna?  After escaping death in Chapter One, she goes on to own and run a Cinema.  In Chapter Three, Goebbels visits Shoshanna's cinema to decide whether or not to hold the premiere there.  As they are leaving, Shoshanna remarks on how she enjoyed Lillian Harvey.  This immediately sends Goebbels into an angry tirade as he storms out of the cinema.  Lillian Harvey was a British-born actress who grew up in Germany and starred in many German films until she was exiled for, among several different things, Jewish sympathizing.   When Hicox is being briefed on operation Kino and he talks about his film background he mentions Davis O' Selsnick, and Winston Churchill(who is sitting quietly in the corner of the room) mentions Louie B. Mayer.  Selsnick was a Jewish-producer who worked with RKO, Paramount, and MGM studios and won two consecutive oscars for producing Gone With The Wind(1939), and Rebecca(1940).  Mayer ran MGM for nearly thirty years and built it into what was considered the premiere studio that had the most star actors under contract.

It may be a bit of a stretch but I also believe Monsiuer Lapadite to be a nod to Stanley Kubrick.  Kubrick was another one of Quentin's favorite directors.  Lapadite looks virtually identical to Kubrick.  One of Kubrick's biggest aspirations in the latter part of his career was to make a WWII Holocaust film.  Before this project could be realized, Spielberg releasedSchindler's List (1993), and the project was abandoned.  Kubrick then passed away in 1999.  So, Lapadite's similar appearance may be Quentin's way of allowing Kubrick to finally be apart of a WWII film.

There is also a "sort-of Love" Triangle between Shoshanna, Marcel, and Zoller.  Combined with Shoshanna's storyline at the cinema, it is very similar to Francois Truffaut's 1980 filmThe Last Metro.  Metro featured a Jewish theatre director who hides from the Nazis in German-occupied France inside of a theater.  There is also a love triangle in Truffaut's film.  Tarantino is an admirer of Truffaut's and he's paying homage to him as he has done before in Pulp Fiction.  In the "Bonnie Situation" part of Pulp Fiction, there is a heated exchange between Jimmy, played by Tarantino, and Jules, played by Samuel L. Jackson.  Jimmy yells "Don't fuckin' Jimmy me Jules!" which is a nod to another one of Truffaut's films called Jules et Jim, or, Jules and JIm (1962) which is about a love triangle between two men and a woman. 

As evidenced earlier, the characters themselves make many references to film.  Right before we are introduced to the Bear Jew, Aldo is "delighted" to hear the German soldier has refused to cooperate because "Watching Donnie beat Nazis to death is the closest we come to being at the movies."  In Chapter 3, when Shoshanna or "Emmanuelle Mimieux" meets Zoller for the first time, they have a discussion about film.  In their discussion they mention Max Linder, a French actor/director/screenwriter/producer of the silent film era.  They also mention Charlie Chaplin, who was a famous British Comic Actor and Director, and his film The Kid(1921), as well as G.W. Pabst.  Pabst was, among other things, the Director of the film that is shown on the marquee.  He also made two films underneath Goebbels.  There is a giant Poster that reads "L'Enfer Blanc du Piz Palu," or The White Hell of Pitz Paluin English starring Leni Riefenstahl.  Riefenstahl also stars in the propaganda film Triumph of the Will (1934) that can be seen for a couple seconds later on in the film.  Some of these elements are referenced again later in the film.  In Chapter Four, everyone in the saloon besides the bartender play a drinking game where every player is assigned a card with a famous person's name on it.  Some of these people have to do with film and include: Brigitte Helm, a German actress, Brigitte Horney, another German film and theatre actress, and G.W. Pabst is shown again as well.  The Gustapo's card reads "King Kong" in a nod to the old classic.   Von Hammersmarck is well recognized by the clientele in the bar and is invited to drink with everyone and is asked for an autograph.  While undercover, Von Hammersmarck and Sgt. Hicox also go on to tell the Gustapo-Dieter that Hicox grew up in a village near Pitz Palu, and was an extra in the film The White Hell of Pitz Palu.  So now, the characters are referencing films mentioned within the film. 

The characters also fill in admirably to famous archetypes of cinema.  Aldo Raine and his soldiers fill in the old"Men on a Mission" role in a very unique way.  There have been dozens of war films over the years featuring very similar storylines, none quite like Inglorious Basterds.  One of the films taglines during its release was "This isn't your dad's World War II film," and I couldn't agree more.  Another Archetype very apparent in this film is the "Femme Fatale."  The first time Zoller meets Shoshanna outside the cinema, she is wearing a RED jacket.  In most films, when a male character meets a female character that is wearing red, it is almost a certainty that the male will meet his demise in the film, most likely from the female herself or something related to her.  Shoshanna is also wearing a red dress the night of the premiere and shoots Zoller while wearing it.  

Basterds also talks about cinema in its most basic form, ranging from early production to what its like behind the scenes at a movie theater.  The narrator, Samuel L. Jackson, talks about 35 mm Nitrate film and gives a few fun facts about its flammability and goes on to say that Shoshanna has over 350 nitrate film prints.  They go on to show different stages of the film process.  They shoot the footage of Shoshanna's speech to the Nazis, They force an audio engineer to input the audio, they show the film being spliced into Nation's Pride.  We also learn how to work the multiple reels in the projectors.  When the "X" is seen at the top right of the screen, it is time to switch the reel/projector.  This "X" can also be seen in another film of Tarantino's called Death Proof (2007).  Basterds is a film about film, and where does the climax of the film take place? At the cinema.

Foreign films are featured predominately throughout Basterds and with it, foreign languages.  There are four main languages spoken throughout the film.  English, French, German, and the Italian languages are spoken during the film, and the Jew Hunter speaks all four fluently.  This is to give authenticity to a film that is not only about International cinema but is also a subtle jab to American audiences who are well known for scoffing at films that are in another language.  When you suggest a foreign-language film to a typical American, he/she will most likely say something like "Why would I watch that….I'd have to read subtitles the whole time."  Europeans are generally far more multi-lingual than americans given how close in proximity their countries and cultures are to one another.  A lot of Americans think Foreign films aren't as good as American films, a statement that couldn't be further from the truth.  Most of the dialogue in Basterds is subtitled which is most likely a surprise to most Americans who went to see it thinking they were going to see "just another war movie, with Brad Pitt"  One could argue that the film is primarily about Shoshanna's storyline, where Melanie Laurent and Christoph Waltz could have received top billing over Brad Pitt.  How many Americans would have gone to Basterds if it was advertised in a more truthful way, i.e., a mostly foreign-language film with many actors you've never heard of.  Tarantino is one of the few directors recognized in the US by name.  Many Americans do recognize directors like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, or sadly, Michael Bay, but for the most part, directors in the US are largely overlooked.  In other countries, they are looked up to as much, if not more, than actors.  During Shoshanna and Zoller's film-lovers conversation, points out that she must admire a German director because she put his name on the marquee.  Shoshanna says "I'm French.  We Respect directors in our country."  When Basterds was shown first at the Cannes film festival in France, the audience erupted with applause after Melanie Laurent delivered this line.

Tarantino's use of the subtitles also seems to be his way of telling Americans they need to open up more toward foreign languages and cultures.  Throughout the film, the subtitles are very inconsistent.  You may have noticed that words are repeatedly translated, and not translated.  The french word for yes is "Oui," and when spoken in the film, the subtitle goes back and forth.  It sometimes reads "yes" as it should, and it sometimes reads simply, "Oui."  This is repeated with other words such as "Thank you" and "Merci," and "Mister" and "Monsieur."  Tarantino subtly starts to teach the audience other languages.  After the shootout in the basement, an injured Von Hammersmarck is questioned by Aldo and then reveals the details of the premiere.  While they think of ways of getting in, Von Hammersmarck says "I know this is a silly question before I ask it, but, Can You Americans, Speak ANY Other Language Than English?"

Basterds is not just a commentary on International cinema and language, but also the way films are made.  More and more directors are abandoning 35 mm film and switching completely to digital.  This frustrates Tarantino to the point where he has been on record of saying that he will not make films if he cannot shoot them in 35 mm.  I believe Quentin views the current state of cinema with disdain.  He is a film-lover first and foremost and is happy whenever he's able to watch a film in a theater.  He loves the experience of going to the cinema, kicking back and chowing down on some popcorn.  Tarantino himself owns hundreds and hundreds of individual film prints, much like Shoshanna does.  Movies are becoming more and more accessible outside of theaters via on demand and download services as well as being made without actual film.  This commentary of cinema is echoed at the end of the film when Shoshanna and Marcel use film as the explosive.  Shoshanna's "Giant Face" on the screen yells "Marcel, Burn It Down!"  Marcel then flicks his cigarette into the heaping pile of film.  The film explodes and the screen bursts into flames.  This is closely followed by the actual dynamite going off and we see an outside shot of the Theater exploding and left in ruins.  This is direction film is headed in.  With impending technology, there will be a day when movie theaters are obsolete and serve only as a novelty.  Tarantino is reflecting on this sentiment, letting us know that the way audiences have watched films over the past 100 years is changing, and will soon be gone.  

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In conclusion, this essay is by no means a complete and comprehensive analysis.  I know there are many points and references in Basterds that I have either missed or overlooked.  I could also write an entire essay on how Basterds is also a film about World History, History imitating Art and vice versa, as well a commentary about violence and how we view it in our society (which I might do one day). Inglorious Basterds is a film that not only celebrates the history of world cinema, but also comments on its current state.  Throughout the film, it is repeated that Nation's Pride is Goebbels' masterwork.  The last scene in the film shows Aldo carving a swastika in the Jew Hunter's forehead.  In the final shot, Tarantino breaks the "fourth wall" through Brad Pitt.  He stares into the camera and says "You know something Utivich? This just might be my masterpiece."  I couldn't agree more.