Inglourious Basterds and the Immortality of Revenge Cinema
We examine the wrathful movie magic of Inglourious Basterds' ending, and why Quentin Tarantino and Shosanna went there.
Some audiences were baffled in 2009 when the fifth chapter of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds began. Whereas other sections of the film were either cordoned off under titles like “Once Upon a Time… in Nazi Occupied France” or the name of the movie itself, what could the whimsical “Revenge of the Giant Face” possibly signify? The meaning became self-evident by the time Shosanna’s (Mélanie Laurent) visage cackled with delight from a burning movie screen, and the High Command of the Third Reich was beckoned into Hell. In a dazzling rewrite of history, Tarantino’s fictional characters, including both the titular “Inglourious Basterds” and Shosanna’s giant projected face, defy reality and end World War II in a gruesome climax of bloodlust and Old Testament wrath. The lingering shadow of Shosanna even outright states to the all-consuming smoke of roasting Nazi elite, “This is the face of Jewish vengeance.”
Ten years later, the power of that giggling countenance remains one of the most memorable cinematic images of this century, even as it could is sometimes overshadowed by the audacity of Tarantino exploding Adolf Hitler’s own mug in joyful close-up. Hopefully, all viewers know that this was not how history went for the German dictator, yet it still is a vivid piece of movie history all its own. And it’s part and parcel of a film that began a new era of specific revenge cinema in Tarantino’s oeuvre.
As the director’s sixth movie, Inglourious Basterds was, in his mind, an attempt to buckle down after the extravagant indulgences of Death Proof and Kill Bill, with the latter being so unwieldy it had to be released in two volumes. By contrast, Basterds is as lithe and efficient as a stiletto in purpose despite its 150-minute running time: It is here to revel in the cleansing, supernatural power of movies themselves. The end result is so successful that the final line of the picture is Brad Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Raine boasting, “I think this just might be my masterpiece.”
We would agree that Inglourious Basterds is among them, and it dictated the direction of Tarantino’s career ever after, including the equally revisionist Django Unchained and Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. Even The Hateful Eight feels apiece, as all later efforts varyingly deal with the need for justice at any blood-soaked cost. But while most such stories typically chase the archetypal “Revenger’s Tragedy,” each of Tarantino’s versions strive to turn violence into a larger cinematic catharsis. And none have been more acutely self-aware or glorious than the Basterds finale that gave Nazis and viewers alike the right ending via moving images and flickering light. It is not only Tarantino’s masterpiece; it is his mission statement about the magic of movies, albeit in the form of a bloody incantation.
The importance of imbuing our tragedies and triumphs alike in mythic grandeur is implicit from the very beginning of the film. It is in the opening section we meet the two most important characters: Laurent’s Shosanna and Christoph Waltz’s Hans Landa. Many of Tarantino’s films are derived from the visual mythmaking of Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, and Basterds is no different. It is, after all, the first time Tarantino echoes Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West title, here with the chapter name of “Once Upon a Time… in Nazi-Occupied France.” Yet while there is something definitely European about this European-set fantasy, Basterds pulls even more liberally from American Westerns, which traditionally revered a morality steeped in black-and-white righteousness.
Hence for the opening credits song, Tarantino reappropriates “The Green Leaves of Summer,” a melancholic ditty written by Dimitri Tiomkin for John Wayne’s garish The Alamo (1960) and covered here with a Parisian affectation and accordion by Nick Perito. Beyond establishing a sense of wistfulness before the film’s terrifying opening scene, it suggests a blending of American folktale and the horror of the European theatre. That nightmare becomes explicit with the arrival of Waltz’s Col. Hans Landa to a picturesque dairy farm in central France. Via luxurious dialogue and menacing language barriers, Landa is able to break a farmer without ever raising his voice.
Calmly transitioning from French to English, Hans never loses his suave demeanor as he threatens Perrier LaPadite (Denis Ménochet), getting him to confess that there is a Jewish family hiding beneath his floorboards. Further Landa maintains English throughout his smiling interrogation because he knows his prey speaks solely French. Discreetly, his SS soldiers come into the house and fire machine guns, point blank, into the floors and onto the Jewish family’s heads. All but one.
In their first of only two scenes together, a then-teenage Shosanna escapes Landa and the Nazis by running out of the house and across the pastoral rolling hills in the distance. Here, once more, Tarantino returns to the iconography of American Westerns—arguably the American Western in John Ford’s The Searchers—when Hans is silhouetted as he walks through the entrance of LaPadite’s doorway to witness Shosanna fleeing in the distance. This is a provocative image that echoes John Wayne standing in a similar doorway at the end of The Searchers, deciding to not go in. It is even more provocative still when one considers Tarantino has written at length about his distaste for what he characterizes as Ford’s white supremacy in movies like The Searchers. However, Tarantino isn’t interested in mirroring Wayne (whose double in this shot is notably a Nazi) but the young women Wayne and Landa are chasing. In the Ford movie, Wayne’s anti-hero reluctantly rescues a niece (Natalie Wood) he also contemplated killing. She had been kidnapped by Comanche as a little girl, and he worried she’d be “ruined” by the time he recovered her years later. He ultimately spared the young woman and gave her to relatives in a house he himself could not enter, but the fate was still grim as she looked bewildered and terrified by strangers dragging her into the dark. There was no going home.
There is likewise no refuge for Shosanna. Though Hans “spared” her, if only as a cruel jape for his own amusement, she cannot return to normalcy after her family was murdered. Like Wood’s Debbie Edwards in The Searchers, these bloody genocidal forces have left her lost and, in the case of Tarantino’s movie, in need of justifiable vengeance.
read more: Inglourious Basterds – Tarantino’s First Alternate History
Tarantino is obviously playing fast and loose with the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust by allowing heroes who are almost entirely Jewish to have their revenge on the Nazi leadership that orchestrated the mass murder of more than six million Jews (and a total of 11 million disparate minorities). Yet in a simple cinematic scene that relies on the threat of language—be it spoken words, foreign words, or the words left unsaid by moving images—we learn everything we need to know of the Nazi menace and why the audience can be indulged in a chuckle for the rest of the film as Pitt much less subtly muses, “We’re in the Nazi-killin’ business, and cousin, business is a boomin’!”
That carries through situations both morally ambiguous—such as the Basterds helping murder a German soldier who is a new father—and those that have the righteousness of scripture. The ending is obviously the latter when Shosanna’s face appears above the horror-stricken Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) at his own party. Yet the true power of that image isn’t just in the thrill of seeing Jewish men and women demand their pound of flesh from the whole rotten basket of the “master race,” it’s from knowing who that woman is that’s finding joy in their comeuppance… even after her death.
When Inglourious Basterds was released in 2009, it was entirely marketed around the violent exploits of Aldo Raine and the Basterds. If you saw the movie based on the trailers, you might expect that the whole thing would be about Eli Roth bashing Nazis’ heads in with a baseball bat. But Roth’s “Bear Jew” and company are only in about one-third of the movie. It is also about that fraction that is spoken in English (always in the chapters where someone dies), often to the dismay of other protagonists, such as Michael Fassbender’s Lt. Archie Hicox. He’s an especially unique creation as a film critic in an auteur piece who’s depicted as a dashing hero as opposed to a neurotic misanthrope. Yet for all his study of German cinema and language, he fails to know their colloquialisms and gets himself killed for the wrong hand gesture.
These detours give the film a texture that prevents it from being the empty-headed gorefest its critics sometimes claim, as seen in the violence that Tarantino knowingly duplicates in Goebbels’ fictional movie-within-a-movie, Nation’s Pride. Filmed like standard Leni Riefenstahl fare, Nation’s Pride is nothing but a string of Americans being gunned down by eagle-eyed sniper Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl). Uncomfortably, audiences who came to laugh at Nazis having their heads smashed in watch those same Nazis, including no less than Adolf Hitler (Martin Wuttke), guffaw at dying Americans.
The significance and danger of this artifice is underlined by the bitter reality between the real-life Zoller and Shosanna, now under a false identity as Emmanuelle Mimieux. As Emmanuelle, Shosanna is the proprietor of a Parisian movie theater where Zoller likes to spend his nights. As a fellow cinephile, Zoller is smitten with the pretty French girl who owns a theater and can discuss the merits of Charlie Chaplin versus Max Linder. He is of course oblivious to the fact that she is a Jewish woman whose family was slain by his countrymen, just as she is initially unaware that he is a German war hero. Yet Shosanna’s tragedy is depicted in her inability to avoid the pestering affections of this “nice guy.”
Ten years on, it’s fascinating how much of Shosanna’s unwanted courtship with Zoller predicts the unfortunately common #MeToo stories that would come out about Tarantino’s producer and then-friend, Harvey Weinstein. While outwardly more handsome and soft-spoken than Weinstein, Zoller uses his power as both a German celebrity and a member of the occupying force in Shosanna’s country to quietly cross the line between wooing and harassing her. At a time when romantic comedies were still a Hollywood staple, Tarantino follows that genre’s formula to a tee as the resistant woman is courted by the charming man who ignores her “no” as a matter of foreplay. He then attempts a grand gesture to prove his sincerity by having Nation’s Pride premiere at her movie theater.
Right up until the end, Zoller is doing everything cinema has taught us will win him Shosanna’s heart, thus the monstrous entitlement only becomes outwardly visible when she denies him for the umpteenth time during the premiere. She intends to burn down her own cinema and achieve a rightful vengeance over Zoller’s Führer, but he wants to steal a kiss with her in the projection booth. When she tells him to go away, he kicks in the door and demands she give in. As a future American president might say, when you’re a star, they should let you do anything. She responds by shooting him three times in the back.
It’s a sorrowful scene for the seeming nice guy, but it takes on an even greater ugliness when Shosanna is herself tricked, if only for a moment, by the illusion of moviemaking. After putting three slugs in Zoller, she goes back to the projector and looks at the handsome young man reluctantly fighting for the Fatherland on the screen, and she sees the sweet boy she denied just because of the uniform he wore. So she goes to comfort him as he convulses in his death throes. After she turns him over, he shoots her three times. Having never wanted anything to do with the boy, she is dragged into an undeserved double murder, making her an unwilling actor in some grotesque tragic play he’d written and directed.
read more: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Easter Egg and Reference Guide
The irony of this horrific representation of male predation being produced by the Weinstein Company, and written by its star filmmaker, is something that will likely become only more pronounced as the decades pass. But it should be noted that Shosanna is not a victim. Rather she is played with a simmering ferocity by Laurent who is both deceptively demure and wrathful at once, often while quietly surveying the loquacious men dominating her company. And her death, as disastrously unfair as it is, thematically feeds into why she is the true hero of the film. For she carries out the mission statement of the piece and is more than just the pretty face—filmed with the fetishism of Marlene Dietrich in a von Sternberg film—laughing in the flames; she alone is the face of cinema’s power.
Right before the spliced clip of 35mm Shosanna placed in Nation’s Pride comes on, and several minutes after their death scene, we cut back to her and Zoller’s corpses. Shosanna is gone, but her will is done. While her body is still warm, the Giant Face has its terrible, revelatory revenge by announcing, “I have a message for Germany.” This is in response to the also now very dead Zoller, who was shouting in English in Nation’s Pride, “Who wants to send a message to Germany?” Shosanna responds, in turn, in the King’s English. It’s the language she didn’t know in 1940 that cost her parents and sister their lives, but now she uses it to taunt the Nazis into perdition.
The Basterds of the title prove almost incidental in the end, with Pitt’s gentile movie star doing nothing. Roth’s Bear Jew and Omar Doom’s Pvt. Omar get the basest level thrill by personally machine gunning Hitler and Goebbels to death. They then open fire on the entire German military and film elite until their bombs go off, incapable of saving themselves due to their rage. But all of these Nazis were already doomed thanks to the actions of Shosanna. The true power of the ending is how even after the movie screen has evaporated into fumes, Shosanna’s face continues to gloat. Film comes alive as the Giant Face now haunts the dying Nazis on the wafts of smoke drifting from hellfire. With her face projected on the smoke as it moves ever closer to its victims, Shosanna and cinema itself corner their prey and give history the happy ending we all wish could’ve been.
This is the heart and soul of Tarantino’s most brazen historical revenge fantasy. Cinema, like all art-forms, has the potential to live on after death. After Shosanna is gone, her message echoes through eternity as it consumes the Nazi High Command whole. Even when she is victimized by Nazis in ways big and small, she gets the last laugh through the power of movies. This is, of course, nothing but a cinematic daydream; the ludicrous grace note of a movie that attempts to give catharsis to a justice that was denied the day Adolf Hitler put a pistol to his own head. But cinema, if only as a warped fantasy, has the magic to float like a Giant Face into the ether of our memories.
Tarantino has returned to this theme in different ways in the ensuing decade, including with an arguably more sophisticated and wistful rumination on the dreams that cannot be and the salvation they can offer, if only fleetingly, like the ending of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. Yet it is in his most righteous movie movie that this vision is full-throated. It is in Inglourious Basterds where his love for the power of movies lights an immortal flame.
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David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.