Spoilers ahead for anyone who hasn’t seen the film!
Inglorious Basterds, directed by Quentin Tarantino, is one of my favourite movies. I also believe it is one of the most well-made movies of all time. It is cleverly executed and deserving of international recognition for the way the movie and characters explores various themes. The movie is about World War II. There is a band of rebels called the Inglorious Basterds trying to bring down Nazi Germany. Meanwhile, an ingenious detective (Colonel Hans Landa) of the SS is hunting them down while trying to protect himself and the German party. The story also revolves around a young lady (Shosanna) who escaped from Colonel Hans Landa while he murdered her whole family, and now she has the chance to help bring down the Nazis as well. It sounds like a wartime action movie, as Quentin Tarantino (one of my favourite directors too!) is known for his bloody sequences in his movie, but I don’t think it can be categorized as a typical war movie. There are no stereotypical war scenes of cities being bombed or tanks or of people drudging through the mud and trenches in a hellhole. It’s about people and the actions they make and their reasons to fight, and also the intimidation of language.
In this movie, the characters speak a combination of (or just one of) English, French, German, and Italian. The use of the language changes throughout the movie depending on the situation and the characters. Language is used as a psychological tool to intimidate and express power over another. The movie begins in France, where a farmer and his daughters are welcome by Colonel Hans Landa, the detective for the SS. He welcomes them in a friendly manner, as if it was just a friend arriving from another town, and speaks to them in their native language: French. He asks to speak with the farmer alone, and casually talks in French as if it’s nothing wrong; giving the impression he is just another man passing through due to his job. After the colonel is done chitchatting, his tone and his language change to English, with the simple excuse he doesn’t know any more French. He switches to English, knowing that not many know English in France, and he can say things that no one else will understand. For example, the French Jewish refugees hiding in the basement won’t know what to say, or what is said. All the refugees know is to just keep quiet. The conversation continues in English; the refugees have no idea what is happening, much like how illiteracy is a lack of power, so is the lack of understanding another language. In the end, they do not even have time to panic as they without essential knowledge (even fooled when Colonel Hans Landa switches to French to welcome the soldiers to return to the house, saying that they were the daughters as if nothing were to happen), they’re easily killed like shooting fish in a barrel. Only Shosanna escapes.
Another instance in the film when language is used for intimidation is when the Basterds have captured a German hold in the forest and have killed everyone but three members. One of them, their leader, is capable of speaking English. He speaks with Aldo Raine, the lieutenant and leader of the Inglorious Basterds. He is able to convey his thoughts, and does not want to listen to Aldo Raine’s requests of selling out others in the Nazi army, refusing to tell them where the other soldiers are hidden in the woods. He explains he doesn’t want to put German lives in danger. Aldo Raine argues with him in English, and both are capable of speaking to each other (supposedly as equals). Aldo Raine then gives the order to kill him in English, and the leader knows what is going to happen to him and why. He subsequently falls victim to a painful death at the hands of a baseball bat. Afterwards, another Nazi soldier (of lower ranks) is brought forth and is unable to speak English, therefore he didn’t know what the other solider was discussing or why he was beaten to death with a baseball bat. He cannot speak to Aldo Raine directly, and therefore a medium is used (who can speak both English and German). The translator is a Basterd. This puts Aldo Raine in a position of power; he can say things to the solider that he’ll never understand. The soldier won’t be able to say anything in German without it being translated into English for Aldo Raine. English is the dominant language in this situation; it is powerful because it intimidates the solider and leaves him powerless to communicate by himself. Aldo Raine has the power of determining his fate, saying commands that the solider won’t know until they come into play. It’s terrifying during wartime to have people have discussions right in front of you, not knowing what they’re saying, or what they’ll eventually do to you.
Shosanna, the girl who escaped the massacre of her family, is now living in France alone (except for Marcel, her friend and partner). Together with Marcel, they own a cinema. Shosanna cannot speak German, only French; this is displayed in the movie when in conversation with Frederick Zoller. Frederick Zoller is a Nazi hero for killing many enemy soldiers alone from an lookout tower. He is welcomed by numerous folks in a café who are excitedly speaking to him in German. Where there are English subtitles throughout the entire film when there is a foreign language spoken, this one part doesn’t have them, except when one of the ladies talking to Frederick switches to French to tell Shosanna she is lucky. So we are as lost and confused like Shosanna, wondering why are people excited? Who is actually is Frederick? The switch to French by the German lady is an act of power, displaying she can talk to her if she chooses to, but Shosanna can’t simply speak to them. Frederick Zoller has to tell Shosanna in French who he is, a war hero for killing numerous ally soldiers.
Now, if we go back to Hans Landa, his ability to speak all four languages in the film makes him truly powerful. Despite his cunning intelligence, his true superiority comes from language. First let’s mention Frederick Zoller who is a war hero, the star of Nazi Germany for killing around two hundred ally soldiers all by himself, is going to have his exploits shown on Shosanna’s big screen. She initially doesn’t want this, but she has no choice but to obey the SS, especially when Hans Landa comes to discuss with her about the premiere. In the restaurant where the movie is being discussed, there’s Joseph Goebbels, who only speaks German so he brings his French mistress to translate to Shoshanna. Shoshanna cannot speak to him directly, and has to speak to him through someone else. When Hans Landa shows up, he tells everyone else to leave and speaks to her directly in French. His intimidation tactics show he can speak to her if he chooses to, can understand everything she’ll say, and then speak to the others in a language that is unknown to her. She cannot have any secrets.
The German language is used to display power because Nazis have power. If you can speak German, it is possible to pretend to be a Nazi to hide in broad daylight. This was one of the plans in the movie. However, the cunning intelligence of an actual Nazi soldier caused the Basterds’ plan to fail miserably. Three soldiers of the Basterds (two of whom are German and one of whom is English but had learned to speak German) met in a pub with a famous German actress (Von Hammersmark – a spy for England) to discuss operations. They were pretending to be old friends and speaking loudly in a pub. However, accents are a distinct part of language, and it is obvious to the actual Germans and Nazi soldier where they are originally from. He speaks directly, saying “solider Frankfurt, soldier Munich, soldier I-don’t-know-from-where”. It was because of his foreign accent that the Basterds were conspicuous. The German actress saves him, saying he is from a small village, but it’s up to interpretation if the actually Nazi believes her or not. Eventually when he is caught he switches to English, believing it to be the better language in his final act of defiance.
Lastly, Von Hammersmark tries to use Italian to fool Hans Landa, using three of the Basterds, including Aldo Raine, to act as Italian escorts during the movie premiere. The three do not speak Italian. She claims Germans don’t have a good ear for Italian, so it will be easy to fool people, especially if they do not talk much. However, she didn’t take into consideration Hans Landa can speak Italian, shocking to everyone watching the film, yet not overly surprising because he seems to always be one step ahead of the game. Hans Landa easily regains his power in the situation when he uses Italian to frighten Von Hammersmark, and to mock the Basterds. He is able to see through their disguise, murders Von Hammersmark and have them arrested and to become his captives. Hans Landa wins the game of language once again.
The reasons that people fight in the war is another theme in the film. Many characters keep their nobility despite their alliance, which is an interesting twist in a World War II movie. Detective Hans Landa even says that he has no specific reasons to hate Jewish people; he’s just good at hunting them. That is a controversial reason because if a person doesn’t feel animosity or empathy, that may make it feel like the group of people being hunted is less than human. In the movie, the comparison is between a squirrel and a rat is mentioned, you may not hate squirrels but you hate rats, and there’s no real reason why other than labels that society or other people have given. Just as Hans Landa was just given orders to capture and kill Jewish people, he does it because it came from a higher power.
In another scene (previously mentioned), Aldo Raine is about to bash the leader of the troop of Nazis head in with a baseball bat (well, the Bear Jew will bash his head in). Aldo Raine asks him numerous times to sell out his fellow soldiers for his life, and he declines. He will not sacrifice the life of his comrades. The Nazi points to his medal and says he was awarded a medal for bravery instead of answering for killing Jews. If that were an American or British soldier who said that (changing Jews to Nazis for that scene), the audience would consider that scene to be a heartfelt moment and feel a surge of pride. But no, he’s a Nazi soldier so we must despise him regardless of his loyalty and bravery. And there’s the mix of emotions. Of course Nazis were awful, of course the war was terrible. Yet in this film they are not portrayed as devils. On an individual level, it’s hard to consider the man who is the leader of the troops to be undoubtedly evil. Tarantino has created a movie that doesn’t demonize Nazis, and it’s different, and sometimes difficult to understand. It’s a movie where both sides don’t appear as completely black and white. Especially since the most barbaric acts in the film (cutting off scalps as trophies) is done by the “good guys”.
The part of this film where this concept is more difficult to swallow is the scene in the movie theatre, as Frederick Zoller, the hero and the star of the Nazi propaganda film, is killing enemy soldiers. The audience of Inglorious Basterds watches in disgust as the Nazis cheer as Frederick is killing American and British soldiers: the enemies of Hitler’s Germany. Even the Fuhrer is moved by this movie. How disgusting, how can they be cheering the death of others? Except, in a few moments, in a thrilling scene, Shosanna burns down the entire theatre with explosives and Basterds are shooting everyone, riddling them with bullets until they are disfigured. The audience of this movie is happy; the evil Nazis get what’s coming to them. Except, is this any better than the Nazis happily watching a movie where people died in mass numbers in war? It brings the question: is it acceptable to celebrate death? Even if is the death of evil men, what has mankind become in this morbid celebration? Is Revenge really the best course of action?
I really enjoyed this movie. I love it when you watch a movie but you just keep thinking and thinking about it. There’s great action, amazing dialogue, and just overall great cinematography. I recommend it along with all of Quentin Tarantino’s movies.