Austin Cat! and screenwriter Alvaro Rodriguez tackles Tarantino’s re-imagining of WWII: “Inglourious Basterds”
Inglourious Basterds, writer/director Quentin Tarantino’s pulp fantasy, works as both entertainment and damned smart moviemaking. What might seem a sprawling epic at first blush, told in novelistic chapters that veer from extended dialogue scenes to sharp bursts of violent action and back, turns out to follow the 15 Beat template perfectly from Opening Image to Final Image — once the disparate story threads are unraveled and laid side by side.
Opening Image: A title card, “Once upon a time… in Nazi-occupied France,” announces we are stepping into a fiction as an idyllic farmhouse in the French countryside is suddenly disturbed by a carload of Nazis coming up the road, a symbol of invasion.
Theme Stated: Col. Hans Landa, an SS officer charged with routing out Jewish families in hiding, says, “Facts can be so misleading, where rumors — true or false — are often revealing.” We don’t quite know it yet, but this is going to be a film about storytelling as subversion: cinema is war and film is a weapon.
Setup: Landa is revealed to be a cunning, logical, and even charming adversary as he interrogates M. LaPadite, a dairy farmer, about a missing Jewish family, the Dreyfuses.
Catalyst: Landa asks LaPadite if he’s harboring the Dreyfuses under his floorboards. As the camera pans down, we see the family hiding exactly where Landa believes them to be.
Debate: LaPadite hesitates, and through a long, breathtaking exchange of dialog, Landa assures him that LaPadite’s family will be spared — if he cooperates. LaPadite points to where the Dreyfus family is hidden.
Break into Two: As Landa’s men open fire upon her family, Shoshanna Dreyfus, a teenaged girl, escapes. Landa aims to shoot her down, but she is out of range. Landa grins and cries out “Au revoir, Shoshanna!” We know that this dance is not yet over.
B Story: US Army Lt. Aldo Raine assembles a crack-team of Jewish-American soldiers, known as the “Basterds,” to hunt Nazis and spread fear among the German ranks.
Fun and Games: Four years after her family’s massacre, Shoshanna lives under an alias in Paris and operates a small cinema she inherited from an aunt; she has a lover, Marcel, who works with her as her projectionist.
The Basterds kill and scalp numerous Nazi soldiers but always leave one alive — with a swastika carved on on the survivor’s forehead – to spread the legends of the Basterds. Hitler erupts into a furious rage with each and every carving.
Shoshanna meets Friedrich Zoller, an ingratiatingly boyish Nazi soldier, who shares her love for the cinema. Zoller is obviously smitten with Shoshanna. She, however, is indifferent to his charms. She learns that Zoller is a famous war hero, and that a film, “Nation’s Pride,” about his adventures, has been made — with Zoller himself playing the lead.
Meanwhile, in London, British Army Lt. Archie Hicox is appointed to spearhead a special undercover assignment with the help of a German spy — actress Bridget von Hammersmark — and the Basterds.
Hicox, impersonating a German officer along with two of the Basterds similarly disguised, meets Bridget in a cellar bar to discuss their assignment. After being badgered by a young, drunk, Nazi soldier, the group becomes unwilling participants in a “Guess Who?” game with Gestapo officer Dieter Hellstrom.
Midpoint: Zoller has Shoshanna brought to lunch with him, and the Nazi propaganda minister/filmmaker Joseph Goebbels. Zoller pitches Goebbels on the idea of moving the premiere of “Nation’s Pride” to Shoshanna’s theater. Goebbels agrees — if Shosanna will run the reels herself instead of Marcel, who is distasteful to the Third Reich, for he is, in Goebbels’ words, “a negro.”
Bad Guys Close In: In a tension-ridden sequence, Landa, assigned to provide security for the “Nation’s Pride” premiere, grills Shoshanna on the details of her theater — and her background.
Back in the cellar bar, Hicox inadvertently blows their cover. A Mexican standoff between the Basterds and the Germans ends in a bloodbath. Bridget is wounded in the leg and rescued by Raine and his men.
Bridget tells Raine that the premiere’s venue has changed, and that Hitler himself will be attending, along with the other leaders of the Reich. Raine and the Basterds cannot let this opportunity pass. They will attend the premiere, undercover, as Bridget’s Italian escorts.
Landa arrives in the cellar bar and discovers a memento left by Bridget.
All Is Lost: During a highly comic exchange, at the premiere, Landa questions the Basterds — in Italian. Aldo’s inability to speak without a thick Southern drawl raises Landa’s suspicions. He ushers Bridget into a room and confirms that she is a spy. Landa strangles Bridget. Afterwards, he orders his men to kidnap Aldo from the premiere and discovers a dynamite bomb attached to Aldo’s leg. The device is removed.
Two other Basterds remain in the theater. They, too, are wired with bombs.
Dark Night of the Soul: In the projection booth, Shoshanna prepares for the final act by donning her war paint. Aldo and Pvt. Utivich are hooded and transported to a remote location.
Break into Three: Shoshanna and Marcel set into motion their plan to lock the Nazis in during the premiere, and burn the theater down using Shoshanna’s collection of combustible nitrate film reels. Donnie “The Bear Jew” Donowitz, the most feared Basterd of all, observes Hitler in the opera box at the theater.
Finale: Told in flashback and present time, Shoshanna and Marcel shoot a short film to be spliced into the climax of “Nation’s Pride” as part of the grand plan and blackmail a collaborator into processing the 35mm with sound.
The Nazis take their seats and Marcel barricades the doors of the theater. It’s a full house.
Zoller forces himself into the projection booth to rendezvous with Shoshanna. When he turns to lock the door, Shoshanna shoots him in the back. Shoshanna takes pity upon Zoller as he lies wounded, reaching out to him — but ever the Nazi, he shoots her, and together, they die.
Landa brokers a deal with the US Army to create a new fiction — that he was working with the Allies against the Nazis and helped to plant the bombs in the theater — in order to secure his safety and the release of Raine and Utivich.
Shoshanna’s film interrupts the premier. Her face appears on screen; she taunts the Nazis with the news that they will die. Marcel lights the nitrate film and the theater erupts in flames. The Basterds open fire on Hitler and the audience; the timers go off on the dynamite bombs and the theater explodes, leaving only flames and rubble behind.
Final Image: Having reached the American lines in an idyllic, wooded forest, Landa officially surrenders, only to have Raine carve a swastika into his forehead (a symbol of invasion turned against the invader). Landa will now carry the legend of the Basterds with him for the rest of his life. Raine declares that this particular carving is his “masterpiece.”
Post Script from Cat! Central: What makes this film — and the application of the beats — so fun, is the fact that our protagonist is not clearly introduced until the Break into Two (pg 19). Does this technique go against Cat! principles? Not one meow.
Jean-Luc Godard, a forefather of the New Wave cinema, was once asked if he believed that every story had a beginning, a middle, and an end.
“Yes,” he replied. “But not necessarily in that order.”
And so, we encourage our Cats to study and apply our principles of story structure. For once you have mastered them, you may play like a Cat and, in the words of Blake, make your stories sing!