Once Upon a Time in Tarantinoland: ‘Inglourious Basterds’ Deftly Blends Suspense and Black Comedy

Inglourious Basterds Movie Essay - 2009 Quentin Tarantino Film

It takes a special talent to pivot from a gritty grindhouse movie about a murderous stunt car driver to a sprawling World War II period film. Quentin Tarantino had started writing Inglourious Basterds in the 90s, but was unable to finish the script, obsessed on churning out something truly spectacular and unwilling to settle on something only “good.” So, he got deep into grindhouse, releasing the exploitation-influenced Kill Bill, then the straight-up exploitation flick Death Proof. It seems that allowing himself a decade-plus to work on the Inglourious Basterds script was worth it, as the 2009 film is one of his best. It bears Tarantino’s familiar trademarks (excessive violence, cheeky humor, pop culture mishmashing) but also scene after scene of Alfred Hitchcock-level suspense. It was also his first period piece, a chance to put his signature spin on the WWII genre, and it resulted in the first true comedy of his career.

A Series of Tense Scenes

Inglourious Basterds is a study in suspense; the old “we know something the other characters don’t and hope to god they don’t find out.” There are a lot of memorable scenes, but the ones that stand out are those which encapsulate Hitchcock’s “bomb theory.” 

Take the opening chapter, for instance: “Once Upon A Time In Nazi Occupied France” (the working title for the film). SS Colonel Hans Landa, played with utter brilliance by Christoph Waltz (more about that later) interrogates a French farmer, attempting to find out if he is harboring Jews. The camera pans down, where it’s revealed that there are several people hiding beneath the floorboards. This reveal kicks the tension up several notches, as the audience is left to wonder if “The Jew Hunter” Landa will find them out. Spoiler alert: unfortunately, he does.

My favorite scene takes place at the film’s midway point. British Royal Marine Lieutenant Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) goes to a tavern with two of the Basterds to meet with an undercover agent, German film star Bridget von Hammersmark. Unfortunately, a gaggle of German soldiers crash the party, and Hicox and crew are forced to play parlor games with the Germans, all the while pretending that they, too, are part of German forces. It’s another “will they get away with it?” moment that, again, ends terribly for the good guys, but damn, is it a thrilling scene — sharp dialogue and a Tarantino trademark: the Mexican Standoff. 

Tarantino had written suspenseful scenes before, but the scenes that anchor Inglourious Basterds show a maturation in that regard. There is real dread, thanks to thoughtful direction, superb acting and a sharp script.

A Dark Comedy

There’s nothing funny about Nazis or World War II and the millions of lives lost in the conflict, but Inglorious Basterds is a superb dark comedy — not making light of the situation, but using it as a backdrop to tell a thrilling revenge fantasy.

Just look at the Basterds themselves. This group of Jewish-American soldiers is captained by Aldo “Apache Raine,” featuring Brad Pitt in possibly the hammiest performance of his career. He’s the embodiment of American machismo, a John Wayne cranked to 11. Raine is hell-bent on scalping as many Nazi soldiers as possible, and it’s funny as hell. Sure, he’s murdering people in the most brutal way imaginable, but they’re Nazis! Just as Steven Spielberg made Nazis the ultimate bad guys you could kill without remorse in the Indiana Jones films, Tarantino does the same in Inglourious Basterds . Adolf Hitler is played as a buffoon, as is Joseph Goebbels. The only menacing Nazi is Landa. 

One of the funniest scenes comes toward the climax. Raine and his fellow Basterds attempt to crash the premiere of the German propaganda film Nation’s Pride, where they plan on murdering the Nazi leaders in attendance. They cross paths with Landa and try to pass themselves off as von Hammersmark’s Italian guests. Landa, obviously aware that these men are about as Italian as an egg roll, attempts to converse with them in their native tongue, to hilarious results. Pitt’s pronunciation of “buongiorno” is laugh-out-loud funny. 

I won’t even mention Mike Myers, who plays a British official with an Austin Powers-level of camp. Anyone saying this is a serious war drama is missing the point. 

Christoph Waltz Is Amazing

If there’s anything to be taken away from Inglourious Basterds, it’s that Waltz is an absolute genius. He plays a murderous Nazi, but he’s just so damn compelling to watch, and charismatic. 

Take the scene at the restaurant, in which Landa interviews and eats dessert with Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent). Shosanna, who escaped from Landa af the beginning of the picture, poses as French cinema owner Emmanuelle Mimieux, and Landa wants to question her before the Germans hold the Nation’s Pride premiere at her venue. This is another one of the film’s brilliantly suspenseful scenes. Waltz somehow manages to be both playfully charming and menacing at the same time. He offers Shosanna a cigarette and orders a glass of milk — a subtle nod to her dead family, who were milk farmers. And there’s a moment at the end of their conversation where Landa gives Shoshanna a chilling, intense glare.

Tarantino is quoted as saying that Waltz “gave me my movie,” and he’s not wrong. Inglourious Basterds wouldn’t have half the charm were it not for Waltz. It’s no wonder that he went on to win an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, and played a major role in Django Unchained before portraying a Bond villain in Spectre. Waltz is a scary, charming man. 

Inglorious Basterds marked a turning point in Tarantino’s career. He mostly left behind the non-linear structures he’d become famous for. And he also dialed down the pop-culture obsessiveness of his previous films. This mainly has to do with his choice to write and direct period films. It’s hard to make references to Trix cereal and Kool and the Gang when your movies are set before the 1950s. With Once Upon a Time in Hollywood taking place in the late 1960s, it remains to be seen if he’ll be returning to the same ideas.

It seems that Tarantino is interested in writing period pieces and checking off boxes on his favorite genres. War movie? Check. Western? Check? After Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, perhaps he’ll do a horror movie. With Inglourious Basterds, he took a genre he loved and put his own original, comical, suspenseful spin on it, and one can only hope that he continues to put his stamp on more of his favorite genres.

John Brhel (@johnbrhel) is an author and pop culture writer from upstate New York. He is the co-author of several books of horror/paranormal fiction, including Corpse Cold: New American Folklore and Resurrection High, and the co-founder of independent book publisher Cemetery Gates Media. He enjoys burritos and has seen Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom way too many times.