How Quentin Tarantino Builds Tension in Inglourious Basterds!

With Once Upon a Time in Hollywood now in cinemas, we thought that we would return to one of Tarantino’s old masterpieces, Inglourious Basterds. The film has become somewhat like Marmite, as many of Tarantino’s projects are. Audiences either love it and think it’s the best thing they’ve ever seen or they are offended by the explored themes often presented through violence. Even if the story does not appeal, the technicality of the piece cannot be ignored. 

So, similarly to our analysis of Mufasa’s death scene in The Lion King, we have decided to break down the opening scene of Inglourious Basterds. While we want to educate and suggest interpretations of films, we also don’t want our readers to feel uncomfortable so trigger warnings for: murder, anti-semitism and therefore Nazis is to follow. We have plenty of other posts if this one isn’t your cup of tea! 

Tarantino is a master of dialogue. Where many directors – neither rightly nor wrongly – would opt to use their camerawork, their soundtrack or jumpscares to create tension, Tarantino often completes this through life-like dialogue. To keep viewers interested, it is often see in films that the characters speak in a very theatrical manner in a way that normal people don’t converse. While there are plenty of scenes where this is the case in Tarantino movies, there are also other scenes where the conversation is mundane yet cleverly expositional. 

The opening scene begins with the Nazi soldiers and Colonel Hans Landa of the SS arriving at the farmhouse and land of the Lapadite family. The establishing shots are that of tranquility, feeling very safe and cosy. A simple life that is soon to be interrupted.

One of the Lapadite daughters is putting the washing out on a line. She peels back the sheet when a noise disturbs her and sees German soldiers approaching. This shot is the only thing that breaks the tranquility that we have previously seen and is a clever yet simple moment of reveal. Instead of dramatic music or seeing everything from the Germans’ point of view, the daughter peels back the sheet as if peeling back a curtain to reveal to the audience the point of conflict that is going to be the catalyst for the scene.

The father of the Lapadite family tells his daughters to go inside while he greets Colonel Hans. They meet on even ground as each of them take up the same space on screen as the other as they meet to shake hands.

It’s in the followinng moments that Tarantino showcases his craft with dialogue. Landa makes idle yet polite conversation with the family, complimenting his daughters and his farm. Despite all of this, there is obvious tension in the room from how the girls and their father are acting whereas Landa makes out as if this is nothing more than a courtesy call. Lapadite tells his daughter to fetch Landa some wine. As she walks past him, Landa grabs her arm in what could be seen as a friendly way.

But when we later learn what a gameplayer Landa is, we can see upon another viewing that he is doing two things – first, he is reminding Lapadite that if he makes any wrong moves, his daughters are at risk. Second, he is checking her pulse to see how scared she is. He instead orders milk.

Lapadite then orders one of this other daughters to close the window. Even though all of this seems menial, it is building tension as we can see how on edge everyone is. Especially as Lapadite refuses to take his eyes from Landa.

Something which Landa mirrors in a later shot. Another device that Tarantino uses throughout his films is that he isn’t afraid to drag out scenes to the point that they run significantly longer than many directors dare to. The later scene in the bar with Von Hammersmark trying to give her information to Archie who is portrayed by Michael Fassbender runs for over thirty minutes which is almost 20% of the film’s runtime.

He also uses this here in this scene where it would make sense for Landa to take a sip as he has more pressing matters than his glass of milk. But he sits there and downs the lot and in one particular moment, he makes this level of eye contact with Lapadite. His friendly and polite persona is gone. It’s a reminder (of many within this scene) of power.

Landa then requests that the daughters leave the room so that they can continue their conversation. The remainder of the scene is made up mainly of medium shots while the dialogue controls the scene as Landa convinces Lapadite to divulge more information about the Dreyfuses, the Jewish family that he is hunting. The simple shots and lack of cuts ensures that the focus is mainly on the conversation and what Landa has to say to Lapadite. It provides both tension and exposition for the audience as we learn who he is and what he is doing.

The only time that Tarantino moves away from these types of shots is when he shows Lapadite lighting up his pipe. He chooses to use a close up to enhance this moment as we can see a slight tremble in his fingers, showing that he is nervous.

Then, the ‘bomb under the table’ is revealed. Alfred Hitchcock coined ‘the bomb theory’ which is as follows:

“Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!”” 

The bomb under the table in this case is the Jewish family, the Dreyfuses are being hidden beneath the floorboards. Now that this information has been revealed to the audience, the rest of the conversation is even more tense than before. Where they may have had an inkling that the Lapadite family had something to hide, now the audience know exactly what it is.

But does Landa know?

It is then revealed almost instantaneously that he does know and what’s more, he knows exactly where they are hiding. He asks Lapadite to confirm this and the shots change from the medium shots to close-ups to increase the intensity – while we know the entire scene has been an interrogation, it feels like one now. Landa calls in his soldiers and the Jewish family are killed apart from Shosanna who plays a much bigger role later in the film.

The introduction is perfect for this film. While there is some exposition, it is presented in a natural way and viewers are automatically immersed in the story and the tension. The tension is built by Waltz’ performance and we are given a clear insight into how evil his character is and how he uses language to get what he wants.

No matter the cost.

We hope you liked this post, please comment below if there are any films and particular scenes that you would like us to talk about on this site! We’ll see you next time.

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