What Makes It Tick?
Posted by Jennine Lanouette on Tuesday, March 30th, 2010
I’d like to take a moment to underscore the importance of Inglourious Basterds in the evolution of screen drama. Just when we thought all the rules of dramatic narrative had been broken, we discover there was one more rule that was so deeply ingrained we were not even aware we were living by it. And that rule was – Don’t mess with history!!
Sure, history has been fudged on a regular basis to build more dramatic tension and create a smoother narrative flow. But no one dared change it outright, unless it was so ancient it didn’t much matter, like when David Fanzoni posited in Gladiator that the Emperor Commodus – a despot to rival Hitler, for sure – was publicly put to death in a gladiator contest, circa 180 A.D. (In fact, Commodus ruled for 12 more years and then was ignominiously assassinated by poison and strangling. But that was two millennia ago, so who cares?)
Franzoni knew he was safe with his “dramatic license” because no one would know the difference unless they went home and looked it up on Wikipedia. Tarantino, on the other hand, put his dramatic license right up in your face with history that is recent enough to be considered untouchable. And, in so doing, he knocked down the last remaining (known) boundary in film. He made it allowable to rewrite sacred history with the pen of filmed fantasy for the benefit of collective emotional release. Get that son-of-a-bitch Hitler! Get him! Get him!!! GET HIM!!!!
At one time this would have been great material for a comedy skit about the worst pitch session in Hollywood. A young over-eager director pitches his idea to a room full of studio heads: It’s about a determined band of Jewish soldiers and a winsome Holocaust orphan who bring an end to World War II with their plan to blow up Hitler and all his top brass in a movie theater in Paris during the premiere of a Nazi war film. The producer’s laugh him out of the office. An obvious flop. The audience would never accept it.
But Tarantino did just that. And he got the audience to accept it.
Here’s why this is an accomplishment of no small magnitude: All of drama history has been one long process of testing audiences to see what they will and will not accept. What they will and will not believe. What they will and will not comprehend. What they will and will not pay money to go see. And it has been a progressive process. Today, we will accept, believe, comprehend and plunk down a ten spot for all kinds of narrative conventions that were unimaginable when drama began.
Let me give you a sense of how far we’ve come. Back in ancient Greece, plays mostly happened all in the same location and in a limited span of time, usually a single day. This was done not simply as a way to save money on sets and costumes. It was because back then playwrights thought if they didn’t limit their drama to one location and one day the audience wouldn’t be able to understand what the hell is going on. It was believed that the viewer literally didn’t have the mental capacity to follow too many jumps in location or time. Thus, so as not to lose their audience, they limited their plays.
See, storytelling was in an evolutionary transition from the epic poem (an oral tradition recited in front of an audience, as Homer did with The Iliad and The Odyssey) to performed drama (as in the work of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides). But no one was too sure yet how far they could take it. At first they had the “chorus” step in as the drama unfolds to give context and fill in details. They thought the story had to be explained, as it had been in the epic poem. They didn’t know yet if the viewer would understand what was going on simply by watching action unfold. And it’s entirely possible that, indeed, their viewers would not have understood because their brains had not yet evolved into that capacity.
Now we have no doubt that viewers can comprehend a story simply by witnessing action. If we didn’t know it fully a hundred years ago, the short history of the movies has demonstrated it to spectacular effect. Maybe the movies have helped us discover mental capacities that we always had, or maybe our brains have evolved to meet the challenges of a new technology. I don’t know. I’m just grateful to the dramatists and movie makers who have gradually pushed us forward into new perceptual realms.
But the movies got caught in its own trap. We were so enthralled at the beginning with our newly found ability to go out with a camera and capture “reality”, that we became over invested in faithfully imitating reality. For decades, the golden standard of narrative filmmaking has been the ability to maintain the “suspension of disbelief,” the illusion that, as the viewer, you are getting a fly-on-the-wall perspective of something that is really, truly, actually happening. As the filmmaker, you just have to make sure that, whatever you do, you don’t break that illusion. Because your audience won’t accept it. Think of how often you have heard, as if it’s the most damning criticism, “That would never happen!”
It’s an odd paradox that, at the same time, we also love those movies in which a big hairy monster takes over the city, or a super hero saves the world from annihilation or a love smitten crooner belts his heart out while twirling on a lamp post. So we want fantasy, too. And movies can dish up the multi-sensory fantastic like no other art form yet invented.
How did we reconcile the need to imitate a plausible reality with the wish for wild fantasy? We set some prudent boundaries: Don’t put a song and dance number in an otherwise straight drama. Don’t mix abstract techniques with naturalistic drama. Don’t mix animation and live action. Don’t mix documentary and dramatic footage. Don’t mess around with linear time. Don’t do flashbacks. Don’t break the “fourth wall.” Not so long ago, these were all very strict rules. The belief was that viewers would not be able to maintain their suspension of disbelief while switching back and forth between forms, and, thus, they wouldn’t accept it. Of course, by now each of these rules have been broken – by the likes of Paul Thomas Andersen, Charlie Kaufman, Spike Jonze, Ang Lee, Todd Haynes, Christopher Nolan and certainly not least among them Quentin Tarantino himself. And audiences have accepted it just fine.
I don’t know about you, but I was fortunate enough to see Inglourious Basterds right when it came out, so I had little advanced knowledge of what was in it. I remember sitting in the movie theater and first thinking, “I don’t think that really happened.” Then, “Oh, look, he’s departing even further.” Then, “Wow, he’s taking this to some outlandish extremes.” Then, “Oh my God! Is he really gonna kill Hitler?!” And, finally, “Great! Yeah! Let’s do it! Why the hell not!!!”
There was a point at which I had to let go of my conventional expectations in order to keep going with Tarantino on the ride he had planned for me. And it is a testament to his skill as a screenwriter (and director) that I was able to make that break and stay with him all the way through to his ending. So I wonder, What was it in the way the film was constructed that enabled me to do that? After some cursory study, I have developed a couple of passable theories.
It turns out that Tarantino has, once again, despite appearances to the contrary, heavily drawn upon the old-reliable, time-tested narrative conventions while he energetically pushes beyond them. First, he has made sure at the outset that we have, in Shoshanna, a sympathetic character with whom we can have an emotional attachment. Shoshanna’s circumstance is unequivocally tragic and unjust. This also serves to ground the film in the brutal reality of that historical time, which provides the emotional motivation for wanting to kill Hitler. Through Shoshanna’s experience, Hitler becomes much more than simply an all-purpose bad guy. However, her story, by itself, is not quite enough.
There is a risk that portraying Shoshanna’s homespun plan for revenge as successful could come across as trivializing the problem. We all know how ruthless and powerful Hitler was. Considering the tremendous amount of damage he did, it is a bit offensive to suggest that getting rid of him might have been as easy as burning down a movie theater. This is the kind of reality vs. fantasy gap that could cause you to lose your audience.
To be a meaningful rewrite of history that brings authentic emotional release, the story must have an internal dramatic weight sufficient to match the historical circumstance. In actual fact, Hitler was such a formidable foe that no one did succeed at assassinating him, despite numerous attempts. So what we need for our story, to give authenticity to its alternate reality, is an equally formidable foe positioned in opposition to him. Thus, we have Aldo the Apache.
Let’s now look, just for a moment, at the contrary possibility. Say we had Aldo’s story without Shoshanna’s. Well, we would have the necessary brute force to convincingly do the job but we wouldn’t have the human pathos to motivate it. Sure, Aldo has no lack of disdain for the Nazis for their “murder, torture, intimidation and terror” and for being the foot soldiers of a “Jew-hatin’, mass murderin’ maniac.” But, if not for our having seen Shoshanna suffering the consequences of such Nazi aggression, Aldo’s words would have remained, at least somewhat, abstract, making his triumph in the end more about conquering brute force with brute force and less about righting a terrible injustice. In fact, such a film could appear to be exploiting WWII and the Holocaust for an excuse to blow up a movie theater with a big hairy monster inside.
So here’s my two-fold theory: Not only do we, the audience, need an emotional grounding in reality at the beginning to make the revenge fantasy meaningful (as opposed to trivializing) but we also need, as the story progresses, a steady build up of narrative energy sufficient to break us through that dense boundary of acceptable narrative convention (the one that says you can’t recognizably alter history because the audience won’t accept it). We need a narrative energy so compelling that, as the story takes more and more left turns away from actual history, we are less and less inclined to nitpick about mere facts at the expense of staying with the story’s action-packed, fun-filled trajectory. In turn, this letting go of intellectual attachment to historical accuracy then enables us to discover how emotionally satisfying it is to watch Hitler getting mowed down with a machine gun and the rest of the Nazi party leaders being blown to smithereens. Thus, we have our revenge fantasy.
So how is that build up of narrative energy achieved?
As already pointed out, the shear brute force of Aldo and the Basterds is one source of energy in the story. Another, in a nice Taratino-esque touch, is that, while Shoshanna’s first function is to provide human pathos, she is by no means pathetic. No passive victim, damsel-in-distress here. She is acting as her own agent of empowerment and revenge, which also adds some energy.
But the third, and most important, source of energy is in the story’s structure itself. It took me a bit of time, studying my scribbled outlines and charts, to figure this one out. But, while searching for some sort of underlying system to all these disparate characters coming in at different times and from different places, eventually converging in one big culminating escapade, what finally jumped out at me is that, structurally, this film is simply a caper.
Takes me back to Screenwriting 1 in film school when one of our first assignments was to create an outline for a caper story. We were given these parameters: Something happens (the inciting incident) that motivates a small band of mischief makers to pull off a caper. So they come up with a plan (the end of the first act). They then make preparations and launch the plan (the beginning of the second act). But their first attempt either fails or is only partially successful (first culmination of the second act, also called the mid-point). So they regroup and modify their plan, and adapt their preparations. Then they launch the second phase of the plan when they come very near to success (the second culmination, or end, of the second act). But there’s still a piece missing or something left to be done. This takes a final effort (the climax) that then brings them success. They divvy up the goods and go on their merry way (the resolution).
We’ve all seen the caper story a hundred times. Part of why we love it so much is because, along with its action and adventure, it also provides a high dose of audaciousness, cleverness and humor. No doubt Tarantino loves it for this, too. Hence, as usual, we see him drawing upon an old reliable form but doing it one better. Let’s go through the film chapter by chapter and see how it adheres to and departs from the form.
Chapter One (in which Colonel Hans Landa gets Farmer LaPadite to betray the Dreyfus family hiding in his basement, who are then executed by Landa’s men except for the teenage Shoshanna who escapes and runs away):
Here the emotional weight of the problem is established: that the Nazis are relentless and merciless in their persecution of the Jews. But there’s more. Landa’s viciousness goes beyond simply killing the Dreyfus family to include his skill at manipulating LaPadite into abandoning his values and betraying his friends. Our sympathy for LaPadite then goes to Shoshanna, whose circumstance is even more tragic. So the crushing power of the adversary is established and we are left with a mix of outrage and powerlessness at what we have just witnessed.
Chapter Two (in which Lt. Aldo Raine, having recruited “The Basterds” to kill Nazis, has managed to terrorize the German army and infuriate Hitler by sparing one soldier from each raid to go back into the ranks and report on the Basterds’ mercilessness):
Aldo is an Avenging Angel to answer Shoshanna’s plight. We see him state his intentions to his new recruits and then we go directly to the results: Hitler is not pleased to learn there is someone out there beating him at his own game. As Hitler hears the details of Aldo’s extreme practices, we see Aldo in action with a band of German captives on the front lines.
The structural function of these first two chapters is simply to set things up. We now know the backstory, we have become engaged with the main characters, we know the magnitude of the problem and we have a good idea of what’s at stake. We also see that there is a pecking order among the characters with Hitler in the highest power position and Shoshanna in the lowest and Landa and Aldo mid-spectrum in parallel (Landa is hunting Jews, Aldo is hunting Nazis), each displaying their unique methods for getting what they want.
Chapter Three (in which Shoshanna, well established four years later as a movie theater proprietress in Paris, is wooed by the German war hero/movie star Frederich Zoller, who then convinces Joseph Goebbels to move the premiere of his film to her theater, prompting her to decide that she and her projectionist Marcel will burn down the theater with all the Nazi leaders inside):
Here we have the inciting incident (the event that begins the story we’ve been brought in to see). The Nazis are premiering a war hero movie in Paris and Shoshanna has no choice but to let them do it in her theater. This is the event that prompts the decision to pull off a caper. Indeed, Shoshanna wastes no time deciding to utilize this opportunity to rid the world of a few (of the most powerful) Nazis.
Chapter Four (in which a British army operative/film critic, Archie Hicox, is briefed on Operation Kino in London, meets up with Aldo and The Basterds in Nadine, France, rendezvous with German film star Bridget von Hammersmark at the tavern La Louisiane, is killed, along with Basterds Wicki and Stieglitz, by partying German soldiers, leaving Aldo and Bridget to come up with an alternative plan for carrying out the operation):
This is where things start to get interesting, not just story-wise, but structurally as well. We learn that, as Shoshanna was hatching her plan, another plan was also being hatched by Bridget von Hammersmark. Hicox has been drafted into it, as has Aldo and his Basterds. So we have parallel capers stemming from the same inciting incident in which we, again, see parallel characters: Shoshanna and Bridget are both women with unique access to powerful Nazis who plan to blow up a movie theater out of their hatred for them.
Essential to the caper structure is seeing the decision to do it and then hearing the plan for how it will be done. This is what creates the tension as we then watch that plan being carried out in reality and things start to go wrong. But here we have two capers. Do we show two decisions and two plans? That would be cumbersome. So we see Shoshanna’s decision but we can skip Bridget’s, since there’s no need to fulfill that structural function twice. We are shown Shoshanna’s decision rather than Bridget’s because we saw the motivating inciting incident (a Nazi film premiere in Paris) through Shoshanna’s perspective. So Shoshanna’s decision stands in for Bridget’s as well.
But there’s still the two plans. We can’t exactly skip one, but to thoroughly elucidate both would certainly bog down the story. So we get only the briefest description from Shoshanna in just one line of dialogue (she’s going to burn down the cinema using 350 nitrate prints and make a special film just for the Nazis) before we jump to Bridget’s plan and are given a long extrapolation with maps and pointers and the like. Again, in structural terms, we also only need to see one thoroughly extrapolated plan.
So then its Bridget’s plan that we follow to see how it plays out. We see that Hicox has met up with the Basterds as they look out a second floor window at a tavern across the street and lament about it being in a basement (already a complication). The long, tension-filled set piece inside the tavern then fulfills the first phase of the caper (the first attempt). But the macho-posturing, egghead film critic botches the job and gets everyone killed (failure) except for Bridget who hooks up with Aldo (partial success).
Bridget and Aldo get a few things straightened out between them (regrouping). But she is doubtful that the mission can be accomplished. Aldo almost agrees, until he hears that Hitler will be in attendance (raising the stakes). “Getting a whack at planting ole Uncle Adolph makes this a horse of a different color.” So they come up with a new plan.
Meanwhile, Landa inspects the site of the massacre and finds Bridget’s shoe and celebrity signature (more tension).
Chapter Five (in which Bridget, Aldo, Donowitz and Hirschberg attend the premiere, along with Landa, Zoller, Goebbels, Goerring, Boorman, Emil Jannings and Adolph Hitler. Shoshanna and Marcel review their plan. Landa greets Bridget and friends. Donowitz and Hirschberg take their seats and plant bombs. Landa takes Bridget aside and strangles her. Aldo is taken hostage and carted away with Utevitch. Landa tells Aldo he wants to make a deal. Zoller intrudes on Shoshanna and they shoot each other. Shoshanna appears on screen. Marcel ignites the nitrate. Donowitz and Hirschberg shoot Hitler and Goebbels. The theater explodes. Landa drives Aldo and Utevitch to the front and uncuffs them. Aldo cuffs Landa and carves a swastika in his forehead.):
In the caper structure, we not only need to hear the plan described, but we also need to see at least some of the preparation, again for building tension. At this point we’ve seen plenty of the prep for Bridget’s plan but we’re a little short on Shoshanna’s. So we jump over to Shoshanna for a preparation sequence, continuing their trade off of structural functions. In a parallel action montage, we see shots of Shoshanna dressing for the premiere alternated with flashbacks of how she and Marcel made their special film for the Nazis, including strong-arming a lab technician to develop it under threat of death.
Since, again, we don’t need two preparations, we then skip over how Bridget learned to walk in a high-heeled plaster cast in less than 24 hours and how they all got cleaned up in gowns and tuxes for the premiere. If Tarantino were concerned about suspension of disbelief, he could have chosen to show that instead of the filmmaking bit. But it was more important to bring Shoshanna back into the story. Besides, Tarantino is unabashed about stretching the limits of reality and, therefore, feels no obligation to explain. Obviously, if you can kill Hitler, you can also get a woman to jump off the surgical table and walk elegantly in a high-heeled cast.
By the time of Shoshanna’s entrance to the premiere, all bounds of historical authenticity (and many of conventional narrative) have been completely broken. We have gotten an aggrieved-yet-determined lone operator, a rag tag group of Allied conspirators, and an impressive display of Nazi leaders in the same room together, with Hitler due at any moment. Thus, the energy and tension of the caper structure has done its job, so we no longer have to hold close to its parameters. All we have to do is unleash the characters on each other and let them fight it out. And that’s what Tarantino does.
Was Tarantino consciously creating a caper structure as he was writing this script? Not necessarily. But, if not, it doesn’t mean his decisions leading to this structure were not deliberate. Those decisions were simply instinctive rather than calculated. Undoubtedly, he has been exposed to enough caper stories to have absorbed the form into his unconscious. It is that unconscious knowledge that then guides him in his creative process, no doubt with some conscious tweaking on the details as he goes along.
Sadly, we can’t all be Quentin Tarantino, with his finely tuned instincts for creating stories that both draw from conventional structures while also breaking through them. But we can definitely learn a few things about the future of storytelling from some close study of the results he has managed to achieve.
You can watch Inglourious Basterds on the following Video On Demand websites: