Inglourious Basterds is a difficult film to summarize concisely. In the most basic sense, it is an alternative history depicting two attempts to assassinate Adolf Hitler, one by a group of Jewish American commandos and the other by a French female cinema owner who is also Jewish. In general, the film makes no pretence at literal historical accuracy – the assassination of Hitler is successful – with one notable exception. While most American action films set in World War II rely on every character speaking English and using accents to differentiate between German, French, American, and other roles, in Inglourious Basterds characters only speak in the languages they would speak, and long stretches of the film include subtitles. Structurally, the film is broken into five chapters.
Chapter One, “Once Upon a Time…In Occupied France,” depicts a conversation between the German Colonel Hans Landa and a French farmer, Perrier LaPedite, who is accused of harbouring a Jewish family. The chapter culminates with the killing of most of the family and the escape of one member, Shosanna Dreyfus (who is referred to by her first name here since that is how she is talked about in the film, while most other characters are identified by last name).
Chapter Two, “Inglourious Basterds,” introduces the eponymous Basterds, a group of Jewish American soldiers led by Lieutenant Aldo Raine, who describes the Basterds’ role as “killin’ Nazis.” After this, they are shown interrogating and killing a Nazi prisoner.
Chapter Three, “German Night in Paris,” returns to Shosanna, who is living in Paris and running a theatre under an assumed name. She is taken by Fredrick Zoller, a German war hero, to meet and eat with Landa and Joseph Goebbels, who has recently produced a film about Zoller called Stolz der Nation (“Nation’s Pride”). Zoller convinces Goebbels to premiere the film at Shosanna’s theatre and Shosanna learns that not only Goebbels, but also Hitler and other German leaders will be in attendance. She decides to sabotage the screening and kill everyone in the theatre in a fire.
Chapter Four, “Operation Kino,” begins with the introduction of a former film critic Lieutenant Archie Hicox, who is now a British officer. He has been chosen to contact the Basterds in France and let them know about the screening so they can assassinate Hitler. Hicox meets with his contact in France, an actress named Bridget von Hammersmark, as well as one of the Basterds in a tavern. While there, a German officer recognizes Hammersmark and strikes up a conversation. While speaking with Hicox, whose German was learned by watching Arnold Frank’s Bergfilme (mountain films) and who orders three beers using the British hand gesture instead of the German, the German officer realizes they are spies. Everyone begins shooting and only von Hammersmark escapes. Raine learns of the operation and decides to continue using two of his men as suicide bombers to infiltrate the theatre along with von Hammersmark.
Chapter Five, “Revenge of the Giant Face,” brings these two stories together. At the theatre, Landa discovers von Hammersmark is a spy and kills her. He has Raine and one of the other Basterds arrested, leaving the two with the bombs in the audience. He takes Raine to another location and cuts a deal where he will be taken to the United States and be given amnesty in exchange for letting the assassination take place. At the theatre, the other two Basterds break into Hitler’s box and kill the Nazi leaders while Shosanna’s fire starts to engulf the theatre. At the end of the film, it appears that two Basterds and Landa are the only survivors. Raine is upset that Landa is getting amnesty and carves a swastika into his forehead so he cannot hide having been a Nazi.
CHAPTER ONE: ONCE UPON A TIME…IN NAZI-OCCUPIED FRANCE
The discussion of direct violence, structural violence and cultural violence in this chapter is relatively straightforward, focusing on the direct violence of the killings, the structural violence of the Nazi occupation and the restrictions placed on the farmer and the cultural violence in Landa’s descriptions of Jews as “vermin” (linking them to the Bubonic Plague) and a “rat”, while describing the Germans as “hawks”, along with the symbols that support his role as a killer, like the skull and crossbones insignia on his hat.
This chapter also shows us the extent to which the farmer, who in the end gives up the family he is hiding, is an actor with free will. This can be seen in two instances, one where the farmer decides to sit after Landa’s statement, “Please join me at your table.”, and the other when he asks Landa whether it would disturb him if he smoked his pipe.
The question that arises now is whether the level of cultural and structural violence in the chapter rule out the possibility of cooperation and assistance from the part of the farmer.
If we carefully analyse the power of the Germans in France, it is evidently clear that the farmer only has the possibility of cooperation, as Landa makes sure of this by his subtle but indirect threats.
Moving on, another question that arises is how the farmer perceived Landa’s threats, which initially started out as quite restrained (commenting on the dairy farm, the farmer’s milk, and his family) but progressed to far more direct.
We further realise that Landa’s threats are perceived to be dangerous by the farmer, thereby making him give up the Jew family that he was protecting under the floorboards of his house.
Coming back to the concept of Galtung’s Violence Triangle, the question arises of how we should categorize the various threats in this particular chapter.
Are they direct violence (since the threatened violence clearly is), structural violence (since they restrict the possible actions on the part of the farmer), or cultural violence (since they are explicitly communicated by Landa)?
In my opinion, there is no correct answer to this question, as it is evidently clear to us that all the three types of violence – direct, cultural and structural are intertwined within each other, thereby further exemplifying Galtung’s theory of the relationship between the types of violence.
The scene is clearly written and directed to push our sympathies to the farmer. Looking at the embedded cultural violence against the Jews by the anti-Semitic views of Hitler and the Nazis, we see the way Landa conceptualizes his work of hunting and killing Jews as “work,” in the business sense, with ledgers, as well as the way he describes this as a “job” he was “ordered to carry out.” He carries this further, discussing the “enterprise” that is now under “new management.”
The embedded cultural violence presented in this scene can be looked at in another way. The chapter begins by showing us a large, well-built man, sweating profusely, with an axe in his hand i.e. the farmer, Monsieur LaPadite. Landa is introduced to us as a small but a sharp and precise man. Since the two men are alone in the house, threatening such a large and aggressive man could have gone wrong for Landa, but instead LaPadite, despite being threatened in an indirect manner goes on to give up the family he’s protecting rather than kill Landa and be done with it. This clearly indicates the position and fear that Landa holds and commands as “THE JEW HUNTER”, and the power that the Nazis held in France during this period.
CHAPTER TWO: INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS
When we begin watching the second chapter, we observe that some concepts seem to have been carried forward from Chapter One to Chapter Two of the movie. The observation in question here is the way that Lt. Aldo Raine dehumanizes the Nazis in comparison to the way that Landa dehumanizes the Jews.
Just because the Jews are a minority that are being hunted by the Nazis, does it give Raine the right to dehumanize them? Irrespective of the actions of Hitler and the members of the Nazi party, Raine’s dialogue, “Nazi ain’t got no humanity,” seems out of place and biased, thereby giving rise to it being considered as a clear form of structural and cultural violence.
Raine, despite being a military man shows little honour to the military fraternity when he exclaims how the “disembowelled, dismembered and disfigured bodies” of the Nazis, that he and his little team will leave behind, will prove to the Germans how cruel they are and more importantly who they are.
Moving forward with the chapter, what disgusts me personally is the point where after killing a number of Nazis and capturing the survivors, the members of the elite team scalp the heads of the dead soldiers. The direct violence showcased in this particular scene is disgraceful, not only from the point of view of a human being, but more importantly from the point of view of a soldier.