Recent films rarely possess the gift of grabbing you by the throat as soon as the opening credits finish rolling by, but who else is capable of crafting this type of beginning but the film making maestro Quentin Tarantino.
His previous creations such as Reservoir Dogs (1992), the Kill Bill’s (2003) and Pulp Fiction (1994) have all mesmerised audiences and critics with their punchy in-your-face action, lengthy scenes of clever Shakespearian dialogue, shocking blood soaked violence and zany off-the-wall characters.
Inglourious Basterds (2009) is no mould breaker for the director, setting a very high bar in terms of action, intensity and engaging dialogue in the first ten minutes. The film opens with ‘The Green Leaves of Summer’ by Nick Perito playing whilst the opening title credits roll. This has elements of The Godfather theme to it as well as making you feel like you’re in a quaint French town. Then Ennio Morricone’s ‘The Verdict (Dopo La Condanna)’, basically Fur Elise with a bit of a Mexican stand-off style rhythms played in between, cuts in whilst Perrier LaPadite (Denis Menochet), a French dairy farmer, chops wood. A car approaches the farm and Perrier orders his daughters inside immediately.
SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) steps out of the car and asks Perrier inside his home for a discussion. Sounds pretty low key and boring so far right? One of the greatest things about this scene is that the tension slowly builds, without the audience really knowing why at first. Landa’s friendly, understanding and eloquent etiquette seems very sinister for an SS soldier. That coupled with Perrier’s constant anguished complexion during their initial discussion, makes the audience feel on edge and ready for something to happen.
Tarantino seems to have turned things that would usually be so simple, and frankly boring, into something intense and suspenseful. For example, Landa asking for a glass of milk seems so harmless and arbitrary but the way the camera fixes on him taking every gulp, the irrelevance of it makes you feel like something is not quite right. When Perrier stands and walks behind Landa to get his pipe, you half expected Perrier to turn around with a machine gun and shoot Landa there and then, or pick up the axe he used to chop the wood and decapitate him. Tarantino shocked us in Jackie Brown (1997) when Samuel L. Jackson shot Robert De Niro whilst they were talking in a van, not to mention De Niro shooting Jane Fonda in a mall car park in broad daylight just before that. But all Perrier does is sit back down again, lights his pipe and politely answers Landa’s questions.
The reason for Landa’s visit is to conduct a search of Perrier’s home for a Jewish family that was known to live in the village, but has recently gone missing since the Fuhrer announced the extermination of all Jews. As Perrier answers Landa’s probing questions, the camera pans around the table where the two men are sitting and slowly lowers down to the floor, through the floorboards and finally stops at the Jewish family in question, lying directly beneath the table hands covering their mouths.
This is the moment of comprehension for the audience, as the tension that is running riot throughout the scene suddenly becomes clear. Perrier is harbouring an enemy of the state literally under the nose of an SS soldier. Violin strings pick up, straight away prompting us that something is going to happen very soon. From then on, what makes the scene so mesmerising is the engaging conversation the two men have.
Now the audience has the knowledge that Perrier is hiding a Jewish family, you are screaming at the screen for Landa to get up and walk out. But Landa offers Perrier an ultimatum, which stokes up the electricity of the scene to high voltage.
If Perrier reveals the whereabouts of the Jewish family, his own family will not be harassed by German military ever again. Perrier cannot contain his sorrow behind a cool exterior any longer. Landa notices and the look of sudden realisation on his face shows he was merely bluffing to gauge Perrier’s reaction, ‘You are sheltering enemies of this state, are you not?’ replies Landa with his articulate masquerade slipping.
The scene’s finale is an eruption of activity ending with 18 year old Shosanna (Melanie Laurent) escaping to the French countryside, after her family are slaughtered by the Germans. This entire chapter of the film embodies what the film is about; slow build in tension, the sudden realisation in tension by the audience, a jaw dropping blood stained finale. Repeat process.
Only Tarantino, you feel, can construct such a cataclysmic opening scene as this, and still maintain the audience’s interest to the end credits. He has delivered a classic World War Two film in Inglourious Basterds, though admittedly Hitler does burn to death in a collapsing theatre in the finale, but the fresh and bold approach to this war epic invigorates the genre, at a time when audiences have perhaps forgotten about it.