If you’ve seen Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, then you remember the opening scene. It begins “Once Upon A Time in Nazi Occupied France,” and ends with Shoshanna, one of the film’s principal characters, fleeing for her life across an open field. In its totality, Inglorious Basterds is both one of my favorite and least favorite films. I love it because of its devotion to character, to dramatic tension, and to brilliant visual and aural storytelling. I hate it because it lacks a strong narrative through-line and because, well let’s face it, the world of the film is a slew of hideous atrocities that consistently challenge our association with its nominal heroes. But, whether I love or hate the film as a whole, there’s no denying that this first scene is one of the best and most carefully crafted pieces of cinema that I have ever seen. In it, Tarantino’s normally violent and ostentatious style takes a back seat to a visual and narrative subtlety that can only be called masterful.
On its most essential level, the film’s opening scene does nothing more or less than what good stories have always done: it sets up an expectation in the audience, and then challenges that expectation. The resulting clash of ideas, like flint on steel, creates sparks of tension and emotion. Eisenstein would have called it dialectical filmmaking. The rest of us settle for less pretentious descriptions like narrative contrast and juxtaposition. But the principle is more or less the same: A + B = C. One idea, challenged by another, becomes a third. In this particular case, Tarantino begins by creating a fairytale in which good stands against evil, heroes challenge monsters, and the world can be put to rights. Then, one at a time, he pulls the jenga blocks out from the base of the tower that he himself created. He forcibly strips us of the fairytale delusions that he foisted upon us in the first place.
So how does he manage to pull this off? There are four key elements: a well chosen opening image, visual depth, skillful manipulation of multiple languages, and music. The first of these elements is perhaps the most obvious. The credits fade out, giving way, not to a physical image, but to a title card that reads, “One upon a time… in Nazi occupied France.” A lot of people read that and laugh the first time they see the film. Why not? The contrast between the fairytale invocation, “Once upon a time,” and the setting, “in Nazi occupied France,” at first seems ridiculous. But even as we laugh, Tarantino has successfully invoked a specific set of expectations. He has created a link in our minds between this story and all of the other stories we’ve ever read beginning with the words “Once upon a time.” Whether consciously or unconsciously, we are primed to expect heroes and monsters, challenges that will be overcome, and above all the inevitable triumph of a primal good over a primal evil.
And while at first that comparison with Nazi occupied France seems humorous, our previous experience with films set during the Second World War actually reinforces our fairytale expectations. A friend of mine once observed that the Nazis’ most enduring legacy, for many people, is not anything they themselves did. Rather, it is their status as the most archetypal of Hollywood villains. We’ve seen uncomplicated Nazi villains again and again until they have taken on the role of a kind of modern-day Grendel. In that sense, the setting “in Nazi-occupied France” meshes rather than contrasts with the fairytale “once upon a time.” The villain has been prepared for us, and now we only await a Beowulf, an equally uncomplicated hero, to stand up and defeat evil.
The first half of Tarantino’s opening scene seems to provide such a hero. Perrier Lapadite is constantly placed near the center of the frame, and in many of the shots he towers over the camera: the ultimate example of a larger than life figure. Tarantino keeps the space around Perrier remarkably flat, eliminating both background details and depth perspective. This visual decision serves two purposes. First, it centers our perspective all the more clearly on Perrier. And, second, it reduces the realism of the environment, making the world of the film seem more like the world of a storybook. This, in turn, subtly reinforces our fairytale expectations, helping us attach heroic importance to Perrier.
The sparing use of music, picking up first when the Nazi caravan comes into view at the far end of the road, and quickly fading out again when it comes time for Perrier to confront Landa, plays with the fairytale aesthetic. The non-diegetic music (in other words, it is present for the audience but not for the characters) is a signal of the fictionality of what we are seeing. The music tells us what to feel, in this case a building sense of heroic tension, but it also takes us out of the real world. It signals to us that this is just a story, and that what we are seeing is going to follow story rules rather than real world rules. When the music fades out with Landa’s arrival, that serves as a subtle signal to the audience that the fairytale, with its simple good versus evil narrative, will not hold true throughout the scene. The music challenges the fairytale worldview even as the flattened visual space seeks to maintain it. It thereby brings us ever so slightly back into shades of grey.
Tarantino’s use of multiple languages works in tandem with the soundtrack here. Most of the first half of the scene is performed in French. So what? What’s so special about French? Absolutely nothing. They could be speaking German, or Spanish, or Sawhili for all it matters. The important point here is that most viewers have to follow the scene’s dialogue, not out loud, but through subtitles. We are literally reading our way through the scene as we would read the text of a storybook. That fact, tied up with the flattened visual space and the expectations created by the opening image, massively reinforces the fairytale worldview. Not only does the film say it’s a fairytale, and look a little like a storybook illustration, but we actually have to read it like a storybook as well.
The scene’s major turning point comes when Landa switches from French to English. In a narrative sense, this is a turning point because the Jews hiding beneath Perrier’s floorboards can no longer understand the conversation. But, more importantly, the audience is no longer consuming the dialogue as text. The sudden shift is deeply unsettling. Perrier’s situation begins to feel less titanic and more real, and far from a sense of heroism the dialogue begins to emphasize a sense of helplessness. This is due in part to the dialogue itself, which has Perrier cooperating with Landa rather than defying him, and in part to the medium through which we experience it. The shift from French to English thus marks the point where Tarantino truly starts to demolish the scene’s fairytale foundations.
The music and the subtitled French return all at once, after Perrier’s hero-act has finally collapsed, making him little more than an unwilling Nazi collaborator. At the end we therefore experience three of our four fairytale elements, but with the fairytale having been stripped from us. The music tells us it is a story, but it has taken on a sinister quality. We read the dialogue as text, but we know that what we are reading is a lie. And we see the relatively flat visual environment, but now that flatness seems to provide no escape from the violence taking place in front of us. Far from creating the sense of security that we experience at the beginning of the scene, these elements combine to create a new fairytale that is nothing more than a trap for Landa’s victims. The fairytale itself becomes the enemy.
The transformation from the beginning of the scene to the end therefore fleshes out the irony that makes us laugh at its opening image. And that irony holds true throughout the film. The stories that we are accustomed to, both in fairytales and WWII films, tend to highlight the struggle of good heroes against evil villains. But that’s not the type of story that Tarantino is interested in making. Instead, he chooses to highlight the brutality and the evil on all sides, suggesting that there is no such thing as a hero. The entire film, but especially that first scene, thumbs its nose at heroic war narratives. It laughs at us for thinking that there can be such a thing as good. Good, it seems to suggest, is nothing more than a story we tell ourselves to push evil out sight. It is one of the film’s ironies that this perspective only makes us crave our fairytale stories all the more hungrily.