A Deep Study of the Opening Scene of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds

Quentin Taran­ti­no loves a cat-and-mouse scene, when forces of pow­er and poten­tial vio­lence enter rooms, com­man­deer them, and play with their hap­less vic­tims. Think of Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules tak­ing care of two hap­less, out of their depth frat boy dope dealers—all the while help­ing him­self to their Kahu­na burger—in Pulp Fic­tion. Ter­ri­fy­ing, hilar­i­ous, and elec­tri­fy­ing: it has become one of his hall­marks. By the time of 2009’s Inglou­ri­ous Bas­ter­ds, he had per­fect­ed it so much that he devotes the film’s open­ing 20 min­utes to one sus­pense-filled meet­ing between an unc­tu­ous Nazi and a French farmer, who is try­ing to hide a Jew­ish fam­i­ly under his floor­boards.

Markus Mad­lang­bayan (aka emo­tion­de­sign­er) only has two film appre­ci­a­tion essays up on his Youtube site, and it’s a shame he didn’t do more. Here he takes us through Tarantino’s farm­house scene, shot by shot, exam­in­ing the director’s cam­era place­ment and com­po­si­tion, explain­ing his rea­son­ing, and demon­strat­ing why Quentin is a mas­ter of his craft.

Most direc­tors use a stan­dard form of cov­er­age to shoot dia­log scenes—a mas­ter shot of the two actors speak­ing, and then a close up of each actor with a tighter “punch in” shot of a face to empha­size dra­ma. But Taran­ti­no rarely does that, find­ing more inter­est­ing solu­tions to show the pow­er dynam­ics in play. Farmer LaPa­dite at first has the upper hand, bluff­ing his way suc­cess­ful­ly through Hans Landa’s inter­ro­ga­tion. That is, until he does­n’t. Taran­ti­no will move his cam­era in an arc, break­ing the 180 rule, and switch­ing the posi­tions of the char­ac­ters on screen, even though they haven’t moved from their seats. The direc­tor has lit­er­al­ly turned the table on LaPa­dite, just as Lan­da has done.

Taran­ti­no is also very par­si­mo­nious with his close-ups. He gives LaPa­dite one as we see him steel him­self for the approach­ing Nazis. He gives Lan­da one when all the social niceties are over, and instead he reveals he has known all along that they are sit­ting right above a hid­ing space. And final­ly, Taran­ti­no gives LaPa­dite (and the actor that plays him, Denis Méno­chet) a tight close-up as dread and impend­ing death pass over his face.

Essay­ist emo­tion­de­sign­er doesn’t do this, but this scene is ask­ing for com­par­i­son with the afore­men­tioned scene from Pulp Fic­tion. In 1994, Taran­ti­no was hot and full of ener­gy, but it’s actu­al­ly a very con­ven­tion­al­ly shot scene, filled with close-ups and wides, but not with­out its wit. Fif­teen years lat­er, this short film-with­in-a-film open­ing shows how far the direc­tor had come.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Quentin Taran­ti­no Explains How to Write & Direct Movies

Quentin Taran­ti­no Reviews Movies: From Dunkirk and King of New York, to Soul Broth­ers of Kung Fu & More

Quentin Taran­ti­no Gives a Tour of Video Archives, the Store Where He Worked Before Becom­ing a Film­mak­er

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the Notes from the Shed pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

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