The Female Heroine in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds
By Johannes Melfi
Film is a very powerful tool in portraying issues of difference, power, and discrimination. Depending upon the choices of the director, especially in regard to visual and audio techniques, issues can be emphasized, and characters’ strengths and weaknesses can be accentuated. These directing choices help draw in the audience, from a passive viewer into an active observer. The film Inglourious Basterds (2009) is a very interesting film to analyze for the “Difference, Power, and Discrimination Project”. At first, it was difficult to identify which aspects of the film to highlight. There were many themes in the film to analyze including the Holocaust, historical spoofs, religion, propaganda, masculinity, femininity, and whiteness. However, the most interesting aspect is the female heroine in the film, and how she contrasts to the male heroes.
Inglourious Basterds (2009) is the seventh film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. The film is a revenge-fantasy/historical-spoof based during World War II. It follows the band of Jewish-American troops behind enemy lines in Europe, known as the “The Basterds”. Their end mission to kill Hitler himself. This unit was based on a true story of Jewish-American European immigrants that joined the American forces to be put undercover in Europe. The film also follows the story of the fictional Shosanna Dreyfus, a Jewish woman who was the sole survivor of a family that was murdered in front of her. Both groups are looking to exact revenge upon the Nazis. Tarantino is known for being a controversial figure. Such controversies about his use of the N-word in his films and allegations of misconduct exist. However, he continues to make movies and remains a popular director in Hollywood. The characters in this film are mostly white males. However, this film promotes a female Jewish heroine, who manages to do more to defeat the German army than the men in the film. This representation of a female heroine is done in an effective way that also comments on differences and relationships of power.
The film, while being titled and promoted to be about “The Basterds”, does not champion them as the heroes of the film. The true hero or heroine in the story happens to be Shosanna, the female cinema owner that exacts her vengeance by being in control behind the curtain as a closeted Jew. The scenes where Shosanna is setting up her attack are scored with a David Bowie song “Cat People” which implies her character has a modern and resilient nature. “Feel my blood so enraged, it’s just the fear of losing you, Don’t you know my name?, And you’ve been so long, and I’ve been putting out fire with gasoline” (Bowie). The lyrics included in this song are also related to Shosanna’s backstory and need for revenge. She intends to put out the fire inside her with gasoline and foreshadows the execution of her revenge plot. This film however is male-dominated in the cast, besides the two female cast members that have notable roles. Both of these female characters also end up being killed at the hands of a man.
Shosanna, at the beginning of the film, watches her family die as they hide beneath the floorboards of a dairy farmer’s house. She manages to escape, and in the next scene, she owns a theatre in Paris. She explains to German officers that she has obtained the theatre from an aunt who has passed away. At this time, Shosanna, which means “rose” in Hebrew, changes her name to Emmanuelle, a more Christian name, which means approximately “God is with us”. This name change also gives her character the feeling of changing from being pretty to becoming a powerful force to be reckoned with. A young German soldier sees Shosanna and seems to be captivated by her. This soldier, Fredrick Zoller, is a German war sniper that managed to kill over 250 enemy soldiers in three days. The German master of propaganda Joseph Goebbels decides to create a film of his exploits called “Nation’s Pride”. Zoller, in order to impress Shosanna, decides to convince Goebbels to have the premiere of his film be shown in her theatre. This is how she begins her plot to kill all the German officers in attendance.
The other heroes are “The Basterds”. This group of Jewish-American men is looking to avenge the Jewish people by killing as many Nazis as they can. They use brute force as their tactics, compared to Shosanna’s more cunning endeavor. The American soldiers in this film seem like unintelligent members in a toxically masculine fraternity of barbarians. They still manage to get the job done, but they let their anger cloud their judgment. They use brutal methods to torture the Nazis they encounter by beating them to death with baseball bats, scalping the dead, and carving swastikas into the forehead of any surviving prisoner.
The main antagonist in this film would not be Hitler or his army, but Colonel Hans Landa, a sly German detective in the SS given the moniker “The Jew Hunter”. During the opening scene, Landa states, “But I, on the other hand, love my unofficial title, precisely because I’ve earned it.” (Inglourious Basterds, 2009, 14:07). This was the man directly responsible for the death of Shosanna’s family and is the head of security for the premiere of “Nation’s Pride”. This is also the man that is on the trail of tracking “The Basterds” for the Germans. He is a very precise and intelligent character that has an intimidating dead stare. By the end of the film, Landa betrays the German army for a deal with the Americans and allows for the plot at the premiere to take place.
The heroes and heroine of this film work together unintentionally. This points to a theme of cooperation of the sexes crucial to survival, in that they rid the world of evil through different means together. The Basterds have a mission directive from the OSS called Operation Kino. This operation is to infiltrate the film premiere using a special operative that was a film critic before the war and a German movie starlet that is secretly working for the Americans. Meanwhile, Shosanna is working to exact her vengeance by creating a film, the last thing the Nazis will see before they burn to death. The rendezvous that is planned between The Basterds and the undercover informant is foiled when a German officer makes out The Basterds were imposters.
To the viewer, it is easy to believe that Tarantino imagined Shosanna being the main figure that dominated the revenge plot against the Nazis. She was always the one pulling the strings behind the curtain as a Jewish woman. An important shot in the film near the end confirms. When Shosanna cues to burn down her cinema in one last defiant act, the projector screen is burned down, and the audience sees Shosanna’s face projected through the smoke. This bears striking similarities to The Wizard of Oz (1939), where the character Oz’s face is projected in a smokey haze. The character Oz is the “all-powerful” being pulling the strings behind the curtain as well but he ends up being just as human as the rest of us.
In conclusion, Shosanna is the true heroine in the end. She outshines her male hero counterparts and kills the formidable German war hero, Fredrick Zoller. In this fantasy world, it is easy to believe that the German army would have been defeated if not for her efforts. The brute force methodology of “The Basterds” did not seem to be up to par with the vengeance that managed to be exacted by Shosanna. According to Dassanowsky’s Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds: A Manipulation of Metacinema, “Shosaanna’s deeply personal desire for retribution for the murder of her family as depicted at the beginning of the film lends an air of moral credibility and legitimates the actions of the Basterds beyond their stated project of spreading terror.”(Dassanowsky). Her loss not only gave her cause for revenge but legitimized the means by which “The Basterds” executed their justice. Because of this, Shosanna should be considered the more powerful protagonist of this film.
Bowie, David. “Cat People.” The Best of David Bowie 1980/1987, MCA, 1981.
Dassanowsky, Robert. Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds: A Manipulation of Metacinema. Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd, 2012. Accessed via Google Books,
Langley, Noel, et al. The Wizard of Oz. Youtube, Metro Goldwyn Mayer Presents, 1939, www.youtube.com/watch?v=EsbZflqNVag&ab_channel=YouTubeMovies.
Tarantino, Quentin, and Lawrence Bender. Inglourious Basterds, The Weinstein Company, 2009, www.amazon.com/Inglourious-Basterds-Brad-Pitt/dp/B002UEW31I/ref=sr_1_3?dchild=1&keywords=inglourious+basterds&qid=1606815155&sr=8-3.