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Finishing those Basterds: Rise Up and…Make Art!

Ian David Philpot

Stephen Swanson

Stephen Swanson concludes his series looking at the messages that Quentin Tarantino directs towards the artist in this summer’s Inglourious Basterds. In this final entry, the oppositions between the “artistries” of Col. Landa (Christopher Waltz) and Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent) come to make a very challenging assertion to those of us who create. Both Landa and Dreyfus illustrate the dangers and potential of artists who both come from positions of social, political, or cultural power or weakness.

True Art Comes from Somewhere

With Landa’s success in untangling Pierre’s simple attempts at subterfuge, he discovers the Jewish family’s location and orders them shot through the floorboards. Shoshanna Dreyfus escapes from under the house and runs across the fields as Landa yells his promise that the “Jew Hunter” will complete his identity again. In Landa’s story, the audience witnesses the origins of Dreyfus’s future work as a direct reaction to distance herself from Landa.

The literal beauty of the shot amplifies the audience’s connection with her fear and with a hope for escape that built up through the whole course of the Landa/Pierre repartee. Tarantino opposes Dreyfus’s artistic presentation to Landa and to the Inglourious Basterds, both of which have no real defined origins or purpose beyond the power struggles between world powers and self-aggrandizement, which becomes apparent when both sides compromise their values to get what they want.

…And The Audience Should Know It

In addition to the presence of an artistic source and origin, Tarantino includes a clear directive towards the importance of communicating that origin and the responsibility to the audience. When Dreyfus enacts her revenge, part live performance/part film, she and the audiences, both in the narrative cinema and in the viewer’s cinema, are made aware of the origins and consequences of art. Dreyfus specifically targets a particular audience, just as Tarantino does, and she tells them what she does and why. In making her movie, Shosanna looks directly in the camera and speaks to the Nazi elite as she causes the fire that will consume them all, cleverly “accelerated” by the previous works that she had inherited, protected, and promoted.

True Art Speaks, Produces, and has E/Affect

As the producer and venue operator, Dreyfus must withstand the attentions of the powerful “Landa’s”. Dreyfus recognizes her chance to make her art and takes the fatal risk in transition from critic to artist. She also aims to make her art count. Dreyfus knows the stakes of her art and sets the effect to an analogous level. Tarantino purposefully overlay’s the honored, German soldier, Zoller’s (Daniel Brühl) accusations that Dreyfus cannot “feel” at same time as she awaits her chance to show him the evidence that she feels most deeply and that those feelings have consequences for those that ignored them initially.

A Conclusion of Sorts

Tarantino places the culmination of art/speech/creation outside of Dreyfus’s storyline. Although reviewers level criticism at seemingly gratuitous violence, Tarantino leaves the audience with fresh memories of Utivich (B.J. Novak) and Raine (Brad Pitt) carving a swastika in Landa’s head. In the scope of his purpose and topic, Tarantino’s film embraces art that is destructive and lacking in subtlety to both grow out of and respond to American cinema’s historical relationship to WWII filled with the gunning down of nameless and faceless “Japs” or “Jerries”, of classic Hollywood cinema, or even attempts to gain personal “worth” through individual sacrifice, such as in Spielberg’s war films. Like Dreyfus, Tarantino respects and honors that which comes before but is not contained by it, establishing in narrative and example a guide for art and artists.


Stephen Swanson teaches as an assistant professor of English at McLennan Community College. Aside from guiding students through the pitfalls of college writing and literature, he spends most of his time trying to remain reasonably aware of popular culture, cooking, and enjoying time with his wife and son. He holds degrees in Communications, Film, and Media and American Culture Studies from Calvin College, Central Michigan University, and Bowling Green State University, respectively. In addition to editing a collection, Battleground States: Scholarship in Contemporary America, he has forthcoming projects on Johnny Cash and depiction of ethics in contemporary film noir.