The Art of the Montage: Inglourious Basterds

The montage is a lucky dip of cinema. Yes, it’s used sometimes by filmmakers to cheat time, but it’s also a chance to artistically blend editing techniques, visuals and music; it’s the pure, ethereal spirit of filmmaking as a visual storytelling medium. A montage can be a wonderful mini-film within a film. Often we just let a montage blend into our experience with a movie without properly unpacking the meaning of the cascade of music and fluid editing. The Art of the Montage will examine great passages of time in cinema captured in the most unforgettable montages.

The sequence - Chapter Five: Revenge of the Giant Face

Shosanna Dreyfus’ (Mélanie Laurent) ambush at the film premiere of Stolz der Nation (A Nation’s Pride) is the apex of the historical revenge fantasy of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. The mission of the Basterds is where Tarantino gets to play out his World War II homage to The Dirty Dozen, Where Eagles Dare and The Guns of Navarone, but Shosanna’s arc is the emotional, fury of vengeance at the heart of the film.

The grown up Shosanna appears early as a wild card with her interactions with Fredrick Zoller (Damien Brühl) and Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), the man responsible for the murder of her family in the farm house sequence that opens the film. While the mission of the Basterds is laid out clearly, there’s an uncertainty around what Shosanna is going to do with the opportunity she has been gifted with high ranking Nazi officials’ flocking to her cinema for a film premiere. Even though Shosanna is living relatively free in Nazi occupied Paris under an alias, she’s still oppressed by the past, and it inches its way from the streets into her cinema. Shosanna can’t deny it any longer and must act.

Inglourious Basterds features many of trademarks of a Tarantino film; sumptuous dialogue, an ingenious soundtrack, and superb performances from an eclectic cast of A-Listers and relative unknowns.

When I first saw Inglourious Basterds I struggled with the dialogue heavy scenes that seemed to bloat the film and stall Tarantino’s kinetic style. Nothing was crystalizing until the montage at the beginning of Chapter Five: Revenge of the Giant Face. It’s a transcendent moment where Tarantino’s artistry as a filmmaker allows Inglourious Basterds to become its own entity away from the throwbacks of the films that influenced it. Set to David Bowie’s Cat People (Putting Out the Fire), let’s examine what makes this montage one of the great passages of time in cinema.

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Over black we hear the first gothic cymbal crashes of Bowie’s Cat People, which resembles a very slow heartbeat, as the title card Chapter Five: Revenge of the Giant Face slowly fades up and down to set an intensely dramatic mood. The camera then fades up on Shosanna standing in a circular window in a stunning red dress, flanked by various reflections of the Nazi swastika. Tarantino is setting a reflective mood as Shosanna prepares the final stages of her plan.

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Tarantino then dissolves each shot to draw us closer into Shosanna’s contemplation. There’s overlapping as we see Shosanna, her reflection, and the Nazi flag layered in depths across the frame.

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Bowie’s chilling baritone lyrics drawl:

See these eyes so green. I can stare for a thousand years. Colder than the moon.

You can feel Shosanna’s rage with else pulse of Cat People. Tarantino brings her life as a victim to an end as Bowie sings ‘It’s been so long’ as Shosanna walks out of the frame to her dresser to prepare for battle.

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Tarantino shows off Shosanna’s incredible green eyes as Bowie’s Cat People settles on the calm before the storm with the lyric ‘I’ve been putting out the fire’. There’s a dramatic pause before the song hits its crescendo as Bowie belts out ‘with gasoline!’

The character’s arc and the music blend beautifully into an empowering moment for Shosanna who is refusing to live in fear anymore. Her secrecy and the denial of her personal injustice is the gasoline she has been throwing on the inferno of her life (sorry to get extremely literal).

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As the song picks up tempo, Tarantino shows Shosanna putting on her make-up like the war-paint of a warrior. The way Shosanna is back-lit makes her preparation look heroic like the glistening light behind soldiers on propaganda posters of WWII.

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Tarantino even shoots Shosanna’s make-up to look like weaponry with a lipstick appearing like a bullet.

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In the next shot we see Shosanna loading a gun and Tarantino shows how meticulously the montage is edited by Sally Menke when Shosanna hits the clip into the gun on the same beat as the song.

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The montage then switches to Shosanna shooting and developing the footage she plans to insert into the film to play in front of the Nazi officials before burning down the cinema. Shosanna’s outfit - a jumpsuit, trench coat, newsboy cap – makes her look industrious, like she’s works in a munitions factory. The imagery invokes a WWII era factory working who toils away building bombs.

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We then see Shosanna splicing her film into Stolz der Nation, again, Tarantino shoots the application of the glue like Shosanna is working with explosive materials (we later see how deadly the film stock is when ignited). As Shoshanna paints on the glue the lyric says ‘these tears can never dry, a judgement made can never bend’. The permanency of the glue means there is no turning back for Shosanna and the ‘tears’ in the lyric are representative of her everlasting grief.

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The montage then transitions to Shosanna packing the final reel of the film into a canister. The munitions imagery comes back into play.

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Tarantino then cuts back to Shosanna putting the final preparations on her outfit for the premiere and we see her begin to grieve as she slowly adorns headwear. Also, note the beam of light painted across her eyes to amplify the incredible amount of pain Laurent carries in her performance. The lyric ‘you wouldn’t believe what I’ve been through’ makes this shot ache exponentially.

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It then cuts back to Shosanna putting the final touches on her plan. As she cuts the lights on her workshop, the canisters are lined-up to look like bombs waiting to be loaded onto a WWII fighter plane.

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We then see a close up of Shosanna’s face, backlit, with soft light dancing across her magnificent gaze as she slowly pulls down a veil. Shosanna is dressing for a funeral. The backup vocalists on Cat People sing on repeat ‘it’s been so long’ and Bowie agonises over the same lyric with this gothic rock tones.

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Tarantino then focuses on an elegant overhead tracking shot as Shosanna walks away from her window of contemplation.

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Shosanna walks out into the foyer of her cinema where the pre-film premiere party is in full swing. Tarantino frames the cinema’s sign ‘Le Gamaar’ to be surrounded in Nazi paraphernalia, it’s trapped, like Shosanna. With the knowledge we have of Shosanna’s plan, the three entryways underneath the ‘Le Gamaar’ sign look like gates herding the cattle to slaughter.

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Shosanna surveys the unsuspecting crowd at the party. Tarantino puts us in Shosanna’s point-of-view to examine the crowd and put emphasis the weight of her plan to attack on the Nazi elite by identifying them.

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Her eyes move across the party like a surveillance camera, similar to the way Arnold Schwarzenegger made the eyes of the Terminator move first, followed by the head second.

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Tarantino purposefully points out Hermann Göring in the crowd. History buffs will note that Göring was Adolf Hitler’s successor and deputy to all his officers during WWII. The presence of Göring shows that the upper echelons of the Nazi party are in attendance, and confirms Hitler can’t be far away.

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The wry smile Shosanna gives as the montage finishes is one of vengeful delight. The trap is set as Bowie’s Cat People fades to nothing.

In just over four minutes Tarantino has deployed a montage which beautifully encapsulates what’s compelling and empowering about Shosanna’s narrative arc in the film. The Chapter Five: Revenge of the Giant Face montage becomes bittersweet when you revisit Inglourious Basterds with the knowledge that Shosanna dies moments later at the hands of Zoller. Shosanna’s face becomes the laughing spectre of death when her plan comes to fruition beyond her demise as the cinema goes up in flames, but in this moment, there’s personal triumph over a life of oppression.

Leave a comment with your interpretation of the Revenge of the Giant Face montage or tweet me your thoughts @MrCamW.

Cameron Williams - follow Cam on Twitter here: @MrCamW