Essays · Movies

Behind the Revisionist History of ‘Inglourious Basterds’ is a Real Story of Women in Film

The movie that just might be Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece asks us to consider the events that never were and whose stories have been lost as a result.
Inglourious Basterds
By  · Published on July 28th, 2019

Toward the end of Inglourious Basterds, Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) and Sgt. Utivitch (BJ Novak) sit handcuffed in front of their captor, Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz). He poses a question to them that is unexpected from a Nazi officer: how would these American soldiers like to win the war for the Allies and BBQ the leaders of Third Reich in the process?

That Landa is willing to sell out the High Command is surprising, but as he explains, every once in a while, fate reaches out and extends a hand. As Landa sees it, the Basterds can negotiate a deal with him and celebrate that they not only won the war but that they did so by taking Hitler out with a literal blast, and in turn, he will get to walk away from his involvement with the Nazis without having to pay for his crimes. He then poses the question that is the crux of this scene and at the heart of the film: “what shall the history books read?”

As we all know, Hitler died in a bunker by his own hand, not in a Parisian theater getting machine-gunned by a gleefully vengeful Jewish Bostonian while his compatriots were burnt to a crisp. Quentin Tarantino‘s version of events doesn’t change the basic fact of the Nazi’s defeat in 1945, but his circumstances would make for a much different understanding of history than we one we know. It also shifts an understanding of Tarantino’s use of violence.

While calling Tarantino’s filmography a franchise à la Marvel is reductive and misinformed on the basics of what movies are, it is undeniable that there is a shared universe in his films. Take, for example, Mia Wallace explaining to Vincent Vega that she was in a pilot about a group of female secret agents that sounds awfully similar to the plot of Kill Bill. In Inglourious Basterds, Hitler is taken out by Sgt. Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth), the father of True Romance‘s Lee Donowitz (Saul Rubinek). The point of this being that we are meant to understand that the world inhabited by characters in most of Tarantino’s films is a world where the most significant event of the 20th century ended with a merciless bloodbath and a raging fire in a movie theater.

Perhaps this explains both the reverence of film and the acceptance of hyper-violence that we see displayed by the vast majority of Tarantino’s characters. In his world, these things are not only in the history books, but they would also surely be baked into popular culture and cherished as a result.

Following this idea, it makes for an interesting thought experiment to wonder what exactly became of all those involved with Hitler’s demise. The Basterds would surely be held in high esteem with many a tribute paid to them, but they weren’t the only ones with a plot to kill Hitler. Shosanna Dreyfuss (Melanie Laurent), her accomplice Marcel (Jacky Ido), and her massive collection of highly flammable nitrate film prints ensured that Basterds or no Basterds, there would be a bloodbath in the cinema that night.


But Shosanna wasn’t part of a team or an army. She was a Jewish woman who had survived the massacre of her family and only had Marcel on her side. Her plot converging with the Basterds’ plot erupted in flames and bloodshed, but Shosanna never got to see this play out. Her death at the hands of Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl) came before things got toasty for the theater full of Nazis. This leads me to wonder, how exactly is Shosanna remembered in Tarantino’s universe?

There must have been at least a few survivors of the theater fire. Did they tell tales of the woman who, projected onto a screen and then onto smoke, laughed as the audience burned? If Marcel made it out alive, would anyone believe his story about Shosanna engineering the demise of the Third Reich? Did Hans Landa — perhaps while sitting in his new home on Nantucket Island with a Swastika carved into his forehead — come to learn that the girl he let escape across the field of a dairy farm on that fateful day in 1941 eventually got her revenge?

Maybe. But maybe not. The industrious Shosanna surely wouldn’t have left a paper trail of her real identity for anyone to find as they scoured the charred remains of her theater. Marcel’s retelling of the events would have sounded too outlandish to be true and, as a black man in Paris, he would have had a hard time getting attention from those with the power to do enough research to corroborate his story. It’s not a stretch of the imagination to suppose that Shosanna’s involvement in that night, if remembered at all, was overshadowed by the role that the Basterds played.

If this is true, she’d be far from the first woman to have her accomplishments overlooked while men who did effectively the same thing are venerated for their work. In history, there are a limitless number of examples of women who have never gotten their due for their contributions. I’ll take a page from Tarantino and turn my attention to the history of the film industry for an example. The disparity in opportunities for women filmmakers has seen a bit of improvement, but there’s still quite a way to go. To achieve progress, there should be an aim to recognize women who have worked in professions that traditionally are not as appreciated as directors or writers.

Take the work of female editors. Editing has been a more accessible field for women both historically and in the present moment, and the contributions made by many of these women are immeasurable. Would Jaws be what it is without Verna Fields? Would Lawrence of Arabia — the film that features maybe the best cut ever — be what it is without Anne V. Coates? Would directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Martin Scorsese have their careers without Alma Reville and Thelma Schoonmaker, respectively?

No one knows all of this better than Tarantino. Sally Menke was the editor on all of his films until her untimely death in 2010, and he has referred to her as his “only, truly genuine collaborator.” His affection for her permeated the production process, and while her name isn’t as well known as his, any Tarantino fan worth their salt will tell you his films are indebted to Menke.

Inglourious Basterds was the last of his films to be edited by Menke and, purely coincidentally, it is where we find Shosanna, whose imagined legacy is one of the best representations of the unheralded work of women. But even without my thought experiment regarding Tarantino’s shared universe, the plot of Basterds is finely attuned to women’s work in film and history.

There are few things in this world that Tarantino loves more than intertextual references, and like all his films, Basterds is packed with them. He gets in the expected allusions to Spaghetti westerns and ’70s Grindhouse, but the time period also necessitates that he work with early 20th-century European cinema as a frame of reference. While she’s never depicted in the film, he keeps an awareness of Leni Riefenstahl present throughout. Shosanna first meets Fredrick Zoller while her theater is showing The White Hell of Pitz Palu, a German mountain film starring Riefenstahl. Pitz Palu was made in 1929, just a few years before Riefenstahl was welcomed into Hitler’s inner circle and became notorious for directing Triumph of the Will, arguably the most (in)famous propaganda film ever made. When asked if she admires the filmmaker, Shosanna spits out her name like poison. Elsewhere, when Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), the German movie star turned British spy, is socializing with a number of German officers in the La Louisiane tavern, she is adulated for her talents with the highest praise they can think to give her: a claim that she is even better than Riefenstahl.

In contrast to the woman that was Hitler’s favorite filmmaker, Tarantino offers up an acknowledgment of Lilian Harvey. The English-born and German-raised actress became persona non grata in her adopted country after helping a Jewish choreographer escape. Harvey fled Germany and eventually had her German citizenship revoked. When Shosanna praises Harvey’s performance in a film, Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) flies into a rage at the mere mention of her name. Back in the La Louisiane, a song performed by Harvey can be heard in the background while Bridget waits for her rendezvous with the undercover Basterds; an apt parallel is formed between the two German stars who saw what was happening in their country and turned their allegiance elsewhere.

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Tarantino also locates a parallel between Shosanna and Bridget. The two are there for discussions about, or at the very least references to, Riefenstahl and Harvey and there are the narrative similarities of them orchestrating the downfall of the Third Reich but not living to see it come to fruition. While Shosanna prepares for the film premiere, we see a poster featuring Bridget reflecting through the window, becoming her mirror. The two women never meet, but they have more in common than they know.

Basterds is rife with ideas regarding complicity and resistance, specifically how these things played out for women involved in WWII. In this view, acknowledging the involvement of women like Riefenstahl is undeniably important as she helped to engineer the Nazi propaganda film industry. But there’s also the work done by women in more covert ways. There’s the real-life example of Harvey and Tarantino’s imagined experiences of Bridget and Shosanna. That these women were not the ones sitting across tables from each other, negotiating deals, and deciding on the fate of history should not undermine their contributions. While the stakes of war and filmmaking are obviously incomparable, Tarantino does use his film about both of these things to draw attention to the work done by women behind the scenes that make all the difference.

So, what shall the history books read, indeed? In our world and in Tarantino’s cinematic one, the glory and attention tend to shift away from the parts that women play. What he offers isn’t a resolution to this problem, but rather a means of imagining how the overlooked stories of history have lessened our ability to understand the complexities our world. After all, there’s a whole lot of history that doesn’t make it into the books.

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Anna Swanson is a Senior Contributor who hails from Toronto. She can usually be found at the nearest rep screening of a Brian De Palma film.