Inglourious Basterds — The Elements of Suspense

Hi, I’m Michael. This is Lessons from the Screenplay. At least once a year I put in my blu-ray of
Inglourious Basterds and watch two scenes. One of which is the opening scene which serves as an introduction
to the character of Hans Landa. This scene is like a master class in suspense. At seventeen pages, it’s one of the longest
scenes in the screenplay but it’s so captivating that once I start it I always have to finish it. So what makes this scene so effective? How does Quentin Tarantino turn seventeen
pages of people chatting into one of the most tension-filled scenes of recent memory? Today I want to take a close look at the anatomy
of the opening scene. To examine the elements required to create
tension. And show how Tarantino’s dialogue and character
design created the suspenseful opening of Inglourious Basterds. In a paper titled, “Toward a general psychological
model of tension and suspense” by Moritz Lehne and Stefan Koelsch, they discuss six key components of “tension experiences.” Today I want to examine four of them, beginning
with Conflict, Dissonance, and Instability. In their paper, Lehne and Koelsch write, “Tension experiences usually originate from
events associated with conflict, dissonance, or instability which create a yearning for
more stable, or consonant states.” Obviously conflict is the most basic and integral
part of storytelling. But the use of the word “instability”
particularly speaks to an important aspect of suspense in this scene. Tarantino begins the film with a brief but
effective portrait of what life is like for the people of this farm. We see one of the daughters hanging laundry, and see the Farmer swinging an axe at a tree stump. And in the script, Tarantino notes: “However, simply by sight, you’d never know
if he’s been beating at this stump for the last year or just started today.” I think this is a great way to suggest to
the reader that this is a glimpse of their everyday, stable lives. A stability that is broken as soon as the
daughter sees the Nazis coming. Again quoting the paper, such a disruption “creates tension and suspense experiences in the audience that persist until the conflict is
resolved and replaced by a more stable state.” The appearance of the German soldiers pushes
us toward a tension that will last until the conflict is resolved and a new stability is
found…one way or another. The arrival of the soldiers also incites
the second element of suspense: lack of control. This element of suspense is fairly self-explanatory. It simply states that our inability to influence
the course of events can lead to an experience of tension. In this regard, the medium of film lends itself
to suspense because it’s a mode of storytelling where the audience has no say in what happens. Even in interactive storytelling mediums, the
most suspenseful moments are often those where you have no control. When the daughter spots the Nazis approaching,
there is no protest or resistance, only a kind of subtle dread and acceptance. Tarantino includes in the script: “After living for a year with the sword of
Damocles suspended over his head, this may very well be the end.” The farmer calmly directs his daughters, reminding
them to check their behavior so as not to send the wrong signal. “Don’t run.” This suggests the wrong behavior may lead
to undesirable consequences, and that the family is going to have to play this interaction very carefully. They lack control of the situation. In just two pages Tarantino has laid the foundation
for suspense. But this alone is not enough to create the
intensity of suspense that we feel by the end of the scene. So now I want to move inside the house and
talk about the substance of the scene between the farmer and Colonel Hans Landa. When a coin flip decides something trivial, like which pair of socks you’re going to wear today, there isn’t a lot of suspense. But when a coin flip decides if someone will
live or die… “Call it.” …there can be a lot of suspense. This is because the intensity of the suspense
is proportional to the emotional investment in what is going on. And this is where the creativity of Tarantino
and the character of Colonel Hans Landa come into play. Tarantino uses his dialogue to increase the
emotional significance of anticipated events. As I mentioned in my video about The Social
Network, Aaron Sorkin uses his dialogue to mask exposition, and Tarantino does the same thing. “Part of my plan, my method, is to bury it
in so much minutiae about nothing that you don’t realize you’re being told an important
plot point until it becomes important.” When there is obvious exposition,
it is doing two things at once. Like when Landa literally asks the farmer,
Perrier LaPadite, to tell him about himself. “Please tell me what you’ve heard?” “I’ve heard that the Führer has put you in charge
of rounding up the Jews left in France who are either hiding or passing for gentile.” These lines aren’t just about exposition,
they’re about Landa subtly flexing his power. And the way he does it—through the guise
of politeness—helps evoke strong emotional reactions from the audience and increase tension. Landa begins by complimenting the attractiveness
of LaPadite’s family. “Each of your daughters is more lovely than
the last.” “Thank you.” Then, he requests milk instead of wine. This is an innocent-enough request, except
for the way he grabs the daughter’s hand as she’s getting the wine. “But no.” “Thank you, Monsieur LaPadite, but no wine.” “This being a dairy farm, one would be safe
in assuming you have milk?” “Yes.” “Then milk is what I prefer.” “Very well.” Landa noting how attractive he finds the daughters
combined with his grabbing of one of them creates a very uncomfortable feeling. A kind of implied threat delivered with a
smile. This aspect of Landa enhances yet another
element of suspense, uncertainty. “Everything Landa does — I mean, he is a
detective. That’s first and foremost where he’s coming from. He’s a detective. And every
scene he does is some version of an interrogation. And every piece of interrogation is a piece
of theater, or a mind game with the participant.” Colonel Landa plays mind games with LaPadite
throughout this scene. They are often tiny things, like requesting
permission. “I ask your permission to switch to English
for the remainder of the conversation.” “By all means.” He is acting as if LaPadite has the power,
but they both know Landa is an S.S. Colonel with soldiers outside who he could
order to kill LaPadite and his family if he so chose. So by behaving as if LaPadite has any control… “Please, Monsieur LaPadite, this is your house.
Make yourself comfortable.” …Landa is really just reminding him
of how little control he has. These mind games increase uncertainty, and
thus increase the tension. But the uncertainty doesn’t come just from
Landa’s character, it also comes from the lack of information given to the audience. So now I want to talk about the moment halfway
through the scene that changes the context of the entire conversation. Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense, once offered the following example. He said to imagine there are a couple people
sitting around a table. “Talking about baseball—whatever you like.
Five minutes of it, very dull.” “Suddenly a bomb goes off.” According to Hitchcock, this provides the audience with only five or ten seconds of shock. But… “Now take the same scene and tell the audience
there’s a bomb under that table and will go off in five minutes.” When you tell the audience that there is a bomb
under the table, suddenly it becomes an emotional experience. In the Lehne and Koelsh paper, they make a
distinction between tension and suspense. They define tension as a more diffuse, general
state of anticipation, and suspense as a more specific anticipation between clearly opposed outcomes. The transition from tension to suspense happens when Tarantino decides to tell the audience about
the bomb under the table. Or in this case, the family beneath the floorboards. This is a big change that ratchets up our
emotional investment. The significance of every piece of information
we know is intensified. LaPadite has lied about not knowing where
the family is, and the people that Landa is looking for are literally right beneath his feet. This kind of mid-way revelation also re-energizes
the scene, and the same technique is used in the tavern basement sequence. “Might I inquire?” This is what allows Tarantino to have scenes
like this be gripping for so long, and he argues that longer scenes
are better for suspense. “It’s like the suspense is a rubber band, and I’m just stretching it and stretching it and stretching it to see how far it can stretch. As long as that rubber band can stretch, the longer the scene can hold, the more suspenseful it is. That scene is more suspenseful at twenty-two minutes than it would be at eight. So you want to just stretch it until the rubber band breaks.” And that’s exactly what he does. After the audience is shown the family beneath
the floorboards, Landa pretends like he’s finished his work and that relief is just within reach. But then he asks for another glass of milk. “However, before I go, might I have another
glass of your delicious milk?” And then brings up his nickname. “That they call your ‘The Jew Hunter.'” “Precisely!” And then goes on a two page tangent about
what animal German soldiers are versus what animal Jewish people are. And for awhile, the destination of this tangent
seems unclear. Again, the uncertainty. LaPadite, previously thinking himself victorious
in deceiving the officer, begins to lose his cool. And soon the destination of this tangent becomes
painfully clear. “However, the reason the Führer brought
me off my Alps in Austria and placed me in French cow country today is because it does
occur to me.” “Because I’m aware what tremendous feats
human beings are capable of once they abandon dignity.” Here, Landa again flexes his power and evokes
an emotional reaction. “May I smoke my pipe as well?” Tarantino has Landa stretch out the suspense
as long as possible, until finally the suspense turns to dread. “You are sheltering enemies of the state,
are you not?” “Yes.” “You’re sheltering them underneath your
floorboards, aren’t you?” “Yes.” Now the suspense evolves one last time, as the uncertainty changes from if Landa will find out to what he will do now that he knows. In this area, I think the fact that the audience
is aware they’re watching a Tarantino film adds to the suspense. We know there will be consequences, and that
Tarantino has no qualms about showing violence. And when the “bomb” finally goes off, it is
as stressful and explosive as can be. “So, Monsieur. Mademoiselle.” “I bid farewell to you and say adieu.” “He motions to the soldiers with his index
finger.” “They TEAR UP the wooden floor with MACHINE-GUN
FIRE.” “The little farmhouse is filled with SMOKE,
DUST, SPLINTERS, SCREAMS, BULLET CASINGS, and even a little BLOOD.” This is the last important element of suspense
in storytelling. There must be a payoff, good or bad. We need that catharsis, the new stability—horrifying
as it is in order to release, reset, and prepare for what’s next. “Au revoir, Shoshanna!” There are many ways to create suspense in
a story, but what I find impressive about Inglourious Basterds is how simple the elements are. By giving the audience some basic context, Quentin Tarantino is able to turn a chat across a table, or a card game, or having dessert
into some of the most suspenseful scenes ever put on film. Hey guys! I hope you enjoyed the video. I just want to say thank you to all my Patrons
for making this video and this channel possible! If you want to support this channel on Patreon
you can by clicking on the links below, and if you want to follow me on twitter @michaeltuckerla. I hope you have a great day, and thanks for

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