Whether you like his work or not, Quentin Tarantino’s movies always have plenty of suspense with a violent pay off. “Inglorious Basterds” is another example of how this setup and payoff works. Like those old time movies, every scene ends with a cliffhanger that leads you into the next scene, wanting to find out what happens next.
The opening scene, like in any movie, must immediately setup who the villain is. The villain always drives the movie forward and tells us exactly who we are rooting against. Sometimes the villain is a specific person such as the Jew Hunter in “Inglorious Basterds,” but sometimes the villain is simply a situation, such as being put in an unfamiliar world as in the remake of “The Karate Kid.”
Think of each scene or sequence as planting the seeds for a payoff sometime in the future. In “Inglorious Basterds,” the first scene starts off with a mystery. Why is the man and his daughters so terrified when the Germans arrive? This immediately intrigues us and grabs our attention, so the first ingredient of every great scene is to grab our attention to make us wonder, “What’s going on?”
Second, we discover what’s happening. In this case, the villain, known as the Jew Hunter, has arrived to question the dairy farmer about a missing Jewish family. This questioning may seem harmless until we realize that the farmer really is hiding the Jewish family under the floorboards of his house. Now that we know this, the questioning from the Jew Hunter simply ramps up the suspense as we wonder will he discover the Jews or will they get away? Like all good scenes, the payoff is already set up. We have to see the Jew Hunter discovering the terrified Jews and that’s exactly what we get.
Third, the Jew Hunter pretends to be leaving but lets his men in, who target the floorboards at the spot that the dairy farmer has indicated. Lots of bullets fly and everyone in the family is killed except for one girl who runs away, covered in blood.
Fourth, the Jew Hunter watches the girl flee, aims his pistol at her, and sets up more suspense on whether he will shoot and kill her, but he lets her go. Her escape plants the seed later on for what will happen later. At this point, we know our villain and one of our heroes.
The second major sequence of the film introduces us to the Inglorious Basterds as a team of Jewish soldiers who have the mission of infiltrating France and killing Nazis. First, we learn who they are. Second, we see them causing havoc to the Germans and bashing in the brains of a German officer with a baseball bat. Third, we see them carving a swastika in the forehead of a survivor, which is another setup planted to pay off later in the film. Fourth, we learn that the Nazis are trying to hunt down and kill the Inglorious Basterds. By the end of this sequence, we’re set on a collision course between our heroes (the Inglorious Basterds) and the Jew Hunter.
Cranking up the suspense in the third major sequence of the story is when we learn that the girl who escaped the Jew Hunter in the first scene is now a cinema owner with a young German soldier trying to court her against her wishes. This isn’t just any German soldier, but later on we discover that he’s a famous war hero for killing hundreds of enemy soldiers. His goal is to get to know the French girl, who keeps spurning his advances. To help accomplish his goal of getting to know the girl, this German sniper mentions that he’s in a new film about his exploits and that the film will be premiering soon and he wants it to premiere at her theater. In the process of getting his movie at her heater, the German sniper forces the French girl to confront the Jew Hunter again. Like all good stories, the hero and the villain start out far apart and gradually spiral closer and closer, ratcheting up the suspense in the process. To exact revenge, the French girl plans to burn down her theater with all the Nazis in it, planning another setup.
The next sequence ties in the Inglorious Basterds with the news of the film premiere as the British learn that all the major Nazi commanders will be there so they want to send a British soldier to meet up with the Inglorious Basterds and infiltrate the film premiere. As in any good movie, nothing goes as planned. Although the British agent meets up successfully with the Inglorious Basterds, they meet in a tavern that happens to be full of German soldiers celebrating the birth of one soldier’s son. The payoff is already setup when the Inglorious Basterds tell the British agent that if anything goes wrong, they’re to wipe out everyone to protect the identity of the German actress who’s really a British agent. This setup lets us know for sure that everyone will be killed and we’re just left wondering what will happen and how it will happen while secretly hoping that it won’t happen.
While trying to discuss their plans, a German SS officer gets suspicious and identifies the British spy, who gives himself up. However, everyone has a gun pointed at each other so they all start firing and nearly everyone is killed but the German soldier who’s a father and the German actress, who is wounded. Eventually, the Inglorious Basterds retrieve the German actress after she kills the remaining German soldier. Effectively, their original plan has fallen apart.
The Jew Hunter arrives, discovers a woman’s shoe and an autographed napkin so he knows the identity of the German agent. This is yet another setup so we’ll be expecting the payoff. By constantly planting setups through the story, the film grabs and keeps our attention because we want to see those setups fulfilled.
The Act III climax occurs when the INglorious Basterds get into the theater, the Jew Hunter exposes the German actress and kills her, and kidnaps Brad Pitt and the other Inglorious Basterd, leaving two of the Inglorious Basterds in the theater with dynamite strapped to their legs, which is another setup.
Like all good plans, nothing works smoothly. After Brad Pitt and his partner are whisked away to face the Jew Hunter, all seems lost as he knows the other two Inglorious Basterds are still there and he can identify their seats.
At this point, the main plot (the Inglorious Basterds) and the subplot (the French girl exacting revenge) are merging towards a point, although the subplot is completely unaware of the main plots’ existence. In most films, the subplot is part of the main plot, but most stories are actually two intertwined stories.
The purpose of a plot and a subplot is that neither a plot or a subplot is long or strong enough to carry an entire story. However, mix the two together and like strands of rope, they intertwine and create a much tighter and stronger story.
When the German sniper visits the French girl, he threatens to upset her plans of showing the signal to set the theater on fire. She tries to push him out and he gets mad and charges back in. Finally, she tells him to lock the door, and thinking he might score with her, he does so, turning his back. This gives the French girl time to reach into her purse, grab her gun (which was setup earlier when she was getting herself made up for the premiere), and shoots him in the back several times.
When she leans over him to see if he’s dead, he has pulled out his own pistol and shoots her dead. Then he dies of his wounds.
Finally, the whole fireworks show goes off as we learn the Jew Hunter wants to make a deal and save himself from a losing war by surrendering to the Americans in exchange for security and a pension. In return, he’ll allow the other INglorious Basterds to complete their mission of killing everyone in the theater.
The French girl’s signal is her filmed face on the screen, telling the audience they’re going to die, her lover sets a stack of film on fire, setting the theater ablaze after he locked the doors on them, the two Inglorious Basterds set off their dynamite and fire machine guns into the crowd, killing almost everyone.
The Jew Hunter and Brad Pitt reach the American lines and in a final payoff, Brad Pitt kills and scalps the German driver and carve a swastika in the Jew Hunter’s forehead, marking him for life.
“Inglorious Basterds” is all about setup and payoff. One missed setup is that of the Jew Hunter wanting to surrender and escape the losing war. If this was setup earlier, then the Jew Hunter’s surprising deal would make more sense as he realizes his dwindling prospects for living much longer as a Nazi.
Another potentially missed payoff is the conflict between the French girl and the Jew Hunter. Her battle with the Jew Hunter was setup in the first scene where the Jew Hunter has her entire family machine gunned. However, the French girl never targets the Jew Hunter in the end.
Despite these minor flaws, “Inglorious Basterds” is a great film to learn about setups and payoffs. Every major point of your story must be a payoff and every payoff must be setup ahead of time in a logical way. Keep this in mind when you’re creating your story and you’ll create a tighter story that setups the audience and satisfies them with a payoff. And that’s what good story telling is about, seamlessly planting the setups and making them payoff later in the film.