“Unique” is certainly a fitting adjective for Inglourious Basterds. Staying true to the famous “genre-blending” style of director Quentin Tarantino, the film displays a vivid mixture of war movie and spaghetti western. However, not everything about this movie is unique, particularly its theme of revenge. Vengeance is a common motivation for the characters of many films, and Inglourious Basterds is no exception.
Shosanna is perhaps the most obvious example of a character driven by revenge within the film. The opening sequence of the movie depicts the slaughtering of her entire family by the hands of the SS. When the opportunity conveniently presents itself on her lap, she resolves to avenge her family by burning down the Nazi-filled cinema during the premiere of Nation’s Pride.
From this moment onwards, Shosanna’s plan for vengeance is the sole factor that guides her actions. But simply killing the large group of Nazis isn’t enough for Shosanna, similar to how simply killing Frank wasn’t enough for Harmonica in Once Upon a Time in the West. She had to let her victims know that she was the one that was going to kill them, and she needed them to know who she was. This was the function of her coup de grace: a clip displayed on the screen of Shosanna letting the Nazis know that she would be their demise. When the movie scene of Zoller asking “Who wants to send a message to Germany?” comes up, Shosanna’s clip is played with her reply of:
I have a message for Germany – that you are all going to die. And I want you to look deep into the face of the Jew who is going to do it.
Again, Shosanna’s need for her victims to know the identity of their killer strongly resembles Harmonica’s need to let Frank know the identity of his. This need is another component of revenge. It is the desire for a victim to not only “get back” at those who did them wrong, but also to let them know that they caused their own demise. The flaming screen of Shosanna’s face displays this burning vengeance.
The Basterds themselves are also driven by revenge over the course of the film. Their vengeance, however, represents the vengeance of all Jews. That is what they are, of course: a band of Jewish-American soldiers, but through their actions, they succeed in turning the tables on the Nazis by making them the victims of atrocious acts. This is another feature of revenge: the need to exact the wrongdoings on the wrongdoer. It is the notion of “an eye for an eye”. The Basterds essentially turn the Nazis into Jews. Lt. Raine displays this through his speech to the Basterd recruits:
We will be cruel to the Germans, and through our cruelty they will know who we are. And they will find the evidence of our cruelty in the disemboweled, dismembered, and disfigured bodies of their brothers we leave behind us.
When the captured German sergeant refuses to divulge information, the film almost paints him as a heroic figure by dramatizing his patriotism and bravery. This is heavily contrasted by Donny Donnowitz (The Bear Jew) beating the sergeant to a pulp in a savage manner. A great example of the Nazis having their role reversed is when Lt. Raine carves a swastika onto the forehead of Butz. Just as the Jews were forced by the Nazis to wear the Star of David to let everyone know they were Jewish, the Nazis are forced to wear their own symbol to let everyone know they were Nazis.
Finally, both the Basterds and Shosanna achieved revenge by subjecting the Nazis to the same kind of death that the Jews were subjected to. The audience of Nazis are burned to death in the cinema as it erupts into flames and explodes. This is ironically similar to the way that Jews in concentration camps were trapped and burned to death in furnaces during the Holocaust.
The clip of Shosanna continues to play while the cinema burns down, saying:
This is the face of Jewish vengeance.
Revenge plays a large role in Inglourious Basterds. Shosanna and the Basterds display this throughout the course of the whole film. They show a need to inflict the same treatment on the Nazis that was given to the Jews, and also to ensure that the Nazis knew whose revenge was being exacted on them. At its heart, Inglourious Basterds is the tale of Jewish revenge as a whole on the Nazis.