The Counterpoint of Music and Action in Inglorious Basterds
Quentin Tarantino is well known for his unusual use of various musical genres and styles in his films. This is especially apparent in Inglorious Basterds, where he masterfully pairs a vast selection of music with dialogue across four languages to juxtapose the intense with the comedic.
Before discussing the music in Inglorious Basterds, it is important to recognize that all the music Tarantino used already existed; he had nothing written specifically for this film. In fact, much of it was taken from other films, primarily Ennio Morricone's scoring for numerous Spaghetti Westerns. Additionally, because Tarantino utilizes so many different genres, it is important to understand what "genre" truly means. I will define genre as a type of repertoire defined by the instrumentation, form, compositional style, purpose, and subject matter. Just as important, however, is the effect of classifying music by genre. Genres surely help composers create music by giving them precedents to look at, but they also give an idea of the content of each work. Most importantly, genres create expectations. With this knowledge, we can understand the genre of the film as a whole. Inglorious Basterds is most certainly a war film defined by the subject matter. This includes an opposition of forces, a heroic character, camaraderie, and clarity at the ending. The question is, how does the music impact our perception of this movie as a war film? Typically, war films are serious, (but they are clearly not defined that way), and yet Tarantino maintains the intensity of a war film whilst utilizing comedic dialogue and settings throughout.
It is only natural to begin with the opening scene, and Tarantino gives us a lot to unpack before the first words are even uttered. Tarantino immediately combines three completely different genres. He plays "The Green leaves of Summer" in the title sequence before displaying Monsieur LaPadite in the middle of a French pastoral countryside ("The Green Leaves of Summer" is originally from The Alamo, a historical epic). After a short period of no music and just the sounds of nature, Tarantino plays Beethoven's "Fur Elise." He utilizes only the first phrase to quickly indicate the agitation and anxiety that arises from the approach of German cars. However, he settles the environment by pairing it with Ennio Morricone's "The Verdict," a spaghetti western. Despite being from completely different genres, Tarantino combines them in way that reflects the simultaneous tension and peace of the countryside.
For the next few minutes, Colonel Landa psychologically exploits Monsieur LaPadite to the point where, in tears, he finally gives up the Dreyfus family (a Jewish family Colonel Landa has been hunting). Landa at this point has complete control of the scene and his powerful and dominating personality help him overcome the fact that he is the guest in Monsieur LaPadite's home and the fact that he is significantly smaller that Monsier LaPadite physically. On his way out, Landa returns to his charismatic French and Tarantino's next piece of music begins. This time it is Ennio Morricone's "L'Incontro con La Figlia," which begins with a dissonant frenzy of strings and brass increasing in pitch and volume before gradually thickening in texture to become more chaotic. On screen, Landa is calling his men in to shoot the Dreyfus family while in the queue the dissonant strings rise in pitch and adopt a harsher timbre. The piece perfectly represents the psychological power Landa possesses as well as the fear the viewer feels. Indeed, the only ones who don't know that the Dreyfus family is about to be killed are the Dreyfus' themselves and this nondiegetic queue symbolizes that terror.
Tarantino's timing is also exquisite: the sink point (a sudden change in volume and texture of music while on screen there is a striking visible motion) of "L'Incontro con La Figlia" coincides perfectly with the German soldiers' shooting and with Shosanna Dreyfus' eventual escape. This dramatic queue ultimately ends with a crescendo until Landa cocks his gun and a tom hits imitating the shot that Landa decides not to take. Tarantino's queues are topical, perfectly timed, and never arbitrary. The tom at the end leaves the viewer unsure whether Landa has shot Shosanna until the camera cuts to her soon after. During those few seconds, Tarantino begins to use comedic acting; Landa smiles and utters a non sensical jibberish word. This use of nondiegetic music creates a contradiction between a specific noise and a specific visual.
Contradiction is one of Tarantino's most essential tools in Inglorious Basterds. Later in the film, when Shosanna and Frederich Zoller (a Nazi war hero) kill each other, Tarantino uses Ennio Morricone's "Un Amico," a calm and tempered piece with an acoustic guitar and strings. The queue essentially becomes an ironic counterpoint for the murder on screen. Indeed, he syncs the music with the actions: Shosanna realizes she has just killed the star of Nation's Pride, (the movie in which Zoller plays himself, the hero who killed 350 enemy soldiers in three days) right as the guitar enters, the viewer realizes Zoller is still alive when the strings enter, and Shosanna rolls Zoller over to discover he is alive right as the drums enter. Once again, Tarantino makes it seem as though the non-diegetic music is played in the scene, thereby eliciting a more emotional response from the viewer.
In addition to his magisterial use of non-diegetic music, Tarantino does, in fact, incorporate diegetic sounds. During the screening of Nation's Pride, the gunfire and military sounds continue to boom throughout the theater even when the movie itself is not on screen. In fact, it is the perfect backdrop to Shosanna and her assistant Marcel's own war. The dropping of bombshells coincides with their goodbyes before they burn the entire theater. Tarantino establishes an environment always conducive to the action on screen, but he does so by pulling together a hodge-podge of music, queues, sounds, and effects, both diegetic and non-diegetic.
I would also like to briefly address the use of dialogue in harmony with music. No character better exemplifies the power of dialogue than Colonel Landa. Landa speaks English and German fluently, and Italian and French at an excellent level. In the opening scene with Monsieur LaPadite, he speaks French and English calmly and eloquently as if he were reading a poem. However, when he speaks his native language, German, he is much harsher to his subordinates. In other words, he gives orders in German, to the people who he knows will listen to him, while he drags out his conversations in other languages. This is such a brilliant technique because it builds apprehension and gives the viewer less insight into his true thoughts. When Bridget von Hammersmark first enters the theater with the three American Basterds posing as Italians, Landa slowly tortures the men by carrying out a conversation in Italian. He quizzes them on their own names and tries to improve their Italian accent and pronunciation! At this point the viewer is sure Landa has discovered their true identities, and thus must await his reaction. Yet, he makes no remark, other than the typical pleasantries. Sometimes, no dialogue is necessary whatsoever.
Just a few moments earlier, von Hammersmark was explaining how she injured her leg, and Landa responds with an obnoxious laugh. Yet, the viewer is left on their toes because there was no way to know whether the laugh was a laugh of disbelief or a laugh of embarrassment. While it seems as though Landa did know that she was lying, (as he did with the identities of the Basterds), he curbs his knowledge and lets the viewer await his ultimate response. And in these long, dramatic, and tense pauses, the viewer ends up experiencing a peculiar mixture of humor and fear.
Quentin Tarantino was surely at his best in Inglorious Basterds. His specific and explicit combination of music, dialogue, and action effectively evoked comedy, loathing, and sympathy simultaneously. The music not only accompanies the action, but also conjures moving images such that what appears on the screen is always in balance with how we perceive the characters' thoughts and true beliefs. Tarantino proved that there is no limit to the amount of power specific music adds to a film.
1. IMDB. (2009) Inglorious Basterds [Internet]. Internet Movie Database. Available from: [Accessed: 16/06/20].
2. "Inglorious Basterds" Sound for Film Profile. (2009) Michael Coleman. The Sound Works Collection [Internet]. Available from: [Accessed:17/06/20].