How Quentin Tarantino builds suspense in his all-time favourite scene
As sure as the sun will rise and set, everybody has a favourite Quentin Tarantino movie scene. His entire catalogue of films including Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, True Romance and Django Unchained all seemed to be composed of memorable scenes. In fact, it’s his manipulation of environment, dialogue and camera and the perfectly walked line between realism and surrealism, that makes him a master of cinema. Within every film is perfectly-layered intricacies. With such a wealth of incredible writing, to imagine him selecting his own favourite scene is nothing short of a migraine. But, he has one. At the San Diego comic-con, Business Insider quotes Tarantino stating: “My favourite thing I’ve ever written was the scene at the French farmhouse at the start of Inglorious Basterds.” You know the one—the disconcertingly sharp SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) arrives at a remote dairy farm that he suspects is harbouring a Jewish family. Landa sits down with monsieur LaPadite (Denis Menochet) and whilst enjoying a glass of milk, interrogates him about the whereabouts of the Dreyfus family. A nerve-jangling game of cat and mouse ensues.
Despite the fact that there is over two hours of the film remaining, this scene in bloom can be regarded as an isolated masterpiece of its own. The YouTube channel Lessons From The Screenplay provides a fantastic video on what makes that opening scene so psychologically jarring. The series creator Michael Tucker, drawing from research on the nature of tension and suspense, highlights the “key components of tension experiences,” including a lack of control and uncertainty. Tucker then goes on to show how Tarantino manipulates them to create as much tension as possible. As Alfred Hitchcock, or any alchemist of suspense would tell you, suspense as an abstract thing can expand for as long as you wish it too, leaving audiences on the back foot when it comes to musing on when a reveal will be delivered.
In a Charlie Rose interview included in the video, Tarantino says exactly that. “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.” Whilst the farmhouse scene could stand alone as its own masterpiece, it also embodies some instantly recognisable trademark techniques of Tarantino, such as long stretches of dialogue filled with tangents. In another interview clip he claims that “Part of my plan, is to bury it in so much minutia about nothing that you don’t realise you’re being told an important plot point until it becomes important.” This is executed in the form of the delicious milk and Landa’s switch between French and English. The audience knows the carnage is coming at any moment but cannot anticipate exactly when. As their conversation drives onwards, the audience, much like LaPadite loses control over the outcome of the scene. That being said, the carnage is inevitable. As Tucker accurately declares “The fact that we’re watching a Tarantino movie adds to the suspense. We know there will be consequences and Tarantino has no qualms showing violence.” Eventually (incoming spoiler alert. In fact, if you haven’t watched this film yet, shame on you) Landa’s men enter the farmhouse with their sub-machine guns and the killer blow is delivered to the Dreyfus family, who hide beneath the floorboards. Only Shoshanna escapes and the tone is set for the rest of the film.
Inglorious Basterds is full of truly incredible scenes proceeding the farmhouse, including the cinema shootout, the introduction of The Bear Jew and a dinner in which Landa and Shoshanna with a new identity share an apple strudel. Nonetheless, it is the farmhouse scene that propels the film to legendary status with a breath-taking performance from Christoph Waltz. If those snippets from the Lessons From The Screenplay video left you wanting more, the full video can be found on YouTube. Inevitably, a re-watch of the film is in order too.