First scene in BASTERDS. Spoiler Alert, but if you read this first, you’ll learn more about writing when you see the film.
The first moment of the first scene, you are set up for fear… what is the French dairy farmer doing at the start of the scene? Knitting? Nope. He’s chopping wood with AN AXE. No set up without a pay off, you fret… you worry… what’s he going to use that for, besides firewood?
Then, far off, we see a Nazi staff car coming down the road with motorcycle outriders. Fear factor goes up… now you’re really nervous, about THIRTY SECONDS into the scene. Writers need to make readers worry, period. And Tarantino does, in spades.
As the staff car comes closer, we see the French guy has three GORGEOUS daughters. The worried father tells them all to quickly go in the house. He’s afraid. So are we. Beautiful French girls, Nazi soldiers… we are now MORE worried about all kinds of nasty possibilities. Cranking up the Fret Factor… We think the scene is going to be about the dairy farmer protecting his daughters from the Nazi soldiers.
Colonel Landa, the Head Nazi, the real Bad Guy of the movie (and the only reason the scene exists, to introduce him and Shosanna Dreyfus, the Girl Hero of the movie) comes in the house all smiles speaking excellent French. Then he switches from French to English. We wonder why… Turns out the Frenchman speaks English too…
The scene lasts a LONG time. More time for us to worry about the pretty daughters, one of whom is called upon to serve the German a glass of their wonderful milk. Makes us worry more… what’s this guy going to do to the girls?
Then, the scene shifts away from our fear for the beautiful young girls and toward Jews that the farmer may or may not be hiding, as the German talks about how he is quite proud of his “Jew Hunter” nickname. He tells a long story about how amazingly talented he is at finding hidden Jews… and, in a surprising REVEAL… the camera drops down and shows us, under the floor, a family of Jews who the dairy farmer has been hiding. Whoa! Who knew?! Now we are into what the scene is REALLY about… and we’re nervous, because if the Nazi finds the people who are hiding, then the dairy farmer and his daughters are going to die. The stakes are raised!
Then the writer gets to the big surprise of the scene… Colonel Landa (speaking English to lull the hiding family into a false sense of security, since they don’t speak the language) tells the diary farmer that if the farmer is hiding Jews, and tells him, the Germans will leave his family alone. We’ve seen this in a dozen movies… the stalwart Frenchman always says he’s hiding no Jews and then we… but that’s NOT WHAT THIS GUY DOES. He gives them away! Sells them down the river to save his own hide! And you are STUNNED when it happens!
But you believe it.
He surprises you and you buy it. It’s not like Martians came a-landing… a surprise you do not believe…
At the end, there’s one more “I know what’s going to happen because I’ve seen it a million times” moment… where the writer foxes you and it’s a delightful change of direction, but I won’t spoil the WHOLE scene for you.
It’s such a well structured scene. He leads you down this path and that one and then this one and it’s never boring, because you’re always worried. And he keeps jacking up the tension.
Nice work Mr. T.!