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UK Film Review: Inglourious Basterds

Starring: Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz
Director: Quentin Tarantino

World War II set Inglourious Basterds is Quentin Tarantino’s first ‘period film’ as such. It is an occasionally taxing two and half hours, not for the easily distracted. Though judging by Tarantino’s appreciation of how costume (military or otherwise) defined this brutal time, maybe he should revisit history’s atrocities more often.

Via costume designer Anna B. Sheppard, Tarantino has deftly employed uniform to suggest a threatening presence in his antagonists.

For the film’s first act, or chapter, SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) visits the home of a French farmer and his three daughters he suspects of harbouring Jews. Landa sits, invited, in the farmer’s house drinking milk, minding his manners and generally being the all round perfect guest (Waltz is staggeringly effective at the calm menace this part requires).

As Landa segues from one leading question to another he invokes moments of intermittent silence, waiting patiently for the farmer to answer. During these moments the thick leather of his full-length overcoat creaks and chafes; Landa has the farmer in a metaphorical thumbscrew, tightening it each time he speaks. Even puffing on a comically large Calabash pipe he still cuts an intimidating figure. Landa uses his uniform – the symbolic fear it evokes – to terrify those under integration into giving him what he wants. This nail biting, ultimately tragic opener is one of the best scenes in the movie.

Inglourious Basterds is a testing film. Much of the dialogue outstays its natural welcome and the sudden tonal switches between violence and broad comedy can be unsettling. Though a seemingly unwieldy mix of genres interspersed with near-conversational discourse is now established as a Tarantino trademark. It is what makes the Tarantino experience so satisfying, yet still so unpredictable.

The narrative spans 1941-44, set almost entirely in German occupied France. Despite the Basterds being marketed as the main protagonists they make only fleeting appearances in the overall story. As an ensemble piece it brings together a handful of mini-plots to a semi-connected finale at a movie theatre where Hitler is attending a premiere.

As evident by the preposterousness of the final chapter, Inglourious Basterds is not intended as historically accurate. The aforementioned costumes however are entirely in tune with the era – if a little flamboyant. In creating his own unique vision, Tarantino wisely retained a semblance of what we as an audience expect to see. The costume indicators of period are subtle, but telltale.

In the first few seconds of screen time we see a cinch-back buckle (martingale) on worker pants; common up to around the mid-1940s, also on waist overalls. In chapter three Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) the hunted Jewish girl forced to flee as her family are gunned down by Landa’s troops, also wears pants while working outside her cinema (it is Shosanna’s revenge motive that sets up the final act).

Trousers were worn by both sexes during World War II. Generally these would be men’s trousers; due to material shortages through rationing, a woman would sometimes re-tailor her serving husband’s trousers to fit. Shosanna’s wild fiery-red tiered dress with square neckline and pointed cuff detail worn for the finale brings a deadly touch of lustre (black veil, a touch of death). An Elsa Schiaparelli inspired Siren Suit worn earlier intones a more masculine glamour.

For her introduction as German film actress/double agent Bridget von Hammersmark, Diane Kruger dons a boxy brown two piece suit, which is probably the most obviously forties outfit in the whole film. Broad shouldered, belted, pointed lapelled jacket and narrow skirt with front and back wedge pleats – it is beautiful tailoring.

This film boasts sparkling performances all round, with Waltz and Kruger shining brightest. If Eli Roth as ‘avenging golum’ Basterd ‘The Bear Jew’ over-eggs his madness it is only to counter anticipation. The Bear Jew implies a hulking, enigmatic character – a brooding monster. What we get is an OTT lunatic who breathes only to kill Nazis. The director is playing with audience expectation again, refusing to conform to type.

In not just costume but really in every possible way, Inglourious Basterds emerges as Quentin Tarantino’s most polished work to date. A trying, sometimes ground-breaking exploration into what it means to tell a story with no rules.

© 2009 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.


  • Sheila Harris

    Where can I buy one like the red dress Melanie Laurent wore in the finale of Inglorious Basterds?

  • Chris Laverty

    Hi Sheila,

    Having worked on Schindler’s List And The Pianist, Inglourious Basterds costume designer Anna B. Sheppard is well-versed in creating/sourcing outfits for the wartime era. Apparently though Quentin Tarantino was not overly concerned with how accurate the costumes were; Sheppard herself admits they are a loose interpretation of the 1940s.

    Mélanie Laurent’s red dress is a striking piece however and does feature obvious period details like boxy padded shoulders, bodice darts and that bright patriotic red colour. It definitely has the look of export couture.

    Hobbs have a good selection of similar vintage style gowns and suits, or else it’s trawling the vintage stores/websites for a one-off. Good hunting.

  • Claire

    same thing here, but for hell shoes and large trousers Melanie wears when working outside the cinema…? And for the ensemble Diane wears? thank alot! awesome costumes for an incredible movie

  • tiffany

    Who designed the shoes for Diane Kruger’s final scene, where she puts her sparkly foot on Landa’s knee?

  • Chris Laverty

    Diane Kruger’s shoes for Inglourious Basterds were custom made by a cobbler in Germany. Similar vintage pairs may be a little worse for wear by now. For a modern update try scouring L.K. Bennett, Russell & Bromley or possibly Betty Jackson. Aim for a wide heel.

  • Alyssa

    Where can I find the dress or one similar to the black sparkly long dress Diane Kruger wore in the scene at the cinema where she is killed?

    • Chris Laverty

      Diane Kruger’s beaded silk gown was designed as a one off by Anna B. Sheppard (you can read more about it HERE). For a comparable dress try Debenhams as they have lots of BDs in for the upcoming party season. Also Warehouse have a nice example HERE that, although shorter, has a similar neckline to Diane Kruger’s in the film.

  • Dr Jocelynne A. Scutt

    dear chris laverty – i enjoyed reading the ‘costume review’ of ‘inglourious basterds’ and have a costume question. there is a film (hollywood) 1930s, 40s or 50s set on a ranch where the main character (female) wears a red dress and does a ‘shocking’ dance – there must be a man in there somewhere – i think perhaps she is vying for his attention … if you have any idea of film’s name that would help v. much. the female star was not bette davis or joan crawford but just below that category – that is, at the time well-regarded but not in quite the same league as bd, jc … i know this is not much info, but hoping you may have some idea/s … thank you whatever the case … every good wish, jasl

    • Chris Laverty

      I’ve run this by my friend Simon Kinnear, critic for Total Film and he seems to think either Annie Get Your Gun or Doris Day in Calamity Jane. Not sure myself. If you have any more clues, however obscure, please pass them on.

    • Ellen Elizabeth

      I love that scene! The dancing scene is from the 1936 musical, “Swing Time” with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The dress was designed by Bernard Newman.

  • Marianne

    What a great (perceptive) review! I loved it, totally. The best review of “Inglourious Basterds” I’ve ever read (and I think I’ve read them all: The New Yorker/ Rotten Tomatoes, you name it!)

    Totally agree with the menace of the first scene, and with the conversations “outstaying their natural welcome.”

    I was surprised to see on Letterman the other night that Christoph Walz is not a large man. In fact, he’s quite slender. Great acting, to project such menace.

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