Inglourious Basterds is a difficult film to summarize concisely. In the most basic sense, it is an alternative history depicting two attempts to assassinate Adolf Hitler, one by a group of Jewish American commandos and the other by a French female cinema owner who is also Jewish. In general, the film makes no pretence at literal historical accuracy – the assassination of Hitler is successful – with one notable exception. While most American action films set in World War II rely on every character speaking English and using accents to differentiate between German, French, American, and other roles, in Inglourious Basterds characters only speak in the languages they would speak, and long stretches of the film include subtitles. Structurally, the film is broken into five chapters.
Chapter One, “Once Upon a Time…In Occupied France,” depicts a conversation between the German Colonel Hans Landa and a French farmer, Perrier LaPedite, who is accused of harbouring a Jewish family. The chapter culminates with the killing of most of the family and the escape of one member, Shosanna Dreyfus (who is referred to by her first name here since that is how she is talked about in the film, while most other characters are identified by last name).
Chapter Two, “Inglourious Basterds,” introduces the eponymous Basterds, a group of Jewish American soldiers led by Lieutenant Aldo Raine, who describes the Basterds’ role as “killin’ Nazis.” After this, they are shown interrogating and killing a Nazi prisoner.
Chapter Three, “German Night in Paris,” returns to Shosanna, who is living in Paris and running a theatre under an assumed name. She is taken by Fredrick Zoller, a German war hero, to meet and eat with Landa and Joseph Goebbels, who has recently produced a film about Zoller called Stolz der Nation (“Nation’s Pride”). Zoller convinces Goebbels to premiere the film at Shosanna’s theatre and Shosanna learns that not only Goebbels, but also Hitler and other German leaders will be in attendance. She decides to sabotage the screening and kill everyone in the theatre in a fire.
Chapter Four, “Operation Kino,” begins with the introduction of a former film critic Lieutenant Archie Hicox, who is now a British officer. He has been chosen to contact the Basterds in France and let them know about the screening so they can assassinate Hitler. Hicox meets with his contact in France, an actress named Bridget von Hammersmark, as well as one of the Basterds in a tavern. While there, a German officer recognizes Hammersmark and strikes up a conversation. While speaking with Hicox, whose German was learned by watching Arnold Frank’s Bergfilme (mountain films) and who orders three beers using the British hand gesture instead of the German, the German officer realizes they are spies. Everyone begins shooting and only von Hammersmark escapes. Raine learns of the operation and decides to continue using two of his men as suicide bombers to infiltrate the theatre along with von Hammersmark.
Chapter Five, “Revenge of the Giant Face,” brings these two stories together. At the theatre, Landa discovers von Hammersmark is a spy and kills her. He has Raine and one of the other Basterds arrested, leaving the two with the bombs in the audience. He takes Raine to another location and cuts a deal where he will be taken to the United States and be given amnesty in exchange for letting the assassination take place. At the theatre, the other two Basterds break into Hitler’s box and kill the Nazi leaders while Shosanna’s fire starts to engulf the theatre. At the end of the film, it appears that two Basterds and Landa are the only survivors. Raine is upset that Landa is getting amnesty and carves a swastika into his forehead so he cannot hide having been a Nazi.