Women and revolutionary violence in The Battle of Algiers and Inglourious Basterds

This post contains spoilers for Inglourious Basterds and The Battle of Algiers.
Have you read Amanda Marcotte’s fantastic piece on Inglourious Basterds? See the movie if you haven’t, then read her review. It’s a great feminist perspective on a really complex, tense, and ridiculously fun movie.

This is one of those movies people will write their thesis about, so there is plenty more to discuss, including plenty more from a feminist perspective. I want to talk about women’s participation in violent liberation struggles and deliberate parallels Quentin Tarantino draws between his film and The Battle of Algiers.
Tarantino makes movies about movies, quoting film history throughout his work. This approach is, I believe, most successful in Inglourious Basterds, as the plot itself focuses on the power and role of cinema, especially propaganda and war films. The Battle of Algiers is one of the most well regarded films about war, praised for its accuracy and even-handed representation of both the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) and French forces. The film outlines how revolutionary and counterrevolutionary war (referred to by colonizing forces as insurgency and counterinsurgency in order to delegitimize their opponents) function, and has been used as an educational tool by forces and organizers on different sides of a number of late 20th and early 21st century conflicts. I highly recommend seeing the film if you have not already, and then reading Eqbal Ahmad’s essay “The Making of The Battle of Algiers” and Edward Said’s “The Quest for Gillo Pontecorvo.”
Tarantino literally quotes the film, using music from Ennio Morricone’s masterful score. Linking (fictional) Jewish fighters during World War II with the FLN is a conceptually powerful move. Jews and Muslims are too often painted as automatic enemies, and Tarantino reminds us that both populations have been targets of state violence in the past century.
I found the linking of women’s roles in revolutionary warfare particularly compelling. In one sequence in The Battle of Algiers three female FLN fighters prepare to leave the Casbah and plant bombs in the space of the French colons. They remove their burqas abayas, apply makeup, cut and dye their hair, and change into French clothes. Dressed as colons they are able to successfully pass through checkpoints out of the Casbah and plant the explosives. It is a powerful sequence that has been the subject of a lot of discussion and debate about the role of women in revolutionary struggles as well as race, religion, gender performance and presentation, and “passing.”
Shosanna Dreyfus, one of central characters in Inglourious Basterds, is a Jew who has dyed her hair blond and is hiding in plain site in Nazi occupied France (advertising for the film has been misleading – the Basterds are actually secondary characters, with the focus on Shosanna and Col. Hans Landa, “The Jew Hunter”). Shosanna, like Djamila, Zohra, and Hassiba in The Battle of Algiers, must be read as part of the population in power while functioning as a revolutionary. Shosanna runs a movie theater where a major Nazi propaganda film is set to premiere and sets a plan in motion to burn down the theater, killing all the high ranking and powerful Nazis in attendance. The scene where Shosanna prepares for the premiere – putting on a dramatic red dress, applying makeup, fixing her hair – clearly references the preparation scene in The Battle of Algiers. This activates ideas about passing and using gender roles to the advantage of liberation fighters. And it connects Shosanna with a history of female revolutionaries in film.
Tarantino also gives us a new twist on female action heroes in film. When Shosanna is in action hero mode she is also in high femme drag. Even when women are represented in these sorts of movies they are almost always butch presenting in some way – short hair, little makeup, leather jackets and pants or military clothing. Shosanna uses femme gender presentation to her advantage, just as the women in the FLN used a more sexualized and European presentation to carry out their attacks. Both scenes mirror scenes in other movies where male soldiers or action heroes prepare for battle, and both put a decidedly different and gendered spin on these moments. In both cases the women are subjugating their own identities, walking in the world as their enemies, for their causes. They are playing a particularly gendered role in violent struggle, using their social position as women and the position of women in the group they are fighting to their advantage.

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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  • alixana

    Thanks for this comparison and analysis, Jos! Inglourious Basterds and Shosanna completely knocked my socks off, and I’d gone into the movie not even knowing the character existed. It always takes a bit of work to figure out all the references Tarantino makes in his movies, and I appreciate the help you’ve provided here.

  • DeafBrownTrash

    “They remove their burqas, apply makeup, cut and dye their hair, and change into French clothes. Dressed as colons they are able to successfully pass through checkpoints out of the Casbah and plant the explosives.”
    Just to verify, they did NOT wear burqas. They were wearing abaya’s, which are much more common in the Middle East. in fact, nobody outside Afghanistan actually wears burqa’s. (I am a Muslim woman so I know what I’m talking about). otherwise, very good post. I still haven’t seen Inglourious Basterds, but I did see Battle of Algiers. Great movie

  • femmi

    Women absolutely do wear burqas outside of Afghanistan, just not en masse, or by force. Otherwise there would be little reason for the “ban the burqa” controversy in France, etc. Thank you for the distinction between burqas and abayas though, that’s certainly important to understand.

  • Lance

    I think it’s fascinating that Ms. Dreyfus doesn’t appear in any of the trailers for the film (or, if she does, she flashes by so quickly it’s escaped my notice on multiple viewings). No one character appears in all five parts of the film– Hans and Shoshana are the only characters from act one who reappear, and neither one is in act two– but she appears in four out of five. The Basterds plot to take down Hitler et. al. was largely irrelevant; had they done nothing, it seems that things would have gone down exactly the same way. I would submit that she is therefore the primary protagonist. When’s the last time the primary protagonist was excluded from the trailer of a film?

  • Jos

    Thank you for the correction!

  • LCA

    It is interesting, but from a marketing standpoint: Brad Pitt is the biggest star in this movie. He is also a big star period. So to get asses in seats, you promote the Pitt angle, and then surprise the audience with an even meatier story than the “Let’s-kill-Hitler” plot.

  • cattrack2

    You’re right from the standpoint of the script, but she’s not the star attraction, from a marketing perspective. Despite the film being very complex, its being marketed as a very simple WW2 feel good, violent, shoot ‘em up.

  • alixana

    I’m guessing, if I had to go with any answer, would be that Melanie Laurent has only starred in French films prior to this. Brad Pitt is like a box office guarantee.
    From all the ads, I thought Diane Kruger was the primary female star (the print ads I saw were all the “Diane Kruger is a Basterd” poster). She’s not exactly in the upper tiers of fame, but she’s more well known to American viewers than Laurent. Did the guy who played Zoller show up in any ads at all? He’s, similarily, only been in European films before this (IMDB says he was born in Spain, but his movie titles appear to my untrained eye to be German).

  • Akinoluna

    What they are trying to ban in France isn’t the burqa specifically, but clothing that covers the entire body, including the face and head. Calling it “Burqa” is just an inaccurate catch-all word to describe Muslim women’s clothing.
    I think what she meant by “not worn outisde Afghanistan” was not that it’s never worn, but that it’s a specific type of clothing native to that area.

  • squiddie

    Daniel Bruhl (Zoller) was born in Spain, but is of German heritage and was raised in Cologne. It’s not that your eye is untrained, his family was just moving around.

  • Cola

    It’s possible you’re forgetting about Saudi Arabia, where, as I understand it, only Western women can wear the abaya, but that most women are required to wear the burqa.

  • Cola

    And I’d like to add that I learned this from my friend Faisal, an Iraqi who lives in Saudi Arabia because of the war. I only mention this because you felt your religion was important in establishing your authority on this issue. I checked the wikipedia article for Burqa, and it does only discuss its use in Afghanistan and briefly its use in Europe, but it also distinguishes the burqa worn in Afghanistan as a “Chadri.” Not being an expert, I can’t say what that means. If you know which variety is worn in Saudi Arabia (the full body covering with only the eyes visible) I’d be happy to defer to your experience.

  • CS

    I think you should also consider the other major female character: the secret agent. She also seemed to be using her femme presentation as a matter of revolutionary struggle. In most of the scenes, she actually seems to be in charge of the situation, regardless of the military men present.
    However, I’m not so sure you can interpret Shosanna as easily as you have. I don’t agree that she should be characterized as a revolutionary, I think her primary goal was revenge and nothing more. Also, you are completely overlooking the black character who was just as instrumental as she was. The massive room filling image of her laughing as everyone burned to death definitely didn’t create an association with blowing up train tracks or cutting communication lines, etc.
    Also, look at the picture you posted. The red dress, red lipstick, smeared war paint, all match perfectly with the flag on the wall behind her. I don’t think Tarantino was going for a femme look, I think he was going for an association with blood (a warrior) who happened to be dressed in a femme way.

  • colleen183

    You should also check out the recently released the Baader-Meinhoff Complex, about the 1970’s West German Lefty-Revolutionary / Terrorist / Insurgent cell the Red Army Faction. Women play a prominent roll in the film, as they did in the group.
    The film itself is more expository then thought-out, so scenes are played for entertainment and to show the historical sequence of events, rather then to get too cerebral about motivations or performance.
    The women all have a pretty femme presentation, at least before incarceration. In numerous bank robbing or assassination scenes the women are dressed in really cute outfits, with mini skirts and boots – and it’s never really addressed whether they’re wearing these clothes to blend in, or if that’s just what they feel like wearing to do this stuff.

  • squirrely

    I think the phrase “a more sexualized and European style of dress” is really interesting. I think the abaya (or burqua) is just as sexualized as the tight-fitting red number. It is an article of clothing that signifies the wearer’s sexuality above and before anything else. To equate European dress with overt sexuality is to buy into the idea that burquas are “modest” because they cover skin, when in fact they function in the way that gendered dress functions in many societies: to make the observer immediately aware of the presence of a female, to highlight their sexual role in society, and to fulfill social expectations of femininity. When the FLN women wanted to “pass” as western, they had to change the way they conformed to social expectations of females, not become “more” sexual by wearing western dress. Femininity is demonstrated in relation to the target audience.

  • chrisbean

    Daniel Bruhl is AMAZING!!!
    Definitely check out both Good-Bye, Lenin! and The Edukators. He’s been an enormous crush of mine for like five years, so it’s awesome seeing him in a big-budget American flick (even if he does play a pretty-boy jerk).

  • chrisbean

    Daniel Brühl is AMAZING!!!
    Definitely check out both Good-Bye, Lenin! and The Edukators. He’s been an enormous crush of mine for like five years, so it’s awesome seeing him in a big-budget American flick (even if he does play a pretty-boy jerk).

  • DeafBrownTrash

    uh yeah, that’s not the burqa. that’s the ABAYA.

  • DeafBrownTrash

    I’ve never heard of “chadri,” but thanks for mentioning that.
    I come from a family of religious Muslim women who cover themselves up, so uh, yeah, I think I can claim authority on this issue.

  • DeafBrownTrash

    lol, you don’t know what you’re talking about. the “burqa” controversy in France is actually about the ABAYA (or the jelbab) that they are trying to ban. “Burqa” just happens to be a popular catchy term for the media to carelessly throw around.
    please do yourself a favor and go read up about different styles of Islamic clothing for women. You’ll find out how diverse and varied it is.

  • lost_calendar

    You shouldn’t be so free with your sarcasm as you risk looking a fool. There is in fact a fairly raging polemic in France at the moment around the burqa, as well as the “foulard”. The debate has of course been stoked by the Right (less than 400 women actually wear it in all of France) but it exists nonetheless as you would know if you actually read the French press.
    I’ll provide you with a few links. I’m guessing someone as opinionated as yourself on Islam in France speaks French:

  • lost_calendar

    Oops my bad misread your post. Now I look a fool!!!
    Apologies – I’ll try harder next time. (BTW I’m French, English second language.)

  • Bleatmop

    Feminist perspective aside, I simply cannot tolerate this movie because of what I consider to be whitewashing of the Allies reaction to the holocaust. It’s revisionist history porn and it seems to be becoming a trend with other movies such as Valkyrie (that suggests Stauffenberg tried to kill Hitler for moral rather than pragmatic reasons).
    Accurately depicting women’s involvement in liberation struggles = WIN.
    Rewriting history to to alleviate guilt (especially when it comes to the holocaust) = EPIC FAIL.

  • Eurosabra

    I think you lose a bit of nuance in the equation of a European-Jewish woman and a group of Algerian Muslim women, particularly when you consider Algeria’s enthusiasm in ridding itself of its Jewish population in the post-colonial period. This is homage to the iconography of “hawt chicks with bombz, cool” as inscribed in a great work of revolutionary art. The standard English-language history “A Savage War of Peace” by Alistair Horne does indicate Zohra Drif consciously used sexualization and sexualized banter as a means of distracting the French guards at the checkpoints.

  • Erica

    -Spoiler Alert-
    Tarantino makes movies ABOUT movies. By featuring an extremely revisionist plotline (having the main characters succeed in their attempt at killing Hitler and ending the war is about as revisionist as you can get in a WWII movie), he is making a statement about how virtually all World War II movies are whitewashed and revisionist.
    In other words, what you’re complaining about is not an attempt to rewrite history and alleviate guilt, it’s a major and intentional theme of the movie.
    This is more clearly discussed in the comments thread of the Pandagon review linked in the article, if you’d care to hear a more articulate and detailed explanation.

  • Tinnie

    I found this movie lacking any kind of feminist themes in the end.
    Um, she got brutally shot down and my theater people cheered when Shosanna slow mo-d down to the ground.
    I was thinking to myself “Seriously? Shes that dumb to check out his body when he still has a gun?” I thought it was a cop out to her character, she deserved a less cliche death, if one at all.
    I felt her character would’ve been smarter then that.
    And what about the brutal murder of that actress? What point was that? It seemed more of exploiting violence on women rather then enhancing the movie in any way. I felt it went on far too long and really unnecessary and basically feeding into the typical “killing the bitch” fantasy guys sometimes have.
    Kill Bill will always be better to me.

  • Gesyckah

    I really liked the checking of the body; it was dumb and showed humanity. She gently touched the leg of the young war hero who had just confessed that watching himself kill all those people was…uncomfortable. They both showed some compassion (even though he entered intending to force himself on her) and they ended up dead for it.
    The murder of the actress was to remind us that Hans is a violent, heartless murderer. It probably means more than that because we don’t really need much reminding.
    I too like Kill Bill better; but this is a close second.