Monday, December 31, 2012

'Django,' unchained and haunted by the Holocaust

There are no Nazis, and no Jews, in Django Unchained, but the Holocaust haunts Tarantino's new film nonetheless.

"Django Unchained" (2012)
Ridiculous, no? Tarantino already made a Holocaust film, Inglorious Basterds. It's more of a World War Two film (and a remake, nonetheless) but its bad guy isn't an evil German general, he's an evil German Jew-hunter. His defining act in the film's opening scene is the murder of a family of Jews hiding beneath the floorboards. Basterds isn't Schindler's List, but it's still a Holocaust movie.

Basterds also perverted the genre. Bad-ass Jews torture and bludgeon German soldiers to death and eventually - spoiler alert - pump Hitler full of lead. Tarantino's movie shares Schindler's genre, and absolutely nothing else with Spielberg's film.

But Django Unchained speaks more directly to Schindler's List, and to Holocaust films, and Holocaust questions. Tarantino's vehicle for this is, unsurprisingly, a German.

Not all Germans are Nazis, even in movies. Django's German isn't a Nazi, but his Teutonic-ness is Tarantino's back door into Auschwitz.

Christoph Waltz as King Schultz
Actor Christoph Waltz plays King Schultz, a German bounty hunter in the antebellum American south. Waltz played the nightmarish Nazi Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds. He's back in Django, once again killing for a living, only this time he's hunting petty criminals, not innocent Jews. The story begins when he buys Django (Jamie Foxx) and pays him to help him hunt his prey. Here we have the makings of a buddy flick, a la Skin Game (1971).

It's not until Schultz learns more of Django's past that the film begins to hint at greater depth. A slaveowner sold Django and his wife separately at auction, and the titular protagonist hopes to rescue her. Django tells Schultz her name is Broomhilda, a name she got from her prior owners, who also taught her German.

Schultz is surprised. Figuring it a pidgin version of Brünnhilde, a Valkyrie from Norse mythology, Schultz tells Django the story of her fairy-tale rescue by Siegfried, who braved dragons and pits of fire to pluck her from a mountain.

From here the film develops into something of a Western (the setting) and a heist film (the plot to rescue the girl), with a dash of Blaxploitation.

But Tarantino cannot merely borrow and redo something. His wants to twist a genre's neck and force it to look back on itself. There is no "Tarantino touch;" it's a full nelson. Tarantino does to the western what he did to Holocaust genre.

In the wake of the Civil War, wounded southern pride birthed a new type of hero. Former Confederate soldiers - whipped in the battlefield by Union troops and led to surrender by their leadership - did not give up the fight but carried it on as bank robbers and highwaymen. For many in the defeated Confederate states, these men were Robin Hoods. Jesse James is an historical example. Josey Wales is a fictive one. This genre of film, the "revisionist Western," is a poisoned one. There is no glamorizing of Confederate soldiers, or the Confederacy, that does not gloss over slavery. It's right there in Gone with the Wind.

This tradition is alive on television. AMC's Hell on Wheels is about a former Confederate soldier out for revenge against the Union soldiers who took from him his wife. What about slavery? Well, as the former rebel tells it, he owned slaves. But his wife enlightened him to the evils of slavery, and he first freed and then hired his former property at a fair wage.

In case you missed it, this is Ron Paul's view of slavery and the Civil War. The war was unnecessary, slavery could have been ended by other means. In the case of Hell on Wheels, all it takes is a decent woman. The war that ended slavery, and not slavery itself, is the avoidable evil.

Tarantino throttles this anti-intellectual, tacitly racist trend in American cinema. Slavery isn't quaint and it isn't old-timey. One might as soon make a film glorifying the Confederacy as one would glorifying  Nazi soldiers battling American GIs (Tarantino did that in Basterds). Tarantino creates in Django a righteousness, opposed to wickedness. One feels no sympathy for those Django guns down in his quest to rescue his wife.  And so Tarantino may have done something remarkable: He may have created a non-controversial film about slavery.

In the middle of this story there's a German, a professional killer, who is perhaps the most moral person in the film. If the wanted bill reads "dead or alive," Schultz kills his prey, brings back the body, and collects the reward. Asked if he only kills bad guys, "the badder they are, the bigger the bounty," Schultz replies. The first three men Django and Schultz hunt are wanted for crimes like robbery. But these thieves have become taskmasters. We don't see them steal, we see them whipping slaves. We feel no sympathy for these men when the bounty hunters do their job.

How can hired killers seem moral? Easily. Both characters are charming, particularly Schultz. But more so, when describing his occupation, the German says it's essentially the opposite of the slave trade. Instead of dealing in live flesh, he deals in corpses. This is a logical stretch, but with slavery so clearly displayed in the film as the height of immorality, anything that could be its opposite must be, well, pretty good.

Schultz's German-ness is initially no more than an entree into their quest to free Broomhilda. As a plot device, it means that Schultz can speak to Broomhilda, without her owners' comprehension, to facilitate the wife-heist.

For most of the film, Schultz's German-ness is a comic element, as we watch this outsider with his accented high diction speak to southern bumpkins.

Except for something near the end of the film.

Schultz agrees to purchase a slave, whom he intends to set free. He hands over a great deal of money to a tyrannical, murderous slave master, and sits down in a plush chair while the paperwork is being signed. As he sits, he ruminates on the particularly horrible death of an escaped slave at the slave master's order. While he ruminates, a harpist plucks Fur Elise. Finally, Schultz screams at the harpist to stop playing Beethoven.

Recall this scene from Spielberg's film, showing the final liquidation of the Krakow ghetto:

Not much one for subtly, Spielberg wants his audience to see the Germans as they saw themselves: civilized, while they commit the most barbarous acts. Spielberg's Nazis blast holes in Jews as easily and with the same precision as a practiced pianist on the ivories. And yet for Schultz, the music of the great composer is the only time in the film he loses his composure. He is engaged in an objectively vile act, the purchase of a human being, participating in a franchise so immoral it befouls Beethoven. It is the American slavers, in Django, who think of themselves as right, proper, and civilized.

Schultz is a carefully crafted response to the Nazis of Schindler's List. He is a German fond of Norse mythology, as was Wagner, and Hitler. He is as erudite, as well-read, and well-spoken as any of the S.S. officers seated around the table in Conspiracy. He likes the German composers. None of these things make him a Nazi. In Tarantino's hands, each one of the characteristics, right down the cheerful personality that made the same actor so horrifying in Basterds, is employed to distinguish him from the immoral world around him, the world of the antebellum south.

Not all Germans are wicked. Nearly every white American in Django is. It seems that Tarantino may have carved up, tortured, bludgeoned and blasted the Germans in Basterds so thoroughly that he could turn around in Django and show us that Americans are capable of evil too.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I would prefer the opinion that in fact he asks the harpist to stop playing Beethoven as the moment in the film made a mockery of all the composer stood for as a man. A little research would tell you this. Beethoven would have been the first to deplore Hitler which is also why Hitler deplored his fellow German!