Django Unchained: Introduction and the Spaghetti Western Treatment
So after having translated a post regarding Django Unchained here are my thoughts on the film, which will appear weekly in four parts. With regards to the translated post there is scarcely a thing I disagreed with that was being stated. However, the reason we read and the reason we write is that everyone has a slightly different perspective.
The reason I didn’t touch on Django at the end of last year was two-fold: first, there is the overwhelming crush of the end of year wherein I try to view as many films as I can and should to consider for my annual awards and list. The second reason is that I didn’t want to rush such a writing is that Django is a film that touches on enough raw nerves and opens enough old wounds, though skillfully, that a discussion on it should not be held in haste and cramming something in late December just because I wanted something to link to when I announced my awards. That wouldn’t be right.
Having said that I did want a few writings on my site with regards to the film because with Django being my favorite film of 2012, it earned it. And the class of 2011 with Super 8 and Hugo had quite a few write-ups along the way and since that documented a different facet of the film that appealed to me.
The next obstacle would be what specifically to tackle in such a sprawling an epic film. The dangers in doing so come from both ends of the spectrum; one could either be too broad or too myopic in one focus. I’ve decided to split the difference and give each topic of the film I saw fit to address some attention in a sort of epistolary fashion, with headlined sections below.
I have made some commentary on the film in my awards, but will augment some points and talk about some new ones here.
The Spaghetti Western Treatment
Tarantino has embarked on a seeming trilogy, if not more films, that deal in alternative history. When Inglourious Basterds rolled around I wasn’t sure before I saw it how far into an alternative history it would go. Some works of fiction that take place during World War II have told such microcosmic tales that whether or not they did happen, could happen, or could not happen, are academic points. With Inglourious Basterds it became very clear that the escalation wouldn’t end until a triumphant climax wherein the big wigs would be killed from Hitler on down. There would be no cowardly suicide for Hitler in this tale. Basterds was also constructed much in a similar way to some of Tarantino’s other films with chapters that seem disconnected at first, but form a whole when they combine and connect.
For a work like Django Unchained, one that would roundly explore America’s racist slave-owning past, a different approach was needed. In Basterds the heroes would clearly be the enemies of the Nazis both military (“The Basterds” in the US Army) and civilian, a Jewish girl and a black man. Here with slavery, a much longer running, entrenched and regulated system, a different tact was needed if it was to be an antebellum tale, which it is.
This tale predating the Civil War is very significant. It brings the story to a more personal place and takes much of the politics out of it. There’s no washing away of sin through a Union army whose “truth is marching on,” or a benevolent leader doing what he can to keep the country together and free the slaves. Not in this film.
However, the film must pay lip service to credibility, to borrow a phrase from Stephen King, which is where King Schultz comes in. King Schultz on the surface could seem to be the typical benevolent white character whose presence is nearly always a prerequisite in a film on race relations in the US. There are key differences here though: mainly, Schultz is German. Now, wanting to work with Waltz again I’m sure factored into Tarantino’s decision. However, when looking at the films in tandem it makes an interesting delineation: Nazis are the enemy, not Germans. Look at how King can see what’s right and wrong, how he uses the system to exploit it. The film goes further to incorporate Teutonic sensibilities by having Django’s wife, his motivation, be named Broomhilda and know how to speak German. Furthermore, one of the great scenes of the film is King’s relating the legend of Siegfried to Django. This by extension takes back a legend, made more popular by Wagner, from Nazi clutches.
Simply using something like the Underground Railroad or a white abolitionist plot doesn’t fit the script of the justified revenge that was built in to Basterds and was the goal here. So Schultz assisting Django to manipulate the system by buying his freedom, teaching him to be a bounty hunter and then concocting a scheme to find and free his wife is necessary so that revenge can play out in this film as well.
The way the scheme works out, the play-acting required by Django to succeed are all things that make the Spaghetti Western structure perfect for this tale. What made the Spaghetti Western so popular, for the most part, was the graying of the hero. The methods weren’t always honorable, both ends were played against the middle, even who was the villain was at times nebulous. All these things were for the most part new to the genre. All these things were things a black cowboy, a freeman, would need in order to be able to reclaim his wife in this era. Cinematically, however, it’s also an interesting comment. It took Italian filmmakers with new ideas and a fresh outlook on a beloved American genre to re-invent and re-invigorate it. It took those same cinematic precepts used by an American to give us one of the most brutally honest, compelling and refreshing looks at race in America for quite some time.