Since its Christmas opening in the US, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained has generated an extraordinary amount of commentary. Some love it. Some hate it. Almost everyone who sees the film has strong opinions about it. But American fixations — use of the “N-word”, depictions of torture — have overshadowed its most prominent feature: the relationship between a German bounty hunter and his black protegé.
Although Tarantino immerses us deeply in the horrors of slavery, he wants us to see them from the critical distance afforded by the German’s perspective. Expertly played by Christoph Waltz, who won an Oscar for his performance as the seductive yet ruthless “Jew Hunter” Colonel Landa in the director’s previous effort Inglourious Basterds, Dr. King Schultz is a remarkable character. Even though he makes his living hunting down criminals wanted “dead or alive” — he opts for the former — this European ranging across the wilder portions of the Confederacy is the film’s moral center.
Whereas Django himself, convincingly rendered by Jamie Foxx, is consumed by the quest to liberate his wife from bondage, Schultz puts his own life on hold in order to offer assistance. He knows that the only way a black man can travel freely in the South is if he appears to be serving a white master. So he declares Django to be his valet. In truth, Schultz treats Django with respect from the minute he frees him. And he spends time and money helping turn Django into someone capable of commanding respect from others, even the vilest of slave owners.
Schultz is a successful bounty hunter, not only because he is so adept with firearms, but because he knows how to insinuate himself into places where they can be of use. Polite to the point of excess, self-effacing whenever possible, he avoids calling attention to himself, playing the role of the traveling dentist with aplomb. But Django disrupts this routine. By giving the black man a horse and fine clothes, then riding alongside him as if their relationship were the most natural thing in the world, Schultz ensures that he will be the object of intense scrutiny. Yet the pride he takes in rejecting the behavioral codes of the Confederacy more than compensates. If he puts himself at greater risk, he does so in the knowledge that he will be rewarded with a sense of righteousness.
In this regard, Schultz’s trajectory mirrors one charted in this year’s other major film about the problem of slavery, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. But whereas the Spielberg film offers up a quintessentially American conversion narrative, showing different homegrown characters at various stages of enlightenment, Django Unchained highlights one of a different sort, more familiar to us from the political causes of our own day. Because the transformation Schultz undergoes, however noble, happens far from his homeland.
Is he a tourist? Not in the usual sense. After all, he has spent years traveling through the United States, learning local customs. And, as his bounty hunting career demonstrates, he knows how to manipulate them to his advantage. Still, they remain foreign to him. Some immigrants assimilate rapidly in a new land. Schultz, by contrast, remains an outsider. To be sure, this position affords him professional advantages. He can see from a distance what others are too close to perceive. Yet we get the distinct impression that his reasons for not making himself at home in the United States go beyond mere business considerations.
The last portion of the picture takes place on the plantation where Django’s wife Broomhilda is now being held. Although Schultz tries to maintain the façade of a potential client, he has witnessed a “disobedient” slave there being torn apart by dogs and finds it increasingly difficult to suppress his horror. Once the masquerade he and Django have been conducting is exposed, he stops needing to mind his manners. Shortly afterwards, he loses his cool upon hearing “Für Elise” played on the harp and shouts “Stop playing Beethoven!”
Within the context of the story, this is Schultz’s point of no return. The idea that one of the high points of modern civilization can co-exist with such depravity is intolerable to him. But the relentless intertextuality for which Tarantino is famous makes this scene resonate on a number of levels. Those who have seen Inglourious Basterds will remember that Waltz’s Colonel Landa is precisely the kind of Nazi who could have listened to Beethoven without a single pang of conscience. The scene also calls to mind a number of Westerns that showcase the conflict between European refinement and uncouth American ways. And Apocalypse Now, in which Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz walks around quoting lines from T.S. Eliot as his “subjects” indulge their blood lust.
In a sense, the antebellum South had been “playing Beethoven” ever since the first plantations rose up from the wilderness. To the extent that Schultz accommodates himself to the region’s social conventions, he is complicit in its crimes against humanity. The anger in his outburst is really directed at himself. Indeed, it can easily be argued that most of Schultz’s actions in the film, beginning with his freeing of Django, are part of an attempt to atone for this complicity. Because Tarantino seems constitutionally incapable of telling a story that stands by itself, however, the search for atonement takes on a decidedly allegorical character.
Like Inglourious Basterds before it, Django Unchained is titled as if it were a remake. Ironically, both films deviate sharply from their ostensible sources. But this doesn’t undermine the implication that they are intended as replies. As is typical in “pop” postmodernism, audiences are encouraged to identify references, contributing to the perception held by many of Tarantino’s detractors that he is only capable of producing collages devoid of intellectual depth. What this line of critique fails to comprehend, however, is the degree to which the director has learned to control his cinephilia.
Take one of Django Unchained’s most unsettling qualities, the way it collapses space and time so that the South and the West seem to merge. Anyone who has a passing familiarity with the geography of Mississippi knows that you can’t make it from there to a landscape of rolling, oak-studded hills in a single day’s ride. But this seeming oversight on Tarantino’s part actually demonstrates his remarkable gift for reminding us that we are in the realm of artifice. In the heyday of the Studio Era, practically the entire planet was conjured from sound stages and the surrounding Southern California scenery. Spaghetti Westerns made Spain look as much like the American West as the American West ever did. While paying homage to this tradition of fakery, Tarantino communicates a different message. He doesn’t want audiences to feel like they are riding through Texas; he wants them to remember that he is taking them for a ride.
As Souciant contributor Kim Nicolini discusses at length in her own fine piece on Django Unchained, it takes place in the imaginary geography of film history, where one landscape is usually standing in for another. But it makes things considerably more complicated by showing how this imaginary geography represents a layering of perspectives. Tarantino’s film represents an American seeing how Europeans have wanted to see Americans. It is this double estrangement that makes the film so powerful. Ultimately, what makes Schultz such a compelling character is not his personal journey per se, but the fact that he makes such a good cipher for European attitudes towards the United States. And through him, in turn, we are able to reflect on the desire of Americans to see themselves the way Europeans see them.
Still courtesy of Django Unchained. All rights reserved.