Tuesday 26 February 2013

Review. Django Unchained: Nietzsche's Siegfried Not Wagner's?

4 Out Of 5 Stars

"Who can attain to anything great if he does not feel in himself the force and will to inflict great pain? The ability to suffer is a small matter: in that line, weak women and even slaves often attain masterliness. But not to perish from internal distress and doubt when one inflicts great suffering and hears the cry of it — that is great, that belongs to greatness." Nietzsche: The Gay Science

"Moreover, Africans faced punishments designed not to only correct but also to degrade and humiliate. William Byrd, Virginia planter and a sophisticated colonial gentleman, noted, without embarrassment, in his diary how he forced a slave bed-wetter to drink a “pint of piss”: The Routledge History Of Slavery

It is nearly impossible to discuss Django Unchained without discussing Richard Wagner's Ring cycle of dramas and Siegfried in particular. How could it not be when both Tarantino and Christoph Waltz have discussed the influence of Wagner's work on Tarantino's newest movie - especially so in the German media. Add to this  that Django is searching for his wife Broomhilde (Brunnhilde) and the clear links between certain characters and those found in Wagner's dramas. However, like everything that Tarintino "steals" from, he manipulates them for his own purposes - while often doing little more than nodding at the original. And I don't just mean the written narrative here but all of the narrative structures at a film makers disposable: sound, music, dialogue, mise-en-scene, titles,  costumes, framing,  etc. Indeed, one feels sometimes that perhaps this alteration of the original source allows him to add a further narrative message - even if one needs to be familiar with the source to see how he does this and perhaps what he he might be trying to say. This would be no different in the manner that he adapts Wagner's work then he does that of  the other two main pieces of source material: Sergio Corbucci's original Django and Pietro Francisci's Hercules Unchained. However, I think that Tarantino's distortion of Wagner's Siegfried (Django) is so important in this movie that it needs far more attention than has been provided by those perhaps less familiar with the source. But don't worry, we will keep things simple. Don't I always?

Django Unchained begins with the runaway slave Django  (now recaptured and being resold as a form of punishment)  as he is being transported for sale by a group of slavers (Perhaps representing Mime from Siegfried - I'll get to this in a bit) . He is quickly rescued by the German Bounty Hunter of King Schulz (the Wanderer) in a scene that is typical of Tarantino's homegrown variation of "exploitation movie violence". This is with perhaps an even greater use of overfilled "blood splatter-bags" than normal (there is no escaping the abundance of cinema blood in this movie, although I suspect its use is for other reasons than would normally be the case. More of this in a moment.)

By more than convenient coincidence, King needs Django to help him track down a rather lucrative bounty contract of whom only Django will recognize. King is an commited Abolitionist - with a "distaste" of slavery and its consequences that grows realistically throughout the movie . While he points out to Django that they are now tied by a contract (contracts and monetary exchanges feature heavily throughout the movie) he would rather they work as "partners". Django agrees, helps find the wanted men, kills them (as King points out he is "a natural") and the two enter a mutual partnership - Django's original "contact" now concluded. Django stays with King in part because King claims he will help Django track down and win back Django's wife "Broomhilde".

This search leads them to "Candie Land" home of  Calvin Candie, a brutal plantation owner  who forces the "most talented" his slaves to fight to the death in "Mandingo fights" and who now owns Broomhilda. Realizing that Candie will not give up Broomhilda, they devise a plan whereby they pretend to be interested in buying one of Candie's "Mandingo" fighters. The rest of the movie concerns this and its aftermath.

People have complained about the level and frequency of exploitation" violence in Django Unchained. And they are correct, Tarintino uses more cinema blood in one death scene in this movie than he may have used in his entire film career so far. Blood splatters and paints everything: rooms, horses, people, even flowers. However, those that note this as "overly violent" very much miss two points I believe  should be taken into consideration. One, he has used what was once considered one of the  "vilest" films in history as his starting point: Django. To use this as his films cinematic reference and not reproduce its "over the top", cinematic violence would have been impossible - especially for someone like Tarantino. Secondly, a viewer needs to note exactly when Tarintino uses this "balletic" violence and when he does not. In violence against the "bad guys" (except one which I cannot discuss) by either Django or King , the deaths are indeed "outrageous". Bloodbags explode as they may never have done in any movie previously. Exploitation, anime deaths abound. However, when violence is done onto Django, or any of the slaves it is far more "realistic", far more understated than what we see elsewhere and for this reason is far more horrific. In one scene for example, where a slave is literally "ripped to pieces" by dogs, Tarantino pulls his camera away quickly leaving much to the viewers imagination. This is in contrast to when Django seeks revenge for other things later.  Tarantino seems to be using cinematic violence as a juxtaposition against the real historic and extreme, horrifying  violence committed upon slaves.

As to the links with Django Unchained and Siegfried I will detail them below. However, these are only included for anyone interested. For the purpose of a review the only one that is important is that of Django/Siegfried. So disinterested readers can happily skip down a few paragraphs:

King is Wotan (the Wanderer in Siegfried). He first meets Django and the slavers who are transporting him, in disguise. In the same way, when Wotan first meets Siegfried's"captor" (Mime. It's a lose connection but both Mime and the slavers are using Django/Siegfried for their own self interest) and indeed Siegfried himself later. Wotan is "king" of the gods and gains his power from his staff upon which are written all of the contracts that he keeps. Indeed, it would be easy to describe Wotan as a god of "contracts". - which, should he break, will lead to his own undoing. King too is bound by contracts. Indeed, his "power" (to kill those upon whom there is a bounty) comes from bounty "contracts. So much so that after he and Django kill a number of those with Bountys on their lives they only saved from death themselves by King waiving the bounty and noting the legal contract that exists. King always keeps his bounty contracts upon him just as Wotan must always carry his staff.  During the movie there is only one place where he "breaks a contract" (the handshake scene for those that have seen the film) and this leads to the type of consequences one would expect to fall upon Wotan under similar circumstances - no mater how right or morally justified the breaking of that contract might be.

Broomhilda is Brunnhilde (a Walkure) Siegfried's "wife" and although he does not know it for much of the drama, the woman that he must "rescue" from a wall of fire. Broomhilde is also first rescued from a sort of "fire cabinet"

Stephen, Candie's senior house slave, may well be Alberich. Like Alberich, he benefits from the enslavement of his own race (as a small number of free Afro American did), appears to have forsaken any kind of love and manipulates those around him. His relationship with Candie, as we will discover, seems to go beyond what we might expect. There isn't the time here, but I might also point out that the "Study scene" has some similarities with Alberich appearing to his son Hagan in the final part of the Ring cycle: Götterdämmerung.

Indeed, talking of  Götterdämmerung may lead us to further links with Django. I have already noted a scene in Django with similarities to Alberich appearing to his son Hagan (it is certainly no less chilling thanks to Samuel L. Jackson) . One might go further and suggest that in certain ways Candie Land is Götterdämmerung's Hall of the Gibichungs.  If so, and it should be notted that in Götterdämmerung Brunnhilde is in a sense entrapped and enslaved in  Hall of the Gibichungs,  then it might also argued that Candie is a mixture of Hagan and Gunther (lord of the Gibichungs). And just as Gunter lives with his sister Gutrune, Candi lives with his sister Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwilly (before you say anything, yes, Tarantino fills his movies with what could be best described as "schoolboy humor")

Press Q&A

There seem to be other references to Wagner also. For example Tarantino's Wotan being named Schultz (Tarantino, as you may have noted,  loves to play with the names of his characters) and thus most likely being of German but perhaps most importantly, Jewish ancestry. You might also like to note that Schultz is a compound of sculd(a) ‘debt’, ‘due’ plus a derivative of heiz(z)an ‘to command’. Thus making Schultz "King of debts" or even "King of Contracts"). However, I will leave it to any interested party to search for others if they are feeling bored enough. I would hate to spoil the fun

And finally to Django/Siegfried. Here things become rather complex as the links are not as strong as one might suspect - or at least to Wagner's Siegfried. Clearly, if his wife is Brunnhilde then this makes Django Siegfried. He also goes through a transformation like Siegfried - from fearless but rather naive hero to, in Siegfried's case the ultimate, mature romantic hero. Wagner's Siegfried is freed from the normal morality of the world - he will break with Wotan's laws and contracts - as Django will in a sense break with King's -  and instead will be guided by "natural bonds". And what are these natural laws or bounds? In Wagner's still Feuerbachian world view these laws would come forth from natural bonds of love: love for nature,  their loved ones and perhaps most importantly for others. 

However, Django develops into a very different sort of hero, one perhaps that mirrors more Nietzsche's hero (the Übermensch and especially the Nazi version there of) than Wagner's.While there have certainly been attempts to make Nietzsche's Übermensch more "palatable" to modern readers (just as his horrendous misogyny has been successfully submerged. That in Nietzsche's future world of the Übermensch women's only role would be to produce more male  Übermensch and this is how they would be judged, is a minor  and more restrained example of his thinking). Perhaps Nietzche put it best in "The Gay Science":

"Who can attain to anything great if he does not feel in himself the force and will to inflict great pain? The ability to suffer is a small matter: in that line, weak women and even slaves often attain masterliness. But not to perish from internal distress and doubt when one inflicts great suffering and hears the cry of it — that is great, that belongs to greatness."

In other words, the Übermensch is free to do nearly anything. The pain, distress and even death of others is not of importance to him, only his goals are what matters. And this is exactly what Django becomes (wonderfully developed and with great understatement by Jamie Foxx) as some critics have noted, and given Django negative reviews because of it. Django, they note, is not concerned with the welfare or indeed freeing of any other slaves but Brunnhilde. And they are correct. In one particular scene, so that he might reach his goal, he allows an escaped slave to be torn to pieces by dogs. Something that King tries (and perhaps would have been successful at) stopping but Django will not let him - least it might interfere with his ultimate goal. This is something that continues to plague King - leading in part to "hand-shake scene", as a flashback during it would indicate. This I believe is no "accident". Tarantino is clear in his intent. And throughout, especially the final two thirds of the movie, Django shows little regard for other slaves.

Django as a "freeman" is as much a victim of the violence and mistreatment done onto him and those around him as are those still enslaved. Rather than endorsing violence, as some reviewers seem to think, Tarantino seems to be telling us that extreme violence,  slavery and racism will only breed more violence and leave the individual permanently damaged. In the same manner that Hitler distorted Wagner's Siegfried, violence onto others - especially the innocent - can have a similar effect. Django maybe the hero - and we are left cheering for his success and will certainly also feel his "righteous vengeance"  - but Tarantino  wants us to know that Django has been left  irreversible damaged by the injustices around him.  Such wrongs, such mistreatment can neither ever be forgotten or more importantly repaired in the individual

Oh. Its a  fine cinematic experience also. Tarantino is nearly on as fine a form as during Pulp Fiction, and perhaps in the middle section shows a maturity that bodes well for the future. Go see it.

Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Produced by
Written by Quentin Tarantino
Music by Elayna Boynton
Cinematography Robert Richardson
Editing by Fred Raskin
Studio(s) A Band Apart
Distributed by The Weinstein Company (USA)
Columbia Pictures (International)
Release date(s)
  • December 25, 2012 (United States)
Running time 165 minutes[1][2][3]
Country United States
Language English
Budget $100 million[4]
Box office $380,448,000[4]