Jaime Fox as Django, a recently freed slave on a quest for his wife Broomhilda.
Leonardo di Caprio as Calvin Candie, who holds Broomhilda captive.
Samuel L. Jackson as Steven, Candie’s house slave and unexpected main villain of the film.
Two men out of place and time in the Western: Django and King Schultz riding into Daughtrey, Texas.
Germanness and Blackness as two ways of being out of place: Django and King Schultz sharing a pint.
The composer Richard Wagner (1913-1883), Quentin Tarantino’s surprising interlocutor in Django Unchained.
“I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist”: King Schultz goes to his preordained death.
King Schultz recounts the story of Brünnhilde and Siegfried — but which story is he recounting?
Cleansing fire — Candyland, the mansion that goes up on flames at the end of the film.
Fictional quests depend in their cleanness and their linearity on the support of another kind of plot, another kind of character. In order to afford the questing characters their goals, their adversities, their growth, these other characters have to remain static; where the former are always on the move to someplace different, these latter wallow, however mobile they may be, in their own circles. Odysseus has his reasons for blinding Polyphemus, but has anyone ever asked what reasons Polyphemus has for being Polyphemus? Odysseus’ progress on his way to Ithaca is premised on him clawing himself out of the mind-numbing circularity that determines the existence of Polyphemus, of the Sirens, of the Lotus Eaters.
The question is of course who gets to strive and who wallows, and the answer is: usually white men strive, everybody else gets to help, impede or inspire them. As a reward a gold star beckons, or sex with the hero, or an early grave. These beatific inspirers with their broad smiles and their magnetic appeal to bullets are standard in Hollywood movies as well—the Bagger Vances, the Chewbaccas, the Mister Myagis. They are harem eunuchs in the palace of narrative: they keep things running smoothly, and there’s no danger they’ll develop any appetites or goals of their own that might inconvenience the man of the house.
Quentin Tarantino’s simple but effective gambit in Django Unchained is to turn this convention on its head. Tarantino’s film tells the story of a black man’s quest in which every white face serves a simple narrative function. He is given a background, a motivation, a quest; they, and their world, seem to whelm undisturbed in their own one-dimensional confines, the house servants serving, the slavers slaving, the plantation owners owning plantations—until Django appears and upends all that. Everyone in Django Unchained, and in particular anyone with a white face, is a tautology: they are who they are, full stop. Django is the one everyone wants to figure out, wants to place. The fact that they can’t starts the unraveling of the symbolic universe of the pre-Civil War South.
It is an interesting move, as far as it goes. But is it perhaps more than that? To its credit as entertainment, the film doesn’t go out of its way to ask itself that question. And to its credit as a future classic, between the lines it does just that. Are the racial imaginaries of classic Hollywood westerns less noxious when their polarities are reversed? Can one repeat them in a way that does not, well, repeat them? More so than in any of his previous films, Tarantino seems vexed by the tropes he is repeating and by the very fact that he is repeating them. He outlines the terms of repetition, and he uses some of the itinerant-yet-static characters that guide Django’s odyssey to do it in a quest narrative that refuses all conciliation.
In particular, Tarantino turns to two roving Germans. Both of them turn out to be a lot less mobile than it would at first appear. In nailing down the terms of their mobility, in petrifying them in a magic circle, the film manages to gauge and gather its own courage in moving, Django-like, towards the fulfillment of an epic quest. The immobile Germans become, in other words, tools of the film’s own mobility. By wallowing in their own circles, these two Germans allow Django Unchained to imagine it is moving someplace different.
At first blush the fact that they are German seems extraneous. Unlike in Tarantino’s previous revisionist fable, Inglorious Basterds (2009), Germanness isn’t a signifier that seems to have any business inhabiting Django’s universe. Schultz’s Germanness, much like his rickety dentist’s carriage with the creaky wooden tooth on a spring, are just out of place enough to make Tarantino’s South feel oddly plausible, plausible in its oddity.
The red letters of the opening title sequence quote classic Westerns of the 1950s like John Ford’s The Searchers; the accompanying zooms are lifted straight out of a 70s Western. The opening sequence resurrects older cinematic conventions, and it doesn’t seem to tweak them one bit. And yet the minute Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) opens his mouth, something has changed. Having stopped the Speck brothers, who are herding a group of slaves, including Django (Jamie Foxx), through the night, he explains, “I wish to parley with you.” They gruffly reply: “Speak English!“ The fact that not everyone walks and talks like John Wayne or Clint Eastwood in Tarantino’s spaghetti western, that in fact no one walks and talks like them, gives Django the feel of Wes Anderson’s cinematic dioramas—stilted and artificial, yes, but strangely lived-in and concrete for it.
But Germanness comes to signify something else, too. Rootless, wandering King Schultz appears to be an exile. Neither his ostensible profession as a traveling dentist, nor his actual profession, as a high-stakes bounty hunter, give him what Americans, what Django, has in spades: a goal, an end point. He is a wanderer, and when in his wandering he encounters his goal, his end point, he seems surprised at the cleanness of it. Having shot villainous Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) he lowers his pistol and turns to Django with a wan smile: “I couldn’t resist” is all he gets out before being gunned down himself. It is not the end he has sought for himself, or it’s the one he had sought for himself only in his last minute of screen time.
Wandering, rootless, devoid of motivation beyond a general and unwavering beneficence, King Schultz is likely intended as a parody of those (frequently non-white) mentor characters that drift into and eventually out of the narratives of white folk, who offer them advice and encouragement, only to then die when no longer necessary. This is why Schultz seems surprised at his own undoing, even though he is the one who pulls the trigger: he writes himself out of the narrative by narratological fiat. Convention, not inner need, propels him in his support of Django’s quest, and convention compels him to end his life.
He is denied the heroic death of the outlaws at the end of Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, because he is all function. Once he has succeeded in bringing about the title character’s necessary self-recognition, he himself is no longer necessary. At the beginning of their journey Schultz impresses on Django that he can never break character. And it is he who remains stuck in the role of the facilitator, while Django moves seamlessly from the role of valet to that of the fastest gun in the south, to the black slaver and, finally, the ruthless avenger.
Getting rid of the white mentor character is, however, also part of Tarantino’s ruse to turn the conventional Western narrative on its head. Dr. Schultz must leave the screen before the final, decisive shoot out because the final confrontation moves beyond all white intervention, be it well intentioned or cruel. In that moment, King Schultz almost seems aware that he repeats a gesture familiar from classic Hollywood, in which all non-white characters conveniently disappear in order to let white folks tend to their narrative business at the end of the story. He does not make his decision for ethical reasons; it is narrative that forces his hand.
But Dr. Schultz isn’t just a narrative migrant, dwelling in Django’s story only so long as he can be useful; he is also literally a migrant, unmoored from his home country and equally unmoored from the country he has migrated to, the country he probably doesn’t call home. We can hazard a guess as to what has driven him there. Although throughout Django Unchained’sother characters seem to have a hard time placing him, he is in fact a recognizable historical type—the Forty-Eighter, so called after the failed revolutions in Europe throughout that year. In the late 1840s, the repressive patchwork of states that would one day become Germany and the empire that would one day shrink into Austria disgorged tens of thousands of disappointed democrats, many of them to the New World.
Many of the Forty-Eighters were exceedingly well educated: the revolutionaries had been students and professors, doctors, musicians, scientists and lawyers. Some of them took up their old professions in their new country, but many more moved on to different professions. Many of the emigrants made their new home in Texas, where Django opens, but it was an uneasy home. They were en bloc opposed to Texan secession and, as fierce proponents of equal rights, utterly hostile to slavery. In his profession, his manner of dress, his erudition, and his politics, King Schultz looks very much like a typical Forty-Eighter. During his first conversation with Django in a saloon, where they are drinking beer while waiting for the sheriff to arrive, he explains that while he, as a bounty hunter, is himself involved in a “flesh for cash” business, he despises slavery. Tarantino’s intervention into the Western genre works by identifying with a foreign revolutionary who knows how to turn old conventions into something new—who uses them without putting much credence in them. It is, as Schultz himself admits, an improvisation of “malarkey.”
Is this resemblance between Dr. Schultz and the German Forty-Eighters intentional on Tarantino’s part? The film never indicates, even though it would be easy to incorporate a throwaway allusion into their conversation at the saloon. Tarantino’s silence turns King Schultz’s motivation into a fascinating irritant. It is impossible to decide if his impetus is purely formal (narrative convention) or actually internally motivated. Which answer the viewer settles on (and we really don't get to settle on either) is central to how we understand Tarantino’s depiction of the U.S. West circa 1858. Is his film set in the West (or the South, rather), because that is where a Western is supposed to be set? Or is he using the Western to say something about the West, the South, about the United States and race in the mid-nineteenth century? Is it all—King Schultz’s virtue, the U.S. West—just grist for Tarantino’s postmodern play; or is there content here, historical sediment, perhaps even a philosophy of history? Is it an inquiry into the conditions that brought about the Civil War? About its legacies, in film and elsewhere?
And this brings us to the second peripatetic German roving through Tarantino’s South. He too was a Forty-Eighter of sorts, albeit one who betrayed his allegiances later in life. Richard Wagner was born in 1813 into a bohemian family of artists and free thinkers, and he ended his life in 1881 as pet composer to the mad king of Bavaria, a political reactionary with troubling theories about race. The pivot in between these disparate points was 1848, a year that saw young Wagner write in support of revolution, saw him take up arms and man barricades, saw him having to flee to Switzerland to lick his wounds and to write a work that would reflect on what happened to a revolution denied.
That work is The Ring of the Nibelung, the massive opera tetralogy that Wagner started setting to paper as he was settling into exile by the shores of Lake Lucerne, and which he brought to completion only under the auspices of sundry crowned heads of Europe against whom he had rebelled, only to then accommodate himself to their rule and their money. At the center of this titanic opera, as one critic has pointed out, stands another unmoored wanderer, who “once had the opportunity to change the world, and lost it.” (Adorno, 124) The wanderer is Wotan, the old Germanic god reimagined as a failed revolutionary, who travels the world with an eye patch, a broad-rimmed hat and a cane, depressed by the failure of his attempts to transform the world, and his fear of what his failure may bode. King Schultz, in any event, seems to sense the kinship and brings the Germanic god into the pre-war U.S. South.
In an interview after the release of Django Unchained, Christoph Waltz claimed that he took the director to see Wagner’s Ring-cycle at the L.A. Opera—because he sensed a kinship between Tarantino and the opera composer. Tarantino seems to have agreed, but his references to Wagner and the Ring are pretty covert. Just like the peripatetic Dr. Schultz, Richard Wagner is not easy to pin down to any individual place in Django Unchained, but his homelessness is of a particular kind. He is where he shouldn’t be, and he isn’t where he should be. There is a purpose to the way Tarantino relegates the composer to a hovering, almost spectral presence, and it cuts to the very core of what Django Unchained is ultimately about. Wagner’s not-quite-presence allows Tarantino’s film to do more than parrot and parody the tropes of classic westerns.
Wagner enters Django primarily through the object of the quest Jamie Foxx’s character finds himself on—her name is Broomhilda von Schaft, a hybrid name that announces her dual provenance. She is an ancestor to one John Shaft, the vaunted “private dick who is a sex machine with all the chicks,” and a reincarnation of sorts of a character of Germanic myth. While the Shaft-reference is left for cineaste audiences to pick up by themselves, Django Unchained invokes the story of Brünnhilde explicitly. The terms of her rebirth into the pre-Civil War South turn out to be extremely interesting.
Wagner and Brünnhilde make their entrance about an hour into the film. Around the campfire, King Schultz recounts the legend of Brünnhilde, according to him “the most popular of all the German legends.” Brünnhilde, “daughter of Wotan, god of all the gods,” arouses the anger of her father, Schultz recounts. In his wrath, Wotan placed her in a ring of fire, and young Siegfried scales the mountain, slays the dragon, crosses the “ring of hellfire” because “he is not afraid.” Django takes place in 1859. Schultz is supposed to be relating the story of the Nibelungenlied, a thirteenth-century epic poem that nineteenth-century Germans often considered their “national epic.”
But that isn’t what he does. To be sure, in its rough outlines he gets things right—but he skips across different versions of the story, and mixes them in a rather peculiar way. The story details he provides, about Wotan’s wrath and a ring of fire, and the sequence in which he arrays the events of the legend do not come from the epic; and while they square with the way the Norse Völsunga saga tells the same story, others, such as Brünnhilde being the daughter of Wotan, occurs in none of the sources. Instead, King Schultz seems to be drawing on his fellow Forty-Eighter Richard Wagner’s version of the story—the peculiarities in his telling of the saga coincide almost entirely with the rather idiosyncratic shape Wagner gave these ancient stories while crafting his cycle in his exile.
Quentin Tarantino is not a professor of German music, and the mistake may seem like a simple slip-up of a born raconteur carried away by his own story. But the movie even pauses to acknowledge that it is mashing up two different versions of the same story. When Schultz gets to what exactly Brünnhilde does to rouse Wotan’s anger, Django interjects: “What did she do?” to which Schultz replies: “I can’t quite remember.” There is a reason why he “can’t quite remember”: The cause of Wotan’s wrath differs from the Norse sagas to Wagner’s opera; in fact, Wotan’s wrath doesn’t even occur in the epic poem Schultz is supposedly recounting.
Schultz attempting to recount the Nibelungenlied, but accidentally repeating the Ring-cycle’s version of events is a deliberate anachronism: The first two operas of Wagner’s cycle were still a few years away from premiering by 1859, the full cycle didn’t premiere until the 1870s. And while Wagner had published a limited edition of the libretto in the early 1850s, it seems strange for the little book to have made its way to the U.S. West by this time. What is more, King Schultz most likely has been away from his native land for the better part of a decade. It’s unclear where he should have gotten a hold of Wagner’s work. Tarantino deliberately scrambles historical sequence in order to make a thematic point. He is at pains to bring Wagner into the picture, even though, at this point in the narrative, he neither belongs there, nor needs to be there. The scene makes a point of repeating a story, but changing it in repeating it: Schultz means to tell one sort of story, but he anticipates a rather different one, with different meanings.
But if Wagner enters slyly and anachronistically, it is because Tarantino is interested in his relationship to time itself—both the cyclical time of myth (where heroes and cities rise and fall) and the driving drumbeat of history that is going somewhere, and maybe even wants to go somewhere—between repetition and repetition with a twist. Tarantino adopts Wagner’s view of the past he is mythicizing: Where David O. Selznick nostalgically brought the antebellum South to the screen as a mythic world, gone with the wind, Tarantino recasts it along the lines of Wagner’s demise of the Nordic gods. This move involves hindsight as much as hope. Only in retrospect can one conceive of the South, and the racism its economy was predicated on, as a lost cause even before the Civil War. The anachronism is owed to Wagner’s unsettled and unsettling presence in the film, as though, like the German composer, Tarantino wishes to revisit the demise of this world in order to ask: What happens to a world that should not be anymore, yet remains? How do we tell the story of a place that deserved to vanish, and how do we still make it exciting?
When entering a small town in Texas, Dr. Schultz is surprised the townspeople gawk at the two of them, Django laconically replies, “they never seen no nigger on a horse.” The scene thrives on a double irony: Tarantino not only turns a genre convention on its head by putting a black man where he is not supposed to be. He does so to shock us into reminding ourselves that this was once shocking. By using the Western formula to tell a story about the racism of the antebellum South, Tarantino plays with the way classic Hollywood westerns depend on a kind of reactionary nostalgia. One of the premises of the Western genre, after all, is that the law of Washington must be brought to the frontier, that the wilderness must be civilized for the nation to grow. The gunslinger, who fights in the name of progress, must not only battle the outlaw and the native Indians. Along with them, he must also be sacrificed. All three characters belong to the arsenal of mythic figures on whose demise U.S. expansionism depends. Django treats the classic Western plot the way Wagner treated the world of Germanic gods: we watch it unravel, but rather than long affectionately for a lost world, we rejoice at its destruction.
The canard against Tarantino’s self-referential style of filmmaking has always been that it simply trots out again, with however much love and affection, the same old tropes to only minimally different effect. But Wagner changes that. In Django, citation becomes something more than repetition—like a magic phrase that works differently when read out loud. Earlier Tarantino films giddily recycle tropes of classic drive-in fare, but Django seems to say them out loud one more time as a kind of exorcism. Inglorious Basterds had already offered its own audacious riff on the idea of cinema as a kind of historical dynamite, recalling the tropes of classic combat films to imagine a different outcome to the Nazi occupation of Europe.
In Django, however, regarding the depiction of violence, the tone of the recycling is far less ludic, holding all joking at bay. The unchaining of his black avenger takes pure entertainment to its limits. Tarantino now distinguishes between the cruelty, which white folk impose on their slaves simply as a matter of course and the violence with which these sadistic tormentors are justly punished. It is their unequivocal martyrdom that justifies our pleasure at the twilight of masters whose power is no longer justifiable. The critic Walter Benjamin once spoke of “revolutionary violence” that is not merely punitive, but through which “a new historical epoch is founded.” (Benjamin, 300) Both Django the character and Django the film, reverse the thrust of the violence inherent in the West and the Western, and use it to disrupt their economies of violence.
Violence visited upon blacks is treated altogether differently (even King Schultz, it seems, doesn’t qualify). For one, it is usually given the silent treatment. When dogs tear apart the body of a runaway slave, when our hero remembers Broomhilda or their flight, capture and torture, when Broomhilda emerges naked from a sweat box where she is being punished for another escape attempt, the soundtrack goes quiet. Music is associated with redemptive violence, not the system of violence that is the U.S. South. During Broomhilda’s emergence from her box, the camera turns away—we see Django seeing, not what he sees. Tarantino breaks with a cinematic code that makes it its business to afford its viewer a maximum amount of voyeuristic pleasure. We cannot simply sit back and watch. Just as the silence on the soundtrack screams out for music, a music that eventually arrives in the shape of Tupac Shakur and James Brown, so the images demand that the viewer pass judgment. If like Wagner, Tarantino is interested in creating a new myth, there is history in his myth: Things won’t always be the same. These are things that one cannot see without wanting them destroyed.