Sunday, January 20, 2013

Django Unchained and the Old World

SPOILERS ALERT: This post presumes knowledge of Django Unchained and includes spoilers.


Reviewers have commented on many aspects of Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, like its violence and its take on race relations and slavery. (A lot of this commentary is remarkably juvenile, as if we were still at primary school debate levels. Is the violence excessive or not? Is it racist or not? Who gives a flying toss?) But I haven't seen much about the film's treatment of the Old World. 

Dr. King Schultz, phenomenally played by Christoph Waltz, is in a way, the foremost representative of the Old World and, by behaving in his own, eccentric way, a repudiation of America. He is glib, sophisticated and much better at the English language than its supposed native speakers -- who deem him 'fancypants'. He also seems to be a civilising, and therefore destabilising force. He despises slavery, treats Django as his equal and acts oblivious to the consternation he causes. In teaching Django how to read, for example, he is the crucial facilitator for a new understanding of the black race -- by blacks themselves and by whites. It is also significant that Schultz is German, of course, for the plot. (I shan't say more.) But as a German, Schultz is able to tell Django the story of Brünnhilde (corrupted to 'Broomhilda' in the New World!) and Siegfried. Schultz's reading of Django as a real-life Siegfried awakens a romantic impulse, animating the otherwise cynical Schultz to help Django rescue his wife. 

It is when Schultz, Django and Calvin Candie, the owner of a huge plantation and Mandingo fighting enthusiasts meet that Schultz's role as representative of the Old World is fully realised. We hear that Candie is a Francophile who prefers to be called Monsieur Candie. But Schultz is then warned not to speak French to him, lest he embarrasses Candie, because of course, the vulgar Francophile speaks no French. (Django senses this too, and he mocks Candie when addresses him, Frenchifying 'Candie' when he addresses him.) The ultimate irony hits when Schultz points out that Alexandre Dumas, whose Three Musketeers Candie admires, was in fact black. Schultz's presence serves to expose Candie's pretensions to civilisation (which includes an appeal to the false science of phrenology). Indeed, the civility and hospitality of Southern aristocracy -- built on slaves and ill-treatment of slaves -- is shown to be a sham. (Briefly: it is in this context that the gruesome violence of Mandingo fighting and other instances makes sense, thematically.)

Schultz dies, because his role is fulfilled. He isn't meant to impose the Old World on the New. Rather, he is meant, like purifying fire, to destroy one vision of the New World and usher in another. 

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