Last night i watched Django Unchained. The trailer gives you a reasonable idea of the tone and content:

i didn’t expect to like it too much; after Inglorious Basterds i guessed it would be simplistic “white man bad, black man good” stuff, especially given Jamie Foxx’s statement:

“I play a slave. How black is that? I have to wear chains. How whack is that? But don’t worry. I get free. I save my wife and I kill all the white people in the movie. How great is that?”

i find this kind of fashionable racism wearying. Imagine how it would go down if Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt said: “I get to kill all the black people/Jews in the film, how great is that?”

The film is actually extremely good, i believe the best thing Tarantino’s done since Pulp Fiction. As with all Tarantino films, the acting, cinematography, soundtrack, and dialogue are excellent. But unlike the fun, cartoon-like Inglorious Basterds, it rewards contemplation. It’s a harrowing film. Slavery has a long history; in other cultures, long ago, there wasn’t (always) the sense that a slave was a different species. The lot of black slaves in America was notably worse than in most other slave communities. They were regarded as a different species, as not being exactly human. i’m sure there were benign slave-masters, but i’m sure there were also monsters and psychopaths, as in Django Unchained.

There are always monsters, in every society; they often seek out positions of authority, where they can exercise their desires over others. Tarantino does a good job of portraying the variegated scum of the big house, from DiCaprio’s psychopathic dandy, Calvin Candie, to his ditzy Southern belle sister, Samuel L Jackson’s alternately menacing and servile butler, and the various white trash thugs who keep order with guns, whips, and dogs. There are moments where this seems to take place not in a Southern plantation but in Hell; the overwhelming moral sickness of the slaver class, who are able to carry on a normal life with more or less normal human emotions, while torturing and murdering other human beings, is more horrifying than a slasher flick.

There will always be monsters but slaver societies give them free hand, in certain areas. To teach that some people are less than human, are just property, is to open a dark door in the soul. As DiCaprio’s slave lord says: “Broomhilde is my property. And I can choose to do with my property whatever I so desire.” This attitude, that other human beings are property, things, meat, encourages all that is worst in the human spirit. Ordinarily, it only exists in psychopaths; in a slave culture, it is extended, offered as a temptation, to everyone of the master class. It exists as a possibility in many people, as i saw in my many temp jobs: at least four of my managers (all women) regarded their staff as just things, property; with the permanent workers they didn’t dare exercise their mastery, but with temps there were no restraints: temps have no rights, are just things. A manager can say anything, do anything, to a temp, and if he doesn’t smile and take it the manager can call the agency and get him blacklisted. i often heard permanent workers and managers refer to the temps as: temps or agency staff, as if we were just things, for example: “Nah, I can’t be arsed with that, get one of the temps to do it” or “it don’t matter, they’re just temps”. They could do and say anything to us, because we were just scum, temps.

Django Unchained is particularly good on this. The slaver class are vividly and hideously portrayed. It isn’t, however, a simplistic black/white matter. Samuel L Jackson’s butler, Steven, is every bit as grotesque and evil as the whites, having cosied up to the rulers and as it were transcended his race. In this, i am reminded of a remark in Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man, regarding one of the deathcamp bosses, recruited from murderers to rule over the rest of the prisoners: “he was a boss like all bosses”. As long as one is a boss, a manager, in the slaver mode, you are so.

Tarantino is an adept and habitual intertextualist (for example, Django’s wife is called Broomhilde von Shaft). In casting Christoph Waltz as the benign German bounty hunter, Dr Schultz, he makes unexpected allusion to Inglorious Basterds, another film about a slaver class (the Nazis) and the uprising of supposedly subhuman slaves (Jews). i can’t think he cast Waltz just because he’s a good actor; i believe he is deliberately inviting us to parallel the two films. In Inglorious Basterds, Waltz plays the excellently evil SS Colonel Hans Landa, the “Jew hunter”:

In Django Unchained, the same actor plays the only German in the film, who is also one of the very few good characters. His Germanness is not incidental. He is portrayed as more cultured, more civilised, and in addition to German, he speaks French, and better English than most of the Americans.

DiCaprio’s repulsive dandy slave lord, Candie, is a Francophile but Dr Schultz is warned not to use French with him because he can’t speak it – he merely affects French manners (his slaves call him Monsieur Candie). Candie calls one of his slaves D’Artagnan and has him killed by dogs. Django and Dr Schultz watch this, Django impassively; Schultz looks “green about the gills”, in Candie’s mocking words, to which Django replies: “I’m just a little more used to Americans than he is”.

Later, in the mansion, Candie’s airy sister plays Beethoven’s Für Elise on a harp. Schultz listens with discomfort, amid flashbacks to D’Artagnan being torn apart by Candie’s dogs; he interjects softly: “Excuse me. Excuse me, madam” and then, when she ignores him: “Could you please stop playing Beethoven?”

Candie asks, cheerfully, why Schultz is so agitated.

Schultz: Actually i was thinking of that poor devil you fed to the dogs today, d’Artagnan, and i was wondering what Dumas would make of all this

Candie: Come again?

Schultz: Alexander Dumas, he wrote The Three Muskateers, I figured you must be an admirer, you named your slave after his novel’s lead character. Now if Alexander Dumas had been there today, I wonder what he would have made of it.

Candie: You doubt he’d approve.

Schultz: His approval would be a dubious proposition at best.

There is really no need to have made Schultz German – it would indeed have made more sense, within the film, had he been French (given Candie’s Francophilia). i think Tarantino is inviting a comparison between the two films. Simple: white slavers are like Nazis, therefore blacks are like Jews. More complex: one of the very few good characters in Django Unchained is also the only German and is played by the actor made famous for playing the Jew Hunter, SS Colonel Hans Landa, and he explicitly holds up European culture against the barbarity of the New World, of the nouveau riche, the pretentious Francophile who can’t speak French and the slaver’s sister who plays Beethoven and turns a blind eye to the murder and torture and oppression which funds her lifestyle; and indeed, she turns a blind eye to all that Beethoven opposed, both artistically and as a human being.

George Steiner has often observed that some Nazis were cultured human beings, for example Hitler was widely read and had a pretty good knowledge of opera and classical music; likewise, the gruesome Reinhard Heydrich. And one can imagine Hans Landa as a cultured fellow, relaxing to Brahms or Beethoven after a hard day’s work, with his huge pipe. i think Tarantino is making a delicately complex point here – that in some times & places evil will be located in a particular form, in a particular nation & culture, and that if you go forwards or backwards in time a few decades this same nation will be the bastion of civilised humanity. So in Inglorious Basterds, the heroes are the Americans and the Germans are on the whole monsters; but a few decades earlier it is the exact obverse. The descendant of the white hillbilly slavers will be Aldo Raine; the descendant of the good German will be SS Colonel Landa.

This is not to suggest that we should just throw our hands up and accept no order to things, but rather to understand evil as a sophisticated and highly labile human phenomenon; that each individual must make the choice and even if his culture is inclined rather to tyranny or freedom, each person will be held to account for his actions. In this, Tarantino – whatever his personal politics or character – hasn’t made a pro-black or anti-white film, but rather a film which acknowledges the currents of brutality or delicacy in a culture, and in people; a film which is broadly in favour of delicacy and courage, and opposed to brutality and cowardice. i don’t think one can extract a coherent and neat philosophy from the film; but there are certainties, to which one could hold: for example, that one should not play Beethoven if one lives in a slaver’s mansion.