Review: Django

In narrative cinema, history becomes myth. In dramatizing real events, we encode the chaos of reality into an order that makes sense and gives meaning to those events. The sum of these stories become part of how we understand the current world—a mythology—and the events and people themselves take on mythical status. In Django, director Étienne Comar takes on the convergence of two important myths for Europe and France: that of the German occupation during the Second World War, and that of Django Reinhardt, who, the myth goes, emerged from virtually nowhere to become the best guitar player in the world.

Reinhardt, who came to fame in the 1930s, was a Romani from Belgium. He popularized what is known as Gypsy Jazz, a fusion of that quintessentially American musical form with Romani tones and instruments, with the guitar as the lead (atypical for popular music at the time), backed up by a violin or clarinet. The infectious sound of his upbeat, swing-inspired music garnered him immense popularity in Europe, as well as acclaim, though only limited success, in the United States. And this despite Reinhardt’s seemingly debilitating handicap—necessary for his story to be truly mythical—of having the use of only two fingers on his left hand.

(If you don’t know his music, Django Reinhardt is truly incredible, and all the more so knowing that the breakneck arpeggios and complex phrasing of his guitar solos were accomplished with two fingers. Check him out.)

Django joins Reinhardt (Red Kateb) at the height of his popularity, which coincides with the height of World War II and the German occupation of Paris. It is 1943, and he is still in Paris, giving officially sanctioned concerts in large concert halls. The Nazis were officially disdainful of jazz, considering it a degenerate form of culture invented by their racial inferiors (African-Americans), though recognizing the difficulty of banning such a popular form outright, they instead heavily regulated its presence and form. A sign at the rear of Django’s concert hall in the film reads “Swing tanzen verboten” (“Swing Dancing Prohibited”), the almost comic futility of which Comer emphasizes in the first concert scene by having the audience gradually stand up and irresistibly sway to the music. Later, Django will receive instructions on acceptable musical forms—”no more than 5% syncopation”—which would likewise be funny if they weren’t so deadly.

In 1943, swing was officially banned in Paris, and gypsies were, according to Nazi policy, racial inferiors with restricted rights. However, Django’s popularity, including among German officers, seems to have shielded him and his family from expropriation or even censure. There is one German officer in particular among Django’s admirers, whom he and his friends sarcastically call Dr. Jazz, who is protecting them. He wants something in exchange, however: Django and his band need to tour Germany, or they risk losing their livelihoods and perhaps even the safety of their family. Django is apolitical—he has no small share of disdain for the ways of the gadjo (Christian-European)—but he has no interest in performing at Nazi events, and is prepared to turn Dr. Jazz down and continue performing in Paris.

Convinced that the Nazis will neither let Django and his family return from Germany once he enters the country nor allow him to continue performing in Paris, Django’s mistress Louise (Cécile de France) urges him to flee to the Swiss border, where the false papers she supplies him with should serve to get him across the border. Ducking the authorities, Django, his wife, his mother, and his brother head to a small town in Eastern France. There they reconnect with fellow Romani and wait for passage to the Swiss side of the border. 

Reintegrating with his people and witnessing their persecution firsthand--harbingers of the horror to which the Germans would subject the Romani people--pulls Django out of his isolation. He begins working on ways to get the entire group of Romani out of France before the Nazis’ persecution reaches its logical endpoint. 

Reinhardt’s awakening to the reality and scope of the problem is explicitly, and thankfully, not figured as a nationalist awakening: this Belgian Romani does not realize that his and France’s plight is the same. One imagines that this kind of biopic could easily veer in that direction. Instead, the film wants to use Django’s story to talk about the relatively overlooked plight of the Romani in the Holocaust as a whole. The very first scene, a prologue, shows a group of Romani in the Ardenne being gunned down as they perform Django-style jazz together. It begins with the plight of the Romani, narrows down to undoubtedly the most famous “gypsy” of the 1940s, and broadens out again by the end to address the persecution of this entire ethnic group.

And yet, Django can’t resist mythologizing the role of the French Resistance, and at times it feels as if everyone who is not a Romani is either a member of the Resistance or a Nazi. Louise, the film’s embodiment of French womanhood, manages to be a bit of both. The character feels most often like a convenient plot device, acting in whatever way is necessary for Django’s story, or, rather, a transparent symbol for the ambivalent situation of France during the occupation (tragically divided between acquiescence and rebellion). The context of the surprising reappearance of the character after Django leaves Paris makes the film increasingly feel not like the story of a privileged member of an oppressed minority attempting to survive the worst tragedy in his people’s history, but like an attempt to integrate this story into France’s own myth about its role in the Second World War.

Django himself, although played with ice-cool charisma by Reda Kateb, is somewhat awkwardly fitted into the “Rick’s American Cafe” myth. There is not much known about Reinhardt’s life—illiterate, he left behind little but his recordings—but his arc is a bit too clean, a bit too familiar, to carry much weight. That this is a case of fitting the real person into the archetype is evidenced by how liberal the film has been in other areas: the events around his (in the film) thrilling escape from France seem to be almost wholesale inventions, for example. 

Although its intentions are admirable, Django ends up being something of a paint-by-numbers, mythological WWII biopic. Its focus on the Romani people, including employing Romani actors to play Romani characters (besides Kateb, who is French-Algerian), is unique, but most of the rest of the film is predictable. Faced with a subject about whose biography not much is known, it chooses a safe route, inventing a clean arc for him and giving him a white French companion who can ground his story in familiar tropes around WWII. Despite a strong performance from Kateb, the film offers little new in its representation of the multiple struggles of the Second World War. While within the world of WWII films, more focus on the Romani is welcome, on a broader view, perhaps it is time to find new subjects for major narrative films.