U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The World Tarantino Made

Guest post by Rivka Maizlish, University of Wisconsin-Madison


Sunday night, Austrian actor Christoph Waltz won an Oscar for his portrayal of Dr. King Schultz, the sharp-shooting, smooth-talking, anti-slavery bounty hunter in Django Unchained. In his brief and emotional acceptance speech, Waltz thanked Quentin Tarantino, who took Best Screenplay for Django, for creating Dr. Schultz “and his awe-inspiring world.” The world Tarantino made lies at the discordant intersection of European culture and American barbarism. Through Dr. Schultz, a German encountering the peculiar institution, Tarantino lets European language, European music, and European literature indict American slavery, creating a world where art and cruelty are incompatible. In Django, American slavery stems from Americans’ infamous lack of artistic culture, and artistic culture, the prize virtue of Europe, ever abhors cruelty and injustice.

There are no American heroes in this film. Dr. Schultz, the only white person in the movie who opposes slavery, is German. Django becomes an honorary German through his quest to rescue his wife from a plantation, as Schultz deems him a “real-life Siegfried,” and the movie, ripped from the context of the Civil War, becomes a retelling of the German fairytale “Siegfried and Brunhilde.”

The fairytale quest to find Django’s wife, Broomhilde, takes Django and Dr. Schultz to the plantation of villain Calvin Candie, where they witness horrors including slaves forced to fight to the death for sport and a man torn apart by dogs. As they tour the plantation, Schultz and Django are informed that Calvin Candie is a francophile, whereupon Schultz, fluent in both English and German, begins speaking mellifluous French, until someone stops him. “He doesn’t speak French. Don’t speak French to him, it’ll embarrass him.”

At the climax of the film, Schultz sits in Candie’s parlor, reflecting on the violence he has seen, while a woman plays Für Elise on the harp. The music swells as Schultz becomes increasingly distressed, and images of torture and death at the Candie plantation fill the screen. Suddenly Schultz leaps up, tears the woman away from the harp, and cries “For God’s sake, stop playing Beethoven!” Schultz then storms into Candie’s library, where he finds an impressive collection of European literature. “I was thinking of that poor devil you fed to the dogs today,” Schultz tells Candie, gazing at his bookshelf, “and I was wondering what Dumas would make of all this.” “Come again?” replies Candie. “Alexander Dumas,” Schultz explains, “He wrote The Three Musketeers. I figured you must be an admirer. You named your slave after his novel’s lead character. If Alexander Dumas had been there today, I wonder what he would have made of it.” “You doubt he’d approve?” Candie sneers. “Yes. His approval would be a dubious proposition at best,” says Schultz.

In the world Tarantino made, the American South perverts European art from Beethoven to Dumas. The beauty of Für Elise is incompatible with the horror of slavery; playing Beethoven on a plantation is blasphemy. Candie names a slave after a character in The Three Musketeers, but Alexander Dumas would not approve of Candie’s cherished system of labor or his sadism. Moreover, Tarantino implies, if Calvin Candie were truly the admirer of French language and literature he claimed to be, perhaps he would have a better understanding of justice. At the very least, his injustice and cruelty appear connected to his perversion of European culture, while Schultz’s virtue is expressed in his care for Beethoven and Dumas, and in his command of German and French.

In Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life and the American South 1810-1860, published in 2003, historian Michael O’Brien meticulously demonstrates just how well-versed the “Calvin Candies” of history were in European art and thought. The educated Southern mind was at home in Europe, O’Brien argues, and Southern slave-owners harmonized art and slavery as easily as they harmonized Christianity and slavery. Tarantino’s suggestion in Django that art and cruelty are incompatible is based on the caricature of the Southerner as anti-intellectual— a myth that O’Brien attacks in his two volume study. But Tarantino goes further. Because his film lacks an American anti-slavery character, and because the critique of slavery is articulated by Europeans (Schultz, Dumas, and “Siegfried”) and in terms of European art (Beethoven and The Three Musketeers), Tarantino suggests that America— not just the South— lacks intellect and artistic culture, and therein lies the roots of American violence and cruelty.

Yet Tarantino is not always uncomfortable with the idea that art and intellect can sustain cruelty. In Inglorious Basterds, released in 2009 and considered the companion film to Django, Christoph Waltz plays a German with an appreciation for culture, who can effortlessly speak several languages, much like Dr. Schultz. In Basterds, however, Waltz plays the Nazi Colonel Hans Landa, nicknamed “The Jew Hunter.” Landa first appears in the film to interrogate a French dairy farmer who is hiding a Jewish family under the floorboards of his house. In this scene, it is Landa’s fluency in English and French that allows him to deceive the hidden Jews and ensure their destruction. While Dr. Schultz speaks to Broomhilda in German to plot her escape from the plantation without risk of discovery, Landa speaks in English to the French dairy farmer to keep the Jewish family from understanding the situation and fleeing.

As Landa and several Nazi soldiers approach the dairy farm in the haunting first images of the film, we hear the baleful notes of Beethoven’s Für Elise. Dr. Schultz could not bear to hear the piece played where slavery existed! But it serves as Nazi Colonel Hans Landa’s theme in Basterds.

If the hero Schultz in Django is the villain Landa in Basterds, so, too, is Django‘s villain Basterd‘s hero. Lieutenant Aldo Raine, who leads his troop of “Basterds” in “the business of killin’ Nazis,” is an unrefined American Southerner, whose grandparents could well have worn white sheets and attempted to terrorize the German and the slave in Django. Both Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) and Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) hail from Tennessee, have a penchant for violence and torture, and struggle with European languages. While Candie’s embarrassing inability to speak French is part of his hypocrisy and ignorance of justice, however, Aldo Raine’s painful attempt to speak what he calls “Eye- talian” is endearing. Posing as an Italian film-maker in an attempt to assassinate the Nazi leadership at a film screening, Raine is uncomfortable in a tuxedo and can barely manage an “uh-ree-vur-dare-chee” (arrivederci), while Hans Landa effortlessly launches into a monologue of lyrical Italian. The Nazi’s comfort drinking champagne and playing the socialite at the film screening, as well as his fluency in several languages, makes him insidious and slippery; the Southern American’s awkwardness at the black-tie event and pitiful Italian is part of his virtue.

When Dr. Schultz first appears in Django, he speaks to two slave-traders using words so sophisticated that the crude men bark at him “Speak English!” “Forgive me,” replies Schultz ironically, “it is a second language.” Like Aldo Raine (who, we are led to believe by the film’s title, cannot spell “bastards” correctly) the slave-traders are out-matched in English by a multilingual European. But while ignorance looks ugly on Tarantino’s Americans in 1858, a rugged simplicity is American virtue in the Second World War. European culture represents justice and enlightenment in Tarantino’s antebellum world, but perhaps too much European culture leads to Fascism by Tarantino’s twentieth century.

What is going on when Tarantino creates a world where Americans are always uncivilized and Europeans always sophisticated, but where it is unclear which is a virtue and which a disease? Tarantino belongs to America’s oldest intellectual tradition: that of examining what Europe means for America and what America means for Europe, and expressing ambivalence about America’s intellectual and artistic dearth compared to Europe. British writer Sydney Smith’s quip in the beginning of the nineteenth century that no one reads an American book or sees an American play riled Americans from James Fenimore Cooper to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Cooper’s response to European high culture, however, gave us Natty Bumpo, wiping his nose on his sleeve and living in the wilderness, perhaps a forerunner to Lieutenant Aldo “The Apache” Rain. Long before Tarantino, American writers insisted that what America had to offer in terms of culture was precisely its lack of culture, emasculating and morally dubious. But like Tarantino, Americans have also felt ambivalent about their lack of culture and the world it could produce. Historians often forget that Smith’s dig at American culture ended in an indictment of American slavery. “In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book? or goes to an American play?” he asked, adding, “under which of the old tyrannical governments of Europe is every sixth man a slave, whom his fellow creatures may buy and sell and torture?” The connection between the two separate charges—slavery and lack of culture—was not lost on nineteenth century Americans. This is the tragic irony that pervades American Romanticism from the speeches of Emerson to the paintings of Thomas Cole: American virtue is also American sin. The rugged American spirit, sustained by the pristine American wilderness, will ultimately destroy that wilderness.

It is fascinating to see these old anxieties reflected in Tarantino’s two films. Nevertheless, it would be more interesting to see, in film, novel, or historical monograph, American writers eschew both the myth that America lacks art and intellect and the fiction that art and intellect are incompatible with the most detestable elements in modern society. In 1956, in his keynote address to a conference entitled “The American Humanities in Industrial Civilization,” U.S. intellectual historian Perry Miller celebrated the American literary tradition he loved so deeply, but proceeded to attack the notion of a binary opposition between the humanities and industrial civilization. “There is an implication in the very title chosen for this conference with which I am not altogether comfortable,” Miller declared, pointing simply to the obvious fact that “it seems to assume an opposition between the humanities and industrial civilization.” “Art uses no means but Nature makes those means,” Miller maintained, “so with a civilization as deliberately and consciously wrought as has been this America, humanity wrought it. Then, if the humanities find that they have to declare war upon it, they must all the while, if they are to keep their humane character, cry aloud to it, ‘mon frere, mon semblable!’” (1) For the benefit of Calvin Candie, that means “my brother, my twin,” and comes from Charles Baudelaire. Baudelaire and Beethoven, culture and cruelty, intellect and industry have existed simultaneously in American history, more entwined and interdependent than in Tarantino’s world.

(1) Perry Miller, “The American Humanities in Industrial Civilization,” University of Massachusetts, July 6, 1956, 10.

7 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. I really enjoyed reading this essay, as it nicely revitalizes some quite old themes in an entirely unexpected frame. Thanks!

    But isn’t there also another layer which needs to be considered?–that to which you refer in your title: Tarantino as author/auteur. Tarantino’s films all have such density of allusion and meta-commentary, that I think we need to place what is happening on-screen in the oppositions between Landa/Schultz and Raine/Candie within the context of the godlike (at least in his mind) Tarantino’s subtextual jokes and commentary.

    For instance, the Dumas reference surely is supposed to invoke to the knowing audience the fact that Dumas was himself of Afro-Caribbean ancestry, and Beethoven was described by contemporaries in terms which strongly implied some African ancestry. That Tarantino selects these two, therefore, from the broader corpus of European culture, is Tarantino’s claim for his own superior knowingness.

    How that plays into the American-European dialectic you describe I’m not sure, but I suppose that would largely depend on how strongly Tarantino identifies himself as part of an American intellectual (or anti-intellectual) heritage.

    • This is a fascinating take on Tarantino, in particular because of how he has constructed himself as a sort of idiot savant, a high school drop out invested in exploring the dustbin of film and literary history, the pulp novels and B movies that populate his imaginary. Since he burst into the scene, Tarantino has knowingly played the anti-intellectual role, but from a postmodern angle, as a molder of filmic bric-a-brac. After all, his breakthrough movies form part of the heyday of pomo pop culture. Yet, the stylish, fluid way in which he constructs his imaginary belies his pose as a child-like creator of pastiche.

  2. this is a great posting.

    i hesitate to suggest, since i haven’t watching *Django*, but your commentary makes me think that, perhaps, this movie is actually about the Shoah in all the ways that *Basterds* mostly was not?

  3. Aldo Raine’s grandparents “could well have worn white sheets and attempted to terrorize the German and the slave in Django”? Not likely, because the Ku Klux Klan didn’t exist until 1866, eight years after Django’s setting in 1858 (erroneously described in the film’s opening title as “two years before the Civil War). Just two of the many anachronistic absurdities in Mr. Tarantino’s slavery-as b-movie-revenge-fantasy.

    It’s doubtful, moreover, that even Mr. Tarantino would claim that his film “lacks an American anti-slavery character” given the rather strongly-expressed anti-slavery convictions of its titular African-American hero.

    Yet another attempt to elevate this garbage by reading cultural theory between the lines while ignoring obvious opportunities for a historically-based critique.

    • Ha, yes, I did find it completely absurd that the film opened with the claim that 1858 was “two years before the Civil War”!! I couldn’t believe they could get something like that wrong! However, I’m not sure if the gang with the white sheets falls into the same category of error. I have heard the interpretation that this is Tarantino’a attempt to foreshadow the KKK with a group of violent white supremacists who happen to decide to cover their faces with sheets. Regardless, all I meant in my post was that Aldo Raine’s family would have been poor whites in Tennessee and therefore likely to engage in that kind of activity, which of course existed before the KKK, white sheets or not. As for Django, of course he’s American. And I don’t think there’s any question that he’s anti-slavery. But I believe he becomes “German” by becoming Siegfried, as Schultz explicitly names him. He’s not the American Moses. He’s a German Prince Charming.

      • I want to add that I didn’t intend to minimize the importance of historically-based critiques of DJANGO regarding slavery, race, and the Civil War. But there are hundreds of those out there already, and different examinations can be valuable as well.

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