Giving a face to the plight of Roma and Sinti facing the Final Solution, Etienne Comar’s Django makes a strange hero of the King of Swing.
Je Suis Swingby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Django begins in June 1943 with the as-yet-unnamed Romani singer Raymond Weiss making music in a forest in the Ardennes with his family, before they’re gunned down by unseen militia. But while women and children flee, the violinists and guitarists don’t move a muscle. For the music must go on. Indeed, music plays an almost sacred role in Etienne Comar’s debut film Django, with its lengthy opening concert sequence which is drawn out with shots of its German-uniform-clad audience and jazzy solos to the Requiem pour les frères tsiganes Reinhardt (Reda Kateb) composes on a grand organ in a church on the Swiss border. Music even becomes an act of resistance, as Django and his “Quintette du Hot Club de France” entertain a villa full of high-ranking Nazis in the Villa Amphion, beguiling them with their forbidden breaks, blues rhythms and syncopations while distracting them from noticing two French maquisards crossing the Lac Leman into Switzerland after blowing up a nearby railway line.
This apparent act of resistance however is also couched in selfish motives – rekindling with it a relationship with the glamorous double-dealer Louise de Klerk (Cécile de France) as well as securing a ticket across the border for himself and his family. From Reinhardt’s first-reel indifference, so unperturbed at performing to an auditorium of National Socialists he turns up late, preferring to fish catfish from the Seine, the question hanging over Django is whether this musician of Romani descent can become politicised enough to take sides in this gadjo war. And while his celebrated Nuages became a resistance song of hope, much like his upbeat rendition of La Marseillaise, Django’s journey culminates in the 1945 requiem mass he composes for his lost brothers, forcing us to question whether this act of remembrance is political at all.
With neither musical training, literacy nor the ability to understand German, Django often appears innocently adrift in this dangerous world, with only his musical talent to see him through. But like Orpheus ascending from the underworld, when Reinhardt finally finds himself at the Swiss border, neither his family nor his people are behind him – his pregnant wife and ailing mother abandoned to their own fate while his fellow Romanis are sequestered, their cars and horses stolen, their caravans burned before being rounded up and taken to the nearest camp. Comar’s film ends with a tribute to the Roma and Sinti who died at the hands of the Nazis, but it’s a message Django Reinhardt makes an awkward standard-bearer for – his fate strikingly different to those of his less fortunate brothers.
There’s lots to like however about Comar’s film, from Reda Kateb’s performance as the quietly charming guitarist to Cécile de France’s turncoat determination to survive or Reinhardt’s mother’s no-nonsense gusto. And it’s to Comar’s credit that he allows Django Reinhardt’s music to speak for itself. Yet there’s also a kind of naivety to the Of Gods And Men writer’s debut feature, with a script that includes on-the-nose lines like Django’s throwaway comment about heading to the cinema to dream a little or its off-centre narrative that sees Django frozen in time in an uncertain mountain fog while hiding the truth about his return to Paris after being stopped at the Swiss border. Obfuscating Reinhardt’s fate in a nebulous ending, Comar makes Django’s journey from selfish virtuoso to political resistant disappointingly uncertain. Perhaps, whiling away the rest of the war composing his now lost requiem, this never was Django‘s war. But it leaves Comar’s film with a very unlikely hero.
Django is now showing at the 67th Berlin Film Festival