Django Unchained - review

Tarantino's new film does a disservice to the oppressed.

Django Unchained (18)
Dir: Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino’s last film, the wartime wish-fulfilment fantasy Inglourious Basterds, ended with the hero examining the swastika he had carved into a Nazi colonel’s forehead and declaring, “I think this might just be my masterpiece.” It’s too soon to know whether that will prove true of Inglourious Basterds (Tarantino’s soulful Jackie Brown still has the edge for me) but the case looks stronger in the light of his latest picture. Django Unchained feeds the subject of African-American slavery through the same parallel-universe hypothesis processor that the previous movie used on the Second World War.

Where the earlier film followed a band of Jewish-American Nazi-scalpers, the heroes of Django Unchained – the white German bounty hunter Dr Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and his sidekick, former slave Django (Jamie Foxx) – shoot their way through plantation owners and racists in the American South in the late 1850s. Those killed with a dainty silver pistol die from a tiny chest wound that despatches a trickle of blood. Anyone dying in a shoot-out can expect their heads and torsos to explode in tomatoey splashes. The aftermath of the Tomatina festival would resemble a minor Rioja stain by comparison.

Tarantino has made no secret of his adoration for scuzzy B-movies with Kill Bill or Death Proof. Django Unchained is a different bucket of gore altogether, marrying this lowbrow art form with a subject matter that appears to merit a less sensationalist sensibility. But the problem isn’t the tension between the sober subject and the titillating style, with its authentically amateurish crash-zooms (when the lens lurches inelegantly towards its subject). After all, Fassbinder already travelled the same route in reverse: his 1971 western, Whity, applied a classical shooting style to a lurid melodrama about the exploitation of a black servant. Tarantino’s downfall is his compulsive over-scaling. For a B-movie nut, he has often failed to grasp that the B should stand not only for “bloody” and “brazen” but also “brevity.” In Django Unchained, he stretches pulp material to indulgent length (nearly three hours) without a corresponding upgrade in depth or characterisation.

Script and dialogue have been Tarantino’s strong suits but there are few scenes that don’t outstay their natural life. A skit featuring racists complaining about the eyeholes in their prototype-Klan masks will amuse only those who haven’t seen the bathos of evil explored more cleverly by David Mitchell and Robert Webb (as Nazis realising they may be the “baddies”) or Eddie Izzard (who imagined Darth Vader in the Death Star canteen ordering penne al arabiatta).

As the garrulous Schultz, Christoph Waltz essentially plays a benevolent version of his wily-tongued Nazi from Inglourious Basterds. Schultz has a respect for procedural correctness as well as violence: when he reaches into his jacket, you never know if he will produce a gun or a warrant. He smacks his lips over language, yet doesn’t seem to know that people are “hanged” rather than “hung”, or that the expression “no worries” hasn’t been coined yet. Jamie Foxx has less to work with as Django, even once he begins searching for his enslaved wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). He gets jazzy comic notes to play, savouring his freedom by wearing a dandyish royal-blue suit as he rides through a cotton plantation, but the film grinds him down: he’s a righteous bore. Tarantino has said he wrote the character to give black American males an empowering Western hero. It’s an honourable intention, though it’s also an obscure kind of slight to have made him so glumly virtuous.

Anyone is more interesting than Django. There’s Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the effete owner of the “Candyland” plantation who gets his kicks watching slaves fighting to the death. And Calvin’s house slave Stephen, played by Samuel L Jackson in oldage make-up and a frosting of white hair. The film is at its most electrifying when it touches on the disruption caused by slavery to racial solidarity; Stephen, a slave who colludes in the oppression of other African-Americans, is the personification of this warped state. (The name recalls Stevens, the butler from Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, who looked the other way or offered a helping hand when confronted with fascism.)

Many of Tarantino’s usual strengths work in the film’s favour, such as his unrivalled ear for music (the soundtrack includes rap, country and old Ennio Morricone cuts). But he is less skilful than usual at mastering jarring switches in tone. Funny violence and grave violence in the same film risk cancelling one another out, so that it all becomes numbing; the humorous brutality doesn’t seem such a riot, and the sense of outrage drains from scenes that should be shocking. Any gains the film makes by drawing on the vocabulary of exploitation cinema are soon outweighed by its losses in gravitas. Portraying the perpetrators of slavery as merely monstrous, and their victims as holy, does a disservice to the oppressed, who deserve at least to have their suffering understood.

Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington in Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained"

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The A-Z of Israel

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge