Django Reinhardt needs no introduction to jazz and blues aficionados. Indeed, Reinhardt remains one of the greatest jazz guitarists and composers of the twentieth century. Interestingly, Reinhardt rose above his impoverished background to become celebrated, and he became the first notable jazz talent to emerge from Europe. Consequently, his skills as a virtuoso technician and improviser influenced Charlie Byrd, Wes Montgomery, and many others to this day.
The film Django, directed and written by Étienne Comar and starring Reda Kateb and Cécile de France, explores an unknown time in Django’s life after he became famous. In part Comar spliced bits from Folles de Django, a fictionalized account by Alexis Salatko and included Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend by Michael Dregni. Finally, he used information from Django’s grandson. With these elements and others Comar devised the script. Though Belgian born and French, Django’s roots included a Romani heritage. Certainly, his ancestry and culture centered around the gypsy nomad lifestyle.
Subsequently, Comar reveals this lifestyle as an inherent element of the dramatic arc of his film. For in the setting, occupied France, Hitler had already targeted the Romani peoples. Indeed, they had been forced to wear a brown triangle. Additionally, the Nazis employed them for slave labor and deported others. Thus, in 1943 frightened of Hitler’s polemic and racist ideologies which included intensified persecution against the gypsies, Reinhardt tried to flee to Switzerland.
Intriguingly, Comar’s film combines truthful episodes with fictional characters. One of these (Django’s former mistress), serves to inspire Django to resist the Nazis and take a stand. However, in reality the extent of his resistance remains unknown. Notably, the war years in Paris slid by favorably for Django because of his musicianship and fame. But in Comar’s iteration, a turning point comes in Django’s life. After salient, painful events, Reinhardt’s eyes and empathy open to the plight of himself and the Romani peoples.
As the Nazis often did with musicians and entertainers, they commissioned the performers for tours. Comar takes a page out of history and extrapolates for Django’s life. And he sets up the conflict that the Nazis through Django’s agent, schedule Django and his band to tour Germany. With the help of a his former mistress, Django flees with his wife to Thonon-les-bains. For a time they live there in the hope of making it to Switzerland. Interestingly, it is in this area that Django reconnects with his gypsy community. And with gypsy musicians, he plays in cafes until the Nazis discover his whereabouts and force him to entertain at Villa Amphion.
The events at Villa Amphion allow resistance fighters to flee to Switzerland but the Nazis discover the plot. And in revenge, they evict the gypsies from their camp and burn it down. Django’s emotions overwhelm him with guilt and heartbreak. But Django and his wife and mother flee to Switzerland with a guide from the resistance. And here the film and reality part ways for a time. In life Django returns to Paris with his wife. For the rest of the war he enjoyed security and freedom from Nazi persecution because of his celebrity. However, what he experienced impacted him in moments that changed his inner spirit forever.
At the conclusion the film Comar cuts from Switzerland to Paris after the war. Django conducts a beautiful memorial concert. The concert performance of the composed Requiem at the Institute des jeunes aveugles in Paris played on only one occasion, at the Liberation. Notably, Django’s Requiem is dedicated to and memorializes the Romani people. As the film concludes black and white archived photographs of various Romani slaughtered by the Vichy collaborators scroll. Because Comar reveals Django conducting and not playing, we intuit that his perceptions and attitude have evolved. And he no longer can be unresponsive or nonplussed about discrimination, oppression, and murder.
Principally, Comar’s theme of musicians being involved in their own world to the exclusion of political events does manifest as a symbol. More importantly, the life of Django as a Romani shines and his attempt to share with his community remains paramount. Comar’s revelation of Django’s lifestyle also becomes significant and is well drawn in revealing the sinister Nazi policies toward the gypsies. Nazis and Vichy collaborators murdered over 600,000 Romani people, numbers of them Jewish.
The film’s musical score is superb. Indeed, Comar reveals at pleasurable length Django’s improvisatory skills as a superlative technician. And the musicians who perform the score shine. The actors (a number of them Romani), realized the characterizations beautifully. With their selection Comar added a natural realism. Kateb smoothly portrays Django’s nonchalance and various moments of panic and anger. And de France becomes his worthy lover and adversary. The great guitarist Stochelo Rosenberg recorded the music. And Christophe Lartilleux stood in for Kateb during the close ups on Django’s hands. As Kateb mentioned in an interview, “My job was to pretend and at the same time feel those pieces inside of me.”
Django, released in NYC and LA in January will be released on VOD 6 February. If you enjoy Django Reinhardt and look forward to understanding another aspect of his life during WWII, the film will please. Though Comar never used English voice over actors, the subtitles allow Kateb and others to reveal the depth of characterization that creates conflict and suspense throughout the film. And Kateb’s impassive silence and austere look as the lovely music of the Requiem flows out, imbues a feeling of the tragedy of loss. It is a memorable and symbolic moment in the film.