Several hired thugs stand idle in a parlor holding shotguns and revolvers, while two gentlemen put the final touches on a bill of sale for a slave girl in the adjoining library. The civility they maintain stands in stark contrast to the brooding men waiting just beyond the open doors. However, as Dr. King Schultz, an aged bounty hunter played with characteristic guile by Christopher Waltz, takes control of the conversation in the library a more nuanced conflict plays out. Schultz finds himself in hostile territory, trapped inside a massive slave plantation owned by the villainous Calvin Candie, a twisted soul portrayed with a smooth flamboyance by Leonardo DiCaprio. Ignoring the ill-bred men lurking outside the room, he talks to Candie of his purported affection for the literary works of Alexander Dumas. As Candie speaks of the Frenchman’s “soft heart” in concerns to slavery, Schultz smiles wryly and tells Candie that Dumas was black. At first, Candie cannot find an adequate response, but as Schultz leaves he draws him back. He attempts to force the “nigger loving German” to shake his hand to finalize the sale, lest his gunmen destroy the recently acquired slave girl. In one deft move, their contest of wills draws in the blunt force waiting for them and a cacophony of violence threatens to disturb the peace.
If there was a moment Quentin Tarantino’s directorial career has been building towards, this scene from Django Unchained may well be it. The director uses the symbolic presence of violence as a counterweight for his dialogue, externalizing the subtext of the conversation and allowing one scene to naturally transform into the next. The forced civility and intellectual prowess upheld by his characters unravel in an instant, and the tension that proceeds this change gives the film its lasting impact. The scene recalls earlier moments in Tarantino’s career, like the opening interrogation in Inglourious Basterds (2009), the sudden standoff in Reservoir Dogs (1992), or even the final conversation between The Bride and Bill in Kill Bill Volume 2 (2004). What makes Django‘s scene different is a sense of equal footing. In Inglourious Basterds and Kill Bill, one character holds all the power. In Basterds, Christopher Waltz’ Col. Hans Landa clearly has the advantage over the well-meaning Perrier LaPadite and is merely waiting for the man break. In Kill Bill, The Bride’s victory over Bill is practically preordained by the title of the film. Meanwhile, in Reservoir Dogs, the only character in a position to hold the power, namely the undercover cop, bleeds out on the floor while the rest of the thieves bicker amongst themselves.
This brings us to Django Unchained, a surprisingly sophisticated entry in Tarantino’s trio of late stage neo-exploitation films. When the conflict between Schultz and Candie comes to a head, both men vie for supremacy over the other. Meanwhile, a stage of violence awaits them if they cannot resolve their differences through civility. In short, they stand on a precipice waiting to throw each other off the edge. Prompting this conflict is a friendship between the German bounty hunter and a slave he has freed, Django (Jamie Foxx). Preceding this event, Schultz acquires Django in order to gain his help with a bounty case. After the case is resolved, Schultz takes Django on as a business partner and promises to help him free his wife, for the novel reason that Django’s plight reminds him of an old German fable. However, as Schultz tracks Django’s wife down to Candie’s plantation, his motivation deepens. Waltz’ character pointedly upholds the iconic moniker of “Dr. King,” and stands in opposition to the abhorrence of slavery while attempting to act otherwise. Candie, on the other hand, puts on airs as a refined intellectual only to mask a base vileness within him. During their final conversation, both characters hone in on these weaknesses and attempt to wound the other’s sense of pride. As they do so, Django and his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) wait in the parlor, staring down a room filled with angry white men with guns.
If Schultz shakes Candie’s hand, he and his companions walk away with their lives and the film ends. Before Candie’s request though, Schultz admits to Candie he would normally tell him “auf wiedersehen” but explains this means “until we meet again” in German. Because Schultz wishes to never see the man again he simply says goodbye. With this final gesture, Schultz takes a firm stand against Candie and everything he represents. Candie’s request, then, would force Schultz to renege on this final gesture and seemingly part as friends. Despite the peril that awaits his company, the act of shaking a man’s hand feels like an impossible task. It is an intimate act beyond words, a surrender veiled under the guise of reconciliation. And so the eloquence that Schultz has evinced up until now fails him, he waits as Candie extends his hand, and just for a moment both adjoining rooms are silent. Inevitably the men will destroy each other, the background of violence will bleed into the foreground, but the characters’ failed attempts at preempting bloodshed give it meaning. By imbuing both men with an equal claim for power, Tarantino manages to harness a simple truth: some conflicts can have no peaceful solution, they must end in common ruin.
Jacob Mertens is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.
Read also: Celluloid Liberation Front, ‘Re-Birth of a Nation or Why Django Has More to Say about Contemporary America than the Other “Historically Accurate” Films’.