Wrong time, wrong tune: Just like in Birth of a Nation, the Klan rides …

Brünnhilde riding her horse into Siegfried’s funeral pyre, here in a drawing by the famous English book illustrator Arthur Rackham (1867-1939).

A guardian of the old order: Samuel Jackson as the household slave Steven is like Wagner's Wotan.

“The Fire This Time”: Django before the ruins of Candyland.

Broomhilda Unchained: Django and Broomhilda are united before the ruins of the old order. They will become the ancestors of another avenger, John Shaft.

Freedom comes with burning the old world.

A little earlier in the film, Django and King Schultz have drawn the ire of a local chapter of the KKK (although the Klan, too, makes a somewhat anachronistic cameo, given that the film is set before the Civil War). The Klansmen ride after the two men hooded and brandishing torches. At this point, one would expect a cinema-history buff of Quentin Tarantino’s caliber to supply a cinema-history savvy soundtrack. The scene clearly riffs on an infamous sequence in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, a sequence that is customarily scored with Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. And yet, suddenly the same Wagner who earlier irrupted unbidden into a scene that had no need for him, is conspicuous by his absence. Tarantino goes for a big, classical cue, but it isn’t Wagner’s Ride, it’s the Dies Irae from Guiseppe Verdi’s Requiem.

… but to the music of Verdi’s requiem, not the Ride of the Valkyries.

It’s a sleight of hand all the more conspicuous by how close the cue is to the Ride of the Valkyries. Tarantino doesn’t go for a slyly chosen pop song, or for a soundtrack cue from a Spaghetti Western. He doesn’t update Griffith’s soundtrack for postmodernity. At least in terms of presentation he doesn’t move Griffith’s sequence forward in time; he simply nudges it a little to the side. Germany becomes Italy, Wagner becomes Verdi, the Ride becomes the Requiem—and the viewer is left wondering: why make a substitution so subtle, it’s barely noticeable?

Part of the reason may have to do with a sense of kinship on the director’s part—a kinship with the project of Verdi’s Requiem, a piece that is in some way a more genial signifier for Tarantino’s purposes than the peremptory bluster of Wagner’s Ride. That is because it is a requiem in name only. Most of the great requiems of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries come with an origin story attached to them: someone close to the composer died, and the piece was written as a kind of travelogue through the Kuebler-Ross stages. Mozart’s requiem has an origin story so gothic that Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus dramatized it as the composer’s requiem for himself.

Verdi’s requiem was initially envisioned as an omnibus effort to mourn the death of Rossini. That isn’t what it ended up as, however (Rosen, 10). And the final work, with its flair for almost campy melodrama, really looks a lot more like an opera without stage action than a bona fide mass for the dead—in fact, parts of it rather baldly recycle bits of Verdi’s operas. It is probable that Tarantino was attracted to just that: Verdi’s requiem is a requiem in quotation marks, another piece of discourse to move around the film. It is a signifier that is defined above all by that which it isn’t: it isn’t heartfelt, it isn’t martial, it isn’t Wagner.

That suggests that Tarantino’s nod to Verdi is not just owed to the fact that the master of pastiche and quotation feels a greater kinship with Verdi’s genre-busting requiem than with the more-authentic-than-thou Ring cycle. Tarantino includes Verdi to displace Wagner, and to make that displacement visible. Tarantino stages the entire scene as an homage, but then displaces one element of that homage. He builds difference into repetition, a sense that not only will it be different this time, it might have been different before. There is a slight difference in how he replays the past, and that difference turns out to be unexpectedly crucial. In viewing the original Griffith-sequence side-by-side with Tarantino’s Verdi-scored update, one formal difference stands out: Griffith’s scene comes across as deeply repetitive. There is little sense of propulsion or development. And even though Griffth’s probably didn’t intend to draw attention to it, the Ride of the Valkyries has a part to play in emphasizing this repetitiveness.

In its operatic version the Ride is a pretty dynamic piece. The iconic main motif gets repeated quite a bit, but differing instrumentation and the singing voices make for a slightly different feel with each repetition. Depending on the print, the score to Birth of a Nation hands the piece either to a Wurlitzer organ, or to an orchestra that sounds a lot like a Wurlitzer organ, and the effect is to flatten out that feel entirely: it sounds like a hurdy-gurdy at a carnival, and the roteness of each repetition comes to undermine the onscreen action. Even though what we see is rather exciting by itself, the repetitive music robs the onscreen action of its dynamism and instead imbues it with a sense of tedium.

Tarantino, by contrast, gives his staging of the sequence a general propulsiveness, one that is helped along immensely by the Dies irae that underscores it. The four blasts that open the movement, the fury with which the different instruments rush up and down chromatic scales—there is no repetition or roteness in this music. We as listeners are almost scared to contemplate what comes next. There is a reason why Verdi’s piece is so dynamic. In almost any requiem the Dies irae will be the most exciting bit, for the simple reason that it has one hell of a story to tell. Dies irae (“The Day of Wrath”) tells of divine judgment and punishment. The poem says that “that day,” the Day of the Last Judgment arrives “as foretold by David and the Sibyl,” and the singers, like the newly raised souls, seem to cower before a vengeful God. “King of tremendous majesty, / who freely saves those that have to be saved, / save me, Source of mercy.”

The shift to Verdi underscores the difference Tarantino introduces into his recycling of Griffith’s infamous ride of the clansmen. The angered Tennessee plantation owner and his friends are on a raid, but they are not the ones to pass judgment and punish those who have offended them by assuming a power of their own. And through the inserted memory fragments of violence done to him and his wife, we recognize Django as the agent of divine judgment and punishment. The brief citation of Verdi’s requiem wants to pass judgment on an entire canon of film depictions of slavery. It wants to justify the single-minded retribution of its hero. Verdi is fit to displace Wagner at this point, because what we get is a poignant hybrid: Verdi’s music about divine judgment and Wagner’s narrative about the demise of a house of rulers fuse into something that is more than postmodern parody. These are tropes, Tarantino implies, that cannot be viewed without passing judgment on them. They are gory not because gore belongs in a genre picture, but because it is impossible to view these images without wanting to draw blood.

Wagner’s Ride, is about bloody business, too, but it is business as usual. In ancient Norse mythology, Valkyries are tasked with guiding the souls of fallen warriors to Odin’s hall in Valhalla. And that is precisely what they are doing as the third act of Wagner’s Die Walküre opens. They joke and jostle, as they collect the dead from some battle or other. Their father Wotan (Wagner’s Germanic version of Odin) has created them for that purpose and that purpose alone, and they go about their job with the callousness and professionalism of battle-hardened first responders.

But as their business unfolds, in repetitive shouts and injunctions from one to the other, the audience knows that their world is to undergo a stark change: one of their own, Brünnhilde, has attempted to save the life of a warrior fated to die. Her father and boss Wotan is after her for her infraction, and her arrival will eventually disrupt her sisters’ business as usual. The triumphant tune of the Ride belies the fact that the world that it describes is about a minute of stage-time away from being irrevocably shattered.

The Ride of the Valkyries thus describes a world of mythic repetition, in which every creature does what they have always done, what they were created to do—just like dragons guard treasures, or sphinxes pose riddles, the Valkyries do what they do, for no reason beyond the fact that this is their purpose in existing. But one of their own has made a decision that breaks with that purpose, one that disrupts mythic repetition and makes business as usual an impossibility. Broomhilda, by virtue of her repeated attempts at escape, shows what it means to break from the role of slave assigned to her. The resilient love she inspires in her husband will get him, in turn, to no longer behave as his world expects him to do. He will disrupt business as usual, in this case the slave hierarchy at Candyland. 

Verdi’s Dies Irae is about the moment after, the moment of Brünnhilde’s arrival—the moment where the way things have always been comes to a sudden stop. History as we know it ends, the millennium arrives, we are “beyond” history, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it. Just as in Brünnhilde’s arrival on the rock, the world as it has existed previously, with all its rules and iron-clad laws of nature, is “sinking into the dust,” as the text of the Dies Irae says.

And Verdi’s music follows suit: the scales that rise and fall chromatically against one another, the way the piece changes from A major to G minor, two keys that have very little harmonic relation to one another, and primarily of course the four iconic blasts that open the movement, leave little doubt: everything is different now. In Tarantino’s film, the requiem introduces the birth of the hero as fastest gun in the South. The one shot with which Django takes down the plantation owner, fleeing from the ambush, lets Dr. Schulz recognize that his protégée is “a natural.” Yet the inclusion of Verdi also draws attention to the way the film sees itself as a turning point in the Hollywood Western, insisting that when it comes to the United States' history of slavery, to stick to genre as usual is impossible. The movement’s harmonies do not follow from those of the preceding one, they do not transform existing melodies—something altogether unprecedented is happening. Tarantino nods to this apocalyptic theme later in the film, when an utterly balletic explosion of violence after King Schultz’s death is scored with a mash-up of James Brown and Tupac Shakur. The line at the end of the piece (from 2Pac’s song “Untouchable”) calls out “Expect me nigga / like you expect Jesus to come back.”

Repetition and the possibility that, after one more repetition, things might suddenly be diametrically different—those are concerns that Django Unchained carries in its very DNA. Inglorious Basterds had already worked with the idea that on screen you can imagine how history might have been different, that cinematic imagination can unchain radical energies impossible in real politics. Tarantino rehearses familiar tropes from movie genres that have somehow influenced Hollywood’s racial imaginaries, and while we the audience recognize and laugh at those tropes we do have to wonder: what is the value of repeating, and of recognizing those tropes? Has anything changed simply because we recognize them? To give one case in point: Django throughout recalls John Ford’s The Searchers, similarly set in Texas, 1868, similarly concerned with the story of a search party, looking for a young girl has been forcibly separated from her parents. In the position of aggressive natives Django however, places the decadent slave owner Candie and his mindless southern belle sister. Each trope in The Searchers breathless racial imaginary is given a slight tweak in Django, and yet remains.

But Tarantino does more than just repeat: he wonders whether it could have been otherwise. He reverses classic tropes of Hollywood and of European genre cinema, and he lets his viewers catch him doing it. It is a film in which only black people are left standing at the end, in which white people, no matter how well-meaning, are just cannon fodder. It is a film that replaces Hollywood’s most enduring racist figure, the “magic negro” who selflessly guides white people to their goal only to conveniently die at the end, with King Schultz, who performs exactly the same role, and whose death is explicitly acknowledged (by the film, by himself) as pure narrative contrivance. Having learned all it takes to become a gunslinger from his German friend, Django literally steals the show. While at the end of Birth of a Nation all the black characters (and actors) are wiped off the screen, at the end of Tarantino’s film the whites are absent from a final show down which his hero must fight with his double. Their disappearance from our frame of vision suggests that this more than a tale of retribution against white tormentors. Django must not only free his Broomhilda by a barrage of gunfire rather than riding through a circle of fire. And indeed, Tarantino’s Wotan turns out to be black as well: it is the villainous house slave Steven (played by Samuel L. Jackson). Where Wagner’s Wotan is the keeper of treaties and guardians of an order he upholds without really remembering why he bothers, so Steven upholds the status quo because it is the status quo. But—and therein he is the true successor to Wotan—his instence on the status quo also proves to be the act that will bring down Candyland. While Schulz is shown to be dispensable, cast off once he is no longer needed for the plot, Steven must be destroyed with panache. His is the master’s death which the final orgy of violence celebrates.

Django Unchained winkingly restages heavily racialized tropes of Hollywood cinema and of European genre films, but colors between the lines in the exact opposite way. White becomes black and black becomes white. Does this switch in itself accomplish anything? Well, the film doesn’t necessarily say. But it raises that question not just in the way it plays with film history; it also raises it in its very plot. And here again, Richard Wagner makes his appearance. At the end of the film, the white plantation owners, Django’s white allies, and even the malevolent house slave lie dead in the ruins of the plantation. Django finds a horse for his Broomhilda, and rides off with her into the sunset, or rather, into a black night. In the final shots of the film, Django is shown in silhouette before the conflagration of Candyland. A Brünnhilde on a horse and a colossal fiery hecatomb: Tarantino is once again quoting, for this is the final scene of Wagner’s Ring-cycle. At the end of nearly fourteen hours of opera, Wotan in his despair has lit a fire that consumes Valhalla—as mourners set on fire the barge bearing the body of Wotan’s grandson Siegfried, the fire of the burial merges with that of Ragnarök, the “twilight of the gods” that gives the opera its (spoiler-heavy) title.

At that moment, Brünnhilde, by now Siegfried’s jilted lover, rides her horse into the flames consuming his body. Before she does, she gives a long soliloquy, proclaiming “for the end of the gods dawns now.” Originally, Wagner had her go on for quite a bit longer. In his first draft of the libretto, Brünnhilde not only discusses the world that is ending, and the way it is ending—she also starts anticipating the new world that is dawning. A better world, we are given to understand, a world not of gods and for gods, but of and for human beings.

In both final scenes, then, an old world is going up in flames, and in both cases there is a sense that the world pretty much deserved it too. Except in the Ring Brünnhilde rides her horse Grane onto the fiery barge bearing Siegfried’s body, a fire that merges (both visually and metonymically) with the fire that consumes Wotan’s palace at Valhalla on the horizon. Personal sacrifice and the tottering of the old world coincide. Tarantino introduces yet a further difference into his recycling. Rather than riding into Candyland, Django emerges from its flames. Having reached Broomhilda, who has gleefully covered her ears while watching the explosion, he proceeds to show off his horsemanship. Literally horsing around, our dour hero assumes an attitude of silliness which we haven’t seen from him previously. She is the greatful audience of both—the burning mansion and her husband’s trick. “Let’s get out of here,” he says, and she takes the rifle from behind her saddle and brandishes it in the air. As the reunited couple rides off into a the dark vanishing point of the screen, the implication is clear: their freedom comes only with the burning of the old world. We have in this final scene not resignation but hopefulness and even play.

The final moments of Ring and Django thus demarcate a rather elegant shift: Tarantino once again draws our attention to something he is not doing. In Wagner, the deaths of Siegfried and Brünnhilde become necessary precipitants for the cleansing “twilight of the gods.” Django hews, if anything, closer to the humanism of Wagner’s earliest drafts for the Ringcycle. In Tarantino’s world, the burning of Candyland, the destruction of all its assembled tropes and film-historical references enables Django and Broomhilda to ride off into the darkness of a night at the end of which a new dawn awaits them — and into a new film, one that would not have to repeat anything that came before it. They can leave the stage of this twilight world. For them there will be a tomorrow. They have successfully severed themselves from the mythic narrative in which they were enslaved. The world they are moving into is as yet without shape. This may be Tarantino’s final homage to the spaghetti western. But we must ask ourselves: Where are they riding to? It is night, they are in Mississippi, and they are now two black people on horses without a white mentor to speak for them. The narrative returns to its audacious beginning. Everything, indeed, is open.

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