Two notes: First, the movie under discussion is violent and profane; don’t see it unless you’re comfortable with that. Second, spoilers follow. I wish the statement “it comes very late in the movie” were enough to tip everyone off to that, but might as well follow Internet etiquette on this one.
There’s a scene from Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained that’s sticking with me. It comes very late in the movie. The plot to that point: King Schultz is a German bounty hunter working in the American South. As a German, he finds slavery distasteful and racism ridiculous, but he’s an ironist rather than a radical. He’s fond of casually comparing the violence of his job, which he does with skill and panache, with the violence of slavery. He and his ex-slave protege Django have spent the middle third of the movie infiltrating a horrifically corrupt plantation in order to buy and rescue Django’s wife; their plot involves pretending to be fully amoral slavers. Django, because of his great love, plays his role fully; Schultz finds it increasingly difficult to keep his poker face in the presence of cruelty. Eventually, Schultz and Django’s scheme fails, and the pair is exposed.
So here’s the scene: the furious plantation owner, Calvin Candie, has decided to humiliate the intruders by terrifying them into a financially ruinous deal, so that they’ll escape with their lives and little else. While Candie draws up the papers, Schultz stews in a sumptuous parlor. A harpist plays Fur Elise. Schultz sees memories flash before him of the day’s terrors. For the first time in the film, he loses his composure, lurching angrily toward the harpist. He can’t abide this refinement and beauty in a place just outside of which slaves can be murdered by dogs. “Stop playing Beethoven!”
Candie, noticing Schultz’s outburst, first shrugs it off as the bitterness of a man bested in intellectual combat. But it’s not shame, it’s moral contempt. And when Candie understands this, he decides to complete the humiliation, saying that the deal can’t conclude without a handshake. He offers his hand, so that Schultz must visibly signal accommodation with and hence submission to a system of racism and slavery that now disturbs him to the core. And Schultz has reached a point where he can no longer ironize his morality. He cannot cross this line. Some things are more important than survival. Schultz shoots Candie through the heart. For this he’s quickly shot down by a henchman, and… well, the movie is really Django’s story, and I won’t ruin any more of it.
For those of us that thought the meta-concerns of Inglorious Basterds blurred out the moral realities required for a consideration of Nazi Germany, this moment of moral clarity is a blessed relief, and a challenge. Which hands are we shaking? And must we refuse?
The movie’s not perfect. It’s troubling how what is “badass” crowds out what is good in so many American movies, and this line of thought applies to Django Unchained. But it should also be known that Tarantino’s taken the old trope of the out-for-only-himself gunslinger’s self-sacrificial awakening (see also: Han Solo) and deployed it more than just convincingly, with the special help of Christoph Waltz’s acting. I can’t get the scene out of my mind.