The thing about fascism is that it forces people to figure out who they are; it’s us vs. them, and anyone who tries to feign indifference or bury their head in the sand is only ceding ground to the armies of violence. “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing,” goes Edmund Burke’s famous maxim, but how — in the face of such monstrous villains — could men who do nothing possibly be thought of as good?
Perhaps it’s a matter of semantics, but the movies would seem to argue that it’s more accurate to say “All that is necessary for the triumph of good is that evil men do something.” Oskar Schindler, to pick but one famous example, was not a good man until the empirical reality of genocide goaded him into becoming one. A more subtle (though perhaps more sobering) illustration might be found in 2010’s “Of Gods and Men,” which dramatizes the true story of the seven Christian monks who, in March of 1996, transcended their cloistered existence and laid down their lives as the ultimate show of resistance against the terrorists who preyed upon the local population.
It’s hardly a surprise that Etienne Comar, who wrote “Of Gods and Men” (and produced Abderrahmane Sissako’s similarly themed masterpiece, “Timbuktu”), chose to explore the same idea in his directorial debut. On the other hand, it’s a big surprise that he chose a jazz biopic as his vehicle to do so. It’s not a decision that always pays off, but this Django Reinhardt dramatization — to whatever degree it might scratch the historical record — convincingly insists that the musician’s defining moments weren’t on the stages of Paris, but rather in the shadows of a makeshift gypsy caravan along the Swiss border.
Inexplicably not called “Django Restrained,” Comar’s film begins in the summer of 1943, when gypsies were being hunted for sport and Reinhardt — a Belgian-born Romani who could flick a guitar with the devil’s precision — was only spared because the Nazis thought they could tell him what to perform (“No more than 5% syncopation!” one SS officer barks).
Played to perfection by Reda Ketab, the mustached savant slips through the war with the swagger of a genius and the chaos of an Emir Kusturica film. “This isn’t my war,” he snaps at someone when they try to caution him against taking Hitler’s money, knowing that his talent makes himself and his loved ones temporarily untouchable. Of course, when the bombs start to fall overhead, he and his underwritten wife (and their pet monkey, Joko) have to run for their lives just like everybody else. Reinhardt’s ancient but feisty mother, a tepid source of comic relief in a film that runs dangerously low on the stuff, refuses to budge.
The crux of the conflict is that Reinhardt and his band have been invited to tour Germany en route to performing a massive show for Goebbels; the pay is good, but the ethics — and the safety — of the offer soon begin to sour the deal. Eventually, Reinhardt is convinced by a beautiful old flame (the great Cécile de France, channeling Nina Hoss in “Phoenix”) to steal away in the middle of the night and try to escape Nazi reach. In the film’s considerably less engaging second half, the “hot jazz” pioneer holes up in a wooded gypsy camp, where he’s humbled into learning that he might not be the bystander he thought he was.
The film is a bit patchy when it comes to negotiating Reinhardt’s transition from dispassionate observer to bonafide member of the resistance. Comar’s script, which he directs without distinction, prefers to elide these formative moments rather than finesse its way through them, and the movie suffers enormously as a result. His tight frames sacrifice a ton of context, and potentially gripping sequences, such as a climactic bit of light espionage that feels like it was jacked straight from a spy thriller like “Army of Shadows,” aren’t given the set-up required to pay off like they should.
Still, “Django” deserves credit for refusing to fit its subject into the straightjacket of a survival tale, and Ketab’s expressive turn — much of which is captured in close-ups — provides the story with a richness that the writing struggles to achieve on its own. A huge percentage of the movie is devoted to scenes of Reinhardt plucking at his guitar, and Ketab sweats out so much of his character’s essence that each number feels like an extremely revealing monologue; either the actor trained his ass off, or he and Comar have raised the bar when it comes to finger-picking fakeness.
Even the most adamant of jazz haters will find themselves tapping their toes, a strict Nazi no-no. Time and again, the film sublimates resistance through art, through identity, and through acts of non-compliance so natural that the man committing them isn’t even fully aware that the instrument in his hands is a machine that kills fascists. “You’re the only person this war hasn’t changed,” snipes Reinhardt’s ex, but it won’t be long before she starts to hear a difference.
“Django” premiered in competition at the 2017 Berlinale. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.