When a musician is as gifted as the jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, it becomes entirely feasible that resistance soldiers would enlist him to provide cover for their efforts to protect Jewish and Romani citizens in his native France during the Nazi occupation in World War II, as Étienne Comar’s otherwise unbelievable historical drama “Django” relays. As a member of the resistance tells Reinhardt (brilliantly played by Reda Kateb), “It all depends on you – how you can bewitch them,” knowing his nimble fingers may be able to entertain the Germans long enough to smuggle their targets across the border to Switzerland. Reinhardt, born a Romani himself, simply wants to play, frustrated that he’s had to flee Paris for Thonon-les-Bains, a commune in the Alps where he can live amongst his gypsy relatives after he declines an invitation to headline a concert in Berlin, but in speaking a language where he can hide his private thoughts in plain sight through the notes he plays, he finds he can be home just about anywhere.
That might also be said professionally of the film’s writer/director Comar, who has built quite the resume this past decade as a producer on such films as Abderrahmane Sissako’s “Timbuktu” and Agnes Varda’s “Faces Places” and a writer of Xavier Beauvois’ Palme d’Or winning “Of Gods and Men” and Maiwenn’s “My King.” Ascending to the director’s chair for the first time, he wisely profiles Reinhardt from the vantage point of this defining year in his life as the musician takes refuge in his music as the world was on fire until he can no longer ignore it and surrounding Kateb, who underwent two hours of makeup every morning on set and nearly a year of guitar lessons to disappear into the role, with as many authentic touches as he could, whether it was non-professional Gypsy actors and musicians or sifting through piles of photos from the period to create era specific sets. The result is a film bursting with life, not the least of which emerges from Reinhardt’s passionate string plucking, and as “Django” arrives on American shores after opening last year’s Berlin Film Festival, Comar spoke about waiting for the right opportunity to direct one of his scripts, using a moment to speak to someone’s entire life, and why premiering in Berlin proved so inspiring for him.
Had you been wanting to direct for a while?
Not a long time [because] I was interested in directing, but when I started to write my first films “Of Gods and Men” and “Haute Cuisine,” those were not a good subject for me [to direct]. I had to find a good subject and I’ve [spent] many years practicing music before, so I wanted to make my first film about a musician. When I found the subject of Django Reinhardt, I knew this one was a good one to make as a first film.
How did you hone in on this time in Django Reinhardt’s life?
I didn’t want to make a full biopic because I think it’s very difficult to tell the whole story of a life in an hour-and-a-half or two hours. I prefer these kind of movies [where] you talk about a few years and I was very interested in this period because [I wonder] how artists like musicians or others keep going on and practicing their own art in a very difficult period of history. In the life of Django, there was exactly this moment where he was considered a genius. It was very easy for him to play, but all the historic [circumstances] around him and the situation where he was at this time complicates everything for him. That was exactly the kind of story I wanted to tell. I didn’t want to make a film about his hand burning or his touring in America or his success because it’s much more well-known, but this particular period of the war is not very well-known and it tells a lot of things about his origin, all the violence around him and how he can continue to play music. So that for me was a very strong direction to make a film.
You’re able to say so much about his character in the opening concert sequence, which really immerses you in that period and shows how single-minded he was about his craft. What was that like to write and ultimately execute?
Yes, it was very important for me in this first sequence to show him play his music, and to make the audience very comfortable with it and to imagine that he is a musician who is able to express himself in his music. In those few songs [he plays], you can see how he can be sometimes ironic, sometimes melancholic, sometimes aggressive, sometimes funny and everything [is] with his guitar. Django Reinhardt was not a very talkative character, so he was really speaking with his music and I shot the whole thing [towards the end of the shoot when Reda Kateb was at his most practiced] – doing the concert – and afterwards, the editing was very complicated. It took a long time to refine this and find a good duration for this, but I think we have four [songs] from this concert – and it shows a lot of the different humor of Django Reinhardt.
I understand you often surrounded Reda Kateb with real musicians when he was performing the concert scenes, and then real gypsies when you went to the camps. Did you get a certain energy from that interaction besides its inherent authenticity?
Yes, exactly. It gives [energy] to the sequence and many musicians have seen the film and everybody has told me that the music sequences are very strong. You really believe that he’s playing, which is part true and part not. But it was very important to surround him with musicians who are really jazzmen and to also make them play during those sequences. Reda’s not a musician, but he learned the guitar [over the course of] one year for this film, and it was very difficult for him to do that, but with the energy and all the tricks you can have in the cinema, we really believe he’s doing it. I think part of the good feeling that you can have regarding the film [is subconsciously knowing] he really practiced this music and he’s doing it very well, so the result would be very different if we didn’t take some musicians to make it. If we take only actors, it would be very difficult to make. It’s exactly the same when he arrives in Thonon-les-Bains, with the gypsy community — they’re all real gypsies and you have really the impression and the feeling that he’s part of this because they are also musicians and they can speak Romani with him, so all these little things create the impression of reality and credibility.
What’s it been like taking this film around the world after premiering in Berlin?
After Berlin, it was amazing because I’ve been in Japan, Korea, China…and Berlin was very important. It was selected as the opening film and it’s very courageous for the Germans to invite this kind of film to have an opening in Berlin because it tells a lot about Germany and about jazz music during the war. There was a lot of emotion for all the crew and after that, the film has been released in 30 countries. Django Reinhardt is not very famous, but very known with all the jazz aficionados and his music is really in the mind of a lot of people, so even if they don’t know Django Reinhardt, his music travels a lot because gypsies were people who traveled a lot and inspired by many different kinds of music. I knew this before, but when I show the film abroad, a lot of people are very moved by the film and moved by the music.
“Django” will open in Los Angeles on January 19th at the Ahrya Fine Arts as well as select screenings on January 22nd at the Laemmle Playhouse 7, the Royal, the Encino Town Center 5 and the Claremont 5. A full schedule of screenings and dates is here.