“Django,” the opening film of the Berlin Film Festival, may reflect many parallels of today’s politically charged era, but for French filmmaker Etienne Comer, it was initially the special ability of musicians to live in their own artistic space, protected from the world around them, that led him to tell the story of famed French jazz virtuoso Django Reinhardt.
The film centers on Reinhardt’s flight from German-occupied Paris in 1943. As a member of the Sinti minority, Reinhardt’s family faced harassment by the Nazis.
At a press conference ahead of the film’s opening night premiere in Berlin, Comer said that the two years in Reinhardt’s life that he focused on in the film “parallels our own time,” marked by the plight of refugees and increasing hostility towards minorities in Europe and the U.S.
“I wanted to show a musician in a complex historical structure, and there are parallels with today’s refugees, with preventing certain people from traveling, of people who don’t like certain ideas.”
The film also illustrates the freedom that music provides, Comer added. “Gypsies never had their own homeland, but the music is intrinsic to their lifestyle, it provides them with a vitality that keeps them going. It is their life blood, their meaning of existence.”
Yet then as now, “totalitarian and terrorist regimes often go after the music first,” Comer noted. “The Nazis sought to stop jazz because it blends different cultures.”
Actor Reda Kateb, who plays Reinhardt, said that the story of a Sinti family fleeing peril and trying to survive very much echoed the plight of today’s displaced people. The Sinti and Roma communities have been ill-treated for a long time and continue to face persecution, he added.
Actress Cécile de France, who was also at the press conference, plays a liberated woman and admirer of Reinhardt’s who helps the musician and his family escape the Nazis.
While much of Reinhardt’s recorded output has been released since his death, a requiem mass he composed was never recorded. For a concert scene in the film in which it is played, Comer said he recruited musician and regular Nick Cave collaborator Warren Ellis to arrange the piece, which, like the original, was written for pipe organs, strings and choir.