“Opera Meets Film” is a feature dedicated to exploring the way that opera has been employed in cinema. We will select a section or a film in its entirety, highlighting the impact that utilizing the operatic form or sections from an opera can alter our perception of a film that we are viewing. This week’s installment returns to Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained.”
At the start of this series, we took at look at Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” to dissect the manner in which Wagner’s “Siegfried” influenced the film’s narrative and structure.
Interestingly, despite drawing so much from the Wagner epic, the film itself contains no music from the maestro at Bayreuth. That said, it does contain one section of “Operatic” music, specifically the “Dies Irae” from Verdi’s Requiem.
The segment is brief but effective in how it works on a number of different levels.
It is essential to contextualize the scene as Tarantino makes no move without incredible calculation. It is the raid of the Ku Klux Klan on Dr. King Schultz wagon.
Tarantino makes no secret in the way he shoots the scene that he is making a rather open reference to similar imagery from “Birth of a Nation,” where D.W. Griffith littered his films with images of heroism for the Ku Klux Klan. He famously showcased Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” at the climax of said film to express the heroism.
We have already explored how Francis Ford Coppola takes a different approach with his use of the Wagnerian classic in the context of Griffith, and Tarantino does much the same. Instead of highlighting the similarities in moral corruption the way Coppola does in his use of the same music, Tarantino parodies with his use of similar imagery and the choice of an operatic soundtrack.
Let’s be frank – the “Dies Irae” is excellent music that is heavy-handed in nature. It is this forcefulness that gives it its gravitas and makes it so effective. But in the context of the film, playing alongside shots of the Ku Klux Klan riding into a valley, torches in hand and horses running at full speed, it comes off as a bit exaggerated and over-the-top. Of course, this is what Tarantino wants as what follows is one of the most hilarious scenes in any of his films, the corrupt organization portrayed as a bunch of fools, at best.
The camp of the “Die Irae” establishes this. It expresses the grandiosity and ferociousness that the Klan sees itself as having, but at the same time plants the seed of humor for the audience. Given the rest of the music for the film, which doesn’t include opera, the use here is a clear indicator of a shift in tone for Tarantino. He doesn’t put the “Dies Irae” to make us shudder but for the opposite effect. He wants us to laugh at the Klan for their exaggerated sense of power and dignity. They aren’t the ones to bring Judgment but about to be served some fulfilling judgment.
Check out the scene below: