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Motti, Lazzaro, and Django

The Awakening of Motti Wolkenbruch (Swiss, 2018) is a coming of age story, Motti’s single marital status of existential concern to his mother, who tries to set him up with any number of, for Motti, unsuitable but available girls whose mothers are equally concerned about the marriage status of their daughters. But Motti has his own ideas about attractions and family values, even as his young and tender heart is yanked from his body by the carefree girl he falls off a cliff for, and a parental sponsored trip to Israel banking on his finding a girl the family can approve of only makes matters worse. Expect much laughter, and crying, out loud, with actors speaking German, Yiddish, and Hebrew. The Awakening of Motti Wolkenbruch is about the surprise of life.

Happy as Lazzaro (Italian, 2018) is another coming of age story. Lazzaro does, literally, fall off a cliff, but not for love, and his heart remains surreally whole, inviolate, even as his body is bruised and abused. He’s a static character, the same at the end as at the beginning, even as life around him changes dramatically. The dwelling settings, country and city, are brutal but beautiful. The lives of the sharecroppers, under imprisonment and later emancipated but just as poor, still captives of poverty, illustrate that poverty is protean, affecting both the poor and the wealthy.

Django (French, 2017). A dramatization of the life of the guitarist Django Reinhardt and his family during World War II. The Nazis persecuted the Gypsies, many of whom tried to flee to relatively safe zones, joined the resistance, or were caught, killed on the spot, or transported via train to the Nazi concentration camps. The film focuses on Django’s one attempt to escape France, and while he did try to escape to Switzerland, according to the book Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend (2004, Michael Dregni, Oxford University Press), Django spent most of the war in Paris, where he was allowed to continue playing his music because by then he and his music had become so popular. But he had to play for the occupiers as well as for the locals, his safe treatment thus coming at the cost of a kind of debt bondage. From the book:

“Hitler bore a deep hatred for Gypsies…From 1933, German Gypsies were doomed. The Nazis barred Romanies from cities, shuttling them into settlement camps. Nazi doctors began sterilizing Romanies as early as 1933. And German Gypsies were required to wear a brown triangle sewn on their chest marked with the letter “Z” for zigemer, German for “Gypsy” – a precursor of the yellow Stars of David pinned to Jews (168)….Yet in Paris, Django was flourishing. Never did he have so much work or live in such sumptuous surroundings. Just as the Germans permitted jazz in Paris, they allowed Romany musicians to continue to play – and paid to come hear them every night” (169).

Still, Django worried for his family and for his own life, and if some considered him a hero, others thought of him as a conspirator: “Being in the spotlight saved him from the fate awaiting other Gypsies, but Django began to sweat under the glare” (182). Django takes off with his pregnant wife and his mother. They get caught and are imprisoned, but then, in the absurd way these things seem to happen, Dregni says, “A miracle arrived in the unlikely form of the German kommandant. He was a jazz fan, and when he came to question his new prisoner, he was astonished. ‘My good Reinhardt,’ he said, ‘whatever are you doing in this fix?’ Django promised not to try to escape again, and was freed” (184).

Django the film is must see for anyone interested in Gypsy jazz. But it’s also just a classic film – the acting, the setting, the timing, the war, the family and country drama and suspense. It features much magnificent music, including the organ “Mass” piece Django created. Django the book by Dregni should also be read. Django never learned to read or write, save at a most rudimentary level, and that late in his life (he died age 43). The book reveals a deep history of jazz music in Europe, particularly Paris, including stories of the many Black American musicians who traveled through Europe, most stopping in Paris, many playing with Django, following both World Wars. It covers the business of music and recording and performance management, popular success and failure, the changing style of jazz as musicians work to assimilate new music experienced from new exposures.