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Straub/Huillet, the New Left, and Germany

Straub/Huillet and the New Left

That the debates in film theory since the 1960s continue those among German leftist exiles in the 1930s only adds richness to the relevance of Straub/Huillet's work to the historical and contemporary context of German culture. The contemporary stakes are remarkably similar: the apparent separation of artists and intellectuals from the wishes of "the masses," the "failure of the student left to formulate a progressive aesthetics that had popular support,"[1] and the threatening rise of Fascist movements to fill the gap.

The decline in attention to Straub/Huillet films since the early 1980s, I argue, has to do with many factors unrelated to the films themselves, which have ventured into exciting uncharted film territory in this very period. Backlash against the 1960s and the cultural climate of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Helmut Kohl brought a chill to leftist counterculture that has yet to subside in the aftermath of the cold war. Political and economic factors have made it more difficult to view any foreign films in the United States since the early 1980s, and the distribution of Straub/Huillet films has suffered from this. Finally, the resistance of German critics to the German films Straub/Huillet have made since 1984 has no doubt spilled over into other countries. The most positive reception—even to films as German as the Hölderlin works—has been in France.

Straub/Huillet refuse to accept limitations placed on the cinema by these conditions. Through the separation of the elements of its makeup, they reveal traces of layers of history going back to the beginnings of cinema and the beginning of the modern era; they place alongside each other gestures of


political concreteness and utopian otherness; they point to the past with the future in mind. The profound optimism and militancy of even such a nihilistic film as Antigone , especially its continuity with their other work, places Straub/Huillet as a counterweight to the melancholy and immobility reached by both film theory and leftist politics since the 1980s.[2]

In film theory, we have seen that they have avoided the impasse of political modernism by not subscribing to the Althusserian conflation of theory and praxis but instead increasing the separation between aesthetic representations and political action. Despite what many have seen as a deconstruction of codes of film communication, they have also not moved in the direction of postmodernism's play of "infinite reversibility." By looking at their work as part of a larger formal and cultural/political continuity, one can perhaps step away from a melancholy theoretical impasse of postmodernism as well, of which Jean Narboni has observed, "Everything is leveled out in a sort of desperation that is a little melancholy. Obviously, the Straubs are everything but postmodern. In their work are themes, contents to which they hold hard as iron—political, cosmic, mystical contents."[3]

We have seen the affirmative function of melancholy in the context of postwar German history and the New German Cinema, and I argue that this melancholy has led to a certain complicity with anti-sixties backlash on the Left as well. Thus both Straub/Huillet and Godard are attacked for stubbornly refusing to adapt to the needs of the popular marketplace. This, rather than any specific discussion of their films, has been the main objection to Straub/Huillet's post-seventies work from both Wim Wenders and Alexander Kluge, for instance.[4]

The vehement rejection of Straub/Huillet films on the part of leftist or former leftist critics seems to be part of the phenomenon of wallowing in failure as a cultural unifier. The utopian gesture of connecting Hölderlin's Empedocles, for instance, with the "fête permanente" of the 1960s is felt to be unseemly by former student radicals, who, as Jürgen Habermas observed, have accommodated themselves with the "end of utopias" in the 1970s.[5] This revolt against utopia, which feeds an already pervasive animosity toward the sixties, has thwarted the former receptivity to aesthetic wishes to "have it all." A portion of Gilberto Perez's explanation for Godard's recent lack of an audience would apply at least as strongly to Straub/Huillet.

If Godard is out of fashion nowadays, so, in many quarters, is beauty. Postmodernists mostly disown it. As a quality men see in women ("Beauty is pleasure regarded as the quality of a thing," said Santayana), feminists largely discountenance it. The Thatcherite aesthetician Roger Scruton thinks it too imprecise a notion for meaningful consideration; but an aesthetician who cannot talk about beauty had better find another line of work. On the left, beauty is suspected both of being elitist, the plaything of a privileged few, and of being a whore seductively selling the ideology of the ruling class. In the puritanism of today, a puritanism


on the right and on the left, beauty is to be approached with the protective crucifix of (right or left) political correctness.[6]

Martin Schaub, writing in 1976, takes the most extreme position against Straub/Huillet's claim to political relevance for their aesthetic method. "With Othon (1969) Straub and Huillet lost their footing in the base that sustained them. No matter how much they insist they have shown Othon in French factories and that it was the workers who best understood the revolutionary message of this film (in form and content), I have trouble believing it. And Moses and Aaron (1975) also seems to me to be more of a demonstration of method than a lever in the political struggle Straub still maintains he is waging."[7] After condemning Straub/Huillet films as "pedagogical" and "radically rationalistic," Schaub goes so far as a biting personal attack: "The development Straub has demonstrated in his life in past years is unsettling. I would term it 'loss of reality.' Moses and Aaron is dedicated to Holger Meins, and somehow I can compare Straub's [sic ] development with that of the Red Army Faction. The Federal Republic, or even 'liberal' Europe, seems to compel such developments."[8]

The return to interrupted traditions in cinema, culture, and politics is required in order to break out of this paralysis. For this reason, Straub/Huillet deny that their films are non-narrative or anticinematic, as if the overthrow of traditional forms were their primary goal, as if radical aesthetics were their point of departure. This interpretation of the process is entirely backward and imputes to Straub/Huillet just the kind of formalistic pseudoradicalism with which the culture industry readily titillates itself. Walter Benjamin was perhaps not the first to note the ability of the culture industry to absorb criticism and turn it into just another disposable product.[9] Just as subsidized institutions of "high culture" allow privileged groups to cultivate the illusion that they do not participate in the culture industry, a destructive avant-garde serves to perpetuate the illusion of flexibility and freedom.[10] In a wasteful society, destructiveness is highly marketable as an aesthetic principle. Therefore, avant-garde art that merely negates the conventions and traditions of "high culture" still relies on this same artificial isolation of art, otherwise such taunts would be uninteresting. This kind of avant-garde is only apparently political. As Dana Polan puts it,

This is why contemporary culture can accommodate formally subversive art: as long as such an art does not connect its formal subversion to an analysis of social situations, such art becomes little more than a further example of the disturbances that go on as we live through a day. And a work of art which defeats formal expectations does not lead to protest against a culture that deals continually in the defeating of expectations.[11]

In this regard, the statements of Straub/Huillet on their work have a rather conservative tone. They constantly stress how little is really new in the methods


they use, how the traditions of cinema are indeed present in everything they do. Straub has expressed his aversion to the catchword "revolutionary" and insists, "we move forward only in very small steps."[12]

It is also backward to assume that Straub/Huillet came to their aesthetic innovations by intending to make political films. Political relevance is an effect of their work, not a cause. One need not have a political reason to depart from aesthetic norms. Such departure from the norm only develops political implications when it is understood that adhering to the norms is also a political act. As Straub puts it, echoing Godard, he does not try to make political films; he makes films politically.[13]

The moral claim Straub/Huillet make, then, is closer to André Bazin's description of neorealism than avant-garde experimentation or culinary "visual pleasure." Rolf Aurich cites Bazin: "To respect the real means in fact not to multiply its appearances; on the contrary it means to free it of all that is inessential in order to reach completeness in simplicity." Aurich then goes on, regarding Too Early, Too Late and Empedocles , "These are films that owe their richness precisely to their lack of ornament and their strict handwriting; these films reach that point where neorealism arrives at classical abstraction and universality (Bazin) and then extend it with substantial innovations. Huillet/Straub extend the neorealist film; they are therefore advanced moralists."[14]

One way out of the impasse of political modernism might be to examine what intellectuals to the East and South have made out of the same European heritage in the context of other political struggles over "realism" and the avant-garde. A lot of theoretical work in Eastern Europe and the German Democratic Republic (GDR), for instance, virtually unknown in the West, developed around the work of Bertolt Brecht, Georg Lukács, or the Russian formalists.[15] But, as Straub/Huillet imply with most of their films, true change can only come with the natural replacement of one generation with another. This perhaps will also bring a new reception of Straub/Huillet. An example would be the Parallel Cinema and sinefantom in Russia, just becoming known in the West. A new film journal in Hanover, filmwärts , has also self-consciously dedicated much space to a renewal of interest in Straub/Huillet in Germany. They have done so specifically in regard to the "negative" national identity we have located in the New German Cinema. For instance, a note on Reinhard Hauff's Stammheim , a film about the trial of the Baader-Meinhof terrorists, puts it in the context of "thoughts on Germany." The film's clichéd presentation of political violence is contrasted with Norbert Elias's "Thoughts on the Federal Republic,"[16] which accounts for the violence and radicalism of West German political culture via "the so-called economic miracle, fascism in Germany and above all the irreconcilability of the pre-war and post-war generations." Here the filmwärts editor sees a connection to Straub/Huillet's Not Reconciled , which is then recommended, along with Kluge's Patriot , as a correction to the Stammheim view of German history.[17]


In general, then, it is important to distinguish radical politics from radical aesthetics, not to use one as an alibi for the other or to assume that they are the same thing. Politics and aesthetics, like theory and practice, must be seen as concretely distinct but necessary to one another. The nature and development of the radicalism of Straub/Huillet must be traced carefully and concretely, since it consists, in the main, of a materialist approach to filmmaking.

Brecht, for instance, like Straub/Huillet, did not believe in innovation for its own sake but instead appealed constantly to classical traditions. He was highly distressed by the idea that his innovations might later be adopted for purely formalistic reasons, as indeed has often been the case.[18] As he wrote in his Arbeitsjournal ,

since i am an innovator in my field, some always scream that i am a formalist. they don't find the old forms in my works, and what is worse, they find new ones. then they think it is the forms which interest me. but i have found that i care rather little about form. at different times i have studied the old forms of poetry, short story, drama and theater and have only given them up when they stood in the way of what i wanted to say.[19]

The above could apply as well to Straub/Huillet as to Brecht with little modification. The phrase "what i wanted to say" illuminates the distinction made earlier regarding Straub/Huillet's opposition to film "language." Of course this does not mean that the filmmakers withdraw from the film's impact entirely and leave the audience merely provoked and confused by an endlessly equivocal work of art. The renunciation of the conventions of film language is meant to avoid equivocation, while documenting the reality of contradiction. It is an alternative to the deception and manipulation of the viewer, which convey little "meaning" as far as the world outside the film is concerned. Indeed, such manipulation subtracts more from the viewers' experience than it adds. A similar opinion is reflected by Brecht's appeal for the simplicity and freedom of classicism.

on abbreviation in the classical style: if i leave out enough on a page, i receive for the single word "night"—for instance in the phrase "as night came"—a full measure of imagination on the part of the reader. inflation is the death of every economy. it would be best for the words to dismiss their entourage entirely and meet each other with all the dignity they can generate from within themselves. it is quite wrong to say that the classicists forget the senses of the reader; on the contrary, they count on them.[20]

The classicism of Straub/Huillet films similarly consists of an exclusion of the unnecessary, the reproduction of feelings or pieces of information that the viewer already possesses. For this reason, it is wrong to say that Straub/Huillet films are non-narrative. They merely reduce narrative to its simplest form and


refuse to subordinate visual narrative to that of a text. Conventional, commercial film is "pornographic," in Straub's opinion, and he describes the process of reducing the Brecht or Böll texts as that of removing all that is merely anecdotal. In regard to naturalism, Straub/Huillet also speak of "inflation." Like Brecht, they strive for realism, but their means are different from Brecht's. Straub commented in 1971, "I think that more and more the work we've got to do—though I have some reservations—is to make films which radically eliminate art, so that there is no equivocation. This may lose us some people, but it is essential to eliminate all the artistic, filmic surface to bring people face to face with the ideas in their naked state."[21]

Film language and film art are the "old forms" that stand in the way of ideas, of aesthetic confrontations with reality. The behavior of the artist, in stepping aside from industrialized production to rejoin an older history, is necessarily negative, reductive. The artist takes the revolutionary "tiger's leap" of history, as Benjamin called it, dialectics in practice. Arnold Schoenberg described his idea of rejoining artistic tradition in a similar way: "There is only one way to connect directly to the past and to tradition: to begin everything over again, as if all that had gone before were false; to grapple once again with the essence of the thing most exactly, instead of reducing oneself to developing the technique of a preexistent material."[22]

Here we arrive at a definition of artistic activity much closer to Adorno's than to Brecht's. But the relationship of the artist to history and to social change is a crucial issue for both of them, as well as for Straub/Huillet. If the artist can only produce authentic art by stepping outside of the reigning tradition, by reinventing language and form, then the bonds are severed which connect artist and audience. Rather than the language of a past culture, art now must speak the language of a culture that can only be imagined, a utopia. But the price for the freedom to create the new language is the surrender of the hope of transforming society by way of the old.

Thus Brecht and Adorno arrive by different routes at the same dilemma, with a similar hope. Both rejected a mimetic theory of art in favor of one projected toward the future. But this departure from mimesis leaves the future audience of art unimaginable, abstract, because any image of it would be a return to mimesis and an affirmation of the current order. Neither theorist was able to describe the prospect of a step beyond this contradiction, least of all in the medium of film. The films of Straub/Huillet, however, point toward this striven-for unity of theory and practice as well as the obstacles to it in contemporary Western society. The classicism of form and the simplicity of content remove from Straub/Huillet films the expectation of an image of society. Yet the historical materials, the aesthetic forms, and the contradictions between these and images from contemporary reality project a movement toward such a future society. Indeed, film only functions as a medium through its ability to suggest a world through a glimpse of a few fragments. The


audience for such works is not the future society in which these contradictions will be resolved, however, but those who dare to imagine it now. Brecht claimed, "The alienation effect [der V-Effekt ] is a social measure."[23] One might now conclude, materialist filmmaking does not replace social action; it requires it. The challenge is to find the audience of the future in the cultural marketplace of the present.

Straub/Huillet and the New German Cinema

Although Straub/Huillet have made a total of nine films based at least in part on German texts since The Bridegroom, the Commedienne, and the Pimp (1968), not one of them contains a depiction of postwar or contemporary Germany. The irony of this is driven home by the exceptions: In Class Relations , contemporary Hamburg is the setting for most of Kafka's Amerika , the land of promise that turns out to be just as corrupt as the old world. This underscores both their discontent with contemporary society and their search for German cultural traditions unscarred by fascism and war. Although I will argue that their taking German culture into exile in this way has been unique in the German cinema, the historical dilemma out of which it arises has been a central concern of the New German Cinema.

The critical literature on New German Cinema does not reflect this, however. Although they continued to make "German" films after 1969 and their work continued to receive attention in Filmkritik and the major German newspapers, Straub/Huillet became somewhat marginal to the phenomenon of the New German Cinema, as the major surveys of the movement confirm.[24] Despite their deep involvement with Germany since the 1960s, they are also not treated in the books of Santner or Kaes on German history, memory, and film. Even Elsaesser, despite his references to their relations to New German Cinema, does not write a section on "Straub/Huillet's Germany."[25] An important goal of this book is to demonstrate the significance of Straub/Huillet's work as a cinematic confrontation of German history and culture. Although they were not signatories of the Oberhausen Manifesto, which demanded public funding of film production by young directors, Straub/Huillet's film Machorka-Muff represents an early milestone of the Young German Cinema, precursor of the New German Cinema. Since these early years of attempts at revitalizing West German film production, the continuity of Straub/Huillet's involvement with the German cinema and German culture is matched by few, if any, other filmmakers.

Kaes, for instance, writes of Straub/Huillet's first two films as important beginnings for the New German Cinema's critical concern with German history, particularly the Nazi past. The significance of history to problems of German identity since 1945 and to the self-definition of the New German Cinema can hardly be overemphasized.[26] But not only were Straub/Huillet among the first to confront German history in innovative film work, their work


offers a refreshing, militant, and optimistic contrast to the nostalgic and melancholy aspect of Hitler, A Film from Germany, Heimat , and Germany in Autumn and the New German Cinema's relation to the violent German past.

Along with their relevance to new approaches to German history in the 1960s, Straub/Huillet were also seen from the beginning as part of a movement to revolutionize film form and reform the film industry. In the 1960s this was seen more as a practical political phenomenon than as a theoretical project alone, part of the student movement in Europe, but it led to specific efforts for reform in film criticism and public film policy. In the decade preceding the student revolts of 1967–1968, much critical cultural activity in West Germany had challenged the continuities of the World War II generation on a variety of fronts. The beginning of film reform and the "Young German Cinema" is traced to the Oberhausen Manifesto (1962). Thomas Elsaesser, Eric Rentschler, and others have demonstrated the centrality of funding mechanisms to the emergence of the New German Cinema.[27] Straub/Huillet's search for funding for Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach , outlined in chapter 3, is exemplary of this development. The work Straub/Huillet did in West Germany, from Machorka-Muff to Chronicle , summarizes their connection to and distance from the Young German Cinema and the emerging New German Cinema. By the time New German Cinema was becoming recognized, they had left the Federal Republic for Rome.

Straub/Huillet were somewhat distinct from the Young German Cinema from the outset, since they already had a feature film project (Bach), had completed a short film, and were able to finance their second film, Not Reconciled , without the state subsidies that the Oberhausen group demanded. They thus do not belong, as James Franklin asserted, to "a post-Oberhausen second generation who were able to take advantage of the film environment created by the Oberhausen group."[28] It was only their third film, the Bach film, that received any support from the Kuratorium Junger Deutscher Film, and this was only late in the process and after a long struggle. That Straub/Huillet had begun their "revolution" in German cinema without the manifesto perhaps derives from their consistent assertion that they should have a place in the commercial film industry and their rejection of the "art film ghetto." This is more of the French than the German model, since the New Wave had been possible in the context of the commercial film industry, without going the German route of film schools and federal subsidy programs.[29] The German route had to be different, as Harun Farocki has observed, since there was virtually no functioning commercial industry there.[30] The industry was at such a low point that in 1961, for instance, no film could be found deserving of the Federal Film Prize.[31] Still, Straub/Huillet produced two films in the early 1960s before the Young German Cinema got on its feet. That they had done this, and that they were French, perhaps contributed to Straub's being quite celebrated among film rebels in West Germany.


The journal Filmkritik is a good barometer of this phenomenon. Its development parallels film reception, production, and theory in West Germany until both the journal and the New German Cinema "end" in the 1980s. Filmkritik began in 1957, and the main authors of its critical approach were Enno Patalas, Wilfried Berghahn, Ulrich Gregor, Theodor Kotulla, and Frieda Grafe. The eclecticism of its concerns is important to note, since it contrasts sharply with later developments in film theory and reflects a formative period in Straub/Huillet's development. In the early years, both before and after the Berlin Wall, Filmkritik had a cosmopolitan outlook on film, spanning from the socialist countries to the East (including the GDR) to the legacy of Italian neorealism and the French New Wave. Filmkritik was the main location of discussion of Godard, for instance. Even the slogan most often linked to the Oberhausen Manifesto, "Papa's cinema is dead," was a translation from French which had appeared in a report from Paris in the journal.[32]Filmkritik had developed out of that attempt at a film-theoretical journal, Film 56 , and so on, which had marked the new reception of Brecht, Benjamin, and Adorno that began with the publication of their work in the late 1950s and early 1960s.[33]

Filmkritik enthusiastically marked each young filmmaker's success in the assault against the cinema of the old guard. Three such milestones were achieved by Straub/Huillet, Kluge, and Werner Herzog in the mid-1960s, which perhaps accounts for their being grouped together, for example, in the Hanser film volume Herzog/Kluge/Straub of 1976. By coincidence, both Herzog's Signs of Life and Straub/Huillet's Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach had been invited to the Cannes Week of the Critics in 1968,[34] perhaps the only thing these filmmakers ever had in common. Kluge had been hailed at Venice two years earlier for Yesterday Girl . This had been a political victory as well, since the film had been invited by the festival, not entered by the West German Film-referent des Auswärtigen Amtes. This West German cultural functionary, Herr Rowas, had been the same one to protest the screening of Resnais's Night and Fog in 1957.[35]

Although at first skeptical of Not Reconciled, Filmkritik soon began to put this film, as well as Chronicle , at the top of its rating chart. The popular agitation that was necessary to get Kuratorium support for the Bach film was matched by audience enthusiasm for Bridegroom . When the jury of the Mannheim film festival refused to award the grand prize, the assembled audience at midnight discussions afterward successfully demanded that the mayor award the DM 10,000 prize to Bridegroom .[36] That Straub/Huillet's work belonged to a new era in West German film production was confirmed, like the later New German Cinema, by resonance outside Germany. After the 1965 London Film Festival, the Frankfurt newspaper cited the London Times' view that Not Reconciled was the most hopeful sign for the German film in twenty years.[37] French and U.S. responses were similarly positive. Richard Roud brought the film, the first of many by Straub/Huillet, to the New York Film Festival.[38]


As the New German Cinema began to receive notice in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Straub/Huillet were less central to the phenomenon compared to the impact of their films of the 1960s. They had certainly had an influence on the West German film scene—on critics such as Patalas and Grafe and on directors such as Kluge and Wenders. Fassbinder, who is seen with the Action-Theater in Bridegroom , said he learned to direct by observing Straub.[39] Wolfram Schütte, writing of Fassbinder's prodigious output in the early 1970s, called him the "newcomer awakened by Straub,"[40] and Franklin notes the influence of Straub/Huillet on his early work especially.[41]

The directors they had been closest to, however, did not become internationally recognized with the New German Cinema, such as those Filmkritik had called the "New Munich Group" in a feature of May 1966: Peter Nestler, Eckhart Schmidt, Rudolf Thome, Max Zihlmann, and Klaus Lemke.[42] Nestler, whom Straub once called the "best filmmaker in Germany"—and who appeared in Straub/Huillet's Schoenberg short—emigrated to Sweden. One reason these filmmakers may have been eclipsed by the New German Cinema is the fact that they were either documentarists or attempted a German version of the "cinephile" genre approach of the French cinema. The documentarists still receive little recognition in Germany or abroad, and the genre approach was overshadowed by the auteur approach of the Oberhausener.[43] One colleague from the Munich years who turned to feature films did become recognized, however: Wim Wenders. Perhaps as an homage to this connection, he includes a shot from Straub/Huillet's Bach film in his Wrong Move .

Straub/Huillet's work from the late sixties on, and their departure from Germany, separated them from both the emerging New German Cinema and what Elsaesser calls the "double impasse" reached by the Oberhausener. One side of the impasse had been the bureaucratization of film culture by the subsidy system. The other was the contradictory development of the Autorenfilm, which became the basis for the renown of the New German Cinema: the filmmaker's individual self-expression becomes a state-subsidized cultural commodity, "the author as aesthetic expert."[44] Despite its partial benefit from this same subsidy system, Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach was "an act of resistance" to it, as well as "a formulation and a critique of the Autorenfilm and its concept of the artist."[45]

Another ill effect of Oberhausen's wish to replace the film industry and subsidize the film artist was its often explicit contempt for the existing German public. Many critics identify Straub/Huillet with this attitude, to which they were in fact opposed.[46] Their formal rigor has been seen as ascetic and antipleasure, with such terms as "monklike," "saintfigure," "cult," "exercise," and "schoolmasterlike."[47]

Such a rigid view of Straub/Huillet's formal radicalism also obscures their important links to the New German Cinema. The shift toward an engagement with Hollywood norms and genres in the New German Cinema—the "search


for an audience" Elsaesser describes—is partly a response to the Oberhausen dilemma. Straub/Huillet have consistently maintained a French tradition of engagement with the classical cinema, but they did not follow the path of either Kluge, who looked to statistical profiles of film audiences, or Fassbinder and Wenders, who explicitly adapted Hollywood role models.

Straub/Huillet's Germany

Three concerns of the New German Cinema connect recent critical works on its relation to postwar German culture: its role in Vergangenheitsbewältigung , coming to terms with the past, and the quest for a "usable" past as the foundation for a German national identity; its attempt to define itself and its audience against or in relation to American cinema (Hollywood) and popular culture; and the Left project of the student movement to break with the domination present in both of the other two—the guilt of the World War II generation and the "colonization" by the American culture industry.

Mourning, melancholy, loss, and numerous related terms mark both the New German Cinema and the general relation to history in West Germany in recent years.[48] Santner and Kaes especially have connected this emphasis with the role of film as "mourning work." The purpose of the mourning process, as Santner puts it, is "the construction of a viable, empowering legacy."[49] Evocations of the past certainly predominate in the films Kaes and Santner focus on, and the challenge to a "viable legacy" posed by the Nazi past is seen by Elsaesser to be at the core of the "German identity" that has emerged in the period of the New German Cinema.

The nature of this empowerment and the definition of this subject or identity are problematic, however. Santner, Kaes, and Elsaesser all make clear that the mourning work going on in New German Cinema is not for the victims of Nazism but for the legitimacy of the German identity itself. The images and emotions that are evoked are thus connected to the experiences and memories of the Nazi era that have been tainted by guilt. The individual psychological metaphor of mourning work suggests that Germany needs to work through the damage to its collective ego caused by the exposure of the "evil" of Nazism and the removal of its object of identification—particularly the father figure Hitler. The goal of such a process for individuals, as Santner points out, is "empowerment" and the ability to live on without being debilitated by guilt.

The problem with the collective version of this process as seen in film is that it accepts the "biographical continuity" between Nazi Germany and "Germany" as such. It also accepts as right the identification of the collective emotions and ideologically charged images of Nazism with the collective memory of present-day Germany. In other words, it accepts the colonization of memory by Nazism. There is no other alternative.

Since this is not just memory, but mourning, the quality of loss is also


necessary. But the "loss" of the carefree identification with Germany through Nazi images of it is an aesthetic one; the "loss" of the power associated with Nazi Germany has not taken place. Indeed, Germany is today more powerful than ever in its history. So to see a collective need for mourning in order to achieve some kind of "empowerment" can only exist in the realm of aesthetic identification with the state and not with the "power" of the state in itself. Straub/Huillet's approach to Germany is the inverse to this. Whereas there we see the problem as a cultural rupture in the face of political and economic continuities, Straub/Huillet propose cultural continuities as a form of resistance to political continuity. Whereas the New German Cinema's love of Germany is abstract and mediated by images, the love of Germany present in all of Straub/Huillet's German films is a concrete, experiential one.

In their interviews regarding Germany, they have always woven together these aspects of culture, memory, and everyday life. For instance, when questioned about the sources of their interest in German culture, they rejected the importance of early education (as Roud had stressed) in favor of their experience of living in West Germany for ten years. Before that, Straub's only relation to Germany had been the Nazi annexation of his hometown of Metz, which had engendered mostly resistance to the language and the conviction that the Bach film could only be shot in Germany. Beyond that, Huillet stresses, "The relations to Germany, they came mostly afterward, as we were living there."[50]

These relations to Germany, in contrast to the centrality of cultural images to other New German filmmakers, arose out of their particular practical and political struggles of living there.

HUILLET: The relation to Germany is not a cultural one. But in Germany, because we lived there, and because the violence in Germany is perhaps greater or more open . . .

STRAUB: . . . and we had to fight for ten years to get together the financing for the Bach film. Those are the relations we have to Germany! Much more than the so-called cultural ones.

HUILLET: And to the class struggle. Germany is a good school for that.[51]

However, Huillet and Straub polemically refer to a continuity with German cinema and culture before the Nazis, partly as a foil to the Young German Cinema's claim to originality and the notorious break between the New German Cinema and German cultural role models. For instance, the following cat-and-mouse game between Straub/Huillet and an interviewer asking for opinions on contemporary filmmakers:

JONATHAN ROSENBAUM: . . . Just which contemporary film makers do you admire?


STRAUB: I don't know, Mizoguchi. No, I mean it, but he's dead.

PETER GIDAL: Does that answer for both of you?


STRAUB: Then at the other end of the ideological scale, it would be John Ford. Of course there is Renoir and lots of people, Fritz Lang.

JONATHAN ROSENBAUM: I was thinking more about film makers now.

HUILLET: He means the living. Lang is still living, Renoir too.[52]

Straub goes on to speak of his continuing admiration of Godard, but the point of diverting the question from contemporary innovation to past models is telling. Similarly, he spoke of his polemical exchange with Alexander Kluge in the context of the Young German Cinema and Kluge's "caricature of Brecht":

Kluge always goes on about the film which is created in the minds of the spectators; I don't believe it. Then I react like Rivette and state that film—let's not quibble over the words—is only based on fascination, and that it only touches people, and touches them deeply, when it is based on fascination, i.e., the opposite of distance or participation or some such thing, that the traditional attitudes of people . . . one never invents very much, Renoir said, not like Kluge, with whom I quarreled in Mannheim. He climbed onto the stage and said, well, what we are doing is new. We make films which are going to be created in the minds of the spectators. That is completely new and nobody has done it before. My films are like—and then he saw me down in the audience—my films are like those of Straub, for instance—then I was furious and stood up and said, the things I do are not new at all, they are traditional.[53]

We will look at the different Brechtianism of Kluge later on, but for the moment, the central aspect here is Straub/Huillet's respect for the institution of cinema against that of politics and its mystification of history. It was in the same interview that Straub asserted, citing the end of Fort Apache , that "John Ford is the most Brechtian of all filmmakers, because he shows things that make people think, damn it, is that true or not."[54] This contrasts sharply with the Young German Cinema's contempt for the audience that had been lost by the collapse of the German film industry, an audience that Fritz Lang had still addressed in the 1950s. For the lived experience of this audience, Straub has not contempt but great warmth and sympathy.

Der Tiger von Eschnapur and Das indische Grabmal are the only films that are superproductions without being superproducts, which are made with all the


money that he had at his disposal without creating a smokescreen. And which nevertheless are not made against money; because now, that's easier to do: Godard, in his evolution, has discovered that it is necessary to make oppositional films. But for a man of Fritz Lang's generation, this wasn't possible, an idea like that. And yet he succeeded in making these two films, where he really gave something to the Germans who had been dying of hunger for so many years—since '33 and even before '33, up to the Currency Reform for which the leftist intellectuals had so much contempt, until the moment when the people would begin again to be able to know a little what it meant to live: this is what has been called the German economic miracle. For a good many people, this was the first time that they finally revived, that they were eating normally—of course there was the speculation and all the rest, okay. (The arrival of the consumer society, that's the negative aspect of it.) But Fritz Lang, at this moment, made something for the people which was a gift, let's say, of gold. . . . The producer was really eager to make a golden calf. Fritz Lang made a film.[55]

This attitude to the audience separates Straub/Huillet from the avant-garde more than anything else, since they expect the audience to understand their films without the mediation of specialists.

Kluge, Reitz, and Syberberg

Despite their similarities, one must therefore distinguish the "Brechtianism" of Straub/Huillet and Alexander Kluge. Many of their techniques are similar, to the extent that Kaes's descriptions of them are almost interchangeable.[56] But the author's relation to the film's materials is quite different. One similarity Kaes notes is the presence of printed texts in both Kluge and Straub/Huillet. But the gesture of inserting title cards to break up the narrative calls attention to the director's subjectivity. Like Kluge's voice-over, the cards are another intrusion of the author's voice, consistent with the "tone that hovers between elegy and irony." Although apparently inviting the spectator to take apart the work as well, the author's position is clearly superior, if not condescending.[57]

Straub/Huillet make no such pretense at not being in control of what is on the screen—"[the filmmaker] is still an author"[58] —but the attitude of this author is different in the two methods. When Straub/Huillet include printed or handwritten texts in their films, they may punctuate the narrative as in silent cinema, but they are never title cards authored by the filmmakers. Instead, all the texts revealed in their films have other authors, and the gesture of including them leans the film from narrative in the direction of documentary. This is the effect in both Chronicle and Machorka-Muff . More extreme cases are the less narrative forms of the Schoenberg short and Fortini/Cani . Here Straub/Huillet present printed documents in a series along with other types of documentation and do not call special attention to the author's gesture. They do, however, call


attention to the presence of a cinematic author, as the camera tilts to allow the spectator to read. This does not put emphasis on the author but on the technology; the viewer becomes aware that the duration of reading needs to be coordinated with the impersonal duration of the camera movement and that someone had to do this.

Another partial similarity is the contemporary fictional character in search of history, as found in History Lessons (Kaes cites only the Brecht novel)[59] and in the person of Gabi Teichert, the history teacher in Kluge's The Patriot . In both cases, a fictional character is placed in a "documentary" setting, creating a tension around the blurring of distinctions. The tension is not the result of blurring the distinction in History Lessons , since it is only in the spectator's memory that the young man driving through Rome is a "character." In the driving shots, on the cinematic level, he is only a person driving through Rome—no more or less fictional than the people on the streets around him. The case of Gabi Teichert is quite different, however. This fictional character actually goes to a Social Democratic Party Congress and poses questions to actual politicians who are expected to answer. Thome, one of Straub/Huillet's Munich colleagues from the 1960s, found this objectionable. "If a filmmaker pokes fun at the people in front of the camera at their expense, that's the worst thing for me," Thome writes of the scene of Teichert and the politicians. "I had to leave, I could not bear to watch it, seeing people filmed like that."[60] The levels of reality—the camera, the "author," the fictional character, the actor, and the "real world"—are collapsed here, while Straub/Huillet keep them carefully separate.

The ambiguous yet authoritative presence of the author in constructing this confrontation of fiction and reality puts in doubt the Brechtian quality of Kluge's work entirely. As Elsaesser writes, "Kluge's protagonists are invariably the appendages of a discourse that is rarely, if ever, capable of questioning its own authority and, instead, by letting voice-over dominate the image, subjects the characters to the tyranny of the commentary." Kluge's superior attitude to the characters and the audience, Elsaesser notes, has also been criticized by Handke and Wenders. Handke's reaction to Kluge's 1968 film, Artists under the Big Top: Disoriented , might also apply to his more recent collage work for television: "One constantly recognizes things: names, faces, people, personalities, dramaturgical clichés, phrases, but above all attitudes [Einstellungen]; attitudes of the film towards the things and the people it shows. . . . Due to the fact that the words are formulated, formulaic, unambiguous and not playfully quoted . . . they make the pictures into picture-puzzles instead of leaving them as images."[61]

It is the ambiguity of the author's intervention that is the problem here. Straub/Huillet, partly at Huillet's insistence, have progressively tried to let the materials determine the articulation rather than an author's gesture, calling attention as much to itself as to them. At issue for Straub/Huillet, for instance,


was the inclusion of an expressionist painting by Georges Rouault in Chronicle . It was Straub's attempt at connecting the sufferings of Bach to another artist's work and, by extension, to the filmmaker's hand. Huillet found this self-indulgent, and their work has shown no such interventions since.

When Kluge makes a collage out of the fragments of war and suffering in German history, it is not clear whether the memory and suffering he is evoking is or is not his own: authorship is evident, but it evades responsibility for its position in the construction (as in the fictional interviews). Where Straub/Huillet use memory to refer to an absent German subjectivity, Kluge uses memory to evoke the suffering body. But even when the protagonist is a dead soldier's knee, as in Die Patriotin (The Female Patriot , 1979), the impact of the film's fragmentations is to awaken memories of some unified "German" subjectivity. And as Kaes points out, to speak of German suffering in such a one-sided way reveals "a highly ambivalent political agenda covertly at work in the film."[62]

A similar problem is even more evident in the films of Edgar Reitz and Hans Jürgen Syberberg. Santner sees a necessary and positive value in their work.

Reitz and Syberberg, in their films Heimat and Our Hitler , respectively, produced the two most ambitious attempts by recent German artists to create works of national elegiac art: works that make use of the procedures and resources of mourning to constitute something like a German self-identity in the wake of the catastrophic turns of recent German history. In each case the task of mourning involves the labor of recollecting the stranded objects of a cultural inheritance fragmented and poisoned by an unspeakable horror.[63]

Although Brechtian theater has been a major influence on Syberberg's theatricalization of the cinema, both he and Reitz show a good deal more affinity for Wagner in the grand scale of their works and the development of leitmotifs of reminiscence over long periods of film time. Syberberg's Out Hitler (Hitler, ein Film aus Deutschland , 1977), spans seven hours, while Reitz's Heimat (1984) consists of eleven parts for a total over fifteen hours. The sequel, Die zweite Heimat , is some twenty-six hours long.

The difference between Straub/Huillet and these filmmakers is their relation to memory, and this is a major one, given the recent past in Germany. Straub/Huillet's Bach film was once criticized for being a sort of family album, composed of Anna Magdalena's memories of her husband. As we shall see, the poignancy of this aspect lies, in Straub/Huillet's work, in the unbridgeable distance the film carefully inscribes between the documents of Bach's life and the memory they might evoke in the living. Heimat , by contrast, literally employs the metaphor of the family album and unselfconsciously invites the viewer to be part of the family remembering the past in a German village.

Syberberg's films differ from those of Straub/Huillet most strikingly in his use of highly artificial studio staging. While Straub/Huillet's cinematic sim-


plicity evokes the early cinema of F. W. Murnau, Stroheim, Griffith, and ultimately the Lumières, Syberberg conjures up the specters of the great artists of the Golden Age of cinema in a magic act more reminiscent of the other early film inventor, Georges Méliès.

Syberberg's collage technique, a veritable séance in the Hitler film, has led critics to link him to postmodernism. His works are at their most effective in juxtaposing anachronistic fragments from all periods of German cultural history and a multitude of genres and media, from the Punch and Judy show to Wehrmacht radio broadcasts. But Syberberg is not a postmodernist because he actually longs for the past he is mourning, as is clearly revealed by the rather consistent authorial voice in his films and his conservative, idiosyncratic (if not outright reactionary) essays.

This elegiac quality in Reitz and Syberberg, which I would call nostalgia, is not to be found in Straub/Huillet. The process of mourning, which supposedly is to overcome melancholia, is a constituent part of the aesthetic of Reitz's and Syberberg's work. In Straub/Huillet's films there is no mourning, no melancholy: they simply show the fragments of the world that is lost. The distance to the past is inviolable.

The result is an apolitical quietism in Heimat and Our Hitler , compared to the resistance to authority found in Bach, Antigone, or even Schoenberg and Brecht and Böll, with all their shortcomings. Certainly there is more of a cultural inheritance to be found in exile than in the soliloquies of Syberberg's narrators about the banality of Americanized German culture or Reitz's accusation that the Americans, with the television film Holocaust , had "stolen our history." Both Reitz's and Syberberg's work reveal the postwar mistrust of returned exiles that is thematized in Not Reconciled . They have such a nostalgia for the past that it obscures their view of Germany "as it is." Straub/Huillet films, however, show the love of country expressed by going into exile, as seen in Not Reconciled and Empedocles and in Antigone's speech on Heimat (by Brecht, the returning exile):

Falsch ist's. Erde ist Mühsal. Heimat ist nicht nur
Erde, noch Haus nur. Nicht, wo einer Schweiß vergoß 
Nicht das Haus, das hilflos dem Feuer entgegensieht
Nicht, wo er den Nacken gebeugt, nicht das heißt er  Heimat.[64]

The project of recollecting the fragments of a German identity is necessarily asymmetrical, since it is not possible to bring back to life the many human victims of fascism, but it is quite possible to revive the forces that murdered them. Indeed, it is the continuity of some of these political and institutional forces with which the world is still confronted.

In his discussion of the films of Reitz and Syberberg, Santner seeks an alternative in postmodern "playful nomadism" and in the necessary mortifi-


cation of language found in Benjamin and de Man. I argue, however, that the force of the films of Reitz and Syberberg and perhaps even Kluge is not playful and nomadic but deadly serious. It tends toward the ideology of a unified Germany with a history restored to continuity. Straub/Huillet's historical continuity, in contrast, is that of opposition—a history of the victims who happen also to have resisted and survived. These traces are in the physical bodies and landscapes or cultural artifacts they photograph, as well as in the implied historical memory that can understand monuments without legends attached. No one would disagree with Reitz's assertion that we (we Germans) must work on our memories. But he presumes to illustrate in his Heimat films what those memories are to look like and who the rememberers are. The frequent appearance of monuments in Straub/Huillet films merely records an absence that looks outside the film for an explanation.[65] Far preferable is the erection of monuments that do not "represent" twentieth-century Germany at all yet suggest an audience remember the beauty and destructiveness they commemorate, while being the prisoners of neither.

The confrontations between present and past, between language and film form, are as important in Antigone as they were in Machorka-Muff or Bridegroom . For instance, Martin Walsh has linked the plot of Bridegroom , the film's visual form, and German history with a concept of freedom that may apply in all three contexts.

But Lilith is not the only prostitute to be freed. The other is art, specifically film art, which, in the course of these 23 minutes, has evolved through its principal historical stages, until reaching its liberation in the materialist presentation that is Straub's own. The killing of the pimp is, metaphorically, the killing of Germany's decadent cultural heritage—the specifically German implication being raised in the graffiti that opened the film: "Stupid old Germany, I hate it over here, I hope I can go soon . . ." If Straub has laid "stupid old Germany" to rest, the cinema has been liberated from its stifling conventions, and the film's movement from the sordid opening to the celebratory close cements the significance of this new beginning.[66]

An Alternative Cultural Identity

In his institutional study of the project that unites the disparate artists of the New German Cinema, Elsaesser writes of their search for Germany and a German audience. In a period when German unification raises yet again the question of German national and cultural identity, the contradiction between economic and military power and cultural feelings of inferiority, racial versus civil definitions of identity and otherness—all this makes the project of Straub/Huillet, from the very beginning of Machorka-Muff , as relevant today as it ever was. This, more than the incidental "theoretical" interest of their work and even more than its place in a hypothetical "film history," is the place they


would claim for their films—a contribution to the cultural shaping of a new, non-nationalistic and nonmilitarist Europe. As they wrote in the introduction to Antigone ,

So, one year before the Year of Europe, 1992, we want to attempt the most European of all films: a great Greek dramatist, two German poets, German actors from West and East Berlin (Schaubühne , Gorki Theater), French technicians (Camera: William Lubtchansky, with whom we shot the Kafka film in Hamburg in 1983), the Sicilian landscape and a director with three fatherlands: Germany, Italy, France. Is there a better celebration of the true Europe?[67]

The post-1968 leftist identity, the problematic identity of New German Cinema, and the German identity in general are all typified by melancholy; the films of Straub/Huillet are not. Instead they are touchingly positive about Germany as perhaps only foreigners who know its dangers but also its beauties can be. But their "love of Germany" manifests itself not by representing the country but only the displacements of its language and cultural artifacts.

The difference between the allusions to Hollywood cinema in Wenders and Fassbinder, on the one hand, and in Straub/Huillet, on the other, also relates to the context of a German subjectivity or national identity. For the New German Cinema, as Elsaesser and Timothy Corrigan have written, dependence on Hollywood was both a problem and a source of identification.[68] Thus it became a project of the New German Cinema to reproduce aspects of Hollywood in their films and even in the personae of the directors. Wenders and Fassbinder rework genres from Hollywood and include characters who mimic characters from Hollywood movies, and both these tactics refer to the situation of the West German cinema and to their own situation as derivative. Clearly Fassbinder and Wenders have been able to do "original" work with this derivative material as an aspect of its composition, often taking the physical form of excerpts from films or songs and the presence of the film apparatus itself within the narrative framework of the film. Examples would be Kings of the Road, In a Year of 13 Moons , and The State of Things . The world of the cinema becomes part of the texture of the psychological world in which their films operate. As Wenders's character in Kings of the Road puts it, "The Yanks have colonized our subconscious."

While these allusions to Hollywood are thus opaque and identifiable as such, allusions to Hollywood and early cinema in Straub/Huillet films are transparent. Indeed, in most cases they claim they are subconscious and only become visible—even to the filmmakers—after the film is finished. The nature of this connection to past cinema is thus technical and formal and not thematic or narrative. The shooting or projection of a film is never present in a Straub/Huillet film. The utopian Germany they evoke through the cinema is a Germany without the cinema.


But the evocations of American cinema in Fassbinder and Wenders also block the way for Straub/Huillet films, they assert, since these products function as a substitute for a confrontation with the real thing. The complacency that results—they term it ignorance and arrogance—allows people to consume a "nostalgia for the American cinema, when the audience has seen nothing of Chaplin, Griffith, or John Ford." By projecting their dreams of the cinema into their films, Wenders and Fassbinder collaborate in the narrowing of audience demand and distribution that has gradually excluded even Godard from general distribution. There is no resistance or solidarity to be found on the basis of such films that accept the terms of Hollywood marketing. For, as Huillet has put it, "Cinephilia is also a lack of ambition."[69]

Another method of re-creating a film culture that Elsaesser observes in the New German Cinema is the "author as intertext," the interconnection between films due to the recognizability of their actors. Elsaesser gives as examples Fassbinder's ensemble, Rüdiger Vogler in Wenders's films (and Von Trotta's Marianne and Juliane ), and numerous others.[70] Like the choice of interconnected film titles, this is in part a marketing device that also adds to the reality effect of the "film world" as a counterpart to the real world and German society.

Where Straub/Huillet's work enters this intertextuality, however, it applies it self-consciously as part of a spectrum of acting styles that spill out of the cinema fiction into documentary and lived experience. The past roles and skills of the professional actors they use thus join a collage of messages that includes other manifestations of language, literature, and the biographies of individuals. For example, the theatrical fulminations of Mario Adorf, Alfred Edel, and Werner Rehm reveal aspects of their own professional lives, the role they are playing, and the construction of cinema simultaneously. The choice of the equally professional Libgart Schwarz for the most extreme expression of suffering and pathos subtly distances the audience from those emotions as well. The casting of the controversial journalist and author Erich Kuby as General Machorka-Muff, or Howard Vernon as Hermocrates/Manes in the Empedocles films doubly alludes to each man's other roles and their political context.[71] Protagonists in Straub/Huillet films, however, are almost always played by (usually young) lay actors who bring experiences to their performance of the texts that come from outside the cinema or theater. Gustav Leonhardt as Bach or the gentle and earnest German teacher and amateur violinist Andreas von Rauch as the hero Empedocles are examples. Perhaps the most powerful acting of all is delivered by Gottfried Bold as the banker in History Lessons . Bold was editor of a trade union newspaper in Cologne, who had been fired from an earlier job for refusing to write GDR (the official name of East Germany) in quotation marks as the right-wing press always did. The experience of acting in a Straub/Huillet film is also historicized by the fact that Vladimir Baratta, Howard Vernon, and Andreas von Rauch repeated their roles from Empedocles


Vladimir Baratta as Pausanias and Andreas von Rauch as Empedocles in  The 
Death of Empedocles 
(1986). Courtesy Edition Manfred Salzgeber, Berlin.

Andreas von Rauch as Empedocles and Vladimir Baratta as Pausanias in 
Black Sin  (1988). Courtesy Edition Manfred Salzgeber, Berlin.


in the later version, Black Sin . The second film thus documents their physical aging in a temporal world separate from the texts.

Finally, we will look briefly at the evocation of German history and the German landscape as an aspect of mourning work or the search for Heimat. Elsaesser stresses that the search for Heimat after Germany's shame and fragmentation stands behind much of New German Cinema production. Even the exotic faraway lands sought out by Herzog, he asserts, are expressions of this German longing. The confrontation with the Other, either in Herzog's romantic exoticism or in Ulrike Ottinger's more ethnographic variety, finds its counterpart in the mournfully nostalgic investigation of German lands in Reitz and Wenders. These images of Germany and the world evoke a sense of distance and loss as the basis of the damaged German identity of which so much has been written. The impossibility of living in these spaces, their unreachable artificiality, is underscored by Wenders's juxtaposition of German landscapes with the imaginary American Southwest. These are not images of the world but of the postwar West German mental landscape.[72]

As they do not attempt to represent the German public, Straub/Huillet also do not parallel this attempt to represent the world as a counterpart to a German identity. The landscapes they photograph, which Elsaesser links to Herzog's exotic locations as signs of abstract "otherness," are instead sites bearing visible signs of human history. Although Straub/Huillet do not show contemporary Germany, they attempt to make of the German language itself a home. As Straub has put it, "Language is the house one is born in or works in or suffers in or enjoys in. And if one has no connection to language, no relationship with language, then there are no structures anymore; there's nothing there anymore."[73] As later chapters will investigate, Straub/Huillet's presentation of nature and language, in contrast to or in harmony with a narrative/narration, traces "the history of barbarism" that Benjamin spoke of and records the signs of resistance. Straub used a more graphic metaphor in describing the price paid for progress that is behind the appearance of the world: "Every step one takes is, without knowing it, into a puddle of blood."[74] Rather than a melancholy fixation on Germany and its guilt, however, Straub/Huillet seek the seeds of resistance in the exile of language. This displacement, Europeanization, and humanization of German culture can only be welcomed given the legacy of this century.


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