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2— Straub/Huillet, the New Left, and Germany
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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.

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