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1— Straub/Huillet and the Cinema Tradition and Avant-garde
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Straub/Huillet and the Cinema Tradition and Avant-garde

In the only previous book in English devoted exclusively to the cinema of Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, published in 1971, Richard Roud addressed the problem that their films were not well known in the United States. After almost twenty-five years, this task must be repeated. Despite considerable critical recognition and a solid place in discussions of New German Cinema, European cinema, and film theory, the films themselves are rarely seen here. I am also acutely aware of the contradiction in using an academic book to introduce an audience to films that simply demand to be seen—and more than once. This reservation is increased by the filmmakers' own skepticism of scholarly interpretation of film, especially of a biographical approach. For instance, in one of the outraged letters published in Straub's handwriting by the journal Filmkritik , he vehemently rejected Alexander Kluge's criticisms of the film Fortini/Cani in 1976 based on Straub/Huillet's position as authors.

And now here come the Ph.D's! [die Herren Doktoren ] . . . I would only like to let Schoenberg reply, for me as well: "In Grove's Dictionary of Music there is quite a good article that talks about Moses and Aaron . Partly nonsensical; namely, to bring the artist into it. That is the end of the nineteenth century, but not me. The material and its treatment are purely religious-philosophical."[1]

But some understanding of who Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub are is essential to an understanding of their unique collaboration as a couple and of two essential aspects of the way they work: their love of the cinema and their respect for every bit of labor that goes into a film production. The care they give to the smallest detail of film work extends from making sure that the meat


of the animals slaughtered for sacrifice in Moses and Aaron was used by the local Italian butchers to Huillet's personally washing the window of an Amtrak railway car for the final shot of Class Relations .

This respect for all human endeavor extends to the film audience as well, meaning that Straub/Huillet are willing to argue with the audience rather than merely try to please them. Regarding the charge that their films are too inaccessible to reach a wide audience and have a political effect, their position echoes that of Bertolt Brecht, Hanns Eisler, and Theodor W. Adorno: An artist must try only to make the best art possible; to make things less well than one could so as to be popular leads nowhere, politically or aesthetically. This attitude seems more eccentric in the 1990s than it did in the 1960s, when young filmmakers energetically attacked mainstream cultural conventions. A precursor of Filmkritik quoted Walter Benjamin to connect the youth protest against the culture industry and the need to present an alternative to what people had been led to expect: "The public must always be proved wrong." As Hartmut Bitomsky has put it, "We are not used to so much respect; the almost complete absence of arbitrary manipulation is almost unbearable to experience. In the disturbing interconnections of things we begin to see our own impatience."[2]

Straub/Huillet share the view of Adorno and Eisler, two equally radical critics of the culture industry, that the interaction of audience and cinema contains revolutionary potential: "There is an ingredient of truth in what the public expects of the cinema: . . . [B]ehind the shell of conventionalized behavior patterns, resistance and spontaneity still survive."[3] And the resistance is to be found in part in the legacy of the early cinema.

To the extent that the motion picture in its sensationalism is the heir of the popular horror story and dime novel and remains below the established standards of middle-class art, it is in a position to shatter those standards, precisely through the use of sensation, and to gain access to collective energies that are inaccessible to sophisticated literature and painting.[4]

Straub/Huillet films are an attempt to put together these two potentials: bourgeois high culture and popular film culture. Along with Brecht, Eisler, and Adorno, they reject the arrogance of experts who prevent modern works from reaching a wide audience because they presume to know in advance what the masses want and can understand.[5]

Straub/Huillet's Authorship

The name Straub/Huillet, which applies only to both together, is both convenient and accurate as a shorthand term for two individuals working together with no concern for assigning credit. It does not erase the problematic fact that Jean-Marie Straub is still often regarded as the more significant, if not


sole, auteur. Biographical material on Huillet and Straub is extremely limited. The few published biographical sketches were usually the result of direct demands from journalists and are thus "composed" and would require additional contextual support. The main "biographical sketch" has been repeated in various forms since it appeared in Roud's monograph and in Herzog/Kluge/Straub (1976), the first major book in Germany to concentrate on their work.[6] The description of Straub is even read on camera by Huillet in a television portrait by Michael Klier.[7]

Born "under Capricorn" (like the old lady in Not Reconciled ) on the Sunday after Epiphany in the city that is the birthplace of Paul Verlaine ("Et si j'avais cent fils, ils auraient cent chevaux / Pour vite déserter le Sergent et l'Armée") and baptized under the name of one of the first draft evaders (Jean-Marie Vianney, priest of Ars) in the year Hitler came to power. . . . Until 1940 heard, learned, and spoke only French—at home and outside. And all at once I am only allowed to hear and speak German outside and have to learn it instantly in school (where as everywhere every word of French is forbidden). . . . After the liberation a pupil until the first diploma at the Jesuit Collège Saint-Clément (where I learned that disobedience is not only a poetic virtue) and then one year at the state Lycée, second diploma. Demonstration against the paltry programming of the film theaters in Metz; first contacts with the French police. From 1950–1955 leader of a film club in Metz, at the same time student in Strassbourg and Nancy. 1954 to Paris; project of a full-length film biography: Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach ; Algerian Revolution; met Danièle Huillet . . .[8]

Richard Roud and Roy Armes have both written about the importance for Straub of the French filmmakers he admired or worked with in his youth, especially Jean Renoir, Robert Bresson, Alexandre Astruc, and Jean Grémillion.[9] In 1966, Straub was included in the journal Filmkritik 's "First Lexicon of the Young German Cinema," where his responses cite these early influences as well as indicate two themes that are still important today: an affinity with Hölderlin and a sense of a special relation to German culture as an outsider.

"Jean-Marie Straub"

[. . .] Hospitation with the following directors: Abel Gance (La tour de Nesle ), Jean Renoir (French Cancan, Eléna et les hommes ), Jacques Rivette (Le coup de berger ), Robert Bresson (Un condamné à mort s'ést échappé ), Alexandre Astruc (Une vie ).

1958 flight from military conscription for Algeria.

Since then in Germany, at first two years of traveling—on the trail of Bach.

Filmkritik broached the theme of nationality with the question, "What does it mean to you to make films as a Frenchman in Germany?" Straub's reply:

That is, against the stupidity, the laziness of thought, the depravity that are demonstrated here, as B. B. [Brecht] says? Hyperion would answer: bleeding to


Jean-Marie Straub, 1960s (?). Courtesy Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek.

death; I will add: for now not being able and permitted to reach the many to whom one would like to present one's films. This double answer applies also for Peter Nestler and some others. But it will change. That stimulates me—and also, to make films here as a Frenchman that no German would have been able to make—rather as no German could have made Germania anno zero and La paura , no American, The Southerner and The Young One —and no Italian would have been able to write La Chartreuse de Parme .[10]

At this early stage Straub mentions a number of projects that only much later would become films, attesting both to the struggle the filmmakers faced and to the consistency of their concerns. The projects mentioned in 1966 were Moses und Aron (based on Arnold Schoenberg's opera, in color), Die Maßnahme (based on Brecht's The Measures Taken ), Die Verfolgung und Ermordung Jean-Paul Marats and Die Ermittlung (The Investigation by Peter Weiss), Die Geschichte von Asaré (based on a myth, reported by Claude Lévi-Strauss in Le Cru et le Cuit ), a film about a cleaning woman in Munich, and "the comedy of the German film folk—based on original material."[11] Of these plans, only the Schoenberg project was realized, almost ten years later; Brecht remains central to Straub/Huillet, but the rights to The Measures


Danièle Huillet in the film  Über die Trägheit der Wahrnehmung 
(On the Lethargy of Perception ), directed by Klaus Feddermann 
and Helmut Herbst, 1981. Courtesy Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek.

Taken could not be obtained, and Pains of Youth replaced it, on stage with Rainer Werner Fassbinder and the Action-Theater and in the film Bridegroom (1968). In 1992, Straub listed the following projects for the years up to 1997: a black-and-white film for television, something like Renoir's Le Testament du docteur Cordelier , with two months of rehearsal and eight days of shooting; a musical comedy (a wry reference to Schoenberg's Von heute auf morgen ); Conversations in Sicily , based on the novel by Elio Vittorini, an Italian Communist intellectual.[12] Also for 1997, Italian television plans a video montage to be called La magnifica ossessione (The Magnificent Obsession ).

Although Danièle Huillet is clearly one of the most important women working in the postwar European cinema, she remains almost totally ignored by film criticism. One reason for this is as scandalous as it is simple: Since all of Huillet's work has been in collaboration with Jean-Marie Straub and the two have refused to stylize themselves in any particular way as "artist personalities," the sexist assumption of the 1950s that Straub is the principal auteur of the two has remained unquestioned. Yet in an interview in Frauen und Film ,


published in 1982, Huillet removed all doubt that the works of Straub/Huillet are truly collaborative—and always have been.[13]

It is difficult to approach the reasons for Huillet's lack of recognition. She has not sought to call attention to her work on the films and has not identified herself as a feminist. Instead, for years she has stayed in the background, especially since she believes that interviews and discussions—in which Straub more readily engages—may do the films more harm than good.[14] Without presuming to impose consciousness-raising on Huillet, however, the Straub/Huillet division of labor and the perception of it certainly reflect sexism in the institutions of cinema. Critics even continue to falsely assume that Huillet and Straub are married and frequently include Huillet only by way of the term "the Straubs." Male critics have never felt it necessary to query Straub on this issue, and his greater visibility and volubility feed the assumption that he dominates in their teamwork. Furthermore, the single area in which Huillet does leave more of the decisions to Straub is the aspect of filmmaking that has been reified into the directorial "signature"—the set-up and framing of shots. The areas of more equal collaboration—e.g., script and mise-en-scène—and especially those areas in which Huillet may be more in charge—sound, editing, "scene design," and many producer's functions—all fit more readily the stereotype of women working behind the scenes.[15]

One could argue, on the one hand, that Huillet's toleration of this situation is in itself a result of sexism. On the other, any familiarity with the aesthetic project of Straub/Huillet films immediately puts such hierarchical thinking into question. From the very beginning, a principal aspect of their aesthetic has been to subvert the primacy of the visual in cinema by having the text, sound, duration, and editing clash with, rather than support, the image. For this reason, a feminist reception of Straub/Huillet might begin by cooperating with Huillet's concern for the films first and the gendering of authorship afterward. In her words, "What interests us are the products and not the names."[16]

Further study on the gender (and political) issues raised by Straub/Huillet's work methods and their reception would then certainly be warranted. This is not to say that Huillet has never stated a position on feminist issues. She did so in her 1982 interview, but always in the context of her work and the realities of history and everyday life. Even the radical cinema she and Straub have developed collaboratively she does not ascribe to their creative will alone: "Yes, but that came about also through our living" (Ja, das kam aber auch durch unser Leben).[17]

When questioned about her position on gender oppression and the presence or absence of women in Straub/Huillet films, Huillet gave a three-part answer. First, she pointed out the presence of women in the documentary aspects of the films, seen going about the work of everyday life. And if women's work is less visible on the streets and in the factories, that is part of the documentation the films provide. But Huillet objected to modifying the historical texts


used in the films to include women after the fact: "To place a woman into the middle of Brecht where he had none would be false, also for the woman."[18] Her second answer was to point out that the film Bridegroom —although constructed from previously existing texts, like all their films—very clearly shows the oppression of women. This, too, arose from a documentary impulse: Huillet and Straub developed the idea for the film after walking by chance through the prostitutes' area of Munich, seen at the opening of the film. Third, Huillet stressed that she sees the liberation of women as more quickly attainable through general revolution—as in the resistance struggles of the third world.[19] And, consistent with the scrupulous respect for "reality" evidenced in Straub/Huillet films, Huillet categorically refuses to use film to fabricate a history for women using the methods of the "dream factory." "The dreams one has come only from reality and are only partly different from reality and are an attempt to escape from it," she says. "But always from reality and not from nothing."[20]

Furthermore, Huillet does not see her work as part of a countercinema that simply destroys the pleasures of the conventional narrative by reversing the system: "I don't believe that one can replace one oppression with another, and I also don't believe that one can fight one system with another, because then a thing becomes simply too rigid." To the suggestion that Straub/Huillet films, too, seem to be built on a strict system, based on renunciation, she replied, "I hope not only that. I hope that one can feel sensuality and pleasure [Lust ] at the same time. Can sense the fragrance of things."[21]

What Huillet primarily distanced herself from in this interview is that aspect of feminist film that Gertrud Koch has traced from the cinéma militant through the theoretical emphasis on film language and identification.[22] Straub/Huillet films are instead more relevant to the reintroduction of Brecht and the Frankfurt school into the discussion of feminist theory, as proposed by Koch and Elin Diamond, for example. Diamond stresses the importance of Brechtian theory for feminism in theater because it allows space for "gestus" within the process of subverting the conventional means of representation.[23] Koch's article on Critical Theory, in contrast, suggests invoking phenomenology and existential psychoanalysis for film theory, examining the prelinguistic levels of the unconscious rather than the linguistic formations analyzed by Jacques Lacan. Koch's return to the fundamentals of perception and to the origins of film parallel Straub/Huillet's emphasis on a documentary attitude and a search for cinematic pleasure that is not predetermined by the culture industry and the "patriarchal orchestration of the look."[24] Thus Straub/Huillet move beyond the assumed renunciation of pleasure of what Teresa de Lauretis calls the "Brechtian-Godardian" program of the materialist avantgarde.[25]

Consistent with her position in the filmmaking couple, Huillet's biographical note of 1976 is briefer and dependent on Straub's, with a touch of wit added.


In a recent interview she describes her first childhood wish of becoming a peasant farmer, which her family laughed at, then a veterinarian. The 1976 note was the following:

The most interesting thing about me is my date of birth; 1 May 1936. After the second diploma I went once to the Sorbonne and ran out again after a half hour, in hatred and terror. Then I prepared for the I.D.H.E.C.—and met Straub in the process. I wanted to make documentaries—ethnographic films. Also: I didn't like blond people with light skin at all; when I was small, I found nothing more beautiful than the girls at school in Paris (where I came only at age 13—before, I was in the country), who were dark. . . . But Straub simply was blond with very light skin, unfortunately! I had learned English and Spanish and then had to learn first German and finally Italian . . . quite dialectical.[26]

The biographical reticence of Straub/Huillet is partly the result of their modernist effort to efface the author in favor of the work: "What interests us are the products and not the names."[27] Biographical information about artists in general, Huillet has said, is "not very interesting." But their reticence about their own biographies is also connected to a position their work takes regarding authorship and subjectivity. Chapter 6 examines the one extensive interview Huillet has given regarding their work and seeks to explore a possible connection between Straub/Huillet's separation of the camera from the spectator and feminist theories on visual pleasure. Beyond this, there is much more work to be done regarding the gender aspect of Straub/Huillet's films and their manner of working together, which the domestic comedy of Schoenberg's opera Von Heute auf Morgen might stimulate when their film of that work is finished.

Although book and chapter titles of the 1970s refer only to Straub as the filmmaker, Huillet's presence has gradually, perhaps because of the women's movement, become more visible on the surface of the films and the criticism. For instance, in the early films she was not credited as co-director, although her Frauen und Film interview implies that the technical situation was not significantly different. Once her name began to appear more prominently in the credits, some critics at least began to speak of Straub/Huillet, Straub and Huillet, or at least "die Straubs" or "les Straub." A few even write of Huillet and Straub.

The fact that Huillet almost never gives interviews and seldom speaks in interviews with herself and Straub presents a problem for research, since most of the interview record of the filmmakers' intentions exists in Straub's words. In listing the origins of their projects, he says both "I" and "we"; she says only "we." Huillet is present at almost all the interviews, even if she never speaks. Often, however, she will correct or modify Straub's comments; sometimes she will make a contribution. Her comments also reveal her overriding concern for accuracy in descriptions of how their films were made; an example


is her detailed commentary on Gregory Woods's "Work Journal" on the filming of Moses and Aaron .[28] Michael Klier's video concentrates on her active listening, which takes on the same weight of agency as the young man's silence at the end of History Lessons . Huillet has both stated and implied that Straub can answer for both of them[29] even though she fears that interviews do the films more harm than good, while Straub cannot resist entering into polemical exchanges. Straub, too, has regretted the rather vast interview record—mostly in his own words.[30]

The withdrawal of the "author" from the work is more consistent with Huillet's attitude, and Straub/Huillet have over the years carefully set up what they call the "rules of the game" for filming, which allow emotion or expression to come through only as a documentary effect and not as an authorial intention. In the context of the films, we shall see that this attitude toward authorship and subjectivity is a modernist, not a postmodernist, position. Although I suggest there are parallels between Straub/Huillet's film practice and feminist film theory, very few women have written about their work. The West German critic Frieda Grafe has followed their entire career, their work is included in a volume edited by Barbara Bronnen et al., and Maureen Turim has analyzed the shot structure of the Bach film by way of the concept of écriture blanche and contributed the chapter dealing with the importance of Brecht for their work in New German Filmmakers (1984); Gertrud Koch, whose work features prominently in chapters 7 and 8, has also written about Moses and Aaron in the context of visual representations of Jewishness. Koch places Straub/Huillet in the legacy of the Frankfurt school (Critical Theory) and argues that exploring these connections further would be productive for feminist film theory.[31]

One could speculate that Huillet's influence, which has at least become more visible over the years, has affected the increased reticence of the camera and the growing importance of sound and the voice. Although she may have initially given up her own plans to make ethnographic films to join Straub in his exile to Germany and the Bach project, an ethnographic approach has certainly resurfaced in their careful photographic studies of locations, landscapes, and the people in them. But again, it is difficult to separate what is new in this and what is Huillet and what is Straub; Straub, too, cited the documentarist Jean Rouch as an early influence in their work. Finally, Straub/Huillet have frequently referred to their career as the pursuit of two paths. The path from Les Yeux ne veulent pas en tout temps se fermer ou Peut-être qu'un jour Rome se permettra de choisir à son tour (Othon ) of their earlier work, the film favored by Huillet—has led to Moses and Aaron, Class Relations , and Antigone . The path from History Lessons , a film preferred by Straub, has led to Fortini/Cani, Zu früh, Zu spät (Too Early, Too Late ), and Cézanne . One could see in the alternation of these projects something of the love story that their career also represents, which is merely hinted at by the Marx quotation appended to the


screenplay of Chronicle : that love involves contributing to another's self-realization through productive labor.[32]

I will not undertake a detailed analysis of the gender aspects of the relation of sound to image here, although a questioning of Straub/Huillet's teamwork along with the end product would be fascinating. Such a discussion might, for instance, invoke Kaja Silverman's work on the psychoanalytic aspects of sound, Martin Jay's study of the denigration of vision in twentieth-century French thought, or the volume Modernity and the Hegemony of Vision .[33] What I do hope to show in this book, however, is Straub/Huillet's resistance to the domination of nature in the cinema. They do this, on the one hand, by insisting, along with Siegfried Kracauer and André Bazin, on the power present in the "indexicality" of the photographic image, explicitly in rejection of the proposition, based on psychoanalysis and semiotics, that the cinema is a language. As Bazin wrote of Bresson (and, indirectly, Carl Dreyer), they, too, are concerned "not with the psychology but with the physiology of existence."[34] Their almost archaeological approach to location filming, for instance, records traces of the past that will vanish with time, yet "redeems" them as it records their passing. If special effects à la Metropolis are evidence of the male fantasy of creating life,[35] Straub/Huillet's scrupulous avoidance of such effects may bespeak an opposite fantasy.

"The grain of the voice," on the other hand, is also a consistent realm of exploration in Straub/Huillet's work, attempting to make sound—whether music or speech—become visible on the screen. Here, too, they have consistently worked against conventions of emotional, dramatic acting in a manner inspired by such antecedents as Brecht, Renoir, and Bresson. In this regard, Bazin's description of Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest applies: "The cast is not being asked to act out a text, not even to live it out, just to speak it."[36] But here again is a "redemption of physical reality."[37] As I attempt to show in regard to the later films, there is often what Straub refers to as a "spark" or "explosion" at the point where a speaker reveals the contradiction between a spoken text (the "inhuman" in language) and the living, breathing body necessary to produce the words.[38]

Straub/Huillet also question the notion of authorship by multiplying the form of their works, subverting the question of "originality." For instance, there are four "original" negatives for each of their Empedocles films and two each for Antigone and Cézanne . They are composed of the same shots in the same sequence but are of different lengths, since all the takes are distinct. A precursor of this was Too Early, Too Late , which had four separate voice tracks and no subtitles; there is only one visual "original" for all four, however, so the title of the film appears in all four languages at once. "Original" sound tracks in several languages exist for Chronicle as well, with Anna Magdalena Bach's narration in German, French, Italian, English, and Dutch. Also, several of their works were performed in other media: Antigone was performed on stage at the


studio theater of the Schaubühne in Berlin before the filming (May 1991), as well as in the Greek amphitheater at Segesta for the local residents once the filming there had been completed. This is reminiscent of the performance of Pains of Youth by the Action-Theater in Munich which became the center segment of Bridegroom . The film of the opera Moses and Aaron was in part made possible by a concert agreement with Austrian Radio and resulted in a Philips recording as well as the film. Similarly, the sound track of Black Sin was broadcast in 1990 as a radio play in Berlin by RIAS and other stations, under the title "Empedokles auf Ätna." Most of the screenplays have also appeared in print, some of them embodying the only English translation of the texts involved, such as Fortini/Cani or Brecht's The Business Affairs of Mr. Julius Caesar . Finally, even their publications in response to the frequent requests from film journals tend to consist of quotations from other sources, often without citation. For instance, Straub's contribution to a special issue of Cahiers du cinéma dedicated to Wim Wenders consisted of a French translation of Kafka's short story "Jackals and Arabs," minus the title or author.

The problematization of "authorship" does not bring with it a complete deconstruction of the filmmaker as subject, however. On the contrary, although Straub has quipped that there is no such thing as "film history," in interviews Huillet and Straub consistently refer to figures of the "classical" cinema of the past, implying a belief in individual work within film tradition, especially because it is endangered. Their comments on the pitiful state of film distribution, exhibition, processing, sound recording, and so on, all reveal alarm at the debasement of "film culture" as an expression of life in industrial society. Here, as we will presently see, is the distinction between Straub/Huillet and both the "political modernism" with which they are in some ways allied and the postmodernism that their films in some ways resemble.

Since I am concentrating on the German films of Straub/Huillet, their considerable work in French and Italian needs to be introduced. Since their initial four "German" films made in the Federal Republic, Straub/Huillet's films fall into two categories, the "paths" of which they often speak, which include both German and non-German subjects. The paths are distinguished in part by the predominance of documentary or collage, on the one hand, and fictional narrative, on the other. The two strains of work extend from History Lessons to Fortini/Cani to Too Early, Too Late and from Othon to Moses and Aaron to Class Relations . With the exception of the documentary collage on Cézanne, the second strain has been the focus for all the Hölderlin films. The technique of setting a fictional story or drama in a landscape began with the French-language film Les Yeux ne veulent pas en tout temps se fermer ou Peut-être qu'un jour Rome se permettra de choisir à son tour (Othon ) (1969), based on the Corneille play. It is acted in rapid-fire delivery, emphasizing the meter, by a cast of largely non-native speakers of French. The elements juxtaposed in the film create a dynamic and dense whole: the "difficult"


seventeenth-century text, the ruins of the Palatine Hill in Rome, and striking compositions of the actors roaming these ruins above the twentieth-century streets of Rome. History Lessons , which also mixes modern and ancient Rome, differs from this in its virtual elimination of any "staging" of the Brecht text. As we shall see in chapter 6, narrative is produced in the Brecht film largely without acting on the part of the characters. This is the link to Fortini/Cani (1976), based on the book I Cani del Sinai by Franco Fortini. Rather than unfold a plot, Mark Nash and Steve Neal have sketched how the film investigates "the various conjunctures in the past and the present, and history as discourse, and the various forms that may take, as each relates to the individual subject (both Franco Fortini and the viewer)." The film raises the issue of time/duration while problematizing the position of the author quoting himself (as he reads a text written ten years earlier). The "layers of history" the film separates relate to the following modes of discourse, in Neal and Nash's observation.

Discourse of television and newspapers
Franco reading his book, I Cani del Sinai
Voice-over commentary
Visual discourse 'accompanying' the commentary
Handwritten discourse (identified in the script, but not in the film, as that of Fortini)[39]

In historical terms, the film's treatment of anti-Fascist struggles and the Arab-Israeli conflict links it to Moses and Aaron and Introduction in what has been called Straub/Huillet's "Jewish trilogy." In the juxtaposition of modes of discourse, cinematic means of structuring time, and the life of an author/composer, Fortini/Cani also connects to Chronicle, Introduction to Schoenberg , and Cézanne. Dalla nube alla resistenza (From the Cloud to the Resistance ) (1978), based on two works by Cesare Pavese, falls into the category of History Lessons and Too Early, Too Late as well. It, too, has two parts—a twentieth-century text and a text regarding the myths of antiquity, each set in the appropriate landscape. Pavese's The Moon and the Bonfires looks back on the violent deaths of Italian anti-Fascist resistance fighters; Dialogues with Leucò[ 40] is a series of dialogues between heroes and gods, connecting myth and history and returning to an ambiguous stage in the creation of distinctions, such as that between animal and human, which are fundamental to grammar and language itself.[41] Such a juxtaposition of political engagement with profoundly contemplative issues such as myth, nature, and meaning points to the characters of Empedocles and Antigone in the Hölderlin films.

Three short films have been made in France: Toute révolution est un coup de dés (Every Revolution Is a Throw of the Dice ) (1977), based on "Un Coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard," by Stéphane Mallarmé, and En Râchâchant


Danièle Hillet as the chorus in  Black Sin
Courtesy Edition Manfred Salzgeber, Berlin.

(1982), based on a text by Marguerite Duras. The Mallarmé film would certainly deserve comparison with the works treated here, since it uses framing, duration, and the timbre of the voice to evoke the poem's experiments with typography. The invisible traces of history are also present, since the speakers are seated on the hillside where the Paris Communards were massacred in 1870. This placement of a character on transformed ground is echoed by Danièle Huillet's pose on the volcanic earth of Mount Etna in Black Sin (1988), in which she recites the lines of Hölderlin's chorus. Too Early, Too Late (1980–1981) is a special case, since English, French and German, and Italian versions were made using translations of the texts by Friedrich Engels and Mahmoud Hussein. This film points toward the importance of translation as a metaphor for Straub/Huillet's presentation of texts in the cinema, since the voice-over of this film necessarily is always at least 50 percent translated and read by a non-native speaker. Cézanne: Dialogues with Gasquet (1989) was commissioned by the Musée D'Orsay but was then rejected. The Cézanne film follows the impressionists in an attempt "to make it possible to sense the light" (Huillet). It contains excerpts from Empedocles , juxtaposed with ten Cézanne paintings, an excerpt from Renoir's Madame Bovary , and a voice-over containing texts of Cézanne's conversations with Joachim Gasquet.[42]Lothringen! (Lorraine!) , a film confronting the geography and history of Straub's place of origin, was released as this book was going to press.


Straub/Huillet and Cinematic Tradition

Examination of Straub/Huillet's innovative work of over thirty years readily reveals their connection to film tradition. Their approach is the modernist one of reduction and simplification of form. As Hans Hurch put it, "The Straubs are no avant-gardists. They have only opened up a few old lines under the rubble of the cinema and carried them a bit further."[43] References to great artists of the classical cinema abound in their work as in their conversations. The first film, Machorka-Muff , is compared to a Western and to Fritz Lang's M; Chronicle and Bridegroom as well as Too Early, Too Late recall the early history of motion pictures; Class Relations sets a Keystone Kop chase on the streets of Hamburg. "Gangster" is a frequently recurring word in Straub's descriptions of both real and fictional villains. Writing of Antigone , Peter Handke finds Werner Rehm's Creon more imposing than Charlton Heston's Ben Hur and says that Astrid Ofner's Antigone is "one flesh with Liz Taylor's Cleopatra or the more physical, stubborn women and girls in Howard Hawks films."[44] Such comparisons are frequent in both the interviews and the criticism.

Straub/Huillet's wish to maintain explicit links to film history rather than break with it is evident in the films they have chosen to present along with their own work when asked to do so. In 1982 at the most recent U.S. retrospective of their films at the Public Theater in New York, they requested screenings of Glauber Rocha's Antonio das mortes (1969), Carl Dreyer's Day of Wrath (1943), Charlie Chaplin's A King in New York (1957), D. W. Griffith's A Corner in Wheat (1909), Luis Buñuel's Land Without Bread (1982), John Ford's Civil War (from How the West Was Won , 1962), Sergei Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky (1938), Erich von Stroheim's Blind Husbands (1918), Jean Renoir's This Land Is Mine (1943), Kenji Mizoguchi's The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939), and Luc Moulet's formal Western satire A Girl Is a Gun (1970).[45] Straub/Huillet refer to cinematic forerunners in regard to the two areas in which they are the most original, in the treatment of space and the treatment of sound. They have consistently stressed that each of their films begins with a place, a location, and is built from there. Straub has more than once cited Renoir as the source of this definition of "the filmic"—"a tiny dialectic between film, theater and life"[46] —but also varies it by replacing "film" with "the encounter with a place."[47] The Hölderlin films, in particular, have revived the connection to the Western. Handke writes that Straub/Huillet use "machinery and techniques not so different from Howard Hawks or Raoul Walsh."[48] And Laurence Giavarini finds the recourse to the Western associations of Antigone both radical and immediate, "thanks to the sun, the éclat of the sky and the space that is divided up by the shots."[49]

Dividing up space rather than manipulating it is fundamental to Straub/Huillet's attitude to the relation of art to the world. Echoing Bazin, Straub has divided artists into two "families," of which they would belong to the second,


"who try to see the world and become a mirror that is as clean as possible (Cocteau said, 'The mirrors would do well to reflect better')." In the other group are those "who presume—sometimes with inspiration, sometimes with arrogance—to reshape the world." Straub then amended this description to include a third group making up 99 percent of the cinema: "the paratroopers." "Those are people who simply fall from the sky somewhere and boom, the camera is running already. They film something they have never even seen. They've never taken time to look at it. And to show something, one must have seen something. And to see something, one must have looked at it for years at a time."[50]

Straub/Huillet's treatment of space is thus as simple as it is difficult to achieve. In contradiction to Stephen Heath and much theoretical work on cinematic "language," space for them is not to be created by the camera but merely shown. Narrative is not necessary, since it is supplied by the text. For each scene, therefore, they experiment until they find the "strategic point." As Alain Bergala has explained,

For Jean-Marie Straub [sic ], the important thing is finding for each scene in the film—that is, for each shot, for each space—the single strategic point from which one can then film all the shots of the scene, changing only the axis and the focal length of the lens. "Directors of today," he says, "no longer take much trouble to restore the reality of a space. They jump from shot to shot, and so they compose frames that are not connected in relation to a space. It is much easier to make little corrections from one shot to the next than it is to find the single strategic point for the scene to be filmed."[51]

It takes much patience to find a single point where the camera can stand in order to record all the spatial relations without contradiction or interference from its own presence or the position of the "actors"—human or otherwise. There are no shots in Straub/Huillet films, for instance, where in "reality" one would see the camera that photographed another shot: such space "does not exist," Straub insists. I will describe Straub/Huillet's use of camera location in some detail, particularly in regard to a scene from Empedocles , but an evolution can be traced from their earliest films to the ultimate challenge of Antigone , filmed from a single vertical axis of view.

Regarding the mise-en-scène, a similar approach is taken to the use of language: Straub/Huillet attempt to simplify each shot to the point that it conveys one idea clearly; it becomes an empty frame, devoid of all expression. Only an "empty" frame can capture the invisible textures of the surface of the world that were the essence of cinema for Kracauer and a poetic salvation for Hölderlin. Straub refers often to Griffith's statement of 1947: "What the modern movie lacks is beauty—the beauty of moving wind in the trees, the little movement in a beautiful blowing on the blossoms in the trees. That they have


forgotten entirely."[52] But Straub recalled another early context for the same observation in an interview regarding the Bach film, where he compared the motion of the musicians' fingers to the wind in the trees: the audience's delight at the films of the Lumières.[53] Kracauer makes a similar point in his Theory of Film .

It rests on the assumption that film is essentially an extension of photography and therefore shares with this medium a marked affinity for the visible world around us. Now this reality includes many phenomena which would hardly be perceived were it not for the motion picture camera's ability to catch them on the wing. [. . .] Significantly, the contemporaries of Lumière praised his films—the first ever to be made—for showing "the ripple of the leaves stirred by the wind."[54]

This acceptance of photography as a baseline clearly distinguishes Straub/Huillet from the avant-garde and reveals the error of critics' tying them to the way "structuralist/materialist film-makers call attention to the material facts of film: the presence of sprocket holes, the grain and texture of the film; the movement of film through the gate of the projector; the factor of light in the registration of any image on film."[55] For Straub/Huillet, by contrast, "the greatness of film is the humbleness of being condemned to photography."[56] I believe this has been the most misleading effect of the reception of Straub/Huillet by way of the critique of film language, for instance, in Lacanian feminist theory. For example, although she is right in stressing Straub/Huillet's disruption of film conventions, Roswitha Mueller draws the conclusion from this that their films renounce access to the pleasure found in the imaginary: "Staying clear of the fantastic and pleasurable proximity to the imaginary, they insist on the materiality of the signifier by cleansing images and sound as much as possible of pre-established cinematic codes."[57] There are two sides to the process, however. Although Straub/Huillet call attention to the artificiality of cinematic codes, these codes, which exist on the level of the symbolic, are not the only source of pleasure. The access to the surface of things, as Bazin describes, is also an access to pleasure in the realm of the imaginary. As Rosalind Krauss has put it, "Whatever else its power, the photograph could be called sub- or pre-symbolic, ceding the language of art back to the imposition of things."[58] The "imposition of things" is precisely the source of the moments of joy to be found in Straub/Huillet films, as they evoke the photographic immediacy of the early cinema. Even more than for their treatment of visual and narrative structures, Straub/Huillet are constantly attacked—especially in Germany—for their use of sound and speech. With the sole exception of their first short film, Straub/Huillet have used live sound throughout their work, insisting on the direct connection between the sound and the image, the space, the air where it is recorded. They also prefer microphones that record more than just the actor's voice, rejecting radio microphones and lavalieres in favor of the


traditional use of a hand-held microphone boom. Since the 1960s they have only worked with two sound directors, Jeti Grigioni and Louis Hochet. Hochet, whom Straub/Huillet refer to as the last great "Tonmeister" of the European cinema, has worked with Straub/Huillet from the Bach film to Antigone . Hochet had done the sound for Max Ophüls's La Ronde , and his older assistant, Lucien Moreau, had done direct optical sound on early Renoir films.[59]

To underscore their dedication to live sound and the beauty of texts recited by speakers who have difficulty with the language, both Huillet and Straub refer to the early sound films of Renoir. Here is one illustration of the consistency and harmony of their positions: twenty-five years after Straub had mentioned the foreign accents and the clumsy sound recording in these films in the context of the Bach film, Huillet remarked in 1993, "One of the things that makes me optimistic . . . is the beautiful speech of the woman in court at the end of Renoir's La Chienne ."[60] The other precursor in their use of "unexpressive" treatment of sound is Robert Bresson, whose pronouncements on the speech of actors are nearly identical to their own. Here Bresson echoes Benjamin's concept of the use of a mechanism to reach a point free of all machinery.

I maintain that a mechanical approach is the only proper one, as in playing the piano. In playing scales, playing as regularly and as mechanically as possible, one captures the emotion. And not when one adds the emotion, as virtuosos do. That's just it: actors are virtuosos. Instead of concentrating on the material, they give one their feelings in addition and say, "Look, that is how you must perceive the material."[61]

On the famous "neutral" diction of his performers, which is also shared by Straub/Huillet, Bresson speaks in terms similar to Kracauer's attitude toward photography. "For one thing, the diction is not neutral, it is true, I would say, right. The word 'right' is often not understood in the theater. Speaking must be automatic, like the gestures. From the automatism that makes up three-quarters of our lives comes the true, and not from what is thought and considered."[62]

Since the approach to sound, like the approach to the image, is a documentary one, the "unexpressive" delivery of the lines in Straub/Huillet films could be explained as arising simply from the requirements of their method: since they push all the structures of film to the limit and do not believe in manipulating the spontaneity of what appears involuntarily , that is, the truth, they control as much as possible what is produced voluntarily. And a line or speech must be delivered the same way several times for the requisite number of takes; and if an "expression" is included, it will not be done the same way every time, except perhaps by an experienced singer or professional actor. So an "inauthentic" way of speaking is introduced to achieve an "authentic" encounter between text and speaker. Otherwise, both the text as material and the act of speaking would be erased in favor of preconceived "meaning."


Despite the great amount of criticism locating the "Brechtianism" of Straub/Huillet in their violation of visual conventions,[63] the use of language and work with the actors is perhaps Brecht's most significant influence on them. In fact, consistent with the attitude toward photography described above, Straub has ridiculed the idea of approaching a film scene with any idea of "distanciating" it. However, even Renoir reported from personal experience that the originality of Brecht was in his work with the actors.[64] And Renoir's description of the actor's relation to the text also parallels that of Straub/Huillet: "The work only starts after absorbing the lines, after making the lines your own."[65] This influence is consistent in the work of Straub/Huillet but reaches a high point, no doubt, in the performances in Antigone . As chapter 11 illustrates, Straub/Huillet have adopted certain aspects of what Brecht referred to as a Modell , which he developed at the same time he was writing down some of his directorial methods in the "Little Organon for the Theater" (at Helene Weigel's insistence). Brecht put more and more energy into staging plays than writing them after his return to Germany, suggesting another similarity to Straub/Huillet. It cannot be stressed often enough that they never write the texts of their films but only "stage" them for the cinema.

The other crucial Brechtian influence on Straub/Huillet is his play Die heilige Johanna der Schlachthöfe (Saint Joan of the Stockyards ). It provided the second title for Not Reconciled—or, Only violence helps where violence rules —in 1965 and has been mentioned in interviews much later. A number of characteristics of Brecht's play can be found in Straub/Huillet's films and in their social and artistic positions. Formally most important is the concept of a "fan," or spectrum of diction, that distinguishes the characters. In Brecht's play, the grandiose and narcissistic verbiage of the capitalists mimics poetry of Schiller, Shakespeare, Goethe, and Hölderlin. The correspondence of diction to content carries over into the Caesar novel, with its "well written" and "badly written" segments. This experiment with form, as for Straub/Huillet, is not an exercise for its own sake but to show "the connection between certain ways of acting and their means of expression."[66]

Such a spectrum of diction is found in Straub/Huillet films, especially from Class Relations on, with professional polish juxtaposed with lay actors struggling with a foreign language. The typographical experiments of Mallarmé's Throw of the Dice also parallels this, with the timbre of voice, duration, and shot framing suggesting the poet's variations of type size.

Saint Joan also introduces the figure of a young woman whose revolutionary impulse is expressed in the demand, "I want to know." Like the young man's driving sequences in History Lessons , Johanna makes three "descents," reminiscent of popular allegorical morality plays, in order to learn how capital brings economic collapse and hunger via the meat-packing industry.[67] Because she finds the causes of the workers' miserable physical and moral condition in the powers above them, Saint Joan could also answer the criticisms Straub/


Huillet most often receive from well-meaning leftists. Some claim to admire the films personally but argue that the masses will never be able to appreciate them. Saint Joan, too, is told that the workers are debased, to which she replies, "If you show me, Mauler, the baseness of the poor, I will show you the poor's impoverishment."[68] If the "masses" are to change their situation, they have to know there is an alternative.

Straub/Huillet and Political Modernism

The relative marginality of Straub/Huillet in treatments of the New German Cinema, with its narrative, "art cinema" label, is based on the supposed "antinarrative" quality of their work as well as their outsider status. This judgment can be traced to the Anglo-American reception of their work since the 1970s, which relied mainly on the critical and theoretical interest in "political modernism." David Bordwell, for example, distinguishes between the narrative ambiguity of the art film and the "pedagogical" montage of what he calls the "interrogative strain in the historical-materialist mode of narration."[69] Elsaesser, too, relegates Straub/Huillet from the main investigation of New German Cinema to an "alternative approach" that connects it to the avant-garde, modernism, and a "postnarrative, 'deconstructive' cinema."[70] But Elsaesser sees the primary project of New German Cinema as a blend of art film, social cinema, and Hollywood variations that, even when transgressive, remains more conventionally committed to narrative than the alternative paradigms of Godard or Straub/Huillet.[71]

This identification of Straub/Huillet and Godard as "Brechtian" filmmakers is certainly important, but it has led to narrowing of the interpretive framework applied to their work.[72] Much recent theoretical writing has shown the virtues and limitations of the explosions of film theory in the 1970s of which the most intense treatment of Straub/Huillet was a part. D. N. Rodowick provides one history of the phenomenon in his book, The Crisis of Political Modernism . Rodowick traces the relevance in film theory of the "triangulation of Marxism, semiology, and psychoanalysis" and the theories of Louis Althusser and Lacan, especially as mediated in the journals Tel Quel and Screen .[73] Rodowick's description of a crisis implies that this theoretical approach in film culture eventually reached an impasse. And Colin MacCabe writes, "It was true that the independent sector had grown, it was true that many of the films made in the later seventies had been influenced by Screen , but it was also true that much of that influence had been catastrophic, linking a banal formalism to political didacticism in a formula which had nothing to recommend it—except to initiates."[74]

This pessimistic view, written at the beginning of the Reagan era, has a degree of merit, since what had been a vibrant and critical impulse in independent filmmaking had become elitist, self-absorbed, and overly concerned


with formal questions. This situation may be mirrored by the academicization of film studies and film theory that also occurred in that period. These developments may not prove that the "Brechtian project" was a dead end, however, as much as they reflect a defensive and frustrated reaction to the failure (or defeat) of the cultural impulses of the 1960s. Therefore, getting beyond this impasse has been a major project of film theory since the 1980s, especially in feminist inquiries into the audience's pleasurable relations to the cinema.

Rodowick cites Peter Wollen's description of how feminist theory's application of both psychoanalysis and materialism can deal with this dilemma: "Wollen asserts that the lesson learned by Godard and Straub is that for Brecht there is neither a question of abandoning the realm of social reference outside of the play (or film) nor of equating antiillusionism with the suppression of any signified. . . . Wollen claims that Brecht's materialism reconciles antiillusionism and referentiality in his theory of distantiation (the Verfremdungs-Effekt ) as an activity that encourages a fundamental dissymmetry in the film/viewer relation—the opening of a 'gap in space' between referent, representation, and spectator."[75] Although Straub/Huillet also do not believe in the existence of "film language," the process by which the elements are combined to make up their films indeed suggests parallels with analyses of literature and linguistics. In the final chapters, for instance, we will see connections between the "primitive" forms of Straub/Huillet films and the motion from temporal to spatial relations in Hölderlin's poetry. In the later films of Straub/Huillet, we see more and more the articulation of the elements Elsaesser's book has theorized in the context of early cinema, seeing "the generation of meaning in the film-text itself as a continuous process: one located in the tension between presentation and narration, rather than of formal patterning or a fixed semiotic system."[76]

By looking at the multiplicity of contexts in which Straub/Huillet films function, we shall see that they are not totally to be defined within the impasse reached by political modernism in Rodowick's critique. This impasse was based on a conviction that "theoretical practice" in the form of radical cinema could achieve some sort of political "break," couched in the context of binary oppositions such as "realism and modernism, modernism and semiology, ideological and theoretical practice."[77] Rodowick goes on to propose a way out of this impasse with terms that recall very much what Straub/Huillet's works most strongly encourage: "a practice of reading and . . . an intervention in the institutional formations of knowledge."[78] To the danger that such "reading formations" might return to the assumption of a unified subject, Rodowick contrasts the multiple subject positions posited in Foucault's Archaeology of Knowledge , which again are strongly suggestive of the decentering of space and narrative unity in Straub/Huillet films.

Instead of referring back to the synthesis or the unifying function of a subject, the various enunciative modalities manifest his [sic ] dispersion. To the various


statuses, the various sites, the various positions that he [sic ] can occupy or be given when making a discourse. To the discontinuity of the planes from which he [sic ] speaks. And if these planes are linked by a system of relations, this system is not established by the synthetic activity of a consciousness identical with itself . . . but by the specificity of a discursive practice. . . . Thus conceived, discourse is not the majestically unfolding manifestation of a thinking, knowing, speaking [reading] subject, but, on the contrary, a totality, in which the dispersion of the subject and his discontinuity with himself may be determined. It is a space of exteriority in which a network of distinct sites is deployed.[79]

This definition of the subject is appropriate to the explosion of the unity of the "author" in Straub/Huillet films, beginning with Chronicle , but especially clear in the Schoenberg short and Fortini/Cani .[80] The dispersed subject also corresponds to the "invisible audience" constantly suggested by Straub/Huillet films—a postulated subjectivity that necessarily is "exterior" to the text but is also its utopian future audience. At the conclusion of Crisis of Political Modernism , Rodowick turns to a "previously unrecognized and untheorized utopian dimension in the discourse of political modernism," the feminist aspect that a number of critics have explored. Rodowick cites Gertrud Koch in this regard.

The aesthetically most advanced films resist any facile reading, not only because they operate with complex aesthetic codes but also because they anticipate an expanded and radicalized notion of subjectivity. What is achieved in a number of these films is a type of subjectivity that transcends any abstract subject-object dichotomy; what is at stake is no longer the redemption of woman as subject over against the male conception of woman as object. What is at stake is less—and at the same time more—than the most general sense of the concept of subject: in the sense that Marx could speak of the working class as the subject of the revolution, in the sense that the women's movement could be the subject of the transformation of sexual politics. The most advanced aesthetic products represent a utopian anticipation of a yet to be fulfilled program of emancipated subjectivity: neither of a class nor of a movement or a collective, but as individuals, as concrete subjects [as] they attempt to insist on their authentic experience.[81]

Rodowick is bothered by the proposition that this "subjectivity" is to be found in the work of art and insists on critical and theoretical practice as its agent as well. The utopian aspect of it, however, as "yet to be achieved" must necessarily remain outside both art and theory, in the sum of the uses to which they are put: authentic experience. In the analysis of the individual films to follow, I explore the powerful aesthetic effects Straub/Huillet produce by attempting to reconcile the opposites in these debates, calling attention to the artificial devices by which film constructs meaning while at the same time invoking its immediate relations to the reality of the world. And beyond all this, they assert the connection between formal innovation and political practice in


a historical context. In regard to the theoretical debates of the 1970s, this necessity has been observed by both Sylvia Harvey[82] and Colin MacCabe, who writes, "It cannot . . . be stressed too often that theory only and ever makes sense in relation to practice. The practices to which literary theory must always address itself are those that regulate our relation to a literary tradition which is both inheritance and oppression."[83] Straub/Huillet's sustained engagement with the traditions of music, theater, cinema, and literature seek a mediation between inheritance and oppression in the German context.


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