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6—History Lessons and Brecht's The Business Affairs of Mr. Julius Caesar
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History Lessons and Brecht's The Business Affairs of Mr. Julius Caesar

Proceeding logically enough from the title, most critics have considered Julius Caesar to be the unifying structural device in Brecht's novel fragment The Business Affairs of Mr. Julius Caesar (Die Geschäfte des Herrn Julius Caesar ), written between 1937 and 1939.[1] Despite its strategies of demystification and Marxist analysis, the novel is still seen primarily as a narrative of a segment of Caesar's career. Although the historical novel's conventions of identification are challenged, it is still assumed that the reader can identify with Brecht's authorial voice as a basis for subjectively unifying the novel.

It is equally plausible, however, to consider the novel as the narrative of the young biographer's frustrated investigation of the "real" Caesar. The narrator who sets out to write a biography of Caesar some forty years after his death represents a consciousness to which all the contradictory evidence about Caesar's life is presented, with varying degrees of mediation by Brecht's other characters. As the myth of Caesar as hero gradually crumbles amid these contradictions, the effect on the narrator—and on the contemporary reader—logically becomes a central question.

In History Lessons , their 1972 film based on Brecht's Caesar novel,[2] Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub emphasize the problem of the narrator's position by making him into a contemporary protagonist. The young man in modern dress interviews four contemporaries of Caesar, all in costumes of antiquity: a banker, a jurist, a poet, and a peasant legionnaire. These interviews are separated by three long shots of the young man driving through contemporary Rome, with the camera in a fixed position directed over his shoulder from the back seat of a small car.


Although Straub/Huillet have removed nearly all of the novel's limited narrative material, History Lessons is not non-narrative as a result. Instead, the film can be seen as following through radically on what Herbert Claas has termed the coincidence of the narrator's point of view with a filmic one.[3] Rather than "violating the fiction built by Brecht,"[4] Straub and Huillet's film provides a basis for moving beyond the "Brechtianisms" of 1970s film theory as Sylvia Harvey has enumerated them: "distanciation, anti-illusionism, deconstruction, the critique of identification processes and the dismantling of 'classical' narrative."[5]

History Lessons is perhaps the film most responsible for bringing Straub/Huillet into the discussions of antinarrative and political modernism. Its production and reception coincided with the burgeoning of film theory in the 1970s, a search for a theoretical praxis forged out of psychoanalysis, Marxism, and feminism. Straub/Huillet's radical approach to film and politics led critics to misinterpret their commitment to narrative and "modernist" notions of form and beauty. In order to praise them as true practitioners of the political avantgarde, Martin Walsh tended to exaggerate their rejection of narrative,[6] whereas Peter Gidal attacked them for presenting "equivalents" of Brecht's texts.[7] Careful analysis of the rather unformed driving shots as well as the formalistic composition of the interview sequences has been undertaken by Christopher Roos, Gilberto Perez, Maureen Turim, and Martin Walsh.[8] Their discussions demonstrate that Straub/Huillet's Brechtian approach, although having traits in common with avant-garde film, is more productively thought of in terms of a modernist juxtaposition of formal elements.

Building on their analyses of the film's form, my comparison with Brecht's novel here explores the importance of narrative to Straub/Huillet, who do not share the avant-garde's claim that all narrative is oppressive. The young man in the film is not a ready-made equivalent of Brecht's narrator but rather a device to reveal how a liberating narrative could be constructed. The context of German history and the political dilemmas of post-1968 Europe are also much more significant than interpretations of "antinarrative" would imply. By comparing the narrative structures of film and novel, we can explore the persistence of the contemporary obstacles to the type of historical understanding Brecht sought. Finally, I will propose that the film's structure as a quest by a contemporary "narrator" does not ignore but rather problematizes what Harvey calls a "concern with a subjectivity conceived of in collective and class terms that has been largely absent from the psychoanalytic tradition in film studies."[9] In both form and content, the film proposes a historical consciousness that does not remain trapped in inherited forms.

The Business Affairs of Mr. Julius Caesar

The "demythologization of Caesar" should not be seen as the primary goal of Brecht's novel but as a means to an end.[10] The overturning of the popular


image of the "great personality" as the moving force of history was a radical undertaking in the years 1938–1939. Adolf Hitler was being taken more and more seriously as a world leader. The Caesar fragment attacks the Fascist strategy in two ways: first, by erasing the grandeur of the great personality as the form-giving element in history, and second, by formally subverting the narrative form given to history that supports such a view. The importance of the cult of a fatherlike leader to Fascist movements is quite clear. But it must also be understood that the creation of such an image for consumption by large numbers of people is an aesthetic undertaking. There is a great deal of accuracy in Syberberg's metaphor of Hitler, Goebbels et al. as artists—filmmakers "staging" World War II as a background for the role they continue to play as cultural commodities.[11] Brecht sought to undermine this strategy of transmitting the great personality through the form of his novel. He did not seek merely to tarnish Caesar's image but to expose the process of creating such an image.

Brecht's approach to Caesar was for this very reason as political in form as in content. Pessimism and isolation made the work more difficult and ultimately led to its abandonment. Harro Müller sees the pessimism as the logical consequence of Brecht's rigorous Marxist analysis, while Herbert Claas sees a contemporary connection to Brecht's dilemma in the persisting depoliticization of the working class.[12] Here, too, we see the dilemma of post-1968 Europe resonate with Brecht's situation. Clearly, the novel was written for an audience—German workers conscious of their own interests—that did not exist or could not be reached. Only after Books I through III of the novel had been shown to some German workers was Brecht encouraged enough to go on. "They understood everything, even the details."[13] The audience easiest to reach was not sympathetic. Ten months earlier Brecht had noted, "Benjamin and Sternberg, very highly qualified intellectuals, didn't understand it and urgently suggested including more human interest, more of the old novel!"[14] To follow this advice would have meant a return to psychology and a single narrative line, which gives the impression of inevitability. For Brecht, the opposite was most important, as he noted: "Writing 'Caesar,' I have just now discovered that I must not believe for a moment that it had to turn out as it did."[15]

To "portray" Caesar without making history seem to follow an inevitable course is thus as much a formal problem as a question of content. "More of the old novel" would mean a return to mimesis, which implies just such an inevitability. In Müller's words, "Mimetic theory therefore means an end to the dialectical relationship of consciousness and its object, thus negating consciousness as a determining factor in reality."[16] Brecht's formal experiment in the novel is aimed at maintaining the dialectical interplay of consciousness and its object. To this end, he splits the points of view of the narrative, giving none of them a privileged position where the "truth of Caesar" as a personality is concerned.

Klaus-Detlef Müller places the structure of the Caesar fragment in the context of a general strategy of historicization and historical critique. In this


view, the novel passes through three stages of consciousness. First is the assumption of the narrator at the outset that history is the work of individuals and that a biography of Caesar is thus an adequate approach. The second step is for this assumption to be placed in doubt by the facts. The information and opinions obtained by the narrator from people he interviews or from the diary of Caesar's secretary, Rarus, do not add up to a unified, heroic view of Caesar's personality. Even the "progress" Caesar represents is invisible in much of this testimony. The third step, then, is the application of a materialist critique to this confusing information, suggesting that economic processes, not personalities, determine the laws of history.[17] Müller is certainly right in asserting that these steps are present in the novel, but he assumes too great a degree of homogenization in their formal presentation. Part of the problem is also the fact that Brecht's experiment was never completed, and one must at least speculate on the internal and external reasons for this.

The central experiment in the Caesar novel, and perhaps also a barrier to its completion, is that the most naïve and conventional narrative is that of the framing story. This narrative, along with the narrator's assumptions, cannot remain a "framing" structure, because the novel's strategy as a whole destroys it. To phrase it in accordance with Müller's scheme, the narrator embodies the first and second steps of consciousness, but he is not capable of moving on to the third. To have him "see the light" after his assumptions have been disputed by fact would be to return to a conventional mimetic narrative. His enlightenment would have to be somehow present in potential from the beginning, perhaps by virtue of his inquisitive nature. Brecht's narrator, however, does not wish to have his assumptions challenged, and throughout the novel these challenges remain external to him and external to his narrative as well. Here lies both the genius and the failure of Brecht's experiment.

The novel is divided into four books, with the following titles: I. Career of a refined young man; II. Our Mr. C.; III. Classical administration of a province; IV. The three-headed monster. All the framing narrative in the novel is contained in Books I and III. Books II and IV consist entirely of Rarus's diaries. The purchase of the diaries from the banker is the impetus for the framing story. They of course also contain various narratives from Rarus's point of view, describing the poverty in Rome, Caesar's daily financial troubles, Rarus's troubles with his lover, and the latter's unemployment due to the influx of skilled slaves.

Book I relates the first visits of the would-be biographer to Caesar's banker, Mummlius Spicer, to negotiate for a look at the diaries. What the narrator must unwillingly accept in the bargain is the commentary of Spicer. The first section, Caesar's "career," contains the most directly personal of Spicer's comments, which the narrator already finds heretical. He concludes at the end of Book I,

What little he had to say about the founder of the empire, one of the greatest men in the history of the world, was quite obviously meant to portray him as an


especially depraved offspring of an old family. . . . I was out of patience. Had I not been determined to obtain the priceless papers, I would have stood up to go long before. I wanted to wait only long enough to get the papers, then leave with them to finally learn something about the real Caesar.[18]

The narration is marked by a similar tone throughout the first book: the biographer expresses his disinterest in both the economic and cynical personal reports of Spicer and the political generalizations of Spicer's visitor, the jurist Afranius Carbo. Carbo sees democracy and trade as intertwined principles, and after his assertion that Caesar's founding of the empire was only a continuation of the ideas of the Gracci, the narrator complains, "As far as these two gentlemen were concerned, my book was already written,"[19] and Brecht uses the opportunity to provide more ironic details regarding Spicer's estate.

Aside from the diaries of Rarus, there is only one witness from whom the narrator hopes to learn something of the "real" Caesar: the old legionnaire. But his account of the peasants' personal suffering as a result of economic change also fails to recognize Caesar's greatness, and the narrator leaves the interview disgusted and perplexed.

The novel reveals no similar reaction against the diaries of Rarus. However, the narrator is somewhat depressed by the violence and confusion of the Rome described in the diaries and is relieved to be on Spicer's peaceful estate, three decades after the events. He no longer complains bitterly about Spicer's long lectures but merely reiterates his skepticism about their relevance.[20] At the end, he reports only being lost in thought as he leaves with the last of the diaries. Brecht concludes the narrative by returning to the ambience of Spicer's estate: a runaway slave, sought earlier in the day, has not been found. The singing of the slaves, which had begun the book, has also ceased. The slave quarters are silent.[21]

The narrator thus never reaches the third step in Müller's scheme; he never becomes critical of his own undertaking. At most, the reader can deduce that he is no longer so self-assured. He indeed notes in his narrative how times have and have not changed between Caesar's day and his own. The confusion that conflicting representations of the past has created has not led him to a new analysis but rather to silence. As a more neutral narrator, he becomes merely Brecht's tool of montage, devoid of identity. He records the political exploitation of the threat of uprisings, described by Spicer's last guest, the poet Vastius Alder. The corruption of democracy within Rome is placed beside the "peaceful" subjugation and administration of the provinces of the empire, described by Spicer. The narrator reaches no synthesis; he even ceases to think about Caesar.

What synthesis is possible in the novel is therefore independent of the narrative. The narrator, by virtue of his misguided quest, is incapable of changing enough to incorporate a synthesis. Ironically, the characters who do not undergo a process of narrative evolution are those who do have a critical


view of both Caesar and the investigation at hand. Spicer, for instance, makes numerous ironic comments critical of the motives and practice of historiography.[22] He also has no use for building a legend around Caesar, since the facts alone, impersonal as they are, are the material basis for his wealth and status. He has merely recognized and pursued his interest, and Caesar is simply an aspect of this beneficial development.

The poet Vastius Alder has a similar point of view regarding Caesar and even expresses it in terms that apply to the novel itself as well as to the listeners in the narrative. As Spicer is able to separate historical legend from his own interests, so the poet separates political instrumentality from the stuff of art. His attitude places any "representation" of Caesar in doubt, because to him the "great man" had no character at all, was pure instrumentality. Caesar was but a great man of the generic type.

This kind of people is copied from one book to another, down through the centuries. A few strokes of water color are enough. I doubt whether a poet—you will excuse me, Spicer—inclined to write about him could come up with more than two lines. Not everything which has a surface develops patina, and art is patina, is it not? . . . For poetry, the man of whom we speak is something into which Brutus stuck his sword. You can repeat a thousand times, "The founder of the Empire, a formula of world scale!" It doesn't develop patina, this formula. Of course, why worry about art? I'm afraid I'm partisan.[23]

Both the language and the intention of the poet virtually banish from the novel Caesar as a personality. He is no longer even named but referred to only as "the man we are speaking of," "something into which Brutus stuck his sword," "our formula," and "your employee." Significantly, the narrator neither protests, as he would have done earlier, nor reflects or comments, as he might if he had understood and undergone a change in his character. But the remark he does make, having forgotten Caesar, almost hints at a link between the economic and political context into which the various speakers have placed Caesar by this point and the mundane details that are all the narrator is capable of perceiving.

The difference between the banker and his guest was extraordinary, almost indescribable. Both were of humble origins: Spicer was the son of a freedman; Vastius was even a freedman himself. Both had played as children in the alleys of the capital; as men both sat in Caesar's Senate. But the banker still smacked his lips at meals, and the poet and soldier was almost at the point of going back to smacking his.[24]

The narrator has succeeded in making a connection between Caesar and the interests of class, but it is merely incidental and not part of any new perspective he has achieved. Since narrative is ineffective, the hand of the author becomes visible.


In some passages, then, the novel succeeds brilliantly in demythologizing Caesar by subjecting the "personality" to multiple perspectives.[25] The problem remains, however, who is able to take advantage of these multiple perspectives. The banker and his guests are given magnificent texts to speak which "possess for long stretches the analytical sharpness of Marx and the satirical linguistic wit of Karl Kraus."[26] Although their perspective is the broadest, they have nothing to gain by exchanging their views on Caesar. As we have seen, however, the narrator is even less able to take advantage of the multiple perspective offered him, and the structure of the novel makes it clear that he has no self-interest that compels him to do so.

All that remains is the effort of the reader to apply the multiple perspective to matters of his or her own historical interest, but this is a synthesis that the novel cannot concretely bring about. To the extent that it does so, it calls itself into question as a novel. Part of its story, its usefulness as a whole to someone, simply cannot be told. The independence of the diary segments is an example. There is no narration of the act of reading them. The reader's confrontation with them is not mediated by that of the narrator. Instead, the two "readings" become one. The result is simply not there in the novel; the reader must process this raw material alone.

Ironically, the same principle applies to the speeches of Spicer and his guests. Since they, too, occur in long blocks of prose, they take on a certain independence. To the extent that they do speak directly to the reader, as someone who can make use of the analysis and information, they render the narrator superfluous. Indeed, many of his comments that punctuate the long passages appear to be simply novelistically inept. The narrative is a nuisance.

These contradictions go to the center of Brecht's creative activity at the time. The lack of a "protagonist" or a synthesis is more than merely a formal dead end; it reflects Brecht's isolation and his lack of an audience. The "difficulty of finding heroes" reflects some historical pessimism as well.[27] The refusal to offer a synthesized, homogenized retrospective view of Caesar in the novel is based on the impossibility of such a view of Hitler. The formal principle was a result of Brecht's refusal to delude himself in questions of political reality.[28] Therefore, Werner Mittenzwei tends to oversimplify Brecht's relationship to tradition as a unified aesthetic strategy. He shows little concern for Brecht's confusion and despair when he could not hope to have a German audience and could not be sure that he ever would again. Mittenzwei misses the point when he concludes, "Yet he was not able to achieve the new type of novel he sought. The link to the novelistic tradition of the eighteenth century had long been broken. Brecht's attempt must be regarded as a failure."[29] Yet the tradition referred to was indeed broken off, by concrete historical processes, both in the years of exile and after Brecht's return to Berlin. Brecht is no more (or less) responsible for the failure of his experiment in the novel than he is for the failure of German culture in the face of fascism. Klaus Völker seems insensitive to


the situation faced by artists in this historical position. The irony seems a bit cruel in his comment, "A not insignificant source of Brecht's incredible productivity in the years 1938–1941 is the realization that his opinions on art and politics were hardly in demand anymore."[30] Brecht recognized that his aesthetic limitations were reflections of the political defeats of his time and that he could not write for a liberated Germany when the agents of that liberation were nowhere to be seen. Although his journal entries seldom contain a plaintive tone, the effect of this situation on the Caesar novel is movingly expressed in the following entry, of 25 July 1938:

the whole c-concept is inhumane. on the other hand, inhumanity can't be represented without the presence of an image of humanity. the social system cannot be represented unless one sees an alternative. and i can't just write from the point of view of the present, i must be able to see the alternative path as a possible one for that time as well. a cold world, a cold work. and still i see, between the writing and during the writing, how degraded we have been in our humanity.[31]

To see the other path as possible was a profound challenge in the years of the rise of fascism in Germany, one it was probably impossible to confront fully. Völker reports, regarding the work on Puntila in 1940, "The practice of literature proved to be far removed 'from the centers of all-governing events.' The playwright had to admit to himself: 'Puntila has almost nothing to do with me; the war, everything. I can write almost everything about Puntila; about the war, nothing.'"[32]

This is the modern artist's intolerable situation, which became most extreme under fascism but which persists as long as consciousness is under occupation by the culture industry. The artist must be hopeful that society will survive and that social change will restore a sense of the values preserved in art. And this hope must also compel the artist to push artistic tradition forward, even though its social basis is in question. This is why Brecht's dilemma resonates with that of the political avant-garde in film and film theory after 1968. In an essay published in the British journal Screen , Franco Fortini describes Brecht in these roles during the period under discussion.

The fact is that in reality Brecht lived both functions: on the one hand the passer-on of a message that had to go "under the sweat-stained shirt . . . through the police cordons," the role, that is, of the scribe to whom tumultuous artisans assign the task of putting down their truth on paper; and on the other the mission of the man whose words to himself are: "Know that you do it for yourself, so do it properly." In the poem of 1939 from which I have quoted above, the situation of the "outlaw," with all its problems of double citizenship and double identity, is expressed as literally intolerable.[33]

Fortini continues that many writers had felt integrated into the Communist party as a "society within a society" and as a "concrete anticipation of socialist


society." But after the victory of Nazism and the Hitler-Stalin Pact, even this identity was no longer possible. Fortini concludes, "On the eve of the Second World War a number of writers finally discovered what the working class should have known for at least a hundred years: that they had no home-land."[34]

Brecht's Caesar Novel and History Lessons :
A Common Formal Dilemma

Colin MacCabe has criticized the Straub/Huillet film by asserting that "it is impossible to understand for what audience History Lessons was made."[35] This should stand as a first indication of the strong correspondence between the dilemma of Brecht's novel and the post-1968 dilemma of the film. Deprived of a homeland, deprived of "tumultuous artisans" charging him with "the task of putting down their truth on paper," Brecht offers views of history that neither support an aesthetic form nor point toward a productive reception in existing society. The narrator becomes as silent in the face of Caesar as the German working class becomes in the face of Hitler. Straub/Huillet leave the dilemmas of the novel intact with regard to its own time, but they also reveal its contemporary resonance. The "slave quarters" are still silent today, but the artist persists in imagining that history could have been different, that change is possible.

Much of the text of the Caesar novel is missing from the film History Lessons . Yet if one sees the novel as a formal confrontation of the powerlessness of art in the face of history, it is all there, perhaps with fewer aesthetic self-contradictions. The film does indeed contain all the major characters in Brecht's framing story and in approximately faithful proportions. Only the anecdotal details are removed—the personal stories of Spicer's estate and of the narrator's journey. The character of the narrator and the diaries of Rarus are the most obvious deletions, yet the structure of the film replaces and transforms these elements.

Let us begin with the narrator and the narrative in general. In contrast to the analytical overview provided by the banker and his guests, the clowning pretentiousness of the narrator is irritating (but does not produce "distanciation," a Verfremdungs-Effekt ) and allows no room for development of consciousness. The film eliminates this personal tic of the narrator but thereby restores his function as a vehicle of narrative continuity and even progress. The young man is situated between the extremes of the film: he is somehow between the Rome of 1972 through which he drives and the world of the costumed characters to whom he listens; he is also between the audience and these two aspects of the film, in a visual sense, in the driving sequences and, figuratively, as a narrative link in the interviews. The "narrator" of the film is not merely identified with a heroic view of Caesar, and his experience is therefore not exhausted by having such a view challenged. His attitude is only slightly similar to that of the novel's narrator in that he asks questions and is contradicted. He, too, is receiving


information that he did not seek at the outset, but this experience enriches and confirms his presence in the film, as the bearer of the narrative.

The positioning of the young man as a bearer of the narrative is independent of both Brecht's text and conventional film action. This independence of the film's form from its text derives largely from the use of preexisting material, the basis for all Straub/Huillet screenplays. Texts become part of the documentation of history to be confronted by the formal fiction of the film. Straub/Huillet stress that the audience should be aware that everything seen on film is fiction, and the separation of their own work from the production of literary texts serves to emphasize this. The historical events presented in the texts are separated from the audience both temporally and aesthetically; nothing is portrayed as happening "now," and past events remain in the past; the literary form of the historical materials is separate from the film form that accompanies them. Not to stress these distinctions would amount to deception on the part of the filmmaker. In an interview from 1972, the year of History Lessons and Introduction , Straub/Huillet described this "deception" and its avoidance by way of "preformed materials" as follows:

STRAUB: . . . I think the deception comes about when one gives people the impression that something is happening in the moment the film is running, something they call "action." It isn't true; when a film is running which doesn't rest on deception, nothing is happening, absolutely nothing. That can only happen in the spectator, whatever happens. And that can only come about through the combination of the images and sounds . . .

HUILLET: That is, of forms . . .

STRAUB: . . . of forms that go through the ears and the eyes and through the minds of the spectator and into his [sic ] reflections.[36]

To illustrate the importance of film form in preserving the audience's freedom to reflect, we will look at the way in which Straub/Huillet construct the narrative around the young man. His importance is not established by a role in a preconceived narrative but by the fact that he serves as a unifying element to suggest narrative possibilities.

The question of a unifying element is appropriate because there is no element of the film that is present in every shot. No narrative structure is given from the outset to provide unity to the film, which is divided between the "interviews" with the four eyewitnesses and the shots of the young man driving through Rome that punctuate them. However, certain elements do link the large sections together. For instance, the first several shots are only concretely linked to what follows by the sound of the streets of Rome. The film does not explain that these maps of the shrinking Roman empire (and the statute of Caesar that follows) are products of the Fascists and that they are actually on the street.


Yet the street noise and the abrupt cutting are sufficient to give the feeling of instability. The noises link these shots to the shot of the statue, which almost equals their combined length. The name Caesar is present only in the subtitle; the maps and the statue are conveyors of questions, not of information. Their lack of "content" links them to the long shot from the back seat of an automobile being driven through the streets of Rome, but their abruptness is in contrast to the "constant" shape of the driving shot.

Here the only other linking element besides the street sounds of Rome is introduced—the figure of the young man driving the automobile. Later, as men in "antique" costumes speak, it is the presence of the young man in contemporary dress, listening, that links these shots to the rest of the film, although the sound and background, too, are those of Rome in 1972.

Surprisingly, however, these links, elementary as they are, do not persist through the whole of the film. In shots 42, 43, and 44, the "interview" with the poet Vastius Alder, neither the young man nor the sounds of Rome is present.[37] Yet these three shots are not foreign to the film. A unified tissue has been established by this time, which even the radical shift to shot 42 is incapable of breaking. By shot 42, we perceive that the young man is the character whose journey shapes the film. Most of the shots of the film, aside from the sounds of Rome in the first three, have him as a constant element. He is included by way of a narrative structure of reverse angle cutting, to a certain extent, implying dialogue even when he is only listening to the text. In the sequence mentioned, the young man does not appear, but his presence and his point of view are assumed by the viewer.

The film includes a wide range of depictions of the human figure. The most stylized are at the beginning—the heroic statue of Caesar—and at the end—a woman's face carved in stone, an ancient fountain. In between we are witness to a wide range of human activities as we follow the young man on his journey, a journey both physical and mental, that spans most of the film. First the viewer sees the young man driving through the streets of Rome. No indication is given of a destination, and the camera remains stationary through the driving shots (from now on to be referred to as Spaziergänge —"strolls"—Straub's name for them; they correspond to favorite walks Huillet and Straub would take from their home). The first of the three such shots lasts eight minutes, forty seconds.

The camera is stationary all this time, but the car in which it is placed is not. Therefore, the Spaziergänge are at the same time tracking shots of working-class, residential Rome, through which the car passes, and stationary shots of the young man, seen from the back, driving. Driving is one of the young man's most vigorous actions in the film. Yet the Spaziergänge, if one refuses to dismiss them as boring and devoid of content, require more analysis even to describe briefly how they are composed. We cannot consider here the succession of individual images that appear and disappear as the car moves. Each viewer will have a different perception of the people, vehicles, and buildings,


The young man (Benedikt Zulauf) in 
History Lessons . Courtesy New Yorker Films.

qualities of light, sky, and foliage, and the rich sound. Beyond this, however, there are constants to observe. Walsh has pointed out the fragmentation of the film frame itself, which is achieved by the simultaneous motion and motionlessness of the camera.[38] One might even at this juncture become concretely aware of the absolute artificiality of any "stillness" in motion pictures. Part of the image appears to move, part does not. But since the car is in motion, the apparent stillness of its interior is an illusion caused by the camera's motion with it.

The segments of the frame that contain motion into and out of the camera's view are in turn divided into smaller frames, similar to shots of a film-within-a-film. As the car moves, the windshield, the two side windows, and the sunroof produce four tracking shots. A fifth shot of an intermediate nature (another frame in any case) is present in the mirror, which constantly shows part of the young man's face. We see the activity of the young man, looking, waiting, driving, and this is distinct from the motion we see this bring into view—in the moving pictures in the various frames and in the changing light and color in the car itself. There are even images and changes of light in the reflections in the dashboard instrument lenses and the glare in the windshield. And finally, all this interacts with motion that is independent of the motion of the car, outside on the street.

Up to this point, none of these observations has depended on an external introduction of the young man as a character. No narrative framework is given


at the outset to explain his identity or actions. But while this breaks up a conventional narrative flow, it does not negate it. The young man eventually takes on the function of a narrative protagonist as a result of strategies of composition and the material connection between shots. As we will see later, the fact that the young man is the visual link from scene to scene and that he is seeing and hearing what the audience sees and hears is enough to make him into a narrative protagonist, even though the meaning of his "quest," "journey," or criminal investigation is unclear. The tradition of bildungsroman, picaresque novel, crime thriller, and road movie all conspire to make this narrative assumption irresistible for the audience, despite the lack of many contextual clues.

The sounds of Rome and the very presence of the young man have already been seen as links between the diverse segments of the film. One last link lies, of course, in the Brecht text, which we hear on the sound track as we see it being either spoken or listened to. There is no voice-over in the film. As with the identity and destination of the young man, the content of the text is not essential to its role. Like the young man himself, the text's presence in the structure of the film helps the action become one action, almost in an Aristotelian sense, making the film, at the end, the story of the young man's investigation.

If we examine the text in its presence in the film as sound, related through composition to the images of the speakers and listeners, we discover patterns that lend great weight to a very few shots. For instance, the young man speaks very little in the film, and all but one of his utterances could be classified as short questions that pursue the investigation. Only the schoolboylike recitation of the story of Caesar and the "pirates" is not directed at receiving a direct response, but even it provokes a lengthy correction by the banker. It is distinguished by its great length (ca. 3 minutes) and the fact that it alone shows the young man walking as he speaks, in a grassy, relatively open area. The relation between text and composition also goes against conventional narrative: The young man is offscreen in more than half the instances in which he speaks. In only four shots of the film's fifty-six does he speak alone on camera. This increases the impact of these short, interrogative shots as it distinguishes the young man from the other characters, most of whom speak alone on camera for long passages.

Straub/Huillet thus construct a progression in the young man's position in relation to the other characters, his environment, and Brecht's text, which does not depend on any external narrative or identification. The motif of movement for the young man is three times asserted by the automobile shots, once by his only long speech concerning the "pirates" and at another crucial point that will later be contrasted with the role of the banker. His main use of language, however, is to ask questions, and as he does so, entirely in the early part of the film, his visual presence is much inferior to that of others. All the other characters are seen and speak before a question comes from the young man. He speaks


only to the banker and the peasant. He is visible but silent while the jurist speaks; while the writer speaks, he is no longer even visible.

The progression described here occurs entirely between the first and the third Spaziergänge, only to be dramatically reversed after it. The young man has progressed from a polite interrogator to a silent listener to an invisible yet suggested "protagonist." This is the crucial significance of the consistent "presence" of the young man in each shot of the film, which spills over into the sequence where he is not seen (shots 42–44). That the young man is indeed a narrative protagonist has only emerged through the variations in his bearing as the film progresses. The final stage in this development is the last section of the film, following the third Spaziergänge. Now the young man is totally silent but seen alone on-screen for long periods, alternately with the banker, intently listening to the latter's long speeches. He is no longer asking questions or moving, but he occupies the full screen, no longer turned away from the camera but toward it. Looking and listening, two of his major activities throughout the film, now reach their most powerful and richest presence.

In his article on History Lessons , Martin Walsh described the formal strategies of the film, including the formal bracketing of scenes and the young man's role. But, perhaps because of his deductive approach, Walsh stresses the arbitrary nature of film form to an extent that is not justified by the film itself. Regarding the young man, he writes, "For Straub/Huillet's formal decisions (particularly with respect to camera placement) are designed to ensure that the undercutting of the 'young man's vision of history' is maintained in History Lessons: and this they achieve by refusing to place the audience in a situation of identification with the young man, by only rarely making our point of view that of the young man."[39] Here Walsh is contrasting the narrative form of History Lessons with conventional illusionist films (he mentions Citizen Kane ) that systematically place the camera in such a way as to force the spectator to identify but in such a way that, as a result of the evolution of film "language," the identification seems automatic. Walsh is right that such techniques of editing and camera placement are avoided in favor of the patterns that he terms "arbitrary." Yet the analysis above suggests that the spectator will indeed identify with the young man and will follow the progress of the character as it develops through the formal variations of the shots. Therefore, the form is by no means arbitrary. But instead of identification being the result of passive reception on the part of the viewer, it, like the rest of the ways of reading the film Walsh mentions, is the active production of meaning on the part of the spectator.

The absence of conventional means of producing identification or narrative does not mean that narrative and identification are not intended or desirable. On the contrary, the very nature of photography, which Straub/Huillet do not radically subvert, implies identification and narrative. The formal justifications for visual representation in Straub/Huillet films simplify the narrative structure as much as possible in conventional terms, so that the use made of it by the


viewer can be as complex as possible. As Brecht put it, the convention is not wrong in itself—it just has got in the way.[40] The identification with the young man in History Lessons is not constantly sustained, but it is clearly likely to occur anyway, for entirely conventional reasons. For instance, after each of the Spaziergänge, the next shot contains the young man, whom even Walsh calls the "narrator" in this context. The film does not insist that this be perceived as his having arrived at a destination, but the likelihood is there. Also, each of the "dialogues," with one exception, begins with a two-shot, placing the young man as the constant character whom the spectator is "following" through the film.

Again it must be stressed that the content of the text and the "identity" of the young man are not necessary for the recognition of these functions. The next step is to make it clear that this structure, although built according to its own internal logic, does not exist in a vacuum. The film form does not exist separately from the text by Brecht, nor are the forms of the shots irrelevant to each other. This is the second instance in which Walsh attempts to put the film into formal categories that do not fit it. In this case he begins with a concept of Brechtian aesthetics, drawing from Roland Barthes the idea that in epic theater the most important unit is the scene, not the whole play: "There is no development, no maturation. . . . [T]here is no final meaning, nothing but a series of segmentations, each of which possesses a sufficient demonstrative power."[41] Walsh goes on to apply this Brechtian generalization to the text in History Lessons as follows: "Straub/Huillet respect Brecht's segmentation of the text, and support it primarily through their editing strategies, which deny any sense of narrative development or interpretation of the verbal text; rather each sequence is closed in on itself, defines its boundaries, its fundamental separation from the rest of the film, in accordance with Brecht's episodic theories."[42] Later he again stresses that Straub/Huillet's editing strategies "in no sense themselves support the content of the segments. There is no homogenization of the filmic elements to make possible a transparent reading of the verbal text."[43]

These assertions must indeed arouse our curiosity. It should be obvious that the supposed lack of narrative development is clearly contradicted by the abstract form of the film as I have described it. Of course, we readily agree that there is no homogenized final meaning here, and no transparent reading of the text. But to sever the relationship between the film form and the text, to see no "sense of narrative development," is to impoverish both the film and the text. This conclusion is quite the opposite from that of Martin Walsh and Stephen Heath, whom Walsh cites in his article. Their deductions proceed according to the logic of formal structures but ignore their narrative significance. Heath writes, "Brecht declares his own point of view to lie in the montage, that is in the undercutting of the young man's vision of history as the will of great men, by a multiple focus on the economic and political determinations operative in Caesar's rise." Walsh goes on to assert that "it is the


The banker (Gottfried Bold) in 
History Lessons.  Courtesy New Yorker Films.

formal, structural aspect that is crucial; only in (through) that can we specify Brecht's stance. This common formal emphasis marks a decisive point of intersection between Brecht and Straub/Huillet."[44]

This interpretation glosses over the structural problems of the novel. Indeed, the montage is important, but it is addressed to a consciousness beyond the narrator's place in the novel and perhaps to a nonexistent audience. The undercutting of the young man's vision of history is indeed achieved by the presentation of "economic and political determinations," but this, in itself, does not require montage. On the one hand, one might agree with Walsh and assert that Brecht's stance is most closely allied with the attitudes of Spicer and his guests. The montage of the novel, however, points toward the impossibility of achieving "a stance" under such conditions and even questions the helpfulness of Spicer's explanations. But when Brecht wrote that what interested him was the montage, he was indeed dealing with this latter dilemma. It is therefore anything but a purely formal consideration. Writing of the contrast between the "Rarus sections" of the novel and the "Spicer sections," Brecht describes the former as "badly written" and the latter as "well written," where style is concerned. Aside from a few episodes in which Rarus is moved to stylistic power, the diaries' beauty, Brecht notes, remains on the architectural level. Spicer's part, however, "permits better reflections and the satire becomes more direct, but thereby the architectural element is weakened."[45] The montage,


therefore, is not merely interesting to Brecht as a way of undercutting a false view of Caesar but as an investigation of the difficulty of achieving a stage of reflection and control over the processes of history.

Walsh quite aptly cites Walter Benjamin's "Theses on the Philosophy of History" in this context, but his application of them to History Lessons remains too general except when applied to the Spaziergänge. Three of Benjamin's concepts that apply to the film are the idea of wresting tradition from conformism, from becoming a tool of the ruling classes;[46] the view of the task of historical materialism as that of constructing moments of stasis out of the flow of events; and the conviction that "historicism gives the 'eternal' image of the past [and] historical materialism supplies a unique experience with the past."[47] By separating form and content for both Brecht and Straub/Huillet and by isolating the structural elements of History Lessons , Walsh has failed to see how historical materialism applies to the entire montage and to the interaction of form and content.

Regarding the Spaziergänge, the audience is invited to try to make some historical or narrative sense out of the unformed view of Rome, to create moments of stasis. Walsh rightly stresses that this world is kept "outside" the space of the narrative and that the audience also is not allowed to feel located in this space. The crucial aspect, apart from the inside/outside dichotomy, is the process of motion and stasis. The pictures are always moving, even when they stand still, and the motion of the world outside, the car and the driver, and the camera itself are all aspects of the historical flow that must be arrested. This assertion makes sense because the contrast of motion and stasis is not just crucial for the Spaziergänge but for the film as a whole. Each of the Spaziergänge, for instance, begins with the car in motion. Although the material of the shot is largely unformed, the composition and the beginning and end imply a previous, intelligent act of choosing an excerpt, as we saw in the case of Bridegroom . In a parallel way, the confrontation with the men in historical costume also begins after the "motion" has begun, referring to a narrative beginning that the choice of the filmmakers has intentionally and recognizably excluded. The first words of the Brecht text, for instance, clearly call attention to the exclusion of exposition: "At the time he no longer, as far as I know, did anything at all." The shot establishes the banker talking to the young man, who is barely visible in the frame, and the phrase "at that time" makes it evident that previous speech has been cut.

The cuts in the text and the cuts in the film serve the same structural purpose as the interruptions of Brecht's narrator. Therefore, it is a mistake for Walsh to ascribe to them purely formal significance.[48] The formal structure of the film is the filmmakers' tool to expose the dialectical interchange of motion and stasis in history. The film's formal construction also provides a pattern of reality through which the figure of the young man can move without being consumed by it. The filmmakers' formal thought at work here does not depict or delimit


the character of the young man but liberates it. The moments of stasis in the film, the construction necessary to the conquering of history, do not have the young man as their subject. Instead, the moments of stillness remain outside him, allied to the structure of the film through which, not merely within which, he moves.

This freedom of the young man to digest the historical moments of stasis, to confront the stasis of the text and move beyond it, is also the freedom of the viewer. (It should be noted that all the texts used by Straub/Huillet in their film represent, materially, such static moments of history. The relevance of translation to this context will be examined in chapter 8.) The young man's motion through the film is the only element that unites the film's various formal elements while pointing beyond them. This freedom is most clearly a function of camera movement. As noted before, the young man moves through Rome in his car, with the camera behind him. While reciting the "textbook version" of Caesar's encounter with the "pirates," he moves toward the camera, which tracks to follow him. Although this is the only version the young man has of the story, he does not act as if he identifies with it, as does Brecht's narrator. The conflicting versions are therefore not based on characters or beliefs but produce a formal contrast, one of the moments of stasis in the film. At the end of shot 16, the young man keeps walking for about thirty-eight seconds, further emphasizing his independence from what he has said. At the beginning of the next shot, the banker's contrasting answer is also delayed. Thus the moment, the space, between two versions of a story achieves a visual, material weight that is enhanced by the contrast between the field and the bench.

Of paramount significance to our analysis is the textless beginning of shot 17, which shows both characters, the banker and the young man, in motion for the only time in the film. The quality of their motion confirms the dissimilarity of their roles. The speech begins after the banker enters from right of the camera and sits down, on the left end of the bench seen at the beginning of the film. As he sits, he begins speaking, and "conventional composition" would put the listener offscreen right, on the empty side of the bench. But the shot has begun, as shot 16 had ended, with the young man walking, still with his coat over his shoulder, now from offscreen right to offscreen left, and very near the camera, so that only his head and shoulders are seen. The banker walks in and stays there, implying a convention. The young man's motion into and out of the frame explodes the space in a manner reminiscent of Griffith or Renoir.[49] The banker is a captive of both the shot and the text; the young man is free.

Another contrast is the static point where the banker, at the end of his speech in shot 26, looks straight ahead without blinking for about fifty-two seconds. This view has all the pastness and flatness of a "wanted" poster, in contrast to the later shots of the young man's active, yet silent, listening. The assertion Walsh makes that formal choices, such as that "enclosing" the banker, are arbitrary, therefore misses the most important effect of these choices. The fact


The banker (Gottfried Bold) near the end of  History Lessons .
Courtesy New Yorker Films.

that the filmmakers' intelligence is seen at work, that their design is visible, has a liberating effect on both the narrator and the viewer. Walsh notes that "no one language dominates any other" in the film, but he sees this as merely a way of forcing viewers to construct their own readings, "to work at a plurality of possible readings." MacCabe may have a point here in asserting that such a defense of the film smacks of a kind of "work ethic."[50] What is lacking here is the sense of play in the filmmakers' art and the joy implicit in the discovery of the free interplay between aesthetic beauty and harmony and "meaning."

By contrast, Walsh minimizes the narrative aspect of the increased distance between the banker and the young man at the end of the film. Yet, as has already been seen, this fact does far more than "express" the young man's mounting rage. (I must assert that although rage may be present, even in the actor at the time of filming, this rage is not "expressed" at all. At most it can be sensed in the increased speed of the third car ride, in the fact that his sleeves have been rolled up, or in the seriousness of the young man's face, listening. But these are already readings supplied by the viewer.) This wider background of the last shots allows the audience to enjoy the beauty of the garden. The young man now has as much visual weight as the banker speaking, and the greater space around the young man as he listens underlines the freedom described in his crossing of the screen in shot 17. The film's form has been our tool to render


The young man (Benedikt Zulauf) near the end of  History Lessons .
Courtesy New Yorker Films.

historical moments, historical "treatises," subject to examination. Yet we have not been drawn into this structure; it presents the narrative, it presents the text, but through the implications of its formal development, its motion, its strategy of making excerpts, it constantly reminds us that there is more: there is a world outside this film. And we are in this world outside.

The Spaziergänge can thus be seen as analogous to Brecht's Rarus diaries. The audience confronts them directly, without their being given a form that integrates them into the experience of the film. Walsh stresses their otherness and the viewer's separation from them. But the viewer is separated from them only as a viewer of this film, and the film's reluctance to pretend to "show the world outside" is manifest in the cinematic variables that these shots expose. Just this reluctance to show "the world" allows the viewer to feel, like the young man, free to move with the film's structures and in the end, to go beyond them. The film may or may not help viewers to new insights. In any case, the usefulness of such insights, like the acting-out of the young man's freedom, resides not in the film but in the world it cannot show.

The young man's freedom is thus conveyed only by the simultaneity of his identification with the film's formal motion and his separateness from it. His progress is coincident with his motion in the film and with his growing weight as an element of composition, in opposition to other visual elements and to the


spoken text. His presence has also been a structural prerequisite for the narrative space of the entire film, a unifying motif. His liberation from this tie to cinematic form is ultimately achieved, however, when the form continues to assume the presence of his consciousness (and that of the viewer) without requiring his visual presence, as either object or agent of film fiction.

This leap is achieved through the use of the only two zooms in the film, the first ever used by Straub/Huillet. The first, as we have seen, is at the beginning of the "problem sequence," shots 42, 43, and 44. The zoom approaches the villa of the writer from the rocking boat in the water, yet it never arrives at a point of rest. Just as the logic of the film implies the presence of the unseen traveler and listener in this sequence, so does it identify this zoom with his motion. Yet the zoom is the only camera movement in the film that cannot be that of a human being as well, and this is no doubt the reason Straub/Huillet usually avoid it. The impulse to identify with it is a cinematic contradiction; in this use it separates the motion of the cinematic form from that of the narrator or the viewer's identification. The leap of freedom comes when, at the conclusion of the text, the young man again becomes invisible and his journey is completed instead only in the closure of the cinematic form. As the banker speaks his last line, he is again imprisoned, this time in the closest shot of the film. The extreme shortness of the shot is also shocking after a series of shots one and a half to three minutes in length. The banker's head is seen from the side, as if he intends to move, but the shot and his head are immediately cut. Here one could indeed read "rage," but the young man is not seen acting it out. The rage is formal, and any connection to the young man, as in the earlier instance of the widening space, is a mental process on the part of the viewer. Then, in the final shot, the zoom toward the fountain completes the motion begun earlier in the film. This time the zoom does come to rest on the female face in stone (vomiting in rage, as Straub has put it)[51] while the excerpt from the Saint Matthew Passion is heard, expressing "the people's" rage at Judas's betrayal of Christ. But at the end of the zoom, marking the opening of the text to include music and words not by Brecht, as well as a separate reference to a "people" who do not have an interest to put forward, the camera and the film remain at peace. The monument of Caesar has been replaced by the anonymous face of a woman; the text is extinguished; the young man and the audience leave to carry these memories with them into the world outside.

The significance of form in History Lessons implies that it is an oversimplification to see the film (or Brecht's novel) either as a demystification of Caesar or as a demystification of (film or novelistic) form. The formal discussion of the novel indicates that the form itself challenges the dominant view of history. The form of both novel and film does not replace a false view of Caesar with a "correct," Marxist one. Instead, the form forces a shift of attention away from Caesar and onto the processes of history and the inadequate tools available to understand them. Walsh's conclusion that "Caesar is the prototype of the


modern capitalist"[52] therefore points in the wrong direction. Although it supplies some Brechtian "entertainment" through its humor, there is little to be gained by depicting Caesar or "The Capitalist" now as heroes, now as villains.

The depiction of Caesar is not the goal of either work, it is the erosion of such "depictions." In this regard the film is able to go further than the novel, with added contemporary relevance. In the novel, a unified, heroic view of Caesar is dissolved, but so too is the narrator's character, to whom it was significant. Furthermore, the diaries persist in assuming the importance of Caesar as a personality on one level, and this fragmented view of Caesar is not superseded. Ironically, the Marxian/Brechtian point of view that might do so is also imprisoned among the fragments of the narrative, in the long speeches of Spicer, Alder, and Carbo. The film, however, is able to dissolve the image of Caesar (or of any narrative "personality") as a mover of history, while at the same time it provides a framework from which to view this process. But both Brecht and the filmmakers are careful not to assert that such a work can therefore expose or explain the true movers of history, whether they are emperors, capitalists, anonymous social processes, or even "the people." Brecht indeed saw the temptation to flee from the horror of the irrationality around him into the haven of rational analysis. This explains his decision to imprison the banker's analysis, which sounds so much like Brecht's own voice, in a heterogeneous framework. The analysis can be made in the work of art, but Brecht refused to erase the contradiction between a historical agent in motion and a consciousness at rest that can make such analyses. History Lessons also stresses that knowledge is trapped in the various fragments and that no homogenizing scheme could encompass it and finally contain the truth. Instead, the film invites the viewer to move through this pattern of fragments, using the tools of perception to become less susceptible to the manipulative power of either historical stories or analyses and to make use of them while leaving them behind. Here the film points forward to Straub/Huillet's treatment of the character of Empedocles.

The irony of Brecht's lack of an audience is related to the gap between Straub/Huillet and expectations of either representation or instruction in film. Films will not materially contribute to social change by describing capitalism as the enemy or by teaching that it functions according to the demands of economic or social and political forces. Social change can only come about if someone makes use of this knowledge, and the work of art cannot presume to prescribe how this is to come about. The contradictions between the "inscribed reader" and the "social subject" open a space for liberation.[53] But since knowledge is not a replacement for action, the narrator's action (reaction) falls outside the film and can only be suggested by the interplay of purely aesthetic forms.


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