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9— Language in Exile Hölderlin's The Death of Empedocles
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Language in Exile Hölderlin's The Death of Empedocles

Und immer Ins Ungebundene gehet eine Sehnsucht .

And always Into the unbounded goes a longing .

Friedrich Hölderlin is perhaps the quintessential European author for an investigation of relations of politics to culture, Germanness to "other" cultural traditions, myth to everyday language. The broadest spectrum of twentieth-century thinkers have written about him: Georg Lukács, Theodor W. Adorno, Thomas Mann and Heinrich Mann, Martin Heidegger, Michel Foucault. Even the Nazis turned to the reclusive poet as a nationalist icon: the Hölderlin Society was founded under the patronage of Josef Goebbels.[1]

In their film of Hölderlin's Death of Empedocles , confronting the dense German poetry of the drama fragment with the intensity of the natural landscape near Mount Etna in Sicily, Straub/Huillet again displaced a German cultural icon. Despite the rhetoric of European unity and increased attention in many quarters to "the threatened destruction of the earth," the film encountered a generally hostile reaction, especially in West Germany. Huillet offered the following interpretation.

I think the scandal of Hölderlin and of the film is that one attempts to avoid giving up anything, either in regard to the individual, or the subject as Hölderlin says, or the others, the people. That one doesn't give something up in order to gain something else, but tries to keep everything. And that in a time where people let themselves be closed in more and more, also with their feelings, with all their might. That is the scandal, somehow. I believe that is what led Hölderlin to the brink of madness; that is the madness of Empedocles and that is what makes the film an object of scandal. Because one can sense that everything tries to close people in and to separate them from life, and that here just the opposite is being


attempted: to open up and renounce nothing and neglect nothing or destroy in order to preserve something else.[2]

At the conclusion of his book Antigones , George Steiner writes of the balance of understanding and deed that work against the "action" implied by the word drama and toward a sense of stasis or suspension: "In reach of the tragedy as we know and experience it, there lies . . . an intimation of inaction of the deed arrested by the acknowledged gravity, density, and inhibitions of mutual insight."[3]

The "lasting hesitation" between understanding and action, which Steiner postulates to be possible only in music-drama, is perhaps the unbearable quality Danièle Huillet explains in regard to reactions to the Empedocles films. In these films, as in the more recent Antigone , there is an insistence on "having it all," a refusal to accede to the necessity of choosing supposedly enforced by "film language" and, in social living, the restrictions imposed by the increasing dehumanization of life.

Both in their cinematic structure and in the language of their narratives, Straub/Huillet's Hölderlin films capture the sense of Steiner's imagined music-drama, in "realiz[ing] the suspension of the existential compulsion to choose, to be partial, to narrow and sharpen consciousness toward action."[4] This is also the "haltingness" (Stocken ) that Peter Handke writes about, which only now and then breaks free in the films of Straub/Huillet. The suspension also keeps the balance between the bright sunlit potential of air and landscape in Sicily and the dark facticity of Hölderlin's German words.

All four of Straub/Huillet's films made after Class Relations are connected to Hölderlin. The first two, The Death of Empedocles and Black Sin , are based on versions one and three of his fragmentary Empedocles drama. Straub/Huillet had originally considered the third version unfilmable, but while they were editing The Death of Empedocles at the film school in Hamburg, one of the students showed them a videotape of a Berlin stage production. Appalled by what they saw, Straub/Huillet decided to film the work after all, "to avenge Hölderlin," and the result was Black Sin . This project also allowed them to continue their work with a few of the actors from the Empedocles film and to push some of their methods to an extreme, for instance, the variation of the pauses in the rhythms of the lines, the harshness of the light.

After their Cézanne film, which includes an excerpt from Empedocles , Straub/Huillet returned to Sicily to film Antigone , based on Hölderlin's translation of the Sophoclean tragedy in the 1948 adaptation by Bertolt Brecht. This chapter concentrates on the significance of the choice of Hölderlin's dramas and their setting in the Sicilian landscape. For this reason, emphasis will be placed on the first Empedocles film, as the more complex "drama" of the two versions—in Straub's words, "a musical comedy compared to the second."[5]Black Sin can already be seen as a transition to Antigone , which is treated in


a later chapter, since both films signal a return to some of the qualities of early silent cinema.

The exacting rehearsal and planning of the Hölderlin films allowed Straub/Huillet to undertake a long-held wish "to attack the originality of the work of art."[6] Each of the films has been edited in up to four distinct "original" versions, with the negatives distributed among the cities of Rome, Paris, Berlin, and Hamburg. In the shooting of Empedocles , for instance, 62,000 meters of 35 mm Eastmancolor film were exposed, of which 54,000 meters were printed.[7] "The only luxury the Straubs allow themselves," in Rembert Hüser's words (and a luxury even Hollywood directors do not have, Straub insists). This is unusual, since the industry usually does not process its raw footage to this extent. Printing this much footage made it possible to "check the progress and the concomitant loss" as the work went on. The light in Sicily, varying "from black to pulsating, pounding brightness,"[8] forced them to try even more takes than usual. As Hüser notes, "Getting the visual connections [Bildanschlüsse ] for the editing outdoors, in the filmmakers' opinion, had only previously been achieved by Gregg Toland."[9] Most of the shots had been done in about twelve takes, although they ranged from half a dozen up to twenty-four.[10] In editing the four versions of Empedocles , then, Straub/Huillet had versions with takes that were both early and late in the sequence, and the versions also have different degrees of harshness in the light and sound. They are also using more of the printed footage that would otherwise be destroyed: "art against waste," in Straub's words.[11]

To distinguish the four negatives, one is called the "Lizard Version" because a lizard is seen scurrying across the ground in the scene where Empedocles takes leave of his slaves; in the second, "Paris Version," the colors are at first muted by the cloudy sky and then burst forth as the sun appears. In this version also, there is a long pause on the profile of Panthea in the garden before the cut to the "opulent images of the most diverse nuances of green on Etna." The third version, the sunniest of all, has a butterfly skimming in and out of the foreground of several shots, and a rooster crows as Empedocles says, "You have polluted the holiness." The fourth version is known as the "Cricket Version," since loud chirping accompanies the slave scene.[12]

Straub has also described the exact technical differences among the four negatives, including the exact length of each, whether they were done with wet or dry printing, where and when they were edited, where the titles are placed, and so on. They also differ according to whether most of the takes used were toward the beginning, middle, or end of a series of up to thirty-six takes.[13]

With these films, Straub Huillet took another turn in their work, farther away from "film language" and toward the origins of the cinema as well as the origins of Western and modern culture. In doing so, they lost the support of a number of critics and viewers, particularly in Germany (with the further result that U.S. critics did not even see the films in order to judge for themselves).


The Death of Empedocles  (Empedocles' hand). 
Courtesy Edition Manfred Salzgeber, Berlin.

Those condemning the new work usually lamented the fact that after seeming to take a step toward more "accessible" or entertaining films with Class Relations , Straub/Huillet had gone off the deep end in the other direction with Empedocles . Strangely enough, this is seen as both a political as well as an aesthetic transgression.

The Death of Empedocles does abandon the track that Class Relations represented, but in doing so it returns to other themes Straub/Huillet had worked on in other films. It is a return to color, landscape, and the bright, "pitiless, cruel" light of Italy (Huillet)[14] after the artificially lit interiors and night scenes of Class Relations . A change in cinematographers corresponds to this, from the somber lighting of William Lubtchansky back to the Italian Renato Berta. For Antigone and Black Sin , they would return to Lubtchansky once again. According to Hüser, Berta and Lubtchansky are among the "great lighting experts in Europe," to whom Godard had turned, for instance, in his experiment of employing two chief cinematographers in Sauve qui peut (la vie ). Hüser summarizes the differing skills of the two cinematographers as follows: "While Lubtchansky prefers half-light and works with much contrast (preferably with artificial light) and is known for striking images, Berta is a specialist for optimal exploitation of the entire image plane, for extremely concentrated, 'simple'


images reduced to the essentials. Berta prefers exterior shots with gentle light."[15]

Empedocles is also a return from the narrative flow of language (Erzählung ), dense as it is in Kafka, to the more concentrated poetry of myth and legend. As such, it returns to the thematic, visual, and linguistic context of Moses and Aaron and Othon . The setting and theme also return to "classicism," which was represented in Othon and in the legends of Pavese, as well as some of the arrangements of speakers in oratorio fashion pioneered in Moses and Aaron . The character of Empedocles is in some ways a synthesis of Moses and Aaron: his wisdom and mystical powers of leadership both separate him from the people and lead them to offer him the title of King. The contradiction in this dilemma, however, leads him to spurn the people for their lack of comprehension and ultimately to his own destruction—the plunge into the volcano rather than life in exile. And these are all stories set on the borderline between democracy and tyranny, between myth and history. A main "character" of Empedocles , however, is the landscape, and here, too, earlier work is developed to a new level, particularly Too Early, Too Late .

As with other films, Straub/Huillet's choice of the Hölderlin texts follows that of the location and the filmmakers' mounting concern with the destruction of the natural environment—along with the humane environment. Straub/Huillet often stress that the impetus for a film arises from a feeling for a place: partly as a paraphrase of Renoir, Straub has defined film (or the "filmic") as "a slender dialectic between film, theater, and life."[16] In another interview, the terms of the equation were modified somewhat: "life" means experience, that of the actors or the filmmakers or even of the audience; "theater" means fiction, usually that provided by a preexisting text (in the strain of films from Othon to Moses and Aaron to Kafka to Hölderlin); and "film" means "location"—the documentation of a confrontation with a location. "The camera is nothing but an X-ray machine," Straub has stated.[17]

Straub has described the immediate impetus behind The Death of Empedocles in a threefold manner: first, after so much interior and night shooting for the Kafka film, the desire to make a film using daylight; second, a kind of dare from Huillet, who "had fallen in love with Sicily in 1971," scouting locations for Moses and Aaron ;[18] and finally, Straub refers to a long history of reading other Hölderlin works, beginning in the 1950s, and to the chance discovery of The Death of Empedocles as they reached the conclusion—even before the catastrophes of Chernobyl or the poisoned Rhine at Basel—that the abuse of nature could not go on. And Empedocles was not only cursed for his defense of nature, Straub asserts, but also for trying to extend democracy: "He was reproached for having gone too far, a bit in the direction of what one called the 'fête permanente ' in 1968."[19]

The recollection of the 1960s corresponds loosely to the personal memories that Straub/Huillet reconstructed in the course of interviews. At first, Straub had


claimed that he was not a reader of Hölderlin until recently, but Huillet reminded him that he had been "running around with a poem in his pocket" in the early 1950s. It was Hölderlin's Der Frieden , which she made him translate for her.[20] This was the period of the idea of the Bach project and of the nascence of what was to become the French New Wave. He also then recalls that he had thought for years of making a film based on fragments of Hyperion but abandoned the idea as "too literary and novelistic" for a film.[21] Parts of Hyperion , in fact, also refer to the character of Empedocles. Such figures as Hölderlin or the poet/hero Hyperion were fitting inspiration for the young male rebels who saw themselves both as misfits and as reformers/redeemers of the European cultural heritage. The image of a young filmmaker with Hölderlin in his pocket is reminiscent of the scene from The 400 Blows in which Antoine Doinel almost sets the house afire with candles lit to "honor Balzac." The romance between Straub and Huillet, reconstructed out of these memories, continues with Huillet's performance as the chorus in Black Sin , where part of the text she recites at the end of the film is one of those from Hölderlin Straub had been moved by in his youth.[22]

Another possible source of the interest in Hölderlin, which the filmmakers have not mentioned, is Böll's Billiards at Half Past Nine , the basis for their first long film. Böll invokes the name of Hölderlin along with the Sermon on the Mount as two expressions of a culture of resistance to Nazism that had to be stamped out. Hölderlin is the antithesis, in Böll, for the dangers expressed by the words "Hurrah" and "Hindenburg."

And finally, Hölderlin (along with Brecht) plays a role in Jean-Luc Godard's 1963 film Contempt , in which Fritz Lang plays a director making a film based on the Odyssey. That an early New Wave work by Godard had already juxtaposed classical myth, German "classic" poetry, and Hollywood as seen through Brecht's ironic gaze adds another layer to the archaeological work of both Empedocles and Antigone . In Contempt , Lang is brought to Italy to film Ulysses , since "only a German" can film Homer. In the screening room Lang quotes both Brecht and Hölderlin. From Brecht he quotes the poem "Hollywood," while from Hölderlin he recites contradictory versions of the poem "Dichterberuf" (The Poet's Calling):

Yet if it must be man
Without trepidation
Remains alone before God
His candor protects him
He needs no weapons, no wiles
Until the absence of God rescues him.

The last line had originally been "As long as God is there." Then Hölderlin wrote, "As long as God is near us." Lang continues, "For one thing, the line now, the last version contradicts the other two. It's not the presence—the


presence —of God, it's the absence that rescues him. It's so odd. Ah well, that's all for now. How would one say 'it's so odd' in Italian?" Lang also echoes a position often underscored by Straub/Huillet regarding realism and the blurring of myth and history: "The world that Homer knew was real. He mirrored his own times, a civilization that was developed in harmony with nature and not in opposition to it. That is one of the beauties of the Odyssey —the fate of Homer and things as they actually are, as they exist. Reality."[23]

Hölderlin and the German Left

The invocation of 1968 is not at all amiss in reference to Empedocles or to Hölderlin, since Straub/Huillet's Hölderlin films add to a long tradition of Hölderlin reception on the Left. Hölderlin is a romantic figure but a rather classical author in German literature. He was a friend and fellow student of Hegel and Schelling, was known for his talent as a philosopher and Hellenist, and was closely associated with the idealist philosophy of the period. Hölderlin is celebrated as a classical poetic genius and was praised by the romantics as well, especially Bettina von Arnim. He has been politically appropriated by both the Right and the Left in recent German history. Like many other German artists and intellectuals, he was inspired by the French Revolution and corresponded with the Swabian Republican movement as well. His first version of the Empedocles play, for example, has been seen as an explicit contribution to this political struggle.

Hölderlin attracts the romantic sensibility, however, partly due to his withdrawal for the last forty years of his life into a legendary state of mental illness (now believed to be schizophrenia) and silence pierced by flashes of lucidity and poetic insight. His last works before this withdrawal (from which Straub/Huillet have chosen their film texts) also distinguish Hölderlin from the classicism and the Hegelian idealism of his earlier allegiances. The poems of this period reveal what Eric Santner has called a loosening of "narrative vigilance," and I argue that this quality exists in Empedocles as well (from the same period). The translations of Sophocles introduce a new attitude toward the nature of language itself and toward the nature of the essence of poetic expression. All of this might account for Straub/Huillet's choice of these works by Hölderlin for almost ten years of work.

After considering the role of Hölderlin in leftist positions on German cultural heritage, I examine the treatment of language in Hölderlin's Empedocles and Antigone , the importance of translation, and the relevance of these issues for Straub/Huillet's cinematic structures. As Hölderlin challenged the ability of language to communicate, Straub/Huillet question "film language" and confront head-on the dilemma of idealism and identity raised by the "crisis of political modernism."


The parallels between Straub/Huillet's reception of Hölderlin and their own position as contemporaries and inheritors of the New Left culture are striking. The demise of state socialism in Eastern Europe and the USSR, the crisis of the leftist intelligentsia in the First World since the 1970s, and the critical fragmentation brought about by the "postmodern condition" raise fundamental questions about the political position of leftist intellectuals and artists. As in their approach to German culture and history in other films, their work is not to be seen in isolation, however. In the 1930s, Ernst Bloch, Hanns Eisler, and Bertolt Brecht all maintained a need for an avant-garde in socialist art, which would have been consistent with retaining the sharp-edged contradictions between Hölderlin's national-poetic achievements and his political and formal radicalness. The work of placing Hölderlin in this context of intellectual and cultural archaeology is similar to the case of Kafka, treated in chapter 6, and the work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari to "rescue" Kafka from the canon.[24] Helen Fehervary has summarized Hölderlin's importance for the Left as follows: "More radically than any other German writer and in quintessential form, Hölderlin exposes the problematic of the intellectual caught between the utopian and tragic dimensions of history and between subjective consciousness and political engagement."[25]

As we will see, the political engagement Hölderlin's work represents in Straub/Huillet films diverges sharply from the reception of Hölderlin by both the conservative Right and the establishment Left. The Right has celebrated Hölderlin as a German nationalist and as the stereotypical poet of myth. The Nazis, for example, placed Hölderlin in the "German" tradition of Leibniz, Herder, and Goethe as counterpoised to the "Western' degeneration" of the thought of Kant and Schiller. At the same time, however, leftist German exiles—particularly Lukács, Johannes R. Becher, and their heirs in the GDR—defended Hölderlin. They did so, however, by means that also reified him so that he could fit the canon of "good" German culture that was to be the alternative cultural heritage of the German Democratic Republic. As Fehervary concludes regarding this popularization of Hölderlin for socialism, "That he thereby represented a co-optation of the materialist moment in socialist culture is self-evident."[26]

Because of this establishment co-optation of Hölderlin by socialism since the 1930s, Straub/Huillet are again choosing an author for their films with a leftist relevance but a stifled or deformed reception by the Left. As part of their historical relation to the cultural and political legacy of the 1960s, their films reveal what Fehervary has termed the "schizophrenic character" of this reception.[27] The general inhibitions of cultural exploration in West Germany caused by the legacy of Nazism and the chill of the cold war had led avant-garde and Left-liberal artists and intellectuals to ignore Hölderlin for the most part. The primary Nazi image of Hölderlin as the poet of nationalistic myth persisted


on the one hand, while on the other, the Stalinist reification of culture in the GDR occluded any productive Western reflection on the leftist tradition of the 1930s as well.[28] This stagnation in the reception of Hölderlin lasted in West Germany from 1945 well into the 1960s, according to Fehervary, typifying the attitude of both the "Group 47" and revolutionary writing in the student movement (Hans Magnus Enzensberger, for example): "Clearly Hölderlin would be irrelevant to this development [i.e., politicization à la Brecht after the Spiegel Affair]. If he had been anathema to avant-garde writers in the 1950s, in the tendentious-agitational literature of the 1960s he was virtually nonexistent."[29]

This stalemate in the West was broken by two influential speeches on Hölderlin, by Theodor W. Adorno in 1963 and by Pierre Bertaux in 1968,[30] the period when Huillet and Straub were living in Munich. Adorno's speech stressed Hölderlin's modernism, which meant for Adorno his tendency toward abstraction, especially in the late poems. This interpretation, as furthered by Santner, will be examined in the context of the Empedocles film shortly. Bertaux's speech reestablished the connection to the French Revolution, which the French had always assumed in their scholarship but which had become invisible to the West Germans. Without discounting the poetic greatness of Hölderlin's work, Bertaux argued that its formal radicalism was due to its "conscious, independent, and active political character." The "lyrical-Jacobin style" of Empedocles , Bertaux argued, was of "burning contemporary topicality." The Greek setting, according to him, was merely a Paris fashion of the time, and the real subject was "not a situation in Agrigent but the National Convention in Paris."[31]

Straub indicates his familiarity with this significance when he refers to the Empedocles drama as Hölderlin's "calling card" as an ambitious young "Poet of the Revolution" for the expected republic in Swabia.[32] Bertaux had emphasized the importance of the play to Hölderlin's politics, its revolutionary content even in the direction of François-Noël (Gracchus) Babeuf's agrarian communism, or what Straub has called "Hölderlin's 'Communist dream.'" Bertaux points out that the work on the fragment was abandoned when the French general, Jourdan, announced that revolutionary activities would not be permitted in Württemberg.[33]

The various emphases continue from that point on in Hölderlin's reception on the Left in Germany, with the controversial play by Peter Weiss that also presents Empedocles as a revolutionary character but once again removed from political efficacy.[34] In the 1970s as well, D. E. Sattler published a new "Frankfurt" edition of Hölderlin's works, the product of independent scholarship and appearing at the Red Star publishing house. Like Fritz Lang in Contempt , the Frankfurt edition placed value on the variants in Hölderlin's work rather than the search for a definitive reading.[35] And more recently, in a dialogue with himself (1976 and 1993) and with Hölderlin, Sattler has published sixty-six


"Theses on Statelessness."[36] The Empedocles film, calling on the Stuttgart edition and with Sattler as a consultant, thus relates to the Hölderlin debate on the Left and what Fehervary calls the schizophrenic position of left-wing intellectuals both in regard to high culture/poetic language and revolutionary political practice.

The plot of The Death of Empedocles begins after the hero's transgression and subsequent condemnation to exile. Thus, as Hans Hurch has put it, the play is "basically a long, grand leavetaking."[37] Because he has been swept along by his own visionary enthusiasm to call himself a god, Empedocles has been condemned to leave Agrigento—by his rival, the priest Hermocrates, and with the concurrence of his former friend Critias. Loyalty to Empedocles comes only from his young disciple Pausanias, Critias's daughter Panthea, and his three steadfast slaves. Pausanias insists on following Empedocles into exile and, at the play's conclusion, urges him to seek another country rather than death. Delia begins the play by praising Empedocles' aura to her older friend Delia, a visitor from Athens. Empedocles' ministrations had also once "healed" Panthea when she was close to death.

The only other characters in the piece are the "citizens," who vacillate between harsh condemnation of Empedocles at first and later the wish to crown him king as they fear the fate of their city under the leadership of Empedocles' tormentors. Finally, there is a peasant who refuses hospitality to the stranger Empedocles on his way to Etna.

The cyclic progression of Empedocles' relation both to the people and to the gods (or, represented by Nature in the abstract, the metaphysical realm in general) parallels the "spiral" of the movement of the spirit postulated by German idealism. Therefore, one could say that the "plot" of Empedocles has both an idealist and a political side. Empedocles' drama shares with Hegel's phenomenology the cyclical structure Santner observes uniting the sacred narrative with human history: "For, according to Hölderlin, the sacred narrative unfolds only within the historical space of mortals, indeed, history is nothing other than the story of the union, alienation, and imminent reunion of gods and mortals."[38]

Santner also describes this idealist narrative in the context of the extinction of various heroes in the "heavenly fires" after they have surpassed the boundaries between the human and the divine: "This longing for dissolution, for merging with the fires of heaven—the theme of the ode 'Stimme des Volks'—is portrayed throughout Hölderlin's oeuvre as the distinctive trait of the heroic individual; the hero's fate describes the tragic path . . . 'away from this earth.'"[39]

The narrative path of Empedocles is indeed this: because he has broken the bounds that separate humans from nature, Empedocles is impelled out of human society and into the heights of Mount Etna, since "the hero's tragedy is always that of incineration by the heavenly fires."[40] The progression of


locations and camera angles in Straub/Huillet's film reflects this same impetus toward the heights that Santner describes in the poems. Only at the beginning of the film do we look down toward the sea. And although we learn in the first lines of the piece that "this is his garden," we are following the gaze of the young Panthea and not Empedocles. On the contrary, as the film progresses, we see less and less of the ground, especially in shots of Empedocles. Instead, he is framed most often with the branches of a tree, shot from slightly below, with more and more light and sky appearing. And finally, the two images of the heights of Mount Etna itself are accompanied only by Empedocles' implied gaze and his disembodied voice. They are further separated from the rest of the film by the fact that the text is read offscreen, not recited from memory.[41]

What Santner does not examine is the other aspect of this dialectic of the hero's alienation: from the people. This is implied by the fact that the hero's "longing for dissolution" is expressed most clearly in the poem "Voice of the People." Thus it is not only the alienation from the gods and nature that the hero longs to overcome by the dissolution of his own identity, it is also the alienation of the individual from society.

Here we have returned to the political context of the human history on which a metaphysical narrative is inscribed: the longing for dissolution is connected by the longing of a political revolutionary for his own dissolution, the dissolution that would be implied by the very success of the revolutionary enterprise. The intermediate step between the impulse for identity impelled by popular revolutionary fervor and the impulse for dissolution that would be its logical fulfillment is the hubris of the revolutionary becoming a king, the impulse to reify the revolution into a bureaucratic state.

Schütte summarizes the connection of the film's plot with the hubris of Hölderlin's time.

Hölderlin's fragment . . . reflects the bitter experience of failure into which the French Revolution—welcomed by the German Jacobins—seemed to be turning. It places the Sicilian natural philosopher Empedocles at the center of a consideration of the themes of human greatness, society, religion, nature, and res publica.

At first Empedocles had been banned from society by the citizens of Agrigento (led and "seduced" by the priest Hermokrates) because the onetime favorite of the gods had raised himself too far above the people and was therefore punished by the gods. Later he is begged to return by the same citizens, but after having just been spurned by a peasant and offered a crown, he has long since decided to retreat into a union with Nature.[42]

For the late twentieth century, one has the brief solidarity of students, intellectuals, and workers in 1968 contrasted with the long list of co-optations of revolutionary inspiration and alienation of left-wing intellectuals from the "masses." Fehervary stresses the importance of this aspect for the reception


of Hölderlin by the Left after 1968: "Thus the history of Hölderlin's reception on the Left during this time [the 1960s] was also coming to terms with the relationship between the poetic word and concrete political practice. If the writers' image of Hölderlin was an ambivalent one, it only articulated their own ambivalence to their craft."[43] It's important to note, too, that the two sides of this schizophrenia, as Fehervary describes, relate to cultural production as well as political leadership: the contradiction between praxis and manipulation of the audience as an artistic method.

How one interprets Hölderlin's relation to the French Revolution depends exactly on one's interpretation of this dilemma: in short, the choice between a "realist" (Lukács) or "modernist" Hölderlin. One who belongs in the past tradition of bourgeois revolutions, or one who spurs on contemporary revolts with the unfulfilled longings of his poetic practice.

Lukács clearly felt that Hölderlin needed to be used to manipulate people, rather than spur them along to autonomous revolutionary undertakings. Therefore, while exploiting Hölderlin as a synthesizer of German idealism and the ideas of the French Revolution, he discounted Hölderlin's Jacobinism because it came too close to the modernism of 1920s and 1930s avant-garde movements and the "radical 'sectarianism'" of that time.[44] Therefore, the "modernism" of Hölderlin, as that of Kafka, is transformed into "realism" for socialist consumption, and the progressive impetus of Hölderlin is confined entirely to the past. Hölderlin was seen as "a unique poet, who did not and could not have a Nachfolge ."[45]

Language, Nature, and Progress

The Straub/Huillet film uses this narrative skeleton as its basis but decidedly takes it in the modernist direction, in part by suspending the various "strides" of the narrative, a modernist separation of elements, and in part by cinematographic means. Helmut Krebs describes the suspension and explosion of the two sides of the plot.

In Hölderlin's first version the death of Empedocles follows, on the one hand, from the will to revolt, to a break of the barrier between nature and human arising from the divisions among people themselves; and on the other hand, from individual hubris, the blind obsession with reason, domination of nature rather than to shape a relation to it. The first brings upon him the curse of the priest caste, for the second he curses himself. [. . .]

The tragedy explodes in the last moment this interweaving of suicide and martyrdom, of revolution and guilt. Granted, it is in the moment where the play breaks off, in the break between the lines, as a fragment.[46]

This fragmentary, contradictory quality is the essence of the "modernism" of Hölderlin and the Straub/Huillet films, which exists at both the thematic and


formal level. At the thematic level, the film shares with Othon the juxtaposition of a "classical" text with the present reality, in Straub's words, "We live in a world of ruins and an empire that cannot be governed."[47] Part of the contemporary malaise is the contradiction of progress and oppression, both seen in the context of the French Revolution and the socialist experiments of the twentieth century,[48] and also the contradiction between social and industrial-scientific "progress" and destruction of the environment. As Hurch puts it, Hölderlin "had sensed something of, as Benjamin says, 'what we call progress' and what was in reality an incessant consequence of great desolation and destruction that passes over this earth."[49] Dominique Païni has also traced to the turn of the nineteenth century and the work of Hölderlin the origin of the "modern" sense of these contradictions.

The modern feeling of nature—and its representation that would culminate in Cézanne—was invented at the dawn of the nineteenth century. Hölderlin is the exact contemporary of this audacious representation of nature that dispenses with the justification of a prerequisite and explicit discourse (religious, philosophical, or poetic). Also it is not by the accident of a vague intellectual attraction that drove the Straubs to direct this Death of Empedocles by Hölderlin and to draw the text—without forcing it very much—toward a cry of anguish in regard to the outrages to which nature submits today.[50]

Both in thematic and formal terms, the narrative of Empedocles, then, can be seen to correspond to this "original sin of the modern."[51]

The indictment of the devastation of nature is combined with the political revolutionary content of Empedocles to produce a challenge to the ideology of progress. The result, however, is not elegiac, which I would say it was in the case of Lukács's hope to harness Hölderlin to the wagon of socialist state formation. Instead, the radical challenge proposed by Empedocles arises precisely from the suspension of choice between the utopian ideals of the past, sensuous joy in the "thereness" of the world in the present, and revolutionary zeal insisting on the contemporary possibility of this unity and plenitude. But since it refuses to make any sacrifices to achieve unity, the resolution of this dichotomy remains "paratactic."

The refusal to make a choice in the Empedocles film arises in part from the fact that virtually none of the political references critics have seen in Hölderlin or the film is made explicit. There is no document in the film from the period following the French Revolution except for Hölderlin's language; there is no document of the twentieth-century resonance with the theme and politics of the film except for the voices, bodies, and faces of the actors (aside from Hölderlin's text, literally all that is German in the film) and the contemporary look and sound of the Sicilian hills. Beyond that, a contemporary reality the film documents is the invisible efficacy of its own cinematic technology.


This distance , which I examine later on the level of language and film structure, is seen by Krebs as a major prerequisite for the critical force of the film.

Although it refrains from any contemporary updating, precisely in the distance and foreignness of this film lies a moment of historical truth that touches our "End-of-Time" [Endzeit ] more than any Star Wars film.

The present is recognizable here as the German malaise of an unfulfilled promise, which perpetuates the connection between violence and history.[52]

Krebs sees precisely the lack of optimism or contemporary relevance as the source of the "utopian powers" of literature and film, which bear elegiac testimony of a humane culture as it becomes ever more distant and disappears. Although I agree that the distance to the text is one aspect of the film's critical force, I do not agree that the entire attitude of Straub/Huillet is elegiac. The explicit reference to Benjamin in this regard as well as the overtly political interpretation Straub/Huillet give to the plot of the Empedocles drama speak more toward militancy than elegy. Krebs's own contrast of the world of Empedocles with Germany's "unfulfilled promise" and the "preclusion of all social change since 1789" seems to share this militancy.

Straub included in a collage of texts from Hölderlin and Cézanne the following résumé of the revolutionary hope of [Hölderlin's] poetry: "And poetry should give the children of the earth the courage to turn their backs on so-called progress, so-called science—the courage of revolution, which according to Benjamin is the tiger's leap, not into the future, but into the past, a tiger's leap 'under the free sky of history.'"[53] But this "redemptive" view of the sense of poetry, in the context of Empedocles' fate, can have another interpretation—one that suspends the choice, even the choice of a specific redemption.

Wilhelm Schmid stresses that the power of the Empedocles film derives in part from its simplicity. "[Straub and Huillet] do not load Hölderlin's language with meaning, but exclude the question of interpretation as much as possible. They gain thereby a multifaceted, crystal-clear figure of Empedocles. All that is to be said is on the surface of the celluloid; there is no subject 'beneath the surface.'"[54] Part of this simplicity arises simply from the modest yet radical undertaking of putting Hölderlin on film at all: again a work for "a mass medium" that generally is thought to be a difficult event for the educated and thus reserved for the enjoyment of a small elite. Just to make a film of Hölderlin "for the people who don't have time to read him" is a utopian assault on the culture industry—that is, both the restrictions it places on high culture and its watering-down of mass culture.

The Paratactics of Cinematic Space

The refusal to choose also accepts the fragmentary nature of the Hölderlin text, both as a narrative and as language. Here we see in the narrative of the


film one of the signs of Hölderlin's modernism as Santner has described it in regard to the late poetry. The ideal narrative to which Hölderlin aspired was that of a spiral development, with a Hegelian progression from unity through alienation to a higher unity. As we have seen here, however, the fragmentary nature of Empedocles suspends the narrative before it can be resolved. In addition to this, Straub/Huillet cut off the narrative spiral in terms of the film as well. They delete the last scenes in which Pausanias, Delia, and Panthea converse about what may have happened to the hero. Instead, the film ends with the image of Mount Etna and the voice-over of Empedocles' last hymn to nature. Thus the contradictory tension present throughout the film is perpetuated: the absence of Empedocles, his ascent as a hero into the flames of oblivion, is contradicted by the verdant presence of nature, particularly in the form of the repeated long shot over the valleys toward Mount Etna.

Another way of putting it would be that the unity that is achieved at the conclusion of the narrative does not take place in the narrative at all but rather in language and image alone. The character of Empedocles is gone, and all that remains is Hölderlin's language and the documentary capability of the cinema. Rather than a conclusion, therefore, I argue that this is a suspension of the narrative. As such, it corresponds very closely to those "anxieties" Santner points out in Hölderlin's narratives, which point to his modern, if not post-modern, quality.

The primary function of the circular/spiral narrative (and perhaps, in a certain sense, of narrative as such ) was, for Hölderlin, the paradoxical one of guaranteeing a seamless continuity across spans of separations, gaps of space and time. The problematic that seems to loom in the background of Hölderlin's theoretical enterprise (a problematic that has become a postmodern preoccupation) is the structure of representation itself, the gap that emerges between signified and signifier in the exteriority of any expression. [. . .] The very structure of expression seems to involve a primary experience of alienation, rupture, difference. The circular/spiral narrative tells the story of this rupture and its redemption.[55]

In the poetry of Hölderlin, Santner finds the most exciting, modern quality precisely "where the energy of the language outstrips the narrative of redemption."[56] The breakdown of this narrative closure, what Santner prefers to call the "loosening of narrative vigilance," is described in his book on the basis of a number of seeming imperfections in Hölderlin's later poetry. Of interest to our examination of the Empedocles film are two areas, the separation of elements and poetic parataxis.

The separation of elements results in part from the anxious self-consciousness or exaggerated concentration on stages of the narrative progression or on images and states of mind in Hölderlin's work. For instance, although critics have seen in Hölderlin's narrative the idealist unification of opposites, "the


Hegelian identity that manages to comprehend alterity," Santner is uncomfortable with "this subordination of the strides of Hölderlin's verse to the cadences of spirit." For, he concludes, "The space between the strides seems, at times, infinite."[57]

The particular evidence of this interruption of the narrative impetus is found in parataxis, the quality that Adorno found to be the most modern in Hölderlin's poetry. Santner's definition of parataxis applies equally well to Straub/Huillet's film as to Hölderlin's poetry: "Paratactic composition will tend to juxtapose images, let them stand side by side, without subordinating them to any overarching narrative syntax."[58]

The effect of this is not necessarily "minimalist," however, to use a word often found in Straub/Huillet criticism. Instead, the tension created by the contradiction between paratactic composition and narrative expectation, as we have seen, produces powerful aesthetic effects, closely related to those of early cinema. Again, this contradiction is seen by Santner as part of Hölderlin's modernism: "Often troublesome in Hölderlin's 'paratactics' is our inability to decide which of the two forms we are confronted with: absence may begin to look like excess, abject silence may become the promise of infinite possibilities. But what is more, both absence as well as excess of signification may prove to be psychologically intolerable. Such a reading of Hölderlin places him squarely within current debates about the redemptive vs. repressive aspects of narrative."[59]

We will presently look at the connection between Hölderlin's parataxis and Straub/Huillet's composition, editing, and treatment of nature. But the issue of the narrative of redemption should first be examined more closely. The narrative in the Empedocles film is presented in the context of a rather strict separation of elements: each character or group of characters (who act with a common purpose) is photographed in rather long takes against a vivid and carefully composed (or rather, "selected") natural background. Very seldom are dialogue exchanges edited in a version of shot-countershot, and when this is done, only the camera angle (and perhaps the distance) is changed, not the camera position.

One example is illustrated in the figures on pages 194 and 195. The camera placement indicated is from the original screenplay sketch, while the arrangement of figures has been revised in the actual shooting.[60] The sequence is a dramatic interchange between three citizens, Critias, and Hermocrates, on the one hand, and Pausanias and Empedocles, on the other hand, when Empedocles is implored to return to Agrigento. The shots consist of the entire group of Agrigentines, including Critias and Hermocrates, two-shots of Pausanias and Empedocles, and close-ups of each of the imploring citizens, Critias, Hermocrates, and Empedocles. The narrative is indeed partly reflected in the editing: the delegation is heard to approach, and Pausanias looks offscreen to the left to see them. This anticipation is confirmed by the appearance of the


The citizens implore Empedocles to return to Agrigento: from left, 
as citizen, Frederico Hecker, Peter Boom, Giorgio Baratta; William Berger as 
Critias; Howard Vernon as Hermocrates. Courtesy New Yorker Films.

group, looking to the right at Empedocles and Hermocrates. At first, Hermocrates, the priest, speaks alone in a medium close-up. Then a longer shot reveals all five Agrigentines in a row, with Critias and Hermocrates farthest to the right, closest to Empedocles. There are close-ups of Empedocles and Hermocrates during a short interchange and close-ups of each citizen as well. As they reach the point of saying "we are reconciled," we see all the Agrigentines in a group again, this time in a four-shot minus the villainous priest Hermocrates. He remains invisible for the rest of the seen, "not reconciled" and "unforgiven." At this point the dramatic space is interrupted by the first of the two panoramic views across the foothills to Etna, while Empedocles addresses the gods once again.[61] After this, we again see the citizens, an exchange in close-up reconciling Critias and Empedocles, which ends the scene: Empedocles looks left in profile close-up; Critias turns from profile (looking at Empedocles) and exits to the left of the screen.

Clearly the narrative space, with the exception of the somewhat ambiguous view of Etna, is unified to an extent by the dialogue, the eye-line matches, and the single camera position, to the side and between the two parties. The compositional elements are separated, however; no master shot reveals the relative location of the two groups, and each shot is composed as resting in itself


The three citizens from the same camera position 
but isolated by a change of lens. Courtesy New Yorker Films.

rather than implying any overlap of space. With the exception of the rather emotional reconciliation between Critias and Empedocles, the space between the two groups could be infinite, and no thought of motion from one to the other is suggested by the composition; quite the opposite.

The background of the compositions also separates them visually: the citizens are on a path with a group of birches behind them, and aside from the white verticals of these tree trunks, the background is a curtain of bright, yellowish green. Pausanias and Empedocles, by contrast, are standing at the base of an old pine tree where Empedocles had been resting. Juxtaposed with the lightness and nuance of the long shots of the Agrigentines, the shots of Empedocles and Pausanias have much more contrast, ranging from full black of the shadows under the pine to the white of Empedocles' hair.[62] The close-ups and extreme close-ups of Empedocles, especially at the end of the scene, intensify the "expressionist" quality of this composition as the light of sun and cloud shifts, producing sharply contrasting fields of color. The close-up lens turns the distant background into a bright wash of yellow-green and bright blue sky, while it shocks with the clarity of the black shadows, the dark brown pine branch, the rich green of the individual pine needles, the flesh tones of the face, and the blue of the costume and the white of his hair.


Camera position for Act II of  The Death of Empedocles , based on 
Straub's screenplay sketch. The arrangement was altered in 
final shooting. Graphic: Andrew Reich.

The still, extreme long shot of Etna is a third element, which may bear a relation to this space if we assume it is seen by Empedocles as he speaks to the gods. But in color and composition, it, too, remains fundamentally "other."

The force of this scene arises not only from its paratactics but also from its drama and narrative, which is defeated by the isolation of Empedocles in his grandeur and of Etna in its remoteness. This duality may correspond to Santner's description of Hölderlin's narrative, contrasting it with the "epic" prescriptions of Schiller and Goethe, following the tradition of Homer. Their definition of "epic" does suggest a rather modern "separation of elements," where images succeed each other while remaining separate and without hierarchy. In Santner's words, "The deictic gesture of epic, the 'photographic'


quality of its comportment vis-à-vis the things of the world, is in turn mirrored in the relative independence of units in the text."[63]

But the difference between Hölderlin and the idealist tradition is the questioning of the overarching basis that previously provided security for such independence. Santner terms this "the quality, more than any other, which makes Hölderlin an early modern—the use of an epic style in the absence of 'epic space' and 'epic security,' the absence of a 'public square' that would encompass and give human and social meaning—a depth dimension—to concrete particulars."[64] After we consider once more the "infinite possibilities" suggested by the absence of "epic security" in the Empedocles film, we will consider how both this film and more significantly Antigone investigate the problem of the absence of a "public square" in contemporary culture.[65]

The result of using this "epic style" is a form of modernism that equalizes the importance of compositional elements to develop structures of interaction between them. Therefore, it is quite appropriate to think of Schoenberg's twelve-tone composition in regard to Straub/Huillet's Hölderlin films, as Santner does in writing of Hölderlin's parataxis.[66] Aside from the lack of hierarchical organization on the level of language, the various levels of narrative, history, and what Huillet would call "archaeology" also characterize Straub/Huillet's treatment of "film language." Here we are again in close proximity to the role of the poet in the context of Hölderlin: "No longer authorized to narrate the grand myth of redemption, he [the poet] must choose a more modest task: discovering relations, correspondences, constellations of meaning within the field of history—understood as a field of dispersed events rather than the plot of Heilsgeschichte —amid 'the millionfold hydra of the empirical world,' and, finally, within language itself."[67]

The first manifestation of this approach to meaning is the simplification and rendering equal of elements of composition that Straub/Huillet undertake. We have already noted that the shots are of long duration; each is a composition that is complete in itself, and there is no camera movement in the Empedocles film. In other words, it is a step in Straub/Huillet's return to some of the qualities of silent film. As noted above, also, the compositions gain individual weight as camera position does not alter: there is thus no redundancy in the space that they reveal, so all the information in a shot is significant and will not be supported or confirmed by another perspective. Ignoring the industry conventions regarding the consistency of light or sound is part of this as well, as Alain Philippon has written: "The absolute submission of the method to the reality of a landscape or a climate (if a cloud passes, the camera captures a noticeable variation in luminosity) arises from a vision of the world where everything counts, without hierarchy." As Straub/Huillet are fond of quoting Rosa Luxemburg in this context, "The fate of an insect is not less important than the fate of the revolution."[68] Other aspects of the equal significance of the elements include the way that all the characters are photographed and the recording of


their speeches. Regardless of how insignificant a character's role might be, that person is photographed with as much compositional clarity and respect as any other. The duration of their speeches or their relative position may be conveyed through editing, but the "portraits" of them are all of equal dignity. And the landscape, too, is a character, or a drama. Describing her work on the cinematography for Too Early, Too Late , Caroline Champetier has written, "Certain shots are the interpretation of a movement of the sky on the earth; while filming, those were instants of true joy."[69]


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