previous chapter
10— Film as "Translation"
next chapter

Film as "Translation"

The Deterritorialization of Language

The "impossibility of translation" has produced an apparently opposite realization that the translation of a text actually reveals an alienation from its own language that was already there. The gap between what words say and what they mean, between signifier and signified, may be invisible in one's own language, but the inevitable failure of translation brings it to the fore. Straub/Huillet's methods of distancing texts from their performance in film has a similar effect. Particularly in regard to German literary works, the films reveal that these works are not necessarily at home with conventional German diction, nor do they necessarily belong to Germany at all.[1] As Louis Seguin put it, "the film is the exodus of the text."[2]

Since the double impossibility and virtue of translation were major concerns for Hölderlin, presentation of his work by Straub/Huillet adds additional layers to the displacement of language from its function as transparent communication. To alienate the German language and to make its textual quality evident, Straub/Huillet employ a number of devices other than the "scoring" of the delivery. If a "truthfulness" of language arises from its being spoken by non-native speakers, this certainly is a method that Straub/Huillet have by now used in a majority of their films, with special consistency since Othon . In Class Relations , as we have seen in relation to Brecht's Saint Joan of the Stockyards , a differentiation is added between both native and foreign accents and the degree of theatrical training of the speakers, plus extreme variations of style, pitch, and speed. The Death of Empedocles broadens the spectrum of voices even further (including Sprechstimme, as in Schoenberg's opera), while a triple


impossibility of translation is enacted in the film of Brecht's adaptation of Hölderlin's translation of Sophocles' Antigone .

In Empedocles , each word of Hölderlin's text is recited so that it can be understood; the text is as clear as if it were printed on the page. However, the speed of the recitation makes it impossible for the audience to always comprehend the text. Because of the density of Hölderlin's text and the suspension of meaning through parataxis, even if individual words are understood, the pace prohibits the hearer from always remaining in control of the meaning, or even the associations the text produces. The result of this is not that there is a loss of meaning but that each viewer will have different associations, and that associations arising from the combination of sound and image will be different with each viewing. Here again the comparison to twelve-tone music would be appropriate, although Peter Buchka resorted to an earlier musical metaphor. "But precisely when concentration wanes, the sensuality of proceeding reservedly proves itself: Hölderlin's text suddenly becomes a musical score, and the sounds of nature play the basso continuo ."[3]

The mode of delivery that Straub/Huillet have perfected over the years is carried to a rhythmic extreme with the Hölderlin text, where the author's straining of German syntax threatens to make individual elements break off and stand for themselves. By emphasizing rhythm and intonation, but never "psychologizing"[4] or "romanticizing"[5] language, the filmmakers allow the words of the text to resonate beyond the conventions of syntax and to connect with the visual image in unpredictable ways. For instance, the actor of the Empedocles role cited the example of the line, "Und schönes stirbt in traurig stummer Brust nicht mehr" (And beautiful dies in sorrowing silent breast no more): "At first I was tempted to develop the psychological aspect and said, 'in sorrowing silent breast'; I emphasized 'sorrowing.' And I remember that Danièle Huillet immediately insisted on following the rhythm exactly and thus to give both words equal weight, sorrowing and silent. That actually makes one aware of the actual meaning for the first time, that sorrow is silent, that it cannot be spoken."[6]

The effect on the language here is twofold. On the one hand, the precise work on the rhythm and intonation, almost to the extent that the script becomes a musical score, is meant to be wholly in service to making the fundamental rhythmic quality of the Hölderlin text audible, nothing more. On the other hand, to make Hölderlin's unique manipulation of German syntax audible, a Brechtian "alienation effect" is also introduced.

Determinant for the Hölderlin text is the pause at the end of each line, which was carefully orchestrated by Straub/Huillet according to the rhythm of the words. This corresponds to a "classical" aspect of Hölderlin, that the caesura is the essence of the spirit that the work conveys. As Bettina von Arnim wrote, citing Hölderlin, "The laws of the Spirit are metrical."[7] However, the stylized manipulation of speech in the service of the rhythm of the words functions


simply to distance the hearer from both the meaning and the delivery, again so that the elements can be appreciated in their separation.

The hostility of the reception of this method, especially in Germany, is quite telling. As Huillet has observed, experimentation with sound and speech is much less acceptable in the cinema today than visual experimentation. An analogy with atonal music is again appropriate, since twentieth-century music in the mainstream cinema is almost entirely banned to the horror genre (in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining , for example). Critics have generally not accepted either the analogy to rap music, proposed by Harun Farocki,[8] or the filmmakers' insistence that such rhythms do indeed occur in natural speech: they have related the story of a child approaching them as they walked their dog in Hamburg with an "unnatural" caesura in the question "Beißt / der Hund?"[9] One critic even trotted out Alexander Kluge's objection, that one cannot treat language as an object, without noting that it dated from 1965.[10] And even Brecht insisted on the "unnatural" emphasis on the caesura in his Hölderlin adaptation, rather than "psychological" readings of the text, comparing it to the syncopation of jazz.[11]

Huillet and Straub of course do not endear themselves to German critics by asserting that, on the contrary, this is the first time Hölderlin has ever really been heard in Germany. In saying this, they are continuing the Brechtian tradition, shared apparently by Renoir, that accents and foreigners' difficulty in speaking a language actually reveal a truthfulness not available in "normal" speech. The revelatory power of this foreignness is also to be found in Hölderlin, as Santner points out: "Hearing our own language from the mouth of a foreigner (or, perhaps, of a poet) is much like framing the language with a kind of Brechtian Verfremdungs-Effekt ; our own language is made strange, is objectified. This can secure for us the necessary distance from our mother tongue so that we may then use it 'more freely.'"[12] By alienating the German language, Straub/Huillet are both "wresting it from the control of the bourgeoisie," to use the rhetoric of the 1960s, and regaining a new access to it for contemporary Germans (who, it seems, generally do not appreciate it). But the principle Straub/Huillet employ seems at least consistent with Hölderlin's position: "But what is proper to oneself must be as well learned as what is alien. Therefore the Greeks are indispensable to us."[13]

As in their other films, but to a more theatrical degree, the Empedocles is thus what Raphaël Bassan calls a "creative documentary" of the performance. Against the background of the careful scoring of the text, the film documents the quality of spontaneity that shines through because each actor has a particular manner of speaking that has its own history. As Andreas von Rauch put it, it could even take some detective work to discover how certain Rhineland pronunciations came into the speech of young Germans raised in Rome, or to explain why a scholar of German literature in Italy might have a Bavarian accent (the peasant in Empedocles). The personal history, although not man-


ifest, does play a role in the "character" of the figures, however. For example, Pausanias is indeed a young man gradually gaining more self-confidence (both in the German of the text and before the camera) as he works through the drama of Empedocles' fate. As an Italian speaker of German, he is also documented as he learns what is proper to himself, to paraphrase Hölderlin.[14]

The difficulty of non-native speakers with language combines with the inherent difficulty of the text itself to produce this document of the creation of sense from words. For that reason, Straub has admitted to choosing this version of Empedocles, as with other texts, because it is "impure" and because it "resists" being filmed.[15] We have seen that modern interest has arisen from the "loosening" of syntactic structures in Hölderlin's later works, and the Hölderlin edition by Sattler (a consultant on the films) reveals the indeterminacy of variants rather than striving for a "definitive" reading.[16] Straub/Huillet purposely demonstrate that this is an "impure" text, not a completely polished one. This is reminiscent of their removal of Max Brod's "polishing" from the Kafka text. In this case they even acquired photocopies of unfinished material from Sattler and made their won choices.[17] Although a single performance of the play cannot place textual variants side by side, as in the Frankfurt edition, the distancing of the performance makes it clear that it is a product existing between the words on the page and the meaning that either was intended or is received. Here the "archaeology" so often apparent in Straub/Huillet's work functions on the textual level. Their mortification of the body of the text by delivery and choice of speakers is consistent with another concept of Benjamin's, as elucidated by Paul de Man, and that is the "task of the translator."[18]

Translation and its impossibility are of great importance to both Hölderlin and Benjamin. What we will see is that the problems and virtues of translation form much of the interest that Straub/Huillet bring to bear in the cinema, both in the area of so-called adaptation and in the question of fiction versus documentary and the ontology or truth of the cinematic/photographic image. If we examine the scarring of the text by translation, we will get closer to the issues that these texts and these films raise.

We turn here to Benjamin's essay "The Task of the Translation" as well as Paul de Man's reading of it in The Resistance to Theory . In general, we can postulate that Straub/Huillet's method of filmmaking is quite analogous to the act of translating as Benjamin describes it. De Man points out that Benjamin's text is in fact a "poetics," investigating the relationship of poetic language, intentionality and meaning, and history. Many of Benjamin's observations about poetic language, as revealed through the task of the translator, apply directly to the filmmaking of Straub/Huillet.

First of all is Benjamin's insistence that the translation, as de Man puts it, "per definition fails."[19] It is not the task of the translator to express anything but merely to demonstrate the relationship between languages. This, in turn,


does not reveal the meaning of the original but instead shows its "temporary" quality: the original, too, is "foreign."

To give honor to this reality, Benjamin proposes a number of rather provocative "givens." The first is the categorical assertion that a work of art has nothing to do with an audience. Benjamin reduces the postulation of an audience to the postulation that humans exist at all, which becomes meaningless. Straub/Huillet's persistent refusal to manipulate the grammar of "film language" to reach a bigger audience is entirely consistent with Benjamin's position.

Straub/Huillet's position on the translation of the subtitles for their films reveals both their affinity for Benjamin's position on translation and its relevance for their cinematic adaptation of texts as well. In her own translations into French and in her requests to me in making the English translation of the subtitles beginning with Class Relations , Huillet insisted, as does Benjamin, that "the word is the primary element of translation."[20] Using word-for-word translation and respecting the original syntax wherever possible, metaphor and equivalent expressions in the second language were to be avoided at all times.[21] The translation was to be neither a replacement of the original nor an "interpretation" of it. This method pushes comprehensibility to its limits, since, as de Man points out, the German word for translate is a version of the word metaphor : "It is a curious assumption to say übersetzen is not metaphorical, übersetzen is not based on resemblance, there is no resemblance between the translation and the original."[22] Indeed, the French of Huillet's subtitles (for Antigone ), in the view of Laurence Giavarini, lets the verse form of the German and the Greek show through.[23]

Concomitant with the utopian force of Hölderlin's poetry, this method of translation also threatens to take a step from the secure world of existing language into the void. Benjamin cites Hölderlin's translations as an example: "A literal rendering of the syntax completely demolishes the theory of reproduction of meaning and is a direct threat to comprehensibility."[24] The danger of this step is described further on. "For this very reason Hölderlin's translations in particular are subject to the enormous danger inherent in all translations: the gates of a language thus expanded and modified may slam shut and enclose the translator with silence. Hölderlin's translations from Sophocles were his last work; in them meaning plunges from abyss to abyss until it threatens to become lost in the bottomless depths of language."[25]

The "expansion and modification of language" referred to here is the effect that the act of translation has on both the second language and, indirectly, on the original. Translation, being a relationship between languages, reveals the incomplete, fragmentary nature of each. In exploring Benjamin's description of the relation between translation and original as that between broken shards of a vessel, de Man cites Carol Jacobs's observation that not only do these pieces not resemble each other but they are never to be put together to form


a vessel, either. "Benjamin insists that the final outcome is still 'a broken part.'"[26]

Just as Straub/Huillet insist that the subtitles cannot replace or even resemble the spoken text in a film, so does their work with the speakers of these texts reveal that the filming is also a translation: as such, it reveals the "foreignness" of one's own language, for instance, by revealing the nature of Hölderlin's German to the Germans. This process, by way of their direction of the actors and the choice of a variety of marked accents and manners of speech, corresponds to the "suffering" of the translator's language that comes about in its transformation by the act of translation. If Hölderlin said "What is proper to oneself must be learned," part of that learning of the nature of one's own language arises when confronted by the reality of one's alienation from it. The "pains of one's own" (Wehen des eigenen ) reveal that one's supposed comfort in one's native language was an illusion: "We think we are at ease in our own language, we feel a coziness, a familiarity, a shelter in the language we call our own, in which we think that we are not alienated. What the translation reveals is that this alienation is at its strongest in our relation to our own original language, that the original language within which we are engaged is disarticulated in a way which imposes upon us a particular alienation, a particular suffering."[27]

In addition to revealing the alienation inherent in the second language, the translator's "native" language, it also reveals the damaged nature of the original. Benjamin describes this damage in a number of ways: the original is, like the translation, only a "fragment" of what he postulates as "the pure language." The translation, by fixing some aspect of the original in a second language and thus freezing it at a point in time, reveals that the original was also always in motion, incomplete. The reference to the "afterlife" of the original, via translation, also suggests the original's death.[28] This afterlife, however, is not incidental to literature but essential to it, which is why the task of the translator is to be compared to a poetics in general: the translation puts the original into historical motion. "Once you have a translation you cannot translate it anymore. You can translate only an original. The translation canonizes, freezes, an original and shows in the original a mobility, an instability, which at first one did not notice. The act of critical, theoretical reading performed by a critic like Friedrich Schlegel and performed by literary theory in general—by means of which the original work is not imitated or reproduced but is to some extent put in motion, de-canonized, questioned in a way which undoes its claim to canonical authority—is similar to what a translator performs."[29]

This is also similar to what the filmmaker performs, in the treatment of "texts" by Straub/Huillet. The alienation of cultural artifacts and texts has a threatening, nihilistic side and a utopian side, for Straub/Huillet as for Benjamin. On the one hand, the act of translation/filmmaking dislocates what one thought of as secure: what was thought to be the reassuring voice of the mother,


language, appears as a structure to which we are subject but which is not itself human at all .[30] "The relationship of the translator to the original is the relationship between language and language," de Man writes, wherein the problem of meaning or the desire to say something, the need to make a statement, is entirely absent.[31] The realm of language has in the modern age come to replace the realm of the spirit since the time of Hegel and Hölderlin.[32]

Translation thus dislocates us into a "nonhuman" realm, which rather than the sacred narrative of religion or the cyclic narrative of idealism, Benjamin describes as a history that is outside both Nature and human experience. This realm, which de Man describes with the term nihilism , is one where human endeavor is no longer the measure of all things; in other words, it is the fulfillment of the desire for dissolution as found in Hölderlin.

Benjamin, in describing the translation as relating to the "afterlife" (fortleben ) of the original, separates this concept of "life" from human life and memory: "One might, for example, speak of an unforgettable life or moment even if all men [sic ] had forgotten it."[33] Memory, in this case, could become "God's remembrance"—or photography, as Susan Sontag and John Berger have observed. In the case of literary works, however, Benjamin places them into a concept of history that neither bears the security of human agency nor the action of spirit. It is instead a very neutral process, comparable to the linguistic relations he is describing; but this, he insists, is also a kind of life: "The concept of life is given its due only if everything that has a history of its own, and is not merely the setting for history, is credited with life. In the final analysis, the range of life must be determined by history rather than by nature, least of all by such tenuous factors as sensation and soul."[34]

This expansion of the concept of life beyond human memory and sensation is the "nihilistic moment that is necessary in any understanding of history," according to de Man.[35] He does not see this as a paralyzing nihilism, however, but as a prerequisite for any historical act.[36] Rather than a messianic impulse, it has a materialist basis: "Understand by nihilism a certain kind of critical awareness which will not allow you to make certain affirmative statements when those affirmative statements go against the way things are."[37]

The task of the translator, this poetics of relationships between language, thus ends up describing the particular suffering and alienation of humans in both language and in history. Neither is stable and in our control, not linguistic structures, relationships to nature, or even relationships between people, de Man concludes, "since there is, in a very radical sense, no such thing as the human."[38]

The "Look of the World" and Redemption

In the face of this nihilism, what kind of hope can there be? In the first place, if one sees things as they are, that should certainly be more hopeful than false


consciousness, which would conceivably be even more helpless in the face of the world. Second, the motion that is brought into awareness by translation, the instability of the original text, brings with it a sense of potential—like the contradictory potential of Hölderlin's abysmal silences, or Fortini's assertion that the working class have no homeland. It is a process of learning to take possession of what is properly one's own, and this process is not one of stasis but one of movement. By becoming aware through translation of an original's distance from Benjamin's postulated "pure language," one comes to know one's own unstable position. De Man cites Benjamin's contradictory position within and against the tropes of language.

Benjamin, who is talking about the inability of trope to be adequate to meaning, constantly uses the very tropes which seem to postulate the adequation between meaning and trope; but he prevents them in a way, displaces them in such a way as to put the original in motion, to decanonize the original, giving it a movement which is a movement of disintegration, of fragmentation. This movement of the original is a wandering, an errance , a kind of permanent exile if you wish, but it is not really an exile, for there is no homeland, nothing from which one has been exiled. Least of all is there something like a reine Sprache , a pure language, which does not exist except as a permanent disjunction which inhabits all languages as such, including and especially the language one calls one's own. What is to be one's own language is the most displaced, the most alienated of all.[39]

Although this quality of homelessness in language is inescapable, that does not mean that meaning is impossible. On the contrary, the purpose of this nihilism is to understand history in order to be able to live in it as it is. Understanding consists of recognizing the instability of meaning and being aware of one's own relationship to it. De Man cites Gadamer as seeing "understanding . . . as a process between author and reader in which the reader acquires an understanding of the text by becoming aware of the historicity of the movement that occurs between the text and himself" [sic ].[40]

Being aware of one's position in an impersonal motion is not far removed from Brecht's Lehrstücke (learning plays) or the tentativeness of Hölderlin's images. The awareness that relations of this kind are tentative and not determined by any preexisting or transcendent authority can lead to the silence of the abyss or to a sense of unlimited potential. The absence of transcendent justification also gives to the smallest detail of everyday life the same importance as great events of history or theology. In Santner's analysis of Hölderlin's poetry, this is the comfort that is discovered beyond the "narrative of redemption." "The poet begins to find a place and a comfort within the errancy and drift that in 'Hälfte des Lebens' had appeared so horrifying. [. . .] [T]he poet begins to discover the pleasures of 'die Tageszeichen,' or 'signs of the day.' [. . .] They connote the things, the concrete particulars


that populate one's immediate life world; unassuming objects that may give the poet a sense of calm, security, equipoise. It is as if the poet had discovered, for the first time, the possibility of a life in nonsacred, mundane space and time."[41]

Santner goes on to connect this attention to "concrete particulars" to John Berger's description of the "look of the world" from an essay on photography. "The look of the world is the widest possible confirmation of the thereness of the world, and thus the look of the world continually proposes and confirms our relation to that thereness, which nourishes our sense of Being."[42]

With Santner's repeated invocation of criticism of film and photography in regard to Hölderlin's images, we return to the juxtaposition of those poetic images with the "look of the world" in Straub/Huillet's films. As we have seen, the connections between Hölderlin's poetic and narrative strides, as between the shots in the film, is a tenuous one. The term "tenuousness" or "temporariness" (Vorläufigkeit ), has been applied to Benjamin's translation, Hölderlin's verse, and Straub/Huillet's mise-en-scène. Benjamin writes, "This, to be sure, is to admit that all translation is only a somewhat provisional [Vorläufig ] way of coming to terms with the foreignness of languages."[43] In the case of Hölderlin, the fragmentary nature and parallel variants in his work, made visible by the Frankfurt edition, reveal a similar quality. "But rather than simply destroying the 'illusion' of the completed poem and demonstrating the provisional character—the Entwurfscharakter —of the later Hölderlin, which the editors set as their goal, the Frankfurt edition suggests something even more radical: a certain undecidability between the draft or working sketch, on the one hand, and the finished work of art, on the other. This sort of undecidability becomes chronic in the later work, indeed it seems to be at the core of Hölderlin's poetic practice at this time."[44]

Since the recitation of the poetry in film cannot preserve the tenuousness of the verse, it is placed in a tenuous relation to the "thereness" of the speakers themselves and the look of the world. The endeavor is to "empty the image" of all intention and meaning, so that the impersonal "life" that Benjamin envisions is a result of extremely controlled structuring juxtaposed with complete openness to "the signs of the day." Straub/Huillet consciously structure their films rigidly, so that accident or chance can be perceived as such.[45] As Krebs writes,

When Straub/Huillet have the actors recite in this way . . . and when the editing confronts shots of landscape, earth, faces and persons with each other, a dialectic of image and language is constructed that resembles the experimental structure [Versuchsaufbau ] of Brecht's Lehrstück . The text itself is an experimental structure, i.e., both in recitation and in the film image, it repeatedly enters new constellations. . . . It may appear that this is off-putting and "clumsy," the experience of the friction between actor and costume, gesture and language,


Ute Cremer as Delia and Martina Baratta as Panthea in 
The Death of Empedocles . Courtesy Edition Manfred Salzgeber, Berlin.

space and figure, speaker and text. But in this friction, far from all sterility and stringency, dwells the anarchic power and joy [Lust ] of speaking and seeing.[46]

Krebs uses terms very similar to Benjamin's as he argues that his structuring of the text as an "experiment" shows "solidarity with literature," for which a reading "makes up a position of the work in its own history." The tension between the speakers, the text, and the image of them reciting is also one of anarchic potential: "In them [the images] the actors appear tenuously, experimentally arranged while yet giving a thoroughly 'classical,' stable and determinate impression."[47]

The method of opening up wide avenues by way of rigorous structure is perhaps one of the things that Peter Handke had in mind when he emphasized Straub/Huillet's nearness to the Greeks. Straub also has indicated such an affinity in his unwillingness to choose, for instance, between comedy and tragedy in the drama of Empedocles.

Straub: In life, one can never say at what point it's tragic, but one can also never say at what point it's funny; and a film isn't interesting unless


Delia (Ute Cremer) kneeling to Panthea (Martina Baratta) in  The Death 
of Empedocles
. Courtesy Edition Manfred Salzgeber, Berlin.

one senses these two things at the same time , I mean at each second and not in alternating strokes à la Tchaikovsky . . .

Huillet: The Greeks, with their myths, knew that already.[48]

Straub's description of their films as having the shape of "a fan" is an appropriate one at this point. The reference to a fan (regarding Othon ) concerned the range in actors from polished native speakers (theatricality) to lay actors and non-native speakers, for whom Straub did use the term "authenticity."[49] If the rigorous structuring of the text, the placement of the actors, and the composition and editing of the shots make up Straub/Huillet's "classicism," here is their "romanticism": in the conviction that through the "documentary" aspect of their cinema, directed at young lay actors laboring with a well-memorized linguistic text or recording the play of wind, light, and shadow on a landscape, some sort of authenticity can be perceived.

On the one hand, the authenticity that the camera gives us access to is merely the "thereness" of the world, the "signs of the day" that, for all the concern for the destruction of Nature, still conveys the striking impression that, as Jean Narboni quotes Straub, "the world is still habitable."[50] At another screening Straub had said that the only "Aussage" (message) of The Death of Empedocles is that the world is a cradle, an invocation of the Communist utopia,


Empedocles (Andreas von Rauch) on Etna, in  Black Sin
Courtesy Edition Manfred Salzgeber, Berlin.

"Das Einfache, das schwer zu machen ist" (The simple thing that is hard to do).[51]

The word expressionism has already been mentioned in regard to the extreme visual contrasts in the Empedocles films, but it could apply to other aesthetic aspects as well. Indeed, Expressionism is one modern connection between Romanticism and formal rigor (see Schoenberg). But the emphasis placed on the equal value of all elements in the film, as structures with their own logic and their own history, also has an expressionistic effect. Nature, photographed with a neutral, contemplative camera without narrative motivation, is not human. The words of the texts, in their careful, rhythmic delivery, are also not human; or at least, as Benjamin's "translation" reveals, they are part of the afterlife of something that is already dead. Against this background, the live performance of the actors, the presence of any living human bodies is almost a striking contradiction, an impossibility.

Hence the powerful effect of the spectacle of the actors breathing in order to deliver this dead text: "What one hears, as never before, is breath, and the body with its gestures is like the seismograph, the point of application: it redistributes the essential focus [focalisation essentielle ], accompanies it, prolongs it: the body, this musical instrument."[52]

Straub's description of how meaning arises not from the text itself or from the interpretation by the actor but in the actor's physical production of the words


that make meaning is yet another version of Benjamin's assertion that a translation can only approach an original's "Art des Meinens" —its manner of indicating—and not what it indicates. After so much rehearsal, Straub says, the actors "understand what they are speaking so well that they no longer need to understand the sense of each word: the sense (meaning) becomes bodies that think and breathe [des corps qui pensent, qui respirent ]."[53] Distancing himself somewhat from Brechtian acting as "quotation" (cited in the opening titles of Not Reconciled ), Straub sees this manner of speaking a thoroughly memorized text as creating moments "where actors simply explode. But not by blowing up like fireworks—which has nothing to do with the text. But rather the text itself becomes an explosion—just what no one attempts anymore."[54]

Against the severe structural restraint of the text and against the narrative impetus of the revolutionary leader into "death in the heavenly fires" (without a tomb), it is youth that stands as the hope of the future. (De Man: in spite of everything, hope.) Panthea and Pausanias, young amateur actors who are sister and brother, expressing their perhaps fragmentary, perhaps intuitive understanding of the hero's worth, are the future. Delia kneels to Panthea in one of the most striking gestures of the physically restrained film. And it is Panthea who introduces the film, "This is his garden," and describes the harmony between Empedocles and Nature in the most beautiful poetry. And Pausanias, in his loyalty to Empedocles as the young friend, concludes through the course of the narrative what Straub has called a "school of freedom."[55] When the citizens say they will not know what to do without Empedocles' counsel (ratlos verläbt du uns? ), he instructs them, "Ask this youth!" Similarly, the young woman who would play Antigone was spotted by Straub and Huillet (independently of each other) by chance at an acting school in Berlin; her sister plays the role of Ismene. Despite their supposed "asceticism" and "classicism," Straub/Huillet have the romanticism to look to the young and unspoiled for authenticity. And despite all the "redemptive" concern with history and Nature, one strain of expressionism remains; What is old must pass away and be replaced by something completely other.

Extreme expressionistic abstraction is placed alongside documentary simplicity and a romantic vision of "authenticity." It is my contention that this juxtaposition of opposites in Straub/Huillet is an example of the "Stillegung" (arresting) of thought, as proposed by Benjamin and Adorno. It is not the "unification of opposites" of idealism or even a "Marxist redemption myth" that abolishes all division and alienation[56] but the confrontation or even forcing of division. Divisions in the audience, in the layers of textual signification, in the cinematic ways of producing meaning are also not to be confused with a postmodern position: instead, it is utopian.

As in Adorno's view of Hölderlin's parataxis, the utopian force lies not in Hölderlin's ideas but "in the primacy of abstraction, in the purity of form itself."[57] Rather than blemishes, the disruptions caused in "narrative vigi-


lance" by these pure forms are gestures toward this utopia. As Santner has concluded, "The harte Fügung so typical of Hölderlin's later poetry becomes the emblem of the poet seer; the rifts of silence become the openings where the Unnamable can only be circumscribed."[58] The mortification of language points toward utopia with the force of both religion and revolution but without the "redemptive myth" of either. Like Benjamin, Straub/Huillet look to Hölderlin with a "combination of nihilistic rigor with sacred revlation."[59]

Nihilism, expressionism, revolution—how are they combined in the conclusion of The Death of Empedocles where the "poet-seer" speaks for the last time in a utopian hymn to nature? Like a coda, the end of the film repeats its themes, and the question is whether they are resolved in one direction or another. The repetition of the visual of Etna links the shot to the earlier exchange in which Empedocles personally renounced his opportunity to return to the city. The narrower angle of the lens removes some of the verdant foreground of the view of the volcano, continuing the geographic ascent through the course of the film: mountain, clouds, and sky are the main compositional elements. Since the entire speech is delivered in voice-over, there is a sense in which Empedocles is already dead as it is spoken; perhaps the higher view of the volcano suggests his impending plunge. However, since so much of the film has been directed to nature and to the future of civilization without the poet-seer, there is a sense in which the absence of Empedocles is not threatening but is a liberation. Given the expressionistic tension present through most of the film by way of the live image of actors performing the text, the final hymn accompanied only by the view of the mountain, with its long duration and the fact that it is already somewhat familiar, is an image of peace. The disruption of the human presence between these words and this landscape is removed, and we witness only the juxtaposition of these two "inhuman" abstractions. This juxtaposition continues after the image of Etna has disappeared as well, since the sound track continues with two different cuts: first, the opening of the Bach violin concerto that had been quoted at the beginning of the film (the first instance was the ending, so the result is a sort of reverse framing; second, following closely on this highly structured sound, a recording of sounds from nature, birds twittering on the mountainside and the thunder of an approaching storm. If the thunder promises rain (one is tempted to think of T. S. Eliot's The Wasteland ), both this and the Bach are beginnings, promises of a future, one with a structure and one without.

Straub has said that he had three precedents in mind in thinking about the ending: Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky (1938), Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent (1940), and Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940).[60] All three films end with a male voice addressing some version of posterity. In the Eisenstein film, the message is to all potential enemies of Russia, present and future. The vow to defeat all attackers is spoken by Nevsky, then repeated in text super-


imposed over a shot of armored soldiers bearing spears. Both Chaplin and Hitchcock use the radio, one of Hitler's own effective propaganda weapons, to appeal to "the people" to resist fascism in Europe. Foreign Correspondent , filmed before the United States entered the war, uses abstract terms to appeal to people in "America" to keep the lights burning while Europe has been plunged into the darkness of war. Rather than this anti-isolationist message, Chaplin's message is to the little people, urging them to maintain their hope in the face of Nazi aggression. Chaplin, like Eisenstein, visualizes "the people" as this message is being conveyed, but in the form of an idyllic Alpine family scene rather than soldiers on their guard.

Striking in each case is the withdrawal of the speaking voice into help-lessness and the appeal "an die Nachgeborenen"—to those born after—as Brecht repeatedly varied it. The stress on the apparatus of communication in each case—superimposed type in the Russian and the radio of the American examples—extinguishes the character of the speaker and breaks the message out of the narrative that went before. Indeed, the humanistic earnestness of Chaplin's appeal is almost unbearable in contrast to the irreverent comedy that has gone before.

Empedocles' voice is similarly disembodied, and, to a subtle extent, the cinematic apparatus is emphasized by the switch from recitation to reading of the voice-over text.[61] Consistent with all the other utopian moments in Straub/Huillet films is the absence of "the people" to whom this speech might be addressed; if the text is revolutionary, the revolution cannot be depicted, and the point of Empedocles' drama is that his kind of "revolutionary leader" is no longer needed, must no longer be needed. What remains are the two poles between which the drama has unfolded: the ability of the camera to record, in this case the somber beauty of the peak of Mount Etna, and the reality of the world, which like the text read by a voice from the dead past, outlives human history.

The sense of this final shot is certainly the extinguishing of the subject and the loss of identity in the unbounded. For the first time in the film it reconciles language and nature,[62] but at the expense of the human. As Benjamin wrote, "meaning plunges from abyss to abyss until it threatens to become lost in the bottomless depths of language."[63] "Aber es gibt ein Halten," Benjamin asserts in spite of everything: "There is, however, a stop."[64] For Benjamin, it is to be found in no text but in Holy Writ, "in which meaning has ceased to be the watershed for the flow of language and the flow of revelation."[65] The space between the filmed image of nature and the disembodied text is Straub/Huillet's way of indicating this "Halten" as well. It is a "space between" much as Benjamin's "interlinear" commentaries on the Scriptures; it is stressed at the film's conclusion by its repetition in two forms: between the text about nature and the "look" of nature and between the sound of Bach and the sound of thunder.


Hüser has objected that the thunder at the conclusion does not succeed. He considers it too great a resolution and validation of Empedocles, because his speech is about death. I do not agree, since the effect of the film has been to erase any regret about Empedocles' death, or about time in general. The fact that the sound track "outlives" the visual track, as it often does in Straub/Huillet films, is a further step away from the temporality of the body. The "inhuman" is what lives on, in the text or in the inhuman history of nature, and only if it does will human life still be possible on the earth.


previous chapter
10— Film as "Translation"
next chapter