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Introduction

There are more important things to write about than films. This alone is a good reason for writing about films by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. In their art they have taken to heart Kafka's advice: "In the battle between yourself and the world, second the world." In films that are simple in their visual construction, restrained in their camera movement, and precise in their editing, there are always brief points at which the reality of the world outside the film explodes with a violent, utopian force. In Not Reconciled , for instance, a tragic love affair is summed up in a single two-second shot of a young woman turning her head as she says, "They're going to kill you." An old woman shoots a Nazi sympathizer at the end of the same film, and another avenging woman shoots a gangster at the end of The Bridegroom, the Comedienne, and the Pimp , yet in each case the camera looks away. The "action" is always elsewhere, spilling out of the film. And in most Straub/Huillet films, sound separates itself from the image for the first time at the end of the final reel, impelling us out of the dream of the cinema and into the world again: Bach's organ music, the air horn of an Amtrak train, the thunder of an approaching storm, the Carabinieri's helicopter.

When one begins to think about a Straub/Huillet film, one inevitably confronts subjects outside the film itself—questions of reality and history, of the "look of the world" that has become so vulnerable. since the political changes in Europe in the 1990s raise issues of the role of Germany as a world power and the future of a leftist cultural critique, the films of Straub/Huillet become all the more pertinent. Although most of their films are "German," Huillet and Straub are not. They moved to Germany from France at the end of the 1950s, then to Rome, where they have lived since 1969. Their vantage point as


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outsiders has allowed them to engage with German culture with a combination of critical distance and affection inaccessible to most German artists.[1]

This book has two primary goals. The first is to provide an English-language readership with access to the German cultural and literary context in which most of Straub/Huillet's rigorous and original work has been produced. The second is to investigate the relation of their work to both the "classical" cinema and to fundamental issues of film studies since the 1970s, especially feminist film theory, materialist film, and the avant-garde. Finally, the book attempts to reveal a side of Straub/Huillet that has so far been ignored—their strategy of rediscovering the fundamental visual pleasure of cinema through supreme concentration on its constituent elements, light, sound, and motion in the juxtaposition of landscape and poetic text.

One reason for the fact that the films point to worlds outside themselves is that none of them is a self-contained, original piece of fiction. Reminiscent of Walter Benjamin's project of composing a book from quotations alone, all are based on materials from other genres: novels, short stories, plays, poems, essays. They also often present historical documents and film footage. Each film respects the form of the text it presents, drawing it into sharp clarity by treating it not as a transparent technical element, as material for a story, but as a text, a material document. Furthermore, the films record their own confrontations with the text, the challenge made to the text by its setting, for instance, in a contemporary landscape. The films document the interaction between the original form and content of the text and the form of the film in which the text is cited or recited.

The method by which Straub/Huillet have turned works from German culture into the material for their films challenges both the notion of a literary "canon," the conventions of adaptation, and the question of national cinema. From their French and Italian vantage points, they undertake a deterritorialization of German cinema, appropriating German culture from the outside and "redeeming" repressed or marginalized authors, themes, or works of German history. German history and culture have produced both great beauty and great horror, and Straub/Huillet films constantly confront the two. In so doing, with their radical assertion that even the German language can be nomadic,[2] their films propose that German culture belongs to Europe and the world as much as it does to the Germans.

The German films Straub/Huillet have produced will be treated as follows: Chapter 3 explores the difficulties Straub/Huillet encountered in completing their first project (which became their third film): Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach (Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach) , 1967. Chapter 4 discusses the combination of radical politics and radical form in two short films: Machorka-Muff , 1962, based on Heinrich Böll's short story "Bonn Diary" ("Hauptstädtisches Journal"), and Der Bräutigam, die Komödiantin, und der Zuhälter (The Bridegroom, the Comedienne, and the Pimp) , 1968, the last film com-


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pleted by Straub/Huillet while they resided in the Federal Republic. The destruction and redemption of German history are explored in chapter 5 by way of the narrative structures of Nicht versöhnt oder Es hilft nur Gewalt, wo Gewalt herrscht (Not Reconciled or, Only violence helps where violence rules ), 1964–1965, and the novel on which it was based, Böll's Billiards at Half Past Nine . Chapter 6 treats Geschichtsunterricht (History Lessons) , 1972, the film based on Bertolt Brecht's novel fragment Die Geschäfte des Herrn Julius Caesar . Straub/Huillet's adaptations of Schoenberg are treated in chapter 7: Moses und Aron (Moses and Aaron) , 1974–1975; and Einleitung zu Arnold Schoenbergs "Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielscene" (Introduction to Arnold Schoenberg's "Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene") , 1972. Klassenverhältnisse (Class Relations) , 1983, based on Franz Kafka's unfinished America novel Der Verschollene (Amerika) is discussed in chapter 8, particularly in the context of feminist film theory on the position of the spectator in regard to film narrative. Chapters 9 and 11 treat the Friedrich Hölderlin films: Der Tod des Empedokles oder: wenn dann der Erde Grün von neuem euch erglänzt (The Death of Empedocles or, When the green of the earth will gleam for you anew) , 1986, Schwarze Sünde (Black Sin) , 1988, and Die Antigone des Sophokles in der hölderlinschen Übertragung für die Bühne bearbeitet von Brecht 1948 (Suhrkamp Verlag) (Antigone) , 1991–1992. The theatrical staging of Hölderlin's texts against the landscape of Sicily presents a new challenge to conventional definitions of the cinema's relation to nature, myth, and history. The culmination of their work with Hölderlin, Antigone , also represented a return to Brecht by way of his 1946 translation.

A separate chapter (chap. 10) considers Straub/Huillet's approach to language and translation, drawing on the work of Walter Benjamin and Paul de Man. Their method of rehearsing with and directing actors treats each text as if it were a musical score, fixing in advance of the performance for the camera a deep connection between the actor's ability to remember (and think about) the text and that person's physical ability to recite it. Breathing, for instance, is rehearsed in connection with both the structure and meaning of the lines and the speaker's physical or personal qualities. It is also significant that Straub/Huillet often use actors who are not native speakers of German, or do not know the language at all. This makes for a remarkable deterritorialization of the language and opens up the possibilities of reception for German speakers and others. The concluding chapter reconsiders the relation of Straub/Huillet's film work to the connection of high modernism and mass culture in Critical Theory, by exploring the way the films juxtapose concerns of both Theodor W. Adorno and Brecht.

The importance of Straub/Huillet to discussions of film theory in the 1970s has generally overshadowed their connection to German cinema and culture in the U.S. reception of their work. This reception has also been quite limited between the early 1980s and 1995, partly due to the fact that subtitled prints


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of the films following Empedocles have not been available. Aside from numerous articles in the British journal Screen (mostly in the 1970s), there have been relatively few publications on Straub/Huillet in English. These include Richard Roud's book Jean-Marie Straub (1971) and Martin Walsh's chapters on their films in The Brechtian Aspect of Radical Cinema (1981). The retrospective of their work at the Public Cinema in New York in 1982 was accompanied by a program tabloid, edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum. Finally, they attended a conference at the Center for Twentieth-Century Studies that year on "German Avant-Garde Cinema: The Seventies," which may have solidified the impression that they belong to the extremes of the inaccessible avant-garde—an impression I hope to counter with this book.

Despite their relative obscurity in the United States, Straub/Huillet's work is at least as significant as that of European directors who are better known here. Straub/Huillet are among the major senior figures of the Young German Cinema of the 1960s, precursor of the New German Cinema. Along with Alexander Kluge, they are the foremost practitioners of a "Brechtian cinema" in German. Figuring prominently in the French and Anglo-American reception of this Brechtian strain of film theory since the 1970s, their work has been discussed in the contexts of "materialist cinema" and the "cineastes of the text" (e.g., Marguerite Duras and Hans Jürgen Syberberg).[3] Although Straub/Huillet's approach to film has been most closely connected to Godard and Kluge, important differences have become increasingly pronounced. Godard and Kluge have departed from the cinema somewhat in their recent work, combining techniques and media technologies of increasing complexity.[4] In so doing, their emphasis has been somewhat less on photography and on the "reality" of the subject before the camera lens than on investigating the manipulations available through the mechanical reproduction of moving images. As we will see, the radicality of Straub/Huillet lies in their continued exploration of the film medium through concentration and simplification. Rather than move toward computer graphics, video, and television, their works seek to approach the immediacy of early sound cinema or even the silent film.

Drawing heavily on the works of Adorno, Brecht, and Benjamin, this book attempts to demonstrate that Straub/Huillet's "redemptive" approach to history, particularly in the German context, avoids the pitfalls of "left-wing melancholy." Their consistently innovative modernism, although it shares much with avant-garde and postmodernist practice in the arts, will be seen to be distinct from both. In part, this emphasis is in polemical response to the tendency of criticism over the years to stamp Straub/Huillet as ascetic, minimalist, avant-garde, anti-illusionist, antinarrative, anticinematic, and static. Straub/Huillet have disputed all of these labels over the years, with increasing insistence. Helmut Färber published a thorough exposé of these errors as early as 1968, and the critical clichés have not changed in the intervening years.[5] Because of this narrowing of Straub/Huillet reception, I feel compelled to


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accent the opposite aspects of their work here: the playful, sensuous, cinematic, traditional (if not conventional), optimistic, future-oriented, and utopian aspects. As Straub has put it, "Film is the art of the moment; the art of 'Tarry yet, you are so beautiful." And Huillet, in response to a comment on the rigor of their method: "I hope not only that, I hope there is sensuality and pleasure [Lust ] as well."

It is also a concern to distinguish between the intentions Huillet and Straub have in making their films and their critical, theoretical, and especially academic reception. One could easily ascribe importance to Straub/Huillet films based on their relation to the prevailing issues in film studies since the 1970s. Along with Godard, they stood as paradigms of a Brechtian political modernism that, via Cahiers du cinéma and Screen , stood at the foundation of much "countercinema" and critical film studies. Over the years they have earned the admiration of artists and intellectuals such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Gilles Deleuze, Franco Fortini, and Peter Handke. Straub/Huillet are not content with academic recognition, however. Vincent Nordon has pointed out that any critic (in France at least) can now write about the "Straubian offscreen space," and there is even, in academic and theoretical film circles, what Nordon calls a "Straubian international." All this "doesn't interest me," Straub asserts,[6] and this is no doubt the reason for part of Straub/Huillet's intransigence when confronting both film professionals and film buffs: this is not their intended audience. Their intended audience is still "the people." Their attempt at a synthesis of high art and populism has its origins in the political and cultural hopes of the 1960s, which might be summed up by the comment of a group of Italian peasant schoolchildren from that time: "True culture, which no man has yet possessed, would be made up of two elements, belonging to the masses and mastery of the language."[7] The cinematic and artistic confrontation of the absence of this audience of "the people" will be a focal point of my examination of the films of Straub/Huillet. As Deleuze summed up the contradiction,

Resnais and the Straubs are probably the greatest political film-makers in the West, in modern cinema. But, oddly, this is not through the presence of the people. On the contrary, it is because they know how to show how the people are what is missing, what is not there. . . . And the German people in the Straubs' Unreconciled : has there ever been a German people, in a country which has bungled its revolutions, and was constituted under Bismarck and Hitler, to be separated again?[8]

In the face of the critical and theoretical acclaim they do receive, then, Straub/Huillet persist in alienating their would-be friends with radical political polemics, on the one hand, and with appeals to simplicity and film tradition as opposed to radical innovation and experimentation, on the other. While examining Straub-Huillet's connection to theoretical and political debates, cin-


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ematic pleasure, and the connections between nature, myth, and history, I will concentrate on their "German" films. However, it is clear that these concerns—both in society and in the texts—could be found in other national or cultural contexts as well. Especially the relevance of their work to the successes and failures of the "New Left" extends from Germany to France, Italy, Great Britain, and the United States in one form or another.

The discussion of the "German" films of Straub/Huillet in this book will examine their unique "displacement" of German culture in the context of the postwar dilemma of finding a "usable" German past. While recent discussion of the postwar German cinema has rightly emphasized its melancholy self-obsession, Straub/Huillet stand apart from this phenomenon both aesthetically and politically. Their films provide a refreshing and stimulating counterpoint to those examined by Thomas Elsaesser, Anton Kaes, and Eric Santner in their recent books on German cinema and history.[9] We will begin, therefore, by examining the place of Straub/Huillet's work in political debates on film culture since the 1960s and then in the context of Germany and the New German Cinema.


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