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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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