Where to begin with Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet

Movies inspire a lot of passion, but the back catalogue of film history can be daunting. For every fan who’s obsessed with an actor, director or sub-genre, there’s another struggling to know where to start. Sometimes all it takes is the right recommendation to set you on your path from newbie to know-it-all…

Your next obsession: the formidable, austere films of Straub-Huillet

Tony McKibbin

Moses and Aron (1975)

Moses and Aron (1975)

Why this might not seem so easy

Some filmmakers’ work is demanding. The austere films of French husband-and-wife team Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet are difficult.

Jean-Luc Godard is challenging, but his films often yield a high degree of pleasure – in their humour, their use of colour and their attraction to beauty. Straub-Huillet, who made more than 25 films together between the early 60s and Huillet’s death in 2006, are difficult because they insist that reality principles are more important than pleasure principles.

They would spend months searching for the appropriate location: it didn’t only have to be visually right, it had to be acoustically precise as well. Speaking of adapting Schoenberg’s opera Moses and Aron for their 1975 film, Straub said they weren’t just looking for an ancient theatre but also a high plateau. “We started to look for this plateau four years ago, in a borrowed car, and we put 11,000 kilometres on it, driving more on back roads and country lanes than on paved roads, through all of southern Italy, down to the middle of Sicily.”

Asked why they insisted on sound recorded at source, they responded: “In effect, the sonorous reality that you record is so rich that to erase it and replace it with another sonorous reality (to dub a film) would take three or four times the amount of time needed to shoot the film.”

Born in Metz in 1933, Straub showed his radical credentials early. During his second year at the state lycée he joined a demonstration protesting against a predictable film programme at a local cinema. Huillet (born in Paris in 1936) wanted to enter the French film school L’IDHEC, but she never passed the exam, leaving the exam book all but blank in protest at being asked to analyse what she felt was an atrocious Yves Allégret film.

Klassenverhältnisse (1984), based on Kafka’s novel Amerika

Klassenverhältnisse (1984), based on Kafka’s novel Amerika

Forced to leave France as Straub dodged military service, they became best known within the context of the New German Cinema that emerged in the 60s and 70s, but their subjects remained broadly European – adapting texts by writers such as Pavese, Kafka, Vittorini and Brecht.

There’s no easy entry point with Straub-Huillet because they never had any interest in being easy filmmakers, which isn’t the same as saying they were elitist ones. They just wanted to make films their way, and in a way very different from the typical industrial model. If the results can seem so forbidding, it’s because they make discrete what other filmmakers make homogenous: they insist we pay attention to the sound and the image and the specifics of each thing we see and hear.

The best place to start – Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach

No film can serve as a ready Straub-Huillet primer, but Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968) could be sold more easily under false pretences. Exploring the life and times of Johann Sebastian Bach, the film pays more scrupulous attention to the music than most other musical biopics, while not scrimping on the difficulties of the composer’s life.

Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968)

Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968)

Offered in synopsis form, the film can sound a little like Amadeus (1984), but on viewing you’ll find a precise evocation of formal principles. As Richard Roud writes in his book on Straub, the director makes “no overt attempt to express the music; rather he lets it express itself.”

Think about that remark for a moment. Shouldn’t filmmakers do precisely this, to give their own expressive spin to the music they’re using, making us aware that a film is a piece of cinema? Straub and Huillet think not, or rather think differently. They don’t wish to produce a dynamic cinematic expression of the music, but a correlative to it.

As Roud describes the length of the shots, the diagonals offered in their composition and the specific use of movement, he says: “this process of contrast and counterpoint is not metaphorical. Given the contrapuntal nature of Bach’s music, what more natural than for Straub to have found, not an illustration, but an equivalent to it?”

What to watch next

Those familiar with Derek Jarman’s work might be relatively unfazed by the anachronistic aesthetic of 1972’s History Lessons, even if the Straub approach is more severe. It’s an adaptation of Brecht’s The Business Affairs of Mr Julius Caesar, showing a young man driving through the streets of Rome, seeing city life through the windscreen and the rear-view mirror.

​History Lessons (1972)

​History Lessons (1972)

This very restricted but still vivid view of the Italian capital is contrasted with sequences of the same man besuited in ancient Rome, discussing politics with a toga-wearing dignitary. The source sound in the modern sequences reminds us just how much noise we absorb in urban living, while the scenes from the past are dense with analysis and argument.

In Straub films – echoing that famous Faulkner phrase – the past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past. They don’t only interrogate history here, as the young man in the suit talks to the banker; they also constantly interrogate the form. There are the briefest of what look like fades – inserted frames of black film – and a constant reappraisal of our expectations in shot/reverse shot.

Good leftists that they are, they insist on showing us in various ways the means of production. This isn’t witty postmodernism, a nod to the knowing viewer, but an insistent need to say that this is a film that’s been made. Nobody has written more eloquently on the film, and on some of these questions, than Gilberto Perez in his wonderful book The Material Ghost.

Too Early/Too Late (1982)

Too Early/Too Late (1982)

Another key Straub work is Too Early/Too Late, a film they made in 1982. This one is also interested in the intertwining of the historical and the political. Based partly on a letter sent by Engels to the philosopher Karl Kautsky (which is read in the film by Huillet), the film takes the form of a diptych musing on class struggle and the land in both revolutionary France and modern Egypt. If Perez is our best guide to History Lessons, Serge Daney has written briefly and brilliantly on Too Early/Too Late.

Where not to start

A 52-minute film derived from a Heinrich Böll book several hundred pages long, 1965’s Not Reconciled leaves the viewer working very hard to make sense of the source material. The film was badly received at the Berlin Film Festival because of, as Roud notes: “Straub’s minimal techniques, his use of ellipses, the peculiar … way the dialogue was spoken … because the flashbacks are unannounced; characters are difficult to disentangle because of the three-generation spread.”

Not Reconciled (1965)

Not Reconciled (1965)

To rise to the challenge of Straub-Huillet’s output, however, is to become a member of what Daney called the “Internationale Straubienne”. It’s to join a club where, in cineaste Jean-André Fieschi’s words, “films could be imagined in which real violence would, for once, speak. The white cloth stretched across the back of a black tunnel is usually open to the soporific, the complaisant, to misrepresentation and the circulation of the small change of fantasies. Once more cinema might be surprising, once more necessary.”

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