Jean-Marie Straub obituary: French filmmaker who reshaped political cinema

Straub, who has died at the age of 89, was, together with his wife Danièle Huillet, one of the most radical and incendiary of political filmmakers in post-war Germany, Italy and France.

22 November 2022

By Martin Brady, Helen Hughes

Jean-Marie Straub, March 2015 © Misha Donat

The problem with most revolutionaries, according to Straub in Pedro Costa’s short film 6 Bagatelles (2001), is that they always insist on austerity. What you actually need, Straub declares, is luxury – the luxury of an 11-week shoot and 77,000 metres of expensive black-and-white 35mm film for a Kafka adaptation (Class Relations, 1983, based on The Man Who Disappeared; the film is just 3,476 metres long). Together with his wife Danièle Huillet (who died in 2006), Jean-Marie Straub transformed political cinema; as she declared in 1999: “cinema [is] an apparatus for radiography, a mirror that helps to see and… hear, to discover, under the accumulation of habit and clichés, reality – the truth?”

Straub was born in Metz, in the Alsace, in 1933 and experienced German occupation first-hand at school – a trauma he and Huillet would revisit in their 1994 film Lothringen!, shot in French- and German-language versions. In the latter, Straub recites all the dialogue in his instantly recognisable, gravelly, heavily accented German – a provocative contribution to the discourse on the European Union after the fall of the Berlin Wall. His career was one of geographical and creative border-crossing. As he trenchantly put it in response to a questionnaire on globalisation: “We are the only European filmmakers, filmmakers of European nations. We make our films in Italian as well as in French and in German. Who else can say that?”

Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968)
Belva Film GmbH

As a student Straub screened films, was friends with François Truffaut, wrote some film criticism, and then in the late 1950s approached Robert Bresson with a script for a feature film about Johann Sebastian Bach. Bresson politely declined, telling Straub he should make it himself. Then in 1958 Straub fled France to avoid fighting in Algeria and took the opportunity to scout locations across East and West Germany.

Finally completed in 1968, Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, still the best-known of their works and the one with the most nominations in the 2012 Sight and Sound critics’ poll, was a revolutionary music film: recorded in original locations, in historical costume, with authentic musical performances led by harpsichordist and pioneer musicologist Gustav Leonhardt as Bach. It was also provocatively dedicated to the struggle of the Việt Cộng against American imperialism. To this day it remains one of the most radical music films ever made – a study of artistic production in service of Church and state, a celebration of great music, and a documentary of a musician at work (Leonhardt), all recorded with direct sound.

It would be followed by a trilogy of music films engaging with the great innovator of modern music Arnold Schoenberg, culminating in a magnificent staging of his caustic comic opera Von heute auf morgen (1997), the first opera film to be recorded with live vocal and orchestral sound (mono, non-Dolby) and one of Huillet and Straub’s finest achievements. 

For help with the script to the Bach film, Straub and Huillet turned to the German novelist Heinrich Böll and out of this encounter sprang the couple’s debut short, Machorka-Muff (1962) and the feature Not Reconciled (1965), adaptations of a short story and the Nobel-prize winning novel Billiards at Half-Past Nine. Vilified in Germany – Not Reconciled was dubbed the worst film since 1895 – but celebrated as a rebirth of serious filmmaking by Cahiers du cinéma, the Böll and Bach films, together with their most radical experiment of that decade, The Bridegroom, the Actress and the Pimp (1968), established the method Huillet and Straub would follow for the next six decades. With meticulous research and rehearsal, and in collaboration with expert cinematographers, sound technicians and employing for the most part amateur actors, they produced what Straub termed “fiction-documents” – appropriations and adaptations of classic and forgotten works of German-, French- and Italian-language literature, of music, and of painting (Cézanne above all). The 33 films they made together were followed by 21 by Straub alone.

History Lessons (1972)
Belva Film GmbH

In the 60s, Straub, the outgoing, ebullient provocateur who often dominated the duo’s public appearances, would frequently quote Brecht in interviews and articles. The fascination with the German dramatist, shared by their friend and ally Jean-Luc Godard, chimed with debates around radical cinema in the UK and their work featured prominently in the writings of Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen and fed into their filmmaking. Brechtianism preoccupied the journal Screen, which devoted many pages to Huillet and Straub’s History Lessons (1972), based on Brecht’s unfinished Julius Caesar novel. 

Gradually other writers, many of them Italian – Huillet and Straub had moved to Rome in around 1970 – became the focus of the couple’s work, including a trio of Marxists: Franco Fortini (Fortini/Cani, 1976), Cesare Pavese (From the Cloud to the Resistance, 1979) and Elio Vittorini (Sicilia!, 1999; Workers and Peasants, 2001). But they also returned, again and again, to French and German material, not least the plays of Friedrich Hölderlin for three films in the late 80s and 90s. It was Hölderlin’s drama The Death of Empedocles that also provided the philosophy – “Hölderlins’s communist utopia” as Straub termed it – that would underpin both the last decade of his work with Danièle Huillet and the films, many of them very short, that he made following her death in 2006. Straub remained an unorthodox communist to the last, frequently quoting philosopher Walter Benjamin’s claim that historical materialism isn’t interested in conventional notions of historical and political progress but must engage in creative “tiger-leaps into the past”. 

The Death of Empedocles (1987)
Belva Film GmbH

Huillet and Straub’s films were always controversial, not just for their politics, but for their perceived severity and intellectualism. They were passionately championed by some, including Richard Roud in the UK, who published the first book on their work for the BFI in 1971, and producer Andi Engel (Artificial Eye), who edited an entire journal dedicated to their work (aptly entitled Enthusiasm), but also attacked by others, not least the experimental British filmmaker Peter Gidal who deemed their work, for all its claims to political and aesthetic radicalism, to be “illusionist”, overly reliant on “pretexts”, and fatally old-fashioned in its humanism. 

In France their films continued to be celebrated in Cahiers, and support from philosophers including Jacques Rancière and Gilles Deleuze has done much to keep the revolutionary flame of what was once termed ‘Godard-Straub’ filmmaking ablaze. Major retrospectives in recent years in New York, Paris, Berlin and London have cemented their place at the centre of debates around radical, political filmmaking.

Jackals and Arabs (2011)
Belva Film GmbH

Following Huillet’s death, Straub continued to collaborate on Pavese adaptations with the Tuscan theatre group Teatro Francesco di Bartolo in Buti, moved to Switzerland – to Rolle where Godard also lived – and realised projects already planned with Huillet. These include films based on Georges Bernanos, one of which was to be Straub’s last, France Against Robots, released on YouTube by his second wife, collaborator and tireless supporter Barbara Ulrich during the first Covid-19 lockdown in 2020.

In the wake of the Arab Spring in 2011, Straub also finally realised a project from 1987 to adapt Kafka’s short story ‘Jackals and Arabs’, perhaps the high point of his late solo work, a brilliant, witty and provocative engagement with the role of Europe in global conflict.

Danièle Huillet once said that “for us fiction matters because if you combine it with documentary images or a documentary situation you get a contradiction where sparks can fly. Fiction is crucial to start the fire.” As early as 1962 Straub had described his filmmaking as incendiary, as “a menace to the cinema” and after Huillet’s death he kept the fire of ethical, materialist cinema burning.  

  • Jean-Marie Straub, 8 January 1933 to 20 November 2022
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