Notes of Actuality: A New Anthology Documenting the Films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet

By Kevin McMahonApril 7, 2017

Notes of Actuality: A New Anthology Documenting the Films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet

Writings by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet

FOR NEARLY HALF A CENTURY, the films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet have been the exclusive property of cinephiles, but that may be changing. Their collaboration debuted in 1963 with the deliciously wicked stink bomb Machorka-Muff and culminated with the radiant These Encounters of Theirs (2006). And since Huillet’s death in 2006, Straub has completed more than a dozen striking projects. But all of these works have been hard to find in the United States until now.

A Straub-Huillet retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art last May and June has given rise to mini-festivals across the country. (The Los Angeles screenings were held in January and February at the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s Billy Wilder Theater, with additional screenings by Art Center and FilmForum.) The retrospective also prompted two valuable new books: a collection of essays from the Austrian Film Museum, edited by Ted Fendt, and — best of all — an anthology bearing the deceptively modest title Writings. The latter volume’s editor and translator, Sally Shafto, has selected texts and images with shrewdness and insight, and designer Scott Ponik has assembled them into a book that is not merely easy to read, but is a pleasure to hold. People who’ve never heard of Straub-Huillet will want to be seen with it.

One of the merits of Shafto’s anthology is its foregrounding of music, which lies at the core of Straub-Huillet’s thinking and filmmaking. In a 1975 interview, Straub declared, “The world of sound is far vaster than the visual world.” A few pages — and a dozen years — later, Straub amplified: “We are more interested in the music than the ideas.” The duo’s films are musical in the conventional sense, featuring discretely calibrated accompaniments that are more inclusive than most classical concerts — lots of Bach, but also Schumann, Mahler, Varèse, Bernd Alois Zimmermann, and György Kurtág. More significantly, many of their films document musical performances. And “document” is the word.

Shafto includes a 1966 prospectus for The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968), in which Straub takes pains to distinguish their approach from that of a conventional biopic: “[W]e will show people in costume; we will show a man wearing a wig and a cantor’s costume, but we won’t necessarily say to the spectator, ‘Here is Bach.’” Shafto bookends this with an even more explicit declaration by Straub, three decades later: “We wanted to film not the music in itself, but the execution of a score as a work in process of being done, and even a collective work whose point of convergence is the one who directs, in this case Bach.” Their sensitivity to sound-space explains their violent aversion to dubbing, a practice that, according to Straub, does nothing but “transform a real space into a confused labyrinth where the viewer can no longer find himself.”

It also explains their insistence on filming in direct sound, on location, even in situations when this is considered impossible — and on capturing sounds that are often painstakingly edited out of conventional movies: birdsong, rustling foliage, traffic. These incidental sounds sometimes take precedence over dialogue, which may be rendered unintelligible. To what end — being difficult for the sake of difficulty? Hardly. Straub’s description of their breakthrough film Othon (1969) reads like an account of a post–World War II concert:

For the spoken texts, the words, are here no more important than the very different rhythms and tempi of the actors, and their accents […] no more important than their singular voices captured in the moment of their struggle against noise, air, space, sun, and wind; no more important than the sighs they involuntarily emit or than other tiny surprises of life that are recorded with them, such as single sounds that suddenly take on meaning.

Indeed, Straub-Huillet’s films are so unlike anyone else’s that it’s easier to compare them to works in other media. The duo’s closest contemporary was probably the composer Luigi Nono, who also combined radical politics with radical formal innovations, and even set texts by Cesare Pavese, Hölderlin, and other Straub-Huillet favorites.

My own path to Straub-Huillet’s work was, appropriately, musical. I was lucky enough to catch their 1976 film adaptation of Arnold Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron a few years after it was made. It remains for me the opera’s perfect realization — though not every Schoenbergian agrees. When it premiered in Los Angeles, the Times music critic Martin Bernheimer praised the musical performance but denounced Straub-Huillet’s cinematic realization as “a colossal cop-out.” And in a stock formulation of Straub-Huillet-bashing, he bemoaned the “stultifying immobility, a primitivism that borders on the amateurish.”

That “immobility,” an almost-stillness, is a feature of many of their films. And again, there’s a musical analogy — the silences of John Cage. If you can go along with it in Straub-Huillet, it opens unexpected doors, often counterpointing the dialogue or narration. In Moses and Aaron, Schoenberg’s extravagantly lush and robust music is adorned by the cinematic restraint, not undermined by it.

Moses and Aaron is well represented in Shafto’s collection with a set of contrasting documents. First, there’s a sober and not-so-small “Small Historical Excursus” of the story of Exodus by Huillet. Later comes “Work Journal for Moses and Aaron” by Gregory Woods, annotated with Huillet’s “Notes” en face. Woods writes in the tradition of “making of” accounts, heavy on comic collisions of illusion and reality, which spurs Huillet to corrections and amplifications much longer than the inciting text. Woods offers a significant step-by-step account of Straub-Huillet’s attempt to capture the singing live, on location, in a desolate patch of Alba Fucens. He also prompts Huillet’s thoughts on unexpected subjects, like their expedition to Egypt in search of props, and the controversy about the location’s sanitary facilities. “Notes” is full of revealing treasures, including an outburst from Huillet beginning with the immortal sentence, “The imbecile who brought the cobra didn’t have the slightest notion about the psychology of his animal.”

The “imbecile” notwithstanding, it should be said that, in general, Straub-Huillet are generous with praise for their colleagues, and, while demanding, took pains to engage technicians and actors as people, not employees. Indeed, Straub-Huillet viewed actors not only as people, but also as creative musicians. They developed this unique approach as early as Not Reconciled (1965), when, according to Straub, they “didn’t ask the actors to ‘perform’ their text in any particular way, but ‘to recite’ it, like a very precise score.” The anthology demonstrates that they mean “score” literally. It features reproductions of colorfully annotated scripts for Antigone (1991) and These Encounters of Theirs (2006). These could stand alone as beautiful and fascinating works of visual art, but they are definitely working documents, indicating, in the manner of a musical score, stresses, pauses, tempi, and tricky parts. The resulting dialogue has a distinctive anti-colloquial sound: rushed, declamatory, with pauses in the middle of a phrase rather than the end. Foreign and regional accents and dialects abound. In preparing foreign language versions of their films, Straub-Huillet also strategically skimp with subtitles, which could never capture the music of the speech. Whole paragraphs of talk are simply unaccounted for. (This prompted exasperated vocal music from the audience at some of the UCLA screenings I attended.)

Friction between the text and the presentation is one of Straub-Huillet’s favorite effects. Franco Fortini’s recitation of his own text of Fortini/Cani (1976) is so unlike the smooth professional norm (Straub: “he had no talent for reading”), that Fortini himself considered the film a critique rather than a presentation. By contrast, when a Straub-Huillet veteran like Angela Nugara declaims, the harangue becomes an overpowering operatic cabaletta. Yet self-dramatizing, bravura performances of any kind (by technicians, by performers) are typically avoided. The most direct, least “theatrical” method is always preferred. In a somewhat unexpected way, this preference informs their later Schoenberg opera film, From Today until Tomorrow (1997). It is emphatically a filmed performance: we see the stage, the orchestra, and the (empty) theater. The scene never “opens up,” emphasizing the comically claustrophobic domestic battlefield plot. Years before MetLive developed their conventions for filmed opera, Straub-Huillet were subverting them with close-ups of wide-open mouths (Christine Whittlesey’s dental work is exposed for inspection), and non-interacting actors (Richard Salter sings to the theater seats, not to his co-star). Shafto includes Huillet’s daily tally of shots completed, correlated with bars of the score; it looks like an accidental Hanne Darboven drawing.

Straub-Huillet’s concern with the sound-space is complemented by a concern with place-space. All the elements — cinematography, sound, editing, together with text and performances — aim at situating the spectator in a coherent, specific place. Not just any place will do. The documents in Writings attest to Straub-Huillet’s painstaking efforts to find locations that suit the exact requirements of the project. And once they find it, they refine to exactitude how they will use it. For Straub, “This location work is essential; otherwise you do any old thing during the shoot. If it is not mastered by patience and time, it’s worth nothing. It must penetrate and it must take root.”

One intriguing section of Shafto’s anthology is a series of diagrams of camera and actor positions for The Death of Empedocles (1987). This is supplemented by an extended text describing their struggle to determine a single setup that would accommodate the entire trial scene. The diagrams and discussion make it sound like a geometry exercise, but the resulting scene — camera work combined with careful editing and unhurried pace — really does create a sense of presence at a performance in a numinous natural setting. Straub-Huillet are known for extended shots of landscapes, moments when the camera lingers on a scene after the performers exit, or turns away from them. These landscape episodes are not decorative pauses. In their earlier films they were polemically anti-picturesque: a street lined with prostitutes (The Bridegroom, the Actress, and the Pimp, 1968); the unprettified but compelling ruins surrounded by modern Rome (Othon); the same city seen from the back seat of a car (History Lessons, 1972); and more ruins in a rocky wilderness (Moses and Aaron). In 1975, Straub-Huillet proudly distinguished their choice of locations from filmmakers like the Taviani brothers and Pasolini, “who look for pretty spots, post-cards.”

In the 1970s, Straub-Huillet permanently relocated to Italy, and their engagement with the landscape changed and deepened. The anthology includes a letter by Huillet from 1981, in which she muses, “in Germany one learns of the class struggle, but in Italy one learns to see.” In Fortini/Cani, most of the scenes that counterpoint the narration are rural — picturesque, if not postcard-y. But these are not empty decor. Among the landscapes surveyed are vistas of Sant’Anna di Stazzema and Marzabotto, where German soldiers massacred civilians in 1944. These events are mentioned in Fortini’s text, but not on the screen. Here, Straub-Huillet’s high-modernist allusiveness and unwillingness to tell people what to think, admirable as these impulses are, become problematic. Uninformed viewers get a vague sense of places rich in history, but no indication of how sinister that history is.

From the Clouds to the Resistance (1979) goes deeper into the countryside, staging Pavese’s texts in landscapes of Poussin and Corot. By The Death of Empedocles, Straub-Huillet boldly embrace the deadest cliché of highbrow TV, reciting poetry over images of grass waving in the breeze, sky, and clouds. As is often the case with their later features, the scene is Sicily: landscapes associated not only with the philosopher Empedocles but the homeland of Theocritus, the initiator of the Western tradition of pastoral poetry.

The apex of this critical pastoral mode might be Workers, Peasants (2000), based on Elio Vittorini’s Women of Messina (1950/1964). Standing in a summery, sylvan grove, actors declaim Vittorini’s soliloquies of displaced victims of World War II struggling to survive in a destroyed village during a brutal winter. The grove frames the struggle for survival, acting as a reminder of hope and larger possibilities. Decades earlier, Straub praised “the purely sensual reality of the space which the actors leave empty at the end of each act: how sweet it would be without the tragedy of cynicism, oppression, imperialism, exploitation — our earth; let us liberate it!”

Straub-Huillet’s concern with sound-space and place-space is not matched, however, by any concern with narrative coherence. Quite the contrary: from their first feature, Not Reconciled, they have resisted anything like conventional exposition. Although their films typically emerge from literature as classical as the music they prefer — Corneille, Hölderlin, Kafka, Brecht, Vittorini, and Pavese — their engagement with the texts is dialectical. As Straub explained, “We address ourselves to texts that offer us resistance. We try to test them out; we make audiovisual objects out of them, which consist of movements, movements within a visual frame, movements of light and sound.”

They must have found Pavese especially “resistant,” because one of his books, Dialogues with Leucò, provided material for two major Straub-Huillet films, From the Clouds to the Resistance and These Encounters of Theirs, as well as four of Straub’s solo projects: Artemide’s Knee (2008), Witches (2009), The Inconsolable One (2011), and The Mother (2012).

Pavese’s book consists of 27 dialogues in which a pair discusses a traditional Greek mythological event. Sometimes the two are the main actors, but more often they are bystanders. Taking a cue from Leopardi’s Operette morali, the speeches are concise and droll, but leave a tart aftertaste. Pavese’s strategy is to take each mythological situation — no matter how absurd — absolutely seriously: What would Ixion say to the Cloud when he assaulted it? What if the Cloud tried to warn him about the punishment he was fated to suffer? How would a Cloud phrase it? The specifics of each case lead to more general questions: Why am I bound by someone else’s laws? Why are there laws at all? Why are acts that were permitted — even honored — in the past now condemned? Why do I have to decline into old age? Why can’t human Society be as simple and direct as Nature?

Indeed, this one book informs not only the films Straub-Huillet derived from it, but all of their work. Conflict and struggle are inevitable, resolution is perpetually deferred, but nature, poetry, and music refresh and inspire.

Straub-Huillet’s long-running dialogue with Pavese’s Dialogues led to a little typographic slip in the otherwise exemplary Writings. The translation of the press kit for These Encounters of Theirs presents two paragraphs (beginning “Myth is not something arbitrary”) as if they were by Straub-Huillet, when they’re in fact drawn from Pavese’s introduction to Dialogues. If an excuse is necessary, this repeats a flub found in the original text — which I know only because this excellent book reproduces that, too!

Shafto’s anthology will no doubt kindle interest in the films, but it can’t take their place. Sadly, Straub-Huillet’s masterpieces are still not readily accessible to viewers in the United States. Thanks to the recent festivals, there are new digital versions of many of their features. Is it too much to ask for decent Region 1 Blu-Rays? In the era of Snapchat, it might be more important than ever to rediscover these musician-filmmakers, who believed that, “For an image to exist, you must give it a bit of time and a little patience.”


Kevin McMahon is a writer, scholar, and archivist based in Los Angeles.

LARB Contributor

Kevin McMahon is a writer, scholar, and archivist based in Los Angeles. He holds a bachelor’s in Classics from the University of Illinois and a master’s in Moving Image Archive Studies from UCLA. He has been the manager of SCI-Arc’s Kappe Library since 1987, and co-manager (with Reza Monahan) of the SCI-Arc Media Archive since 2012. His writing has appeared in a number of scholarly and popular journals.


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