One of the most indelible, DNA-altering film-watching experiences that I have had occurred during my first year as an undergraduate at a little-known public research university near Dayton, Ohio called Wright State, and it involved the cinema of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. I was in entry-level film history class, which was open to any and all comers. On the first day, there were over 100 souls in the classroom. This was autumn of 1999, so the presiding enthusiasms were for Quentin Tarantino and The Matrix, with the cults of David Fincher and Christopher Nolan not yet decipherable on the horizon. Early on in the syllabus, the professor, Dr. William Lafferty, who recently retired after three decades of service in the trenches of academia, gave us our first essay assignment, in what retrospectively seems like a deliberate attempt to cull the herd. We were to write about Straub-Huillet’s Geschichtsunterricht (History Lessons, 1972), which we watched in class on a 16mm print of indifferent quality from since-defunct New Yorker Films, champions of Straub-Huillet in the U.S. The movie interpolates three long fixed shots taken from the backseat of an Alfa Romeo in which a young man tears through modern Roman streets papered with pro-Communist posters with scenes of the same young man interviewing actors in ancient Roman garb on the subject of the rise of Julius Caesar. Those of us who stuck around would discover that the text came from Bertolt Brecht’s unfinished novel The Business Affairs of Mr. Julius Caesar – I say ‘those of us who stuck around’ because after Geschichtsunterricht, fully two-thirds of the would-be film majors dropped the class. It was only many years later that I encountered the following quote from Straub, usually the spokesman of the duo: ‘We make our films so that audiences can walk out of them.’
Straub liked the name Geschichtsunterricht so much that he re-used it as the subtitle of a 2013 short, and ‘History Lessons’ might be the term best suited to describe the totality of Straub-Huillet’s project – what academic Claudia Pummer has described as their ‘general technique of confronting the modern-contemporary with the classical-historical,’ as evident in the juxtaposition of toga-play and a souped-up Alfa, employed towards the end of identifying revolutionary struggle as a constant which stands outside of time. Pummer’s career-spanning essay on Straub-Huillet anchors a new English-language volume on the couple in the Vienna Film Museum’s ‘FilmmuseumSynemaPublikationen’ series, edited by filmmaker/translator/projectionist Ted Fendt, which has appeared in conjunction with a veritable bonanza of Straub-Huillet-related activity. On 6 May, New York’s Museum of Modern Art began a Straub-Huillet retrospective that will subsequently travel through North America and beyond. At the end of this month Sequence Press will release Writings, collecting Straub’s critical efforts of the 1950s, correspondences, shooting blueprints, and annotated scripts. Finally, through 19 June, Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York, which opened in 2006 with the North American premiere of Straub-Huillet’s Cézanne. Dialogue avec Joachim Gasquet (1989), is displaying a collection of some of the very same Straub-Huillet ephemera, alongside film enlargements and a looped projection of Geschichtsunterricht.
The film, made in Rome by French co-directors with a German cast and a largely Italian crew, exemplifies the trans-European internationalism of Straub-Huillet – as Straub himself proclaimed, ‘We are the only European filmmakers, filmmakers of European nations.’ The couple, indissolubly loyal to their art and to one another, first met in 1954 at a film class at the Lycée Voltaire in Paris. Huillet was a native of the capitol, while Straub hailed from Metz, the first city of Lorraine, whose schizophrenic identity and contested status, squabbled over by France and Germany in the years between 1871 and 1944, is central to Lothringen! (Lorraine) Straub-Huillet’s 1994 free ‘adaptation’ of a novella by native son Maurice Barrès. (Straub would make two more Barrès shorts on his own, after Huillet’s death in 2006.)
The cinematic translation or transcription of texts – poems, letters, fragments, musical scores – is key to Straub-Huillet’s filmmaking practice, which began not in France but in Munich, where the couple landed in 1958 after Straub was faced with prison for his refusal to serve in the Algerian War. (They always put their money where their mouths were politically, and Straub has also crammed his foot in his gob more than a few times.) Straub-Huillet’s first movies, the 18-minute Machorka-Muff (1963) and short feature Not Reconciled (1965), were both adaptations of works by the West German novelist Heinrich Böll, unusual in their filmography for both their relatively classical approach to narrative filmmaking – albeit heavily coloured by the austere influence of Robert Bresson – and in the fact of their drawing on the work of a living author, only repeated with their 1982 En rachâchant, from a short story by Marguerite Duras. More often Straub-Huillet would be found looking further back into history for sources, as with their nearest thing to a breakthrough, The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968), a radically-unorthodox approach to the biopic which tells the story of Anna and her famous husband Johann Sebastian (Christiane Lang and Dutch pianist Gustav Leonhardt) through merely observing them at work. The Chronicle… also offers a portrait of the couple as a kind of creatively-symbiotic unit striving together against strong odds for the good of the art, and as such might be taken as Straub-Huillet’s reflection on their own practice, carried out as an uncompromising united front against the commercial cinema.
While Straub, as evident in existing interviews, was the more outgoing half of the couple, it was Huillet who did most of the listening, planning the tempo of the text recitations after making reams of notes during extensive rehearsals with their often-but-not-exclusively-non-professional performers and supervising the direct-sound recordings. While Straub presided on-set, Huillet was organizer and effective producer, and her strict economies helped sustain the duo’s stubborn independence and their epic shooting schedules, typically running dozens of takes of every line-reading, and sometimes using the abundance of material to assemble alternative versions of a single film. (They also famously gifted a roll of black leader to a young Jim Jarmusch, who spliced it in to make the ‘breaks’ in his 1984 Stranger Than Paradise.)
It would be a mistake to give the impression that Chronicle of Anna Magdelena Bach is more of a typical Straub-Huillet work than the Böll adaptations, as repeated visits to MoMA’s retrospective make one thing abundantly clear – despite the tendency to reduce their films to a uniform asceticism, there is no such thing as a typical Straub-Huillet film. Moses und Aron (1975), their adaptation of an unfinished Arnold Schoenberg opera of the same title, is marked by strikingly emphatic camera movements, and even contains sequences that play like a parody of Cecil B. DeMille decadence. Klassenverhältnisse (Class Relations, 1984), a free interpretation of Kafka’s Amerika, shot in gorgeous, sculptural black-and-white by frequent Jacques Rivette collaborator William Lubtchansky, was followed by Der Tod des Empedokles (1987), a by-the-book adaptation of the first version of an unfinished work by the German romantic poet Friedrich Höldrelin, a film of plein air and natural light that, with its figural groupings and straightforward close-ups, is not so far from a D.W. Griffith two-reeler in shooting style. Empedokles then inaugurated a short cycle of Höldrelin adaptations, or adaptations of adaptations of adaptations like Die Antigone des Sophokles nach der Hölderlinschen Übertragung für die Bühne bearbeitet von Brecht 1948 (Suhrkamp Verlag) (1992), which is Straub-Huillet’s interpretation of Brecht’s re-editing of Höldrelin’s translation of Sophocles’s Antigone, performed with significantly more stand-and-deliver dramatic fire than Empedokles.
Not everyone will feel compelled to investigate these fine distinctions. Walkouts still abound at MoMA, for there are few bodies of work that so exemplify Public Enemy’s ‘Who gives a fuck about what they like?’ as Straub-Huillet’s does, but uninitiated viewers who meet the rigour of their films with an alert mind have the opportunity to discover an entirely new dimension of cinema, and a sensuality completely divorced from sensory over-saturation, what Manny Farber and Patricia Patterson referred to as ‘an uncompromising concern for Thingness over illustration.’ Only the strong survive Straub-Huillet – and I wouldn’t have shirked the test for all the world.