In 1988, the French-born directors Jean-Marie Straub and Daniéle Huillet hosted a conference at a Paris film school. Before the assembled crowd, they explained with the help of labeled diagrams why they had chosen to shoot a sequence for their film The Death of Empedocles (1986) in a particular way. The scene shows the title character, a heretical pre-Socratic philosopher, standing in an outdoor clearing and addressing a group of five Sicilian townspeople, including the two oligarchs responsible for his exile, who stand arranged in a straight row opposite the philosopher and his young disciple. At the start of the scene, the white-haired Empedocles is fixed in a tight medium shot, from mid-chest up, looking like a talking bust. Leaves and ferns flutter behind his head. As he delivers his speech, we watch him contort his lips to best expel each syllable:
Even as a boy my pious heart
Avoided you who soil all you touch;
My pious heart, intensely loving, clove
To sun and ether, all the messengers
Of our grand nature intimated from afar.
For surely even then I felt it, I feared,
That you would bend my heart’s free love
Of gods to some obnoxious servitude.
That I would treat all things as you treat them.
Begone! I cannot bear to face a man who
Abuses holy things as stock in trade.
When Straub and Huillet cut to a wider shot of Empedocles’ two main accusers standing side by side, they too seem frozen in space. All their energy is concentrated in their facial muscles as they articulate the text’s sharp consonants and rolling vowels. Watching these shots, what’s striking is the variety of movement Straub and Huillet have purged from their images—all the cinematic devices that have been “avoided” on the suspicion that they will “soil” the shot or “bend” it “to some obnoxious servitude.”
The scene is stiff for what should be an eruptive confrontation. What led them to shoot it this way? “There is a sightline,” the directors explained at the conference, “between Empedocles and Critais,” the leftmost man in the row opposite the philosopher. “If we had crossed it in order to film what was sometimes happening between Empedocles and [the three rightmost townspeople],” then the two accusers further left “would have been speaking of a place that no longer existed, of a space ‘off’ that was no longer respected, that was no longer the space . . . It was a cardinal rule not to cross this line.”
Over their fifty-year career, which lasted from their marriage in 1959 until Huillet’s death in 2006, Straub and Huillet gave themselves many “cardinal rules.” They took tremendous care to respect anything over which they might have control—the spaces they shot in, the voices they recorded, the texts they adapted, the actors they cast—and they spoke equally often of respecting the moviegoers who watched their films. Most commercial movies were crude devices for eking money out of browbeaten viewers—“abusing holy things as stock in trade”—and their own work was, to them, a brave resolve to “[cleave] to sun and ether”: to give their audiences the freedom they thought most films withheld. Their films can be thrilling purgatives, a vision of what the movies could look like cleared of anything lazy or complacent or pat. But they also suggest how the parameters set by respect—by the determination not to exploit—can restrict in their own way.
Huillet was born in Paris in 1936, three years after Straub’s birth in Alsace-Lorraine and four years before both of their home cities came under German occupation. By 1954, Straub was living in Paris and hoping to make a film about Bach that would give central attention to the composer’s wife and her writings; in the scholar Claudia Pummer’s uninflected telling of the young couple’s meeting, “[Straub] asked [Huillet] if she would help him write the script.” When Straub fled France in 1958 under threat of imprisonment for dodging the draft during the Algerian War, Huillet took turns hitchhiking with him through Germany and raising money for “the Bach film” in Paris. A year later, they married and settled in Munich. There they shot much of Machorka-Muff (1963) and Not Reconciled (1965), their first two films, both Heinrich Böll adaptations filmed in grim black-and-white and set in hotels, restaurants, and hideous concrete developments where ex-Nazis continued to circulate.
A new traveling retrospective of this exacting couple’s films—organized by MoMA’s Joshua Siegel and accompanied by a critical volume edited by Ted Fendt, as well as an exhaustive collection of the pair’s writings published by Sequence Press and an exhibition of their papers and film stills at the Miguel Abreu gallery—surveys everything they made together from those two movies on. It is a daunting body of work: seventeen features and exactly as many shorts, all adaptations or studies of plays, novels, operas, pieces of music, and works of art from their idiosyncratic personal canon. Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, which the couple finally funded after finishing Not Reconciled, was followed by an adaptation of the lesser-known Corneille play Othon, and then, after several other projects, by a staging of Schoenberg’s Moses and Aaron. The couple made two essay films about Cezanne, multiple versions of The Death of Empedocles, adaptations of unfinished works by Kafka and Brecht, and a film in which shots of rural villages are overlaid with a reading of two texts on peasant revolt by Friedrich Engels and the Egyptian political theorist Mahmoud Hussein. Some of these movies have storylines and protagonists; others, like the Bach and Cezanne films, are nonfiction studies of specific pieces of music or works of art. Since the death of his wife in 2006, Straub has finished over a dozen more movies, returning to the couple’s old textual sources (Corneille, Brecht) and adding some of his own (Dante, Montaigne).
Straub and Huillet considered over-dubbed sound, studio sets, and illusionistic cuts phony and cheap, but they praised filmmakers who used those devices particularly cannily.Tweet
Anecdotes swirl around Straub and Huillet. They resisted their financiers’ urges to cast Herbert von Karajan as the composer in Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, much of which consists of live musical performances shot in long unbroken takes, insisting instead on Gustav Leonhardt, a revered but less universally known pianist who had more experience playing the period instruments they’d taken pains to acquire for the shoot. On set, they preferred phrases like “please” and “thank you” to “action” and “cut.” They considered over-dubbed sound, studio sets, and illusionistic cuts phony and cheap, but they praised filmmakers—including Chaplin, Mizoguchi, and John Ford—who used those devices particularly cannily. According to the filmmaker and critic John Gianvito, Straub once proclaimed that most films were “made to keep [the masses] in their place, to violate them, or to fascinate them,” and boasted that his and Huillet’s own movies “give people the liberty to get up and leave.”
At every turn they strove for precision, to a degree that could seem either heroic or pedantic. Working on Class Relations (1984), their adaptation of Kafka’s Amerika, Huillet politely asked their subtitle translator to remove a “but” from one sentence because the word had been added to Kafka’s manuscript by Max Brod. In the editing room, as shown in the Portuguese director Pedro Costa’s loving documentary Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? (2001), they quarreled for hours over whether to include a half-frame more or less in a shot. No sound, movement, or rhythmic pause could be cut short for the sake of dramatic momentum, just as no illusion of spatial or temporal continuity could be kept at the expense of shortening a line of birdsong or a rustle of wind in the trees. “No need to assassinate the bird,” Huillet mumbled.
Stories like these have given Straub and Huillet a kind of fearsome allure for generations of younger directors dissatisfied with conventional filmmaking. Here were two filmmakers who managed to keep themselves immune to the movie industry’s pressures and fads, who held themselves to impractically high standards even when doing so meant running through film stock at a rate most producers would find unacceptable. Starting as early as the 1980s, some of their uncompromising methods and stylistic habits were taken up by a range of European filmmakers, including Costa and the couple’s friend and near-contemporary Harun Farocki. More recently, they’ve been embraced by a cluster of American independent filmmakers that includes Gianvito, the architect of the 2012 omnibus film Far from Afghanistan, and Fendt himself.
To these filmmakers, Straub and Huillet made it seem possible to shift the suspense usually found in a film’s action to technical matters you wouldn’t think capable of generating drama. Will Adreas von Rauch, the actor playing Empedocles, hit upon the right intonation for the last line of his closing speech? How much justice will Leonhardt do the difficult harpsichord passage from the Brandenburg Concerto that opens Anna Magdalena Bach? How well will the banker character in History Lessons enunciate Brecht’s tortuous monologues? “My film,” Straub wrote in an angry letter to an Italian TV programmer who’d had Othon dubbed,
depends precisely on things that cannot be reproduced—the incarnation of Corneille’s language in each character at every moment, the noise, the air, and the wind, and the effort that the actors make and the risks they take, like tightrope walkers, from one end to the other with long texts difficult to record live—in other words at the same time as the image: in perfect synchrony.
Most of Straub and Huillet’s films do contain images in which a shot’s live elements synchronize into something haunting and strange: a young man’s hand hovering by his side in close-up, a wolf crouching motionlessly next to a knife on a rocky hillock, a bare hand retrieving a fish from a crackling fireplace, a woman kneeling at the feet of another woman whose body the frame cuts off at the neck. And yet in other cases, very little in Straub and Huillet’s setups seems to have been risked or left to chance. When people appear together in these films, they’re often, disconcertingly, arrayed in rows—like the townspeople in Empedocles, or the bar patrons who stare down a visitor to a postwar Italian village in From the Cloud to the Resistance (1979)—or otherwise fixed at formal, awkward distances. In many shots it’s as if all movement has been relegated to the background, especially when the scene takes place in a sunlit forest, meadow or grove. Straub and Huillet gambled hopefully that a movie could derive much of its energy and interest from resonant voices, fluttering leaves, and well-placed patches of sunlight, as long as those elements were arranged with enough effort and care. Touchingly and a little pompously, Straub wished that audience members would watch the musicians in Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach “in the same spirit of wonder with which the first spectators of Lumière’s first films saw the leaves moving on the trees.”
Statements like these can make Straub and Huillet sound like hopeless aesthetes. Other claims of Straub’s—like his outburst in a 2001 interview that because of “where we’re at,” with “no alternatives,” the only “political cinema is the one that ends with saying: ‘sickle and hammer, cannons, cannons, dynamite!’”—make the couple come off as hotheaded anti-authoritarians. Their actual political commitments are harder to pin down. They presented all their extreme aesthetic choices as acts of defiance against vague hegemonic authorities, but they tended to discuss their politics only in cryptic sayings, such as that there is “no political film without morality . . . theology . . . [or] mysticism.” Their attitude toward Marxism was something like that of mystics to organized religion: they took what language and ideas they wanted from competing parties and schools without subscribing to any one.
In that same 2001 interview, which Fendt’s book includes in full, Straub gave an unusually extended statement of what he thought a political film should do:
A political film must remind people that we don’t live in “the best of all possible worlds” . . . and that the present time, stolen from us in the name of progress, is going by and is irreplaceable . . . that they are ransacking human feelings like they ransack the planet . . . We should make people feel that the price is too high, that the only thing worth defending is precisely the passing moment, that they should by no circumstances take flight into the future.
Precisely who is “ransacking human feelings” or stealing people’s time is unspecified, but it’s not clear that Straub would consider that question relevant. Why take the trouble to identify your enemies when you don’t believe in political progress, or when you can’t conceive of political engagement directed at the future as anything but “taking flight”?
Straub goes on to quote the saying by Charles Péguy that he and Huillet inscribed at the top of the script of Anna Magdalena Bach: “To make a revolution also means to put back into place things that are very ancient but forgotten.” The future, for them, was largely off-limits; visions of progress were pipe dreams or misleading advertisements. To the extent that they had a political project, it was oddly resigned. They gravitated toward serious, browbeaten, or defeated characters. Moses and Aaron (1973) opens with a dedication to the Red Army member Holger Meins, who died during a hunger strike in prison, and The Death of Empedocles ends just before the event in its title, which occurred, according to Diogenes Laërtius, when the exiled philosopher threw himself into Mount Etna.
The couple’s reluctance to participate in political struggles among defined parties with concrete goals kept them from making agitprop films, which Straub thought strong-armed already beleaguered viewers into staying put. (“If we can afford to hoarsen our own voice, you have no right to do it to people whose voice is already hoarse for other reasons.”) It led them to throw themselves into the work of getting things just right on set, which in turn encouraged them to keep up decades-long collaborations. Their association with the Teatro Francesca di Bartolo—a municipal theater company based in the small Tuscan town of Buti and made up partly of working-class actors from the region—produced some of their best movies, including the last film they made together, the Pavese adaptation These Encounters of Theirs (2005).
Straub and Huillet’s suspicion of any farsighted political activity seemed to force them into a narrow but particularly intense, even seductive engagement with whatever they filmed.Tweet
At times Straub and Huillet’s suspicion of any farsighted political activity seemed to force them into a narrow but particularly intense, even seductive engagement with whatever they filmed. According to the scholar Barton Byg, Huillet was once asked whether her films were “built on a strict system, based on renunciation.” “I hope not only that,” she replied. “I hope that one can feel sensuality and pleasure at the same time. Can sense the fragrance of things.” The shots that show a meadow brightening and dimming as the sun passes behind a cluster of clouds in The Death of Empedocles; the exhilarating joyride around the Place de la Bastille in Too Early, Too Late; the way the couple’s great cinematographer William Lubtchansky managed to soften his subject’s skin tones with golden shades of sunlight—these are pleasures that a more flexible and less hardworking pair of directors wouldn’t have been able to hit upon.
But there is something wrongheaded about the couple’s insistence that their primary political task was to “give people the liberty to get up and leave.” Their talk of “respecting the space” can be exasperating, as can be Huillet’s concern that they not “assassinate the bird” in their editing, and Pummer’s contention that “Straub-Huillet’s understanding of materialism . . . is deeply grounded in the belief that the medium of film can be entrusted with the task of recording, showing and revealing while the filmmaker steps back to allow viewers to see for themselves.” No interesting filmmaker has ever “stepped back” and turned down the job of “showing and revealing” things. Nor did Straub and Huillet, although they sometimes claimed to.
Where Pummer sees an admirable refusal not to bully the viewer, it’s also possible to see a kind of unwillingness on Straub and Huillet’s part to dirty their hands, to engage openly in the sorts of deceptions and elisions and selective modifications movies depend on to generate their energy and life. How can it be that cutting a passage of birdsong short, overdubbing a soundtrack, or moving the camera through a peripheral sightline constitutes a serious offense to a moviegoer’s freedom of imagination, whereas refusing to allow spontaneous human interactions into one’s movies does not? Considering what startling and majestic images they often produced, Straub and Huillet are two of the rare filmmakers you wish had been more willing to coerce, manipulate, and deceive you than they were.