I'm drawn to Straub-Huillet’s usage of direct quotations rather than adapting or interpreting original material for a film. To me this is, among other things, a very straightforward and concrete way of highlighting that people are much less original than they are often assumed to be. (I think that Danièle Huillet once said this, but she was certainly not the first one.) It might be worth being reminded of this, especially today, in a time where we see and seek constant innovation and renewal everywhere while nothing really changes at the core. But for Straub-Huillet, quotation is also about something else. Every film of theirs is a documentation of their loving relationship to a preexisting text, artwork, or artist. The films are more genuinely about the work of the other and less about the couple's so-called vision. Quotation, to Straub-Huillet, is an act of respect, one that brings to their work an ethical dimension.
—Claudia Pummer (scholar – U.S.A.)
It is with pleasure that I sit down to write about Straub-Huillet’s films with the sensation that I have nothing to say. This is partly because the films speak for themselves. In Fortini/Cani (1976), the Italian author Franco Fortini sits outside his central Italian home and reads aloud from his memoir while the camera pans across hillsides imbued with memories of war. In The Death of Empedocles (1986) and Black Sin (1988), performers dressed in ancient Greek garb stand in sunlit fields reciting the playwright Friedrich Hölderlin’s words of hope for achieving a communist utopia. In History Lessons (1972) – an adaptation of an unfinished novel by Bertolt Brecht—interviews with actors playing ancient Roman leaders are interspersed with drives taken through a congested modern-day city, suggesting, centuries later, what the legacy of Rome has become. In the recent short film For Renato (2015)—whose origins are to be found, half a century earlier, in the fellow Rome-set film Othon (1969)—director Jean-Marie Straub recites a birthday message for the great cinematographer Renato Berta over a photograph taken on the set of their first collaboration.
Straub was born in 1933 in the French city of Metz and continues his work as a filmmaker today; Danièle Huillet, his wife and longtime collaborator, was born in Paris in 1936 and passed away in her birth country in 2006 after realizing more than thirty films with him. Although Straub-Huillet’s films inevitably drew from preexisting pieces of writing, they saw their work as being closer to oral storytelling than to literature. The couple made films in the French, German, and Italian languages with the goal of sharing stories with viewers from any country. The films were themselves about the act of passing messages along; their narratives began in past eras, and reached across time to speak directly with the present.
For many years, Straub-Huillet’s films have proven difficult to see in public settings, with public discussion lacking accordingly. Last year marked a watershed for the filmmakers’ visibility, particularly in the English language. A valuable exhibition called Jean-Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet: Films and Their Sites—consisting of production and promotional materials related to the films, as well as stills and video clips, all presented elegantly with ample breathing room—was mounted at New York’s Miguel Abreu Gallery in an expanded continuation of previous international iterations. Two new English-language books about Straub-Huillet’s films were published, with Ted Fendt’s critical anthology Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet and Sally Shafto’s gathering of texts by Straub-Huillet under the name of Writings elucidating the films in complementary fashion.
Most crucial to actually seeing the films were the myriad screenings that took place around the world, including complete retrospectives in Paris (at the Centre Pompidou) and in Madrid (at the Museo Reina Sofia). The North American touring retrospective that began last May at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) marked the largest such showcase that Straub-Huillet’s films had ever received on the continent, and it additionally resulted in several of the films being made available in new English-language-subtitled screening copies (a process discussed in Fendt’s book) and in all of the films being put into circulation in North America (many of them for the first time). The North American tour (organized by Thomas Beard) continues throughout the next several months, with its most elaborated stops including the Pacific Film Archive (ongoing through May 14th) and the TIFF Bell Lightbox (March 3rd-April 2nd).
Critics have often blamed Straub-Huillet for their films’ lack of exposure by deriding the works as needlessly dense. I have never felt this sensation. What has occurred to me instead is that the deliberate, rigorous precision that the filmmakers demand from every element in their films (whether it be a simple piece of clothing, an uninflected delivery of a line of dialogue, or a clean cut from one sunlit outdoor locale to another), at its best, provokes a lightness of spirit. To my mind, what the filmmakers are often really being punished for with such criticisms is their politics—not just their offscreen defenses of terrorism against State apparatuses, but their entire steadfast willingness to remain outside of the contemporary mainstream, including a constant, absolute refusal to capitulate to commercial filmmaking standards and resources at the expense of their practice. In an essay in Fendt’s volume, the filmmaker, teacher, and curator John Gianvito writes of Straub-Huillet’s work that “One comes away with the distinct impression that across their entire body of work there isn’t a frame out of place, or a decision in pre-production, production, or post-production that wasn’t thoroughly considered or that they now regret. How many of us, if any, can say that about our work?”
At the time of the MoMA screenings last year, I gathered tributes to Straub-Huillet from filmmakers, programmers, teachers, and writers who had, in various ways, been inspired by them. The body of tributes found below can be considered as both a continuation and an expansion of that Brooklyn Magazine piece. It contains words from older and younger filmmakers working both in narrative and in experimental traditions, as well as from others who have known Straub-Huillet and their work. The tributes by Freddy Buache and Luc Moullet were graciously translated from French into English by Ted Fendt, himself a filmmaker who has helped subtitle several of Straub’s recent films. Those by Júlio Bressane and Julián d’Angiolillo were translated by me into English from Portuguese and from Spanish, respectively. The tributes are all original to this piece, save for Bressane’s, which was originally published in longer form in his book Fotodrama (2005) and which appears here in English for the first time with his consent.
A brief tribute from me before turning to them: As the world moves in an increasingly reactionary direction, the call from Straub-Huillet’s cinema to unite against tyranny is as relevant as it has ever been.
Júlio Bressane (filmmaker – Brazil):
A great poet, Haroldo de Campos, noted that the Baroque is not a matter of origin, but of vertigo. Bach, Baroque splendor, receives from Straub a forceful intersemiotic translation. The film Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1967) is characterized by the manner in which music and the pictorial image alternate. In contrast to the multiplicity of images (musical notes), arabesques, and contortions of a camera that could explore all of its resources of comprehension and apprehension of light, Straub finds counterpoint between obfuscating Baroque music and a fixed frame rendered with baroque rigor through a lack of camera movement, exceeding dryness, maximum concentration, maximum reduction, extremist, explosive.
The fixed frame with its rigorous composition, held in absolute listening, is radical intersemiotic translation, poetic, suggestive, making musical notes pass in sequence together with allusive shadows, luminous frames with many grains. And, in each grain, a mark of light. In each mark of light, life…pure duration transforming into melody…
The movement generates a form, the form is set in motion, the purely intellectual relationship is tinged with emotion. The image of music, continually taken back up, will always be the source, rising vividly, of this film.
Luc Moullet (filmmaker – France):
I met Jean-Marie Straub for the first time around April 1955 at the Cinémathèque Française, coming out of a screening of a film by Abel Gance, Captain Fracasse (1943). It was a rather strange meeting: Seeing me very often at many different screenings of great films defended by Cahiers du cinéma, he had deduced that I was one the who had sent several texts to the magazine—texts that remained unpublished, notably on Johnny Guitar (1954) and on Cukor's A Star is Born (1954). At that time, Straub had had access to the Cahiers offices before he was kicked out without even having been published. Truffaut, who was then the Cahiers' key figure, was a bit scared by his radicalism and of having him as a competitor. When I started writing for Cahiers, I avoided being seen with Jean-Marie if Truffaut was coming into a theater. I knew it wouldn't look good. Factional feuds...
Beginning in 1956, he was always at movie theaters and film clubs accompanied by Danièle Huillet. Later, I completely lost touch with them. And for a reason: From 1958 to 1971 Straub, exiled in Germany, would have been arrested for desertion if he had come back to France. I saw them again in 1966 in Liège where we were presenting our films—me with Brigitte and Brigitte (1966), and him with Not Reconciled (1965)—and later in Italy.
Straub has helped me a lot at different times. In 1956, I had a rather theoretical conception of cinema, and he taught me the difference between 16mm and 35mm. He supported me a lot, encouraging the Rotterdam International Film Festival to show my films and German TV to buy them (namely, Anatomy of a Relationship  and Genesis of a Meal ). He really promoted my work.
In addition, I remember being involved several times with helping get The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach off the ground. I wrote to the film's future producer Gian Vittorio Baldi to explain to him the importance of shooting in black-and-white at a time when television was beginning to require color.
I don't know why Straub defended my films, which, after all, are not really like his. Maybe because of a shared refusal for artifices and very fragmented découpage, the more frequent use of wider establishing shots at the expense of tighter shots, and the search for a degree zero.
Their film that amazed me the most was their adaptation of Othon. This film contains several superimposed layers that I would qualify as horizontal and seemingly in contradiction with one another.
First layer: The one based on the text of Corneille's 1664 tragedy – very classical, coherent, and political – filmed without any cuts.
Second layer: The one resulting from how the text is treated. The principle was to convey in 90 minutes a play that is performed in 2 hours and 15 minutes (a naive desire for a normal film, maybe to meet the needs of a traditional release, which this film, well outside the norms, did not have access to). The result is far too dense, too fast, for contemporary viewers like myself who cannot manage to understand the meaning of the dialogue (a position not intended by Corneille). Especially since most people, even if they know Corneille’s Le Cid (1618), have never read or seen Othon. And Straub's audience is particularly sensitive to the verse, much more so than to the meaning; a kind of music that Corneille may not have wanted (but who knows?) and that enriches the text.
The third layer is the one imposed by the setting, Rome in 1969, with monuments that are sometimes in ruins and the rumbling of cars. This provides a judgment on the course of history: This is how the famous Roman Empire has ended up.
The fourth layer rests on the costumes from 68 A.D. The presence of cars would normally suggest the modern clothing that has more or less become common practice in adaptations of Racine’s Britannicus (1669) and Berenice (1670) and which should have been necessary in what is clearly a very cheap production. But the period costumes offer the advantage of further underlining the past-present dialectic.
The fifth layer is the choice of actors who speak in a manner that is not neutral and is neither classical French nor Latin. There is an explosive mix of American, Argentinian, German, and modern Roman accents – additional distance, an a-temporal universalization, and a new dialectical value in this absurd confrontation.
Other examples of superimpositions can be found later, notably in Fortini/Cani, with its combination at the same time of a written text that the viewer has to be able to read and a very different spoken text. The competition of the two media—the rapidity of the speaking or the reading time—is intensified, for those who don't understand Italian, by the superimposition, over the written text, of subtitles translating what is being said.
It is hard to go further than the Straubs in the accumulation of superimposed layers.
They also made recourse to “relay” layers that could be considered vertical, with the succession [in 1981’s Too Early/Too Late], one after the other, of the Egyptian reality, swarming with people, and the French countryside where we don't see anyone.
Keith Sanborn (filmmaker – U.S.A.):
I first heard of Straub and Huillet in one of Peter Wollen’s polemics on the “two avant-gardes”: On one side, the uncultivated, individualist, idealist, imperialist American Visionary Film avant-garde, and on the other, the sophisticated, socially-conscious and (state-subsidized) Marxist European avant-garde. Wollen offered Straub-Huillet and Godard as models, and tried to align them with his own practice with Laura Mulvey, flourishing a putatively advanced critique of gender politics on their carte-de-visite. I found Wollen and Mulvey’s films dull compared to those of fellow British Marxists LeGrice and Gidal—Vertovian formalists that they were—and negligible compared to Connor, Frampton, Snow, Sharits, Conrad. While the Wollen polemic was effective against Brakhage, it was essentially a watered-down English Public School semiotic cure for a disease long since eradicated.
Like many of the subjects of the European/American polemics of the era, the work of Straub and Huillet was not to be seen in New York in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It had been distributed in the U.K., but not in the U.S. It had a present absence, like the works of Debord, Warhol, and Markopoulos, withdrawn by the time that I was truly coming of age as a film viewer and filmmaker.
The first Straub-Huillet film that I saw was Too Early/Too Late, at the Collective for Living Cinema. After the build-up, I was disappointed. The film didn’t seem to be political in any interesting way and wasn’t particularly innovative formally. The Godardian 360-degree pan was, for me, not a moral fact. Michael Snow had already taken matters further. I was intrigued, though, by their single-mindedness, bordering on obtuseness. The work seemed indifferent to its audience and polemicized in the mode of Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil (One Plus One) (1968), but without the Rolling Stones as compensatory pleasure. Their opaque dual-authorship also marked a clear departure from the model of a single heroic (male) author, or collaboration in a declarative mode.
In the 1980s, a major Straub-Huillet retrospective was finally held at the Public Theater. I saw every film and began to understand the range of qualities they valued—and what I might value—as well as their debt to Brecht. I particularly liked their Schoenberg and Mallarmé films and History Lessons, their adaptation of Brecht’s The Business Affairs of Mr. Julius Caesar (1937-39): Cinematically and dramatically adept, rigorously eschewing amateurism, without succumbing to “professionalism.”
As a younger filmmaker, I was dissatisfied with the closure of the canon of American avant-garde masters and with canons generally. And I was interested in the disruptions that Debord, in particular, could offer to the role of language in film. Or, at least what I could infer from his Oeuvres cinématographiques completes (1978). While it was clear that Straub-Huillet’s interest in Brecht distinguished them from Debord, it was also clear that, like him, they fearlessly explored language and politics in film. Although I did not always find their sense of cinematic form convincing, I found their relentless experimentation in their attack on dramatic and cinematic form compelling and intriguing. By the time that Class Relations (1983) appeared, I was completely hooked.
Miguel Abreu and Katherine Pickard (Miguel Abreu Gallery / Sequence Press – Cuba / U.S.A.):
Miguel was a film and video student at CalArts in the early 1990s and was introduced to Straub-Huillet’s films by Thom Andersen, who was teaching there. One of the unique qualities of the films is how they are built through distinct and palpable layers, for instance: The adapted texts, the recitations of the texts by actors, the frame, the usage of direct sound, the duration of the shots, the locations and their histories. As such, the films offer themselves particularly well to a kind of presentation of the layers as discrete materials in their raw form. We displayed in the Miguel Abreu Gallery exhibition Films and Their Sites annotated scripts from which the actors rehearse and speak, shooting diagrams, selected enlarged stills of different shots here, and sequences of consecutive frames there. Each element on view, or each strata of the production, was displayed as a material layer of the whole. We hoped that, in walking through the exhibition, the viewer would not only see, but also feel the construction of these film objects.
Marcelo Felix (filmmaker – Portugal):
There's a very suggestive moment in Straub and Huillet's filmography that reminds the viewer of the mysterious nature of time – which we may extend to its cinematographic perception. That moment belongs to the dialogue between Oedipus and Tiresias (played by Walter Pardini and by Ennio Lauricella), one of the segments in Straub and Huillet's From the Clouds to the Resistance (1978), their first adaptation of Cesare Pavese's Dialogues with Leucó (1947). As the two men talk about the gods during a long wagon journey, Tiresias mentions a different notion of time, a primeval state when time was not yet born. He won't say it, but we may recall that, within the mythology the viewer is revisiting, such a state existed before the joint creation by Chronos and Ananke (Necessity): time, made real from the cosmic egg. I always relate Tiresias' later statement—that everything can happen on Earth and that nothing is unusual—to my first experience, as a viewer, of the traveling shot we are witnessing: The camera behind the characters' backs, slowly advancing through the dirt road, with the sequence duration comprising elliptical cuts.
In the first segment of the film, the nymph Nephele (Olimpia Carlisi) warns Ixion (Guido Lombardi) about a new law that they should obey. No longer could they mingle freely because a stronger hand now imposed limits to Man. Nephele's attempt to persuade her stubborn protégé is given in dissonant shot-countershot, with no frame shared by both characters. The conventions of the dominant film grammar are rendered strange—and new again—even if this segment's dynamics and duration seems befitting of the prevalent view of speed and succession as tools for proper filmic narration.
Except that you could subvert that. And Huillet and Straub were never short of a sense of filmic space-time that confronted necessity. Or, at least, confronted film grammar habits. From the Clouds to the Resistance begins with an establishing shot that feels like a glimpse. Yet its duration should be perceived in terms of musical meaning. In the cinema of Straub and Huillet, resistance to a hegemonic visual and aural language originates in rhythm—from music and poetry, which materialize in speech and in images. Their work with the actors' voices, the words flowing in unusual cadence, is part of the inherent musicality of their films. Another part stems from their camera work, with motion and stillness defining tempo and movements, from the prologue and overture of Othon to the finale of A Visit to the Louvre (2004). From a time before time to our time with no time, the sensual films of Straub and Huillet endlessly challenge our permanent numbness towards the possibilities of cinema.
Julián d’Angiolillo (filmmaker – Argentina):
An instant from These Encounters of Theirs (2005):
- Questo con gli uomini non succede. - É vero. Tutto quello che toccano diventa tempo. Diventa azione.
The gods abandon their conversation for now. Silence exists as they remain quiet. The absence of their voices allows for listening deeply to the ambient sounds of this forest located in Buti, a region of Tuscany. The gods reveal themselves for what they are, regional actors dressed in loose-fitting clothes, nearly as though they had left a gypsy caravan. At the moment of this take, they have melted into the landscape and left no trace of will or action, becoming an unbreakable block in Nature of image and sound as though belonging to tombs from the Pleistocene age or else to shelters for shepherds. They could stay there forever, holding the minimal gesture required, at least until the cut or the end of the reel.
A few steps behind the point of register there also wait patiently, contemplating the image, a woman and a man. Will they be as comfortable as are the gods in the frame? There is doubtlessly something installed in the machine, even if that something lasts as briefly as does a pause or a rest taken during a walk. The frontality of Nature as expressed is simple and rooted, even in the shadows turning their backs. There is no exploration of technique or effort to construct a narrative film space that would in any way impose itself upon the locale. There is no violence involved here in the sacred duty of scouting. There is no reversal of fortune or other storytelling tricks—in all aspects, what seems to be deployed is an ethics involved in treating a site that aligns with the cadences of primitive pilgrimages. The delicate balance of branches and debris on display emerges in tune with the breathing of the gods, and it builds its own stage in a theater of roots, creepers, and fallen tree trunks. There are no urban stains or footprints left traumatically by human civilization, only human figures seated or standing upright like the standing stones called menhirs. And, of course, there are the words.
Freddy Buache (curator – Switzerland):
As founder and director of the Swiss Cinémathèque in Laussane, in 1965 I was able to screen Not Reconciled (undistributed in Swiss theaters!). There to present it were Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. Immediately, a current of understanding passed very strongly between us. This impression can be understood, moreover, less for my identification with the aesthetic of the work of these two then-unknown filmmakers (who confirmed nevertheless the wonderful return of German cinema ten years after the Second World War) than for our passion, in front of contemporary societies, for a mutual feeling—already closed, it would seem, to any illusions—for noteworthy excesses of an intellectual (or simply human) order because of an economy and manner of thinking that, for us, delivered all creations to narrow, constantly reduced limits of everyone's freedom. A conquering technology that supported finance was reducing our social space. In this regard, the notion of alienation expressed by a young Marx brought us close together.
During that same period, I was also co-director of the Locarno Film Festival, which allowed me to program Machorka-Muff (1963) and The Bridegroom, the Actress, and the Pimp (1968) for an audience that included a student who had not yet become a professional, Renato Berta, and who would become the couple's close collaborator by beginning as camera assistant for Othon before later acquiring an international reputation. With each new production, we had a print of their films made and continued to have near-familial relations regarding their existence and their reflections, always made on the edge of misery.
Their mise-en-scène and subsequent editing are done far outside the methods (those that we call “classical”) of industrial art. They are determined in their work by a constant truthfulness in the face of Nature's sudden changes and the revelations of history: A wounded bird, the wind in the bushes, and a flowing stream join the memories of peasants or of Greek gods, the imagination or philosophy of Brecht, Hölderlin, Mallarmé, and others still with the support of events recorded without effects, without decorative pleasure and dishonesty. Cézanne influences them at every moment.
After Danièle's death in 2006, Jean-Marie's life as a widower was not easy. Then he had an accident: A motorbike knocked him down in Paris. He needed to stay many months in the hospital, during which an admirer who had been close to them and their work for a long time dedicated herself totally to saving him, which she continues to do. Barbara Ulrich, honorable analyst of Montaigne (which is no contradiction with Straub and Huillet, to the contrary), now tends to him in Rolle, the Swiss town where Jean-Luc Godard has resided for over thirty years.
Jeanne Liotta (filmmaker – U.S.A.):
I was prodded by a proximity to the American West. It was where I found myself; I made no claims to it, no promises, no sympathies. Like all landscapes, it was rich with its own bumps and curves and histories over time, yet for me it was a flat silent presence through which I moved with trepidation. Occasionally I filmed a specific location with a fixed Bolex, keeping attention at a maximum/expression to a minimum, but I was at a loss. I suspected that I was merely turning the landscape into an image, but to what end?
Fast-forward to the 2011 New York Film Festival, and to the Straub-Huillet program containing Lothringen! (1994) and An Heir (2011), two films focused on Straub’s hometown of Metz in the Alsace-Lorraine region as their historical subject, using texts from the early 1900s written by Maurice Barres. Watching a Straub-Huillet film is often an experience of cinematic clarity. The distinct separation of formal elements of cinema and the concert of those parts, each extremely precise and with its own rhythmic space – this is indeed what I came for, but I had no idea that I would be handed a magic shining key to my own film problem, a eureka lesson in approaching that Colorado landscape which was vexing me in the extreme.
Scene: An actress in a period costume stands with her back to us, on a bridge over a river winding though the landscape. We hear the diegetic sounds of the location underneath a literary text delivered in voiceover, at the conclusion of which the actress looks over her shoulder and addresses us directly, then turns her back to the camera, and looks out again into the landscape.
Truly I count this as one of my most cinematically shocking moments, where in an instant I felt this actress and I both contemplating that landscape simultaneously. This shift to a synchronous sensation is emphasized by the timing of her gesture and speech—she appears to be responding to the voice, which means that while standing on the bridge she is listening to the natural sounds of the landscape she is part of, but also to the speaking voice. She takes on an awareness of herself as the subject in this moment, enters the discussion, and then takes her place once again inside the image, turning her back on us as she pleases.
This was a visceral and dimensional moment for me, akin to time-traveling, where the present moment we were in as spectators watching the film was the very same as the present moment they were in while filming, listening to a text from 100 years earlier describing then-present events taking place in the very same location. The landscape came alive to me in these films as a function of time, as a container for memory, as finite divided and occupied, past and present. The human figure came alive to me with the full agency of a supernatural being able to move between past and present at will.
A person certainly can learn a lot at the movies. Soon after this experience, I was able to finish my own short film. Gratitude.
[An excerpt from Jeanne Liotta's 2013 film Property is viewable here]
More information about Straub-Huillet’s films, including screening dates, can be found at the website http://www.straub-huillet.com. Thanks go to all members of the Straubian International for their continuing work.