AS AN ARTIST and a person, Jean-Marie Straub embodied the dialectic.
Rooted but stateless, he was born in re-Frenchified Alsace-Lorraine, grew up under Nazi occupation, fled liberated France to avoid serving in Algeria, touched down in Germany, settled in Italy, and died in Switzerland—a consummate European.
Central yet marginal, Straub came of age with the cineastes of the French New Wave and, with his life partner, Danièle Huillet, made his—or should we say their—earliest films in Munich, adjacent to the German Neue Kino. Their fantastically elliptical first feature, adapted from Billiards at Half-Past Nine by Nobel laureate Heinrich Böll, was prophetically titled Not Reconciled, or Only Violence Helps Where Violence Rules. Richard Roud saw the movie at the 1965 Berlin Film Festival: The audience, he wrote, “screamed and carried on, making the reception of L’avventura at Cannes seem like a triumph by comparison.” Still, he slipped it into the New York Film Festival on a bill with animations by Walerian Borowczyk and Robert Breer.
Straub-Huillet admired certain Cahiers du Cinéma deities (John Ford and, in the pair’s youth, even Nicholas Ray) but in their long career made only two movies that could remotely be considered commercial. Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968), for which they used extended takes and a fixed camera to record Bach’s music performed with period orchestration in real time and period drag, has the quality of an impossible documentary. (Class Relations, their second “commercial” film, made some fifteen years later, is a well-funded, relatively straightforward—and hence very strange—adaptation of Kafka’s Amerika.)
Chronicle was undoubtedly Straub-Huillet’s greatest hit. Is it too likable? The follow-up, Eyes Do Not Want to Close at All Times, or, Perhaps One Day Rome Will Allow Herself to Choose in Her Turn (1970), had costumed nonactors declaim Corneille’s seventeenth-century tragedy-in-verse Othon amid the hubbub of traffic-clogged contemporary Rome. Straub-Huillet marked time with History Lessons (1972), taken from Bertolt Brecht’s novel fragment The Business Affairs of Mr. Julius Caesar (also staged in Rome), then addressed Arnold Schoenberg’s unfinished opera to produce their stringent high-modernist masterpiece, Moses and Aaron (1975).
Straub-Huillet were a vanguard of two. The same year as Moses and Aaron, Peter Wollen bracketed them with post-’68 Jean-Luc Godard in his then-controversial essay “The Two Avant-Gardes,” published in Studio International. None of their films were considered for Anthology Film Archives’ Essential Cinema. (Committee member Peter Kubelka deemed them “anti-cinema.”) Too Early/Too Late did, however, have its New York premiere at the quasi-underground Collective for Living Cinema in 1982.
Straub had a certain truculence: “If we hadn’t learned how to make films, I would have planted bombs.”
Often photographed, like Brecht, chomping on a cigar, Straub had a certain truculence: “If we hadn’t learned how to make films, I would have planted bombs,” he once said. (Indeed, Moses and Aaron was provocatively dedicated to Holger Meins, a film student who joined the Red Army Faction and died in prison on a hunger strike.) Gilles Deleuze called Straub-Huillet (and Alain Resnais) “the greatest political filmmakers” in European cinema. “Yet,” as P. Adams Sitney pointed out in this magazine, “they have consistently explored radical strategies without operating under any illusions that formal radicalism has political efficacy.” Whether or not Straub-Huillet agreed with Sitney that their films lacked an intrinsic political dimension, they would have to respect his observation: Illusionism, after all, was their enemy.
Most of their movies adapt preexisting texts, ranging from a Mallarmé poem to a letter Friedrich Engels wrote to Karl Kautsky to graffiti found in a German post office. Hardly proposing a surrogate original, Straub-Huillet followed the trail blazed by Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951), documenting the atempt to fashion a movie from a text and somehow make that text material. Few filmmakers were more steadfast in their modernism or devotion to art.
The Straub-Huillet aesthetic was complemented by their near-fanatical veneration of Cézanne, like them an artist of landscapes (albeit one most happy to avoid the Paris Commune) whose canvases, like their movies, are as much physical objects as representations. This affinity was recognized early by the painters Manny Farber and Patricia Patterson, who wrote that Moses and Aaron demonstrated “an uncompromising concern for Thingness over illustration.”
Was this aesthetic founded on dialectical materialism? Almost absurdly, Straub-Huillet identified themselves as Communists, a fidelity increasingly quixotic as the twentieth century came to an end. Straub’s heartfelt final feature—made in 2014, eight years after Huillet’s death and combining material from the pair’s earlier work with a reading from André Malraux’s 1935 Days of Wrath—was called Communists. But what is this thing, “Communism”? If the Manifesto maintained that, in subjecting the countryside to the rule of the towns, the bourgeoisie rescued many from “the idiocy of rural life,” Straub-Huillet didn’t buy it. Rather, they celebrated peasant resiliency. In his highly personal New Left Review obituary, Jonathan Rosenbaum fondly referred to Straub as a “rube” (compared with Godard’s “city slicker”).
Beginning with the wonderfully titled From the Cloud to the Resistance (1978), their films were often naturalized texts, objects of meditation juxtaposed with bucolic vistas invisibly stained by historical trauma. Needless to say, this had a far different effect than the sylvan landscapes served up in Claude Lanzmann’s “artless” Shoah. However lovely to look at, Straub-Huillet’s late movies were less abrasive than tranquilizing. (Yet, writing this, I have the urge to revisit them all.)
Contemplation of beauty was cast as a militant act. Is that the same as thinking? Or is it more like praying? These film-objects are the most rarefied form of socialist realism. Back in the day, Straub, if not Huillet, infamously joked that they made films so that audiences would walk out. Was the unspoken, dialectical punch line “to make the Revolution”?
J. Hoberman is writing a book about underground movies and New York in the 1960s.