Jean-Marie Straub (1933–2022)


Jean-Marie Straub, the French filmmaker who spent the past six decades making intractable modernist cinema, died on the 20th November 2022 at the age of 88. His final years were spent in Rolle, Switzerland, a small town on the shores of Lake Geneva, and the same place in which Jean-Luc Godard, that other doyen of challenging European cinema, lived until his death earlier this year. Most of Straub’s career was spent making films in collaboration with his wife, Danièle Huillet, until her own death in 2006, and the pair, sometimes referred to as the Straubs (particularly in the earlier responses to their work) but better known as Straub–Huillet, together made work that was rigorous in the extreme: the polar opposite of the contemporary monopolisation of film culture by Disney-owned studios recycling the same intellectual property over and over again. Perhaps the most forbidding and difficult of the generation of European filmmakers that began producing work in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Straub and Huillet remained committed to a cinematic articulation of political resistance, making 33 films together before Huillet’s death, after which Straub directed a further 24. Their films were almost all adaptations of classical literary or musical texts, often from the history of radical European aesthetics: Kafka, Pavese, Mallarmé, Hölderlin, Schönberg, Vittorini.

After growing up in the French city of Metz, in Lorraine, not far from the German border, Straub moved, with Huillet, to Germany and then Italy in the 1950s to avoid being conscripted into the French army during the Algerian war –– a conflict to which he returned in one of his final works, the two-minute short titled La Guerre Algérie! (2014). Straub rarely made films reflecting so directly on his own life, but his experience of displacement and emigration fed into his trenchant critique of both various nationalisms and the spurious elimination of borders within the European Union. The films Straub and Huillet made throughout their career were filmed in a number of languages, and remained antagonistic towards the global homogeneity demanded by capitalism. As Straub responded in 2001 to a questionnaire about globalisation in Cahiers du cinéma:

Globalisation is only one of many episodes of caca-pipitalisme. Filmmakers who shoot films in English even though it is not their language are lackeys of American imperialism: they are making films for the market. We need to make specific films, for specific languages, in specific places, about specific questions. … We are the only European filmmakers, filmmakers of European nations. We make films in Italian as well as in French and in German. Who else can say that?

The difficulty of their films became notorious, and likely off-putting to many. But experience that confronts the viewer is no mere contrarianism. Rather, it situates Straub and Huillet in a particular tradition of radical art. In an essay from 1961, the late modernist British poet (and Straub’s near contemporary) J. H. Prynne wrote that “the world becomes intelligible to us … by virtue of the fact that it resists our activities in various ways.” In Prynne’s account, difficulty is the subjective and internal counterpart to an encounter with the resistance of the external world. As the poet tells us: “we derive our most powerful and sustaining sense of the world, in all its complex variousness” from this interplay of objective resistance and the subjective experience of difficulty. This is certainly my experience of watching the work of Straub and Huillet. Their films are resistant to interpretation, but demand that the attempt is made; they challenge or ignore the cinematic conventions that we take for granted, demanding instead a different kind of attention from the viewer.

My first encounter with their work came on a Thursday evening in late January 2007 when, at a season of their films at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, I saw Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968), their first feature, and an adaptation of correspondence between Johann Sebastian Bach and his second wife. There, I found myself confronted with what felt like a new degree of cinematic asceticism: an austere and, on first impression, hostile film, in which the camera never moved while filming various scenes of musicians in period dress performed Bach’s music, accompanied by a female voiceover, speaking in German at an astonishing speed — only about half of which seemed to be translated for the subtitles. I had recently immersed myself in the work of Robert Bresson (thanks to another season at the Pacific Film Archive), so I assumed that I already had a barometer for stylistic constraint and stringency. But this was as if Diary of a Country Priest, already an extraordinarily taut work, had been stripped of anything that could be considered even remotely extraneous. I was enthralled. It was an extremely challenging, antagonistic work, resistant to my attention.

Straub and Huillet spent 14 years trying to make this film, in fits and starts, struggling to obtain funding, travelling in Germany to collect material (and so Straub could avoid his military service), and in the meantime making their first two shorts, Machorka-Muff (1963) and Not Reconciled: Only Violence Helps Where Violence Reigns (1965), both adaptation of texts by Heinrich Böll. Originally, Straub had tried to persuade Bresson, one of his cinematic heroes, to make the Bach film, based on the script he’d written with advice from Böll, but Bresson refused, telling Straub and Huillet that they were the only people who could make the film. Intransigent from the beginning, Straub was fond of retelling the possibly apocryphal story that he was offered full funding on the Bach film by the German producer Atze Brauner, on the condition that he cast the enormously famous conductor Herbert von Karajan as Bach. Straub refused, rejecting the compromise with the popular demands of the film industry that this would imply, and ultimately casting in the lead role the musician and Bach scholar Gustav Leonhardt, a specialist in performance on the period instruments which were used in the film. Rather than taking the easy option of full funding with distasteful conditions attached, Straub and Huillet cobbled together the money piecemeal, with donations from friends, well-wishers, sympathetic artists (including François Truffaut and Alexander Kluge), as well as the general public and German television stations. The film was dedicated to the struggle of the Vit Cng against American imperialism, as well as Jacques Rivette and Jean-Luc Godard, among others.

That screening of Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach from 2017 was immediately followed by a 42-minute documentary about Straub and Huillet made by Manfred Blank, titled How Merrily I Shall Laugh: Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub on Their Film Class Relations (1984). This film opens with a typical Straubian shot: a camera slowly pans 360º around a landscape, and then starts panning back again. The landscape is in Italy, near the home of Straub and Huillet; the shot takes about four minutes, while an aria, “Wie will ich lustig lauchen”, from Bach’s secular cantata Zerreißet, zersprenget, zertrümmert die Gruft [Tear apart, shatter, smash the tomb] plays. The music is an important intertext for Straub’s work; the lyrics, based on a libretto by Picander, translate to “How merrily I will laugh / When everything is chaos! / When even the cliff is insecure / And roofs split open. / How merrily I will laugh!’ — appropriate for a filmmaker who was fond of making incendiary remarks such as, “If we hadn’t learned how to make films, I would have planted bombs”, and who sent a message to the Venice Film Festival in 2006, where he and Huillet were due to receive an award, saying that “so long as there’s American imperialistic capitalism, there’ll never be enough terrorists in the world”, which resulted in a call by American director Cameron Crowe to revoke the festival’s recognition.

The aria and the opening shot of Blank’s film are followed by a lengthy interview with Straub and Huillet on the balcony of their house. Straub, red-haired, chain-smoking small cigars, speaking rapid German with a Lorrainian accent, expounds at length about his approach to political aesthetics. Huillet sits on the floor next to him, her eyes often closed, offering the occasional less vituperative comment. They discuss their film Klassenverhältnisse (1984), an adaptation of Franz Kafka’s unfinished novel, Amerika, which they had recently finished shooting but not yet finished editing. I hadn’t seen Klassenverhältnisse when I saw this documentary, but by the time I saw it three weeks later, after a few other screenings of their films, including the astonishing landscape film Too Early/Too Late, I was a convert. This is the kind of filmmaking I had been looking for without knowing it: a deeply radical, challenging, cinema of resistance which made strenuous demands of the viewer.

The Blank film is one of a number of documentaries about Straub and Huillet’s filmmaking process made by younger cinéastes; filmmakers such as Harun Farocki (Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet at Work on Franz Kafka’s ‘Amerika, 1983) and Pedro Costa (Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?, 2001) have both made behind-the-scenes films interviewing Straub and Huillet or documenting their unforgiving and exacting rehearsals. To those unfamiliar with their style — and, in fact, even to those who are familiar with it — Straub and Huillet’s films can be jarring, not least because of the vocal delivery, which is not ‘actorly’ in the way we might expect. Farocki’s film is particularly revealing. It shows the enormous labour that went into each film; the painstaking and meticulous repetition of dialogue until the non-professional actors diction was sufficiently alienated and unnatural. It’s not just the delivery of the words — their pacing, tone, timbre, pitch, rhythm, and so on — that is carefully directed in these films, but the respiration of the performer too: the performer’s body is recognised as the source of breath and voice, the place where the text of the film, which originated in the realm of ideas, merges with the sensible and immediate fact of the material body that is speaking.   

Bresson sought to strip back the artifice involved in “acting” in an effort to create a style of performance which recovers ‘the automatism of real life’, as he put it in Notes on Cinematography. Straub and Huillet took much from this approach but pushed it further, developing a strategy of recitation, both in the sense of the repetition of a memorised text, and in the sense of a re-citation, a revisiting of some source material from a different historical juncture. Part of the experience of difficulty that comes from watching these films is our encounter with the resistance of the historical text to cinematic adaptation; rather than erasing the marks of this resistance in the service of producing glossy period dramas, Straub and Huillet emphasise the historical distance between film and text as a way of making it clear that the history of political resistance is the history of specific people resisting in specific places at specific times. Likewise, the films insist on geographical specificity — the landscapes which are given so much screen time and attention are, like Cézanne’s (another important figure for Straub and Huillet, who made two films about the painter), are somehow both too close to us and too far away. They are the sites of real historical meaning, conflict and struggle, but we are kept at arms’ length, struggling to decipher these histories.

Straub’s final film, La France contre les robots (2020), seems to return to the beginning of his career. It is an adaptation of a text from 1945 written by Georges Bernanos — who Bresson too adapted — and dedicated again to Jean-Luc Godard. The film is ten minutes long and shows a man (played by Christophe Clavert) who walks along the shore of Lake Geneva, reciting a text. We see the same action twice, first at dusk and then in daylight. The camera is at a diagonal angle to the man, a few steps behind, so his face is obscured; it follows his footsteps — it’s unusual for Straub to grant the camera this much movement, but the repetition of the scene combined with the camera’s wobbly movement seems to echoes the movement of the water on the lake. The final line of film, and the last word of Straub’s career, is as timely a warning as any he gave us: “A world gained for technology is lost for liberty.”

Andrew Key is a writer and film critic. He is the author of a novel, Ross Hall (Grand Iota, 2022) and his essays have appeared in numerous publications. He writes a weekly Substack called Roland Barfs Film Diary