December 7, 2022

The Stubborn, Enduring Vision of Jean-Marie Straub

Jean-Marie Straub, one of the great filmmakers of the French New Wave and one of the most secretly powerful influences in the modern cinema, died on Sunday, at the age of eighty-nine, in Rolle, Switzerland. (Rolle is the same small town where Jean-Luc Godard, who died in September, lived since the nineteen-seventies.) Straub’s work and his life illuminated the very idea of what it meant to be a part of the French New Wave, even at some geographical distance; he both created and personified a passionate, radical critique of the world of movies and of the world at large. He’s one of the least known of great filmmakers—he never had a hit or sought one. Yet he was one of the most original filmmakers of his time, a sort of Marxist Éric Rohmer, a word-centered director whose style is instantly recognizable and whose methods are as distinctive as his films. His influence on the present-day art film is as subtle as it is deep and widespread.

Straub was born in Metz, in 1933—which is to say, in Lorraine, as in Alsace-Lorraine, a part of France that had been a longtime flash point of war between France and Germany. Germany reannexed and reoccupied Alsace-Lorraine in 1940, until it returned to France after the Second World War. Straub grew up there during the war and stayed through his early twenties. As a filmmaker, he was an internationalist: he also lived and made films in Germany, Italy, and Switzerland, and conceptualized a cinema that transcended national boundaries by way of intellectual ideals, political resistance, and the development of cinematic forms and practices that incarnated those ideals. Relatively few of Straub’s films were made in France, and few of them are in French. And yet his life’s work is nonetheless inseparable from the personal connections and the shared ambitions of his French contemporaries and peers—and, for that matter, from their French elders, predecessors, and cinematic heroes.

A precocious movie lover and an aspiring critic, Straub often visited Paris in the early fifties, and met Godard, Jacques Rivette, and François Truffaut at the Cinémathèque. During that same period, he ran a film club in Metz, bringing in the young Cahiers critic Truffaut and the magazine’s co-founder André Bazin to introduce films. Straub moved to Paris in 1954, where he met a fellow cinephile, Danièle Huillet, and they quickly became a couple. She was rejected from film school; he got in but was kicked out in three weeks. Straub worked as an assistant on other people’s films, including a short by Rivette and, decisively, Robert Bresson’s “A Man Escaped,” from 1956. Straub and Huillet had written a script for a film about Johann Sebastian Bach; he offered it to Bresson, who suggested that the couple make it themselves. In 1958, Straub, refusing to serve in the French military during the Algerian War, went into exile in Germany; Huillet followed him, they married, and they tried and failed to raise money to make the Bach film. While in Germany, they met the writer Heinrich Böll and adapted his short story “Bonn Diary” for their first short film, “Machorka-Muff,” as well as his great novel “Billiards at Half-Past Nine” for their first feature, “Not Reconciled,” in 1965—one of the most original and daring of all first features.

In “Not Reconciled,” Huillet and Straub boiled the hefty, multigenerational novel down to a compressed and fragmentary fifty-five-minute film. With abrupt juxtapositions replacing guided flashbacks, the film sets out one family’s private experiences of German history, from the early twentieth century to the present, with a particular emphasis on the local, personal brutality of Nazis during the Hitler regime and on how easily many of them had been rehabilitated and even honored in the postwar years. The film’s subtitle, “Only Violence Helps Where Violence Reigns,” reflects the details of Böll’s narrative as well as how the filmmakers shift the story’s focus, transforming its literary allusiveness into an abrupt, declarative materialism—albeit one that’s illuminated with images of an enduring symbolic power. (Richard Roud—one of the founders of the New York Film Festival, where “Not Reconciled” was screened, in 1965—was present at the movie’s première at the Berlin Film Festival; in his 1972 book “Straub,” he describes the Berlin audience’s “unbelievably hostile reaction” to the movie.)

Person at a desk with zig zag carpet behind them in JeanMarie Straub's Not Reconciled

A still from “Not Reconciled.”Photograph courtesy Grasshopper Film

The crucial link between Straub and the core of young Cahiers critics who became French New Wave directors is historicism: the influence of classic films on their work and the adaptation of classical movie styles for their own films, as modernistic or complex as they may be. There is a vital tradition of literature-based, language-centric French cinema, seen in the work of Sacha Guitry, Jean Cocteau, Marguerite Duras, Bresson, and Rohmer—filmmakers who made images based on literary sources and infused with literary language. Straub was the youngest master of this lineage.

In particular, Straub’s cinema is based on that of Bresson, in ways that reflect an ingenious reinterpretation of his work. The first, most conspicuous connection is the rigorous austerity of the images. Like Bresson, Straub understands ideas physically, and the intense restraint and spareness of the images distill ideas to corporeal facts. This concept is an inherently ideological one. For Bresson, whose films are inspired by his Catholic faith, it’s a way of filming the incarnation of divinity in human life, the Word made flesh. For Straub, the austerity of his images is a means for rendering the abstractions of class conflict and political power in direct dramatic terms, for the physical expression and manifestation of complex historical realities—the flesh made word. Straub and Huillet’s methods emphasized the bodily presences of their talking subjects and reconceived those presences in terms of the history and the intellectual forces that shaped them. (The couple’s fanatical reliance on direct sound, on what’s recorded while filming, is a key element in their cinematic materialism.)

A second connection to Bresson is that Straub and Huillet based most of their films on preëxisting literary or historical texts. Moreover, they often built their own relationship to those texts—the sheer practical fact of adaptation, and the connection of the texts to the historical moment of the filming—into their movies. Third, they reimagined and refashioned the notion of cinematic performance. Like Bresson, Straub and Huillet worked mostly with nonprofessional actors. Bresson devised a distinctive method for directing them, filming dozens of takes in order to strip them of dramatic expression; Straub wasn’t averse to dramatic expression per se, only to its conventional forms and uses. He often rehearsed extensively with his nonprofessionals, achieving results that are as theatrically precise as they are starkly, fiercely expressive.

Straub and Huillet were finally able to make their Bach film, “The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach,” in Germany, in 1967, during politically turbulent times—and, though the film is a high-culture, historical costume drama, it seethes with the defiant spirit of the time. Anna Magdalena Bach was played by Christiane Lang, a singer whom Straub had seen in Paris. Johann Sebastian Bach was played by the eminent harpsichordist and organist Gustav Leonhardt, other musicians in Bach’s circle were played by other real-life musicians (such as Nikolaus Harnoncourt and August Wenzinger), and their performances of Bach’s music were filmed in uninterrupted long takes that, in effect, turned the fictional bio-pic of Bach and his family life into a documentary about historically informed performance of Bach’s music. Yet the filmmakers’ vision of Bach’s life, centered on the institutional hostility that he faced from stiff-necked religious and civic authorities, is an exemplary tale of aesthetic idealism as an enduring form of political resistance. The film is a work of artistic archeology, recovering Bach’s radical intransigence from the genteel luxuries of the culture industry.

Classical music and classical culture in general were at the center of Straub and Huillet’s films—and were put to similarly confrontational uses throughout their careers. They made a movie of Arnold Schoenberg’s unfinished opera “Moses and Aaron” in 1975, filming on location in Italy. The story’s conflict between the tongue-tied prophet and his demagogic brother served as an allegory for the severely oppositional cinema of Straub and Huillet against the solid-gold delusions of commercial filmmaking. Two decades later, they made an indoor, studio-bound version of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone comic opera “Von Heute auf Morgen,” which they turned into a repudiation of modern urban bourgeois immorality. In 1969, they filmed Corneille’s 1664 play “Othon,” with the film critic Adriano Aprà in the lead role (Straub played a role, too), doing so in a way that even more radically links the dramatic fiction to nonfiction filmmaking, staging the historical tragedy of ancient Rome on location in the modern city. The film’s elaborate title, “Eyes Do Not Want to Close at All Times, or, Perhaps One Day Rome Will Allow Herself to Choose in Her Turn,” suggests the absurdity of court intrigues as a substitute for democratic rule—and that such an absurdity was indeed taking place in contemporary Italy under the guise of bourgeois democracy.

Source link