by Martin Walsh
Cut, no. 4, 1974, pp. 12-18
New North American filmmakers and critics have approached political cinema with the radically conceived theoretical foundations that may be seen in a number of their European counterparts. This difference of approach is currently foregrounded in the hostility toward the films of Frenchman Jean-Marie Straub.(1) His works are rarely exhibited, even in festivals, and yet they have acquired a formidable reputation for opacity and tedium. The reasons for this response are not difficult to comprehend. They lie within the boundaries of a debate over the constitutive elements of political art, a debate which has, even today, barely emerged into the public forum in North America. That is to say, since the Cubist painters, since Eisenstein and Vertov in the cinema, since Meyerhold and Brecht in the theater, the central problematic of radical art has been the extent to which the form of the art work must be radical, in support of its content. It is suggested that a work of art can only be radical if its articulating structure is as subversive of conventional forms as its “content” is critical of the dominant ideology.
This attitude is, clearly, not at one with our experience of much “political” film thought in the United States. For the “radical” films that are most widely acclaimed—BATTLE OF ALGIERS, Z, THE BALLAD OF JOE HILL—are all characterized by the very devices whose validity Straub (and Godard) consistently deny. Thus, Pontecorvo, Costa-Gravas and Widerberg construct their various discourses around the emotional susceptibilities of the viewer, through the melodramatic conventions of identification procedures (antipathy toward the things of Z, empathy for the nobly humane Joe Hill). In contrast, Straub has rejected this approach, attacking instead through the intellectual paths suggested by a thorough and critical examination of the conventional assumptions of both film industry and audience.
Where many U.S. radicals appear to operate on the level of substituting anti-bourgeois, proletarian, and materialist content for the bourgeois, imperialist, and capitalist content of the Hollywood product, a few of their European counterparts can be seen working out of a more generalized notion of revolt. For these European directors, the Hollywood film is now perceived as a global form: “Brezhnev/Mosfilm = Nixon/Paramount,” as Godard puts it. And Hollywood visual and narrative style is merely the most recent manifestation of a style of aesthetic expression commonly known as illusionism, which has dominated Western artistic practice for several hundred years. The perspectival oil painting and the 19th Century novel in particular established certain codes which came to be accepted as prerequisite for filmic expression. In painting, emphasis on perspective (subsequently crucial also for photographic aesthetics) led to the erasure of awareness of the painting as a two-dimensional surface, and gave rise to the notion of transparency, of painting as a “window on the world” , of painting as a self-effacing means of representation. And during the 19th Century, the novel elaborated the notion of psychological insight as the motivating center of a narrative in which continuous linearity is largely determined, by the sequence of cause and effect relationships.
In the first twenty years or so of its life, the cinema gradually adapted to conform to these traditional codes of expression. This process of adaptation is particularly clear in D.W. Griffith’s work between 1908 and 1913, in which we find, for instance, an increasing dependence on the apparent depth of the image to “prove” its “reality” . Or, again, Hollywood developed an editing style which wouldn't rupture either the spectator’s identification with the characters on the screen, or the spectatorial sense of the narrative’s continuity. Thus the “180 degree rule” and the use of “field and reverse” cutting become entrenched as elements of the way of making cinematic narratives.(2)
Brecht’s initial elaboration of his theories of epic theater, and the slightly earlier work of Eisenstein and Vertov, together form the first prong of a politically motivated attack on this “illusionist” tradition. According to Brecht (and subsequently to Walter Benjamin), the radical work or art must oppose the illusionist mode at every level. Thus, the means of expression are itself called into question. Because the “means of expression” are ideologically determined, it is no longer sufficient to place a new “content” within the old structures of expression. Instead, the signifying system itself must be attacked, in order to overthrow the basis upon which the dominant ideological message rests. This procedure constitutes the crux of Godard’s work, particularly since 1968 (as Peter Wollen has incisively demonstrated in AFTERIMAGE no. 4), and it lies similarly embedded in the films of Jean-Marie Straub. Much of Straub’s work may be elucidated in terms of a systematic “deconstruction” of the old forms of cinematic expression.
One film in which the notion of “deconstruction” may be seen with particularly clarity is Straub’s EYES DO NOT WANT TO CLOSE AT ALL TIMES, OR PERHAPS ONE DAY ROME WILL PERMIT HERSELF TO CHOOSE IN HER TURN, usually referred to as OTHON (1970, 83 minutes). The basis of the film is a performance of Corneille’s play, Othon. But it is a performance which integrates the circumstances of that performance, and the process of its transformation into film, into its totality as an aesthetic object. That is to say, an illusionist director would have simply created an historical melodrama, an autonomous world into which we would be transported for the duration of the film.
In contrast, Straub commences his film by presenting only a rear view of the actors, concentrating our attention on Rome’s rush hour traffic in the background. He juxtaposes the ancient text with a modern Roman setting; the context of this performance is established through the sight and sound of modern vehicles. Then the camera moves in to the actors who deliver their lines rapidly, in a kind of expressive monotone. It seems monotone because each character/ actor hardly varies his style or pace of delivery, expressive because each monotone differs from the others and suggests certain formalized relationships vis-à-vis the other characters. For instance, Galba, the old emperor, always paces his speech very slowly. This dignity emphasizes his position at the head of his social hierarchy. The message is clear, but the signifier of that message is equally so, in its formalized conception. Straub does not try to present either speech or gesture as naturalistic. Rather, he heightens their formalization, thus conforming to Brecht’s dictum:
Perhaps the most radical aspect of Straub’s OTHON, however, is his use of cutting and framing, both of which are designed in opposition to the illusionist codes of representation. They serve to eliminate the possibility of any identification with the characters. Frequently cuts are made apparently arbitrarily, instead of conforming to some psychological demand. On other occasions, Straub violates the 180 degree rule, emphasizing the shot’s materiality rather than its transparency. The camera, in an illusionist film, is subordinated to the central dramatic characters’ movements. It pans to follow their motion, or it moves to a close up to record moments of “intensity” . Straub’s camera never pans to follow movement, but follows a logic of its own. That logic is devoted to the articulation of the material space in which the action takes place. The play is not the central discourse, which the images illustrate in a servile manner. In this connection, Noel Burch recently observed,
OTHON’s opening shot, which contains modern houses and the ruins on the Palatine Hill but no people, hints at the dislocation between “image track” and “sound track” that is to recur through the film. For instance, Straub often refrains from giving us an establishing shot at the beginning of a sequence. Thus we don't know who is being spoken to or even, on occasion, who is speaking until the end of the sequence.
This decentralization of the actors is constant through the film, both in their frequent partial framing, and in Straub’s use of the “empty” frame.(4) Where the illusionist film centers its lead actors in the frame, Straub does not. In the sequence by the fountain, Vinius enter and is initially seen only from the waist down, until he sits by Plautine. When the camera subsequently shifts in on Plautine, Vinius is bisected by the left side of the screen— precisely the opposite of what the laws of “good photography” allow. (Similarly, the sound of the fountain is allowed to dominate the soundtrack, partially displacing the conventional center of aural attention, the text of the play.) And where the illusionist film cuts when a character exits from the frame, in order to expedite the progress of the narrative, Straub frequently lets his camera rest for twenty or thirty seconds on the “empty” screen. Thus, the materiality of the space in which the characters operate is reasserted. Further—and this is essential to the practical aesthetic success of Straub’s project, as opposed to the veracity of his theoretical intentions—these “empty” spaces take on a rhythmic function and become a mode of punctuation, since their most emphatic occurrences coincide with the end of an Act in Corneille’s text. Indeed, this rhythmic aspect is virtually impossible to perceive in the film’s subtitled prints. The viewer devotes so much time to reading, that the aural music of Corneille’s verse, which is magnificently highlighted by its formalized delivery, passes by almost unnoticed.
Inevitably, new ways of thinking are more difficult to adapt to than simply “new contents” expressed through the same fundamental method of expression as the “old content.” And that Straub’s films are difficult remains unquestionable. But the hostility that has greeted them is due rather to the audience’s lack of a critical framework within which to situate them, than it is to any mindless incompetence on Straub’s part. Straub’s films are certainly not populist in any sense, but the fact that they appeal only to a small audience is not, surely, a critical stigma. (Nor is it an automatic accolade.) For what then of Dreyer, Snow, post-68 Godard—or of Stockhausen, Cage, Reich, Varèse, in music?
What we have to accept as a given at this point is the idea that significant political activity (as well as aesthetic activity) can take place on the level of intellectual theory, even though this may result in a comparatively rarified practice. This obviously involves a broadening of the commonly held idea that politics is a pragmatic activity directed toward social manipulation. And here Godard’s distinction between “making a political film” and “making a film politically” is of crucial importance. For, as Roland Barthes remarked in regard to Brecht,
“Making a film politically” becomes, for Godard, daring “to know where one is, and where one has come from, to know one’s place in the process of production in order then to change it ... to know that filmmaking is a secondary activity, a small screw in the revolution.” (6)
And of course Godard’s distinction applies equally to viewing films. Just as there is no guarantee that we view political films politically, so we may view non-political films in a political manner, as Chuck Kleinhans demonstrated in Jump Cut no. 2, in his article on EVEL KNIEVEL and THE LAST AMERICAN HERO.
Straub’s films are not merely complexly conceived in themselves, they demand considerable mental activity on the part of the audience. Like Brecht, Straub will not allow us to passively consume works of art. We are not being fed entertainment, we are being invited to reflect on and examine what we are witnessing. As Peter Wollen remarked a propos of WIND FROM THE EAST, we ask, “What is this film for” , rather than merely internal questions such as, “What is going to happen next?” In order to gain anything from viewing a film by Straub, the viewer is forced to work at the production of meaning. In the illusionist mode, we are invited to suspend our disbelief for the duration of the work. Straub’s radical conception of film creation presupposes our critical intelligence’s being brought to bear constantly upon what we are viewing. In a sense, it is a process of co-creation between Straub and his audience. There is no trace of paternalistic condescension: he feeds us no easy answers.
In the demands he makes on his audience, in his rigorous analysis of the syntax of his medium of expression, as well as in his broad notion of what constitutes political activity, Straub is clearly very close to the spirit of Godard. Indeed we may say that in many respects Straub’s work parallels Godard’s continuing investigation of the potential strengths and limitations of the film medium. The two directors have expressed their mutual admiration (Godard helped finance THE CHRONICLE OF ANNA MAGDALENA BACH (1968, 93 minutes).
But in artistic temperament and moral sensibility, Straub recalls the work of Rossellini: in both, we might cite reflection, analysis, documentarism as their core qualities. Both refuse to manipulate or exploit their material for emotional ends. In each, it is the precise integrity of the director’s analytic powers that renders his work political, in its profoundest, moral sense: political in the manner they assume a responsibility to their subject matter. This responsibility is succinctly (and amusingly) suggested by the anecdote of Rossellini’s berating his cameraman for removing a boulder from the foreground of a landscape they were filming, saying that if nature put it there, art has no business removing it. Similarly André Bazin wrote of Rossellini,
“Man himself is just one fact among others, to whom no pride of place should be given a priori.” (7)
Bazin is pointing to a sensibility we find recurring in Straub’s films, in such things as his insistence on using direct sound rather than post-synchronization, and his refusal to type” actors according to conventions that demand “good” characters be handsome, “bad” ones visibly meretricious, and so on.
This latter refusal was in part responsible for the hostility provoked by his first film, MACHORKA-MUFF (1963, 17 minutes). Adapted from Heinrich Böll’s magazine story, “Bonn Diary” , it told of the visit of Colonel Machorka-Muff to Bonn to visit his mistress. He also wanted to clear the name of General Hurlanger-Hiss, accused of retreating in battle after losing only 8,500 men: Hitler decreed that 12,300 men was the requisite number to justify retreat. Machorka-Muff is promoted to General and lays the cornerstone of the “College of Military Memories” (shades of Franju’s HOTEL DES INVALIDES). He takes this occasion to establish that Hurlanger-Hiss in fact lost 14,700 men before retreating. The next day he marries his mistress, after her priest has assured her that since she is Protestant, her seven previous marriages don't count. On their honeymoon, news arrives that the new Military, Academy is under verbal fire from the opposition. However, Machorka-Muff and his old army friends have the majority in Parliament, and to allay any further concern, his aristocratic wife assures him that her family has never been successfully opposed.
Straub has made it clear that, of all his films, this was one of the most explicitly political in intention:
“MACHORKA-MUFF is the story of a rape, the rape of a country on which an army has been imposed, a country which would have been happier without one.” (8)
“The reason I wanted to make a film about it at once was precisely my first strong political feelings, as I was still a student in Strasbourg, and which I still had. That was my first bout of political rage—exactly this story of the European defense community, i.e., the fact that Germany had been rearmed—the story of a rape. That is to say—the only country in Europe which, after a certain Napoleon, the first gangster in the series, had the chance to be free. This chance was destroyed. I know for a fact that in Hamburg people threw stones at the first uniforms, i.e., people didn't want them, they had had enough of it.” (9)
Straub’s protest against rearmament was predictably ill received by the right in Germany, while the leftist critics, agreeing with his sentiments, objected to the style of his presentation. They felt that Machorka-Muff had not been sufficiently characterized as a militarist. He did not look sufficiently “evil.” One presumes that the model these critics looked towards was that was that of Eisenstein, whose coarsely satiric delineation of the tsar’s sycophantic forces in OCTOBER or STRIKE set the mainstream example of “political” film’s typage of actors. Straub displays little sympathy for this essentially expressionistic tradition, preferring to create a visual environment that is “correct” in every possible detail. Thus he refuses to conform to a convention that decrees that evil men look evil. No individual can personify the qualities inherent in our reading of the collective unit, the Military.
Straub, then, ignores the potential for a vituperative caricature of “the Military mind.” His portrait of Machorka-Muff centers not so much upon interpreting the general’s personality, as upon an agglomeration of documentary detail, seizing on elements of Machorka-Muff’s environment that tell us far more about the mentality of postwar Germany than a caricatured presentation of the man could have implied. Straub’s documentary mode establishes the context of individual actions with devastating precision. There is a profusion of tray bearing servants throughout the film. Their movements are always measured, even mechanical, but never sycophantic. Impersonality is the keynote. The servants have no direct contact with anyone, everything passing through the intermediary of the white-covered tray. They are objects, rather than humans, to be summoned at the snap of two fingers. The notion of servitude runs through the film in other respects, too. Inn becomes Machorka-Muff’s servant, pouring his tea, holding his coat. A workman places the cornerstone that Machorka-Muff purports to be laying. And, as a long newspaper montage makes clear, the church is at pains to be the lackey of the militarists: “Jesus objected not to the soldier’s profession, but the whores,” shouts a headline. It is up to the audience to pick up the irony here—Christ forgave adultery, but in fact was crucified by a military governor.
These various “services” are never obsequiously performed however. It is the cold impersonality of proceedings, the cool efficiency, and glassy crispness, detached from any personalized context, that betrays the moral inadequacies of “the Military.” Machorka-Muff’s relation ship with Inn is equally passionless; he initially has difficulty’ making contact with her, he thinks about phoning, but doesn't, and then when she phones him, the message is cryptic, enigmatic. The nearest they come to physical passion is Machorka-Muff’s formal peck at the back of her hand. And Straub’s handling of the final scene in. which Inn assures her husband that no one has ever successfully opposed her family, again reveals their lack of any moral dimension whatsoever: Inn’s statement is delivered with unannounced aplomb, upon which the screen goes black and the film is over. The very flatness, abruptness of the ending drains any emotional juice, from the statement. We are left to consider the words themselves, in cold objectivity. No interpretive phrasing or reflection is allowed to modulate the hardness of the words themselves, with their barrenly aristocratic ethos.
The revelation and critique of Machorka-Muff’s ideology is accomplished through the accumulation of documentary detail, and its subtle sharpening by Straub’s precise use of both camera and soundtrack. Thus a snap of the fingers to summon a waiter is transformed into a moment symbolizing the spiritual essence of an authoritarian world. Machorka-Muff’s stepping down at the close of his dedication speech becomes not merely an end, but a moment of crystallization. Straub’s camera is low, looking up at Machorka-Muff. When he steps down, the frame is empty—just the whiteness of the sky remains. We are presented with a visual and emotional vacuum, a void that is underpinned by the audio incursion of the wittily lugubrious band, grinding out its dirge. The laying of the cornerstone that follows is similarly visualized in its barest essentials. A single take, from a high-angled camera, contains within the frame the cornerstone, Machorka-Muff, and a workman. The workman lays mortar along the bricks. Then he lifts the stone slab and places it on top of the mortar. (The workman’s diligence is set in counterpoint to the rigid Machorka-Muff’s inactivity). Machorka-Muff ritualistically taps the slab with a hammer, three times. The ceremony is complete, and we are told that inside the cornerstone is secreted a photograph of Hurlanger-Hiss, and one of his epaulets. There are no fawning crowds, no impressive officials, or celebratory overtones. Straub’s visualization is minimalist and documentary, rather than dramatic. And this is precisely its virtue. Pushed in this direction through his experience with, and admiration for Bresson (he had been his assistant on UN CONDAMNÉ À MORT S'EST ECHAPPÉ in 1956), Straub believes in the necessity of spareness, eliminating non-essentials, in order to penetrate a situation’s core. The cornerstone sequence’s very emptiness testifies to its spiritual essence: the evacuation of humanity, the near obscenity of the mucilaginous mortar, the obsessively formalistic tapping of the slab, the fetishism inherent in preserving the photo and epaulet through incarceration—all these details form Straub’s critique of Machorka-Muff’s ideology. It his documentarism’s revelatory capacity that, constitutes Straub’s political commentary.
In MACHORKA-MUFF, Straub’s emphasis on “the necessity of spareness” is not so much a radical innovation as it is a modification of the classical strategy of “form creating content. That is, his frames’ emptiness and impersonality testifies to his characters’ vacuity. His style “proves” his theme. But his subsequent films raise more complex problems. An ascetic aesthetic has never been a touchstone of European art. However, cinema does contain exponents of the doctrine in both Dreyer and Bresson. Both these directors have consistently worked in an intensely reflective manner. And this manner requires, as Paul Schrader puts it,
“sacrifice of the vicarious enjoyments that cinema seems uniquely able to provide, empathy for character, plot, and fast movement.” (10)
The purpose of this sacrifice is to express “the Transcendent on film” , and Richard Roud has suggested that Straub’s films be seen in the context of this endeavor. There is, however, a crucial difference between the austerity of Bresson, and that of Straub. Bresson pares away the non-essentials in order to enable the viewers to feel their way to the heart of the film. His end is epiphanous, transcendental. Straub’s austerity is functional. It forces the audience to think. For Straub, conscious mental activity is a prerequisite of understanding.
In taking this position, he clearly stands in opposition to the mainstream of cinema’s evolution. The conventional film denies the eye’s responsibility to the mind. This filmic technique is devoted to the total creation and sustaining of illusion, in the course of which the director attempts to make the viewer forget the camera’s omnipresence and manipulation of one’s perspective. Emotional identification, in which the spectator associates with a character and thus vicariously enters the world of the film, is another staple of the “illusionist” tradition.
Straub rejects any attempt to anaesthetize the viewer’s mind. He refuses to make concessions to his audience’s expectations. We are never allowed to identify with the characters that inhabit his films. Our eyes are not glutted by sweeping camera movements or cluttered frames. We cannot enter into his worlds, but we may reflect upon them. His style’s “spareness” functions as an invitation to reflection, to analysis. Straub’s later films, in particular, create spaces in which, deliberately, nothing happens. They offer spaces in which the eye and mind are invited to interact.
Straub’s rejection of conventional narrative forms has been explicit right from the opening titles of MACHORKA-MUFF, which state that the film is, “an abstract visual dream, not a story.”
Although MACHORKA-MUFF has a story at its base, Straub’s presentation, as we have seen, focuses on a second, analytic level of diegesis. Both levels are apparent in the opening scenes, in which we are given no means by which to orient ourselves to the narrative. A shot of a telephone, a pan along a city skyline at night, a man sleeping. These are followed by the eerie pomposity of three bowing statues, which are then revealed as being in the form of Machorka-Muff. It is the epic unveiling of his ego—thus stating Straub’s intention in the film.
These shots are succeeded by a shot of Machorka-Muff’s shaving before a mirror, while the commentary intones (in Machorka-Muff’s voice), “a typical capital-city dream.” This line pinpoints the film’s dialectical method. There is a disjunction between Machorka-Muff’s perception of himself, and our perception of him. In this instance, the dream he refers to is the one we have just witnessed. But the image we confront as we hear the line “typical capital city dream” is of him shaving. Straub’s framing presents it almost as a commercial for an electric razor, such is its confident glossiness. In Straub’s terms, Machorka-Muff is himself the dream, the illusion of moral rectitude that must be revealed in all its falsehood.
The dialectical relation that exists between image and sound frequently establishes Straub’s critical stance. There is, for instance, the early scene in the hotel lounge where Machorka-Muff chats with Heffling (a subordinate, who is not distinguished by a double-barreled name, symbolically). Heffling leaves, and Straub in a comparative long-shot, observes Machorka-Muff walk with him to the door. The setting (the harshest of deco design), the lighting, the characters’ movements, all express a rigid, formal propriety that Straub brilliantly undercuts through Machorka-Muff’s musing on the soundtrack: “Maybe I'll have an affair with his wife. You never know what Cupid may keep in store ...”
The contradiction between surface appearance and subterranean reality in Machorka-Muff’s world is brilliantly and economically given precision, revealing the hollowness of his pretensions toward “Honor, Decency” , and concomitant Romantic-bourgeois notions. The conflict between theory and actuality becomes apparent again when Straub presents a conventional image of the newly married couple on their honeymoon with a waiter serving them champagne. Straub then satirically undercuts the image with Inn’s single comment: “I'll always feel like this as a bride.”
For audiences better prepared to accept the soundtrack as an illustrative addition to the visuals, Straub’s interdependence of sound and image has met with considerable hostility, both on the part of the film industry itself, and of an audience unable to appreciate the rigor of his logic. Of all his work, the film that most clearly exemplifies his attitude toward the use of sound is THE CHRONICLE OF ANNA MAGDALENA BACH, one of the most beautiful achievements in film history. It is built around the triple axes of music, image, and commentary, music being the central component out of which the other two elements grow. Unusual, even unique, though this procedure may be, it is predicated on Straub’s respect for the material elements of his discourse. Bach’s music is obviously the most authentic data we have on the man’s mind and personality, and Straub presents this quite unadulterated. The other information the film offers, both visual and verbal, is of secondary authenticity, to the extent that it is dependent upon actors, upon manuscripts by hands other than Bach’s, and upon destroyed buildings. Straub never attempts an illusionist film; we are never invited to consider it a literal reconstruction. Instead, where authenticity is impossible to achieve, he prefers to make the impossibility explicit, creating a subtle dialogue between the 18th and 20th centuries. One point at which such a dialogue erupts quite expressionistically is a scene in which Bach, playing the organ in the foreground, is set against the facade of a building in the rear. The original building was destroyed in the l8th Century. Instead of faking the scene, Straub deliberately emphasizes the fact that the building is a back-projected image. Not only is there agitation of the foreground, emphasizing its separateness from the background, but the two are tilted at opposite angles on the frame, making the unreality absolutely explicit. The image itself is beautiful; Straub’s placement of a burning torch on the left side of the frame clinches the composition’s poise. The shot is a meditation about the distance between the 18th and 20th centuries—the impossibility and undesirability of accurate reconstruction. Instead of attempting to offer complete illusion of reality, Straub deliberately underlines artifice. The artifice is offset by the placement of the burning torch, which functions as a symbol of the music’s continuing, eternal vitality, even if the man and his environment are lost. The emphatic artifice serves both to highlight the music’s unassailable beauty and integrity, and to reinforce our awareness of the documentary mode’s limitations.
For what makes Straub an inherently political filmmaker is not his choice of subject matter, but his approach to that subject matter, his respect for the integrity of his materials. The search for truth is at the root of all his films. This truth can only rise out of documentarism, a documentarism that reflects on the degree of its truth: this for Straub is the root of political thinking:
This explains the skeletal basis of the BACH film: each of its three axes is subjected to the same rigorous scrutiny and presentation. The spoken language portion (principally Anna Magdalena’s monologue) derives chiefly from various 18th century texts—Bach’s letters, a necrology written by one of his sons. Straub and his wife, Daniele Huillet, worked this material into the monologue form, preserving the original form of the language. What we have is a kind of documentary fiction. Its presentation is consonant with this. It is read in a non-interpretive monotone, and no emotional “bending” of the material is allowed. The musical performances that flow through the entire film are quite literally, documentary, since Straub insisted on shooting with synchronous sound. The visuals too are documentary in the purest sense. There is a simple recording of the performances, with functional distances and angles. There are very few close ups, and high angles are used where necessary as in observing Bach playing the organ, when we need to see both the movement of his hands on the keys and feet on the pedals. Elsewhere, the visuals consist of gently panning shots across the original sheet music and other manuscripts.
The film’s documentary foundation predictably demanded a good deal of historical research. Like Rossellini’s THE RISE TO POWER OF LOUIS XIV, ANNA MAGDALENA BACH sets out to present historically verifiable facts on the screen in the most coldly objective manner possible. They cannot be tampered with. What Paul Schrader has said of Rossellini’s film, is as true of Straub’s:
In the Rossellini film, this detachment is partly due to the presence of a voice over narrator, whose omniscient, contemporary presence contrasts with Straub’s use of the voice of Anna Magdalena, who remains ensnared in the 18th century. Her deadpan delivery, however, establishes a distance that works in a manner close to Rossellini’s, though it retains traces of a (suppressed because understated) personal intensity not present in THE RISE OF LOUIS XIV. Where it was possible for Straub to be authentic, he went to great pains to achieve authenticity. In 1958 ten years before he finally raised financing for the film), he went to East Germany to visit the various towns Bach had been associated with. Straub says he did this
Instead of trying to shoot on non-existent locations, Straub decided to limit his frame to interiors and the musicians themselves. The slow process of reconstructing what could be done began. Even the musicians’ spectacles are correct:
A concomitant to this painstaking sense of detail was the exposure of certain myths concerning our conventional image of what the period looked like. For instance the characters wear no make-up:
Just as the instruments are replicas of the original forms, so Leonhardt, the musician who plays the role of Bach, plays as Bach did - with his thumb, an unorthodox method. Similarly, Straub refuses to conform to notions of the baroque cluttering the furniture—asceticism is the mode, and it is accurate.
All of this serves, of course, to explain Straub’s insistence on the necessity for direct sound. Overdubbing or post synchronization would amount to falsification, cheating. This insistence is not of significance for the audience, nor even for critical evaluation of the film as an aesthetic object. It is, after all, difficult to decipher such details from a film soundtrack in a movie theater. Rather it is indicative of Straub’s concern for honesty at the level of his production procedure. If the musicians are to be seen playing music, then the music heard must be “correct” to the extent of synchronous recording.
This desire for truth in his films has a further conceptual rationale. It involves recognizing the fact that any attempt to portray the personality of the man, Johann Sebastian Bach, would be futile. What we evidently see is a young musician playing Bach—a fact which Straub does not wish to obscure. Such a presentation is a major reason in his decision to use non-professional actors. Actors are trained to stop being themselves, to try and slip into a fictional figure. Any such procedure would be dishonest, in Straub’s eyes, so all the pianist Leonhardt does is play music.
No acting is demanded of him, just as no interpretation of her script is required from the actress who plays Anna. She just intones it in a monotone. The fact that she finally achieves a rare incantatory beauty is a happy result of Straub’s initial procedural rigor. Straub makes no attempt to establish either Bach or Anna as “real 18th century people.” Ephemeral personal details that provide, for example, the core of Ken Russell’s self-indulgent “musical biographies” have no place in Straub’s aesthetic. Such details are never visualized and are only mentioned when crucial. These include those points where the death of their first two children is calmly and matter of factly announced as we watch Anna playing a delicate piece, “Death robbed us of our first-born and second-born.” The delivery’s flatness lends it great pathos. But the music’s ability to transcend such ephemeral (in the context of the present) detail is again underlined. A similarly symbolic moment occurs when Bach is arrested while conducting his choir. Another conductor steps in as Bach is marched off. The music continues unfalteringly, as if impervious to mortal dramas.
Always the music rather than the personality is the central focus. This recognition is evident as much from what is in the film as from what is left out. Usually Straub presents us with the whole group of musicians playing, refusing to single out any individual. Bach is often found hidden in the depth of the frame or placed near its edge. In this way, Straub minimizes the dramatic possibilities, preferring to visualize Bach’s eliminating self in favor of music. When we do get a close up of Bach, playing a clavier piece near the end of the film, it is for functional reasons. Our attention is directed to Bach’s eyes, which are soon to fail. In general, Straub makes us listen to the music. He refuses to divert us visually, just as he refuses to hypothesize on the nature of Bach’s feelings at any point. By choosing to play the music, Straub makes viewers draw their own imaginative conclusions about those feelings. Straub’s artistry is inclusive of his audience since he compels us to participate in the creation of the film’s “meaning.” We cannot remain passive. (Of coursed if viewers are there merely to be entertained, they are likely to become bored. Indeed few people are prepared to think their way through films. This in part accounts for Straub’s relatively small audience.)
Having achieved a certain documentary truth and accuracy, Straub transcends this level to, in his own words, “rise above documentary to aim at something higher.” Now it is exceedingly difficult to locate precisely the source of the film’s beauty. But it is my experience that the film creates a quite extraordinary serenity that is beyond the limits of “mere documentarism.” This results from the complex interaction of the musical, visual, and verbal elements, which Straub orchestrates with stunning sensitivity. One aspect of his sensitivity is the close and moving identity that exists between the film’s form and its subject.
The music’s rigorous clarity finds its counterpart (counterpoint) in Straub’s visual presentation’s ascetic simplicity. There are almost no close ups, pans, dissolves, or other camera tricks. (Varying-length pauses on the verbal track are used to indicate the passing of time, instead of dissolves.) The organization of the compositions, their relation to each other, is a formal reiteration of the music’s own structure. Straub’s use of diagonal perspectives isn't merely a functional one (functional in that it facilitates inclusiveness, creates a sense of depth, of perspective, and so on). These diagonals also have a formal structural value. Straub tends to alternate rhythmically these diagonals’ direction (left to right, right to left), creating an equivalent for the contrapuntal mode of Bach’s music. Rather than merely illustrating Bach’s music in some manner, Straub has found a structural equivalent for it. As Richard Roud writes,
The film’s strongly formal is in many ways simply a reflection of the formal, even mathematical, basis of much Baroque music. After all, rhythm is inherently a mathematical concern, a measuring process. Straub has a clear grasp of this in both the film’s small and large units.
The two shots of the sea and the one of the sky also function in this rhythmic sense, being almost equidistantly placed. The discussion of rhythm and measure is difficult, however, because it can only be felt to be relevant. Its effect is emotionally apprehended, and analysis of its cause can never prove the effect. Nevertheless, the sea shots are not dependent upon their rhythmic placement for their importance, they have another relevance—their pictorial beauty and appropriateness. They function as breathing spaces in the film, a moment of release from enclosure, a moment, quite literally, of transcending the characteristically tightly-framed interiors. And their composition is equally literally transcendent. Besides being a mode of punctuation, both the sea and sky shots lift the eyes upward. Both images are composed with a dark area on the lower half of the frame (either pebbles or trees). Viewers’ eyes move naturally to the lighter area, which is upward, paralleling the uplifting music. It is not distracting—the still, ethereal image allows one to concentrate upon the music’s complexity. As in the rest of the film, Straub’s visuals highlight the brilliant vitality of Bach’s music.
It is significant that Bach only speaks at rare moments in the course of the film. Anna is the biographer, events are seen from her external viewpoint. We remain outside Bach in the interests of objectivity. When he does speak, it is in connection with poverty, begging for cash. We hear him pleading the necessity for advancing musical art, the need for encouraging musical innovators. It is important that we hear this from Bach, rather than Anna. Straub is in many ways close to the traditional definition of the Japanese artist:
Straub’s overt presence is certainly rare in his films, and I think we are invited to take those moments when Bach does speak in the film as being special moments. Bach’s plea for advancement and innovation is to be read as Straub’s plea for advancement and innovation in film. It is at these points that we realize just how closely committed Straub is to everything that Bach represents. And it is his breaking of the mold of objectivity (Anna’s monotone) that constitutes his admitting this identity. Straub’s ten-year struggle to make the film, to raise the finances for it, lends authority to the unexpected personal eruptions of Bach himself into the reflective texture of THE CHRONICLE OF ANNA MAGDALENA BACH. Straub has quite openly admitted his sense of a parallel between himself and Bach:
All of Straub’s work is, in one sense or another, a reaction against his own inertia. MACHORKA-MUFF was an attempt at a meaningful response to a politically repressive occurrence. Both NOT RECONCILED (1964-5) and OTHON are attempts to come to terms with, and comprehend, history.
Straub’s oblique approach to the problem of Germany’s Nazi past resulted in NOT RECONCILED, which was adapted from Heinrich Böll’s novel, Billiards at Half-Past Nine. However, the film’s source is not a particularly helpful place to commence a critical analysis (“pace” Richard Roud) since the best it can do is attempt to unravel a singularly difficult cinematic experience. Straub, indeed, would prefer us to forget the novelistic source:
Straub takes as his starting point the principle that film is “a perceptual present.” There is, in our experience of watching a film, no past tense. He then transfers this idea to the narrative organization, eliding all the connectives that were present in Böll’s novels, thereby formally underling the historical principle that present and past are indivisible. Again we note Straub’s proximity to Marxist theory. Marx noted, “Not only the result, but the road to it also, is a part of the truth.” Straub’s maieutic endeavor in NOT RECONCILED, to objectify the latent tendencies of the German nation, is predicated on this principle. The process of our struggle to come to terms with the film runs parallel with the protagonist Robert Fahmel’s attempt to come to terms with his past.
As he had earlier done with MACHORKA-MUFF, Straub attacked his subject from an oblique angle:
In its individual elements, the film is congruent with the characteristic constituents of Straub’s style: the documentary mode, the flat monotony of the actors’ dialogue, an ascetic camera style. Eliding Böll’s transitional statements reinforces the generalized image of the nation, rather than the intimacies of family relations. Everything in the film pushes beyond the boundaries of the personal to the national. One might even say that impersonality is a central motif. Like Machorka-Muff’s solitariness (eating alone, walking alone) the characters in NOT RECONCILED are alone, set in a hostilely impersonal environment. One shot that clinches this mood of pessimism is a 360-degree panning shot around a suburban desert. It culminates on a young man standing at a door; a child informs him that the person he seeks has never been there. Straub consistently uses empty spaces—often to create a sense that it is a space that has been vacated by those that don't “fit in”—like Robert’s mother, who has been committed to an insane asylum because she called the Kaiser a “fool.” Straub seems to suggest that the barren nature of the environment is perhaps due to the fact that Nazism’s eliminative principles have rendered it spiritually sterile.
Like OTHON, THE BRIDEGROOM, THE ACTRESS AND THE PIMP (1968), a short film that Straub completed shortly after THE CHRONICLE OF ANNA MAGDALENA BACH, may be considered as a reflection on film expression. Indeed all of his films, largely as a result of his minimalist visual style, can be seen as essentially self-reflexive. Straub has consistently tested and re-evaluated the cinematic experience’s basic elements. In THE CHRONICLE OF ANNA MAGDALENA BACH, for instance, montage is entirely absent. Each sequence is autonomous, and allows the music to swell and take on a life of its own. The static camera, like that of Lumière (or D.W. Griffith, to whom Straub has particularly made reference) invites us to watch for slight movements (leaves, musicians’ hands, wigs) within the frame, and view them as if they had never been seen before on a screen. In OTHON, the long scene by the fountain, with Othon and Plautine dressed in red and white and with a blanket of green grass and water as their backdrop, is a meditation on the use of color. Also, through the insistent noise of the fountain throughout the scene, it is a gesture of homage to Bresson’s LES DAMES DU BOIS DE BOULOGNE. In the films before THE BRIDEGROOM, however, reflections upon problems of cinematic expression were subsumed in the larger subject of each work. In this 23 minute film, Straub uses his simple plot as a central core around which he can explore cinema’s expressive possibilities. The film grew, Straub tells us, out of two things:
The narrative may be summarized thus. A middle class girl is put to work on the streets by her boyfriend-pimp. She meets a negro, falls in love. After fleeing from the pimp’s wrath, they are married. They arrive home to find the pimp awaiting them. She shoots the pimp, and their love triumphs. One’s first viewing of the film may not, however, seem to match up to this description, since Straub has meticulously broken the film down into stylistically autonomous fragments. There are twelve shots in the film, and they form seven units which have, at first sight, little to do with each other.
The first unit comprises the titles, which appear over graffiti, among which we discern the statement,
The second consists of a long tracking shot (the first half of which is silent, the second accompanied by Bach’s “Ascension Oratorio” ). This shot runs interminably down the prostitutes’ row of Munich. The third section consists of an entire three-act stageplay, which lasts ten minutes, shot in a single take. The fourth consists of a thriller-style chase. The fifth is a wedding ceremony. The sixth is a mystical slow pan that commences on an empty field, until magically a car is conjured out of nothing, and the camera seizes on it. The seventh segment is the shooting sequence, preceded by verses from St. John of the Cross. Only this final segment, the film’s transcendental, is shot in a style that we would recognize as pure Straub. The preceding six are rather a meditation upon the other stylistic possibilities of the cinema and in their sequential organization they constitute the history of that cinema. The mood of the film’s development, both in terms of its plot and its aesthetic meditation, is crystallized by the tonal difference between the first and last images. The darkness and gloom of the Landsbergerstrasse is transformed into the shimmering light of the sky and trees of the final shot.
In what sense do I mean THE BRIDEGROOM ... constitutes the history of the cinema? The scene on the Landsbergerstrasse, like the image of the graffiti, is absolutely non-interpretive—the camera simply records reality, like Lumière did. (The shot’s very darkness implies a “fallen” Lumière, though.) Then, through variations of the car’s pace of movement and the unexpected movement of another car on the street, the camera discovers its power to manipulate our emotions, expectations. Introducing Bach on the sound track further transforms our response—it contradicts the visual reality before us. A dialectic of sound and image is established.
Then the stageplay commences. But rather than a production of Bruckner, it is a critique of Bruckner, Straub having concentrated the original text into its essential elements. These elements are those of bourgeois drama. What Straub leaves us with is the empty shell of melodrama, with its intrigues and sexual games. The facade of psychological observation is stripped away. The deliberateness of cues is emphatically exposed as when at a point of revelation, someone enters to thwart that revelation. The actors mechanically adopt “meaningful” postures, exposing the manipulative mode that we know Straub decries. The actors come and go through the two doors of the set like so many robots—the empty ritual of bourgeois drama is mercilessly exposed—and intelligently so. Straub’s attack is not negative. One senses that in clearing out these relics of theatrical practice, he is actively ushering in a new style. The long take that envelopes the play is both a reference to the earliest films, those static “filmed plays” that comprised the early history of film (and the early years of “talkies” ), and Straub’s critical observation of that style. This critical attitude is enforced partly by Straub’s characteristic diagonal camera angle which, in its very difference from the flat-on angles of the early Edison and Méliès films, emphasizes Straub’s (and our) critical stance. One of the lines from Bruckner’s play that Straub retains is from Goethe: “Even in science, nothing is known, everything is to be done.” And the same, of course, applies to cinema.
The fourth segment of the film comprises five shots. The negro, James, leaves Lilith’s apartment; he is followed by the pimp when he drives away. They chase across a bridge, by a gorge, up a scrubby hill. The sequence seems to bear no relation to what has preceded it—the stageplay. But the end of the stageplay consisted of Frede’s decision to put his girl friend to work on the streets. And Frede is played by the same person who plays the pimp (Werner Rainer Fassbinder, another figure of the German theatrical and cinematic avant-garde). The continuity of person forces us to realize the continuity of narrative, elliptical though if may be. The chase sequence constitutes Straub’s examination of the thriller genre. His sense of angles and lighting is correct. For instance, when James leaves the apartment and comes to his car, Straub’s camera is by the pimp’s car—thus setting protagonist and assailant in conflict in the frame. Again, when the cars chase across the narrow bridge, Straub’s camera sits at the end of the bridge, with the car and its headlights rushing dramatically at the lens. But Straub’s critique of the mode is enforced by the way he evacuates each image of all the tension it has accrued. He holds the shot way past the theoretical cutting point. In the first instance, where an “action” director would cut when the cars moved off, Straub simply holds the shot until all movement has disappeared. In the second, Straub actually undercuts the mode during the chase. As the first car comes off the end of the bridge, Straub pans to follow its dramatic course. But instead of then panning back to pick up the arrival of the second car with all the dramatic tensions implicit in such a conventional procedure, he simply holds on the now motionless first car until the second one’ finally arrives in the frame of its own accord. In other words, throughout this sequence of images, Straub, while appearing to conform to the thriller mode, actually evacuates the impact from each shot, thereby exposing the overtly manipulative strategies demanded by this style of filmmaking.
After the thriller, or Hollywood, came the resurgence of documentary and particularly cinema-verité. And this is the mode of the fifth sequence: a long single take of the wedding ceremony between James and Lilith. And, as the cinema-verité movement discovered for itself, the mode fails to penetrate to any essential truths. This at least is what Straub suggests by his decision to depict the wedding ceremony with such literal objectivity. It is both boring and theatrical—linking it in fact to the earlier stageplay sequence. Unlike Straub’s documentarism, this one doesn't bear the seeds of its own transcendence.
And then comes the near-mystical sixth segment: a long shot of a field, a few buildings in the far distance, and trees. After a few moments, almost miraculously there appears a vehicle, right out of the center of the image. The camera pans slowly to hold it central in the frame, until finally the car almost fills the screen. This astonishing shot, in its context within this intensely metaphorical film, quite simply represents the rebirth of cinema, movement coming out of stasis.
And so to the final, seventh segment: James and Lilith address each other in the language of St. John of the Cross. James has come to, “Buy the bride free who has served under a hard yoke.” Thematically this sums up the development of the narrative—the freeing of a prostitute, and it foreshadows the shooting of the pimp, lending humanist authority to the killing. After the killing, their love is fulfilled, and the camera can, to the strains of Bach’s “Ascension Oratorio” , track into the ecstatic, shimmering final image of sky and trees. But Lilith is not the only prostitute to be freed. The other is art, specifically film art, which in the course of these 23 minutes has evolved through its principle historical stages, until reaching its liberation in the materialist presentation that is Straub’s own. The killing of the pimp is metaphorically the killing of German’s decadent cultural heritage—the specifically German implication being raised in the graffiti that opened the film: “Stupid old Germany, I hate it over here, I hope I can go soon...”
Straub has laid “stupid old Germany” to rest. The cinema has been liberated from its stifling conventions, and the film’s movement from the sordid opening to the celebratory close cements the significance of this new beginning. Certainly THE BRIDEGROOM, THE ACTRESS, AND THE PIMP is one of Straub’s most difficult films, the near total elimination of the narrative proving a major obstacle for many viewers. But in the context of the post-New Wave film, its importance is unmistakable. Such a self-reflexive linguistic questioning places Straub in the central European tradition of Brecht and Godard. In the rigorously logical development of his work from the materialist documentarism of MACHORKA-MUFF to the exquisitely intelligent probing of THE BRIDEGROOM ..., Straub’s political integrity remains absolutely unmarked. He refuses to prepackage a message. He demands that we participate in the production of meaning. We do not consume his films, we participate in their creation of sense. In much major contemporary art, as Peter Wollen notes,
This statement precisely encapsulates the nature of Straub’s cinematic texts, as it does that of Godard’s. If we value Godard, or Makavejev, or Eisenstein, or Vertov, then it is necessary now to add the name of Jean-Marie Straub to that hierarchy of explorers of cinematic potential
1. Although French by birth, much of his life has been spent under German influence (German-occupied France during the war, and then ten years living in Munich from 1958), and several of his films reveal an absorption in the nature of the German psyche of the post war years.
2. The 180-degree rule in cinematography means that the camera can point from anywhere at the subject so long as the camera is positioned only on one side of an imaginary line traced along the course of the subject’s movement or along the line of the subject’s glance. This guarantees that the person’s glance or movement will seem to be in the same direction from shot to shot, and that any change in direction of glance or movement will occur according to narrative exigency and not because the camera was placed on opposite sides of the subject in successive shots. It is a rule observed in shooting so that the footage can be edited “logically” together. If the rule is broken, a person might be walking from left to right in one shot, but would appear to be walking from right to left in the next—with no indication of having turned. “Field and reverse” cutting is called by the French champ-contre champ and very simply refers to showing the subject against a certain background and then cutting to a shot of that subject filmed from that background.
3. “An Interview with Noel Burch” , in Women and Film 1:5-6, p. 30. Elsewhere in this interview Burch elaborates the notion of “deconstruction” rather more fully than is possible here.
4. I am partly indebted to Beverly Alcock for this observation. A more detailed analysis of OTHON as a “deconstruction” film may be found in her thesis (recently completed for the Slade Film Department, University College, London) entitled “An Introduction to Some of the Problems Produced by Work on the Notion of Readership, and the Concept of a Materialist Practice in the Field of Film.”
5. Roland Barthes, Critical Essays. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1972. p. 75 (my emphasis).
6. What Is To Be Done?” by Jean-Luc Godard, Afterimage no. 1, April 1970.
7. What Is Cinema? Vol. 2, by André Bazin, Trans. Hugh Gray. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971. p. 38.
8. Straub by Richard Roud, “Cinema One” series, no. 17, 1971, p. 29.
9. “Interview with Straub” by Andi Engel, Cinemantics no. 1, 1970, p. 17.
10. Paul Schrader, Transcendental Style on Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972. p. 112.
11. Cinemantics, loc. cit., p. 20.
12. Paul Schrader, “The Rise of Louis XIV” , Cinema (U.S.A.), 6:3, p. 4.
13. Cinemantics, op. cit., p. 15.
16. Roud, op. cit., pp. 78-9.
17. “Ozu Spectrum” , Cinema (U.S.A.), 6:1, p. 2.
18. Cinemantics, loc. cit., p. 17.
19. Ibid., p. 19.
21. Roud, op. cit., p. 87.
22. Peter Wollen, Signs and Meanings in the Cinema, “Cinema One” series no. 9, revised edition, 1972, p. 164.