Moses and Aaron
Straub-Huillet’s Schoenberg

by Martin Walsh

from Jump Cut, no. 12/13, 1976, pp. 57-61
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1976, 2004

Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet’s last three films constitute a strange and polemical conjunction of two apparently opposed figures, Bertolt Brecht and Arnold Schoenberg. HISTORY LESSONS (1972) is a presentation of parts of Brecht’s unfinished (and until recently unpublished) THE BUSINESS DEALS OF MR. JULIUS CAESER. MOSES AND AARON (1974) is a performance of Schoenberg’s unfinished opera of the same name. And between these two films comes a short but seminal film entitled INTRODUCTION TO ARNOLD SCHOENBERG'S “ACCOMPANIMENT FOR A CINEMATOGRAPHIC SCENE” (1972). This work presents a series of disparate texts which explicitly put Schoenberg in relation to Brecht, music in relation to politics.

Although both Brecht and Schoenberg were forced into exile from Germany with the rise of Nazism in the 1930’s, their current cultural reputations amongst leftwing critics could hardly be more different. (1) Brecht’s place as a key figure for radical cultural criticism is today broadly acknowledged. However, the image of Schoenberg that is most commonly confronted is the antisocialist one Schoenberg lent credence to when he said, “If it is art, it is not for the masses.” And even his musical achievement has been attacked by Marxist critics such as Fredric Jameson (2) and Rod Eley, the latter condemning

“serialism, the tradition stemming from Schoenberg,” [as] “formal, abstract and authoritarian ... elitist, uncompromisingly bourgeois and antipeople.” (3)

So it is a provocative surprise to find Straub and Huillet engaging with MOSES AND AARON and proposing a Marxist reading of it, as they claim in Joel Rogers’ interview. But before this proposition can be examined further, it is perhaps necessary to sketch out the origin and theme of MOSES AND AARON.

Schoenberg wrote the three-act libretto and composed the music for the first two acts in 1930-32 (just prior to his return to the Jewish faith in 1933); he never completed the music for the third. The story of Moses spreads over the first five books of the Old Testament, but Schoenberg’s libretto is principally based on events recounted in Exodus, chapters 3, 4 and 30-32. However, the libretto is not a simple transposition of the Biblical account, but it reorders and reformulates the Biblical sequence.

Schoenberg’s libretto commences with “The Calling of Moses” by the voice from the burning bush to “free the people.” Moses pleads that “my tongue is not flexible. I can think but not speak,” and is consequently given Aaron to be his mouth. Thus the fundamental tension between Moses and Aaron is introduced. Moses has the idea, Aaron the ability to transmit it through song. Schoenberg’s setting of the vocal parts underlines this relation by having Moses limited to a speaking part, whose rhythm is precisely denoted but whose pitch is only approximately indicated. Aaron’s role, on the other hand, is an entirely sung tenor role. The treatment of the chorus (the People) oscillates between these two extremes of sung and spoken parts. After Moses and Aaron have met in the desert, they go to proclaim the message of God to the people, and in order to convince them of God’s power, Aaron turns Moses’ staff into a snake. Aaron then performs a second miracle, turning Moses’ left hand leprous in order to rally the people’s courage to fight against their oppressor, Pharaoh. Aaron continues his persuasion of the people by arguing,

It is your blood that nourishes the land, like the water of the Nile. Fat are you making the servants of the, lie, of the false Gods. Yet the almighty free you and your blood ... he will lead you into the land where milk and honey flows ...” (4)

Aaron supports his song with another miracle, turning the water in a pitcher into blood and back again to water. This persuades the people “to serve Eternal God,” and to await being led into the promised land. The Second Act takes place before the Mountain of Revelation. Moses has been gone for forty days and nights, the people become restless at this absence, their faith wavers. In his fervor to steady them. Aaron conjures up the Golden Calf, around which five butchers dance prior to their slaughter of the animals to be eaten during the orgy. The orgy scenes—of drinking, lovemaking—occupy much of the second act, climaxing on the people’s cry, “Holy is genital power.” Moses descends from the mountain, and banishes the Golden Calf:

Begone, thou image of the inability to grasp the boundless in an image.”

There follows a long debate between Moses and Aaron, Aaron defending his creation of the Golden Calf, saying,

When thou makest thyself solitary, thou art thought dead. The people has waited long upon the word of thy mouth from which rule and law spring. So I had to give it an image to look upon.”

Moses, however, insists that the people “must grasp the idea, it lives only for that.” This, of course, is the central conflict of the opera, that between the idea and its image. Its realization, as Moses underlines yet again in the closing words of act two:

Unrepresentable God. Unspeakable, many-meaning idea. Dost thou permit this interpretation? Dare Aaron, my mouth, make this image. Thus have I made myself an image, false, as an image can only be. Thus am I beaten.”

The third act is very brief and takes place sometime later, consisting merely of an exchange between Moses and a captive Aaron. Aaron defends his action:

In images had I to speak, thou in concepts; to the heart, where thou speakest to the brain.”

And Moses responds by claiming Aaron is:

From the source, from the idea estranged, and that he didst win the people not for the Eternal, but for thyself ...”

Here the images already rule over the idea, instead of expressing it. Moses’ final action is to free Aaron. Here Schoenberg’s stage directions indicate that Aaron, freed, falls down dead.

The opera was never performed in Schoenberg’s lifetime. He died in 1951, and it was only three years later in 1954 that MOSES AND AARON was finally premiered in Hamburg. In 1957 it received its first stage production in Zurich, which was politely though hardly enthusiastically received. Subsequent performances (though infrequent) have steadily increased the opera’s reputation to the point where Schoenberg’s biographer Willi Reich acclaims it as “one of the most important operas of our time.” (5) On the whole, however, Schoenberg’s reworking of the Biblical account has never been taken very seriously by critics until now. Hans Eisler (Schoenberg’s pupil and Brecht’s collaborator), as Straub points out in the interview, found no merit in it. The recent volume on Schoenberg by Charles Rosen claims, “The libretto cannot be taken seriously as literature.” (6)

Straub and Huillet’s reading of it is far more positive; their orientation may be suggested through a comparison of the English text of the libretto, published with the Philips recording of the opera, (7) and the translation made by Straub and Huillet. Straub and Huillet’s translation emphasizes the libretto’s political elements, the power relations between Moses and Aaron, the place of the people with respect to this struggle, while tending to minimize the theological aspects. In the context of the opera’s composition between 1930-32, these power relations are of central importance for Schoenberg, engaging with the problematic of leadership: Who shall lead the people, and will they be led to the desert or to the land of milk and honey? Should the people follow the principles embodied in the Tablets of the Law (the Tablets that Moses shatters despairingly near the end of act two) or those of the Golden Calf? In the context of Hitler’s rise to power, the libretto takes on a force very different to its usual interpretations, such as that expressed in the notes to the Philips recording:

The conflict between Moses and Aaron is a universal human conflict between recognition of the supernatural and the role of religion and the ‘Church’ in the world.”

Straub and Huillet’s production is clearly counterpoised to such interpretations (as I shall argue more fully further on), but it is less easy to determine how it relates to Schoenberg’s vision of his opera. As I said above, Schoenberg never heard the work performed, and only occasional references to the work are to be found in his published Letters. One such, written in 1951 shortly before his death, dwells upon the religious and philosophical significance of the opera, (8) while a letter dating from 1933 reads:

The elements in this tremendous project that I myself have placed in the foreground are: the idea of the inconceivable God, of the Chosen People, and of the leader of the people.” (9)

As always in his life, Schoenberg avoided any openly political intent: he always saw himself as an apolitical figure.

We who live in music have no place in politics and must regard (politicians) as something essentially alien to us.” (10)

And yet the composition of MOSES AND AARON was followed shortly after by his dismissal from the Prussian Academy of Fine Arts. his departure from Germany to Paris, and then his official return to the Jewish faith. In short, in its social context, MOSES AND AARON remains a profoundly political statement, “a provocation,” as Straub maintains in the interview. And the Nazis themselves were well aware of the political implications of Schoenberg’s work. That Schoenberg refused to acknowledge the political implications of his music is not finally of any great significance for our present assessment, however.

What does matter is that Straub and Huillet’s production of MOSES AND AARON differs from previous performances of the work, and it is centrally concerned with political issues in a variety of ways. One of these is made explicit in Joel Rogers’ interview here as it was also in discussion at last year’s Edinburgh Film Festival: MOSES AND AARON is a film about the people.

I hope that at the end of the film, not only has Moses destroyed Aaron, Aaron has also destroyed Moses ... One destroys the others, and they are simply two aspects of the same thing. I hope that what is left is only the people, and that the idea of the film is precisely not just displaced in relation to Schoenberg but even opposed to him; the idea that you have to invent a politics which starts from below, and that it is not up to the leader to invent it, but it’s up to the people themselves. And while these two have destroyed each other and disappeared, you have to start from scratch.” (11)

And in their discussion with Joel Rogers, they further state that “a people always has to be moving, not to settle ... either materially or ideologically.” And it is here that many critics encounter difficulty with the film: It claims to be about the people, yet it is not a populist film insofar as the popular is precisely what is ideologically settled. Straub and Huillet’s MOSES AND AARON is indeed about the people, but this does not mean they patronize their audience. Rather, they made a film that challenges the viewer to think in offering something different than the usual television diet:

What interested us was the making of a film which would allow a public which doesn't ever go to an opera to see an opera.” (12)

That is to say, not just for a cineaste audience but for a television audience: The third channel of West German television financed much of the film, and contributions also came from Italian and French television sources. But making a film for television means for Straub and Huillet giving an audience an opportunity to watch something that diverges from the norms of that medium, that demands a very active mental effort. Thus when we speak of MOSES AND AARON as being “about the people,” it must be recognized that the people’s actual role in the opera is not large nor is their visual presence very dominant in the film. On the other hand, the entire theme of the opera revolves around the concept of how an idea may be represented to the people, of what kind of leadership that representation then implies. The struggle for dominance between Moses and Aaron occurs only because of their desire to lead the people: Behind every moment of Moses and Aaron’s shifting power relations lies the people.

Co-extensive with Moses and Aaron’s conflict over how to lead the people is the problem of how to “represent the unrepresentable” : how to realize an idea in an image without betraying the idea. In short, they are concerned with the ideology of representation, and the film may be read entirely on this level. On the one hand, Moses, who possess the idea (visited upon him by God), is its essence. On the other is Aaron, who has the ability to represent it in a certain way, to transform it through miracles into a “realistic” representation. Moses recognizes that this inevitably falsifies the original idea, but no solution can be reached between them. Thus at the end of the film, as Straub says,

“While these two have destroyed each other and disappeared, you have to start from scratch.”

This start is precisely the form of representation offered by Straub and Huillet. It is one which refuses the idealist dichotomy of Moses and Aaron, of the pure idea versus its transparent representation, and poses in its stead a materialist aesthetic. This is why Straub and Huillet (unlike previous directors of the opera) refuse to opt for either Moses or Aaron: that would be to miss the point. Rather, the problem is to find a new path, an alternative route that steers between the mysticism inherent in Moses’ idea, essence, and the easy, populist, transparent representation that Aaron chooses.

Straub and Huillet’s film is itself an alternative path. It presents the opera in materialist terms through their elaboration of a Brechtian mise-en-scene as well as renovating the normative concept of opera. In this latter respect, the most striking departure from usual operatic presentations is the decision to perform the opera in open air—and yet simultaneously in a theater. An ancient amphitheater has the effect at once of underlining the theatrical aspect of opera and yet of liberating the cast and their voices from the confining claustrophobia of a conventional theatrical space. And also, of course, the ruined qualities of the amphitheater reverberate ironically upon the notion of classical theater, while the historical distance between that of Moses and our own is economically and persistently affirmed. This “opening up” of the notion of opera is vital to an understanding of Straub and Huillet’s activity It illuminates their staging of Moses and Aaron and their reformulation, for instance, of many of Schoenberg’s stage directions, such as those he gives for the orgy sequences, in which:

The slaughterers kill the animals and throw pieces of meat to the crowd which fights over them. Some people run around with bloody pieces of meat and consume then raw... torches are lit and people run to and fro with them.... In the background the slaughtering and so forth continues.”

In Joel Rogers’ interview, Straub speaks of the significant change being the transformation of Schoenberg’s simultaneity into a succession in the film. But an equally important aspect of this shift is its de-emphasizing the purely spectacular elements of Schoenberg’s directions: While it is easy to imagine Cecil B. Deville handling instructions such as those quoted, Straub and Huillet’s tactic is one of minimizing the voyeuristic potential.

At this point we engage with a characteristic of Straub and Huillet’s films insofar as this avoidance of the spectacular may be most readily described in terms of its relation to the tendencies of the dominant narrative tradition. In the latter, the use of sound, editing, camera-placement, and so on are directed toward a strengthening of the authority of the image-track of a film. The ideology of the visible: seeing is believing. Brecht attacked this conception when he said that “the simple reproduction of reality tells us nothing at all about that reality.” And Stephen Heath has further suggested that

a materialist practice of film must... be inevitably involved in combat against the sublimation of film in the luminous reality-truth of the photograph.”

Straub and Huillet minimize movement in their films and hence in a sense begin to question the “reality-truth” of the motion picture. Thus the first shot of MOSES AND AARON begins with a high angle, medium close up of the back of Moses’ head. He is singing, but we do not see his face, his mouth. The shot thus leads us to recognize that this is in the fullest sense of the word a sound film that we will listen to as much as look at. And the high angle insures that the only background to Moses’ head is brown earth. There is no sense of a detailed background, which is quite the opposite of Schoenberg’s tendency as evidenced in his stage directions for the orgy scenes. For there the stage was to be filled with a multiplicity of actions and gestures, a plenitude of visual detail which would, Straub and Huillet feel, detract from the force of the music itself.

Straub and Huillet’s visualization of the orgy scenes recalls Brecht’s provocative but useful conviction that cinema is “by nature static, and must be treated as a succession of tableaux.” That drunkenness is an aspect of the orgy is shown by a close up of a pair of hands holding a goatskin of wine which is poured into a succession of bowls that enter frame left one by one. The first four are neatly filmed, but the fifth is slopped, and the goatskin still pours forth wine after the bowl is full. This simply conceived shot signifies in the most direct manner decadence; it is simply a sign of drunkenness. This semiotic simplicity characterizes also the series of “tableaux” shots that precede the goatskin sequence. The camera pans through the darkness from one formal vignette to another—two people in each case: a man showing a boy a knife, two people examining a length of cloth, a tall man pouring wine on the head of a very surprised, shorter man. These pans always maintain the camera’s distance from these scenes and avoiding any sense of “accidentally” catching “life as it happens.” (13)

Another way in which this distanciation is effected is through Straub and Huillet’s refusal to situate the viewer within the world represented, in contrast to classical narrative procedure. Classical narrative’s field and reverse shot technique gains its physical efficacy by placing the camera just to one side of the eye-line (the direction of gaze) of each of the characters (e.g., over-the-shoulder shots, or, more commonly, the camera being where the shoulder of the character hypothetically is). In this kind of shot, the spectator is placed in a position effectively within the space of the narrative. Direct eye-contact with the camera/spectator is avoided (a “rule” Godard delighted in breaking; and Ozu is another who, for very different reasons, used to shoot “straight-on” occasionally). Buy usually the camera and spectator’s angle of orientation is only slightly offset, thereby creating the possibility of the spectator’s feeling of inclusion in the scene—in short, establishing the basis for an identificatory situation.

In most of Straub and Huillet’s work the camera is set at a severe diagonal to the performers, and this diagonal orientation exists not only with respect to the camera’s lateral placement but also to its vertical. A pair of shots of Moses in the first act, for instance, are medium close ups in which Moses’ gaze passes beneath the camera/ourselves, which has a curiously estranging effect. Through strategies such as these, Straub and Huillet ensure that no identificatory or illusionist world can be constructed by the viewer, since he/she is systematically denied access to such a world through the refusal of the codified strategies that ensure what is classically known as continuity. This quotation from A Primer for Film-making is representative:

The film-maker must consider the overall action of the scene, and how it can be joined to the next scene, allowing the action to flow smoothly. Without continuity a film would be a series of jumbled images lacking meaning and purpose. As each shot came on the screen, the audience would have to be concerned anew with what the relationship of each image was to the one preceding, and what the particular image meant to the film as a whole. Continuity answers such questions easily and instantly.” (14)

Straub and Huillet refuse to give us such a continuity—but not at the cost of incoherence. Neither MOSES AND AARON nor any of their films are “a series of jumbled images lacking meaning and purpose.” It is, rather, that the organization of their images has a purpose opposed to “transparency” that the Primer sets up as prerequisite. Instead of editing in a manner designed to establish a psychologically “naturalistic” relation between, say, Moses and Aaron, Straub and Huillet’s editing and choice of camera position constructs a formal set of relations that both emphasizes the materiality of this text and commences to break down the unity and coherence of the space in which the opera’s actions take place. Although we are firmly located in an oval amphitheater, it is sometimes impossible (thanks partly to the high-angled camera that often situates brown earth as the backdrop to the singers), particularly in the opening section of the second act, to mentally reconstruct the “real” space in which the actions occur.

For instance, the sequence of exchanges between Aaron and the male chorus at the beginning of act two is geographically opaque. Both are shown looking out left frame although narratively they are addressing each other, and there is no obvious violation of the 180 degree rule. The effect of such moments is indeed to force us to ask questions in the manner the Primer deems unnecessary. But it is not merely a matter of asking questions: it is one of recognizing an alternative mode of cinematic organization.

Let us examine a few shots from the first act of the film. Shot 3 is the first time we see Moses and Aaron in frame together, and it is the only time we see them facing each other—Moses on the left, Aaron on the right (Moses is to Aaron’s left throughout the film). The cut from shot 3 to 4 seems to be a continuity cut since it is to a profile close up of Aaron looking out left as in shot 3. But then shot 5 is a high frontal close up of Moses (whose gaze passes beneath the camera). And shot 6 is another profile close-up of Aaron—except now he is looking out frame right. The camera has moved with no apparent diegetic motivation 180 degrees in two 90 degree jumps. Shot 7 is from the same angle of orientation as shot 5, though from a greater distance. [See Figure 1]

In other words, the coherent theatrical space established quite conventionally in shots 3 and 4 is then dismantled. But it is dismantled in a manner that emphasizes, in fact, the nature of the relationship between Moses and Aaron. Insofar as shots 4 and 6 bracket shot 5, Aaron metaphorically surrounds Moses—is his voice. It is difficult to verbalize the effect of this, but the way in which Aaron surround Moses in these shots has a very bizarre resonance. Formally, however, there is more to be noted, for Straub and Huillet’s patterning of these cuts finds its echo in a single shot only moments later. Shot 10 begins in a high long shot of the Priest, then pan left to the people’s chorus, then left to the trio of the woman, young man, and older man, and then back right to the chorus to close the shot on the chorus.

The numbers indicate the successive stages of a camera movement which in actuality is a pan through somewhat less than 180 degrees. The arrows indicate direction of camera movement.


The four element structure here is symmetric with the shape of shots 4 to 7. That is to say, the fourth element repeats the second (i.e. shots 5 and 7 in the first instance, the two appearances of the chorus in the second instance). And in both cases the second element (Moses/ the chorus) is bracketed by a leftward gaze/ camera movement and a rightward gaze/ camera movement. Described thus, the sequences sound formalistic in the most sterile manner. But to see the film it is not so: for what is going on here (and this is only one example) is something akin to Schoenberg’s own notion of “developing variations.” Charles Poser has written of MOSES AND AARON,

All the music of this immense work is drawn from the transformations of a single series: it is the triumph of Schoenberg’s ideal of drawing a wealth of themes from a single source.” (15)

And Straub and Huillet’s structuring of their film seems to work in a similar manner. Take for instance their handling of the relations between Moses and Aaron, the first few shots of which we examined above. The only repeated element throughout the film is that Moses is always or the left of Aaron. In every other respect their visual relationship is constantly shifting, never repeated.

There is not room here to describe in detail the nature of this shifting, but its parameters are partially defined in terms of the following: There is an exploration of on-screen and off-screen space. The camera moves in mid-shot to eliminate one or other of the two men (or reciprocally to include both of then from a one-shot). There are editing mismatches; i.e., successive shots place Moses and Aaron in identical portions of the frame, suggesting according to the usual narrative conventions that they are one and the same person. In the third act, Moses stands over the bound Aaron, thus posing vertical versus horizontal, cementing visually their irreconcilability before the camera roves in to definitively separate them, tracking first to Aaron, then panning up to Moses.

The way in which Straub and Huillet order the film may perhaps be further clarified by reference to Theodor Adorno’s description of Schoenberg’s early song. “Lockung” :

In its 10-measure introduction three sharply contrasting groups, also distinct in tempo, are juxtaposed; the first consisting of 4 measures, the others 2 of 3 each. None of the groups conspicuously repeats anything from the preceding ones, yet all are inter-related through intervening variation.”(16)

It is exactly this lack of repetition that is crucial to comprehending one area of Straub/ Huillet’s work. For, as Christian Metz’s and Raymond Bellour’s work on classic U.S. film narrative has shown, repetition is central to the establishment of a “transparent” world on film. Some of the formal structures of codification vital to classic narrative are field and reverse shots, eyeline matching, the point of view shot. Identification can only occur when we confront the known, the repeated. An important function of a Brechtian distanciation is to avoid this “fixing in position,” this structural solidification. It connects interestingly to Schoenberg’s work, of which Adorns wrote:

Ordering categories, which reduce the difficulties of active listening at the cost of the pure elaboration of the work, are eliminated.” (17)

When Adorno writes “eliminated,” we should not of course think that therefore order is eliminated. For the textual system of the work is itself ordered, though without reference to any external constraint or rule. When the Primer speaks of continuity, it is referring to an external set of rules according to which any film must be formed. It is these rules that Adorno is referring to when he speaks of the elimination of ordering categories. And MOSES AND AARON should be approached similarly. Just as HISTORY LESSONS is remarkable partly for its work on editing, its magnificently inventive systems of camera placement and editing which “set” each episode of the Brecht text, so MOSES AND AARON is notable for the variety of its investigations of the concept of “the shot.”

In my comments on shot 10 above, it is already evident that one of the things occurring here that is different from the general tendency (there are exceptions) of their previous work is camera movement. That is, an important aspect of the filmic work of MOSES AND AARON occurs within the shot, unlike HISTORY LESSONS where the locus of attention lies between shots. Again there is no space here to elaborate fully on this aspect of MOSES AND AARON, but I would like to point to one or two moments of interest.

The film’s one “production number” (every “musical” has to have one!), the dance before the Golden Calf, is choreographed in a manner finely dislocated from the homogenized synchronicity of a Busby Berkeley routine. Here at every moment either one or two of the five dancers is out of synchronization with the rest—yet always in a rhythmic manner. At some points the dislocation is temporal—two of the dancers’ actions occur half a second after the other three. At other points it is spatial—one dancer being a couple of paces too far to right or left. The resulting effect has a stunning vigor and vitality quite different from our normal experience of dance routines on film. And it is further worth noting that the manner in which the dance ends, with the dancers exiting out of the bottom of the frame, finds its parallel with the scene with the snake, which exits in like manner. Each instance is the unorthodox culminating point of a sequence of specifically voyeuristic fascination (“It holds us in its spell,” cry the people about the snake), in contradistinction to the rest of the film.

Another shot makes an interesting paradox out of Bazin’s claims for the superior “reality” of a long take which respects the continuity of both space and time. During act two, the people make some offerings to the altar of the Golden Calf. A final few offer “the last moments that we have to live,” at which the camera instantly pans left to frame the male chorus, who say “they have killed themselves.” In this shot we do indeed have continuity of space and time, and yet diegetically it is discontinuous: the men haven't yet had time to kill themselves! Other camera movements are designed largely as punctuation for the music; for example, the rapid pan to Moses and Aaron in act one which is promptly truncated by the cut to the next shot. Or there are languid, almost pantheistic explorations of rocks, bushes and sky through which the music permeates. Or take the notable semicircling tracking shot of Moses and Aaron in the first act. Although the shot may be considered as part of the system of “developing variations” of the sound /image relations between Moses and Aaron, it is also very closely linked to Schoenberg’s own stage directions:

From the audience Moses and Aaron continue to appear (the chorus has previously been singing about these shifting appearances to exchange their respective positions. At the outset. Moses stands away from him ... Here Moses begins to retreat, and Aaron appears ever more in the foreground ... Moses is alone at a considerable distance in the background. Aaron looms large in the foreground ... Moses ever closer in the foreground, Aaron moves back closer to Moses.”

Straub and Huillet’s mise-en-scene respects the sense of an oscillating power struggle that is here Schoenberg’s concern. But instead of having Moses and Aaron move (they remain static throughout the shot), the camera moves. The relative sizes of Moses and Aaron shift in the frame as the camera tracks around them, and back again. The plot thus functions narratively, but Straub and Huillet simultaneously accomplish more than this. Their materialist use of the medium becomes apparent once again, this time through the contrast between the rapidly shifting background of the amphitheater and the slowly changing relations between Moses and Aaron. This dramatic separation of foreground and background has a strong two-dimensionalizing effect, similar in some ways to Godard’s lateral tracks in WEEKEND, LA CHISOISE, or TOUT VA BIEN.

The operatic form is of course by definition suited to the kind of gesticity favored by Brecht (recall, for instance, his opera, The Rise and Fall of the State Mahagonny) and Straub and Huillet’s direction of the performers’ movements. That direction is sensitive both to the demands of a Brechtian mise-en-scene, which keeps the arbitrary (as opposed to natural) aspect of those movements in view (i.e., that they are designed to signify not just to “be”) and to the demands of the music. Thus frequently the most memorable gestic moments occur at the opening or closing of a sung passage: Moses very slowly lowers his hand to his side as the music equally slowly dies. The young woman that sings shortly afterwards inaugurates her song by lowering her, black shawl from her face—uncovering her mouth to make way for the song. Or we might note the slump of the invalid woman at the end of her song or Moses’ final fall to the ground at the end of act two. It might be objected that such moments are not “social gests” in Brecht’s sense:

The social gest is the gest relevant to society, the gest that allows conclusion to be drawn about the social circumstances.”(18)

But they do mark the social relation that exists between the spectator and what is on the screen. Such moments break any tendency to accept these images as a transparent “illusion of reality.” And also, of course, the gest in each of these cases serves to punctuate the opening or closing of an episode in a decisive manner, as suggested by Brecht:

The individual episodes have to be knotted together in such a way that the knots are easily noticed.” (19)

MOSES AND AARON is full of delightful details, such as occurs during Aaron’s miracle of turning water into blood. The camera is in close up on the pitcher, grasped by Aaron’s hands, and the blood that was poured from it onto the ground, while we hear Aaron singing. The striking moment comes when he stops singing and the fragments of his body that are in frame relax, the body tension necessary to singing is released, delicately underlining the relations between on- and off-screen space, between sound and image. The exact effect of such tiny details is difficult to verbalize, but MOSES AND AARON is full of such pleasures, particularly aural ones. We hear the sound of sheep and cows blending in with Schoenberg’s music at one point (recalling Bresson’s dictum that “noises must become music”), the sound of blood being poured on the altar, and of bowls breaking over the cliffs. There are frequent shots where we watch a frame evacuated of human presence to await the ending of the sound elements before the cut comes. This utter respect for the soundtrack (at points we watch a black screen to focus our listening) has always characterized Straub and Huillet’s work, and MOSES AND AARON is no exception.

To get an idea of the complexity of the sound recording (nearly all the vocal sections were recorded live in the amphitheater on too of an orchestral track recorded in Vienna, which is not as simple as it sounds), read the dual account of the film’s shooting by Gregory Woods and Daniele Huillet which has recently been published in English in Enthusiasm, no. 1, and in French in Cahiers du cinéma. Indeed this work journal should be read not merely for its account of the musical recording complexities, but as a document that reveals the importance of process for Straub and Huillet, and the extraordinary integrity of their production.

This review began by remarking upon the convergence of Brecht and Schoenberg in Straub and Huillet’s recent work, and it is appropriate to close in noting the apparent proximity of these figures’ views upon cinema. Brecht, as noted earlier, thought cinema to be “by nature static,” and that it should therefore “be presented as a succession of tableaux.” A critic has spoken of this approach to Edward II as “a fragile structure suspended in unrealistic space.” This is a concept that seems fruitful for a consideration of a Brechtian cinema, insofar as it focuses upon a re-functionalization of the notion of montage, of editing, such as we find in MOSES AND AARON in the lack of eyeline matches, of field and reverse shots, and so forth. Similarly in 1913 when it was proposed that Schoenberg’s Die Glückliche Hand (The Lucky Hand) might be filmed, Schoenberg was quite emphatic about his orientation toward such a project:

My foremost wish is for something of the opposite of what the cinema generally aspires to. I want the utmost reality. The whole thing should have the effect (not of a dream) but of chords. Of music. It must never suggest symbols, or ‘meaning, or thoughts, but simply the play of colors and forms ... just as music never drags around a meaning with it... so too this should simply be like sounds for the eye.” (20)

Straub and Huillet’s MOSES AND AARON manages to fulfill this desire to a considerable degree. But their claims for a specific radical content are in some respects undercut by the formal investigations of language which are aimed at the elimination of “meaning.” As Barthes has put it,

To create meaning is very easy, our whole mass culture elaborates meaning all day long; to suspend meaning is already an infinitely more complicated enterprise—it is an ‘art.’”(21)

Straub and Huillet do, it seems to me, manage to “suspend meaning.” But that very suspension eliminates the possibility of any didactic political statement. This perhaps begins to explain the gap that opens up from time to time between the vision of their films encountered in interviews with them, and our actual experience of certain of their films. That this gap exists, however, should not be taken to indicate a fatal flaw but simply an arena for further thought, discussion, examination. For MOSES AND AARON, while of considerable significance for radical aesthetics and political thinking in broader terms, remains a film of uncommon beauty and intelligence, full of “sounds for the eye.” Straub and Huillet have not played Aaron to Schoenberg’s Moses.


The Nazis were quick to recognize the political threat of their cultural antagonists, as Brecht for one observed after his session with the German censor with respect to cuts in KUHLE WAMPE. [See Screen, 15:2, pp. 45-7, Brecht’s “A Small Contribution to the Theme of Realism.” ] Thus Nazi opposition to Schoenberg’s musical practice was immediate, and their analysis in some respects acute, given their interests.

The paragraphs that follow here come from a Nazi Dictionary of Music, published in the late thirties. [Translated from the German by Monica Weisauer.] This excerpt from the Nazi Dictionary demonstrates quite precisely one perspective from which Schoenberg’s work is indeed of revolutionary importance.(22)


... Schoenberg began his career as composer initially as an epigone of Wagner (string sextet: “Verklärte Nacht” [“Transfigured Night”], “Gurrelieder” [“Songs of Gurra”], etc.) only to depart increasingly in the later course of his development from the traditional principles of all musical forms and creativity and finally—from his piano pieces op. 11 onwards—consciously dispensed with them completely. “Thereby he upsets,” as is stated in the comprehensive publication Die Juden in Deutschland [The Jews in Germany], “the concepts of consonance and dissonance and thus our entire harmonic system, arrived at through a millennium-long development. In place of our occidental harmony, which is derived from the triad, he later, in a harmonic theory, seeks to establish theoretically his pettily contrived system of dissonance.” The so-called “twelve-tone music” invented by Schoenberg is also discussed here.

This twelve-tone music means in music the same thing as Jewish egalitarianism does in all other spheres of life: the 12 tones of the piano should be, under all circumstances, mutually and fully equal, they all must appear in equal frequency, and none is permitted to assume priority over the others. That represents, however, the total overthrow of the natural order of tones in the tonal principle of our classical music.” With these words Karl Blessinger characterizes in a brief outline Schoenberg’s principle of composition, one which from the Jewish viewpoint was praised as a great revolutionary invention in the area of music.

The biased historical account which was perpetuated by Jewry, especially in the case of Schoenberg, is most clearly shown by drawing a comparison between the edition of the Riemann Music Lexicon, which was published by Riemann himself and the 11th edition (1929) which was edited by the Jew Alfred Einstein. Thus, Schoenberg is characterized by Riemann as “a composer who by the extravagances in the invoice of his newest works provokes protest”; his “harmonics” are called “a peculiar hodgepodge of theoretical backwardness and ultramodern negation of theory.” Further, Riemann in particular denounces Schoenberg’s tendency to negate everything which has existed up until now—the Jewish tactic of long standing, which was always used when it was necessary to destroy the cultural values of the host-nation and to replace them with their own (which they saw as the only valid ones). Riemann concluded his reflections with the ascertainment that “the artistic work which Schoenberg pretends to teach, today, thank God, is still strange to the collective sensibility.”

With Einstein everything is now reversed. Here Schoenberg appears as “the typical representative or rather exponent of the new music.” The Jew Sigmund Pisling similarly wrote that “Schoenberg is by disposition similar to Columbus. He opened a new world of expression for music. Half-repressed melancholy, stammered apprehensions, presentiments which open the eye to the point of bursting, hysterics with which we all live, the multitude of spasms: they become tones.”

Contrary to this, it must be established that Schoenberg’s appointment in Berlin has raised the greatest opposition in non-Jewish circles. In 1925 the renowned musicologist Dr. Alfred Heub (the late publisher of Zeitscrift für Musik (Journal of Music) wrote that “the position of Arnold Schoenberg as head of one of the three master’s classes for composition at the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin signifies a blow against German music which at this time is unsurpassed as a provocation ...The time of Schoenberg’s hysterical spasms and shivers in music is now passed ... And now, when German music is just beginning to recover, one dares reward this man’s false doctrines with the highest national honors, to emphasize his supposed greatness, showing that one is concerned with neither the development nor the growth of German music. This means a challenge and, if honestly considered, a trial of strength between Germanity and specifically Jewish spiritual conceptions of music.”

Also, it should be noted, that Schoenberg, after his emigration from Germany, was soon forgotten—a quick, but just sentence of history.



1. Schoenberg’s Jewish descent and reconversion to the Jewish faith in 1933, along with his aesthetic modernism, did not make Germany a congenial place to live in the thirties. He was dismissed from his post as professor at the Prussian Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin in 1933 (he had been there since 1924), and he moved via Spain to the United States, where he settled in Hollywood, teaching at the University of California.

Brecht’s departure from Germany was necessitated by his Marxist beliefs, and he lived successively in Denmark, Finland and then, from 1941-7, in Santa Monica, California. The Nazi authorities deprived Brecht of his German citizenship in 1935.

2. See Jameson’s chapter on T.W. Adorno, in Marxism and Form (Princeton: Princeton Press, 1971), in which he attacks Adorno partly on the basis of the latter’s high evaluation of Schoenberg’s importance.

3. “A History of the Scratch Orchestra” by Rod Eley in Stockhausen Serves Imperialism, ed. Cornelius Cardew (London, 1974), p. 12.

4. Straub and Huillet are themselves responsible for the English translation (used for the subtitles) of Schoenberg’s German libretto. All quotations in this article are from Straub and Huillet’s translation unless otherwise stated.

5. Willi Reich, Schoenberg: A Critical Biography (London: Longman, 1971), p. 183.

6. Charles Rosen, Arnold Schoenberg (NY: Viking, 1975), p. 94.

7. Moses and Aaron, Philips 6500 836-837, boxed 2-record set. The recording is by the musicians, singers, and conductor for Straub and Huillet’s film and only exists because of their decision to make the film.

8. Schoenberg’s Letters, ed. Erwin Stein, Letter no. 244 (London: Faber, 1964).

9. Ibid., Letter no. 151.

10. Ibid., Letter no. 224.

11. Journal of the Royal College of Art (London), January 1976, p. 95.

12. Ibid., p. 92.

13. The distance here referred to is both physical and psychical: physical insofar as we are not given a close shot to clarify; for instance, the precise qualities of the knife or the textures of the cloth that are being examined. We are given no very detailed or specific if formation in these shots and thus remain outside these actions. At which point we are already talking of a psychical distancing of the spectator that enables him/her to cast a critical eye upon what is being presented on the screen rather than passively accept it as a natural “slice of life,” presenting “the world as it is.” An important aspect of this distance is that it draws attention simultaneously to the signifying activity as well as to what is signified. The tableaux structure of this sequence avoids any potential “naturalization” of the image. What is at work here, then, is fundamentally a Brechtian alienation effect, one that in this instance clarifies the social relations not of the figures on the screen but between those figures and the spectator.

14. K. H. Roberts and W. Sharples, A Primer for Film-making (AY: Pegasus, 1971), p. 145. I'm grateful to Ron Burnett for drawing this to my attention.

15. Rosen. op cit. p. 94.

16. T.W. Adorno, Prisms (London, 1967), pp. 153-4. See also Adorno’s The Philosophy of Modern Music (London, 1973, first published in 1948).

17. Ibid. p. 153.

18. Brecht on Theater, ed. John Willet (NY: Hill and Wang, 1964), pp. 104-5.

19. Ibid. p. 201.

20. Schoenberg’s Letters. Letter no. 18.

21. Roland Barthes, Critical Essays (Evanston: Northwestern Press, 1972), p. 272.

22. I have arguedthis idea more fully in an article entitled “INTRODUCTION TO ARNOLD SCHOENBERG'S ‘ACCOMPANIMENT FOR A CINEMATOGRAPHIC SCENE’: Schoenberg: Brecht: Straub/Huillet,” in Purdue University Film Studies Annual, Summer 1976.