“1st film watched in 1st freshman film class was ’72’s History Lessons. It was a great ‘Welcome to boot camp, motherfuckers’ moment.” – Nick Pinkerton
Parsing the embarrassment of riches amongst ’60s French cinema, the annals of Official Film History tends to split us into the New Wave (Godard, Rivette, Rohmer, etc.), the left-bank (Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, Agnès Varda), and the successive “ Second New Wave” (Maurice Pialat, Jean Eustache, Luc Moullet). Bouncing between realism and the avant-garde, these filmmakers, to varying degrees of mainstream acceptance, left an undeniable mark on post-war art cinema. Yet provided you’re hip enough to know, there’s two particular names that seem to instantly dwarf the aforementioned, at least in the terms of uncompromised Film Art: the husband-wife duo of Jean-Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet — or, if you prefer, the synthesized, punchier Straub/Huillet.
The mystique that has emerged around this duo is not just due to the general unavailability of their work — to this day, only one of their films are available on Region 1 DVD — but in the almost-comical levels of difficulty that seem to surround them. Take, for example, the niche cinephile torrent site Karagarga, where enigmatic critic Tag Gallagher has taken to lamenting the subtitle files that accompany downloads for their films, to the point of sharing his own home-made, supposedly correct editions. This is to keep in mind that the two have openly stated that if you weren’t fluent in the native language of one of their films (be it Italian or German), you’d be at a total loss even with subtitles. The additional “homework” required by the viewer is familiarity with the source material, be it by Bertol Brecht, Friedrich Hölderlin, or Arnold Schoenberg. Their films ask you to reach beyond the cinematic and into history, literature, poetry, or opera.
Not quite the “boot camp” situation, this writer’s own personal introduction to Straub/Huillet came with a screened clip from The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach in a sophomore-year Film History class, that week’s unit dedicated to Brechtian cinema. Their 1968 film was sensibly used as an introduction, as it’s long been considered the most “accessible” of their oeuvre, though one thinks at least the working-struggle of their 1983 Kafka adaptation Class Relations would find some kind of sad instant relevance to anyone entering the job market after completing a virtually useless Film Studies degree.
The question posed by the professor after the clip — at least to the best of this writer’s memory — was if there was “pleasure” to be found in this strain of off-putting political cinema practiced by the two. Technically qualifying as a musical biopic, The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach contains a large number of musical sequences with a high level of film craft on display; with geometric compositions of performances captured in a number of static shots, yet occasionally interrupted with strategically deployed camera moves, it’s hard not to think of the film as almost an example of kinetic slow-cinema.
Noted cinephiles, the duo stated their attempt to follow in the footsteps of narrative filmmakers like John Ford and Kenji Mizoguchi, yet what came to mind when seeing the film again after all these years was Howard Hawks. While not exactly sharing that great Hollywood director’s penchant for group camaraderie, they do seem to have his ability for filling the space of a square aspect ratio with seemingly as many bodies as possible, evidenced by the plentitude of musical performances. Witnessing an orchestra of real musicians, not actors, perform in real-time, the film can come as almost an experiment in durational cinema, yet a later example of rear-projection calls into question any aspirations towards realism. This seems much on display in subsequent titles such as Moses & Aaron or The Death of Empedocles, where it’s apparent that the works’ almost miraculous existence comes with the upfront knowledge that you’re seeing a low-budget production with men and women wearing costumes in the woods, no period-piece verisimilitude to be found. The Straub/Huillet gesture ultimately seems to be along the lines of pushing classical form to a kind of extreme; if one wants a more mainstream comparison, see the Jonathan Demme-directed video for New Order’s “The Perfect Kiss,” whose lengthy shots stand in complete opposition to the dominant rapid-cut MTV style of the time.
One can ask what’s at stake beyond simply their formal rigor. If there’s a second way into Chronicle, or one that inches us closer to “meaning,” then reading the lives of Sebastian and Anna Bach, the married couple at the center of the narrative, as stealth autobiography for Straub and Huillet, is none too difficult. This marriage of distance between two artists initially seems to favor one figure, he being the great famed classical musician, yet her journal (Straub/Huillet’s own dramatic invention), represented by a mix of narration and onscreen text, serves as the ostensible point of view throughout, making us not a direct witness to history in motion, but to a questionable past.
But seeking an emotional pull buried underneath the cold style may lead one astray, for if Chronicle is not traditionally narrative, nor realist, does it ultimately belong to art cinema’s oft-favorite realm, the “transcendent”? Late in the film, one of its most memorable exterior shots is a cut to the sky, which, in the right mood, could be seen as the heavens. Is Bach the Enchanted One? Fans of Bresson and Dreyer they may be, discerning a kind of metaphysical pull from the two — which, while not absent, seems reductive as their cinematic end-game. On the other hand, the politics of music may initially seem a trifle compared to their further subjects, such as the fall of democracy or the poisons of capitalism, yet in linking history and form, The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach emerges as, if not an angry work, at least the contradiction of a deeply questioning (yet forward-moving) one.
To return to the question of pleasure: some will only see them as puzzles to be solved through amassing intellectual cache; for others, they’re objects representational of a distinct formalist movement. To begin with the aforementioned “accessible” film, though, is not really to be eased in, but to make a commitment to an ever-evolving journey.
The Films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet begins tonight at TIFF with a 35mm print of The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach.
Update: A 50th anniversary restoration of the film opens at Quad Cinema on March 2.