I first met Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub in 1975. They were in New York to present Moses und Aron (Moses and Aaron, 1974) at the New York Film Festival. They came to our apartment, sat on the floor, watched 16mm prints of John Ford’s Pilgrimage (1933) and Donovan’s Reef (1963), and loved them. Jean-Marie blushed red and said what he was trying to do in cinema was a combination of John Ford and Kenji Mizoguchi.

The Straubs’ adoration of Ford perplexed Richard Roud, the New York Film Festival’s director, who had published the first book on the Straubs and who execrated Ford as their antithesis. Roud’s attitude was normal. Many in New York in those days felt a moral duty to hate Ford, whose movies were said to celebrate racism, militarism, patriarchy, chauvinism, cornball ham and clichéd conventionality. I suspect the Straubs enjoyed Richard Roud’s shock as much as I did.

Today things have changed. People in New York, unless they are academics, are apt to admire Ford for his denunciation of evil isms and to admire his movies for their subtle, rich and authentic art. In contrast, the Straubs’ movies are still classified as antithesis. Partly this is because their movies have been virtually impossible to see in America, even on pirated video; partly it is because their movies appeal to people who regard “defying Hollywood conventions” as evidence of artistic greatness.

Even in Europe, many (but not all!) of the Straubs’ champions talk about isms in their movies more than individuals, non-figurative design more than portraiture, theory more than storybook lyricism, “Bresson-like” impersonableness more than commedia dell’arte, anti-conventionality more than renewed roots in Western tradition, radical posturing more than troubled existentialism, Marxism more than Jesuit sensibility of each moment as sacramental, minimalism romanticism, calculation more than volcanic emotion.

Don’t these champions see the combination of Ford and Mizoguchi?

And don’t we all talk too much about the Straubs’ “texts” , whereas what is wonderful is the sensuality and passion? Says Huillet, “People say: ‘Straubs works with the words.’ It’s not true. He looks for images.” (1) For example, in Dalla nube alla resistenza (From the Clouds to the Resistance, 1979), “You will notice that [the shot of the ox-cart which goes on long after the dialogue ends] is at least as strong as the dialogue.” The Straubs want to make feelings physical. For another example, in Sicilia! (Sicily!, 1999), “The silent moment, at the end of the train scene, ends up giving vertigo.” (2)

“We want people to lose themselves in our films” , the Straubs told me. “All this talk about ‘distanciation’ is bullshit.”


Straub-Huillet make their statements visually more than verbally. At the end of Sicilia!, says Straub, “One gets the impression of two people who say goodbye from either side of an invisible abyss – they’re almost two John Ford characters.” (3)

In fact, the abyss is visible. Because of the Straubs’ choice of aperture and focus, the hero stands outside Sicilian space, as he has all through the movie. The effect is as though he is standing outside the movie, looking at the screen. That our narrator/pilgrim is, in effect, a kind of proscenium arch is more obvious during projection than with the still frame above, but even on this page look how far the narrator appears to be from the bicycle …


… and how far away he actually is:


The point of the scene is the transcending of cultural distance, expressed spatially, a signature motif in Ford – and pure expressionism à la F. W. Murnau.

In Othon (1969),


Camille (Olimpia Carlisi) perches on a long curve – on a sweep of events she can’t control, a Scarlet O’Hara on whom we feel the weight of time in the shifting shadow, sunlight, air and sounds of fountain water. Luchino Visconti was never romantic enough to compose so desperately beautiful a painting, a beautifulness whose plight overwhelms the longer it is stared at; it’s in Ford that one finds comparably soaring gestures in geometry. Straub would add that light like this is impossible in a studio, but he is speaking like a painter – or like a “realist” in the sense that Paul Cézanne, in Huillet’s singing voice, proclaims himself a realist in Cézanne im Gespräch mit Joachim Gasquet (Cézanne: Conversation with Joachim Gasquet, 1989): “The artist is only a receptacle of sensations, a brain, a recording machine […]: The immensity, the torrent of the world in a tiny inch of material.” (4)

Explains Straub: “I don’t take myself for Cézanne but if you look at a Cézanne canvas, it doesn’t provoke sensations in you, you see there sensations materialized.” (5) Art is not emotion, art is a form for emotion. Like in Ford.

The ox-cart ride in Dalla nube sustains a single composition for 15-and-a-half bumpy minutes.

Dalla nube alla resistenza

This single composition has three layers: Edipo (Walter Paridini) and Tiresia (Ennio Lauricella); oxen and driver; road and countryside. Our difficulty in focusing on more than one of the three layers at a time, plus the jarring bumps, “materialize” blind Tiresia’s physical helplessness toward his own pain and toward events in general – the passing countryside and oxen – for which Edipo and he form the proscenium arch (like the pilgrim in Sicilia!). “Things happen” , Tiresia says, which have no name, so people call them “gods” , but underneath there’s “rock” , he says, where “gods” vanish: only the blind man knows the darkness, where all things are a jarring bump. A boy enjoys a swim, he says, then dies from a cramp: there is no reason to attribute either his enjoyment or his death to a god. “Things happen.” In a wail like a cello’s, Tiresia sings a thousand words, the kind of words worth reading carefully a dozen times. More emotional, more rich than his discourse are the feelings “materialized” sensually by the images and sounds. Tiresia’s lachrymose defiance of what he cannot control counterpoints the grinding sounds of the cartwheels – which affect me oddly like the fountain sounds in Othon, now funereal (like the grinding wheels during the funeral procession in Ford’s The Sun Shines Bright, 1953). (6)

The objections Tiresia raises against naming things recur in Operai, contadini (Workers, Peasants, 2001) and Nicht versöhnt oder Es hilft nur Gewalt wo Gewalt herrscht (Not Reconciled or Only Violence Helps Where Violence Rules, 1965) and in Sophocles’s satire of “spin” in Die Antigone des Sophokles nach der Hölderlinschen Übertragung für die Bühne bearbeitet von Brecht 1948 (Suhrkamp Verlag) (Antigone, 1992). Naming is one of the “black sins” (Schwarze Sünde (Black Sin, 1989)) of Empedokles (Andreas von Rauch) in Der Tod des Empedokles (The Death of Empedocles, 1987). (May we hope that one day the Straubs’ show us Eve giving names to things in Paradise?)

Our difficulty in focusing on multiple layers recurs in Trop tôt, trop tard (Too Early, Too Late, 1982) – during the endless 360° pans of place Bastille – where once again it materializes sensations of helplessness (at Trop‘s endless revelations of horrors buried underneath every green field).

Forms are in cutting. Barton Byg, in the other English-language book on Straub-Huillet, agrees with Maureen Turim that, in Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach (The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, 1968), Straub’s cut from

Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach


Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach


Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach

comes as a “powerful […] shock” to us – in the “revelation […] that [Anna Magdalena (Christine Lang)] is actually much closer to [Johann Sebastian Bach (Gustave Leonhardt)] than the [first two] shots had suggested […], that there is more continuity in the physical space than the cinematic form had implied” . (7)

Similarly, apropos of Nicht versöhnt, Richard Roud argues that nearly everybody is baffled by the shot continuity.

I disagree. It’s not that the Straubs deceive us. What is original in their style is authenticity, not anti-conventionality. (And it is not unusual to begin without a master shot. And similar successions of camera positions are among the glories of Ford, Mizoguchi, Jean Renoir, Raoul Walsh, Michael Curtiz, etc.) In Nicht versöhnt, the Straubs’ découpage is traditional; they simply leave out everything except the magic moments. If we are baffled during either movie, it is not because of the Straubs’ choices. It is because we are not taking in the characters’ emotions as they perform their skits.

In the first shot above, Bach is reading. What could be more natural than to show whom he is reading to? This cut to Anna is typical Hollywood reverse-angle (left to right), which in good baroque form is then imitated (shot #3) in Anna’s contrary movement (right to left) across the screen. This moving response “materializes” Anna’s love for Bach choreographically – because her movement answers the camera’s shift in angle (from shot #1 to #2), like one line of music answering another.

The shot pattern (of detail to whole) is a variation of one of Chronik‘s main themes (individual to community). In the opening composition,

Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach

Bach is alone in the frame playing his solo. At the tutti, the camera pulls back – and we learn that he is not alone, he is playing to people.

Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach

Surely it would be deceptive to call the solo composition deceptive. This same pattern is repeated when Anna is shown playing alone at home.

Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach

A reverse angle reveals daughter and husband dancing: she is playing to people.

Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach

In other words, people are never alone in this movie. Even when alone in the frame. Even an empty frame is filled …

Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach

… with love, devotion, faith, craft, ritual, constant movement (fingers always playing). Very Fordian: felt, seen and heard. The music is like Othon’s fountain, like time: pans of music paper conjure passing years in successions of deaths, births, deaths, performances, deaths, and in windows and birdcages that evoke death. Music materializes the sensation of time. Music, precisely because it is momentary and yet exists now in this moment, is defiance of the “rock” .

We see Sebastian usually from Anna’s point of view. He is never alone, often he is inside the proscenium, but we are always outside him. His back is usually to us, he speaks rarely, except in music. Rarely does a shot reflect his subjectivity. We see only fragments of the rooms he lives in: his attention is disciplined to the immediate, as portal to the transcendent. We never see him without his wig, very formal, scrupulously robed and powdered, disciplined. We see and feel the things that rule him: letters, contracts, petitions to princes, recordings of births and deaths in his Bible, his faith. Above all, we are confronted with that most demanding of disciplines, music – music which renders him human sacrifice. We see a discipline that can stare steadily at death – an ability beyond the prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV. The mystery of death is no different than the mystery of now.

Like Tiresia, Bach goes blind. The ending is Mizoguchian, a jarring bump of human reality. He stands gazing sightlessly out the window, like so many Straub characters who yearn for the horizon. Does he see trees? God? Or nothing? “Vor deinem Thron tret ich” (“I step before Your throne” ) is his last music, addressed to God. Another petition. The camera moves in embracingly; only now do we nudge at forbidden subjectivity: a life of pure defiance.

It’s not because of their methods, “modernism” or “radicalism” that the Straubs’ movies are wonderful, any more than it’s because of perspective that Raffaello’s paintings are wonderful. Craft may be ninety percent of art, but maybe one percent is magic. In the energy of the characters, that’s where the heart of the magic is. The Straubs often cite Cézanne’s exclamation about Monte Sainte-Victoire: “These blocks used to be fire.” Even the “rock” was alive. Well, the Straubs’ characters are fire, too.

“They’re magnificent, every one of them” , exclaims Jean-Charles Fitoussi of the characters in Sicilia!, “and each with a manner so singular that discovering them one after another is like assisting each time at the birth of a new world.” (8)

Why are we told so often that the Straubs are imitating Robert Bresson and that this means the actors are as mechanical as possible? It’s not true. (Not even of Bresson, whose hope is to achieve wonderful emotion.) True, the Straubs published Bertold Brecht’s manifesto in the credits of Nicht versöhnt: that “Instead of wanting to create the impression that he is improvising, the actor should rather show what the truth is: he is quoting.” Like a classical musician? How can anyone forget that a movie is a movie or that actors are actors? Has anyone suspected that the Straubs’ actors are making up Friedrich Hölderlin as they go along? Or Brecht, Elio Vittorini, Cesare Pavese, Franz Kafka, Cézanne or Pierre Corneille? Why should awareness inhibit our believing in their performances? Indeed, it is the opposite extreme that is the problem: some say the Straubs’ films are their texts.

To which Huillet replies: “Take the example of Pavese. Ultimately, about Pavese himself we couldn’t care less by the end of the film. What interests us are the good people who say Pavese’s texts, what they do in life, how they say these texts, the problems they have saying what they say – which makes what they say all of sudden no longer belong to Pavese but to the good people who say it – who at the outset had never heard of Pavese. The only interest that the text or what you call the culture has is that the person who wrote it did a certain work, he produced something which touched us and which subsequently has resisted – from which one can judge that he did his work well.” (9)

In Antigone, this “something” , this “resistance” , takes on such rage and defiance in the person of Antigone (Astrid Ofner) that she manages to spit at King Kreon (Werner Rehm) with her whole body and harness the wind in the tree to assault the stupid burghers.


Even Marlon Brando doesn’t get so physical.

In Othon, the actors are hammy, because the characters are hams, in something resembling a commedia dell’arte in which, strolling mid Ancient ruins and cadavers on the Palatine or the 17th century villa Doria Pamphili, the hams render even the Roman Empire insignificant. They do not act but are acted upon. Nevertheless, it is difficult to think of a Hollywood character actor in the 1930s who is more wonderful a character actor than Ennio Lauricella (Galba in Othon, Tiresia in Dalla nube).

In all Straub-Huillet, each person is a character actor, a bit of a ham, in the good sense (a tonic to their self). Even in Operai, contadini. Here people of today, dressed like today, play peasants and workers of 1945 – which these middle-class actors clearly are not. Even the text’s poor, wretched, illiterate women from Messina speak literate Italian: indeed, they read it from scripts they hold in front of them. The physical village central to Vittorini’s novel, Le donne di Messina (The Women of Messina), that the characters rebuild stone by stone (“Our Messina!” ) is replaced in the movie by bushes and trees, a clearing in the woods that could be anywhere, anytime. (It might even be Eden.) And even so, the people are never inside the scenery, they are on it; there is never a proscenium arch, not even a branch (which is very unlike Ford). The actors stand in the foreground, in relief, simply, viewed from high or level angles. They are not bashful.

And they sing, bel canto, with sustained tone, in musical phrases, with odd cæsuras in the middle of expressions (a bit like John Wayne, but with constant variation and pirouettes of invention). They start usually in long shot and after some opening lines, like an intro to a song, the frame jumps closer. Each aria is a story, an emotional journey, this character’s personal pilgrimage – a ricorso (a rerun, a reliving).

The effects may remind us of being read to in bed as a child. A voice relives the events, stands in for the character, and we experience everything that happens, every detail, as though seeing it with our own eyes. A text is a means like another for entering a world, whose poetry gets highlighted, like snow and light. The words ignite as they cannot do on paper. (Maybe we even forget actors are reciting, in the way we used to forget mother was reading.)

The Straubs put me into a Mizoguchian nightmare. Emotion dominates everything. I think of Josef von Sternberg’s Anatahan (1954), where the web of trees and vines and chiaroscuro and the dances of the players are one with the web of emotions, a sustained horror that seems capable, like a sharp pain of toothache, to overwhelm rationality and, in Vittorini, the conflicting sensibilities. “Ai primi di novembre venne un po’ di neve, poi si sciolse, poi venne il resto …” (“In the first days of November came a bit of snow, then it melted, then came the rest …” ) It’s an unbearable via crucis which, yet, they bear.

Everyone sees everything differently. The first speaker is contradicted by the second, then both by the third; a fourth gives a whole new perspective – Akira Kurosawa’s Rashômon (1950) twenty-four times a second. (“Fischio [Andrea Balducci] still had his biases, his narrow ideas, his short-sightedness. He judged clinging to the worst suppositions, seeing in a thing what was easiest for him to see. […] As if people don’t change” – or so Spine (Vittorio Vigneri) says.) And then a new constellation of speakers takes a new perspective, twelve characters in all.

Operai, contadini Operai, contadini

The result is baroque, constantly rolling, a series of dialectics between actors and texts, actors and characters, characters and characters, workers and peasants (with different rhythms), identity and superego, inside and outside, force within or void within or void without, rationality and instinct, intentions and fantasies. (The music at the end resembles the constellation structures of the film: solo voices and instruments, circling each other. (10)) Many people stumble trying to do right. Many are righteous and seek power over others. As in Ford. Giralda Adorno (Gabriella Taddei), the provocateur, is serpent-like, blonde and blue-green. All extremely expressionistic.

Operai, contadini resembles Ford’s Wagon Master (1950; his best movie?). Outcasts, after overcoming their snakes, find the promised land. Both movies could be called musicals, Operai a sort of baroque opera, Wagon Master for its accompaniments. As in Ford’s Straight Shooting (1917), the hero is a bad man who determines to become a good man. Can one change? Do people change? Can a mass murderer find redemption in this life? Ventura (Aldo Fruttuosi), the Straubs’ hero, is shrunken, tortured, a zombie; everyone calls him “Faccia Cattiva” (“Bad Face” ). Yet he discovers that “his joy was to share in a communal joy” .

Operai, contadini

And despite his “bad face,” he inspires the village into existence by his selflessness and rejection of force; it as though the Straubs’ materialized sensations show us the hero as he sees himself, rather than as the villagers and his woman do; or maybe they see him just as we do, and so there is redemption after all. The trees, dappled sunlight, sounds of birds, insects and water are the freshness he and everyone seeks, and they each of them have it right there behind them – but, for wont of a proscenium, existentially just beyond their reach.

I don’t know if the technique of the hallucinatory ricorso was invented by John Ford, but Ford did pull off the most infamous instance of it in Hollywood history. In Drums along the Mohawk (1939), he chose to replace a spectacular battle sequence with a long-take soliloquy, in which we experience the battle through the soldier’s reliving of it. The studio was furious; audiences found it shattering. In Operai, contadini, it is the succession of soliloquies that creates magic. Emotional energy grows fugally, enriched by frictions and reunions, truths and hypocrisies, winter snow and spring sun, electricity from the dynamo – through fear to hope, suicide to redemption, darkness to light. Like Bach. Much time, space, is given to making ricotta. Traditionally we would see people making the ricotta; instead we experience each character re-living it. We perceive with their emotions, with a kind of blindness. We don’t smell ricotta, but we know what it’s like to smell ricotta. Ricotta becomes an ode, passed from singer to singer. A peasant chants about the wood to be used (“the more thorns the better” ) and the rules to be followed (“It’s not recommended …” ). Others sing of beauty, aspirations, emotional conflicts, existential yearnings, going or staying or returning, identity. They ask “why?” and look up at the stars, and the peasant Pompeo Manera (Gianpaolo Cassarino) is suddenly a deus ex macchina.

Operai, contadini

Laurel is best for heating ricotta, he says, “and it was to find where it was that we went out in our truck for an entire day” . The magic of his last three words – “un’intera giornata” – bursts the movie into glory, into a pan of the horizon, to the hills where the laurel is,

Operai, contadini

like the valley that bursts upon the Mormons at the end of Wagon Master. Or the Oakies seeing California in Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940), or the camera’s stare into the horizon in Mizoguchi’s Sanshô dayû (Sansho the Bailiff, 1954), Roberto Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (Voyage in Italy, 1953), Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou (1965) and so many Straub-Huillet movies.

Suddenly we are blind no longer. Like Bach, we see the horizon. Like Empedokles (Andreas von Rauch) and Cézanne and Moses (Günter Reich) staring at mountains and beyond, and like the mother in Sicilia! and Panthea (Martina Baratta) in Der Tod des Empedokles, the people who make bonfires in Dalla nube and everybody in Antigone. But, like Huw Morgan (Roddy McDowall) at the end of Ford’s How Green Was My Valley,

How Green Was My Valley

are we looking out or in? Do we see God or a void? Answers or questions? Light or darkness?

Does Ventura succeed even though he fails? At the end of the “text” , Vittorini’s Le donne di Messina, Ventura’s communal village is shown up as nothing but a pipe dream. The happy ending in Operai is itself a pipe dream – fabricated by the Straubs by stopping in the middle of the novel and by conflating a passing remark about foraging for laurel into a celebration of a New Eden. The true truth is humiliation, as recounted in Il Ritorno del figlio/Umiliati (2003), a film so linear and unrelenting and mocking (even quacking ducks) that it is difficult to believe it is a movie the Straubs “wanted” to make or a humiliation anyone would want to re-live. The truths so bitter that explode the pipe-dream of communist community are capitalist realities proclaimed by an ex-Fascist terrorist who is Ventura’s twin – a zombie ironically modelled (?) on Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Christ-figure, Johannes Borgen (Preben Lerdorff Rye), in Ordet (1955): the land is owned, they are trespassing (as in John Steinbeck-Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath).


But the truths so bitter are also market realities, Marxist realities, and these are proclaimed by three Communist partisans even more humiliatingly. (11)

Nonetheless: does Ventura succeed even though he fails? Is any success in life more than momentary, as Tiresia claims in the ox-cart? “Things happen.”

And this is the “limitation” that we mortals defy and “resist” . “There’s a new law” , La Nube (“The Cloud” ) (Olimpia Carlisi) tells Issione (Guido Lombardi) in the first line in Dalla nube alla resistenza: it is no longer allowed for mortals to copulate with the gods. “Nonsense” , rebuts Issione, in so many words. “Your fate is sealed” , croons La Nube – adding, like God to Adam after kicking him out of Paradise, “But I’ll be with you!” The dialogue is staged as a seduction, not a police action; The Cloud intends to inspire defiance. Indeed, resistance has its origin in the cloud, according to our movie’s title.

Dalla nube alla resistenza

The Cloud is woman and beauty: desire. She sits in a tree, in an aura: she is the horizon mortals yearn for. And she is fiction, as Tiresia tells us. Truly we are willingly the playthings of the “gods” , as the boys observe in episodes 2 and 6, and as the grown-up boy realises in the second half of Dalla nube , “La luna e i falò” .

It’s not coincidental that the essence of Pavese’s fable occurs also in Hölderlin and that the Straubs have filmed both. It would be like mixing in a lovers’ quarrel, Panthea observes in Der Tod des Empedokles, for anyone to intervene between Empedokles and his gods. “According to Hölderlin” , writes Eric Santner,

History […] is nothing other than the story of the union, alienation, and imminent reunion of gods and mortals. […] This longing for dissolution, for merging with the fires of heaven [is] the distinctive trait of the heroic individual; the hero’s fate describes the tragic path […] ‘away from this earth.’ (12)

Like Issione and Bach, Empedokles wants to couple. “My word gives a name to what was unknown, and I carry the love of living beings back and forth between heaven and earth.” Empedokles resembles Cézanne, another mountain worshipper, who cries out:

It’s terrible, my eyes get glued to the tree trunk, to the soil. It hurts to tear them away. […] My wife says my eyes pop out of my head, all injected with blood. […] A kind of intoxication, ecstasy, makes me unsteady, like in a fog, when I get up from my canvas. […] I want to lose myself in nature.

And Empedokles, like Issione, like Cézanne, claims some godhood (“Nature, in need of a master, has become my servant. If any honour remains to her, then it is due to me. […] What indeed are the gods and their divine spirit unless I proclaim them!” ) and for this “schwarze Sünde (black sin)” Empedokles is expelled by gods and mortals alike. It was, sings Panthea, “As if in the blue yonder his life had flown out of him.”

“Allein zu sein und ohne Götter, ist der Tod” (“To be alone and without gods is death” ), laments Empedokles, all the length of this movie – which is a meditation on death, like Chronik, but as suicide (to appease the gods), as though Empedokles spends the film on a building ledge, threatening to jump while everyone tries to dissuade him. His determination is like the macabre self-destruction of Ventura, or the refrain of Bellerofante (in the second episode of Dalla nube): “You’re just and compassionate. Stop living.” Empedokles reiterates the frequent insistence in Straub-Huillet that the land requires our blood. Human sacrifice is a motif throughout Dalla nube and is evoked in almost every one of their movies.

Empedokles’ black sin is to claim power to name the unknown, to dictate to Nature, and to empower the gods. Such claims resounded in Hölderlin’s own time, c. 1800, an age of “Enlightenment” and revolution. Such claims define our own age of technology, whose ultimate goal is, modestly, to defeat death and master the universe. The black sin can also be attributed to the French and Soviet revolutions, atomic and biological warfare, the Church and perhaps, in embryo, to almost every human since Adam. It is the Original Sin. Said Hölderlin:

The representation of the tragic is mainly based on this, that what is monstrous and terrible in the coupling of god and man – in the total fusion of the power of Nature with the innermost depth of man, so that they are one at the moment of wrath – shall be made intelligible by showing how this total fusion into one is purged by their total separation. (13)

Says Straub:

There’s always a pool of blood somewhere that we’re walking in without knowing it. […] It’s your blood that feeds the earth. It’s you who fatten the servants of lies. The same can be said of the earth itself: I think there are always cadavers under a hill. It’s underneath Monte Sainte-Victoire that most of the dinosaurs in Europe were found. There was already something that was disappearing. Under the butte of Père-Lachaise [in Toute révolution est un coup de dés (Any revolution is a throw of the dice)] are buried the corpses of the Communards shot in 1871. One can go further. It’s about nature. It’s the work of geology. There aren’t just human and animal bones, that are underneath, there’s also the result of thousands of years. That’s what it’s about in Moses und Aron when the camera shows the first rocks at the top of the amphitheater. Thought is subject to the labors of the centuries. (14)

“Maybe [the land] needs our bones in the ground” , remarks a farm woman in Ford’s The Searchers (1956).

Empedokles’ emotions are anything but pure. Heroisim and revenge, wisdom and pettiness, Christhood and pantheism, utopian Communism and dictatorial egoism get all mixed up in the weights of the centuries. Behind his mien as gentle philosopher dwells a wild man. He wallows in rejection; kills himself partly in masochistic revenge; fetishises his knife like the actor in the “To be or not to be” soliloquy from Hamlet in Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946); and preaches blood-for-the-land:

Where a land must die
The Spirit at the end elects one more
Through whom shall sound its swansong, the last life.

Such a justification for suicide baffles everyone, in the movie and out of it. His disciple Pausanias (Vladimir Baratta) teases him constantly for his sententiousness. “Go your own way” , Empedokles finally tells him, in so many words, “but, as for me, I’m going to throw myself into the volcano. Ah, bliss!” Like Huw, like Robert Bresson’s curé, Empedokles closes his eyes, conjures a fantasy, and sacrifices himself to it, in defiance of the “rock” . He wants to be flame, like Jeanne d’Arc, like Cézanne’s Mount Sainte-Victoire. And like Ford’s hypocritical Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), he talks too much. He is posed like a sunburst, but with eyes closed.

Der Tod des Empedokles

As Tiresia warned, defiance means blindness.

Antigone, too, is a maze of contradictions. Nobly she sacrifices herself for honour, morality, love. But her moralizing and denunciations do not really affect King Kreon or Thebes; the popular opposition to Kreon’s policies which she symbolises does not contribute to his downfall; her sister is right: she is an irrelevant sideshow. Defiant to the point of insanity, she dances her part, like Kreon, and mocks him by posing as for police mug shots. “Wild” , her sister calls her. She hurts most those who love her most, her sister and her fiancé, who kills himself in pain. We cannot see her eyes; she is blinded by the sun. Unhappy the land needs a hero, a sacrifice. But Thebes did not need Antigone’s sacrifice. The choice is her own, as in the case of Empedokles.

In contrast to Roberto Rossellini, who was often hauled over the coals by his “Marxist” colleagues for “involution” (i.e., reducing analysis of social structures to characters’ emotional journeys), the Straubs are often praised for a Marxist emphasis on “isms” to which individuals are sacrificed. True enough for the text of Geschichtsunterricht (History Lessons, 1973), where Brecht sets out to illustrate that economics is the cause of everything and mortals have no influence on things that happen. But elsewhere in Straub-Huillet (as in Ford, who like them goes to pains to depict a culture, a place, a panoply of mindsets and isms), it is individual human experience which is the heart of the movie, and this human experience is not a mere by-product of impersonal forces. Thus even in Geschichtsunterricht, the Straubs shift the emphasis to the moral attitudes (such as they are) of the speakers and to the resonance of those attitudes in the oldest working-class neighbourhoods of Rome “today” (1972), whose narrow streets are built on the cadavers of people sacrificed to the gods of money and which function æsthetically in the movie like the road of Tiresia’s ox-cart. (15) The same shift, or contrast, occurs in subsequent movies whenever someone chooses to be a demi-god and to personify a cause (Ventura, Empedokles, Antigone, Sicilia!): in their humanness these people simultaneously betray and transcend their theoretical posturing. John Ford’s heroes also claim anointment, evoke “duty” , confront intolerance, and proclaim new testaments – to which they sacrifice themselves. They buy into their own mythology, like us all.

And like Empedokles and Bach and Cézanne, Ford and the Straubs are defined by their amazement and awe. People say there is no drama or humour in Hölderlin, and indeed it is difficult to tease out even a plot from Hölderlin’s effusions (at least in translation). Straub and Huillet reverse all this. It is possible to sit enchanted through their Hölderlin without the slightest idea of what the words mean. I have done so. It is like watching a girl across a café – no sound, just demeanour from afar, resonating into the objects around her, a nube. The Straubs put flesh to Hölderlin, supersede his words and create melodrama. What we face is humour, emotion, passion, raw beauty, revelation – souls whose existence, because it is momentary, is defiance. And thus there is plot galore.

In Der Tod des Empedokles, Panthea enacts a hallucinatory ricorso in which, after days of sickness and nearly dying, she wakes up to find Empedokles at her bedside.

Der Tod des Empedokles

“Ah! Like a little morning cloud my heart flowed to encounter the sweet light sublime and I was its tender reflection.” Whether one experiences Panthea as a gushy teenage, sincere adult, high romantic, or all three, nothing could be more Fordian than her earnest affirmation of lived experience, of deep spiritual formation. There is even a classic reaction shot of her friend Delia: “O Panthea!” ! And in the next lines Panthea echoes Goethe’s Gretchen: “Der Ton aus seiner Brust!” (“The tones coming from his chest!” ) Every experience Panthea describes, we relive with her, as though seeing things ourselves with all her emotion, like a Schubert Lied: “Er geht im weiten Felde Tag und Nacht.” (“He walks in wide fields day and night.” ) There is even the sort of comic relief so typical of Ford, when Delia asks, “Does [Empedokles] too, like us, have his empty days when one thinks oneself old and insignificant?” (16)

Sophocles, Delia mentions, has a new play, and everyone “is wondering and discussing which of the city’s virgins is the tender and grave heroine whom he has named to be Antigone” . So Panthea does an Antigone. Outraged at Empedokles’ being thrown out onto the street (like so many Straub-Huillet characters – Nicht versöhnt, “La luna” , Klassenverhältnisse (Class Relations, 1984), Schwarze Sünde, Antigone, Sicilia!, Operai, Umiliati, not to mention Geschichtsunterricht, Moses und Aron, Trop tôt, Lothringen! (1994)), Panthea defies social order and her father, and imposes herself as sacrifice. She (Martina Baratta) even looks like Antigone (Astrid Ofner). And she too attracts a “sister” to join her defiance. In a long take, Panthea gazes into off-space horizons.

Der Tod des Empedokles

Here it is that unites the Straubs with Ford: the unfaltering conviction that individual consciousness transcends all determinants, defies even death.

“C’est effrayant, la vie” , Cézanne sums up. “It is terrifying, life.” Straub people are shell-shocked, shattered, blinded – or, like Edipo, will be so soon. The world becomes a sensation of death. Ford’s people are not less alone and devastated, but nature is more nourishing in his movies, and traditions that destroy also sustain (as in Chronik). The drama in Straub-Huillet is almost always someone demanding that a rite be respected: Antigone, Bach, Oberst Erich von Machorka-Muff (Erich Kuby), everyone in Nicht versöhnt, Dalla nube, En rachâchant (1982), Empedokles, Von heute auf morgen (From Today Until Tomorrow, 1997), Sicilia!, Operai. The land perpetually exacts human sacrifice, the giant mountains most of all, which the Straubs seem to worship (Moses, Fortini/Cani (1976), Empedokles, Cézanne, Antigone, Sicilia!, Operai) like Tiresia’s “rock” . As in Ford, everyone is on a kind of pilgrimage, a long voyage home, but the sense of Wagon Master – that “grace shall be as your day” – is not as comforting in Straub-Huillet, where you have to stare steadily at insanity (Dalla nube) or throw yourself into a volcano, even though the same choices loom almost constantly in Ford as well. Alienation is a necessary moral awakening in Ford, a good thing, a liberating thing, good in this world, in community, within the composition’s proscenium – even when, as in the Straubs, alienation is a form of self-immolation (e.g., the heroes of 7 Women (1966), Liberty Valance, Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)). Ford’s norm is a composition with three layers of field and with the characters in the middle layer, within their culture. The Straubs’ norm is to place their characters outside the proscenium, as though existentially alienated from the world but peering in.

In Sicilia!, the pilgrim (Gianni Buscarino) starts his quest without suspecting he is a pilgrim on a quest. He possesses neither identity nor goal. He is just a silhouette, a ghost divorced from what he senses around him – the cries of the man who cannot sell his oranges and the endless obbligato of the water (like Othon‘s fountain).


He is nameless and poses against the scene, not within it, blind. On the train he is evasive. “Ma che farete a Siracusa?” (“But what will you do at Syracuse?” ) He doesn’t even know why he has come to Sicily. To fill the void he goes to see his mother (Angela Nugara), whom he hasn’t seen in 15 years.


Signora Concezione.

Oh, è Silvestro. (Oh, it’s Silvestro.)

Come hai fatto a riconoscermi? (How in the world did you recognize me?)

Me lo domando anch’io. Andiamo in cucina. Ho l’aringo sul fuoco! (That’s what I’m asking myself. Let’s go into the kitchen. I have a herring on the fire.)

So the pilgrim has a name now: Silvestro. It’s the most comforting moment in Straub-Huillet, almost a scene out of How Green Was My Valley. But, as on the train, he swings between emotions out of control and attempts to push away realities by playing with them. He sees his mother as he sees himself, as he saw “il Gran Lombardo” (“the Tall Lombard” ) on the train: half in silhouette, half in a private world.



Says Straub, “The son behaves like all the males of the Inquisition. He judges her […]” He attacks her, posed at the vortex of aggressive diagonal lines (“Suppongo …” (“I suppose …” )).

Sicilia! Sicilia!

They trade diagonals.


“He judges her, then he sees that as a woman she had her freedom and took it. A witch is revealed then. That’s what the Inquisition does not permit.” The impact of her diagonal transforms Silvestro’s vortex and corners him – a rare instance of a Straub character “inside” a composition.


“One fine day, she is struck by lightning, by the arrival of that man.” A lover. “This wife of a railroad worker, all of a sudden, reveals she is a witch.” (17)

Defiant. Another hallucinatory ricorso. (“I think it was afternoon. There were no wasps …” ) No proscenium now.


She takes us into the heart of a world. With two words, “that man” gives her life – “lui annusava l’aria, l’odore del pane, e diceva benedetto Dio!” (“he smelled the air, the smell of the bread, and said ‘Praise God!’” ) How good it is to be alive! – and then takes life away. Like Panthea she stares into off-space, and the shot is sustained, because her friend too has disappeared – perhaps killed in a massacre. “That’s what I think. Because otherwise wouldn’t he have come back?” And Straub cuts


into a pan of the horizon – into the mother’s vision of her friend, in effect, into death: existence becomes the tomb of the non-existent, as for Cézanne, Empedokles, Antigone and Mizoguchi. Eyes can only see inward: blindness, yearning.

Cut from the vista to Silvestro’s standing with a Tiresian road behind him: a kind of existential climax to his mother’s gaze – and to the martyrdom of her lover. These pilgrimages segue into Silvestro’s; the past leads to now, to “nuovi doveri, più alti, altri doveri” (“new duties, higher duties, other duties” ), as the Gran Lombardo demanded on the train.

Silvestro mounts to his moment of truth, as though pushed by compositional geometry, by his pilgrimage: the road behind him, a mountain in front – a “rock” .


Sicilia! Sicilia!


The montage effect is almost as though the knife sharpener is God – or that Silvestro is realising that each person he has encountered was on a pilgrimage, that each has their own defiance, their god inside. Thus it was possible momentarily to join them in song. At the port he had said hardly a word. On the train he had exchanged a few city names defiantly. With mother, he had traded names of foods gaily. With the sharpener he bounces nouns of every sort – an Empedoklesian/Issionian/Cézannian coupling with the gods that climaxes in ecstasy (“Ah, e oh! Ih! Uh! Eh!” ). Like the laurel in Operai, this exchange is only a passing incident in the middle of the source text (Vittorini’s Conversazione in Sicilia), whereas which the Straubs have transformed it into the culmination of everything – by adding a pirouette, accelerating close-ups, enraptured song and a sustained final composition. It’s in sacramental individuals, not in abstract ideas, that defiance of the gods is based.


“Suppongo” , replies Silvestro, in recognition that his wanderings have been a pilgrimage, that it is also himself he has found. This sharing of space, with each person in their separate focal plane, contrasts with Silvestro’s blindness in Sicilia!‘s first picture and his “piccolezze” (pettiness) in his other encounters.


“Troppo male offendere il mondo” , cautions the sharpener. “It’s too evil to offend the world.” (If only Empedokles had heeded!)

“It’s a film that could be called After the Flood” , says Straub. (18)

“La luna e i falò” (“The Moon and the Bonfires” ), the second half of Dalla nube alla resistenza, is also a tale of a man who returns to his roots – a “bastard” always in suit and tie who cannot fathom reality. Like the three Vittorini movies, the Pavese one (“La luna” and, less obviously, Dalla nube’s first half, six of Pavese’s Dialoghi con Leucò (19)) is a Communist’s voyage in Italy in the shadow of war and fascism. And like those of Vittorini and many Italian Communists, Pavese’s notions of Communism have less to do with Marxism than with Franciscanism and a world offended.

This time we never learn the narrator’s name. He is “the bastard” . His people have vanished, everyone is dead except Nuto (Carmelo Lacorte), yet nothing has changed (except the names Tiresia warns us against). Nuto marvels during each of their three walks (the movie could be called Conversazione con Nuto) that the bastard had the “courage” to leave – because at every turn on the Tiresian roads the hills and vineyards and rocks resonate with the human bodies the land has demanded in sacrifice. We walk in a pool of blood.

Dalla nube alla resistenza

This is so because La luna e i falò is a sequel to the last of the Dialoghi, in which in mythic times a father explained to his son, while looking at the moon, that the land has a need for bonfires and human sacrifice.

Dalla nube alla resistenza

And the land’s need had already been explained in the fifth of the Dialoghi, in which Litierse (Francesco Ragusa) tells Eracle: “Here’s the field, stranger. […] Our land will drink your blood.”

Dalla nube alla resistenza

(But Eracle feeds Litierse to the land instead.) And now in “La luna” , Nuto explains the land’s needs yet again.

Dalla nube alla resistenza

Evidently we are still in mythic times. Somehow people and blood, land and gods are wedded – here where we are walking – and the bastard is the boy from the Dialoghi, grown-up, thousands of years later. The boy in the Dialoghi had tightened his hand in defiance:

Dalla nube alla resistenza

“I refuse to go along with this. The landowners are right to eat us alive, if we’ve been so unjust toward each other. The gods are right to watch us suffer. We’re all evil.” Now the bastard holds his arm the same way of resistance. (And so does Empedokles.)

Dalla nube alla resistenza Empedokles

Nuto acknowledges myth’s sovereignty the way Ford does in Liberty Valance, “when the legend becomes reality” – when people make up names for what they don’t understand, which then blind us and extort blood. In Moses und Aron, people make a golden calf apparently for no other reason than to sacrifice their food, money, blood and lives to it. As the mythic boy claims: we do it to ourselves but blame “gods” .

It is wrong to blame gods, the land, economics or culture. Thus the Straubs emphasize the space immediately surrounding a character more than the larger environment: establishing shots are restricted and, if at all, often come after the close-ups rather than before. The Straubs concentrate our attention on the character as he sings his story.

Dalla nube alla resistenza

Fragments of bodies and space focus energies, as with Bresson and Ford. Some critics talk about the Straubs’ “modernism” , their stark non-figurative designs, the “minimalism” of their frames and découpage, their severe methods, their self-conscious defiance of Hollywood fiction.

True, we recognize we are looking at images, at designs. But then what? Everyone has recognized since the first cave painting that we are looking at designs. Surely the purpose of the Straubs’ images is to materialize sensations, as Jean-Marie says. Surely the purpose of “Brechtian acting” is consciously to be one thing, and not another, and so each choice eliminates other choices. And so the result is calculated, stylized, rich and profound, like Ford, like any good painter. Rather than minimalism, it is minimalism we should be pointing to in the Straubs – to “the immensity, the torrent of the world in a tiny inch of material” , as Cézanne said – and who added, “Do you think that’s impossible? Perpetuity the colour of blood?” Of course Nuto’s emotions always overwhelm his words; his hallucinatory ricorsi relive every moment’s feelings. He tells the bastard how Santina, whom they had known since her childhood, infiltrated the partisans through Nuto himself, slept with their leader Baracca and got the partisans all killed, but not before she was killed herself, on Baracca’s orders, after he discovered her betrayal, as though to appease the gods – and how her body was burnt in the field where Nuto is sitting now …

Dalla nube alla resistenza

… because “faceva gola a troppi” (“There were too many men who still wanted her” ).

One sensation materialized is Nuto’s horror at his helplessness, a sensation most Straub people experience. Violence drags them all down. “What do you to when you give up? When you throw away life as lost? You do what you hate most” , remarks the Gran Lombado in Sicilia! So now in “La luna” they’re all killing each other. Only force wins. “You are just and compassionate. Stop living” , Sarpedonte’s grandfather tells him in the second of the Dialoghi, and Sarpedonte’s horror at the tortures the gods inflict on humans energizes the shifting light surrounding him: sensations materialized, as in Murnau and Ford.

Dalla nube alla resistenza

As Tiresia says, all of life becomes pain. “All of us […], people and things, we’re only a […] souvenir of sun” , says Cézanne. “The world’s diffused morality is the effort it is making to become sun again […] I want to liberate it. […] The delicacy of our atmosphere is linked to the delicacy of mind.” The characters search for a moral attitude that can account for how “things happen” . What is a moral attitude? What is moral? Beauty seduces us, names seduce us, The Cloud seduces Issione, mountains and horizons call to us. The mythic boy’s father, Tiresia and Nuto’s father all warn against beauty, against snakes, and even against the “vice” of music, all of which seduce us – as do the names we give to things and the causes those names enlist us in. “Now,” says the bastard, “after twenty years and so many things that have happened, I didn’t know either anymore what to believe in, but in Genova that winter we had believed and had spent many a night in discussion.”

After things happen, the problem is not just the “fascists” and other bad people, and the solution is not just to kill the “snakes” . The problem is everybody killing everybody, the old burnt alive or thrown into the street to die, endless brutality, blindness everywhere – a constant bonfire. We do it to ourselves. In climax to Nuto’s ricorso, the world seems to explode into an apocalyptical horizon,

Dalla nube alla resistenza

which is wept over by the movies’ first music, a plaintive andante with flute from Bach’s Musikalisches Opfer, with Gustav Leonhardt, which reminds us of blind Bach at death looking out his window – or of Issione (whose eyes we never see) gazing at a cloud. “The artist is only a receptacle of sensations, a brain, a recording machine.”

“But the design is totally an abstraction” , Cézanne adds. In Ford, the fundamental composition is a person acting freely within a geometric space

How Green Was My Valley

– a formalization of a central mystery of Christianity and Greek thought: our terrifying freedom within a deterministic world. The Straubs, too, love geometrics, particularly diagonal lines (but not in Operai). Through geometrics a picture becomes a materialization of sensations – and thus a summation of a time, a place, a culture, a radiation of a character’s sensibility. The diagonals behind Antigone are the offended world’s sharing of her anger; together their wind nearly blows the burghers away.

Antigone Antigone

Bach’s hallway resembles his music: a fugue of diagonals ascending to heaven: he sweeps across the room and up the stairs, as his angel-like daughter materializes out of the light.

Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach

Like Ford, the Straubs choreograph within the geometry: one cannot illustrate here the contrapuntal steps of the sisters as Antigone walks off to do her mortal defiance – toward the diagonal, the tree, the horizon; the land claims her sacrifice.


In “La luna” , the boy’s fate in life is set within the wall and diagonals receding like Tiresia’s road.

Dalla nube alla resistenza

In Der Tod, Empedokles’ opponent, the abrasive high priest, is composed of vertical lines, fore and rear, like spears, in contrast to Empedokles’ sunburst.

Der Tod des Empedokles

Evidently, lines are “political” statements – the sensation of aggression materialized.

In “La luna” , there is a bitter burlesque of types in a bar

Dalla nube alla resistenza

who talk about nasty “Communists” : a series of eight close-ups, each a sensation of aggressiveness, each a cameo portrait (like always in Ford) with a specific voice and tempo and received cliché – like those which people today repeat from Fox News. (Ford’s satire of New England Anglo-Saxon Protestants is comparably sharp.)

Curiously, the actor playing the high priest (Howard Vernon) turns up again in Schwarze Sünde, this time as a Moses und Aron-like Egyptian who satirizes Empedokles for claiming to be a messiah, and Empedokles, the same actor but centuries older and looking more like Christ than a Grecian sunburst, says he is a messiah indeed.

Schwarze Sünde

Hölderlin, a devout Lutheran, had decided he liked Christ more than Empedokles by the time he wrote this third sketch of his uncompleted play (Der Tod is the first).

The Straubs’ most specifically political film, ironically, has turned out to be a Greek tragedy from the fifth-century-BCE. In Antigone, produced in 1992, King Kreon comes questionably to power in Thebes, attacks Argos to obtain iron, proclaims victory, desecrates sacred traditions, and persecutes as terrorists anyone who criticizes him. But it turns out everything has been lies and the war has been lost.

King Kreon talks himself into a stupor, all white and glorious on stage, like a political ad, with the whole world behind him as his prop – as though Kreon somehow transcends the world, like Empedokles with his black sin, like all the Straubs’ people who do not live within the proscenium – who do not see themselves as totally in this world.


But Kreon is not alone the source of evil. The Straubs’ découpage is: burghers/Kreon/Antigone (as victim); then later: burghers/Kreon/Hämon (Stephan Wolf-Schönburg) (as victim). In other words, the burghers are the source of Kreon’s crimes. As long as they see profits, they support unjust war, sacrilege and state terrorism.

Brecht, who adapted Hölderlin’s German version of Sophocles’ play, of course had Hitler in mind (Kreon is called the Führer), and saw Kreon and Hitler not in their Empedoklean pipe dreams but as mere figureheads for their greedy supporters. In the Straubs’ movie, it is clear that evil is spawned not simply by governments and economic structures but by the geometry of force, as in “La luna” . The Greeks and Simone Weil came to the same conclusions. (20) For Kreon, the horizon is only a sensation of infinite power. He makes names and calls them “laws” and makes people sacrifice their lives to them.

Similarly, Litierse (in the fifth of the Dialoghi) makes others die for his law of a yearly blood sacrifice to the fields – until Eracle shows up and demonstrates by logic and sword that the land can be permanently appeased by the sacrifice of Litierse himself. Alas, the episode is only comic relief. So “just” a dénouement is a pipe dream, which the Straubs mark by cutting across the axis. Whether in history or politics or film criticism, the s.o.b.s go on being honoured and their victims go on being forgotten. Kreon does get some comeuppance. He expresses his grief for his son with exactly the same up/down gesture as the grieving father in Ford’s Straight Shooting.

Antigone Straight Shooting

Kreon then stares directly into the camera, which is pitiless, and he flees the frame. He has authored his own destruction, as the choir sings: “He who finds no enemy becomes his own enemy.”

But thousands of people are dead. What good does “a just dénouement” accomplish – except to feed the land? Do we not need instead, as the Gran Lombardo chants: “Nuovi doveri, più alti, altri doveri” ?

As we watch Tiresia’s cart ride, we shall miss some of the drama if we do not already know that Tiresia’s companion Edipo, who brags of enjoying the gods’ favour, is the Œdipus who will presently tear his eyes out. Probably in ancient times there were thousands of plays and poems in which Œdipus, Tiresias or Antigone appeared. Greek theatre, like commedia dell’arte, reworked stock characters and stories continuously over a thousand years, each time differently, each time updating to current events. Dante and the Renaissance continued this ricorso, and after them Corneille, Hölderlin, Brecht, Pavese and Arnold Schoenberg. Today Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub materialize for us sensations which, like hillsides fertilized with corpses, come to us filtered through the ages.

“L’honnête homme a son code dans le sang” , says Cézanne. “The honest man has his code in his blood.”

• • •

My experiences of the movies of Straub-Huillet would not have been possible without the gracious assistance of Werner Dütsch, Bernard Eisenschitz, Helmut Färber, Steve Garden, Raul Martinez Garcia, Glynford Hatfield, Astrid Ofner, Stephen Slaner, Gerhard Ullmann, Klaus Volkmer and, above all, Ciro Giorgini.


  1. Interview with Jean-Michel Frodon, Le Monde, 15 September 1999.
  2. Interview with Thierry Lounas and Pedro Costa, Cahiers du Cinéma 538, 1999.
  3. Ibid.
  4. The film’s quotations are from Joachim Gasquet, Cézanne (Paris: Éditions Bernheim-jeune, 1921-26).
  5. Interview with Serge Daney and Jean Narboni, Cahiers du Cinéma 305.
  6. Helmut Färber to author.
  7. Barton Byg, Landscapes of Resistance: The German Films of Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), p. 56; paraphrasing Maureen Turim, “Écriture Blanche: The Ordering of the Filmic Text in The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach” , Purdue Film Studies Annual (1976), pp. 177-92.
  8. Jean-Charles Fitoussi, “Le Temps d’un retour: Notes de tournage de Sicilia!” , La lettre du cinéma 8, Winter 1999.
  9. Cahiers 305.
  10. J. S. Bach, Cantata 125: 4th movement: “A great mysterious light hath filled / The orb of all the earth now. / There echoes strongly on and on / A word of promise most desired: / In faith shall all be blessed.” The Straubs’ use of this epitaph for Operai, contadini resembles Ford’s similar use of a Mormon hymn in Wagon Master: “Come, come ye saints, no toil nor labor fear, / But with joy wend your way. / Though hard to you this journey may appear, / Grace shall be as your day. / ‘Tis better far for us to strive / Our useless cares from us to drive; / Do this and joy your hearts will swell – / All is well! All is well!”
  11. My friends in Europe suggest that the Straubs are referring to the collapse of social democracy today. But Vittorini, like many Italian Communists, was already disillusioned in 1948.
  12. Friedrich Hölderlin: Narrative Vigilance and the Poetic Imagination (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1986), pp. 58-9.
  13. Hölderlin, commentary on his translation of Oedipus Rex, cited in Michael Hamburger, “Introduction” , Friedrich Hölderlin, Poems and Fragments (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1967), p. 7 (my punctuation).
  14. From Manfred Blank’s television documentary, Die Beharrlichkeit des Blicks (Hesslischer Rundfunk, 1993).
  15. Those neighbourhoods in Trastevere and around Campo de’ Fiori are currently among the most expensive in the world; already in 1972 they had started to change. For anyone in Rome they are familiar territory. The Straubs lived nearby, and just down one street we pass was the Filmstudio, where Geschichtsunterricht was often screened.
  16. Aside from Barton Byg’s subtitling, there is no published English translation of this first version of Hölderlin’s drama. But cf., Friedrich Hölderlin, La Mort d’Empédocle (Ed.), translated by Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub (Toulouse: Ombres, 1987). I have cited three lines from Hölderlin’s second version in order to elucidate the drama.
  17. Cahiers 538.
  18. Ibid.
  19. The last five of Pavese’s 27 dialogues are the texts for the movie the Straubs are currently making: Quei loro incontri: Gli uomini – Gli dei.
  20. L’Iliade ou le poème de la force” , December 1940.

About The Author

Tag Gallagher is the author of John Ford and The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini and has appeared in Cinéma 0, Trafic, Cinémathèque and Cahiers du Cinéma. More of his work can be found on his website.

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