What we usually call “film adaptation” is an exemplary form of reconfiguration. On the basis of an original work foreign to the medium – a novel, a play, an opera, or even a “myth”, whose contours are both more precise and less clear-cut – a series of operations is carried out which disorganises it, deforms it, restructures it, reconstructs it. If the perspective of adaptation veers between the homogeneity of signification and the heterogeneity of the medium, the principle of reconfiguration allows us to conceive of the new form in the singularity of its own stakes within a vaster constellation. But what happens if the “filming” of a work is not, in fact, accompanied by any concrete operation of “adaptation”? Apprehending, then, what the cinema activates in this work, will lead us to seek it out purely in its formal transformation on a visual level: the movements of the actors, the construction of the framing, the structure of editing and montage. This implies considering that this level of film form can itself be sufficient to produce displacements and transformations of meaning in order to fully constitute a reconfiguration.

The “filming” of Brecht’s Antigone carried out in 1991 by Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub presents itself, at first glance, as absolutely neutral: the play is reproduced in its entirety, the text respected to every last caesura, and the scenography does not allow for any “updating” to appear… And yet, the beginning and end of the film already suggest displacements. Accompanied by the sounds of a passing helicopter, the film’s opening credits present a Brecht quote from 1952, according to which:

der Menschheit drohen Kriege, gegen welche die vergangenen wie armselige Versuche sind, und sie werden kommen ohne jeden Zweifel, wenn denen, die sie in aller Öffentlichkeit vorbereiten, nicht die Hände zerschlagen werden.

Humanity is threatened by wars, in comparison to which past wars are pathetic ventures, and they will come without any doubt if those who are publicly preparing them do not have their hands broken off.

As for the opening credits, they are accompanied by the last movement from Musique pour les soupers du roi Ubu by Bernd Alois Zimmermann, titled Marche du décervelage. The piece notably cites Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries in the sonic context of martial percussions which can not help but evoke the use made of this piece – in a helicopter, incidentally – in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), a canonical example of the “war film” genre, frequently cited by Straub during interviews since it is a film that he profoundly detests.1 Thus, Huillet and Straub posit the question of war at the centre of the film, and Antione as a reply to the American apocalypse – a cinematic, and even more directly a military apocalypse, since the film is contemporary to the first Gulf War.

But it is already war that interests Brecht in Antigone – war is inscribed in his text on several levels, which all interest the Straubs. Firstly, the play is the first directed by Brecht after his return to Europe (and more exactly, to Switzerland) after he had to leave the US in distress at the McCarthy commission, and before returning to Germany. It was, in its first representation in Chur on February 15, 1948, preceded by a prologue situated in Berlin in 1945, which made this context explicit.2But the “Mein Führer” which is occasionally addressed to Creon on the play is already a sufficient suggestion.3 Subsequently, and this is crucial for Huillet and Straub, Brecht chose to base his text on Hölderlin’s translation of the tragedy, one of the poet’s last works (1803), which convinced Goethe’s coterie of his madness, but also one of the works which pushed the German language to its furthest extent, an attempt whose ambition is as excessive as it is political: for Hölderlin, after the hopes raised by the French revolution, Germany must be returned, with and through its language, to the Golden Age of classical Greece.4 That Brecht should have chosen to recover his voice in his native tongue in post-war Europe with this text is highly significant, and echoes the fact that the film was made by the Straubs shortly after they filmed the first and third versions of Der Tod des Empedokles, Hölderlin’s unfinished Trauerspiel, in 1986 and 1988 respectively. This work on the theatrical œuvre of the German poet has, in any case, revealed itself to be a key turning-point in the Straubs’ own output, leading to a renewal of procedures as much as thematic transformations.5

And yet, the film’s original title in German is Die Antigone des Sophokles nach der Hölderlinschen Übertragung für die Bühne bearbeitet von Brecht 1948 (Suhrkamp Verlag). The “hero” of the film is, therefore, not so much Antigone as the text itself, the play as problem, and its language as a crystallising set of thought and history. Brecht and Caspar Nehrer had already, in their preface to Antigonemodell 1948 (a set of directing prescriptions established for the Chur premiere, and published in West Berlin in 1949), underlined this decentring with respect to the heroine, on the one hand because “the ancient place – through its historically remote status – did not invite an identification with the main character”, on the other hand because “the great figure of Resistance in the ancient drama does not represent these combatants from the German Resistance who appear the most significant to us.”6 It seems clear that in 1948, the immediate proximity of events modifies the perception of the character of Antigone. The overly immediate assimilation of the heroine with an atemporal “figure of Resistance” simplifies the position of the spectator with respect to it, rendering it a little too comfortable. The veritable problem must therefore be situated elsewhere. For Brecht , “what constitutes the value of Antigone [is] the significance of the recourse to force when the state falls into decadence.”7 What he calls the “rationalisation [Durchrationalisierung] of the play” will be its constitution into a political problem, which pivots on the question of war.

To these Brechtian operations, Huillet and Straub will superpose their own directing principles, which, without touching the text itself, will nonetheless realise a series of shifts.

The genesis of the project was linked, in their view, to the conjunction of three elements, the text itself, an invitation from the Berlin Schaubühne to stage a play,8 and a site, the ancient theatre of Segesta, in Sicily, which they had discovered 18 years earlier. In fact, it was the idea of this text in this site that was decisive. The concrete work took place in two phases: first the rehearsals and the staging, for a few nights, in Berlin, in May 1991; then, the filming of the cinematic version in Sicily the following summer, accompanied by a single theatrical performance in Segesta itself on August 14. Gestures, diction, staging, everything remains identical between the theatrical and cinematic versions; and yet, the “cinema machine” (framing, editing) produces a certain number of transformations.

The fundamental idea is thus to shoot the film in the open air, which has certain implications, as Roland Barthes had already recalled with respect to ancient Greek theatre,9 producing a contrast with the theatrical version. The attachment of the filmmakers to the principle of recording direct sound reinforces the importance of this. How the lines are spoken is conditioned by what is said – but also, indissociably, by the position of the body at the moment of speaking, by the clothes worn, by the force of the wind or the resonance of the amphitheatre, etc. The form of speech is thus inseparable from the precise instant of enunciation, and the sound is likewise inseparable from the image.

Figure 1

This work on bodies similarly justifies the choice of costumes, since the togas modify the manner in which the actors carry their bodies in space, as well as the manner in which these bodies appear on the screen – estranging the bodies for those who listen and watch as much as for those who speak, thereby recalling that a body is always historical. Here we have bodies from 1991 in clothes imitating antiquity, speaking a language from both 1803 and 1948, and playing out, in the ruins of a genuine ancient construction, a situation stratifying all these epochs.

The other “sonic” gambit is that of of the absolute respect of the unity of the line of verse: there is at least one caesura at the end of each line, and sometimes an even longer pause, silently counted out by the actor, but no pause within a line, no matter what the punctuation – which can influence the rhythm, dynamics and intonations of the actor, but not produce a pause. This fundamental Straubian principle is already present in their work before Antigone, but also, as it happens, coincides with Brecht’s staging directions in the 1948 “model”.

The film was thus shot in a single location, a theatre. This decision is already crucial. What we are watching is a staging, a representation. And yet, once this unity of space has been given, the unfolding of the “action”, the challenges of speech, are not shown to us in a manner that is that much less realistic than in a classical Western film. A supplementary gambit will replay and radicalise, perhaps right to the point of implosion, this eminently “Aristotelian” principal of the unity of place: the entirety of the film was shot from a single camera position. The other parameters of framing (camera angles, focal lenses, etc.) could be varied, as well as the height of the camera, since the film used two main camera positions: eye height, or on a rig four metres up in the air. The 147 shots of the film were all taken from a single point in space, and this is the only point from which we see the theatre. This is pretty much unique in the history of cinema.

The implication of this principle work on a several levels. Firstly, the relationship of the spectator to the space represented is radically overturned, as François Albera has written:

This practice of filming aims for the construction of a referential space for the spectator on the basis of site markings rather than the constitution of an imaginarily homogeneous space, as is usually deployed by fiction film in order to give a central place to the spectator (the illusion of control).10

It also implies, for the filmmakers, in order for monotony to be avoided within such a constrained framework, an unstinting work on the possibilities of variation in pre-established series. The affinity of the Straubs with Bach or Schönberg have to do with this dialectic.11

And yet, the whole film is presented from a single “point of view” (and “point of listening”). Once this option is given, the choice of the site evidently becomes crucial: it directly implies the manner in which things and events are physically perceived. It very concretely determines the position of the spectator within this space. This position is geographical, plastic, but also, inseparably, political. It articulates the space perceived by the spectator, the symbolic and architectural space of the theatre, the concrete geographical space of these Sicilian hills, and the relations between those who speak here, whether with one another or against one another.

What, in the end, is the option chosen by Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub? They place their camera right at the edge of the scene, in the ellipsis, slightly to the “choir” side of the central line, a line that is very visible in the film and which the shot construction will regularly insist upon. Since the architecture of this space is very clear, we thus know where we are – or maybe, we should say, “what side we are on”.

This position is not at all that of the classical “spectator” such as will be privileged by the later history of the theatre (or the cinematic dispositif). It is not even the position of a possible spectator in this architecture (particularly when it is four metres up in the air!). It is situated on a double frontier between the stage and the terraced seating, between the protagonists and the choir, showing in the image the position of the “real” (but absent) spectators behind the choir, but never showing the events from the point of view of this supposed spectator, nor even of this approaching spectator that is the choir. Our position – since, while watching the film, it is our position – is not outside of the stage, on the seats, but rather it is on the stage, on the side of but within the arena for the power games shown in the play.

Thus, the camera seems to rest on this central line, traced in the earth by a string of touching stones, which materially separates the space into two, and forms the basis of the mise en scène – a frontier or frontline: on one side, the space of the royals, open physically (the character can enter and exit) and visually (the plain below, the horizon, the sky); on the other side, the space of the choir, closed off visually (there is no sky) and physically (it can not be entered or left, the choir is there and can not escape). Thus, Huillet and Straub recover, in this 1948 text, the classical hierarchy between skènê and orchestra, which is underscored by the genre of the tragedy. The line will only be crossed once, by Creon when he gives his sword back to the choir and receives the sceptre in return. Given the singularity of the point of view, the characters and the choir are, aside from this single case, never in the same frame. The rigorous laws of this space – reserved domains and uncrossable frontiers, the singular position of the observer – interact with the other elements of the film’s mise en scène. The first scene shows, as we know, the dispute between Antigone and Ismene, with each trying to convince the other what to do or what not to do – to bury their brother Polynice or not, to transgress the prohibition of the tyrant Creon or not. And yet, in this film the two sisters, as the first characters appearing to the spectator in a place unknown to them, confront each other, not face to face, but with both of them oriented towards the right of the frame (Figure 2).

Figure 2

Their gazes seem to be detained by something that only they can see, something that would manifestly justify this disposition. In any case, they do not look at each other, which, when the frame isolates them and these gazes become our only basis for orienting them in this space, is even more disconcerting. The mise en scène relies on the parallelism of their situations, and the difference of their reactions, rather than on the dimension of conflict; and, in any case, we certainly can see something of Antigone’s pride, as she does not even look at her sister while demanding help from her. It is equally important that we do not see Ismene pronouncing the phrase “Antigone, wild one!”, which defines her sister from the beginning of the play, but rather the face of Antigone, alone, receiving these words (Figure 3).

Figure 3

The bodies remain obstinately directed towards what we will see is the orchestra, towards an off-screen space that we are still not in a position to even imagine. Retrospectively, we can see: they were turned towards the choir, already there since it will appear there immediately afterwards, in the following shot; but this conclusion can only be retrospective, and a little bit dubious (nothing affirms it). This formal ambiguity is a modification produced by the unique nature of the filmic off-screen space: in the theatre, it would be necessary to choose. And the situation is thus profoundly modified: this conversation between two sisters, who invoke the possibility of breaking the law in order to honour their brother, seems to remain perforce intimate and secret; if it took place in front of the choir, then Antigone’s disobedience would take a more radical dimension by being done in public, and Ismene’s refusal would perhaps be more more excusable.

The stage has two exits: one on the side of the palace, which is used rarely, and then only by Creon and Ismene (we can see the link that is clearly designated between them), and positioned strangely – it “should” be just to the left of the camera, but in face it is placed frontally with respect to the theatre’s seating, in the back of the stage (Figure 4).

Figure 4

The other exit leads towards the city. It is essential: all the “secondary characters” (as they are called in the theatre and the cinema) enter and exit by this one. It is located exactly in front of the camera. A fundamental element is thus mobilised: the city is the true point of attraction of the mise en scène, the film’s “centre of gravity”. The people is not in the seating, they are down below, and can really act, off-screen, on the movement of history. Thus, Straub/Huillet’s film is entirely directed towards this over-there from which the twists and turns of the play come from, which we should here account for. The tree that structures the frame, the path that disappears behind it, represent the metonymic visual trace of thought towards that which can always merge from over-there. For if you leave for a long time, slowly moving towards the back of the field, the things that happen or the people that come to speak about them always do so in the brutal mode of a surge, of an apparition: someone’s arrival is announced, then there is a cut, and the person is already there, whether a messenger or a guard, a son or a lover, a blind man or a seer. The political real can only penetrate here in the mode of the “all of a sudden” (or of the “already there”) – with the exception of Creon at the beginning of the scene with Tiresias, returning to the field at a running pace, summoned by the words of the seer (Figure 5).

Figure 5

This exit towards the city thus produces a third space of action, symmetrical with the position of the camera in the field of the arena: close to the central line, right in front of us (Figure 6).

Figure 6

For the film, maybe for the real-life stage. The camera – the spectator – finds itself placed in the same intermediate position as these characters, entering and exiting, but remaining close to the exit without venturing further forward on the stage, trying to intervene in the power games that (seem to) oppose the tyrant and the choir. In the end, these are the characters, whose faces are the most legible because they are filmed almost front-on, who we are invited to take the closest interest in; it is their position that resembles our own the most. The elements thus find themselves organised in a complex assemblage, even though it mobilises what seems to be a relatively limited number of parameters: the royals (Antigone, Ismene, Creon) face the choir; the others (the guard, Tiresias, the messenger) remain between the two, close to the “city” exit, and thus facing us. And yet, certain “anomalies” start to appear within this system: Hemon belongs to the royal family, but he faces us; the female messenger is a servant (which is a modification by Brecht, since in Sophocles the messenger is Eurydice) but she faced the choir, in the place left empty by the tyrant (Figure 7). It is from here that she finally gives voice to the catastrophe.

Figure 7

The ensemble of this dispositif is made even more complex by an element that is still important in the cinema, but plays a particular role in the the organisation of this film’s shot construction: the directions of the looks of the characters. As I have said, the single position of the camera and the repartition of the actors in the space of the theatre result in them being isolated in the frame, and in their relative positions only being recognisable for the spectator on the basis of the directions of looks, whose network of lines forms the presiding editing structure and the perception of space. Yet Huillet and Straub endeavour to perturb this system, and to feel the cohesion on the basis of the solid form that acts as its pedestal: the single pivot-point, and the theatre, a space of inalterable clarity, through the visual volumes and the historical stratification that, from a distance, constructs the way in which we can read it.

Figure 8

Antigone and Ismene, as I have already mentioned, address each other while not looking at one another. In particular, the crucial confrontation between Creon and Tiresias develops this motif. At several moments during the scene, the tyrant, isolated in the frame while he speaks to the blind man, looks right in front of himself, in the direction of the choir. Creon sometimes does even worse: he addresses himself to us, directly. From the beginning, arriving to speak to the old man, Creon does not look at anything other than the camera (Figure 8) – which nonetheless is located on precisely the other side in the space of the scene. In the end, he only turns towards Tiresias at the end of the following shot (Figure 9), a final rotation that confirms to us that the camera has remained in its place, that it is only a question of a bending of the principle. Creon is the only character who is able to look directly into the camera. These displacements of his tyrant’s gaze show that the dialogue never strictly takes place between him and Tiresias, but between them before the choir, and before us, and that the arguments of Creon are addressed as much to the choir, or to us, as they are addressed to the blind man, who he does not persuade.

Figure 9

In this mise en scène set-up, Tiresias occupies a unique position. First of all, he is one of the hinges on which the Brechtian adaptation operates: he is here defined not as a priest or a religious authority, but as a seer. This kind of secularisation, where magic replaces organised religion, certainly corresponds for Brecht to the objectivation of the play in the contemporary context. As a priest, Tiresias has a particular link with power; as a seer, here, his link is above with speech and the truth. Of course the truth is also political , which is why Creon also casts doubt on this cumbersome speech, in insisting on the corruption of the corporation. Tiresias, perhaps through his gifts, but also the correctness of his attention (his listening) and his lucidity (his objectivity), political qualities, knows what is actually happening among the people.

This contrasts starkly with the choir, which, as it gradually emerges, he is manifestly unaware of. How could it be otherwise? He is enclosed in this space, between the empty seats of the theatre and the royal family. But who is this choir, composed for the film of four aging men? How could he know this collectivity so poorly, given that he is supposed to represent it? Tiresias’ discourse desolidarises the choir from the people of Thebes, which is not without consequences.

Figure 10

But Tiresias is not only a seer, he is also blind, as was already the case in Sophocles and the entire ancient tradition; and in this filmic dispositif, constructed entirely on the exchange of looks, this can not avoid having important consequences. Thus, concretely, his “gaze” is not directed toward anyone (Figure 10), he does not address his speech to anyone, even if his rage is clearly directed against the tyrant: he proffers it to whoever will listen. In this system of filmic writing, which rests entirely, for the construction of relationships, on the exchange of looks, Tiresisas is conferred with a radically different position. Creon, as a good rhetorician, does not cease targetting his speech, playing with his looks and gestures. Tiresias’ speech does not have a precise target, it is expressed as an objective speed, beyond any machinations – it is in this sense that it is profoundly political, and therefore dangerous. Physically, Tiersias shares this place close to the exit on the city side, facing the camera; but he is the only one among all those present who does not have his gaze oriented towards Creon, to the left of the frame. Nor does he “look” exactly in the direction of the choir; in spite of everything, his face is oriented towards the right of the frame, and his “look” therefore circulates, I dare say, on this side of the central line, between the camera and the choir.

All this leads us to interrogate this pole: the choir. And yet something takes place at a precise moment in the fim, just after this scene with Tiresias: affected by the concern provoked by what the blind man relates, about war and the city – a city where, in spite of the announcement made of the end of the war, spears and suits of armour continue to be produced for the army – the choir of the four Elders appeals to Creon’s loyalty and, finally, reveals itself, express what had not appeared so clearly:

Kreon, Sohn des Menökeus,
immer folgten wir dir. Und Ordnung
war in der Stadt ; und hieltst uns vom Halse
unsere Feinde allhier, unterm thebanischen Dach
räuberisch Volk, das nichts hat und gut im Kriege versorgt ist

Creon, son of Menœcea,
we always followed you. And order
was in the city; and you maintained far from our throats
our enemies here, under the Theban mantle,
a thieving people, who has nothing is well furnished in war

So, we the spectators begin to understand something, perhaps, and when the Elder demands an account of the war from the tyrant – standard practice in a democratic city – the latter’s reaction is immediate. All of a sudden, Creon defends himself from something, recalls some facts and responsibilities:

Da ich auf Argos zog
wer hat mich geschickt? Das Erz im Speer ging
Erz zu holen im Berg
auf euer Geheiß ; denn Argos
reich ist’s an Erz.

When I left for Argos,
who sent me? The bronze in the spear went
to find the bronze in the mountain
at your behest; for Argos
is rich in bronze.

Figure 11

This is quite important: it still had not been said. And these words are pronounced by the tyrant in a fantastic framing, unprecedented in the film, right at the bottom of a shot showing him as a tiny being blocked in a corner of the field, with the whole valley behind him, the mountains, and even a highway (Figure 11). This plastic composition, exceptional in the work, underlines the crucial importance of this moment, this encounter, these words, for the whole structure – an importance which has curiously never been noted in studies on Straub.12

The choir accuses the tyrant, here, not of having provoked an unjust war, but of having diverted it for his own gain – or having misdirected it, and finally of having forgotten their interests in favour of his own, or of having lost both of them in unceasing conflict and the drunkenness of power calling on power.

This scene, where Creon finally “relents” and accepts, too late, to let Antigone go free, is strongly developed by Brecht, whereas the Sophocles version is much shorter. But it is perfectly relevant to the question of the responsibility for war. Creon reminds the Elders of their implication in the war, but they refuse it absolutely. This dialogue operates a radical reversal in the play. From now on, our relationship with Creon changes somewhat. He appears no less tyrannical than he did before, and does not gain the sympathy of the spectator: his brutality is manifest, overwhelming, even Ubuesque. But our condemnation of the tyrant becomes less certain, less tranquil. As everything unfolds around him, his pain also appears for what it is – human, alas – and his trajectory takes on the exemplary dimension of disaster, of death at work, naked, defeating all, and without this catastrophe every taking any signification other than a political one. And from this point on, we also begin to suspect the Elders of not being neutral, benevolent spectators, as we had earlier expected. They seemed to be the people, its wisest segment; in fact, they are something else entirely. As spectators, our position has become quite difficult.

Figure 12

The question of the status of the choir, and its filmic treatment, is of course of considerable importance for the activation of politics in the film. How will the choir be constituted and how will it be spatially arranged?  How do the members of the choir speak together? Must they speak in perfect unison, or should we hear dissonances, lags, to varying degrees? Should they be shown on the screen always together, or can each one of the Elders be isolated in a frame (Figure 12)? And even if shown together, can the framing and the mise en scène accentuate their collective form, their alignment, or relativise it (the greatest disruption to the alignment of the four Elders happens just after Antigone’s departure to her death (Figure 13), but it reconstitutes itself immediately), even if just by the more or less sensitive presence of their faces. To what extent should they be individualised, visually and dramaturgically, with each one given a “character” or an identifiable political position? These questions can not be answered in too straightforward a manner, and these parameters will come together in every possible combination, with each variant engaging at each instant the politically fundamental question of the exact form of this crucial collective authority: this tragic choir, and what is decided there.

Figure 13

Now, it is on precisely this point that both Brecht’s version and the filmed adaptation by Huillet and Straub are centred on. This scene after the departure of Tiresias produces, after an hour and a quarter of the film, towards its end, a sudden turnaround. Since the beginning, the spectator has naturally been “on the choir’s side”, and not only because the camera is concretely slightly to the right of the central line (on the choir’s side, precisely). Creon is a tyrant, there are no two ways about it. But the choir is also marked by positive connotations: four elders of the Theban people, constituting this supposedly neutral, level-headed authority, a historical figure of the presence of the people in the (Aristotelian) theatre, of its constitution as a people in the classical democratic institution. But here, we can perceive at this point something that does not seem right, and this choir is actually responsible for the situation. It is not outside, it is implicated in it., it even provoked it, in part,. The text is marked, in this scene, by a cruel echo. Brecht makes Creon say, overwhelmed by the refusal of the choir to recognize that they, too, were responsible for the situation:

Undankbare ! Fresser der Fleische, aber des
Kochs blutige Schürze gefällt nicht !

Ingrates! Flesh devourers, but
the cook’s bloody bench is not pleasing

This passage echoes the speech that Brecht wrote for the international congress of intellectuals against fascism, which took place in Paris in 1935. An extract from the same text can be heard in another Straub/Huillet film, Einleitung zu Arnold Schönbergs Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielscene (Introduction to Arnold Schönberg’s Musical Accompaniment for a Film Scene), made in 1972 (drawn from “Fünf Schwierigkeiten beim Schreiben der Wahrheit”, 1934-35):

Die gegen den Faschismus sind, ohne gegen den Kapitalismus zu sein, die über die Barbarei jammern, die von der Barbarei kommt, gleichen Leuten, die ihren Anteil vom Kalb essen wollen, aber das Kalb soll nicht geschlachtet werden. Sie wollen das Kalb essen, aber das Blut nicht sehen.

Those who are against fascism without being against capitalism, those who lament the barbarism that comes from barbarism, are akin to people who eat their share of veal, but think that the calf should not be slaughtered. They want to eat the veal, but not see the blood.

This choir, therefore, is not the people; they are, if we are to accept the radical anachronism in Brecht’s vocabulary, the bourgeoisie. This is not exactly the position that we had given to them at the beginning of the film.

But this reversal not only concerns the choir, and is not without repercussions. The choir is posited, in the mise en scène, as having a particular place, on the other side of the central line with respect to the characters, both separate from them and facing them – a place underscored by the sequences mentioned above where, even when “absent” from the scene, the actors are nonetheless oriented towards them. They thus have a physical position as “spectators” of the events, insofar as they are visually associated, given our point of view, with the theatre’s seating, which remains present behind them. Hence, our own position as spectator finds itself interrogated through a ricochet effect. Is the choir what the power figure confronts, or what power addresses, those before whom and for whom he acts and speaks, and constructs his rhetoric? The choir is not, of course, positioned on the seating. Nor is the camera, which is neither behind it or beside it. In a concrete sense, we are in the middle, between the royals and the choir, which has the effect of staging them as two symmetrical forms of power, and not as two entities that would have a radically different status. In the middle, but nonetheless on the side of the choir, such that we are forced to ask ourselves whether we are dealing with a fraternal relation with the tyrant, or even complicity in his crime, in his responsibility for war. The people are more those who are at our level, and symmetrical with respect to us in space: the guard, the soldier, etc., are all characterised as popular figures with a concomitant gestus, and even a sense of humour. The place of Hemon is logical, in the end, since he is the one who takes responsibility for Antigone’s revolt by politicising – since he also knows what is happening in the city. But his responsibility is easy to counter for Creon: Hemon, because he is Antigone’s lover, a Weibesknecht (woman’s pageboy), is incapable of being objective, and his words have little weight for his father the tyrant.

The only character who really moves in the film, who occupies several places in this space, sometimes among the royals, sometimes among the people, sometimes against the central line, facing the choir (Figure 14), before disappearing, is Antigone. Antigone the wild one, the inflexible one, is, in the end, the one who operates a movement, a change of position, who both constructs her own trajectory and works at the dismantling of this spatial and political structure.

Figure 14

Straub/Huillet’s film realises a series of twists and reversals through which the machinery of tragedy becomes rather decentred. Antigone is no longer entirely the awe-inspiring heroine in whom the play of destiny, juridical conflicts and the idea of resistance to tyranny, are incarnated. She is more the catalyst for a revolt that rumbles in the city against the objectionable war. But this revolt is difficult, since it also implies violence, and because it requires us to understand that this war is several wars at once: Creon’s war and the Elders’ war, the war for power and the war for bronze, and the war resulting from the ancient wars from which it is impossible to emerge, because might attracts might. What we still need to ask ourselves is whether we can serenely affirm that none of these wars is our own.

Translated from the French by Daniel Fairfax.


  1. See, for example, Jean-Louis Raymond (ed.), Rencontres avec Jean-Marie Straub et Danièle Huillet (Paris: Éditions des Beaux Arts, 1995), p. 16.
  2. This prologue is given in Werner Hecht, Brechts Antigone des Sophokles (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1988), pp. 58-67.
  3. This is how, in Brecht’s original German, the guard addresses himself to Creon when he enters. Huillet’s French translation opts for “Mon conducteur”.
  4. Pierre Bertaux notably explains this aspect in his biography of Hölderlin. See Pierre Bertaux, Hölderlin ou le temps d’un poète (Paris: Gallimard, 1983), p. 194.
  5. On the articulation between their adaptations of Hölderlin and the film Antigone, see “Le Chemin passait par Hölderlin”, interview with Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet by Burghard Damerau, in Wolfgang Storch, Brecht après la chute (Paris: L’Arche, 1993), pp. 94-106.
  6. Hecht, Brechts Antigone des Sophokles, op. cit., pp. 48-49.
  7. Ibid., p. 48.
  8. On the initiative of the actress Libgart Schwarz, who acted in the Straub/Huillet film Class Relations. See Danièle Huillet, “Supplique!”, in François Albéra, Sophocle/Hölderlin/Brecht/Huillet-Straub/Zimmermann: Autour d’Antigone: Film, concerts, débat (Lausanne: Université de Lausanne, 1993).
  9. See, notably, Roland Barthes, L’Obvie et l’Obtus: Essais critiques vol. III (Paris: Le Seuil, 1982), p. 76.
  10. François Albera, “Filmer le texte théâtral: L’Antigone de J.-M. Straub et D. Huillet”, in Béatrice Vallin (ed.), Le Film de théâtre (Paris: CNRS (Arts du spectacle), 1997), p. 103-105. here p. 104
  11. Schönberg’s opera Moses and Aaron, filmed by Straub/Huillet in 1975, is entirely constituted by the thematic exploration of a fundamental unique series, which is crucial for the signification of the whole work.
  12. Neither by Louis Seguin, “Le Théâtre d’Antigone,” in Albera (ed.), Sophocle/Hölderlin/Brecht/Huillet-Straub/Zimmermann, op. cit., pp. 10-22, nor, although he was occupied with related problems, by Barton Byg, Landscapes of Resistance: The German Films of Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), pp. 215-232.