In the years following Danièle Huillet’s death, Jean-Marie Straub was something of a fixture in the Parisian repertory cinema scene. As retrospective programmes of the couple’s work played across the city, he was often at the screenings – whether his presence was announced or not – introducing the film, taking questions afterwards, and even, occasionally, making remarks during the projection.

If I can risk opening this article on an anecdotal note, one of these ad hoc appearances by Straub has remained firmly lodged in my memory. It was, I believe, January 2010, and the Forum des Images was showing a 35mm copy of Othon (1970). Straub was not advertised as being present at the screening, but there he was, shambling around the front of the auditorium before the film started, possibly because he had brought the print with him. In the audience, as chance would have it, was Jean Narboni, the former Cahiers du cinéma editor and author of indisputably the most insightful article written on Othon, the Derrida-inspired text “La vicariance du pouvoir”.1 The two evidently have had a long friendship with one another, but Straub seemed less than thrilled to see the critic at the screening. “You,” he thundered, “how did you infiltrate into this place?” “By paying,” Narboni phlegmatically replied.

After the film, Straub offered to answer any questions from the audience. Silence. Not even Narboni felt moved to pose a query. Not particularly relishing the idea of asking a question in a foreign language of one of the most important figures in modern cinema, but also not wishing to miss the chance, if nobody else was going to ask him a question, to hear Straub talk about his film, I trepidatiously raised my hand. Straub picked me out – there was no moderator to act as an intermediary in this impromptu débat – and I scrambled to think of the most innocuous question I could ask, merely to act as a pretext inciting Straub to begin discussing his work. I had also seen Operai, contadini (Workers, Peasants, 2000) recently as part of the same retrospective, and was struck by the formal resemblances between the two films, despite being made three decades apart from each other, so asked Straub if he felt that there was an aesthetic continuity in his and Huillet’s œuvre. Known for his irascibility in public conversations, a tendency which had been exacerbated without the tempering presence of Huillet, it was not entirely unexpected that Straub should respond in a less than amiable fashion. But after his suspicions subsided, his answer was a revealing one. Yes, indeed there were continuous through-lines in their work, but there were also major changes, and if anything he conceived of the progression of the films he made with Huillet as proceeding in zigzag-like fashion.

For Straub himself, then, his and Huillet’s development as filmmakers was dialectical in nature, involving both a continuous identity and the irruption of qualitative leaps, or, to use Hegel’s term, Aufhebungen. In one area, however, they have been utterly consistent. Both Straub and Huillet have, throughout their filmmaking lives, been avowed communists. This is no small matter. If a self-identification as a communist was acceptable, and even, to a certain degree, modish amidst cultural and intellectual circles in Western Europe in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Straub/Huillet’s films first gained a widespread airing, this situation began to change dramatically later in the 1970s. By the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the years that followed, the ranks of proud communists thinned to almost nothing. Former radicals disavowed Marxism, and even those who stayed on the left overwhelmingly tended to change their lexicon and, more often than not, their core beliefs, either cynically accommodating to the new consensus or wallowing in what Enzo Traverso has trenchantly called “left-wing melancholy”. The prospect of any fundamental challenge to a globally ascendant neoliberal order had drifted far beyond the horizon. But Straub/Huillet remained intransigent. Not only did they not resile from their militant radicalism, but the immediate aftermath of the collapse of “really existing socialism” in Eastern Europe saw them make one of their most politically engaged works, their filming of Brecht’s adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone (1991). Their obstinacy in retaining a fiercely anti-capitalist outlook at a time when free market ideology had reached a historical apex of global hegemony earned the filmmaking couple opprobrium or derision from certain quarters, including from former comrades-in-arms. Writing on Antigone, for instance, Peter Handke, once an enfant terrible of the West German avant-garde, lambasted the Straubs for their “antiquated class struggle politics” and the “petty spirit of explicit thinking” in their work.2

Such broadsides did not prevent Straub/Huillet from describing films such as Der Tod des Empedokles (The Death of Empedocles, 1986) as a “communist utopia”, or Straub from titling his most recent feature-length work Kommunisten (Communists, 2014), a kind of bricolage of scenes from their preceding œuvre, which opens with a recital of Hanns Eisler’s composition for the East German national anthem, and climaxes with Huillet, seated in a forest clearing, uttering the words “Neue Welt” (“new world”). Indeed, the more the word “communism” fell into disuse and mockery, the more firmly these two cinematic incorruptibles became unabashed in publicly brandishing it.

Kommunisten (2014)

Of course, the word itself is a notoriously ambiguous one, its meaning hotly contested. In the 19th century it referred chiefly to a vision of an egalitarian alternative to industrial capitalism, a dream state conjured in the utopian schemes of St. Simon and Fourier, or a concrete political goal in the “scientific” socialism theorised by Marx and Engels, of course (the former of whom described it as “not a state of affairs which is to be established [but] the real movement which abolishes the present state of things”) but also by Proudhon and Bakunin. In the following century, attempts to realise this vision, beginning in the Soviet Union and spreading to Eastern Europe, China and numerous Third World countries, largely resulted in bureaucratic dictatorships which delivered neither the material plenty nor the popular emancipation envisaged by the movement’s founders. For much of the 20th century, however, the label “communism” was monopolised, at least in the popular consciousness, by this Stalinised variant of Marxism-Leninism – something that happened on both sides of the Iron Curtain – and to a large extent repressed the primordial liberatory vision that the word initially represented.

It is this original meaning, however, that Straub/Huillet have remained attached to. While Straub jokingly referred to himself as an “old Stalinist”, and the couple did have some dealings with the Italian Communist Party during their time living in Rome (the Party’s electoral posters can even be seen pasted up on walls in films such as Geschichtsunterricht [History Lessons, 1972]), they always distanced themselves from the regimes of the Eastern bloc. Although they did not stand aloof from contemporary political struggles – far from it, Straub is notorious for his incendiary public commentaries – they have never subjected their filmmaking to instrumentalist needs. Their radical egalitarianism comes through, primarily, not in the attempted communication of a political “message” to the audience (an aesthetic strategy the two vocally rejected), but in the filmmaking process itself, and in the nature of the images that this process resulted in.

In the lexicographical history of the word communism, however, we may detect a new turning point in its political valency. Having been traduced by its equation with Stalinist rule, the collapse of the “big-C” Communist movement in the 1990s saw the very word so degraded as to virtually fall into disuse, at least in any positive sense, outside of a handful of tiny Leninist groupuscules, the only remnants of a once powerful movement. In 2009, this situation began to change. Under the auspices of Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek, a philosophical conference held in London titled “The Idea of Communism”  sought to rehabilitate the emancipatory promise of the term, judging that enough historical time had elapsed since the fall of the Berlin Wall for this move to be viable. Communism, in this understanding, was best seen as a hypothesis or a horizon rather than a doctrine or a dogma, and for Badiou, the present historical situation finds its best analogies in the 1840s, when Marx was first developing his ideas and the nascent proletariat had yet to be baptised in open revolutionary struggle. The conference was both a popular success and began a wide-ranging philosophical conversation that was continued with follow-up events in Paris, Berlin and New York.3 On a broader level, the after-effects of the 2008 economic crisis created a crisis of legitimacy for capitalism that has seen new left-wing movements take root – from the Occupy protests of 2011 to the Corbyn, Sanders and Mélenchon electoral campaigns of the latter half of the decade – which have provided an opening for terms like socialism and communism to gain renewed acceptance as affirmative political labels.

Straub/Huillet’s steadfast attachment to identifying themselves as communist filmmakers, and their concomitant furious denunciation of the depredations of industrial capitalism would thus seem to have been vindicated, and it is interesting that the last decade has seen a notable resurgence of interest in their work, a tendency that was first visible in France before more recently spreading to other countries. The London retrospective of their work in March-June 2019, organised by Ricardo Matos-Corbo, would seem to mark the arrival in the UK of this phenomenon, an appropriate development given the present political crisis produced by a decade of austerity capitalism in that country.

It is noteworthy, however, that one of the most high-profile participants in the series of “Communism” conferences, Jacques Rancière, who has been similarly resolute in his continued adherence to a fundamentally contestatory conception of politics, resisting the consensual ideology of the neoliberal era, has chosen to highlight not the tenacious consistency of Straub/Huillet’s communism, but rather the evolution in the couple’s own understanding of what communism means to them, as manifested in both their public interventions and, more crucially, in their approach to filmmaking.

In particular, Rancière pinpoints a major transformation in Straub/Huillet’s cinema that would be overdetermined by a subtle yet essential shift in their political outlook. This shift takes place, in Rancière’s view, not in the apocalyptic downfall of the “communist” states of the Warsaw Pact in the years 1989-1991, but earlier, in the late 1970s. It is worth recalling the political context of this period, particularly in the milieux of the cultural left in France, Germany and Italy to which Straub/Huillet, partly in spite of themselves, belonged. By the mid-1970s, the exhaustion of the radical movements born in the revolts of the late 1960s had become apparent. The Communist Parties of France and Italy still registered respectable electoral results, but only did so by further diluting their political programmes in the direction of tepid social democracy, and forging alliances with more right-wing forces (the “Union of the Left” in France, the “Historical Compromise” in Italy). Far-left groupings found themselves increasingly marginalised, a position exacerbated by the emergence of terrorist offshoots in Germany and Italy.4 The degeneration of the Eastern bloc regimes further reduced the attractiveness of a communist alternative to the capitalist economic order, and a broader social shift to the right prepared the ground for the neoliberal offensive of the 1980s. The activists and artists of the militant left responded to this political climate in a number of ways. Some, the most cynically opportunistic, made high-profile conversions to the right under the guise of “anti-totalitarianism”. Others hunkered down in sects, hoping that the setback was just a temporary one and that revolutionary change was still around the corner. Some sought out the Third World as the new site for radical politics – a logical move for the Maoist left, but a sentiment that could also be discerned early on in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s restless migration first to the south of Italy, then Palestine and Africa, in search of a people untarnished by industrial modernity. Others withdrew into social detachment, leaving behind the terrain of urban political activism and forming agricultural communes in an attempt to create a micro-scale version of the utopia they had previously militated for. The English cultural critic John Berger, whose biography has interesting parallels with that of the Straubs, notably moved to a farm in southern France at this time, and his script for Alain Tanner’s Jonas qui aura 25 ans en l’an 2000 (Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000) is one of the most affecting evocations of this trend.

Straub/Huillet never took any of these trajectories, but Rancière nonetheless considers the late 1970s as a turning point in their work, one that coincides with the release of Dalla nubia alla resistenza (From the Clouds to the Resistance, 1979), and the encounter with the writings of the mid-20th century Italian communist author Cesare Pavese that this film, which utilised passages from Dialogues with Leuco and The Moon and the Bonfire, represented. For Rancière, in an argument first rehearsed in a 2004 interview Philippe Lafosse, then reiterated in a chapter of his Intervals of Cinema,5 this film marked a shift in the notion of communism espoused by Straub/Huillet, and, concomitantly, in the entire dispositif of their filmmaking. Prior to their Pavese adaptation, as this account would have it, Straub/Huillet worked within a predominantly Brechtian aesthetic framework, which Rancière dubs a “dialectical dispositif”. Films such as Othon and History Lessons were marked by sharp formal disjunctions or ruptures in space and time, in order to jolt the spectator out of the immersion in the scene, and thereby (so the Brechtian doctrine would have it) prompt a political awakening in the audience. These films most notably achieved these effects through the brazen juxtaposition of ancient and modern worlds: while the diegesis of the films took place in ancient Rome, with characters in the foreground wearing togas and engaging in the kind of palace intrigue endemic to the Roman ruling elite, Straub/Huillet often let overt signs of modern life appear in the background or on the soundtrack: traffic, aeroplanes, modern buildings. Oscillating between incompatible temporalities, the spectator would come both to question the functioning of the cinematic apparatus, the illusory nature of the filmic scene, which was here barely maintained in the first place, and they would also be led to infer parallels between the historical content of the films’ narratives and their own contemporary time.

Othon (1970)

This “dialectical dispositif” would thus flow out of a more traditional Leninist model of praxis, in which a vanguard, perforce led by bourgeois intellectuals, takes upon itself the task of raising the consciousness of the working-class so that it can see the necessity of class struggle against the capitalist system as a whole. Under Brecht (as well as Sartre, Eisenstein, Godard and others), this political method was translated into an aesthetic paradigm, which involved “an art that replaces the continuities and progressions of the narrative and empathic model with a broken-up form that aims to expose the tensions and contradictions inherent in the presentation of situations,” while Straub/Huillet’s pre-1979 work represents “the most systematic form” of this paradigm in the cinema and “thus the most apt for fixing its image and defining a perspective from which to view contemporary films, including those outside this paradigm.”6

This is not, however, to argue that Straub/Huillet were doctrinaire, even in the phase of their Brechtian paradigm. While Straub was fond of quoting Lenin to the effect that “the minority of today will be the majority of tomorrow” in defence of a film aesthetics that took on distinctly avant-gardist allures, he also stated, as early as 1970, “I don’t know if I’m a Marxist. I don’t know, because there are so many ways to be Marxist. I haven’t read all of Marx. Marxism is a method, it’s not an ideology.”7 Intransigent in their opposition to the capitalist order, Straub/Huillet always strove to avoid a dogmatic approach. Even their early films beat this out: far from the model of the Brechtian Lehrstück, or didactic play, they were renowned for their supposed inscrutability, and offer the spectator opportunity for tranquil contemplation (the notorious passages of “dead time” on the screen) as much as they bombard them with fragmentary disjunctions.

Nonetheless, Rancière insists on a turn away from the Brechtian, “dialectical” dispositif in Straub/Huillet’s cinema, and toward a post-Brechtian aesthetic regime founded on what he terms a “lyrical dispositif” which would have more affinities with Hölderlin or Benjamin than with the author of The Threepenny Opera. Underpinning this formal shift is a political turn, one away from a more recognisably Marxist notion of communism based on proletarian self-emancipation and the growth in the productive capacities of humanity, to an “ecological communism” which would be rooted primarily in the millennia-long relationship between the peasants and their land, in which the role of manual labour, cultural traditions, ancient mythology, and a sustainable harmony between the natural and built environments becomes central.

A revolutionary overthrow of the status quo remains an ongoing concern for Straub/Huillet after this turning point, but it is no longer a force for being catapulted into the future, instead, as the filmmakers said, quoting Benjamin, it should be thought of as a “tiger’s leap into the past” that involves “reinstating very ancient but forgotten things.” Under Benjamin’s influence, too, Straub/Huillet’s ecological communism has a heavily mystic quality, which sees a turn towards a pre-modern conception of the world. In Straub’s words: “There is no political film without morality, there is no political film without theology, there is no political film without mysticism.”8  In films such as From the Clouds, The Death of Empedocles and Antigone, the gods not only exist, but are capable of interacting with mortals – the boundaries between them become fluid. Emblematic of this is the first dialogue of From the Clouds, in which a peasant called Ixion converses with a deity incarnating The Cloud (played by Olimpia Carlisi).

From the Clouds to the Resistance (1979)

It is undeniable that many hallmarks of the Straub style remain intact from one period to the next. The films continue to be regarded as austere, patient and “challenging” for viewers unfamiliar with their work. If the role of nature is prominent in From the Clouds and later films of their “ecological” period, it is already present in Othon. The images and sounds of their films are filled with the droning of insects, the rustling of leaves in the wind, burbling streams, rocks, the sky, the shifting of the sun. The Straubs’ materialist approach to filmmaking is often evoked as an ever-present in their career: but here it is less a historical materialist philosophy that is at issue, but a profound care for filming the material world – both organic and inorganic – with sensitivity and respect. Such a truly non-hierarchical cinematic method is encapsulated in a Rosa Luxembourg quote Straub/Huillet have often cited, which has it that “that “the fate of an insect which struggles between life and death, somewhere in a nook sheltered from humanity, is as important as the fate and the future of the revolution.”9 This quality can be most trenchantly found in the duo’s hallmark “Straubian shots”: prolonged panning or tracking shots over supposedly empty landscapes that periodically interrupt the filmic narrative. As Deleuze notes, these images of “empty and lacunary stratigraphic landscapes”, where the camera movements “trace the abstract curve of what has happened”, are primarily important not for what they show on screen, but what lies buried beneath: the victims of history whose blood fertilises the fields of Fortini/Cani, From the Clouds and Trop tôt, trop tard (Too Early, Too Late, 1981).10 But he also recognises that such “empty” images in fact have “a fullness in which there is nothing missing.” While Straub/Huillet are often considered minimalist filmmakers, this does them an injustice: they are perhaps better thought of, as Gallagher has stressed, as “maximalists”: their shoot are not empty but teeming with life, with the world such as it is.11

Similarly, the consistency in Straub/Huillet’s œuvre is evinced by their persistent, though not exclusive, use of non-professional actors, whose delivery of their lines is based more on processes of recitation rather than “naturalistic” performance. This approach, the product of painstaking rehearsals, creates new speech rhythms – the dialogue in Straub/Huillet’s films is renowned for its syncopations, which serves to deconstruct language and give it a musical quality approximating the Sprechgesang of Schoenberg’s operas.

While Rancière recognises these continuities, he argues that the emergence of a “lyrical dispositif” in the later work of Straub/Huillet brings about a number of formal shifts. On the level of language, while the principle of a rejection of standard conventions of theatrical speech is adhered to throughout, the respective relations between prosaic and poetic language are reversed. A film like Othon, for Rancière, represented a “prosification of verse” – the elaborate Alexandrines of Corneille’s 17th century play are so broken up as to have their metric rhythm destroyed. By contrast, From the Clouds and the Vittorini adaptations Sicilia! (1999) and Workers, Peasants (2000) see a versification of prose. The texts themselves often feature quotidian conversations, but they are worked on to produce a musicality and rhythmic quality that transforms the prose into poetry. Angela Nugara’s quasi-operatic performance as the protagonist’s mother in Sicilia! is perhaps the most famous example of this tendency, but an earlier sequence in the same film, in which the son encounters a police spy in a train compartment is perhaps even more totemic of Straub/Huillet’s ability to versify the prosaic: the two simply recite the names of stations along the line they are travelling on, but this act alone is enough to produce a song-like rhythm in their speech, doubtless aided by the inherent musicality of Italian geographical place names.

More generally, the sharp disjunctions of Othon and History Lessons become attenuated in Straub/Huillet’s later work. Their focus becomes more and more trained on islands of pre-modernity, which the filmmakers tend to find in the south of Italy. Concomitantly, we now find a more harmonious aesthetic in their work, one that consists of, in Rancière’s words, “a dispositif of agreement between what is said and the words that express it: we are no longer in the dissociation between words and the visible but rather in the relationship between equality itself in the visible – that is there, this stays, this continues – and speech, both dramatic and lyric.”12 In some cases this takes the form of untouched nature: the luscious grove in which Workers, Peasants is played out, but it can also feature elements of the pre-modern human world: the fields that have been tilled by peasants for millennia, the stone houses or ancient amphitheatres that have been preserved in the present day, even if in a state of ruins, artefacts like the bicycle-powered blade-sharpener at the end of Sicilia!, or even the diction and gestures of performers selected precisely for their preservation of elements of the world of the past.

Sicilia! (1999)

Is there, then, an incorrigible nostalgic yearning for a perlapsarian past in the “post-Brechtian” work of Straub/Huillet? Has their revolutionary politics ceded to a reactionary desire simply to turn back their clock, idealising the ancient world as a lost Eden? Are they subject to what Enzo Traverso has called “left-wing melancholy”, mourning the impossibility of a just society rather than engaging in the struggle for it. Their attraction to Hölderlin during this time would be an indication of this: the German Romantic poet, while marked by a belief in a communist utopia in which nature is the “cradle of the children of the Earth”, was notably vexed by seeing this as an irredeemably lost paradise, which existed in ancient Greece but has been extirpated by the modern world. Rancière even makes the case that “the Straubs’ Marxism has more and more of a tendency to move towards Heidegger,” but this is a connection that is explicitly ruled out by Straub himself.13

The influence of Pavese and Vittorini can also be seen as a factor here: exact contemporaries of one another (they were both born in 1908), both writers were card-carrying members of the Italian Communist Party, who participated in the resistance during World War II, but also took their differences from the party line, and became increasingly disillusioned by the PCI’s accommodations with the political mainstream. Coming from a Marxist standpoint, their writing focuses on what Rancière calls the “aporias of emancipation”: the hardened discipline required to resist and defeat the forces of reaction also tends to produce a bureaucratic caste that substitutes itself for the self-organisation of the oppressed. Straub/Huillet’s follow-up to Workers, Peasants, Umiliati (The Humiliated, 2002), perhaps best encapsulates this sense of impending despair in the aftermath of the liberation, when the self-armed peasants responsible for driving fascism out of Italy were demobilised by Communist functionaries, wary of the direction that this kind of popular self-empowerment could take.

And yet, Straub/Huillet refuse to wallow in a melancholic lament for the missed revolutions, and both their political statements and filmmaking method attest to their continued faith in the cinema as a political practice. One need only think of Straub’s written notice at the 2005 Venice film festival, when he stated that “I wouldn’t be able to be festive in a festival where there are so many public and private police looking for a terrorist – I am the terrorist, and I tell you, paraphrasing Franco Fortini: so long as there’s American imperialistic capitalism, there’ll never be enough terrorists in the world,” to see the indignant rage that continues to drive him.14 If, as Rancière insists, Brechtian didacticism, marked by disjunction and fragmentation, is superseded in Straub/Huillet’s later works, then how do they conceive of their filmmaking as a political act?

For the French philosopher, the politics in Straub/Huillet’s films emerges primarily through the presence of “gestures of resistance”. Here, Rancière is palpably influenced by Deleuze, who in Cinema 2 argued that it is the speech-act itself which, in films such as Moses und Aron (Moses and Aaron, 1975) and Klassenverhältnisse (Class Relations, 1984), represents an “an act of resistance”: “The act of speech or music is a struggle: it must be economical and sparse, infinitely patient, in order to impose itself on what resists it, but extremely violent in order to be itself a resistance, an act of resistance. Irresistibly, it rises.”15 Here, it is not the content of the speech-act, not the semantic meaning of the texts used, that is important, but the phonic qualities of the voice, and the encounter between the text and the individual reciting it. As Huillet puts it: ““Let’s take Pavese for example. Ultimately, we couldn’t care less about Pavese himself by the end of the film. What interests us are the good people who say the Pavese texts, what they do in life, how they say the texts, the problems they have with what they say … the only interest in the text or in what you call the culture is that the guy who wrote it did a certain job, he produced something which touched us and which as a consequence resisted us.”.”16

From the Clouds to the Resistance (1979)

Rancière finds an equivalent to this in the physical gestures that punctually appear at key moments in Straub/Huillet’s films, moments where questions of political morality are most sharply posed. The example he gives comes in the sixth dialogue in From the Clouds, between a father and sun, in which the father rhetorically defends the practice of sacrificing the innocent to please the Gods and bring rain to their drought-stricken village. Even if this is an injustice, the father argues in utilitarian fashion, it is necessary for the greater good. The same goes for revolutionary violence today: if the bosses’ houses have to be burned to the ground to make the world a just place, then this is a necessary sacrifice. The end justifies the means. For the son, however, this principle only leads to a “sober resignation to the commission of injustice since that is how the world is,” and this kind of logic will only serve to reproduce the violence of the existing social order.17 While the dialogue is taken directly from Pavese, Rancière notes two textual interventions made by Straub/Huillet. The first involves cutting short the episode: while Pavese’s original text had the father high-handedly rebuking the son for his ignorance and daring him to repeat his criticism, Straub/Huillet instead give the final word to the son’s argument. The second, meanwhile, is to accompany the son’s words with a gesture captured in close-up, all the more prominent for its rarity in Straub/Huillet’s œuvre: here, the son’s open-palmed hand sweeps down by the side of his tunic. The close-up of a hand can not fail to invoke the clenched fist of Bronenosets Potemkin (Battleship Potemkin, 1925), but its role is very different from that of the Eisenstein shot. Instead of the unambiguous symbolism of a people uniting in struggle, the gesture in From the Clouds has multiple possible messages: it could serve to designate soil under the son’s feet, or function as a gesture of refusal, or even as a hand opened up to the promise of the future. The gesture in Straub/Huillet is thus marked by “tragic irresolution, compelling reflection on any future of Communism to include the provocation of that myth and its repetitive history.”18 Moreover, the son’s gesture does not just act as an interruption to the Marxist casuistry of the father, it

incorporates the wealth of palpable experience in his blocks of words and experience in his blocks of words and experience. It weaves it into the present richness of light, landscape and wind. From there, the moon and bonfires, the grass and vines, the crunch of footsteps on the sandy road, the sound of the stream or the wind in the trees, the very confusion of apparent opposites would be felt in their dual aspect of palpable common riches and he cutting-up of the world that renders justice invisible.19

If Straub/Huillet have never wavered from their anti-capitalist commitment, we are nonetheless far from the revolutionary certitudes of the Brechtian tradition and its dialectics of didacticism. The question of revolution is not an affair of modernity, but one that mobilises millennia of social relations. As Badiou has stated of Straub/Huillet, they are “intemporal Marxists constructing pure forms,” for whom “the question of power, class relations, is much older [and] much more powerfully structured than [the 68ers’] agitation believed.”20

Questions nonetheless remain. Is the presence of such gestures of resistance enough for a political aesthetics? Is there not more to Straub/Huillet’s filmmaking, which resists the norms of commercial cinema on virtually every level: whether in their form, their content or the production process itself? And is such a univocal distinction between a “Brechtian” and “post-Brechtian” paradigm in their work, and between a workerist, productivist conception of communism, in line with Marxist-Leninist doctrine, and a peasant-based, ecological vision of a communist utopia the most useful way of conceptualising their filmography? Elsewhere in this dossier, Martin Brady has made a compelling argument for the continued pertinence of Brecht’s influence on Straub/Huillet’s work. Their filming of Antigone in 1991 is perhaps most emblematic of this trait: it is notable that they were attracted to a text represented the encounter, precisely, between Brecht and Hölderlin – that is, between Marxist class struggle and the forlorn utopianism of German romanticism.

Similarly, their concern for questions of ecology, for the conservation of the natural and pre-modern world amidst the onslaught of industrialisation, can be seen as precocious step, coming well before the popularisation of the environmental movement, which only has more urgency in the present day, when the catastrophic effects of capitalist-induced climate change are ravaging the Earth. But a clear-cut distinction between Marxism and “ecological communism” is perhaps less valid than a synthesis of the two. Environmental themes are already apparent in Marx’s writings (think of the umbrage he took at the various Enclosure Acts of the early 19th century, parcelling out the land to the land-owning class). It may be true that Straub/Huillet took their distances from a certain productivist strain in Marxism, Straub once stated, “Today I think that Marx was wrong and that the Lyons weavers were right when they destroyed their machines.”21 Following Benjamin, however,  he also ascribes this more to the reformist distortion of Marxism than to Marx himself: “You have to take a firm stand against Social Democracy, reformism and all that junk, because the only these people refuse is the fact that there ever was a past , that things were different. They are completely anti-Marxian: the Marxian method par excellence consisted of searching all the way back to the Assyrians to find out differences, changes.”22 In a 1997 interview, however, Straub was more categorical in rejecting an opposition between “radical Marxism” and “radical ecologism”, stating “Since the collapse of the wall and the so-called ideologists, there is nothing more urgent to take up than the Marxist discourse and definitely not the ecologist discourse. I don’t know what an ecologist discourse is. We are not endangered birds. One films comes from another. Pavese, Kafka, and then Hölderlin…”23

Contra Rancière, then, Straub/Huillet’s œuvre should best be thought of not as schematically dividing into two distinct periods governed by contrasting aesthetic paradigms, but exists, as he himself maintained in that Forum des Images Q-and-A, as a coherent body of work marked by zigzags, a dialectical process of change and continuity. Marxism and ecology, worker and peasant, Brecht and Pavese, the dialectical and the lyrical, are not terms of opposition, but synthetic couples within the overarching term that animates all of Straub/Huillet’s films: communism.


  1. See Jean Narboni, “La vicariance du pouvoir”, translated as “Vicarious Power”, trans. Leigh Hafrey, in Nick Browned (ed.), Cahiers du cinéma vol. III: 1969-1972: The Politics of Represetation (London: BFI, 1991), pp. 150-162.
  2. See Peter Handke, “Kinonacht, Kinotiernacht”, in Die Früchte des Zorns und der Zärtlichkeit, Viennale 2004 catalogue, pp. 115-119, here p. 115.
  3. For a record of the conference proceedings, see Slavoj Žižek and Costa Douzinas (eds.), The Idea of Communism (London: Verso, 2010).
  4. Straub/Huillet were not personally remote from these movements: Holger Meins, a member of the Rote Armee Fraktion who died in prison, worked as a cameraman for them, and their dedicated of Moses and Aaron to the young militant caused a considerable uproar in West Germany.
  5. See Jacques Rancière, “Politics and Aesthetics in the Straubs’ Films”, trans. Ted Fendt, Mubi Critic’s Notebook, https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/politics-and-aesthetics-in-the-straubs-films; Jacques Rancière, The Intervals of Cinema, trans. John Howe (London: Verso, 2014), pp. 103-126.
  6. Rancière, Intervals of the Cinema, op. cit., pp. 103-104.
  7. Jean-Marie Straub, interviewed in Sebastian Schadhauser et al., “Entretien avec Jean-Marie Straub et Danièle Huillet”, Cahiers du cinéma 223 (August-Septeber 1970), pp. 48-57, here, p. 57.
  8. Jean Marie-Straub, interviewed in François Albera, “Sickle and Hammer, Cannons, Cannons, Dynamite”, trans. Jean-Pierre Bedoyan and George Antheil, in Die Früchte des Zorns und der Zärtlichkeit, Viennale 2004 catalogue, pp. 41-50, here pp. 41-42.
  9. Jean-Marie Straub, interviewed in Bruno Tackels (ed.), Rencontres avec Jean-Marie Straub et Danièle Huillet (Strasbourg: Limelight, 1995), p. 15.
  10. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tonlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: Uniersity of Minnesota Press, 1989), p. 244.
  11. See Tag Gallagher, “The Films of Straub and Huillet: Images Richer than Words”, https://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/features/jean-marie-straub-daniele-huillet-films-images-richer-words
  12. Rancière, “Politics and Aesthetics in the Straubs’ Films”, op. cit.
  13. See Rancière, “Politics and Aesthetics in the Straubs’ Films”, op. cit.; and Jean-Marie Straub, “Hölderlin: That is Utopia,” in Sally Shafto (ed.), Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet: Writings (New York: Sequence Press, 2016), pp. 204-205.
  14. Jean-Marie Straub, “Three Messages t the 63rd International Venice Film Festival”, in Shafto (ed.), Writings, p. 273.
  15. Deleuze, Cinema 2, op. cit., p. 254.
  16. Danièle Huillet, interviewed in Serge Daney and Jean Narboni, “De la nuée à la résistance: Entretien avec Jean-Marie Straub et Danièle Huillet”, Cahiers du cinéma 305 (November 1979), pp. 14-19, here, p. 17.
  17. Rancière, Intervals of the Cinema, op. cit., p. 110.
  18. Ibid., p. 111
  19. Ibid., p. 112.
  20. Alain Badiou, “Penser le surgissement de l’événement”, Cahiers du Cinéma (hors-série): Cinéma 68 (1998), pp. 10-19, here p 14.
  21. Jean-Marie Straub, interviewed in Eduard Waintrop, “Antigone”, Libération September 1, 1992.
  22. Straub, interviewed in Albera, “Sickle and Hammer, Cannons, Cannons, Dynamite”, op. cit. p. 41.
  23. Jean Marie-Straub, “Interview on Images and Magic”, in Shafto (ed.), Writings, op. cit., p. 249.

About The Author

Daniel Fairfax is assistant professor in Film Studies at the Goethe Universität-Frankfurt, and an editor of Senses of Cinema.

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