A touchstone for the highly politicised debates in film criticism during the 1960s and 1970s, the work of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet appeared, by the early 2000s, to have suffered a terminal decline in the level of interest it provoked. Although the couple continued to produce work that conformed to their stringent artistic demands, their later films struggled to even be shown in venues that had previously showcased their work, such as film festivals, repertory cinemas and university film societies. Cinephiles were less and less receptive to their films, judging them to be austere if not masochistic, while academic interest in Straub/Huillet’s practice – deemed to be archetypal of an outmoded “political modernist” paradigm of film theory – similarly waned. Everywhere, it seemed, membership in what critic Serge Daney called the “Straubian international” was diminishing. In truth, however, this phenomenon was uneven, and was more pronounced in Germany and Anglophone nations than in countries such as Italy (where most of their post-1970 films were made), Portugal and the Spanish-speaking world, in which the Straubs found more steadfast support for their radical work.
In France, a state of critical neglect began to be reversed by the late-2000s, a turnaround perhaps prompted, as morbid as the thought is, by the death of Huillet in 2006. In the ensuing years, several monographs on Straub/Huillet’s work have appeared in French,1 and the majority of their cinematic output has appeared on DVD in a seven-part series released by Éditions Montparnasse, thereby making readily available films that had until then remained ensconced in archival vaults, only emerging for rare retrospective screenings. In French cultural discourse, their films have seen a distinct return to favour, discussed by philosophers such as Alain Badiou and Jacques Rancière, and rehabilitated by a younger generation of critics and activists who see in their politically strident work pertinent echoes for the contemporary world.2 Straub himself – who recently moved to Rolle, the Swiss village Jean-Luc Godard has resided in since 1980 – has remained active, releasing an average of two short films a year since Huillet’s death, and he can occasionally be spotted at screenings of their films, taking questions from the audience in a typically intransigent manner.3
2016, meanwhile, may well come to be seen as the year in which this renewal of interest in Straub/Huillet’s work spread to the English-speaking sphere, and North America in particular. This year has seen a complete retrospective of their œuvre tour the United States, beginning at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in May; at the same time, the Miguel Abreu gallery in lower Manhattan displayed their work in the exhibition “Films and their Sites” which featured excerpts from Straub/Huillet’s films, production stills and work-documents. Perhaps the most lasting contribution to this revival, however, comes in the form of two books related to Straub/Huillet’s work, their collected Writings (edited by Sally Shafto), published in tandem with the Miguel Abreu exhibition by Sequence Press, and Jean-Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet (edited by Ted Fendt), the latest instalment in the Austrian Film Museum’s excellent “Synema” series. These publications come twelve years after the last English-language monograph on the Straubs, Ursula Böser’s The Art of Seeing, The Art of Listening, and twenty years have elapsed since the publication of Barton Byg’s more widely known overview of their German-language films Landscapes of Resistance 4 Although the two books were independent projects, there was a measure of collaboration between the two editors (Fendt even translated some texts for the Writings), and Barbara Ulrich, who is now Straub’s closest collaborator, assisted on both of them. In any case, their near simultaneous publication prods us to consider the two books together.5
Shafto has long been a scholar of Straub/Huillet’s work, and her treatment of their films has appeared in past issues of Senses of Cinema.6. In tackling the Writings project, however, she was evidently embarking on a much more logistically challenging task: the resulting book comes to 609 pages, and required a profusion of archival work before reaching fruition. It is true that parallel efforts have already been undertaken: in Italian (separate endeavours in 1984 and 1992), Spanish (2011), Portuguese (2012) and French (2012), all of which served as precursors to the current edition.7 In a review of the French Écrits for 1895, Benoît Turquety took editors Philippe Lafosse and Cyril Neyrat to task for their assertion that it included “all the published writings” of Straub/Huillet: not only is this a fraught claim to make when it comes to a scriptorial corpus as proteiform as that of the Straubs, it was also manifestly untrue, as the French edition contained significant lacunae.8. Shafto, by contrast, is both more comprehensive in her attempt to unearth Straub/Huillet’s written work (combining the results of the previous editions, and including some texts that appear for the first time since their original publication), and more prudent, reminding the reader that “this edition makes no claim to exhaustivity.” (p. 11)
That it is in the English language that Straub/Huillet’s writings should find their most complete publication is at one and the same time apt and slightly disagreeable. Apt because, as Shafto reminds us, they are “translingual authors” who were equally at ease in German, Italian and their native French. The duo never published more than a handful of words in English (although Huillet could speak the language), and so in this edition, unlike its French and Italian equivalents, there is no distinction between translated texts and those appearing in the language of their original composition: simply put, everything is a translation. The translations are generally of a high quality, with Shafto assisted by previous work carried out by Straub scholars and colleagues such as Barton Byg, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Tag Gallagher and Gregory Woods, as well as newer efforts by Fendt and Daniel Heller-Roazen for writings appearing in English for the first time. Moreover, the tricky course between following Huillet’s own radically philological approach to translation (for the subtitles to their films) and presenting the texts in an accessible, readable manner is admirably charted.
Slightly disagreeable because of the English language’s indisputable status as the Esperanto of contemporary caca-pipitalism (Straub’s delightful term). As the filmmaker himself has persistently argued, “Esperanto has always been the dream of the bourgeoisie.” (p. 160) He and Huillet have even argued that “filmmakers who shoot films in English even though it is not their language are lackeys of American imperialism” and that they prefer to “make specific films, for specific languages, in specific places.” (p. 259) Their work on figures such as Hölderlin, Kafka, Corneille and Pavese is so dependent on the poetic force of the languages deployed by these authors that their transposition to the infinitely more prosaic tongue of the Anglo-Saxons unavoidably has a reductive effect. Would it be asking too much, then, for the Straubian international to produce a multilingual edition of their writings, reproducing each text en version originale?
Such an appeal should in no way be seen as a criticism of Shafto’s endeavour, which will undeniably play a major role in exposing those with no access to languages other than English to the ideas and practice of Straub/Huillet. Writings reprises the division of the Écrits into three sections: “Texts” (published articles and other written texts by Straub and Huillet), “Atelier” (consisting of work-documents from their productions, including press kits, letters to crew members and excerpts from the annotated scripts of four of their films) and “Portfolio” (a series of photographs drawn from Straub/Huillet cinematographer Renato Berta’s private collection, with commentary from Berta). This schema largely excludes, however, what must be Straub/Huillet’s most prolific textual production – namely, published interviews. Some of these are included in the “Texts” section, but attempting to be more comprehensive on this front would undoubtedly have made an already mammoth exercise untenably pharaonic in scope.
Of perhaps most interest in the “Texts” section are the critical texts written by Straub in the 1950s, most of which have already been published in the Écrits, but appear in English now for the first time. The half-dozen articles he composed in the years 1954-155 (when still in his early twenties) are a precious archaeological document of the evolution of Straub/Huillet’s cinematic tastes and ideological views. Written for publications such as Rythmes: le grand hebdomadaire de la région de l’Est and Radio Cinéma Télévision, they evince an interest in Hitchcock (whose Rear Window is described as a neorealist film [p. 39]), Kurosawa (who is nonetheless seen as more “impure” than Mizoguchi [p. 43]), Buñuel (whose “love for the instinctive and irrational” is highlighted by Straub [p. 44]), and Nicholas Ray (whose Johnny Guitar  is considered “one of the most Stendhalian of films” [p. 56]). Bazin’s influence on Straub/Huillet – which seems obvious to us now, but was systematically elided by many scholars in the 1970s – is also manifest here: the theorist is quoted at length in Straub’s first published article, and references to him abound elsewhere. More broadly, Straub’s Catholic background is apparent in these texts: one of his longest pieces is dedicated to the “clear Christian meaning” of Rossellini’s work (p. 48), wherein he cites Henri Agel, Amédée Ayfre and Maurice Schérer (aka Éric Rohmer). 9
The 1960s saw a distinct shift in the tone and ideological perspective adopted by Straub (who retains sole authorship for most of the texts written in the decade). The writings of this period – one of exile for the couple, who moved to Germany so that Straub could avoid military service in Algeria – consisted largely of various pronouncements on the state of European film culture and his own outlook as a filmmaker. They are generally better known than his earlier film criticism, but some gems have been unearthed by Shafto that were not included in the earlier anthologies of Straub/Huillet’s writings: Straub’s signature of the “Second Oberhausen Manifesto” (pp. 63-64), more politically strident than its renowned predecessor, links him to a moment in the “New German Cinema” from which he had usually been excluded, and his determined defence of German filmmakers such as Peter Nestler and Klaus Lemke is also visible in this section. Other texts, such as “Status of the New Filmmaker” and “I Have Always Been Horrified…” give insight into Straub/Huillet’s conception of the cinema: the first declares that “The art of the cinematograph is nothing other than the application of space in time” (p. 58), while the second maintains that “For me a shot (plan) is a shot, that is, an objective reality that constitutes a whole, and that has no other function – narrative, psychological or any other” (p. 89). This piece also gives a detailed justification of Straub/Huillet’s use of the long-take, partly inspired by Rouch’s single-shot short-film Gare du Nord.
Straub/Huillet’s later writings are more heterogeneous, and include text-montages reproduced here in full (including “Filmcritica, Eisenstein, Brecht,” drawn from a letter to Cahiers du cinéma in 1971, and Straub’s selection of passages from Klaus Völker’s Brecht-Chronik), as well as letters, filmographies, lectures and responses to questionnaires. Some of the most interesting texts here are actually penned by Huillet alone, and attest to her methodical attention to historical detail and precision in the filmmaking process: her “Small Historical Excursus” on the Israelite tribe in the ancient world. written in preparation for Moses und Aron (Moses and Aaron, 1975), and her notes on Gregory Woods’ diary of the shoot for the same film offer abundant evidence of these qualities. Straub, meanwhile, continued to nourish his taste for public provocation right up to the 2000s. In this vein, a 2006 communiqué to the Venice film festival declaring that “So long as there’s American imperialistic capitalism, there’ll never be enough terrorists in the world” (p. 273) was particularly controversial. In contrast to the editors of Écrits, Shafto has elected not to excise other, similarly incendiary proclamations by Straub from their corpus of writings: these include a letter to the Export Union of German Cinema (accusing them of being fascists, ignoramuses, hypocrites and pimps for denying Straub/Huillet funding to attend the New York film festival), a letter on the visit by Ronald Reagan (“this old crocodile”) to the Bitburg military cemetery in 1985 (p. 193), a statement in support of imprisoned members of the Action Directe insurrectionary group (pp. 268-269), and excerpts from a televised debate on “virtual reality” where Straub accuses VR proponent Philippe Quéau of being an agent of “the CIA or the World Bank,” before, intriguingly, declaring himself to be a Thomist (pp. 242-243). While often not directly related to the cinema, these declarations are an integral part of Straub/Huillet’s public persona and indisputably merit their inclusion in Writings.
The “Atelier” section is more specialised in nature: while those who are casually acquainted with Straub/Huillet’s work may find little of interest, the scholar seeking to more deeply engage with the production history of their films will discover a plethora of valuable material. The screenplays reproduced here are mostly reprised from the Écrits (as is the case with Berta’s “portfolio,” although a couple of photos from the French edition are inexplicably absent in Writings), but Shafto is also able to include, for the first time, production documents from their Cézanne film (Cézanne: Dialogue avec Joachim Gasquet, 1989), as well as the annotated script and press kit for Antigone, the latter of which contains the precious text “Supplication!” by Huillet, in which she sums up their filmmaking in the following terms: “A film is most of the time for us an encounter with a place. When all these elements, the place (space), theatre (fiction), life (experiences) come together, a film is born (time).” (p. 394)
The critical apparatus established under Shafto’s auspices is generally of a reliable and informative nature, with the footnotes in particular providing useful material on the publication history of the texts and the context in which they were written. I have two small quibbles, however. Firstly, the “Questionnaire on May 1968” (p. 266-267), a response to Cahiers du cinéma, was written and first published in 1998, for the thirtieth anniversary of the événements, not 2003. Secondly, it is simplistic and misleading to note that Huillet’s assertion that “the cinema isn’t a language; [it’s] an apparatus for radiography, a mirror that helps to see […] reality” refutes Bazin’s conclusion to his “Ontology of the Photographic Image” essay (pp. 252-253). While it is true that the theorist here states, “Then again, the cinema is a language,” this phrase was at least partly ironic, and goes against the grain of the rest of his essay, whose line of argumentation in fact aligns quite closely with Huillet’s own stance. But these objections are relatively inconsequential concerns, and should not detract from the impressive editorial work carried out by Shafto and her collaborators.
While Fendt’s book is of a markedly different nature to Shafto’s, it similarly departs from the standard format of the scholarly monograph. Instead we are presented with something of a montage of diverse textual materials relating to Straub/Huillet’s œuvre. Claudia Pummer’s 90-page overview of their life and work is followed by a collection of photographs from Moses and Aaron and Von heute auf morgen (From Today Until Tomorrow, 1997), a translation of a 2001 interview with the couple conducted by François Albera, a selection of “thoughts and reflections” from those who have worked on Straub/Huillet’s films, critical texts by other filmmakers (John Gianvito, Harun Farocki and Jean-Pierre Gorin), a compilation of documents from the archives of New Yorker Films (which distributed many of their films in the North American market), and a pair of intriguing texts by Fendt and Ulrich respectively: the former details the reception of Straub/Huillet’s films in the English-speaking world, while the latter describes the process of restoring their films in preparation for the 2016 touring retrospective.
Pummer’s text, based on work carried out for her 2011 PhD on the Straubs, offers a concise summary of each of their films, for the most part delineated in chronological order, which is grounded in the claim that “the most fundamental principle in the duo’s œuvre is therefore not a matter of form or style, but derives from an ethical position that defines how the filmmakers relate to a text, a place, and the people with whom they work.” (p. 10) While Straub’s early contacts with Bazin and Truffaut are noted (he invited them to Metz to introduce screenings at the town’s ciné-club), Pummer stresses that the couple’s films lack the “anarchic exuberance” and “obsession with contemporary youth culture” that is usually ascribed to the nouvelle vague (p. 12), and instead their engagement with contemporary political issues is emphasised. Of particular interest here is their adaptation of Der Tod des Empedokles (The Death of Empedocles, 1987), which Straub has described as “Hölderlin’s communist utopia”, while Klassenverhältnisse (Class Relations, 1984) highlights Kafka’s status as a “poet of industrial society”. Pummer’s text is at its most ground-breaking, however, in dealing with Straub’s most recent work, when, after Huillet’s death, he made the turn to digital cinematography. In releasing these short films on a regular basis, Straub remains, as Pummer notes, “a crucial figure in the international world of filmmaking” (p. 93) and while they have so far attracted little sustained scholarship, these films have continued to incite polemics within critical circles, as a debate between filmmaker Jon Jost and critic Andy Rector attests (p. 95).
The pieces by filmmakers on Straub/Huillet’s work, all of which appear in English for the first time, are a particularly fascinating element of Fendt’s anthology: here Farocki relays anecdotes about his work as an actor in Class Relations, as well as his experience of their dynamic as a couple, while Gorin, discussing the documentary Où gît votre sourire enfoui? (Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?, Pedro Costa, 2001), passionately argues against the tendency to “erase Pedro Costa’s name out of the equation”, as if Straub/Huillet were “somehow miraculously present and not presented” in the film. Gianvito, meanwhile, in the midst of a glowing appreciation of Straub/Huillet’s work, registers a liberal-pacifist distaste for Straub’s frequent declarations in support of revolutionary terrorism – which he claims are “sidestepped by admirers” – and even ponders whether Straub “would still make this claim (at least publicly) after the events of Paris in 2015.” (pp. 151-152) Suffice to say that Straub is still alive and kicking, and so far has not aired any regret about his long-held political stance, which has frequently raised the ire of censors of multiple stripes. 10
While it may be of niche interest, Fendt’s own contribution gives a fascinating rundown of the varied reception history of Straub/Huillet’s work in the US and the UK, and is the fruit of a meticulous trawl through the archives of newspapers, film magazines and other – often ephemeral or long out-of-print – publications. Fendt’s text methodically charts the evolution, over the last fifty years, in how these films were seen and where they were discussed: we see a shift from releases on the college circuit and notices in daily newspapers in the 1960s and 1970s, to a perennial presence on the international film festival circuit and critical appreciations in online outlets such as Mubi, Undercurrent and Senses of Cinema in the 2000s and 2010s.
Across the two books, it was Ulrich’s contribution to Fendt’s book – “Straubian Reproductions”, which defends the decision to transpose eight of Straub/Huillet’s films to DCPs for the North American retrospective – that had me shaking my head the most. Certainly, these restorations were carried out with the utmost rigour, and the moral and political ramifications of digital “restoration” were consciously addressed. Accordingly, Ulrich does not shirk from the notion that “we have therefore tried to make ‘new’ films that remain faithful to Straubian choices.” (p. 213) The new DCPs, prompted by the deterioration of New Yorker Films’ existing prints, seemingly have Straub’s blessing. While it is true that he has made an epiphanic conversion to digital filmmaking in the last decade (for practical reasons, primarily), I was struck, when reading through his and Huillet’s writings, how often statements that they have aired demolish the very premise of a digital copy being made of their work, let alone one that is supposed to be a substitute for the original 35mm prints.
Straub/Huillet’s decision, for instance, to make four distinct versions of The Death of Empedocles was explicitly conceived of as “an attack against the reproducibility of a work of art” as well as “an attack against the uniqueness of a work of art.” (p. 202) Huillet, meanwhile, decries the blithe destruction through neglect of Bach’s manuscripts deposited in the Berlin Staatsbibliothek (“It’s not too serious,” she reports the archivists saying, “we have the microfilm…”), and she links such attitudes to the vogue for film restorations, which are derided as “the refusal of any patina, because of the idiotic and arrogant idea that you can act as if time has not passed!” (pp. 230-231) Straub even acknowledges that while “there is not one of our films that I want to eliminate,” they are nonetheless “rotting in bunkers,” and defiantly asserts “I’ll let them rot. That’s all.” (p. 250) While I would not suggest that we should simply let Straub/Huillet’s body of work disintegrate into dust, the thought that certain of their films may never again be shown on celluloid is a truly disheartening one.
Sally Shafto (ed.), Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet: Writings (New York: Sequence Press, 2016).
Ted Fendt (ed.), Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet (Vienna: Austrian Filmmuseum, 2016).
- See Benoît Turquety, Danièle Huillet et Jean-Marie Straub: “Objectivistes” en cinéma (Lausanne: L’âge d’homme, 2009); Vincent Nordon, Straub/Huillet, non merci? – la plainte d’un ami (Paris: Les presses du réel, 2011); and Giorgio Passerone, Un lézard: Le cinéma des Straubs (Villeneuve d’Ascq: Septentrion, 2014). ↩
- I will take this opportunity to recall a 2007 screening of short films by Straub/Huillet and Peter Nestler at the Cinéma du réel festival in the Centre Pompidou, which was stormed by a group of young activists demanding free access to publicly-funded film events. The festival director cancelled the screening rather than letting the protestors stay, saying that she would not be “terrorised” by them. I’m sure Straub would have appreciated the irony. ↩
- If I can be indulged another anecdote: I fondly recall an unadvertised Q-and-A Straub gave at a 2009 screening of Othon (1970) in the Forum des images in Paris, which was also attended by former Cahiers critic Jean Narboni, whose seminal article “La vicariance du pouvoir” is one of the most important texts on Straub/Huillet’s work. Seeing Narboni in the audience, Straub pointed him out and, in an amicably gruff manner, growled, “How did you infiltrate this place?” to which an amused Narboni replied, “By paying for a ticket.” ↩
- See Ursula Böser, The Art of Seeing, the Art of Listening: Visual Representation in the Films of Jean-Marie Straub (Frankfurt a.M.: Europaischer Verlag, 2004); and Barton Byg, Landscapes of Resistance: The German Films of Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) ↩
- On one point some deeper collaboration may have been beneficial: the two books use different conventions when it comes to the year a film is given as (year of production vs year of inaugural public screening), which contributes to a certain level of confusion on this minor matter. ↩
- In all modesty, Senses has been a loyal supporter of Straub/Huillet’s work over the last decade, publishing Shafto’s articles “Artistic Encounters: Jean-Marie Straub, Danièle Huillet and Paul Cézanne” (http://sensesofcinema.com/2009/feature-articles/artistic-encounters-jean-marie-straub-daniele-huillet-and-paul-cezanne/) and “On Straub/Huillet’s Une Visite au Louvre” in 2009, Tag Gallagher’s “Lacrimae Rerum Materialized” (http://sensesofcinema.com/2005/feature-articles/straubs/) in 2005, Dominique Païni’s “Straub, Hölderlin, Cézanne” (http://sensesofcinema.com/2006/cinema-and-the-pictorial/straub_holderlin_cezanne/) in 2006, and my own great directors profile on the couple in 2009 (http://sensesofcinema.com/2009/great-directors/jean-marie-straub-and-daniele-huillet/) ↩
- Shafto usefully includes a table at the end of Writings which gives a complete rundown of which articles are included in which anthology. ↩
- See Benoît Turquety’s review of the Écrits in 1895 67 (2012), pp. 144-148 ↩
- Unfortunately, Straub’s longest critical text, a 70-page analysis of Antonioni’s Cronaca di un amore (Story of a Love Affair, 1950) – which Bazin had read, lamenting that it was too short for a book but too long for an article – is lost to us forever: Straub destroyed it before leaving France. See Philippe Lafosse and Cyril Neyrat (eds.) Jean-Marie Straub et Danièle Huillet: Écrits (Paris: Independencia, 2012), p. x. ↩
- The demand from German television to excise the dedication to RAF member Holger Meins from the beginning of Moses und Aron is the most well-known example of this censorship, but Straub/Huillet have been more recent victims of attempts to silence them: the Centre Pompidou refused to publish their 2001 interview with François Albera due to remarks from Straub that equated the Holocaust to the mass slaughter of animals by modern-day agribusiness. ↩