In History Lessons (Geschichtsunterricht), a young man drives in modern Rome, and interviews four ancient Romans – a banker, a peasant, a jurist and a writer – about the career of Julius Caesar. These exchanges are adapted from a novel fragment written by Bertolt Brecht between 1937 and 1939, The Business Affairs of Mr. Julius Caesar. The interviews are framed and edited in forty-eight shots, including black film, and bracketed by shots involving water – a mountain stream, the sea, an ornamental fountain. The driving shots are long takes, two of which reach ten minutes, and together take up around a third of the film’s duration.
In the first driving shot, we see streets, people and vehicles. In the second driving shot, we see economics. After what we have heard from the banker and the peasant, the shops, the clothes, the goods in people’s hands or under their arms are all signs of the economic order under which they, and we, are living. As the car passes by shops to a market square, these signs multiply to the point of blotting out our view of the social space they occupy. At this point, we may notice the kind of car the young man is driving, and wonder who leant it to the production. The thought of the money required even to make a film as artisanal as this enters our awareness, if it had not before.
The first car shot may have appeared to be an arbitrary selection of arbitrary events; the point of the second car shot, taken in the same way and possibly on the same day, is that none of what we are seeing is arbitrary. All of it is determined by the kinds of calculations we heard outlined in the preceding interviews; calculations about how to maximise profits, and calculations about how the consequences of these calculations are to be survived. The interviews are theory or cause, the city is practice or effect.
Once we have seen this, we can be shown the social space again; the third driving shot shows more of the residential streets which appear towards the end of the second shot, and more of the use of the pavement as a social space that we saw there. The shops are smaller. A Communist election poster, which appeared fleetingly above a corner café as the biographer drove away from the market square, is pasted up throughout these streets.
This is Straub and Huillet’s second film in colour 16mm, following Othon. As Brecht’s text is more recent, and more politically direct, than Corneille’s, History Lessons is both more and less of a literary adaptation, and more and less of a documentary, than the previous film. More of a literary adaptation, because Brecht’s methods were closer to Straub and Huillet’s than were Corneille’s; less of a literary adaptation, because more of a documentary; more of a documentary, because so much of it is nothing else; less of a documentary, because the situation and recording of the performances is less multivalent. The interview scenes contain a high percentage of medium close-ups and close-ups, and are recorded in locations with less prominent and varied background noise than the settings of Othon, making the disjunctions of the soundtrack less marked. Unlike Othon, History Lessons is cast entirely with native speakers of the text’s language. The pleasures of the text’s transparent ventriloquising of Brecht’s economic analyses combine with those of its recitation and recording to create an impression of relative continuity.
The disjunctions of the film mostly take place on its image track; as, for example, when cutting between different lighting conditions during an otherwise unbroken speech by Spicer, the point being not to suggest the passing of a non-existent “real time” in which we could imagine the interviewer asking unheard questions (an impression clearly contraindicated by both the speech and the performance), but to return us to what we are watching, the cuts separated by black leader. At the end of one speech, Spicer and his actor sits staring into space, neither still the character, as his attitude is maintained beyond the point of interpersonal naturalism, nor yet out-of-character, as he retains the expression he wore during the speech. During the film’s last interview scene, at the point where, as Gilberto Perez suggests, we could read “silent anger” in his reactions, 1 the young man playing the interviewer picks up a leaf that has blown into his lap and looks smilingly towards the camera before resuming his performance.
As always, just as their films claim the history of European culture, Straub and Huillet also claim the language of cinema. Having made clear their lack of interest in using eyeline-matches, they include a shot centred on a row of ornamental pots which resembles a traditional reverse-angle from Spicer’s perspective. When they introduce the writer with something like an establishing shot augmented by a zoom, the combination, conventional at that point in film history, has a startling force, because in this context its use is a fresh decision, not simply a reversion to a norm. The spectacle is confined to the answers of the interviewees, examples of the ricorso technique Straub and Huillet’s films share, as Tag Gallagher has observed, 2 with those of John Ford.
The interviewees’ distance from the city’s bustle is in line with the villas and retreats of Brecht’s text, and also with reality. Gilberto Perez ends his long essay on the film with the suggestion that Spicer’s “modern counterparts” are to be found “lurking in the streets of Rome”,3 but this is an idealization; when not safely out of earshot, they have no need to lurk. A recent study found that 22, 000 of London’s flats have been kept vacant by their owners. The residential streets seen in the second and third car shots have long since been gentrified. 4 The former legionary was glad to go to war, even on the losing side, because he had three brothers, and what land they had was not enough for all of them.
History Lessons (Geschichtsunterricht, 1972 West Germany/Italy 88 mins)
Prod Co/Prod: Jean-Marie Straub, Danièle Huillet Dir: Jean-Marie Straub, Danièle Huillet Scr: Jean-Marie Straub, Danièle Huillet (uncredited), from Die Geschäfte des Herrn Julius Caesar (The Business Affairs of Mr. Julius Caesar) by Bertolt Brecht Phot: Renato Berta, Emilio Bestetti Ed: Jean-Marie Straub, Danièle Huillet Mus: J. S. Bach
Cast: Gottfried Bold, Johann Unterpertinger, Henri Ludwigg, Carl Vaillant, Benedikt Zulauf
- Gilberto Perez, The Material Ghost, Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), p. 334. ↩
- Tag Gallagher, “Lacrimae Rerum Materialised”, Senses of Cinema 37 (October 2005), http://sensesofcinema.com/2005/feature-articles/straubs/ ↩
- Perez, p. 335. ↩
- Gallagher 2005, endnote 15 ↩