“Opposition – a strange word, I don’t like it at all; it is such a grim reminder of times that I thought were over and done with.”1
At a time in which notions of middle ground and political equilibrium have once more become openly contested in the West – assumptions at the core of a dominant order under siege amidst the resurgence of a racialised nationalism and emergence of competing progressivisms – it’s instructive to re-examine a key early work by two of European cinema’s most formally and politically radical filmmakers: Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub’s Nicht versöhnt oder Es hilft nur Gewalt wo Gewalt herrscht (Not Reconciled or Only Violence Helps Where Violence Rules, 1965).
A close adaptation of Heinrich Böll’s 1959 novel Billard um Halb Zehn (Billiards at Half-Past Nine), Not Reconciled was Huillet and Straub’s second film – an idiosyncratic, yet rigorously intelligent, portrait of postwar West Germany, a society in which one-time Nazi functionaries lived among pacifists, the quietly disaffected side-by-side with those who had passively accepted atrocities. In many ways, the film serves as a companion piece to their first short, Machorka-Muff (1963), also a Böll adaptation. Both films serve as pointed critiques of the postwar order, the earlier work – structured around the inner monologue of a former Wehrmacht officer as he prepares to unveil a war monument – particularly critical of a then-resurgent German militarism and quiet rehabilitation of Nazi war heroes.
Not Reconciled, too, depicts a society desperate to obfuscate its past but still imprisoned by it; this time, however, it casts its net wider by framing its Cologne-set narrative around three generations: Robert Fähmel (Henning Harmssen), a former dissident and wartime demolition expert; his father Heinrich (Heinrich Hargesheimer), an architect; and his son, Joseph (Joachim Weiler). Robert, the main protagonist, is, appropriately enough for this milieu, an ambivalent character, one more interested in quiet routine – playing pool alone in a hotel room – than any kind of political engagement. He is flanked both in his recollections and present by two opposing figures, both of them former schoolmates: Schrella (Ulrich von Thüla), an exiled left-wing activist; and Nettlinger (Heiner Braun), a ruthless enforcer of authority.
As per Böll’s original novel, the film assigns its characters to either of two fictional religiopolitical groupings: buffaloes or lambs. At first, this bifurcation seems to be a simple metaphor for Nazism and its (pacifist and anti-authoritarian) opponents; but this reading is complicated by a shift in the narrative – previously fluctuating between the modern day and the 1930s – to Imperial Germany, and a younger Heinrich as he prepares to design an abbey that will decades later be blown to smithereens by his son. Here, a sudden burst of newsreel images confronts us not with the iconography of the Second World War, but the First, with its rifles and Pickelhaube helmets. This sequence is preceded by Kaiser Wilhelm II’s mobilisation decree, his plea for unification in service of national glory – “Now it is for us to stand together as brothers, for God to lead the German sword to victory!” – reminiscent of the montage of ‘50s newspaper headlines in Machorka-Muff calling for German rearmament. Rather than present Nazi Germany as an isolated, alien system – one that could be easily disassociated from, including by the many former Party members turned democratic powerbrokers2 – Huillet and Straub depict it as one manifestation in a continuing history of militaristic nationalism.
The filmmakers – a French couple who had fled their country of birth in order to avoid Straub being conscripted to the colonial conflict in Algeria – were perhaps unusual candidates to be taking the pulse of the political situation in mid-1960s Germany. In Straub’s view, this was in fact a necessary condition; he describes their films as something that “no German would have been able to make”.3 Indeed, with the exception of a very few fellow trailblazers such as Alexander Kluge, it would be some years before New German Cinema – and key figures like Wim Wenders, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg and Rainer Werner Fassbinder – would begin to critically address the country’s past and present with an intellectual rigour approaching that of Huillet and Straub.
Aesthetically, too, their films were groundbreaking. Not Reconciled has a highly unusual rhythm: its shots often constitute discrete scenes, and are often either static or consisting of a single movement – a pan, for instance, or a slow zoom. In contrast, however, to the long, austere takes in Chantal Akerman’s early work, its editing is relatively rapid; the first post-credits shot of the film lasts no more than three seconds. Thus, Not Reconciled feels like a film that is simultaneously fast and slow, and – particularly given its heavy use of dialogue and voiceover drawn from Böll’s text – one that will likely be a challenge for viewers to keep up with on first viewing both in terms of narrative and characters.
But what of its title, and thematic resonance? Not Reconciled depicts a country that had been divided twice over, the leaders of its western half dedicated to promoting a national unity that only served to paper over deep, unhealable wounds. In a key scene, Schrella sits down in a restaurant with his former nemesis, Nettlinger, who has used his connections to get the former’s twenty-year-old conviction for an assassination plot expunged. Nettlinger appears to be motivated most of all by a desire to be forgiven, to have his guilt erased; but Schrella has no desire to provide this to him, and leaves the table in cold fury. In a system that permits former Nazi functionaries like Nettlinger to profit, calls for reconciliation become hollow.
The film’s more confrontational subtitle, Only Violence Helps Where Violence Rules – a quotation from a play by Bertolt Brecht4 – receives somewhat more ambiguous treatment. In one of the film’s last scenes, Robert’s mother, Johanna (Martha Ständner), fires a pistol at a politician on a neighbouring balcony, but misses. Likewise, the Nazi assassination attempt that forces Schrella into exile (and leads to a young comrade of his being executed) only results in minor wounds. Is this an attempt to present violence without consequence, or an ironic comment on its futility?
Immediately before this, we see a discussion between conservative politicians about how best to covertly appeal to the far-right vote. Little more than a decade has passed since the catastrophe of World War II in Not Reconciled, and yet the forces of hatred and racial violence remain potent – just as they remain in 2017 in countries such as Australia and the US. Not reconciled: no, not us, either.
Nicht versöhnt oder Es hilft nur Gewalt wo Gewalt herrscht / Not Reconciled or Only Violence Helps Where Violence Rules (1965, West Germany, 55 minutes)
Prod. Co. Produktion Straub-Huillet Prod: Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub Dir: Jean-Marie Straub Ass. Dir: Uschi Frietsche & Max Dietrich Willutzki Scr: Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub, from the novel by Heinrich Böll Phot: Christian Blackwood, Gerhard Ries, Wendelin Sachtler & Jean-Marie Straub Ed: Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub Mus: François Louis Prod. Mgr: Danièle Huillet Snd: Lutz Grubnau & Willi Hanspach
Cast: Henning Harmssen, Heinrich Hargesheimer, Martha Ständner, Ulrich von Thüna, Heiner Braun, Danièle Huillet
- A line of dialogue from Heinrich Böll’s short story “Bonn Diary” (1958). ↩
- Ralfe Beste et al., ‘From Dictatorship to Democracy: The Role Ex-Nazis Played in Early West Germany’, Der Spiegel, 6 March 2012, http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/from-dictatorship-to-democracy-the-role-ex-nazis-played-in-early-west-germany-a-810207.html. ↩
- Barton Byg, Landscapes of Resistance: The German films of Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, University of California Press, 1995, p.10. ↩
- ibid., p.24. ↩