Over time, the kind of relationship that regular film criticism maintains with the films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet could be perfectly described as a sort of class relations.
Straub and Huillet look at the world through a sort of class perspective, in order to portray it from a radically different point of view and to give it a different possibility. Their films involve dense concepts that require the audience’s full attention. In contrast, ordinary people just watch, and their act of watching remains just plain intention. Nowadays, in order to seem high-brow, ordinary people can also use words like “the imaginary”, and can talk of cinema as “made of images”, but this attitude just reveals that this class is unable to distinguish things, and cannot even name them. It is illogical to understand the possible and the probable if you cannot know it or see it when confronted with it. Ordinary people change only retrospectively, after reality has already changed. It is impossible to have a proper film criticism using empty concepts and obtuse senses.
– Edoardo Bruno and Riccardo Rosetti
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Filmcritica: How could your film’s title, Klassenverhältnisse [Class Relations, 1984], be translated?
Jean-Marie Straub: It’s in the plural: its meaning is “relations of classes”, even if, in spoken language we say “class relations”. There’s no need to exaggerate, like Cahiers du cinéma that translated it as “Class Conflict”.
FC: In the beginning of your film we see the statue of a pirate and then the Statue of Liberty. Can we assume that these statues play a symbolic role, as a clear embodiment of class relations?
JMS: In the beginning of the film, there is a statue of a fellow who the patricians of Hamburg beheaded back in 1401 or in 1411. He was someone who was pestering the developing business of the Hanseatic League. This statue serves as a guide for the projectionist to frame precisely. You need something to frame on before the opening credits, because if the projectionist just sees white lettering on a black background, he’ll most likely be unable to frame correctly. And most of the time, he just cuts it off. This is the main reason for the statue’s presence. We just needed an image to give the projectionist time to frame. As it happens, this statue is also Karl’s last memory of the Old Continent. Actually, this statue is a recent addition in Hamburg; it was put there only two years ago. Behind this statue there are the warehouses where the merchants kept stocks of wheat and coffee, while in front of it there is a man with his hands crossed whose name was Störtebecker. This would be Karl’s last memory of the Old Continent. Obviously, we are not so naive; there is a sort of contradiction. The first image of the film, after the statue of this pirate, are the opening credits, and after that you can see both Karl’s hands and foot framed, while he drops his suitcase to the floor, shouting: “My umbrella!” Then, the Statue of Liberty appears, and this is the first image he sees of the New Continent.
FC: The angle you’ve chosen to shoot the Statue of Liberty is a little unusual. In American movies, we’re accustomed to seeing it framed from high or low angles.
JMS: Well, this framing is related to the view of the Statue as it is seen from a boat.
Danièle Huillet: The legend surrounding the Statue of Liberty had already begun in Kafka’s lifetime. When Karl sees it for the first time, he says: “Look at how high it is!”
JMS: I changed this line, so that he cries instead: “My umbrella!” Further evidence of this process of the mythicisation of the Statue of Liberty is when Kafka describes the statue as a woman who carries a sword instead of a torch, and that’s because, from a particular angle, the torch could be really taken as a sword. Kafka had seen some photos and postcards of it. Instead, we were interested as much in the Statue as in what surrounded it, like the air, the clouds, the water. We had quite a lot of footage of it. We took the ferryboat four times, and each time we shot the Statue at least four times.
FC: Always from the height of the camera.
DH: That’s right, we chose not to move the camera, keeping it still on the ferryboat deck, until the statue went off-camera.
JMS: What is interesting in that shot is that besides the helicopter and the little airplane, there is also an old ship with some smoke coming out its funnel. If the helicopter had passed over the ferryboat, we would have had it and nothing else. Instead, thanks to this angle of framing, the helicopter flew over without making any noise at all. At this point, we have three elements: air, water, wind – the background – and three other elements: the helicopter, the airplane and the old ship that are equally important.
FC: Why did you choose to shoot it in black and white, using lighting almost without any shadow?
JMS: It came from the attempt to keep in balance the space around the characters and the background, the walls, the air. Obviously, the lighting has to be just so, but it is not an end in itself.
We usually try to shoot films where you don’t get the impression that human beings are the center of universe.
DH: Besides, if a cameraman asks Straub what kind of lighting he wants, he always tries not to answer this question.
JMS: Because if you answer clearly, it’s just the start of insurmountable difficulties, because it could become a kind of systematic cinematography and you must always avoid any kind of system.
DH: The only thing that Jean-Marie said was: “I want something similar to silent movies, where, when a character is holding a candle, this candle is actually used; it’s not just pretending to give light.”
JMS: Yes, this perhaps is the only possible answer. Because besides the candle or the petrol lamp, there is always some other source of light. Sometimes light is coming in from a hole in the ceiling or from a window, even if you don’t see the moon directly. We’ve made a nocturnal film. In fact more than half of the film was shot by night and this can really test your nerves, because you need a lot of time to fix the lights in these interiors. Lubtchansky didn’t have much space for the lamps.1 As for the use of black and white, after so many colour films, we just liked the idea of shooting one in black and white.
DH: We have both always pictured this film in black and white, that’s for sure.
JMS: Nowadays film directors can’t see anything anymore; 90% of them are blind. They shoot movies where you’ve the impression of having seen so many things, but in reality, you can’t see a single thing. Before shooting a film, you need to intensely investigate locations and spaces. If you don’t do this work beforehand, maybe you can shoot, but after that, you won’t manage to see a single thing. What I’m trying to say is that there will be some images, but no imagination at all, etymologically speaking. There is also another explanation, perhaps a more pretentious one, since this film “speaks” about the time of silent movies, and the story is that of a bad dream… Let’s say that it is a sort of crepuscular film.
DH: And then, compared to black and white, colour is almost harsh.
JMS: With the Kodak 4X filmstock, which we used to shoot two-thirds of Der Bräutigam, die Komödiantin und der Zuhälter [The Bridegroom, The Actress and the Pimp, 1968], and all of Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach [Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, 1968], you can achieve twenty-two different shades of grey, which is just impossible with colour filmstock. Plus, we needed to shoot with a more durable kind of film. For a long time, I considered shooting with Plus X filmstock. For our seven minute short En rachâchant , which I consider as an exercise in advance of shooting the Kafka story, when Alekan asked what kind of filmstock I needed, I told him: “I want something like the orthochromatic film used during the silent movies period, something very tough.”2 In short, we needed a photography in between the 4X and a much more contrasted one, something that would remind us of films from the silent era. But you should never say to the cameraman, “I want this kind of lighting or this other one.” Otherwise, they want to imitate something that they are not capable of imitating, because the filmstock is no longer the same and the conditions for developing and printing are also different.
FC: Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but is it just by chance that your more narrative films are shot in black and white, while the colour ones are more linked to the reading of a text?
DH: Are you saying that Class Relations is more narrative than Dalla nube alla resistenza [From the Clouds to the Resistance, 1979], is that it?
JMS: It’s true that in its narration this film is more connected to Nicht versöhnt [Not Reconciled, 1965], but our approach to the text is the same, whether it be Kafka or Pavese.
FC: Watching From the Clouds to the Resistance, I had the impression of a major role conferred to things, to the massive presence of Nature.
JMS: That’s for sure, because Italy is like that, and then we shot that film in the open sky, under the trees, in the countryside, in the Langhe region, surrounded by the vineyards. There, the light frequently changed. The cameraman, an Italian fellow, as a matter of fact, was constantly annoyed about that.3
FC: Also, in Too Early, Too Late , which isn’t an “Italian” film, there is an irruption of Nature.
JMS: Certainly, yes. But there the narration is off-screen, while the main subject of the film is actually landscape!
FC: In Class Relations you seem to renounce extended shots, sequence shots, and static shots, except for the first long take of the train.
JMS: In this film there are 300 shots; in Not Reconciled we did 147. Not Reconciled lasts 57 minutes; Class Relations lasts two hours and seven minutes. After we made Too Early, Too Late, we not only wanted to make a film in black and white, we also wanted to make to make an “edgy” film.
DH: En rachâchant, which is seven minutes long, has 30 shots.
JMS: That means even “edgier”!
DH: Despite everything, it’s a matter of subject matter; in other words, the form comes from the subject matter.
JMS: If the story is particularly lively, the découpage will also become edgier.
DH: This short story by Kafka is not meditative.
JMS: Each film reel has its own character. The first one, which is about the stoker and the uncle, lasts about 20 minutes; it blends drama, tragicomedy and family melodrama. The second reel is about the entrance in the country of vampires. Then there is the reel of the trial, followed by what could be called the reel of erotic and sentimental education, which is something in between a history lesson and de Sade. Anyway, let’s say that before we hadn’t thought about film reels!
DH: The first reel is a little like Ubu, you have Ubu Captain and Ubu Uncle.4
JMS: Ever since we saw the film on an editing table, both of us have been thinking about de Sade, most of all for the elements in the second reel. Maybe there are other ways to enact it, but, as far as I’m concerned, this could be the only way to film de Sade; for instance, I’m thinking about Justine.
FC: Where does Rossmann’s amazing strength, which is also physical, come from?
JMS: Basically, from the fact that he had worked a lot with us.
FC: I was particularly impressed by his moral and physical strength in the scene where the hotel is searched.
JMS: Yes, because he was a boy who had already started to rebel against his father, against school. He had already left school a year before coming to work with us. This is also why we didn’t have any kind of qualms about making him miss a year. Now he doesn’t want to go back to school anymore; he’s attending a public school to become a carpenter.
DH: It was also extremely important for us to be sure that he wouldn’t have started a career as an actor.
JMS: He had never dreamt of a career in film, and then like many young persons he was also very lazy.
DH: That comes from that fact that he hadn’t yet found something that interested him.
JMS: He overcame his own laziness with an extraordinary effort. And it was a little thanks to us, because we always tried to rightly put him into a space, making him communicate with the other characters and all kinds of relationships.
DH: Besides, he is a boy who always exercises a critical judgment about what he is looking at or about what is happening. Sometimes he is a bit too hotheaded, but it’s very important that he is always thinking for himself about what’s going on.
JMS: He always has a moral and political judgment about every situation.
FC: Who today for you is a contemporary Karl Rossmann?
JMS: In some ways, things have not changed much since then. Rossmann is someone who has some difficulties in fitting in and we don’t know how it’s going to end. He finds utopia, somewhere in Oklahoma, a world where it’s possible to live.
DH: His work as an actor consisted not only in learning the script, but also in finding a certain rhythm.
JMS: His strength has a structure. It doesn’t come from nowhere, but from structure, from the text, from its pauses, from its links and its integration in the space. Every single scene was built into a given space, which means that there is a Cartesian coordinate system that you can’t escape from. That’s something also related to the art of counterpoint, if you like… I’’s the precise choice to make 27 shots from the same point of view, that of Karl, and, at the same time a point of view fairly different from his. This was done to show him more objectively. His subjectivity has been extended into the space. It’s a method we discovered in Toute révolution est un coup de dès [Every Revolution is a Throw of the Dice, 1977] (but it already existed in our earlier films, only it’s less obvious).
DH: In Throw of the Dice there wasn’t a leading character, but there was already in Moses und Aron [Moses and Aaron, 1975].
JMS: You can also find it in Not Reconciled, even if it wasn’t completely conscious there. To get to that point, you have to work. And that goes also for the trial scene, for the other one in front of the mansion, or on the ship. Also, for the scene with the uncle in the office, or in the forest. Now, you need to destroy that system.
FC: Why are you saying that this system needs to be destroyed?
JMS: Let’s say that there is a strong need to go further, somehow keeping in mind that method, but trying to widen it. You need to avoid to making it become a sort of system, instead of remaining just a method.
DH: This is the reason why the spatial organisation is based on math, but it also needs a moral element.
JMS: That’s perfectly clear. The moral element is provided by Karl Rossmann; it is his own morality, which is also the source of his strength.
FC: But it is also the morality of the one who is filming.
JMS: To make this film, we worked a lot on the locations, on the shooting script, on the characters, and since we can say that nobody ever creates anything, but everybody creates something, at least a little bit, I think that in this use of space, we went a little further, even if we can say it’s already in Hitchcock. Let’s say that we went one step further, paradoxically without even trying to, but this space is the space of Griffith. Griffith frames a little house, a wooden fence and a girl coming out; ten years later, in the story, this picture is exactly the same, and just for this reason it makes sense. Everything is far more complicated when you need to break up a scene into 30 shots, even if there isn’t anything new. Only, without either trying to force anything or saying “Now, let’s use the Griffith system”, but knowing, anyway, Griffith’s work and keeping on working as we usually do, we managed to achieve a spatial organisation that shows something new, even if it reminds you of Lubitsch or Chaplin. You can’t simply improvise space, you have to picture it in your head before. It’s like playing chess. In playing chess you need to choose your space, and then to organise it. (At this point, Straub shows us a map of the ship’s interior, which includes the characters’ viewpoint and the camera’s position, all sketched in the storyboard.)
In each scene, whether of 30, 15, or 32 shots, there is always a sort of theatrical space for people to meet, where the camera’s point of view, is always the same, shared between Karl and all the other characters he is in relation with. The camera’s point of view sides with Karl in a brotherly way. The reason why Karl has such a strength comes from the fact that the camera sides with him when he is a victim of violence, while nonetheless avoiding any subjective point of view. Meaning that the camera sides with him, but at the same time, its position also allows him and all the other characters to be seen objectively.
FC: All of this is linked to the relationship between the camera’s point of view and the placement of all the characters.
JMS: It’s a really hard job to achieve the right point of view. You need to be certain that this point of view is the intended one. For example, a) the opening panoramic shot, which links all the elements together, or b) just to frame Karl alone near a tree. This chosen point of view has to be able to keep Robinson and Delamarche together, first, and then to close off one of them without the nose or the feet of the other into the same frame. What I mean is choosing a point of view, if possible, without error.
FC: It seems that this relationship between fiction and reality was crucial to make some decisions, for instance the choice of professional actors to play characters who, somehow, “play a role”, and non-professional actors for all the other characters.
JMS: Yes, it’s true in a quite contradictory way. The uncle (played by Mario Adorf) is the character at the top of the social ladder and he is the one who is distinctly playing a role, giving emphasis to the performance aspect. In contrast, the character at the bottom of the social ladder is Therese, who has spent her life in dire poverty. Her mother is dead and her biggest fear is to lose her job. The actress who plays this character is a professional actress, from the Schaubühne Theater in Berlin. In other words, for these characters at the opposite poles of the social ladder, we’ve chosen two professional actors. For Therese we thought that her character was so deeply touching when she talked about her state of poverty, that we simply couldn’t cast someone really poor in her life, because it would invalidate that of the “performance”. In addition, Therese’s character also has a sort of hysterical hue. A third character, played by an actor, the hotel manager, symbolises authority, social threat, etc. He is a yet another type of actor.
DH: Exactly. He had never before learned a text by heart. He just improvises. He had some part in Kluge’s films, but still he used to improvise.
JMS: Therese is a traditional theatrical actress, while Adorf is a blend between theater and film, and the last one I was talking about is just a movie actor, who is somehow improvising himself. Then, there was also Laura Betti, who is someone still different. Her character has had a certain social position when she lived with the cocoa producer, but now she is lower in rank, even if Robinson is always presenting her as a great singer.
DH: I think that’s quite impossible to say: “I want an actor for that character”. To perform a certain character, you usually have already someone in mind; then, if by chance he is a professional actor, he gives you the possibility to achieve something with him perhaps impossible for a non-professional actor. At the same time, you also realise that there are many things that an actor cannot do.
JMS: There is a huge contradiction, anyway, because the most naturalistic character in the film is the uncle, played by Mario Adorf. On the other hand, the least naturalistic character is Therese, with all her pathetic, extended pauses. By working with professional actors, you can achieve completely different results. Laura Betti, is something in between the two. We were mostly interested that she could speak German.
DH: We saw her years ago in the theater, in a Beckett play, where she was totally alone on the stage all the time, and it was then that we both realised that we would like to work with her, even if we never had an opportunity before Class Relations.
JMS: It was the same with Libgart; there hadn’t been an occasion to work together. On the other hand, about Therese we thought: “This is the right character”. Actually, Therese’s character was younger in the script, but she was just perfect for this role. We never use the word “ideal” to define an actor who’s perfect for his role, meaning the fact that you can always find someone else. An actor can become ideal for a role, but only when his job is done.
DH: In watching again the images shot by the guy who plays Delamarche, during rehearsal at his place in Berlin, we saw the boy who plays Karl Rossmann again, and we were astonished, thinking we have been really daring in choosing him for the role, because from rehearsals we saw…
JMS: We saw just a boy, the complete opposite of the strength he ultimately managed to express. He was desperate to express this strength that was so hidden in him that he looked like a piece of wood.
DH: It was a thrilling challenge. We never use auditions. We decide on someone on what we see in front of us.
JMS: We are never sure about what we want. You need to get a maximum level of energy, both with all the technicians, and all the actors. You simply need to bring out the best from them, that’s all. To conclude on the topic of actors and non-actors, at the beginning we didn’t think of Adorf, I hadn’t seen any film with him. But when we still lived in Piazza della Rovere, in Rome, one day someone rang the doorbell. I opened the door and this fellow told me: “Hi, let me introduce myself: my name is Mario Adorf”. Then, he sat down timidly and said: “I’m from Germany, I’ve talked to Schlöndorff and I know that you’ve had some difficulties collecting signatures about the story of your dedication to Holger Meins.5 If you need it, I want to offer my signature to you.” Then, he stood up, went to the window and said: “I live on the opposite side of the bridge, you know…” Then he said that he was available to work with us. Back in 1974 we didn’t have the occasion to work with him until this film. When we started working on the script of Class Relations we also began thinking about some faces we already knew; one of them was Mario Adorf’s. We started writing the shooting script in the summer of 1979.
DH: Then we met Adorf and we told him: “Try to guess what kind of role we have planned for you.” We thought about giving him the role of the unpleasant hotel manager.
JMS: I knew he had already done such a role. In some films he had played some grotesque characters; for a change, I wanted him for a decent, bourgeois role. At the beginning he said to us: “You know my agent says I should refuse any role that doesn’t last from the beginning to the end of the movie.” We told him that the sole protagonist in this film was a seventeen-year-old boy. You know, the main drawback about working with professional actors is that while you’re gaining something, something else is lost. The other disadvantage of actors is that they never have much time to dedicate to you.
DH: We had been working on the text in Rome about a year before shooting.
JMS: In the meantime, Adorf was shooting some film in Malta, I think. He was the last to arrive on location in Hamburg, just before we started shooting.
DH: He arrived just one week before the shooting got started and he stayed for four days. It was really late for us.
FC: How long did the shoot last?
JMS: Twelve weeks, we had never shot for such a long time. Sometimes we shot ten nights in a row without a break. Eleven weeks in Hamburg and one week in the United States.
DH: It was really tough for all the technicians, because at the beginning we filmed at night. After that, we started filming during the day. As soon as they were accustomed to shooting at night, we had then to switch, shooting during the day, and then, at night again. It was really difficult for them.
JMS: If we could do it without excessive overtime, like in France, that would be ideal. The French work with Saturday off, and half-day off on Friday, meaning that after five nights spent on shooting, you have to stop even if you haven’t finished a scene. That way the whole shooting would have taken six months, like Bresson’s L’Argent. In this regard, it was an exceptional achievement having shot such a challenging film in just twelve weeks. We’re talking about a super-production, since twelve weeks correspond to six months, without exaggerating. We shot 74,800 meters of film.
FC: Did you use 4,000 meters for the editing, more or less?
DH: We edited 3,400 meters. In another words, we shot in a ratio of one to 20. What we did was a luxury. Many commercial productions work very differently and you can see the results. You know, it doesn’t just come to you. When Chaplin used to shoot a chase again and again, even 120 times, focusing on frames in order to capture precise gestures, he did it because he was looking for something…
JMS: At the editing machine, we often added a soundtrack to about 20 shots. Sometimes, we used the first or the third recorded one, but 90% of the time we used the last recorded ones. You can see a considerable advance, like that: how the actor manages to achieve a certain mechanism that has to be mastered before as a technique. Then, after rehearsing a scene eight, ten, thirteen times, going further to achieve through this mechanism a certain freedom. Musicians are used to rehearsals, even more generally. If you watch films by Fassbinder and the Tavianis, just to mention two well-known directors, you can see that the result is poor. What you are watching and hearing is simply nothing at all.
FC: In a previous interview, you said that you liked the idea of possibly making a film full of mistakes. Full of jerks [strappi] and false starts, etc. Is Class Relations a film like that for you? A film full of false starts or is it a very assertive film?
JMS: It’s difficult to answer your question. I would like immediately to answer that Class Relations is a very assertive film. But still without its jerkiness, it wouldn’t be what it is. This is its equilibrium, a balance between mechanism and freedom. It’s the dialectic between determination and chance. It depends on different moments in the film; it also depends on the characters and locations. For example, if you consider, the “police” shot, you could characterize the film as jerky, while if you consider the trial sequence, you could characterize it as assertive.
DH: Even a film made up entirely of rips could become a system…
JMS: Someone has already done it brilliantly: Godard.
DH: Yes, but once it becomes a trend, it becomes an academic exercise.
JMS: Or plain coquetry. We very much need to avoid being vain or pretentious. On the one hand, you need to be measured; on the other hand, you need to be brave and capable of “démesure” or excess. In other words, you need to find a balance between restraint and full development, which means also being capable of the greatest violence employing the greatest tenderness. This is the reason why, in my opinion, in Sergio Leone movies there isn’t any violence, just brutality, that’s all, and maybe not even that. In contrast, you can find violence in Bresson’s L’Argent . He knew it very well. In five years, I met Bresson twice, and each time he told me: “I can’t find the money from television, because people are more and more used to financing movies full of fake violence, but if a film is truly violent, they’re afraid to finance it. Plus, you need the strength not to expose yourself. I mean, to restrain yourself more and more, while, at the same time being ever more personal and present. That means expressing less of your little personality while in another sense doing everything with the most personal touch, expanding the whole range of human emotions and rhythms, as much as possible. Real human feelings, because it’s important to know what you feel and what you don’t in real life. This is the reason why both Taviani’s and Fassbinder’s films annoy me, because they have contributed to making the audience believe in feelings that don’t really exist. When you watch a film, you should be experiencing simultaneously a maximum of pleasure and a maximum of revulsion about life. If you always push the same button, it’s not very interesting. In so doing you can make a career, but that’s all. Whereas if you do like Renoir, each film is different, you’re expanding the range of feelings. On the one hand, a physical impression of the joy of life, and on the other hand – like Buñuel used to point out – the idea that we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds. Otherwise, it’s better to change jobs. In order to do this, you need courage, without any kind of exaltation, to materialise in the aesthetic material, in the film. This is the reason why – although I’m neither an expert nor a specialist – I consider Cézanne to be the greatest painter ever. He managed to materialise on canvas a maximum range of sensations, as he called his personal reactions looking at a tree, or a woman, or a mountain.
FC: Your films are very often described as “intellectual”, whereas I have the distinct impression they are extremely “physical”, with a deep connection to sensations.
JMS: They are both sensuous and sensorial. It’s always the same problem: people are intoxicated by sentimentality, by the exaltation of feelings. In order to give the audience the idea you’re expressing something powerful, or strong, or sweet, all you have to do is use a soundtrack by Morricone. However, materialistically, there is nothing on the screen, in the frame, in the light, or in the characters, except for Morricone’s music. There’s a fraud, that’s all.
FC: In Once upon a Time in America  the music is constant. So we can say that your work basically consists in being physically close to concrete things, this is the starting point for you.
JMS: That is the job. You have to start from this, to achieve some matter…
DH: Plus, there are more and more films that operate self-referentially, on a meta-filmic level. They no longer see anymore; they see only through the “optics” of cinema.
JMS: But what were no longer “optics.” If you have to shoot a movie based on the Roaring Twenties in America, and you have neither experience nor imagination, and you’ve watched only bad movies, rather than good films from the period, where will it end? In cinema, and cinema in itself is really not so interesting.
FC: It’s the culture of cinephilia that has weakened cinema.
JMS: Which is no culture at all, because a cinephiles’ culture begins with the last film by Coppola.
FC: In other words, we’re not talking about real cinephiles, but just the latest fad.
JMS: If only they had respectfully and attentively watched a ten-minute film by Griffith, maybe they would be a bit less pretentious. If only a contemporary director had calmly watched Stroheim films, he just couldn’t make any of the disgusting stuff we see around. They simply couldn’t act like they had made some masterpiece, when in fact they did nothing worthwhile.
FC: But probably even if they saw them, they wouldn’t understand them.
JMS: That’s right: seeing is very difficult. I mean both looking at reality and also watching a film. Frankly, it took me ten years to learn how to really watch a movie, without losing myself in some dream about the film I was looking at, to watch it truly, materially, in its material aesthetic aspect. When I see Jean Renoir’s Le Caporal épinglé again, Not reconciled makes me feel very modest. If Spielberg, instead of following all the most trendy European movies, had watched some films by Griffith or Stroheim, he wouldn’t make all the disgusting stuff he does. If he had watched just one Naruse film,6 he might have understood what space is, and how you can shape it in a film, and he wouldn’t shoot bad cartoons.
FC: What about Coppola?
JMS: Oh, I don’t know him…
FC: Is there an American director who interests you?
JMS: Yes, Altman. McCabe and Mrs Miller  is a work of genius.
FC: Likewise Class Relations is a costume drama, but compared to other films of yours of the like…
DH: It is more or less the same as in Not Reconciled. I mean that we used costumes that could make sense for that time period, but that also, despite everything, could fit the present time.
FC: Let’s say that here your focus was more naturalistic, whereas in Othon  your focus was essentially cinematic or theatrical, if you will.
JMS: We simply didn’t want to shoot an historical film about the America of 1914.
DH: It was also because we knew we wanted to shoot in real locations, without any kind of reconstruction, which means that obviously there would be contemporary cars in the streets and contemporary phones inside the offices. Thus, we had to find a balance between costumes and elements of the past.
JMS: Contemporary phones, “disguised” cops, and the uncle in his period costume. There is also Karl’s straw hat and other elements of Karl’s costume that we chose in a Berlin mall. We wanted to form a relationship with Kafka’s book, which was written in a time period when people started to be extremely insecure about their jobs, like Kafka himself, employed at the Insurance Institute for Workers’ Accidents (Arbeiter-Unfall-Versicherungsanstalt) and the crisis of today. In other words, we wanted to compare a historical period with the present time, but doing that without making an historical film.
FC: I’ve read somewhere that you think America is a novel that talks a lot about work. It’s really striking, even the dialogue continuously refers to work…
JMS: Also the idea of people suffering from insomnia, because they are completely preoccupied with their workplace, as for instance, the head cook. Then, we had the idea from the outset to shoot in Germany, because going to the United States meant making another film. Kafka never went to the United States. In fact, it’s just Karl Rossmann’s adventures we’re talking about, through a country where he could only meet some ethnic minorities who could speak his language.
Originally published in Filmcritica no. 347 (September 1984), pp. 347-59. Translated by Daniela Turco.
- Willy Lubtchansky was the cameraman on the film. Editor’s note. ↩
- Henri Alekan, the cameraman on the film. Editor’s note. ↩
- From the Cloud to the Resistance (1979) was shot by Saverio Diamanti with Gianni Canfarelli. Editor’s note. ↩
- Huillet here refers to Alfred Jarry’s grotesque character, Father Ubu. Straub also refers to Ubu in his famous note to Kluge. See “To Kluge”, Writings (New York: Sequence Press, 2016), p. 181. Editor’s note. ↩
- Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s film Moses and Aaron opens with a dedication to Holger Meins, a German cinematography student who joined the Red Army Faction (RAF) in the early 1970s and died in prison in 1974 on hunger strike. Translator’s note. ↩
- Mikio Naruse (1905-1969) was a Japanese filmmaker who directed some 89 films, from 1930 to 1967. Translator’s note. ↩