The filmmaking couple Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet were fond of describing their film Der Tod des Empedokles (The Death of Empedocles, 1986) as a “communist utopia”. Evidently, it was the Hölderlin text on which this film was based, with its themes of radical egalitarianism and the vision of a prospective harmony between humanity and the earth in the thinking of the doomed philosopher Empedocles, that prompted this declaration, but we can also consider the production process of the film itself, and the images and sounds that resulted, as forming a small, temporary field of utopianism. In this sense, all of Straub/Huillet’s have a status as “communist utopias”.
Speaking of utopia in relation to communism may well seem outmoded. After all, Marx and Engels already founded their theory of “scientific socialism” on a rejection of the utopian schemes of Robert Owen, Saint-Simon or Charles Fourier. Mere dreaming of non-exploitative models of communal living was not enough, a concrete path to political change via the emergence of revolutionary consciousness in the industrial working-class was required. But today, as global capitalism pursues a course that is increasingly throwing the world into a social and ecological dystopia, it is precisely a dose of utopianism that is necessary to break the ideological stranglehold of free-market neoliberalism, and in the cinema this can be found in the radically free filmmaking practice of Straub/Huillet, with their uncompromising rejection of the formal conventions of commercial cinema, and their attempt to forge an aesthetic system based on a truly democratic respect for both the performers who appear on-screen and the environments in which their filming takes place.
The critic Serge Daney has spoken of a “Straubian international”, a collective of diehard supporters of the duo strewn across the globe, whose backing has proved vital in allowing the Straubs to continue making their films in the way they see fit. After Huillet’s death in 2006, Straub has kept this flame alive, turning out a prolific streak of digital shorts based on texts of authors that both he and Huillet cherished.
The following dossier features contributions from a diverse selection of members of this Straubian international, shining a light on different elements of Straub/Huillet’s 50-year-plus œuvre. Some pay attention on a particular film: Ute Holl focuses on Moses und Aron (Moses and Aaron (1975), Thomas Voltzenlogel on The Death of Empedokles, Benoît Turquety on Antigone (1991). Others attend to broader themes or traits in their work: Martin Brady argues for the continued relevance of Brecht to their films, Daniel Fairfax examines the “ecological” strain of communism that impregnates their filmmaking while Dalia Neis looks at the presence of the wind in both Straub/Huillet and another utopian communist in the cinema, Joris Ivens. Fabrice Ziolkowski delivers a personal reflection on the death of Danièle Huillet, while Claudia Pummer tackles a part of their work that has, until now, received precious little critical attention: the films made by Straub alone, after Huillet’s death, but where her influence can still be felt in multiple ways.
Throughout their filmmaking lives, Straub/Huillet often quoted the German-Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxembourg 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.” As an encapsulation of their approach to the cinema, this phrase can hardly be improved upon.