Straub’s “Archaeomodern” Turn

“Dead, Danièle Huillet kills us twice, because her dying is as much Straub dying, who will likely never film again,” wrote Olivier Séguret in Libération, a few days after Huillet had passed away.1 Although undoubtedly intended to appraise Huillet’s vital contributions to the duo’s joint work, Séguret’s words have the unfortunate effect of reframing the concrete loss of her death as a potential tragedy of stifled (male) authorship and creativity. The only one “killed twice” in this scenario is Huillet, for even in death she is predominantly defined by the fate of Straub’s future well-being. The decline of the latter, as we know now, did not come to pass. Barely one and a half years later Straub screened two brand-new films at the Cannes Film Festival: Le genou d’Artemide (Artemide’s Knee, 2007) and Itinéraire de Jean Bricard (Itinerary of Jean Bricard, 2007). The two films kicked off a highly productive solo career that includes up to this point around 18 films (most of them short, digital videos). Many of them premiered at renowned international festivals or played as part of a growing number of Straub and Huillet retrospectives.2

This is not to say that Straub has simply moved on. His solo films engage in a practice of mourning that is acutely indebted to Huillet’s past presence and present absence. Such mourning wastes no time on grand memorial gestures, nor does it succumb to melancholic despair or pathos. This kind of mourning resonates with practices the duo used to employ in order to address the vicissitudes of history and memory in their films. Throughout their career, they focused consistently on stories that exposed the construction of grand historical narratives in confrontation with the traces of forgotten voices and the utopian possibilities that died along with them. It is this relationship to the past that manifests in the tension between their discernible preference for classical and ancient texts and their radical modernist aesthetics and politics. Early-on in their career, Straub insisted that their films “are not new at all [but] traditional” and later on he cited the writer Charles Péguy (alongside Benjamin’s “a tiger’s leap into the past”) by stating that “revolution is also ‘reinstating very ancient but forgotten things’.”3

James Tweedie discusses similar “archaeomodern” impulses in contemporary cinema in connection with the type of mourning-work Benjamin had examined in the baroque Trauerspiel (literally, mourning play):

The “archaeomodern turn” in Benjamin’s thought asserts that becoming modern first entails a return to an incipient but unrealized modernity in the past, that awakening from sleep also requires a heightened awareness of the dream through which the subject has slumbered for so long. In Benjamin’s conception the Trauerspiel, like the writing of history, becomes an “exhumation of lost (or murdered) possibilities.”4

These words recall the “communist dream” Straub and Huillet discovered in Hölderlin’s drama Der Tod des Empedokles (The Death of Empedocles, 1798), a “Marxian” vision of a community that notably predates Marxism.5 Oscillating between the past and a present-future, tradition and modernity, preservation and revolt, such spectral forms of mourning pertain to various other contemporaneous political and aesthetic post-mortems. Among them Tweedie cites “Derrida’s return to Marx, which […] envisions the ‘end of history’ predicted at the close of the millennium as a mourning play and adopts a characteristically Benjaminian strategy to ‘bear witness’ to this crisis.”6 Similar hauntological strategies apply to the widely-feared impending “death of cinema” which informed many theoretical and critical writings at the advent of new digital and media practices.7

In the context of these political, institutional, and technological changes, Straub’s own meditations on mourning go well beyond instances of personal grief. His films not only address the question of how to make films without Huillet, but of how to make films in a “post-cinematic” age, under the conditions of rampant global capitalism. Straub mourns all of these losses by resuming key practices and techniques he developed together with Huillet, and by returning to earlier and unfinished projects (such as the writings of Pavese, Corneille, Brecht, and Barrès). At the same time, Straub leaps forward by examining old material under new conditions, with the help of new practices, collaborators, and texts (among them works by Rousseau, Montaigne and Malraux). While continuing to confront systems of historical violence with visions of political utopia, the solo films engage in an aesthetics of mourning that is organized around dialectical figurations of light and darkness, inside and outside, past and present.

Intertextual Grief

One of the most important continuities in Straub’s solo work is an extended engagement with Cesare Pavese’s novel Dialoghi con Leucò (Dialogues with Leucò, 1947). The novel, which features conversations between the ancient Greek gods and mortal tragic heroes, is in its own right an archaeomodern project. Pavese’s return to classical mythology occurred during the final stages of the Second World War and was in large part driven by the attempt to restore moral and political value to a cultural heritage that had been corrupted under the murderous regime of German National Socialism and its affiliated fascist ideologies. In 1978, Straub and Huillet had incorporated several of these dialogues into Dalla nube alla resistenza (From the Clouds to the Resistance). Thirty years later, they adapted five additional chapters from the novel into their final feature-length film Quei loro incontri (These Encounters of Theirs, 2005). Artemide’s Knee, the first short film Straub completed after Huillet’s death, is based on the chapter “The Lady of Beasts.” In conversation with a stranger, the mortal Endymion recalls falling for the wild and beguiling goddess Artemis. His love for the goddess turns Endymion into a perpetual dreamer, that is, someone who is no longer of this world but lives his life somewhere in-between earth and the heavens.

This sense of “outer-worldliness” constitutes a crucial motif throughout the solo work. However, far from melancholic withdrawal, it designates a state that is ostensibly directed toward the return to the living. Straub shows this by supplementing Pavese’s text with two musical pieces that frame the dialogue at the beginning and end. The first is the final verse from Gustav Mahler’s Abschied (Farewell) from the song-cycle Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of Earth, 1909), the second a song by the medieval composer Heinrich Schütz. Both songs were originally conceived as mourning-works (Mahler composed the Earth-cycle following the death of his young daughter and Schütz created “Klagelied” (literally, “Song of Lament,” 1625) in commemoration of his late wife. However, as if to defy such psychological and biographical considerations, Straub directs our attention away from the author(s) toward the text(s) themselves. What aligns Straub and Pavese, Pavese and Mahler, Mahler and Schütz is a shared poetic discourse rather than common experiences of personal grief.8 Thus, Endymion’s conscious retreat from the world resonates directly with the joyful figurations of light, hope, and rebirth that appear at the end of Mahler’s Farewell: “Die liebe Erde allüberall Blüht auf im Lenz und grünt aufs neu!” (“The dear earth everywhere, blooms in spring, and grows green anew!”). The lyrics recall, furthermore, the following line from Hölderlin’s Empedocles: “Wenn dann der Erde Grün von Neuem euch erglänzt” (“When the Green of the Earth will Glisten for you Anew”) which Straub and Huillet had appended to the title of their 1986-adaptation of Hölderlin’s mourning play. What puts Pavese’s dialogue in touch with Mahler’s song (and, by extension, with Hölderlin’s “communist dream”) are the “wild” and “shimmering” utopian territories each text discloses in its visions of solitude and retreat.

Yet, such a retreat steeped in mourning does not necessarily foreclose the return to a living community. Thus, in the Pavese film L’inconsolable (The Inconsolable One, 2010), Orpheus recalls his visit to the underworld without the tragic fatalism that is usually attributed to the myth. Pavese’s Orpheus makes the conscious decision to turn around and look at the beloved Eurydice to release her and himself from living a life in eternal (that is, unchanging) pastness. He allows her to die (again) in anticipation of a new future: “When the first glimmer of the sky reached me,” he recounts, “I jumped like a child. […] I jumped for myself alone, for the world of the living.” Mourning designates less an individual healing process than a process that allows the survivor to return to the community. This rekindling of communal ties is especially evident in regard to the Pavese films’ production history. Between 2007 and 2011, Straub completed four Pavese films and with each one, he resumed the duo’s long-term collaboration with a group of non-professional actors from the Teatro Comunale “Francesco di Bartolo” in the small town of Buti, Tuscany.9 Each Pavese film is performed live on stage, prior to shooting on nearby exterior locations. In the summer of 2007, Straub dedicated the stage performance of Artemide’s Knee to Huillet. However, the film itself was dedicated to Barbara Ulrich, his steady companion and principal collaborator in the past decade. With this dedication to Ulrich, Straub acknowledged her crucial support and, following Pavese’s Orpheus, resigned himself anew to the world of the living.

Ethnographies and Oral Histories

Most of the Pavese-adaptations were filmed in the same small clearing at the bottom of a ravine in one of Buti’s surrounding forests. The unspecified location of the green forest compliments the texts’ utopian underpinnings. However, Artemide’s Knee, for instance, captures in one of its final shots a small memorial stone (erected to commemorate the Nazi atrocities that occurred in the region), barely visible in the distance. This shot resituates the film’s mythic-utopian roots within a concrete historical and geographical topography. “There’s always a pool of blood somewhere that we’re walking in without knowing it,” Straub once remarked, “there are always cadavers under a hill.”10 Indeed, both spaces, the utopian realm and the concrete ruins of the past continue to overlap in Straub’s solo films. A number of his recent films are especially attentive to the cinematic encounter with a place that bears either only fleeting or no signs of the crimes that were once committed on its soil.

One such film is Itinerary of Jean Bricard which continues a particular group of Straub and Huillet films that can be classified as ethnographic documentaries.11 Most of these films incorporated autobiographical, epistolary, and essayistic writings (presented largely in voice-over narration) and thus differing from the kind of onscreen recitals that define their dramatic-literary adaptations. The film is one of the duo’s unfinished projects. It was largely conceived during Huillet’s lifetime but filmed only a year after her death. The Bricard film attests, furthermore, to Straub and Huillet’s interest in oral histories and storytelling techniques.12 The film is based on the transcript of a local, oral history project, the historian Jean-Yves Petiteau conducted in 1994 with the titular Jean Bricard, an old quarry worker who lived and worked for most of his life on île de Coton, a small fishing community on the Loire river.13 The stunning black-and-white cinematography (the late William Lubtchansky’s final collaboration with Straub) retraces the steps that had prompted Bricard’s original memoir. Alternating with shots of black screen (another one of the duo’s commonly used techniques), Itinerary of Jean Bricard depicts a landscape under erasure, reminiscent of shots they captured for Fortini/Cani (1976) and Trop tôt, trop tard (Too Early, Too Late, 1980/81). Bricard testifies to the historical atrocities he experienced under German occupation and he recalls the devastating economic and ecological impact that postwar industrialization and development inflicted on the once vibrant working-class and fishing community.

The topical focus and mise en scène of the Bricard-film registers with Gens du Lac! (People of the Lake!, 2018), Straub’s last film to date. The film offers a similar cinematic discovery of a place in confrontation with oral accounts of a local history of political resistance. The place is, in this case, Lake Geneva and the text an excerpt from a recent novel by Swiss author Janine Massard, who composed it out of fragments of family history. The novel recounts the struggle and sacrifice of two generations of local fishermen, father and son, during WWII and in the changing economic and political landscape of the post-war era. These stories are read by two of Straub’s closest collaborators in recent years: Christophe Clavert and Giorgio Passerone.14 For the most part, the film visually alternates between shots filmed on the lake (in this case, HD colour footage) and passages of black screen, confronting here too a haunting, oral historical narrative with views of the contemporary landscape.

Itinerary of Jean Bricard (2007)

In 2010, Straub resumed a similar but much more personal itinerary in his short film Un héritier (An Heir) for which he returned to the writings of the French-Alsatian novelist Maurice Barrès, who had already provided the source for the duo’s 1994-film Lothringen!, An Heir stages several dialogues from Barrès’ semi-autobiographical novel In the Service of Germany (Au service de l’Allemagne, 1905) in exterior locations in Alsace, where Straub had spent his childhood years under German occupation. As in the case of Lothringen!, Straub revisits his past via a detour through Barrès’ recollection of the Prussian-German occupation. As in the case of Itinerary of Jean Bricard and People of the Lake, the film identifies the region’s layered history of occupations in terms of an ongoing legacy of power and oppression. In the second part of the film, Joseph Rottner, in the role of the titular heir, recites this legacy while standing in a nondescript forest-area filled with a row of overgrown ruins: the contemporary landscape intervenes in its failure to preserve and take note of the violent heritage. The first part of the film features Rottner in conversation with an older man, who is played by none other than Jean-Marie Straub, who resumes here the role of an onscreen performer under his old pseudonym Jubarite Semaran (an anagram of his name).15

An Heir (2010)

An Heir opens, in addition, an entirely new chapter in Straub’s oeuvre. Financed by a special grant from the “Jeonju Digital Project (JDP),” a production initiative of the South Korean Jeonju International Film Festival (JIFF), the film speaks to the vitality of Straub’s current work in a global (and, in this case, non-Western) context after the digital turn and in the eyes of a new generation of audiences, critics, and cultural practitioners.

From the Tomb to the Mountain

The compilation-film Kommunisten (Communists, 2014) testifies to similar histories of violence and oppression, yet the film’s montage opens the view gradually onto a pre-historic landscape filled with past and future possibilities. The first part of the film introduces a new author to the Straubian oeuvre: André Malraux. Communists is based on two passages from his novel Le Temps du Mépris (The Age of Oppression, 1935), captured by two scenes that were filmed in Rolle, Switzerland.16 The musical prelude of Eisler’s Auferstanden aus Ruinen (the former GDR’s national anthem) plays, over black screen, ahead of these scenes. The film’s second part features five individual scenes from former Straub and Huillet films: Operai contadini (Workers, Peasants, 2000), Too Early, Too Late, Fortini/Cani, as well as the two Empedocles adaptations Death of Empedocles and Schwarze Sünde (Black Sin, 1988). Thus, the film gives voice to a variety of communist convictions and histories: Eisler’s score, Malraux’s literary account of anti-communist persecution, the post-WWII struggles among peasants and workers in the later films, and Hölderlin’s “communist dream.”

Kommunisten (2014)

The film’s utopian prospects echo not only in the collection of these voices, but also in the film’s montage which describes a discernible movement from inside to outside. Communists crystallises thus a recurring formal pattern in Straub’s solo work: the films are organised around a dialectic of interior and exterior spaces and around confrontations of darkness and light. The film begins with the black screen image that transitions to the window-less, interior setting of the prison cell, illuminated only by cold industrial lighting. The second scene, a conversation between the political prisoner (returned home) and his wife, takes place on the threshold of interior and exterior space, underneath an apartment’s French window-frame. The window provides the only source of (natural) light in this scene. The two characters face the world outside with their backs turned against the viewer. Their bodies, in turn, obstruct our view onto the world that lies outside the window. The quotations from the earlier films that follow are all exterior locations that transition from the densely forested clearing in Workers, Peasants to the semi-urban area surrounding the Egyptian factory in Too Early, Too Late to Fortini/Cani’s Italian villages surrounded by the majestic Apuan Alps to the rugged, “outer-worldly” Sicilian landscape in the Hölderlin films.

Fortini/Cani (1976)

As the locations transition from inside to outside, from urban to rural to volcanic landscape, the film frame widens and opens to all sides in order to underscore the narrative trajectory from the authoritarian, hyper-industrial confinement of the prison camp to the vast utopian realm of a “pre-historic” earth, from individual isolation to communal solitude, from the terrors of historical violence to the unrealized possibilities of the future. The final shot depicts none other than Danièle Huillet (in the final scene of Black Sin). For a long time, she sits motionless on the mountain until she raises her voice to utter the film’s final words: “Neue Welt” (“New World”).

Kommunisten (2014), excerpted from Black Sin (1989)

The ascendance from inside to outside, from closed to open framing, and from darkness to light is explicitly identified with a mourning process that requires the passage through death. Nothing shows this more emphatically than the two short films O somma luce (Oh Supreme Light, 2009) and Un conte de Michel de Montaigne (A Tale by Michel de Montaigne, 2013). In the first film, Giorgio Passerone recites passages from “Paradiso”, the final chapter in Dante Alighieri’s Divina Commedia (Divine Comedy, 1320). The film alternates between two shots: one is stationary and depicts Passerone sitting at the edge of a field; the second consists of a single panning movement from left to right which encapsulates a view of the sky as well as the natural environment (trees, a forested mountain range, parts of the field) while the recital continues off-screen.17 The individual takes of these “Straubian shots” (plans straubiens) vary slightly in speed and length (more or less corresponding to the individual lengths of the accompanying verses). Each shot registers, in addition, the effects of sudden (sometimes subtle, sometimes quite forceful) changes in natural light. Throughout their career, Straub and Huillet sought out and preserved these shifts in light and movement, celebrating natural contingency over the conventions of classical continuity.

Oh Supreme Light (2009)

This candid approach to the natural, spontaneous play of light and shadow takes on renewed significance in Straub’s solo films, precisely because mourning figures here quite literally in the passage from the underworld to paradise, from an encounter with death to a return to the world of the living.18 that people traverse [including] that distant inner space no telescope can reach, where one is alone.” See Paul Griffith, Modern Music and After (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 140. Emphasis in original.] “My profession and my art, it is to live,” Barbara Ulrich recites Montaigne in A Tale by Michel de Montaigne. Her eyes are raised toward the sky, her face is illuminated by bright sunlight. The film is based on Montaigne’s essay “De l’exercitation” (“Of Practice,” 1580) in which the author ponders a near-death experience, after having been trampled by a horse in a riding accident. The event left a deep impression on the philosopher’s relationship to death and the accidental nature of life.19 Filmed both on interior and exterior locations in Paris (inside Straub’s apartment and around the Montaigne statue on the rue des Écoles), Straub juxtaposes the lifeless sculpture (including, Montaigne’s uncanny frozen smile) with the vitality of Ulrich’s facial expressions, bodily movements, and vocal intonations. Supported by the HD-video’s high-contrast colour composition, the film offers, in addition, the accidental play of light and shadow, created by the bright beams of sunlight that filter through the natural movement of the surrounding leaves and branches.

A Tale by Michel de Montaigne (2013)

Lessons in (Film-)History

Straub extends his mourning-work to the history of cinema and its potential future. A case in point is Dialogue d’ombres (Dialogue of Shadows, 2013), an adaptation of Georges Bernanos’ 1928 short story of the same title. Made more than six years after Huillet’s death, the opening credits identify the film explicitly as a “film by Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, 1954-2013.” The earlier date marks the year in which Straub and Huillet had met in Paris and began their collaboration on a project about the German composer Johann Sebastian Bach. That year, they also discovered Georges Bernanos’ short story Dialogue of Shadows (1928), about a man and a woman who wrestle with their feelings for each other as they are about to elope together. What starts out as an even-tempered lover’s discourse turns soon into a sombre exchange in which the woman rejects the man’s proposal in fear of the social constraints a matrimonial future might hold in store for her. While parallels between the text and Straub and Huillet’s own relationship are not out of the question, the more concrete connection arrives, once again, in the intertextual encounter between two texts: in this case, Straub prefaces the dialogue with two scenes from Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach (Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, 1967), “the film that brought Straub and Huillet together and brought them their widest international recognition.”20 Accompanied by the French-language version of Anna Magdalena’s voice-over narration, the first scene depicts Anna Magdalena, gravely ill, as she awaits her husband’s return from a business trip. The second scene, a stationary low-angle shot of the sky, filled with clouds passing by and framed by a row of treetops, is accompanied by Bach’s “Wann Kommst Du Mein Heil?” (“When are you coming, my salvation?” 1731), a duet in which two lovers’ express their devotion and longing for each other. The two scenes prefigure the juxtaposition between romantic discourse and social (i.e. matrimonial) realities which are also central to Bernanos’ story.

Dialogue of Shadows continues another signature technique in Straub and Huillet’s intertextual repertoire: the integration of original footage (either newsreel clips or select film scenes).21 The practice functions, in this case, to reconnect Dialogue of Shadows with its nascent state during the duo’s early Parisian years. At the time, Straub and Huillet were part of an emerging New Wave film culture, a period cut short when Straub had to leave France to avoid imprisonment for dodging the draft into the Algerian war, a refusal that effectively established his and Huillet’s lasting status as transnational, multilingual, émigré filmmakers. Using the “accented” French-language version (over the original German one) acknowledges Huillet (who had translated the German voice-over text into French) while pointing, more generally, to the duo’s multifaceted “translingual” practices.22 Christiane Lang’s German-accented rendition of Anna Magdalena’s French narration returns fifty years later when Cornelia Geiser delivers Bernanos’ French text in Dialogue of Shadows with a slight German accent. Both cases emphasize the duo’s penchant for performers who wrestle with a literary or dramatic text, written in a language other than their own. The original Bach-scenes in Dialogue of Shadows allude, in addition, to the crucial impact, Bernanos’s work had on Straub and Huillet’s early work. Chronicle was in large parts inspired by Jean-Luc Bresson’s Bernanos-adaptation Journal d’un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest, 1951) and critics frequently commented on stylistic affinities between the films.

Dialogue of Shadows (2013)

Dialogue of Shadows (2013)

In addition to these specific references, Dialogue of Shadows addresses in more general terms the materiality and history of cinema. This includes the confrontation between the original 35mm, black-and-white cinematography of the Bach-film and the new high-definition colour footage of Dialogue of Shadows. More so, performance style, shot composition, and editing pattern follow a precision and simplicity that retains something of the freshness and unpretentiousness of the early and silent film period. Rembert Hüser described Straub and Huillet’s films, in this respect, as “silent film with language.”23 The two performers (Cornelia Geiser and Bertrand Brouder) read select passages from the original text while sitting in an unidentified rural setting. Their non-dramatised vocal style highlights the melody of each word as well as the rhythmic quality of the syntax. The film emphasises reading (as opposed to memorising) as part of a specific encounter with the text, a strategy Straub and Huillet developed from the 1970s onwards. The performers sit almost motionless, their eyes cast downward, toward the direction of the script. Each one is framed individually in a straight-on medium shot; he in front of a lush green tree and she against the pastoral backdrop of a river. The two shots alternate throughout the dialogue, effectively separating the two lovers until the final two-shot unites them in a single frame, sitting side by side (albeit with some space between them) on a bench right by the river. The motion generated in these shots does not belong to the human figures; it belongs to the trees and leaves surrounding them, to the wind that registers in their movements, in the play of light and shadow, in the insects fluttering by, and in the river streaming in the background. Motion derives, in addition, from the sounds: the actors’ vocal intonations and an unencumbered natural soundscape that wrestles with the meticulously rehearsed, framed, and edited mise en scène.

A few months after he completed Dialogue of Shadows, Straub integrated another scene from Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach into his next film, the Barrès-adaptation À propos de Venise (Geschichtsunterricht) (Concerning Venice [History Lessons], 2013).24 The film resembles Dialogue of Shadows in terms of recital and mise en scène. However, in this case it is Barbara Ulrich who reads (off-screen) from a chapter in Maurice Barrès’ novel Amori et dolori sacrum – La Mort de Venice (1903) while the images capture the wind stirring the waves and the vegetation around a shallow water embankment. However, despite these formal similarities, the two films could not be further apart in terms of their thematic focus. Far from staging the dispute between two lovers, Concerning Venice laments the decline of an entire culture: the corruption and collapse of the Republic of Venice. The text allows Straub to revive his longstanding critique of the politics of a European film culture that is most ardently represented by the institution of the Venice Film Festival. Straub’s contentious relationship with the festival goes all the way back to 1954, the year he attended the festival as a young film critic. In his first published review Straub accuses the festival of engaging in “artificial necessities, diplomatic servitude, and gossip […] at the expense of art.”25 The solo films readdress the beliefs and commitment that already animated Straub as a young man. Several of his short video works raise these issues in the context of more recent geopolitical, socioeconomic, and no less (post-)cinematic conditions.

Still Images: Beyond Cinema

With Corneille-Brecht (2009) Straub revisited the writings of two authors who had provided source texts for two of Straub and Huillet’s most well-known feature-length films.26 Corneille-Brecht stands out in Straub’s late oeuvre; for one, because it marks the transition from photochemically-based cinematography to digital video and, second, because it introduces a new signature mise en scène element: the stylistic simplicity of Straub’s Parisian apartment. Corneille-Brecht is, more importantly, the first in a series of short videos in which Straub’s exhibits increasing interests in film and video’s pre-cinematic roots, namely still image composition and photography. The first group of films consists of Corneille-Brecht (2009), the Kafka-adaptation Schakale und Araber (Jackals and Arabs, 2011) and La Guerre d’Algérie! (The Algerian War!, 2014). All three are extremely short (the last two barely exceed the 2-minute marker) and radically reduced in spatial depth and visual composition. All three recount narratives of historical trauma. The performers read or recite the texts by either siting, standing, or kneeling in front of a French window (located in a room in Straub’s Parisian apartment). The sunlight that floods through the window is the only light source in these scenes and casts a strong backlight onto the interior space, leaving large portions of the foreground (including the performers’ faces and bodies) cast in shadow. The low-key lighting effect reinvokes the earlier mentioned dialectic between light and darkness, yet in this case there is no play, movement, or transition from one to the other. The graphic minimalism and the stationary composition establish instead a clear demarcation between interior (narrative and performance) space and a world outside that remains largely obscure and inaccessible. Together with the crisp digital colour footage, the extreme contrast in lighting conditions produce a flattened space dominated by graphic lines rather than spatial depth.

Corneille/Brecht (2009)

The Algerian War! (2014)

Jackals and Arabs (2011)

Organised around the diegetic object of the window, these films seem to question the very promise of one of cinematic realism’s principal metaphors: to bring us directly in touch with the world and, in turn, offer “the world the possibility of a redemption,” as Francesco Casetti puts it.27 The “apartment” videos not only retreat from a pro-filmic encounter with an exterior location, but they are most radical in abandoning both classical and realist conventions of cinematic “world-building.”28 In doing so, these videos occupy a space between past, present, and a possible future, between the human shadow-play of the camera obscura and the austere, transient, and semi-private nature of contemporary social media clips.

Joachim Gatti (2009) and La Mort de Venise (The Death of Venice, 2013) entertain similar pre- or non-cinematic qualities. Both videos are composed of a single, stationary shot. Barely three minutes long, Joachim Gatti recalls, in part, Straub and Huillet’s “vidéotract” Europa 2005, 27 Octobre (Europa 2005, 27 October, 2006) due to its similar focus on contemporary police violence. However, the Gatti-film lacks the cinétract-style’s call for anonymity and its reliance on montage. Instead, Straub confronts the stationary image – a photograph of the titular Gatti, taken before a police bullet lacerated one of his eyes during a political protest – with a voice-over commentary. After reciting a paragraph from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes (Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men, 1755), he adds: “And I Straub, I say to you that it is the police, the police armed by Capital, who kill.”29

The level of political rage, Straub exhibits in the voice-over narration, breaks with the duo’s general abstention from including political commentaries directly into their films. It does, however, remind of the various open letters, oral statements, and written dedications, Straub had appended to his work throughout his career. It reminds, more specifically, of the letter, he distributed back in 2006 (a month before Huillet passed away) at the Venice film festival; which ended with the infamous statement: “I wouldn’t be able to be festive in a festival where there are so many public and private police looking for a terrorist – I am the terrorist, and I tell you, paraphrasing Franco Fortini: so long as there’s American imperialistic capitalism, there’ll never be enough terrorists in the world. J.M.S.” Translated in Shafto, Writings, p. 273. Emphases in original.] The words instil the shot with an acute present tense that operates in sharp contrast to the frozen pastness of the photograph. The stationary composition reinforces the photographic nature of the shot. In fact, if it were not for the almost imperceptible movements of a few pieces of moss fluttering in the wind, visible in the upper left corner of the frame, we would have to question the image’s status as “motion picture” altogether. This registers with recent post-cinematic sensibilities, such as the one suggested by Laura Mulvey, in which the stationary image arrests cinema “at the point of convergence between the old and the new, […] to bring the presence of death back to the ageing cinema.”30 However, in the case of Joachim Gatti, pre-cinematic stillness attains a political dimension as well: rather than documenting the violent incident itself, the video captures only its aftermath by returning, paradoxically, to a place and time that precedes the event, a moment that is irredeemably lost were it not for the trace left by the instantaneous intervention of the photographic medium.

Joachim Gatti (2009)

In 2013, Straub revisited similar issues with his contribution to the omnibus film Venezia 70: Future Reloaded, which had been commissioned by the Venice Film Festival in honour of its 70th anniversary. The two-minute-long The Death of Venice depicts a cinematic still image and photomontage, composed of carefully arranged handwritten, typed, and photocopied notes, including a page from Barrès’ aforementioned novel of the same title. In a dadaesque fashion, Straub rearranges and adds words, so that the title The Death of Venice turns into: “The Death – of the cinématographe – of Venice.” Aided by Barrès’ criticism of Venetian culture and echoing his prior attacks of the festival, Straub addresses the end of cinema as a medium and cultural institution, beyond cinema as we knew it and toward a possible cinematic future to come. Remarkably devoid of cinephilic nostalgia and pathos, Straub’s stationary, one-shot videos expand cinema by bringing the flow of time to a standstill (it is no longer possible to tell, if The Death of Venice is a “time-image” or a still image). The Death of Venice and Joachim Gatti exhibit, moreover, the unauthorised speech and playful theatricality that aligns emerging new media practices, at least potentially, with the style and rhetoric of traditional manifesto-writing. In doing so, Straub returns to his (and Huillet’s!) utopian roots by calling on a new cinema to usher in a new world.

The Death of Venice (2013)


  1. Olivier Seguret, “Straub sans Huillet,” Libération, October 11, 2006).
  2. In 2016, MOMA in New York presented a complete retrospective of Straub and Huillet’s work which included Straub’s latest solo films. Similar events in several North American cities and all over the world followed; among them, Madrid and Paris in 2016, Tokyo and Berlin in 2017, Lisbon in 2018, and London in 2019.
  3. “Andi Engel Talks to Jean-Marie Straub,” Cinemantics 1, 1970, p. 12; “Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub in Conversation with François Albera,” in Die Früchte des Zorns und der Zärtlichkeit (Vienna: Viennale, 2004), p. 42.
  4. James Tweedie, Moving Pictures, Still Lives: Film, New Media, and the Late Twentieth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), p. 48. Tweedie borrows the expression “archaeomodern turn” from Jacques Rancière. See “The Archaeomodern Turn”, in Walter Benjamin and the Demands of History, ed. Michael P. Steinberg (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996), p. 24-40.
  5. “Daniele Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub im Gespräch mit Hans Hurch und Stephan Settele”, in Die Früchte des Zorns und der Zärtlichkeit, p. 104. For Straub’s distinction between “Marxist” and “Marxian”, see Albera, in ibid., 47-48.
  6. Tweedie, Moving Pictures, p. 54. See also: Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, Trans. Peggy Kamuf (London: Routledge, 1994).
  7. Many of these writings, Tweedie argues. “began to reimagine cinema as an old medium and a repository of unrealized modern aspirations” (Moving Pictures, p. 2). See, for instance: Paolo Cherchi Usai, The Death of Cinema: History, Cultural Memory, and the Digital Dark Age (London: British Film Institute, 2005); Laura Mulvey, Death 24 x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image (London: Reaktion, 2006); Francesco Casetti, The Lumière Galaxy: Seven Key Words For the Cinema to Come (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015); Philippe Marion and André Gaudreault, The End of Cinema? A Medium in Crisis in the Digital Age (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015).
  8. The construction of such a multi-vocal, intertextual discourse stands at the heart of Straub and Huillet’s essayistic practice of quoting, combing, and confronting individual sound and image fragments from different source texts with one another.
  9. The collaboration with the theater in Buti began in 1998 with the Vittorini-adaptation Sicilia!. Since that time, Straub and Huillet filmed all their Italian-language films in Buti with actors from the theater. Straub continued this tradition with the above mentioned Artemide’s Knee and The Inconsolable One as well as with Le Streghe/Femmes entres elles (The Witches/Women Among Themselves, 2009) and La Madre, (The Mother, 2011).
  10. Quoted in Tag Gallagher, “Lacrimae Rerum Materialized,” Senses of Cinema 37 (October 2005), http://sensesofcinema.com/2005/feature-articles/straubs/.
  11. It should be noted that it was Huillet specifically who had an initial interest in becoming an ethnographic documentary filmmaker.
  12. Albera, Die Früchte des Zorns und der Zärtlichkeit, p. 124. For a more detailed critical examination of the relationship between Straub and Huillet’s films and the oral tradition, see: Benoît Turquety, “Oral Objectification: Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, Filmmakers and Translators,” SubStance 44, no. 2, 2015, p. 48-53.
  13. Jean-Yves Petiteau, “Itinéraire de Jean Bricard,” Leucothéa 1 (April 2009), pp. 59-84, http://www.revue-leucothea.com/1/index.php
  14. Passerone appears also in Jackals and Arabs and in Oh Supreme Light. Clavert appears in The War in Algeria! and he is the principal cinematographer and editor of most of Straub’s solo films.
  15. Both Huillet and Straub would appear occasionally in front of the camera in their films. Straub’s most substantial on-screen performance was the role of Lucus in the duo’s adaptation of Corneille’s Othon (1664).
  16. After Huillet’s death, Straub moved to Rolle, Switzerland, where he resides, at least part of the year, not far from Jean-Luc Godard, who has lived in Rolle since more than thirty years.
  17. Coined by the French critic Serge Daney, the plan Straubien is considered a key formal gesture in Straub and Huillet’s films. It consists typically of panoramic landscape views that are captured by an extended, continuous pan-motion. See Serge Daney, “Le plan ‘Straubien’,”Cahiers du cinéma 305 (1979), pp. 5-7.
  18. The motif of the underworld (i.e. Dante’s journey through hell and purgatory) reappears also in the musical prelude to Oh Supreme Light: Edgar Varése’s modernist music piece Déserts (1950-54) which is, according to the composer, about “all those [places
  19. To note, a few years after Huillet’s death, Straub suffered a strikingly similar accident. A motorbike ran him over in Paris and left him hospitalized for months. The one who came to his aide (and has stayed there ever since) was none other than Barbara Ulrich, the radiant narrator of Montaigne’s tale. The curator Freddy Buache discloses these biographical details in “Aaron Cutler, “‘The Reader Collaborates with the Author in Every Book:’ Some Words About Straub-Huillet. See, https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/the-reader-collaborates-with-the-author-in-every-book-some-words-about-straub-huillet
  20. Barton Byg, Landscapes of Resistance: The German Films of Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995), p. 51.
  21. The quotation of the Bach-scene reminds, for instance, of Straub and Huillet’s Cèzanne: Dialogue avec Joachim Gasquet (Cézanne: Conversation with Joachim Gasquet, 1989) that featured two original film clips, a scene from Jean Renoir’s Madame Bovary (1933) and a scene from The Death of Empedocles. Straub reassembles parts of the duo’s former work also in the aforementioned Communists and he appends another clip by Jean Renoir (this time, from the 1936-film La Marseillaise) to his second Malraux-adaptation L’Aquarium et la nation (The Aquarium and the Nation, 2015).
  22. For more about the “transnational” and translingual” underpinnings in Straub and Huillet’s work see: Sally Shafto, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet: Writings (New York: Sequence Press, 2016), pp. 3-7.
  23. Rembert Hüser, “Stummfilm mit Sprache: Der Tod des Empedokles oder Wenn Dann der Erde Grün von Neuem Euch Erglänzt von Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub,” filmwärts 12 (1988), pp. 17-23.
  24. The subtitle in parentheses, a direct reference to Straub and Huillet’s Geschichtsunterricht (History Lessons, 1972), adds another layer to the historical journey back in time.
  25. Shafto, Writings, p. 37. The review is one among several of Straub’s early critical writings that were translated into English and included in Shafto’s volume.
  26. The two films are Les yeux ne veulent pas en tout temps se fermer ou peut-être qu’un jour rome se permettra de choisir à son tour (Eyes do not want to close at all times or Perhaps one day Rome will permit herself to choose in her turn, 1969), based on Pierre Corneille’s drama Othon (1664), and Geschichtsunterricht (History Lessons, 1972), based on Bertolt Brecht’s unfinished novel Die Geschäfte des Herrn Julius Caesar (The Business Affairs of Mr. Julius Caesar, 1937-39).
  27. Casetti. The Lumière Galaxy, p. 158.
  28. The composition of this interior space contrasts the confrontation of dramatic recital and contingent nature that is common in most of Straub and Huillet’s films and differs, more importantly, from the classical finesse that went into the composition of those films in which interior locations dominated, namely Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, En Rachâchant, History Lessons, and Sicilia! (which are all, notably, 35mm black-and-white films).
  29. For an English translation by Louis Georges Schwartz of the Rousseau excerpt see: “Joachim Gatti (2009),” KINO SLANG Blogspot (April 4, 2010), https://kinoslang.blogspot.com/2010/04/joachim-gatti-2009-video-by-jean-marie_04.html
  30. Mulvey, 24 x a Second, p. 22.

About The Author

Claudia Pummer is a lecturer in Film and Media Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. Her publications have appeared in Studies in European Cinema, in the Blackwell Companion to German Cinema, and in the anthology Jean-Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet (Austrian Filmmuseum/Synema Publications, 2016).

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