Rural Sensualist

To say that I knew Jean-Marie Straub (1933-2022) and Jean-Luc Godard (1930-2022) equally well is another way of saying I knew them equally poorly. Yet I know that they wound up dying sixty-odd days apart in the same Swiss village (Rolle), close to where Godard spent much of his childhood and later shot some of his best (Nouvelle Vague, King Lear) as well as his worst (For Ever Mozart) work – an area I’ve never visited. Straub was born in Metz, which I don’t know either – a small city that belonged to Germany before World War I and then for a spell during World War II before reverting to France, giving him a sort of divided nationality like Godard – who, although born in Paris, was Swiss-French, straddling another kind of division.

From 1963 to 2006, Straub was half of a two-headed, four-handed filmmaking team – based in Paris, Munich and close to Rome – with Danièle Huillet, his French wife, the more practical-minded member of the couple, who only gained full credit as co-author about a decade after they started, which she then retained until her untimely death in 2006. Circa 2011, Barbara Ulrich, who was Swiss, became Straub’s producer, partner, occasional actress and business manager, most likely occasioning their move to Rolle.

One thing that tended to make both Godard and Straub indigestible to Anglo-Americans was their having grown up in a French culture where avant-garde art and mainstream entertainment weren’t mutually exclusive, as the careers of René Clair, Jean Cocteau and Marcel L’Herbier amply demonstrated. Moreover, the fact that both of these chain smokers belonged to the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd (with Straub qualifying as a junior member, like Luc Moullet), which embraced Hollywood populism but shied away from avant-garde elitism, meant that their own avant-garde practices, including a reluctance or inability to tell stories, were couched in mainstream terms even as they confounded mainstream editing protocols.

Godard had anonymously helped in the financing of Straub’s first full-length feature, Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach (1968), and politically as well as aesthetically, they remained comrades-in-arms for well over half a century, effectively serving as the two most imposing pillars of cinematic modernism in Western Europe, particularly as this applied to their grappling with texts, their love of direct sound, their preoccupations with history and their sharp critical reflexes.

I knew each of them only fleetingly. I interviewed Godard in 1980 and 1996 and curated the first Straub-Huillet retrospective (supplemented by about a dozen films from others that they considered exemplary) held in the US in 1982, with an accompanying catalogue that benefitted from their input. At the Viennale in 2004, where they were presenting a John Ford retrospective, I had dinner with the two of them and (quite awkwardly) a colleague I wasn’t speaking to, a critic who unlike me was fluent in Italian; the fact that they showed no awareness of the incompatibility and discomfort of their two guests was characteristic of both their single-mindedness and their social clumsiness. (An English friend once described the problems she faced upon presenting them with a gift, which they didn’t know how to receive.)

Another thing Godard and Straub-Huillet had and have in common is that no one quite knows what to do with their work. In the case of Straub-Huillet’s reception in the UK, Screen magazine appeared to be far more comfortable printing their screenplays than explaining why it was important to do so. As for their reception in the US, the silence and/or incomprehension prior to 1982 was such that I was moved to turn the catalogue into an angry polemic. Jean-Marie himself was livid that the New York Times’ Vincent Canby had reviewed their Moses and Aaron as Aaron and Moses, and he seemed equally irritated when another reviewer added a ‘the’ before Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (an error shared by Wikipedia and many others), implying that they had adapted an existing document rather than compiled one of their own invention. (The New York Times’ recent Straub obituary is no less befuddled, maintaining that the lengthy subtitle of their Othon Les Yeux ne veulent pas en tout temps se fermer, ou Peut-être qu’un jour Rome se permettra de choisir à son tour – was given in English and that Straub-Huillet didn’t even care if people walked out of their films.) As for Godard, even in this journal, Fredric Jameson recently found himself asking ‘what we were to do with the final works of the “humanist” period, where they came from, and whether they meant a falling off or a genuine renewal.’

The most significant difference between these figures, at least for me, is that Godard was a city slicker and Straub was a rube, a hillbilly – by which I mean existentially if not literally. In both cases, this was for the better as well as for the worse. It applied to both their respective social skills and (especially in Straub’s case) their lack of the same, which paradoxically seemed just as evident. Both of them were snobs as well as populists, gadflies as well as traditionalists. Each reinvented the medium for his own purposes, as did Alexander Dovzhenko, Federico Fellini, Jia Zhangke (three other inspired hick directors of innovative epics), and indeed William Faulkner (who reinvented the novel in comparably epic and innovative ways).

Straub’s undeserved marginality derives in part from the way we tend to regard country folk, especially when they display the unbridled freedom of avant-garde artists. Many of us unconsciously adopt the city-bred bias that innovative art belongs to urban audiences and depends on some form of city smartness, reluctant to believe it can also come from hillbillies. That these artists seem to reinvent their own art forms may lead us to think that they somehow arrived at their discoveries by brute instinct rather than by study or intellect, but this means overlooking that Faulkner read Joyce and Dovzhenko was exposed to modern art in Warsaw, Berlin and Odessa. Straub and Huillet studied both the subjects of their films (music by Bach and Schoenberg, texts by Böll, Brecht, Corneille, Duras, Hölderlin, Kafka, Mallarmé, Montagne, Pavese and Vittorini, and paintings by Cézanne, among many others) and the films of Bresson, Buñuel, Chaplin, Dreyer, Ford, Hawks, Lubitsch, Renoir, and Tati, their masters.

The ways that they accommodated their subjects to these masters are in some cases fairly easy to detect, as in the traces of Bresson and Dreyer in the performance styles of Straub-Huillet films (especially the early ones); less so for their Hollywood and French commercial models (Ford, Hawks, Lubitsch, Renoir) and comic-independent ones (Chaplin and Tati). But the stamps of these and other populist heroes remained none the less present in Straub’s critical vocabulary and conception of his art. In Pedro Costa’s extraordinary Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? (2001), aptly described as a romantic comedy about Straub-Huillet – which shows Huillet meticulously editing one of the multiple versions of their 1999 Sicilia! while Straub advises, kibbitzes, paces, smokes and pontificates – Straub identifies Chaplin, of all people, as the greatest of all film editors (an argument he often made elsewhere) because Chaplin knew precisely when a gesture began and ended. In an earlier documentary by Harun Farocki, we see Straub suggest to a German actor he’s directing in Klassenverhältnisse (1984) that he deliver a line by Kafka the way that Ricky Nelson says a line in Hawks’ Rio Bravo. (Defying the notion that works of art need to be singular, Straub-Huillet sometimes edited several different versions of their films using different takes of shots so that, for instance, the sound of an offscreen rooster crowing might be heard in the German subtitled version but not in the English subtitled one.)

The seeming incongruity of matching a radical vision with a mainstream product also proposes cinema as a grappling or juggling with a text (written, composed, painted, or filmed) in order to approach history, another trait Straub shared with Godard. This in turn redefines both political will and reality as things that Chaplin, Dreyer, Ford, Griffith, Hawks, Lubitsch, Mizoguchi, Renoir, Stroheim and Tati can teach us important lessons about. Such a perspective was especially apparent when I conducted a Q+A with Jean-Marie and Danièle in New York and attended their lengthy debate session with some art students about why Ford was more dialectically correct than Eisenstein, which left many of the kids speechless. Straub’s often inflammatory rhetoric tended to be leftist and/or anarchist, but the underlying feelings were often related to conservative paeans to preserving the status quo such as Rio Bravo, ably put together by storytellers with often-bittersweet conclusions about upholding the law and bowing to homespun convention. Indeed, Straub’s intense love for the material world arguably suggested a kind of conservativism complicating if not undermining his Marxism.

By the time Straub-Huillet became landscape artists in the 70s and 80s – arguably starting with Moses und Aron (1975) and Fortini/Cani (1976) and climaxing in such masterpieces as Trop tot/trop tard (1982) and Operai, contadini (2001) – the sensuality of places and people, of animals, insects, and vegetation became more central to their art, even as their chosen texts continued to help generate it. (Despite the intermittent power of its visuals, it’s the sound of German being spoken that comprises most of the beauty of Der Tod des Empedokles.) Costa told me that they once spent their spare time translating some of Shakespeare’s plays into Italian, not because they wanted to film the results but simply because they found the existing translations ‘shit’. This passion for exactitude while struggling with texts, meanwhile valuing their resistance to them as well as their predilections, also led them to insert patches of black leader to represent textual cuts in their Einleitung zu Arnold Schoenbergs Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielscene (1973). But regarding what they did with landscapes, Huillet, in a letter to Artificial Eye’s Andi Engel about Trop tot/trop tard, may have done a better job of describing their art than any of their more discerning critics, such as Gilberto Perez and Barton Byg:

What is recounted: struggles, revolts, defeats, delays and anticipations, statistics; what is represented: history, topography, geography, geology, light, lights, wind and clouds, land (worked and transformed by men), traces – erased or still visible – and sky (lots of sky); we tried finding the right perspective (the only one), the right height, the right proportions between the earth and the sky, to be able to pan without having to change the horizon line, even at 360-degrees.

Unlike Godard, who had social skills even when it came to informing his public that he wanted to be left alone, Straub tended to create unnecessary scandals and misunderstandings wherever he went. For all its sincerity, the angry bluster of his political rhetoric ­– which inspired him to announce in absentia at Venice in 2006 (where he was receiving a lifetime achievement award), quoting Franco Fortini, that as long as there was American imperialist capitalism, there could never be enough terrorists in the world ­­– seemed motored by nervousness and clumsy shyness, which apparently led him to overlook the terrorism of American imperialist capitalism. It was the same provincialism that reportedly led him to reject a Canadian retrospective because ‘you can’t trust Americans with prints’ and prompted him and Huillet to title their early video Europa 2005 – 27 octobre (2006), as if they assumed that everyone in their audience already knew about the electrocuted French teenagers. But it was also a tender provincialism whose innocence produced the splendours and wonders of workers and peasants in a vibrant, humming forest explaining how to make ricotta. If this sounds like hyperbole, Straub made the very practice of spouting and spreading such hyperbole contagious, and, as with Godard, we will continue to celebrate him not only for what he produced but also for what he inspired in some of his disciples and commentators.

Read on: Jonathan Rosenbaum, ‘The Missing Image’, NLR 34.