Except where otherwise attributed, all program notes are adapted and augmented by Andy Rector from those by Joshua Siegel
1Toute révolution est un coup de dés (Every Revolution Is a Throw of the Dice). 1977. France. Dir. Jean-Marie Straub, Danièle Huillet. With Huillet, Helmut Färber, Michel Delahaye, Georges Goldfayn, Manfred Blank, Marilù Parolini, Aksar Khaled, Andrea Spingler, Dominique Villain. 35mm. In French; English subtitles. 10 min.
In 1977, Straub and Huillet invited friends to recite Stéphane Mallarmé’s 1897 poem “A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance"—with its astonishing use of verse, syntax, division, caesura and spacing—on a hill alongside the Communards’ Wall in Père Lachaise cemetery, where some 147 men and women of the Paris Commune were executed in 1871.
This is one of the few films in the history of cinema to use a poem, from top to bottom, not as its inspiration but as its source and total formation (oddly this was much more common in the silent cinema!). Just one formal act in relation to the original typography of Mallarmé’s poem, as noted by Jonathan Rosenbaum: “Women read the portions in the lower-case letters while facing screen left, men read portions of in capital letters while facing screen right.”
The title of the film is a line by French historian Jules Michelet on the Commune made contemporaneous to its chances: “Every revolution is a throw of dice.” The last line of the film, thus the Mallarmé poem: “Every thought emits a roll of the dice”. Jean-Marie Straub: “Fidel Castro or someone else said once, ‘The revolution is like God’s grace, it has to be made anew each day, it becomes new every day, a revolution is not made once and for all’. And it’s exactly like that in daily life. There is no division between politics and life, art and politics.”
It’s not hard to understand why these ambitious filmmakers were drawn to Mallarmé’s late-19th-century poem, which as Mallarmé wrote “takes place in the combinations of the Infinite face to face with the Absolute.”
En rachâchant. 1982. France. Dir. Jean-Marie Straub, Danièle Huillet. Based on “Ah! Ernesto!,” by Marguerite Duras. With Olivier Straub, Nadette Thinus, Bernard Thinus, Raymond Gérard. 35mm. In French; English subtitles. 7 min. 35mm print.
Beneath the subversive comedy of Marguerite Duras’ 1971 children’s book “Ah! Ernesto!,” about a determined nine-year-old boy who one fine day refuses to go to school, lies a terse and tough rejection of all forms of authority, whether patriarchal family, school, or nation. The title is untranslatable but “onomatopoeically hints at harping on, harking back, buying back, muttering, mumbling, chewing, knowing, fretting, fuming and murdering!” (Gilbert Adair). The film’s “hard-as-granite” black and white cinematography is by Henri Alekan, well known for the argentic Beauty and the Beast by Jean Cocteau.
Jean-Marie Straub: “We allowed ourselves the luxury of making a 7-minute film (between two bigger feature productions)…”
Huillet: “What you say is terrible. That it is a luxury, that freedom is a luxury.”
Lothringen! 1994. Germany/France. Dir. Jean-Marie Straub, Danièle Huillet. Based on Colette Baudoche, by Maurice Barrès. With Emmanuelle Straub, André Warynski, Dominique Dosdat. 35mm. In French; English subtitles. 21 min. 35mm print.
In fourteen shots—mostly descriptive panoramas of a region in northeast France many times invaded or annexed by the Germans as “Imperial Territory”— Lothringen! tells the story of an uprooted and humiliated people. “Lothringen” is the German word for Alsace-Lorraine, France, capital Metz. 1870, 1907, 1940—mistreatment, displacement, exodus. “The German flood rose constantly and threatened to overwhelm everything.” “An ordinance has just suppressed the teaching of French in four villages.” This film is based on a novel called Colette Baudoche, Story of a Young Girl in Metz. The fragments of the novel used in the film are those related to history, of which the character Colette is the product (as is Straub, who was born in Metz and grew up under German occupation). A rich and condensed historical chronical where fiction is an apparition of present history, Lothringen! is the Straub/Huillet work that most resembles their favorite film by John Ford, "The Civil War" (1962). As in all Straub/Huillet, Lothringen! sharpens our senses and asks: how is a landscape or place marked by the passage of time or history? How can this be read? And in a film, is this not moving?
(Adapted from Bernard Eisenschitz,“Recits d’enfance” [Childhood Stories])
Huillet: "Fiction is important for us, because when it is mixed with documentary, or a documentary situation, a contradiction is created and sparks fly. Fiction is very important, in spite of everything, to somehow ignite a fire."
Straub: "I think what interests us is to show layers…"
Huillet: "Not to eradicate the traces but to build on them."
Il Ritorno del figlio prodigo/Umiliati (The Return of the Prodigal Son/Humiliated). 2001–03. Italy/France/Germany. Dir. Jean-Marie Straub, Danièle Huillet. Based on Women of Messina, by Elio Vittorini. With Rosalba Curatola, Aldo Fruttuosi, Romano Guelfi. 35mm. In Italian; English subtitles. 64 min. 35mm print.
“In Vittorini’s Women of Messina, a communal village is shown up as nothing but a pipe dream. The happy ending (in Huillet/Straub’s first film of this novel, Workers, Peasants, 2001) is itself a pipe dream – fabricated by the Straubs by stopping in the middle of the novel and by conflating a passing remark about foraging for laurel into a celebration of a New Eden. The true truth is humiliation, as recounted in The Return of the Prodigal Son/Humiliation, a film so linear and unrelenting and mocking (even quacking ducks) that it is difficult to believe it is a movie the Straubs “wanted” to make or a humiliation anyone would want to re-live. The truths so bitter that explode the pipe-dream of communist community are capitalist realities proclaimed by an ex-Fascist terrorist who is (the film’s hero) Ventura’s twin – a zombie ironically modelled on Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Christ-figure, Johannes Borgen (Preben Lerdorff Rye), in Ordet (1955): the land is owned, they are trespassing (as in John Steinbeck-Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath).
But the truths so bitter are also market realities, Marxist realities, and these are proclaimed by three Communist partisans even more humiliatingly.”
(Tag Gallagher, "Lacrimae Rerum Materialized")
“There was a film before this one, called Workers, Peasants (2001), which is about what went on before (in this village). These people tried to reinvent everything: this village, this life, this commune. In that particular film they quarrel, they discuss, they fight, there are some love stories… The Return of the Prodigal Son/Humiliation is the sad epilogue. It felt so sad today. But it’s so well done. There are no metaphors here. In films, there are constantly metaphors for everything, but Huillet and Straub are the only artists I know who are beyond metaphor. It’s all crystal clear. It is as sad as – when I think about them in a historical context – the last films of Eisenstein or Vertov, they have the same effect. I see them dying, lying down, giving up, taken down by the forces of progress and power. So it’s a very sad film, but it’s a film that has to be done. It all comes from Italian writers who were very important – Vittorini, Pavese and others. They didn’t give up, but they were forced to stop writing. Pavese ended the way he did (suicide), Vittorini cried for the rest of his life. And we, we are still crying.”
(Pedro Costa, “A Secret to be Shared,”DISSENT! Brussels talk, Feb. 2, 2013)
Dolando. 2002. Italy/France/Germany. Dir. Jean-Marie Straub, Danièle Huillet. With Dolando Bernardini. In Italian; English subtitles. 7 min.
After the production of Umiliati, Straub and Huillet gave thanks to the cast and crew in a graceful way: by inviting Dolando Bernardini to sing several stanzas from Torquato Tasso’s 16th-century epic poem Jerusalem Delivered.
Europa 2005, 27 Octobre. 2006. France. Dir. Jean-Marie Straub, Danièle Huillet. In French; English subtitles. 10 min.
Though this short, their first movie shot on digital video, is known as a Straub/Huillet work, it has often been screened as an unsigned, anonymous cine-tract. The “27 Octobre” of the title refers to the day three terrified young boys in Clichy-sous-Bois, outside Paris, were pursued by the police and took refuge in the off-limits area of an electric transformer station. Two of them were killed—Bouna Traore, 15, and Zyed Benna, 17—burned alive. Their deaths sparked three weeks of uprisings across France. In five camera pans Straub/Huillet document the dead-end location of this atrocity. The video was commissioned by Enrico Ghezzi of Italian television as a "sequel" to Roberto Rossellini's Europa ’51. Ten years later, in 2015, the two police officers who chased Bouna and Zyed were acquitted in criminal court of the strange charge: “Complicity in these deaths through their inaction” (see Straub’s later cine-tract Joachim Gatti ).
Verteidigung der Zeit (In Defense of Time). 2007. Germany. Dir. Peter Nestler. With Jean-Marie Straub, Danièle Huillet, Ursula Illert. In German, Italian, French; English subtitles. 24 min.
Made for German television not long after Huillet’s death in October 2006, this didactic introduction and portrait of the life and work of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet was directed by their friend, the great documentarian Peter Nestler. It offers insight into some of Straub/Huillet’s essential strongholds: time, love, direct sound, reality, anti-fascism, the “tiger’s leap into the past.” It particularly examines one of Straub/Huillet’s Cesare Pavese films, From the Cloud to the Resistance (screening March 7, 2017 at Art Center Pasadena). After Huillet’s passing, many were uncertain if and how Straub would continue to make films; Nestler was certain: the work will continue. The remainder of the Straub works in this program and those that follow are beautiful evidence of that fact.
Corneille-Brecht. 2009. France. Dir. Jean-Marie Straub. Based on Othon and Horace, by Pierre Corneille, and The Trial of Lucullus, by Bertolt Brecht. With Cornelia Geiser. In French, German; English subtitles. 27 min.
In leaps of physical color, Cornelia Geiser recites verses from Pierre Corneille’s plays Horace and Othon, followed by extended excerpts from Bertolt Brecht’s 1939 radio play The Trial of Lucullus (later turned into an opera by Brecht and Paul Dessau in East Germany), in which a Roman General is summoned to the netherworld to stand trial for the crimes and sufferings he has inflicted on commoners and slaves. Across centuries of Western civilization, Straub and Geiser, in one corner of a small Parisian apartment, address monstrous rulers, those of ancient Rome, the kings of 17th-century France, the fascists of Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, and, by implication, those in power today. Cumulatively, it is not the rulers who are the main characters here, but the collective judgement of the oppressed on the oppressor.
Joachim Gatti. 2009. France. Dir. Jean-Marie Straub. Based on Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Narration by Jean-Marie Straub. 2 min.
In July 2009 the young French filmmaker Joachim Gatti, son of poet Armand Gatti, was seriously injured by a police attack during a peaceful demonstration against an eviction in Montreuil, Paris. A police “flash-ball” bullet struck his face and ruptured one of his eyes. A translation of the video's text:
(Voice of Straub:) “Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote:
'Only the dangers of society as a whole trouble the philosopher's tranquil sleep and tear him from his bed. Someone can slit his counterpart's throat with impunity under his window; He only has to put his hands over his ears and argue with himself a little to prevent nature, which revolts within him, from identifying him with the one who is being assassinated. Savage man does not have this admirable talent, and for want of wisdom and reason he is always seen heedlessly yielding to the first sentiment of humanity. In uprisings and street fights the populace assembles and the prudent man distances himself: the dregs of the people, the women of the markets, separate the combatants and prevent honest people from slitting each other's throats.'
And I Straub, I say to you that it is the police, the police armed by Capital, who kill.”
La Guerre d’Algérie! (The Algerian War!). 2014. Switzerland/France. Dir. Jean-Marie Straub. Based on a story by Jean Sandretto. With Christophe Clavert, Dimitri Haulet. In French; English subtitles. 2 min.
As a young man Straub deserted to West Germany, refusing to fight for France against the Algerians. Later in life, he returned to this bitter historical experience with a terse noir about “the instinct to heal”…and to murder.
Le Streghe, Femmes entre elles (The Witches, Women among Themselves). 2008. France/Italy. Dir. Jean-Marie Straub. Based on Dialogues with Leucò, by Cesare Pavese. With Giovanna Giuliani, Giovanna Daddi. 35mm. In Italian; English subtitles. 21 min. 35mm print.
The enchantress Circe recounts to Leucò her attempts to bewitch and bed Odysseus. She talks about men and women, the human and the divine, and the brave hero who chooses to become neither pig nor God. In her adamantine repose, Circe also hints at the monotony of her own immortal fate, and contrasts it with the vibrating currents of life she so dearly craves and envies in Odysseus, with his longing for home, childhood, and love. These women-demigods are frank and sensitive at the same time, like the men of Raoul Walsh’s films, where the communities of male and female are deathly separate, and massive to each other. Walsh made a western, The Tall Men, in 1955. This 2008 Straub-film is its reverse shot.
La madre (The Mother). 2011. Switzerland. Dir. Jean-Marie Straub. Based on Dialogues with Leucò, by Cesare Pavese. With Giovanna Daddi, Dario Marconcini. In Italian; English subtitles. 20 min.
Over black: Gustav Mahler’s 1901 Rückert-Lieder. An English translation:
I am lost to the world
with which I used to waste so much time,
It has heard nothing from me for so long
that it may very well believe that I am dead!
It is of no consequence to me
Whether it thinks me dead;
I cannot deny it,
for I really am dead to the world.
I am dead to the world’s tumult,
And I rest in a quiet realm!
I live alone in my heaven,
In my love and in my song!
In a sun-dappled Tuscan corner, the boar hunter Meleager, having been murdered by his own mother to avenge the tragic accidental killing of his brother and uncle, engages in a tense and melancholic conversation about fragility, resistance, and love with Hermes, who has taken a wise female form. A villa behind knows not its function in these proceedings. This may be the most beautiful movie ever made using the Canon 5D digital camera.
Schakale und Araber (Jackals and Arabs). 2011. Switzerland. Dir. Jean-Marie Straub. Based on a short story by Franz Kafka. With Barbara Ulrich, Giorgio Passerone, Jubarite Semaran. In German; English subtitles. 10 min.
Franz Kafka’s text, written in 1917, on the eve of the Balfour Declaration—a pact between imperial powers to support Zionism—is, through Straub, a parable of a hatred of hate. Not unlike Samuel Fuller's White Dog (1982), which was all but banned in the United States. This video asks for not a moment of weakness from the viewer, and then something more tender on exit. The players on-screen use muscles we have never seen in cinema before.
Kommunisten (Communists). 2014. Switzerland/France. Dir. Jean-Marie Straub. Based on Days of Wrath, by André Malraux. With Arnaud Dommerc, Jubarite Semaran, Gilles Pandel, Barbara Ulrich. In French, Arabic, Italian, German; English subtitles. 70 min.
“Jean-Marie Straub’s newest feature is comprised of 6 sections, one shot recently and 5 selected from earlier Straub-Huillet films. It is a matter here not of Kommunismus (Communism), of something abstract, of an—ism—it is never so in Straub-Huillet’s work. Kommunisten, then—the word translates as communists—which is to say, living and breathing men and women. Even in the most cinetract-like of their films, it is always a question of men and women doing specific things, acting in concrete, material circumstances: Arnold Schoenberg’s letters to Wassily Kandinsky in Introduction to Arnold Schoenberg’s Musical Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene (1972) or the electric power that killed the two boys in Europa 2005, 27 October (2006) or the philosophers hiding in in their beds in Joachim Gatti (2009) while the “women of the markets” are the ones who stop people from slitting each others throats. Their greatest film, Workers, Peasants (2001), has nearly an entire reel (the 6th) in which the characters, primarily the Widow Biliotti, recite a recipe for ricotta cheese and discuss the best wood to burn for cooking it. The Communists of Kommunisten’s title, then, are not political philosophers but characters, wonderfully brought to life by Straub-Huillet’s brilliant cast of actors, who work day by day to try to realize or reach “the enormous dream of men” even if it kills them (Empedocles, Antigone). No theoretical, waxing poetic, no prescriptive politics, but tangible discussions of imprisonment, survival, sex, work and relationships.”
(Ted Fendt, “The Dream of a Thing: Straub’s Kommunisten”)