“What the modern movie lacks is beauty—the beauty of moving wind in the trees, the little movement in a beautiful blowing on the blossoms in the trees.” – D. W. Griffith
Films by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet would easily qualify as one of the most notorious acquired tastes known in cinema. Next to this filmmaking couple, even Jean-Luc Godard, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Aleksander Sokurov may look like “genre filmmakers.” Yet, it’s not that easy to put them under the avant-garde category, either. While their films are certainly experimental, unlike many household names in avant-garde cinema, most of Straub-Huillet films are, strictly speaking, narrative.
So what makes their largely “narrative” oeuvre impenetrable and baffling for the general public? To see a Straub-Huillet film is to run one’s brain to its fullest capacity. It’s not just that their movies require an enormous volume of knowledge concerning every thing from philosophy to art history and politics—their work also demands you to really think. The title of their first masterwork says it all: Not Reconciled, or Only Violence Helps Where it Rules. In order to genuinely appreciate their militant art, you have to become a militant yourself.
Straub-Huillet’s commitment to Marxism is well known, and evident in every one of their films. As expected, their work and their approach to filmmaking remain highly divisive even among those who share the couple’s radical politics. Upon MoMA’s recent complete retrospective dedicated to their oeuvre, David Walsh, a well-respected film critic for the World Socialist Web Site, posted a critical article that questions the validity of Straub-Huillet’s films as truly ‘revolutionary’ cinema. Walsh argues that their films are largely “unwatchable” and “hostile towards [the] audience,” and therefore ultimately betray the working people and succumb to bourgeois elitism. Although I mostly disagree with Walsh’s argument, I still find it to be a thoughtful, and finally valuable criticism. In fact, I urge anyone who is even remotely familiar with the filmmakers to go read it.
Putting aside the debate on whether or not Straub and Huillet are elitist filmmakers, it would be fair to say that most people who have seen at least a couple of their films regard them exceedingly cerebral. A significant number of them—based on my own encounters with numerous cinephiles, at least—would go on to say that their films are all cerebral and have no “feelings” in them. This, I find it a good deal unfair because it is through sensual pleasures and the outpouring of startling emotions that I came to love Straub-Huillet’s art. For me, their films move in the realm of senses and passion as much as they do in the realm of big concepts and the analytical.
It would be pointless to suppress the cerebral aspect of Straub-Huillet’s filmmaking when discussing their films, for they undeniably have the kind of intellectual rigor rare in most other films. However, this cerebral side of their work too often dominates the discourse, and overshadows its equally powerful visceral side. This is a misunderstanding of Straub-Huillet’s art on the most fundamental level. For what really fuels the fire in Straub and Huillet is ultimately a yearning for a return to “pure” cinema—that is, the kind of raw sensations evoked by Lumière brothers’ primitive, but magical Cinématographe.
In the early days of film, as Griffith poignantly recalled in his later years, a simple image of “the little movement in a beautiful blowing on the blossoms in the trees” was enough to have the whole theater moved to tears. Unfortunately, such an otherworldly innocence has long been lost. Over the century, movies have come to pursue sensationalism instead of sensations, and also have assumed the role of ready-made escapism and vicarious fantasies, not of strengthening our engagement with the world. So, how does one find her way back to cinema’s Eden, without being trapped in sappy, fruitless nostalgia? I believe that Straub and Huillet found their way by responding to the profound question posed by Heinrich von Kleist: “We must eat again of the tree of knowledge in order to return to the state of innocence?” Their answer, as well as Kleist’s, is resounding yes.
The real core of Straub-Hillet films is, therefore, cinematic hypersensitivity that aims to help us really feel again. Underneath the multiple layers of high culture, Marxism, Brechtian dramaturgy, and austere formalism lies an inexhaustible well of feelings and pathos. Something as simple as the sound of spoken words in Straub-Huillet’s films fills me with pure ecstasy. I am, of course, referring to their wonderful rendition of Antigone, also known as The Antigone of Sophocles after Hölderlin’s Translation Adapted for the Stage by Brecht 1948. I do not speak German at all, yet I could listen to its soundtrack alone just for the sheer pleasure of hearing the beautiful German diction. Richard Brody christened the film “their John Ford movie,” and he is damn right about it. The voluptuous German diction in Hölderlin’s translation matches Ford’s gorgeous landscape shots both in its intensity and grace; those actors who, with all their might, stand the monumental weight of the text that passed through Sophocles’s, Hölderlin’s, and Brecht’s hands are worthy of Fordian heroes.
What about those fantastically boring long-take tracking shots in History Lessons, a film based on an unfinished novel by Brecht? I wouldn’t profess to have grasped the film as a whole (Bertolt Brecht still remains mostly elusive to me, after all). However, despite the almost perverse absence of what we often call “action,” these repeated tracking shots in a car that freely roams around the streets of Rome, if seen with an open mind, some degree of patience and a genuine willingness to engage with the world we live in, become absolutely spellbinding, I dare say. The car’s intricate movement through and around the packed crowd on the streets makes for a suspenseful thriller moment. Each and every one of the pedestrians and vehicles reminds me that one does not have to cook up a fantasy world with the expensive CGI technology to make great motion picture—one just has to look at the nearest street. And here, I would like to quote Straub: “People who are not able to look at the street will never be able to understand class struggle.”
I, therefore, disagree with anyone who maintains that Straub-Huillet films are only concerned with inconsequential abstraction and completely divorced from the real world. On the contrary, their films are so inextricable from this very world we experience with our senses. They sincerely believe that salvation exists within our material world, and that cinema could play a substantial role in bettering this place—by stimulating our thoughts and revitalizing our senses. Straub and Huillet are so fanatically materialist that they think representing the world in a strictly materialist manner on screen is enough for cinema to be exciting. Naturally, they are unshakably convinced that someone who is excited by such materialist cinema will come to have faith in the material world it portrays. One may scoff at their attitude and call it anachronistic naïvety, or embrace it as militant optimism.
Jonathan Rosenbaum suggests that their tenacious belief in the world resembles “a sheer act of faith.” This religious nature of their filmmaking perhaps deserves certain criticisms. I would nevertheless argue that our world, more than ever, desperately needs Straub-Huillet’s militant optimism. At least, it is a million times more valuable than humanist lies propagated by Oscar contenders every year, post-modern cynicism of Lars von Trier, or even worse, dishonest and ethically misguided filmmaking disguised as “serious art” in recent films by Michael Haneke.