Jean-Marie Straub, who died at the age of 89, and his wife, Danièle Huillet, worked together as filmmakers for more than 30 years. Straub-Huillet, as French critics often call them, breaks with received ideas of realism, disengages from bourgeois values and questions the primacy of narration.
Their films are almost exclusively drawn from pre-existing texts, whether literary, theatrical or musical. The main stylistic devices were a mostly static camera, sometimes panning or traveling for up to several minutes, the use of non-professional actors and direct sound, insofar as background noise and even the rustling of the wind on a microphone were retained. . The couple’s intention, they said, was to teach people “how to think, see and hear”. Straub was notoriously critical of “lazy” viewers who were unwilling or unable to engage with his films.
Straub-Huillet was part of the new German cinema of the 1960s, which included Volker Schlöndorff, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders. Many of their films emphasized continuities rather than breaks in German history.
Their first film, Machorka-Muff (1962), an 18-minute short, based on a story by Heinrich Böll, satirizes the continued power of the military in West Germany. “Germany failed in its revolution and did not free itself from fascism,” Straub said. “For me, it’s a country that goes in circles and cannot free itself from its past.”
More directly political was Not Reconciled (1965), adapted from Böll’s 1959 anti-militarist novel Billiards at Half-Past Nine. The film jumps back and forth in time, emphasizing that Nazism did not begin in 1933 nor end in 1945. Shot in black and white, with high contrast interior lighting, sparse decor and precise camera angles and movements, it was an examination of the collective psyche of the German people.
Anna Magdalena Bach’s Chronicle (1967) was the first of their innovative approaches to presenting music on film. Totally compelling in its historical accuracy and musical authenticity, with most of the roles performed by professional musicians, and harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt playing Bach (both the man and the music), this is a quasi- documentary of instrumentalists at work in the 18th century. .
In 1974, Straub-Huillet shot Schoenberg’s religious and philosophical opera Moses and Aaron, refusing to dub the singers, as is customary in such projects. The singers could hear the orchestra through headphones hidden under their headdresses and see the conductor on closed-circuit television screens. They also made Introduction to Arnold Schoenberg’s Accompaniment to an Animation Scene (1973), a 15-minute film essay, and the one-act comic opera From Today Until Tomorrow (1997).
Bertolt Brecht spoke of “theater whose stage is the street”, and in their adaptation of the play by Pierre Corneille Othon (1970, released in the United States under the title Eyes Do Not Want to Close at All Times, or, Maybe One Day Rome Will Allow To Choose Himself), Straub-Huillet placed his non-French speaking, non-professional actors on the terrace of Rome’s Palatine Hill, reading the play against the noises of the modern city. (The couple had moved to Rome that year.) It was a disconcerting way to find a new approach to dialogue.
Lessons in History (1972), based on Brecht’s novel The Affairs of Mr. Julius Caesar, placed the story in relation to modern political life. As Marxist dialecticians, Straub and Huillet created harsh film critiques of capitalism in a way parallel to Brecht’s works in the theatre. Straub once said, “I don’t know if I’m a Marxist. I don’t know, because there are so many ways to be a Marxist. I haven’t read all of Marx. Marxism is a method, it is not an ideology.
In Fortini/Cani (1976), Italian writer Franco Fortini examines his thinking on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. From cloud to resistance (1979), based on two works by Cesare Pavese, takes the form of six dialogues between mythological figures on the partisan movement in Piedmont during the Second World War.
Much of the original dialogue from Kafka Amerika’s unfinished novel was retained in Class Relations (1984), although each scene was stripped down to the bare essentials, usually with only one actor at a time. In 1987, Straub-Huillet undertook another unfinished work, Frederic Hölderlin’s play La Mort d’Empédocle, which they shot five times, three versions of which were presented at various festivals.
Later, ever more minimalist, Straub-Huillet’s attention shifted to the works of modernist novelist Elio Vittorini, with three characteristics: Sicily! (1999), Workers, Peasants (2001) and The Return of the Prodigal Son (2003). Their last film together, before Huillet’s death, was These meetings of theirs (2006), adapted from the last five stories of Pavese’s Dialogues with Leucò, filmed as a series of meditative texts read by different couples in a lush landscape.
Although Straub said: “‘I try to make as little noise as possible in my life’, quite a bit is known about him. He was born in Metz, in the north-east of France, and organized a film society in his hometown during his teenage years. When he was at school during the Nazi occupation, German was the official language and children were forbidden to speak French in public. He would later recall this experience in the short film Lorraine! (1994), based on a novel by Maurice Barrès.
Straub studied literature at the University of Strasbourg, then at the University of Nancy, where he met Huillet, a fellow student. They soon lived together, moved to Paris in 1954 and married in 1959. It was to avoid French military service in Algeria that Straub moved to Munich, where their film career began.
Huillet died in 2006. Always faithful to their double vision, Straub continues to make short films in the same way, around the writers they both cherish, including L’Inconsolable (2011), taken from the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice.
Jean-Marie Straub, director, screenwriter and producer, born January 8, 1933; died on November 19, 2022