“Cinema must set fire to life.” – Jean-Marie Straub

This text was transcribed and translated from Claude-Jean Philippe’s interview with Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet entitled, “Le cinéma n’existe pas en soi, il n’est pas un langage.” It was originally broadcast on March 14, 1976 on Philippe’s weekly radio program on France Culture, Le Cinéma des cinéastes.1

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Claude-Jean Philippe [voiceover]: Saturday, March 6th, 1976 rue Colbert, Nantes.  In the cinema where the Rencontres cinématographies are taking place, I meet up with Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub. We’re going to resume a conversation that we began twenty-two years ago. A conversation frequently interrupted but always continued. I’m hardly neutral when it comes to them and I have difficulty considering them with the desirable distance. But I don’t think that I have overestimated their work because their films – despite their limited distribution in art house cinemas – captivate, with each new retrospective, a young and terribly demanding public that places the Straubs, along with Jean-Luc Godard, in the vanguard of contemporary cinema. After Stuttgart, Metz, Lyons, and after a long tour in American universities, viewers in Nantes had their turn to see Nicht versöhnt [Not Reconciled, 1965], Chronik der Anna Magadalena Bach [Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, 1968], Othon [1969], Geschichtsunterricht [History Lessons, 1972], Moses und Aron [Moses and Aaron, 1975].

Philippe Jalladeau, host of the Rencontres cinématographiques tells us what the cinema of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet represents for him.2

PJ: Perhaps we can say that their influence exceeds their films, because not all of their films are seen. Personally, I’ve seen – there were several meetings between the Straubs and me. The first meeting was a filmic encounter in 1966, if I’m not mistaken, with Not Reconciled. It was a real shock. Then, it continued in a rather underground manner, […], and then there were encounters that weren’t filmic, encounters with texts, interviews, with persons whom I knew and then – because the Straubs, it must be said, provoke contradictory passions, and it’s a little like when Godard came to Nantes, there were impassioned and heated debates and as with Godard, I believe the ideas continue on their path around the world, spoken by a text, by persons who speak to other persons – one doesn’t always understand why, but it’s like that.

CJP [voiceover]: While Danièle, from the projection booth, keeps an eye on the screening of Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, I ask Jean-Marie my first question.

CJP to Jean-Marie Straub: Jean-Marie, I’m going to ask you a question that I’ve never asked you:  when did your encounter with cinema first take place? Did it have an importance in your childhood or adolescence? Do you remember the first films you saw, or the emotional rapport that you had directly with film, at a time when sensibility was very important? What I mean is, when did you first see films, and did they make a big impression on you?

JMS:  I began to watch films very late because my middle-class family – first off, it was during the war; we were occupied by the Germans. We were considered as belonging to the Third Reich in Metz, and consequently, there were Nazi films, so we didn’t go to the cinema. It was a form of political protest.  And my mother used to say: we shouldn’t go because it smelled like the saddle-soap that was used to wax boots, high boots, because the German Army spent its time in the cinemas. And then we didn’t want to watch Nazi films. Plus, back then, I didn’t know a word of German. So I saw films for the first time very late; I was no longer very young. It was after the war.

I think that the first film I saw was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs [1937], which didn’t interest me and of which I have no memory. Except that the witch obviously frightened me.3

Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

CJP: Truffaut and Demy speak, above all Demy, about Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs with a near total fascination. Clearly it was a major event in his life since not only did he see the film but on top of it all he assembled it in a puppet show at home afterwards. It was the idea of spectacle, of a curtain that opens, the idea of magic. Were you ever sensitive to this magical aspect of filmmaking?

JMS: No, not at all.

CJP: Never.

JMS: Not at all.

CJP [voiceover]: This answer is very important because it indicates straightaway, it seems to me, the frontier between the films by Straub and a cinema of projections and identifications that ruled and that has ruled for more than  seventy years.

JMS: I think that the first films I saw, I owe, it should be said, to Henri Agel.4 I owe them to Henri Agel because we had in Metz a film club that I hadn’t started, but that I later ran that was called the Chambre noire [Black Box]. Well, they brought in people to present certain films. They brought in, for example, Henri Agel to present Grémillon’s films. I think that those were the first films I saw where I discovered what a film could be: Remorques (1941), Le Ciel est à vous (1944).

I think that the two following films that I consciously saw, by different auteurs, after Grémillon’s were [Renoir’s] Partie de campagne [1936/1946], which impressed me a lot, and [Bresson’s] Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne [1945]. I saw them with the founder of La Chambre noire and afterwards we spoke over a drink and he said to me: “Very well, since you like it, it impressed you and it moved you, you’re going to introduce it.” I told him I couldn’t introduce a film but then he forced me.5

CJP: Do you vaguely remember what you spoke about?

JMS: I had read only one thing; we had collected a small file and there was the IDHEC card on the film. I did a presentation that went directly against the IDHEC card in which the ending was skipped over. The film ended in horror. I tried to swim against the current by saying that this end was an integral part of the film and that the horror was broken at that moment.

CJP: But concurrently, I mean filmmaking –

JMS: That it wasn’t only the story of a woman who gets her revenge but that she was frustrated by her revenge.

CJP:  And alongside cinema, I suppose that there was literature, a certain number of writers and already a lot of music.

JMS: Very little music. No, I was uneducated, very uneducated. I had a literary, humanistic training. No musical culture. My parents were completely unfamiliar with music.  At home, not at all. We never went to concerts.  Now my parents occasionally go to listen to music. But in my youth it wasn’t the case at all. No, I discovered music thanks to a friend, François Louis, who is a mathematician who works for the CERN in Geneva.6 We used a piece of his music. He played the keyboard and the organ and the piano. It was he who introduced me to Bach. Later, he composed two or three little things, including an organ piece that we used in Machorka-Muff. But that came already after the discovery of Grémillon, Renoir and Bresson.

CJP: In any case, concerning –

JMS: I did a degree in French literature at the University of Nancy. Then I was in hypokhâgne at the Fustel de Coulanges High School in Strasbourg.7

CJP: And then afterwards, Paris.

JMS: I came to Paris in 1954. I know exactly when it was; it was in November ’54. I came to the Voltaire High School where we met.

CJP: That’s right.

JMS: And where I met Danièle. And it was around those years, a little before and above all that year that while in Paris and having quickly abandoned the Voltaire High School, I brought in individuals to Metz to introduce films. By then La Chambre noire had grown quite a bit; we had more than 700 members. Alright, we rarely had 700 people, but sometimes we did. We had the last public screening, for example, of Monsieur Verdoux [Chaplin, 1947] before the distributor withdrew the film. And that year we brought to Metz the persons whom we thought would best present certain films. For example, Truffaut for Under Capricorn.8

Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet

François Truffaut and Jean-Marie Straub, 1954.

CJP: Under Capricorn.

JMS:  Yes, and another film by Hitchcock. Bazin to speak about, to introduce Journal d’un curé de campagne [Diary of a Country Priest, Robert Bresson, 1951] and Farrebique by Rouquier [1946]. The guiding principle of La Chambre noire, in contrast to the other film club in Metz, which was affiliated with the Fédération française des ciné-clubs [The French Federation of Film Clubs], was to present different films from those programmed by the Fédération.

The Fédération programmed more Marcel Carné; it wasn’t exclusive. More Marcel Carné, de Sica, etc.  For us, it was Rossellini against de Sica, Renoir against Marcel Carné. We screened films that didn’t have a commercial release in Metz, and that, like Bresson’s films or those of Orson Welles, weren’t in the catalogue of the Fédération. With the Fédération, there was even an internal sharing of filmmakers. They presented Citizen Kane; we presented The Magnificent Ambersons. We also presented Hitchcock, whereas at the time Hitchcock was considered a joker, nothing more. Never a film by Hitchcock, except perhaps The 39 Steps [1935] and The Lady Vanishes [1938], which were in the catalogue distributed by the Fédération. Whereas we presented Hitchcock’s American films; we presented Fritz Lang’s American films, Rancho Notorious [1952], etc.

CJP: But this didn’t come about all at once, I mean, it wasn’t simply in opposition to the other film club. It wasn’t out of a contradictory spirit.

JMS:  It was to give to the public in Metz the opportunity to not repeat the other film club; it wasn’t out of a spirit of contradiction.  Because we had discovered that the American Fritz Lang, contrary to what a lot of people then thought and even persons for whom I had a lot of esteem like [Georges] Sadoul, was as important as the German Fritz Lang and that Rossellini was as important as de Sica and Mizoguchi whose first films released in Europe we presented. Mizoguchi is for me the greatest filmmaker, things like that. And also that the American Hitchcock was as important as the English Hitchcock, etc. I can say a little proudly that it was a work that was done simultaneously with the work being done by the newcomers at Cahiers du cinéma: Rivette, Godard, Truffaut, etc. Chabrol.

CJP: [Alexandre] Astruc already a little before and [Roger] Leenhardt a little before.

JMS: Yes. Of course we benefitted from their work, but our work was really parallel.

CJP: Parallel and it so happens that it converged –

JMS: At a certain point, it converged and intersected. There were of course exchanges. At one point there was even a brief note in the Cahiers on the Chambre noire, “a very Cahiers du cinéma film club.” I was both proud and a little ashamed, because well –

CJP: Do you think, we were talking about literature, you studied literature but there were writers about whom you spoke to us at the time. I remember that, when exiting a screening of Deadline U.S.A. [Richard Brooks, 1952], you spoke to me about Bernanos, for example. And that the moral and metaphysical dimension that we discovered through you and through Cahiers, in Hitchcock, well I think that it was you who spoke to us about Dostoyevsky.

JMS:  On this point, I’ve changed a lot. Bernanos, I was reading him at the time. More than the metaphysical dimension, it was the provocative dimension that I discovered. Not only. Because a novel like Monsieur Ouine [1943] is something where the provocative dimension isn’t at the fore.

But with regard to Dostoyevsky, undoubtedly I had read him but now I think I haven’t read him because I’ve discovered something that should be said radically.

Culture does not consist in having read everything; it consists in reading things, above all not reading translations.  Now I pick up a novel by Dostoyevsky and after half a page, it falls from my hands because I know very well there is no relationship with the original. There is no longer the rhythm, even beyond the words because I have seen what translations are; I saw that close up. I read the official translation done by Seuil of the Heinrich Böll novel, which in French is called Les deux sacrements.9 We based our first feature Not Reconciled on it. I saw what kind of work it was. I saw for example a phrase like Wehr und Waffen, which are two words, which is a souvenir, something that jumps in front of the hotel porter’s face. He sees Nettlinger coming and he thinks or he thinks he hears Wehr und Waffen, two words. They are adorned with a comma. Translation by Seuil: “A History of Resistance”. But Wehr und Waffen means “Defence and Armament” – arms in the plural. “Defence and Arms.” It has nothing to do with “A History of Resistance”.  More serious still is that the entire rhythm has been changed and destroyed. Contrary to what is done and what is standard in German, what should be done and what is tolerated in German, Böll’s novel is peppered with semi-colons. The semi-colon in German practically doesn’t exist in usage. It isn’t used. There, all the semi-colons have popped off in French whereas in French it’s absurd. The semi-colon in French is standard and normal; in German, it isn’t. Böll used it and he wasn’t kind with the semi-colons; he used a period only at the end of the page or something like that. There, we discover a destroyed rhythm. No more semi-colons. In the best of cases, commas and more often periods. Everything is divided up.

And I also discovered what the translations of Brecht are when considering the French translation published by L’Arche of Die Geschäfte des Herrn Julius Caesar 10 on which is based our History Lessons. It’s a novel by Brecht. And I discovered that there were even sometimes entire lines that were missing. That comes from the fact that translators are poorly paid and that it’s thought that a translation shouldn’t be literal; it should create equivalences or what do I know.

It goes very far, not just on the level of the rhythm of words or of tone. It goes so far as to skip lines entirely and there are falsifications. For example, the text that we cited in our short Introduction to Schönberg by Brecht, the last line is:  Wenn das Monopole nur noch durch offenen Gewalt geschutzt werden kann, which means in French: Lorsque le monopole ne peut plus être protégé que par la violence ouverte  [When a monopoly can only be protected by open violence], official translation by L’Arche: “la dictature ouverte”. The open dictatorship. It’s monstrous. So now I consider that I haven’t read Dostoyevsky. I had a pale reflection and I believe that culture consists…

I once saw a cultivated man. He’s a farmer in Liguria. He knows Dante Alighieri’s the Divine Comedy by heart. He’s seventy years old. He’s a political activist. He took part in the armed struggle in the Resistance. He is a political militant in his village, in his work. He knows the Divine Comedy completely by heart. That man is cultivated. The middle-class who has read Karl Marx in French or Italian, Fyodor Dostoevsky in English, etc., and Pierre Corneille in Esperanto isn’t cultivated. It’s better to have read one text in your mother tongue and to know it completely. Then you can discover other things. And there, you have an in-depth culture instead of having read everything, seen everything like Jean de la Bruyère’s Arrias […]. “Arrias has read and seen everything, at least he would lead you to think so; he is a man of universal knowledge, or pretends to be.”11 That’s the middle-class; it’s not culture.

CJP: Apropos of that, when we spoke after screenings in bistros or university cafeterias, little by little, day by day you led us to see films that we wouldn’t have had the idea to see. For example, one day, you took me to see a film by [Max] Ophüls, whereas the critical consensus was that Ophüls was Viennese: heavy, rococo, without interest. But you said to us: No, you must see for yourselves. You didn’t even tell us why. And we would go to see these films with you, and from time to time you would say three words to us, nothing more, in a generally very simple language, without any erudition, without –

JMS: It’s because I’ve never known how to speak clearly. [JMS and CJP laugh] I have a terrible time stringing two clear ideas together. That’s why when we make films together, we do an enormous work of clarification. Having such a confusion in one’s head or one’s life and such a difficulty to line up two clear ideas. When we make a film, we try to do something that is the opposite, which has a maximum of clarity.

CJP: That’s where I was headed. Recently you said something to me that also corresponds to what you used to say to me: “Me, I’m not going to make films. I’m an intellectual. Perhaps I’ll write criticism.”

JMS: It’s true that I came to Paris like that, although the IDHEC entrance exam, I really didn’t know why. It was more a means so that my father would continue to give me – at the time he gave me only 20 million francs per month to pay for a room and to be able to see some films as a student because I was also enrolled simultaneously at the Sorbonne. I didn’t go there often to watch films but I wasn’t going to make films. I wanted to write, that’s true. But that didn’t happen because I was incapable of writing and I’m even more so today.

A major event was the discovery of Brecht on stage with the Berliner Ensemble in East Berlin when I left France, that is, between 1958 and 1960. I was fairly frequently in East Berlin; it’s something that deeply influenced me later for work, the discovery of Brecht performed at the Berliner Ensemble. At that time, you could still feel Brecht’s stamp; he had only recently died and his productions weren’t what they’ve become.  That impressed me greatly. I remember a similar event; that was earlier and isolated. It was one day at the Sorbonne completely by chance because I never went to see things like that. I was rarely at the Sorbonne; I saw Don Sanche d’Aragon performed there in an amphitheater, with practically no décor, just a few costumes, by a group. I would like to know what’s become of them; I didn’t know who they were or even their name. Don Sanche d’Aragon [1650] is a heroic epic by Corneille; it set off fireworks for me.

CJP:  In your taste for American cinema at the time and for certain directors, I mean people like  Brooks whom we were discovering at the time,12 I clearly felt a tie between Bernanos, Corneille, a certain idea that the American cinema had of man, of democracy, of courage and a certain heroic idea of man that was yours at the time, I think, or else I’m exaggerating a lot.

JMS: Perhaps, yes. But on this point I’ve changed a lot. I no longer believe in man. I think that man doesn’t exist; universal man doesn’t exist. There are social classes: I discovered that in my work, in my experience and in my work, not at all in an abstract manner. I don’t believe in universal man nor in eternal man. If I did, I no longer do.

CJP [voiceover]: From George Bernanos to Bertolt Brecht is a considerable move. But Straub himself hasn’t changed.  In front of me is still the same uncompromising rebel. A rebel who unlike the vast majority of the filmmakers of his generation doesn’t find himself interesting as a film subject.

JMS: Well, I think that we’ve arrived at the important point. I’m not at all interested in my personal life for the experiences or the encounters that I’ve had. Nor in the violence that I came up against nor in the discouragements that we have, etc.

The experiences that we have in concrete terms in the society in which we live, that interests me, but not my personal biography as such. Just as I’m even less interested in the little ideas that I might have.  That’s finished. Perhaps that interested me when I was a teenager like everyone. I don’t believe at all in my little ideas. This is what sets me, and our first films, apart from Jean-Luc Godard’s middle period, which were moreover full of very important, little ideas with personal reflections, but that didn’t interest me to do because he had done it first.

What interests me is when I encounter a strong text that resists me and with which I have difficulty, to struggle with this text and to communicate afterwards in the form of a film the result of my work of reflection on this text because if I think that this text was strong and important for us, it should also be interesting and important for other people. In addition, there is a tactic that Jacques Rivette, after seeing Othon, called “Leninist” that exists in relation to bourgeois culture – that is, a tactic of expropriation and of proposition for people who never had the chance to encounter a text by Corneille, to expose them to a text by Corneille. Or for people who never go to the opera to expose them to a musical text of [Arnold Schoenberg’s unfinished opera] Moses and Aaron, for example.

Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet

Moses and Aaron (1975)

CJP: People who heard the music of Bach played poorly or not at all who suddenly hear it played as you think it should be played.

JMS: That, yes. And also some people. It wasn’t just a provocation or a joke. I think that we really dreamt of the Bach film for the Bavarian peasants, because there, they discover something of their past and they discover a music that they wouldn’t have the opportunity to discover without it. Or if so, watered-down and without context. But not at all, initially, for the middle-class that goes to concerts of Bach’s music.

[An excerpt of Bach’s music from Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach is heard.]

CJP [voiceover]:  After the screening of Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, Jean-Marie Straub answers questions from the audience.

Young Woman: First, a simple question: Why Bach? Why Bach?

JMS: Because it enabled us to make a film. First, because Bach for me was a very important discovery and I wanted to share it with other people, with people who don’t go to concerts. To share with them a discovery that had been very important for me. And then, simply because Bach is the end of Western Christian civilisation; 1750 is the break in Germany. It is there that something begins.

Young Woman: But in relation to Schönberg?

JMS: It was a time that didn’t doubt itself.

Young Woman:  Yes, but in relation to Schönberg, how do you situate Bach?

JMS: In relation to Schönberg, I don’t know. There’s one who died in 1750, born in 1685.

Young Woman:  Yes, of course, but apart from that.

JMS: There was one who wrote music at that time; he was a man with roots, consequently he wrote Baroque music. The other is a fellow who one fine day invented a little musical revolution that is called the twelve-tone method, but who nonetheless declared himself very rooted in the musical tradition to which he was very attached. Alright, there’s a double contradiction there. What is in common is that their music, their musical work, their score consists for both of them an identical… well  “identical”  means nothing. They are both equally dialectical: their fabric is  equally tight and dialectical.

CJP [voiceover]: In speaking of Bach and of Schönberg, Jean-Marie Straub reveals his own ambitions.  Isn’t he looking to weave into his own films this extraordinarily tight network of propositions and of resistance, this movement of a dialectical back and forth as he calls it, that he nonetheless emphatically refuses to consider as the only point of view of art?

JMS: Let’s say that perhaps that comes from the fact that cinema, I’ve reached a point where I consider that it doesn’t exist; it isn’t interesting. Cinema doesn’t exist in itself; it’s not a language. Cinema is an instrument, an instrument of analysis, that’s all. It shouldn’t become an end in itself. Not even under the pretext of écriture [style]. It must be an instrument of analysis or interpretation, or an analysis of a situation.

CJP:  Whereas you were tempted to make of it a language, I mean in this period, you were tempted to consider it as such, or am I wrong?

JMS:  Yes, perhaps. You discover something; you discover an instrument. You believe that this instrument is something else. That’s a fact.

CJP: And then, secretly I see you listening to Bach. I hear you say that he must be played on a harpsichord and that scores for the harpsichord played on a piano are an abomination.

JMS: It’s technical. It’s like filmmaking. A film doesn’t exist in air; it’s not something ethereal; a sound recording is something precise.  And the screening of a film, if the screening is worthless, the film doesn’t exist. People don’t see a film; they see the reflection of a film. It’s the same for music. Someone like [Johann Sebastian] Bach, who was a technician, not only a musician technician, he imagined scores for… there’s a way of striking notes on a harpsichord that is not at all the string. In one case, it is plucked; in the other, it is struck. It’s not at all the same. You can’t ignore this; similarly, a Romantic-era organ is meaningless for playing Bach.

CJP: At that time, I heard you speaking of Bach, I sensed from what you confided to me that you were tempted to do something after Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, which you described at the time as an offence. And then –

JMS:  Yes. It’s an offence written by an Englishwoman named Esther Meynell in 1933, first anonymously, and then under her name.13

CJP: Okay. Then –

JMS: In English.

CJP: So I suspect that you intended to make a film and normally the “Bachfilm” as you say, you and Danièle – Danièle is currently in the process of checking the screening of Chronicle upstairs. That’s why she isn’t with us right now but I hope to see her a little later. So the Bach film should have been your first film.

JMS:  Yes, it was our first project and that’s how I fell into a trap simply because… I had this project. I had this project and well, I owe the trap to Bresson. I can say it; it has to be said. I owe it to Bresson because one fine day I wrote three… a little letter to Bresson asking him: would it be possible to pursue your endeavors with a literary text, i.e. The Diary of a Country Priest, by starting from a musical text? I have an idea for a film. He answered me fairly quickly. He told me: call me one afternoon between 2 and 2:30. I called him and a few days later I saw him and he asked me what it was. I told him in a few words. He said, “It’s your topic, so it’s you who should make the film.” That’s how I fell into the trap. One fine day I met Danièle. It was in November 1954. I know very well when it was because the Algerian revolution was breaking out.

CJP: That’s right.

JMS: And at the end of the year, I suggested to her that she work with me on this subject, because I had decided, I said to myself, perhaps he [Bresson] was right to tell me to do it myself. That’s how I became interested. I thought that it was important that this film should one day exist. But I thought of myself as the instrument for making this film. The proof is that I first offered it to someone else and as I realised that he didn’t want to do it, he forced me, he said to me: “Do it yourself.” And well the film never would have existed had I not decided to make it. I tried to begin working on the subject, only it took, that was in November ’54 and we finally found, the film could have been shot, I think, in 1958 or ’59. But it turns out that we found the full financing to shoot it only in 1967.

CJP: The Algerian revolution had a decisive influence on your life since it forced you into exile in Germany. You became a draft-dodger in refusing to do your military service.

JMS: It didn’t force me. I chose, not being an Algerian citizen but still approving of the Algerian revolution, I chose not to go fight under the French uniform against the Algerian revolution. I left.

CJP: For Germany.

JMS: First, to Holland, and then later… to Holland because we had already offered the film to [Gustav] Leonhardt who is the principal performer of the film, who performs, let’s say, Bach in the film. I had some problems, some questions to ask him at that time. From there, I did a tour of the libraries where the Bach manuscripts are in East and West Germany. That occupied me for a year-and-a-half.

CJP: And then, you settled –

JMS: Then, Danièle, we could no longer stand it, Danièle came. We could no longer take being separated. Danièle came and settled in Munich. That was in 1960, the end of 1959-1960, and then we continued working on this subject and looking for money. Not finding the money, we encountered two other subjects: the first of the two others is the film that was shot second: it’s the subject for Not Reconciled. This one was still too expensive and, not finding the financing, the third subject, which is Machorka-Muff became our first film, because it was less expensive.

Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet

Not Reconciled (1965)

CJP: Okay, now there’s something I’m going to say because you certainly don’t want to say it yourself. During this entire time, strictly on a material level, you were really destitute, isn’t that right?

JMS: Well, we lived in Munich for ten years on 400 DM a month.14 With that we had to pay the rent, the dentist, the telephone, trips, and the manuscripts and the photocopies.

CJP: Yes, that’s it. On a concrete level that means that when you cross Munich in the middle of winter to go to your editing room, you don’t have the money for the subway.

JMS: We would hesitate to take the tram when leaving the cinema, because we went from time to time – very rarely because we didn’t want to see films dubbed. In Germany at that time they were all dubbed. So that we didn’t even see the first films of the French New Wave because after one experience, we preferred doing without. We hate dubbing; it no longer has anything to do with the film. But from time to time, we went to see a film, once a month and on the way out, even if we’re thirsty we don’t have the money to pay for a drink. That’s it. Or, we’re with friends, we go to have drink and we can’t even offer them a round. Or we’re forced to ditch friends who go to have a drink and we say to ourselves: We’re not going to pay for another drink. That’s what’s annoying when you don’t have money. Then, when you see a fellow who begs in the street, you can’t give him something, or you give him something and then you’re really annoyed because there’s nothing left to plug the holes.

CJP: Okay, so, can you say what it is – well, it supposes after all, seen from the outside, very simply, a very great courage all that. Can you say what it is that sustains you?

JMS: Oh, nothing, rage, that’s all. And then, the fact of feeling that we’re being prevented from realising this project. We resisted and we dug our heels in, that all. There’s no heroism in that. It’s resistance, that’s all.

CJP [voiceover]: Danièle Huillet’s discretion throughout this program corresponds to her personal wish for being in the background. For her, work counts infinitely more than commentary.

CJP to Danièle Huillet: How many shooting scripts have you done?

DH: Oh wait, the first that we completely re-did, two, three, and the third that we re-worked again a final time a year before filming, that we had left in a drawer for several years. We had a terrible time finding the money for this film.

CJP: Does the fact of being two allow you to resist better, because –

DH: Yes, it’s certain because when one person is tired, the other one isn’t at the same time, so it’s easier. And then when one person doesn’t rebel against something, there is a chance that the other one will. That doesn’t always simplify things, but well… [DH laughs]

CJP: It’s hard to have an idea of your work. What I want to say is that there is the tendency to say Straub’s films whereas they’re signed Straub-Huillet. It’s not a question of attribution, but it’s hard to have an idea of your work. In practical terms, how do you work together?

DH:  Before filming, we work together on all the shooting scripts. We have always worked together. It’s discussing certain things where I don’t agree or Jean-Marie first says no to me and then later we come back and then there are things by me and things by him. What should be said is that all the ideas for the films, I think, are his up until now. Yes. And then, later when we have succeeded in finding the money, finding the money is also a work that we do together. It’s very helpful because if you want to see a producer or TV people you’re better off if there are two of you. And then afterwards when we are filming, we do the pre-production together. The work of knowing what we will shoot on such a day, how are we going to pay people, discussing money, etc. that’s a little more me and when we film, the framing, etc. the camera, it’s more Jean-Marie and when there is a problem he calls me because I am more with the sound.

CJP: The sound is very important for him.

DH [laughing]: Oh yes.

CJP:  So the idea of resistance because in the end it’s the guiding principle, the more I think of –

DH: Then in the editing it’s me who pushes, presses the buttons and who cuts, etc. But he’s always there. The editing is the worst, because we’re in a small dark room, generally after having shot several weeks outside. So then it’s the time of shouting matches.

CJP:  It’s the time of… Because in the end you both resist?

DH:  Yes, quite a bit.

CJP: Can it be violent?

DH [laughing]: Yes, of course.

CJP: Finally, the more I see your films and the more I speak with you, I think that it’s after all –

DH:  Listen, I think that that’s nothing new. It must be like that with all couples who live together for a long time because—

CJP:  No, I don’t think so. In the end, during this whole program, we’ve been turning around the idea of resisting pressures.  Whether it’s on a political level, that is resisting extraordinarily strong pressures that you have gradually felt; it didn’t come all at once. When we knew each other at Voltaire, politics wasn’t in the foreground, I think.

DH: Not for me, for Jean-Marie, I think already quite a bit.

CJP: For Jean-Marie? He spoke about it less.  Morality let’s say.

DH: No, politics too.

CJP:  Your long political march and your work, that was done in stages. What I want to ask is: was there a moment of revelation, or were there several moments of important revelation?

DH:  No, I think that what was important was that we were in Germany in a society where violence is more open than in Italy or even in France. You collide immediately with an unbelievable violence. From the time that you resist, everything happens very quickly. You discover very quickly all that you would have perhaps taken much longer to discover elsewhere, including class struggle.

CJP: Wait a moment, that can seem anti-German. I mean “anti-German” in quotation marks, for anyone who would be listening to us in a manner –

DH: Oh, it’s not anti-German, if you think that it’s better precisely that things are clear right away and then it’s not anti-German insofar as before such a violence you have no choice. You can’t allow yourself compromises.

CJP: As for compromises, you’ve never consented to the slightest.

DH: Yes, but what I want to say is that in Italy, for example, perhaps if we had been first in Italy without having gone through the German mill or school, call it as you like, perhaps we would have been sometimes tempted to resist less, I don’t know. That’s what I wanted to say; it’s not anti-German if you consider that the greater the violence on the other side is, the less the chance for compromise is.

CJP [voiceover]: During a discussion, Jean-Marie Straub was led by an audience member’s question to express the basis of his revolt.

JMS: I can tell you one thing, in the society in which we live in Germany as well as in France, Italy, England and the United States, every day I feel a little worse. And every day I want to vomit. And truly for me at this level there isn’t a difference in either degree or nature between Germany, France, Italy, England and the United States, for example.

CJP [voiceover]: Although not sharing myself this feeling of disgust, I would never for a moment question the authenticity of their feeling. What has always impressed me in the films as well as in the attitude of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet is obviously their good faith that I’ve never met in anyone else to this degree. For them, the role of cinema is clear. Let’s listen to them:

JMS: Films should help people become conscious a little more than they are, when they are already, or to become conscious when they’re not very conscious. And to become conscious, we must learn to use our eyes and ears – that’s where it begins because the soul, consciousness, doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It involves the senses. And I don’t believe in a political consciousness for the deaf and dumb, or for the deaf and blind. This is not against the deaf and dumb, because they, too, communicate with their senses, but in another way, so it consists in learning and in seeing, and learning and seeing and listening, and in establishing a relationship between what we see and what we hear.  And to do it, to reach this result, consists of making films that are the opposite of the noise of the cultural industry or of the society in which we live that makes people deaf and blind. That’s all. And to help them, in contrast, to sharpen their eyes and their ears and to establish relationships between what they hear and what they see. And as a natural extension, to establish relationships between their experiences, experiences that overlap or differ from the subject of the film that is offered to them – either from the time period in which they live, or from a moment from the past.

CJP to DH:  Do you have another response?

DH: No, I can repeat what he said a moment ago. He doesn’t want to repeat it himself, but for once it wasn’t bad. He said, “Cinema must set fire to life.”

CJP: Can you repeat that because I’m afraid that it wasn’t heard. [To the audience:] Did you understand? It was a little mangled.

JMS:  Cinema must set fire to life because, well, I think it should be left like that because it’s good – it’s striking. But I can also explain it and repeat it afterward. That way there’s a movement back and forth. The Italians say, for the focal point to put a film, to check the focus on a film, the focus is the fuoco, fire, because that’s where it burns. As children we all had fun making paper burn with a magnifying glass. So the cinema consists of setting life on fire, that is, to learn and to see and to discover life and society and history.

Translated by Sally Shafto.

Endnotes

  1. Courtesy France Culture, Jean-Marie Straub and Barbara Ulrich. With special thanks to Christine Delorme and François Albera for their attentive reading of my transcription. Translator’s Note.
  2. Phillippe Jalladeau founded the Rencontres cinématographiques in Nantes ca. 1973 with his brother Alain Jalladeau. Under their direction, the Rencontres later became Le Festival des Trois Continents, which still exists today. Conversation with Philippe Jalladeau, January 7, 2017. Translator’s Note.
  3. Witches and sorcerers are of course a leitmotif in Straub and Huillet and are regularly mentioned in their writings and general discourse. See for example: Huillet’s “Witches (The Chimera?)” (p. 187 in Writings); their brief note on Serge Daney (“S.D.” p. 228 in Writings); their interview with Benoît Goetz, “Interview on Images and Magic” (pp. 247-50 in Writings) and their interview with Thierry Lounas, “La Sorcière et le Rémouleur,” Cahiers du cinéma, no. 538 (September 1999): 54-59. Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Writings, edited and translated by Sally Shafto with Katherine Pickard. New York: Sequence Press, 2016. Translator’s Note.
  4. Henri Agel (1911-2008): Film critic who began his long teaching career at the Voltaire High School where he was in charge of the preparatory class for the IDHEC entrance exam.  Besides Jean-Marie Straub, Serge Daney, Alain Corneau, Claude Miller and Patrick Deval were among his students at Voltaire. A militant Catholic, he often treated the topic of spirituality in his writings, as in for example, Le Cinéma a-t-il une âme? (Cerf, 1952) and Le Cinéma et le sacré (Cerf, 1953). He appears in a cameo role in Truffaut’s The Man Who Loved Women (1977). Translator’s Note.
  5. This film-club was active between 1949-56, initially under the name of La Chambre Noire and later Essais 54, Essais 55 and Essais 56. In his online blog, Francis Guermann recalls that the club “was led by Christian students under the auspices of a Catholic association, AMOL, which depended almost exclusively on the diocese of Metz. One of the creators of this film-club was Gérard Schnitzler. He called on a friend, Jean-Marie Straub, already known for his unruliness. They organised events to protest against the mediocrity of the programming of the Metz cinemas, maintained for the most part by the same individual (Mr. Xardel). One day they released pigeons in a Metz cinema during a screening of Don d’Adèle, which certainly didn’t please either the bishop or the police chief Lacombe who was in charge of delinquency at the time.” Francis Guermann, “Mes notes sans fil,” dated January 13th, 2013 (accessed February 2, 2017): http://mesnotessansfil.blogspirit.com/archive/2013/01/13/le-point-de-vue-et-le-hasard.html
  6. CERN: Centre européen de recherche nucléaire (The European Organisation for Nuclear Research), situated on the border between France and Switzerland, on the outskirts of Geneva. My thanks to François Albera for this information. Translator’s Note.
  7. Hypokhâgne:  first year of two-year preparatory course for the arts division of the École normale supérieure and other grandes écoles. Translator’s Note.
  8. In his blog, Francis Guermann dates Truffaut’s visit to November 22, 1954. The screening of Under Capricorn took place at the Royal Cinema. Translator’s Note.
  9. The original title in German of Böll’s 1959 novel is Billard um halb zehn. It was initially published in Cologne by Kiepenheuer & Witsch. My thanks to François Albera for this bibliographic information.
  10. Bertolt Brecht, Les Affaires de Monsieur Jules César (Die Geschäfte des Herrn Julius Caesar), translated from the German by Gilbert Badia. Choisy-le-Roi: l’Arche, 1959. Translator’s Note.
  11. Reference to the French philosopher and moralist, Jean de la Bruyère. In 1684, he became the tutor to the Duke of Bourbon. Four years later, he published his Les Caractères, De la société et de la conversation (1688), wherein he drew satirical portraits of “characters” at the court of Louis XIV; the book became an immediate success. From The “Characters” of Jean de la Bruyère, translated by Henri Van Laun (London: John C. Nimmo, 1885). Translator’s Note.
  12. Today, the reference to Richard Brooks may seem surprising, but in the 1950s his films, including Blackboard Jungle (1955), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), and Elmer Gantry (1960), were regularly covered in Cahiers du cinéma. In his 1955 article “Notes on a Revolution,” Jacques Rivette includes Brooks in a quartet of directors to watch: “After Griffith’s existential assault, the first age of the American cinema belonged to its actors; this was followed by the age of the producers. To claim that the age of the auteurs is here at last is, I am well aware, to invite smiles of scepticism. I am not putting forward any scholarly theories – just four names. They belong to film-makers – Nicholas Ray, Richard Brooks, Anthony Mann, Robert Aldrich whom critics had either simply not heard of or, if they had, had given hardly any serious attention to. Why four? I would like to add others (…), but at the moment these four are the indisputable front-rankers.” Jacques Rivette, “Notes on a Revolution”, in Cahiers du Cinéma vol. I: The 1950s: Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave, ed. Jim Hillier (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), p. 94. Translator’s Note.
  13. In fact, Esther Meynell’s book, The Little Chronicle of Magdalena Bach, appeared a few years earlier in 1925, published in London by Chatto & Windus. Translator’s Note.
  14. 400DM would have been roughly the equivalent of US$100. A friend, Professor Mark Haxthausen, who lived in Berlin in the mid-1960s recalls paying roughly US$60 a month for a room with heat. $100 for two a month would certainly have been Spartan. Translator’s Note.