1. Before the Law

Exile, alterity, violence and the reasons of law are key issues dealt with in Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub’s film Moses und Aron (Moses and Aaron), an adaptation of Arnold Schoenberg’s opera. The filmmakers shot and edited it in 1974, after many years of preparation and research. Eventually, and after German television had challenged its political dedication to Holger Meins – a so-called terrorist who, however, had never been tried or convicted – the film was broadcast in 1975 and simultaneously screened in cinemas. Already in its dedication, then, the film addresses law, its borders and exclusions. Huillet and Straub had been engaged with the project since 1959, while themselves in a wandering exile. They had left France due to Straub’s imminent conscription into the French army in times of the Algerian war: “Eleven years in exile, because I had resisted the draft into the army and with it, the direct collaboration with institutionalised torture. (Massu was the only one courageous enough to pronounce this in public …. But how many years later?).”1 The genesis of the film, an entanglement of violence and exile, thus mirrors the issues it deploys.

In Moses and Aaron, Huillet and Straub also raise basic questions about the connection of political thought and aesthetic operations. They challenge the legitimation of law as well as resistance and revolutionary action. Questioning basic frameworks of legality, economy or politics they suggest, instead, to understand history according to a set of cultural techniques which connect historical power relations to aesthetics, to perception and to emotions as they are preserved, for instance, in language and music. Fundamentally then, the film Moses and Aaron defies representational logics and instead explores the politics of seeing and hearing, in terms of visual and aural regimes, but also as a sort of exercise in counter-cultural perception, an exercise in practical aesthetics of resistance.

In withdrawing any stable reference, Huillet and Straub explore the politics of sound and images in a state before the law, in a state of legal uncertainty. Hence the opera takes place in the desert, in a camp, in transitional states of migration, and exile. In that it takes place before the law, it resonates Franz Kafka’s notion of the concept.2 Following Schoenberg’s libretto, which was written in the 1930s, Straub and Huillet direct their attention towards historical moments in which both law and legality are suspended.

Arnold Schoenberg, too, had begun to compose the opera Moses and Aaron in the long process of being driven into exile, after he had been denigrated by antisemitic and then national-socialist forces in Austria and Germany. His first drafts for the opera date from the 1920s, when he was first pursued as a Jewish person. He resumed the work in 1930s, into his American exile, repeatedly interrupting and eventually disbanding it altogether: the third act of the opera exists in the form of the libretto but Schoenberg never composed the music. The long time-span of making the opera covers his struggle against anti-Semitism and fascism, as well as his involvement in the Jewish project of Zionism.3

Considering the ramifications of issues condensed in Moses and Aaron, both film and opera, the current return of interest towards both can probably be explained by two of its crucial aspects: nomadism and desertification. Apart from the obvious beauty of the music, of course, and the intricate cinematic translation which Huillet and Straub devised, the first issue of nomadism not only includes unsettled wanderings but also migration, exile and violence. The images of millions scattered in deserts and raging seas, seeking refuge and justice disquiet any observer, if for different reasons. It is the violence connected to this state of exile and migration that Schoenberg’s opera Moses and Aaron addresses, questioning an oppressive rule as well as the wording of a new law founded and exerted in the midst of uncertain and forceful power relations. Schoenberg had already discussed this in his piece “Drohende Gefahr, Angst, Katastrophe”, op. 34, Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielscene, written and composed in 1929/1930. If, today, the situation of people exposed in a space before the law has returned, it is with an urgency experienced in the 1930s but unforeseen in 1974.

A second issue of the opera, which Schoenberg as well and Huillet and Straub invoke in their works as a desertification of the world, is an ecological nexus. For Huillet and Straub, this is not simply the idea of a utopian or Deleuzian nomadic space, but also the imminent threat of capitalist exploitation ravaging and ruining the planet.4 Surprisingly then, the difficulty of current efforts to transform an economy of competition into a just redistribution of resources and wealth in order to maintain life at all on earth had been anticipated or perceived by Huillet and Straub already in the 1970s, when the issue of ruining the planet was reduced to simple “air pollution”, while in fact the first reliable predictions on a threatening global desertification had already been published. Huillet and Straub, however, understand the images of the face of the world, as capitalist exploitation in general. The film Moses and Aaron addresses all of these urgencies then, violence and ecology, the exhaustion of nature and that of man, the annihilation of historical traces and, finally, a regime of metric time and space relations as a dispositive of exploitative labour and consummation. As in all their films, Huillet and Straub refuse to distinguish between an aesthetical and a political analysis of the state of affairs.

2. On Equal Distribution

Procedures of equal distribution or homeostatic dynamics are underdeveloped cultural techniques in capitalist societies, in spite of some visionary experiments in cybernetically oriented anthropology.5 In the West, they have mostly remained matters of art and experiments, exploring the peripheries of aesthetic, social and economic practices. This is probably also true for the musical concepts of Arnold Schoenberg, whose work in frequencies and harmonics had made a decisive leap in the history of music. Already in the early 20th century, Schoenberg had considered mutual impacts of sounds and numbers, aesthetics and statistics, albeit in an unusual document. In September 1914, with the beginning of the First World War, in the face of impending danger, fear and catastrophe, Schoenberg began to draw and write a War Cloud Diary. This could be read as a preamble to his lager work concerning the relational materiality of perception. In his diary, for instance, Schoenberg notes on September 24th:

10.45: icy cold mood, like in the circus before a very daring stunt: silence, tension, no wind; impression of the sky is at first predominantly clear, pure; only later I observe a slowly expanding cloud streak. Total impression: a daring operation which began under auspicious circumstances.

Schoenberg, at the time, was of course a partisan of the German and Austrian joint forces and his interpretation of clouds was made in this perspective. However, it is not his belief in omen and foreboding that is at stake here – although Schoenberg is said to have been superstitious, not least in erasing the second “a” from Aaron to make the title of the opera a 12-ciphered entity – nor the question of his engagement with electromagnetism and climatic fields, found to interfere with historical forces, which he investigated with the Murnau-Group. Rather, Schoenberg’s furor to dissolve conventional frames of reference in order to perceive new ontological or historic patterns of the world also lead to the specific techniques of composing Moses and Aaron. In his War Cloud Diary, he is experimenting with the transformation of signs and semiotics into the logic of elements and statistics in order to understand the complexities of a world in turmoil. In his artforms, painting and music, Schoenberg begins to explore communication as a set of elements in permutation. In his composing techniques he will advance the project in emancipating J. S. Bach’s relational technique of counterpoint towards an absolute and non-centric musical form. Moses and Aron, finally, is an opera composed entirely according to the rules of 12 tones which are only related to one another, as Schoenberg himself called the method he had developed, following earlier experiments with the dissolution of tonality. Explaining the procedure in his article “Composition with Twelve Tones”, originally held as a lecture at UCLA in 1935, he juggles with the number 12:

After many unsuccessful attempts during a period of approximately twelve years, I laid the foundations for a new procedure in musical construction which seemed fitted to re­place those structural differentiations provided formerly by tonal harmonies. I called this procedure “Method of Composing with Twelve tones Which are Related Only with One Another”. This method consists primarily of the constant and exclusive use of a set of twelve different tones. This means, of course, that no tone is repeated within the series and that it uses all twelve tones of the chromatic scale, though in a different order. It is in no way identical with the chromatic scale.6

The method is, as Schoenberg repeatedly points out, by no means a self-sufficient mathematical game but an aesthetic means of providing a new set of structural differentiations that escape former musical frames of reference such as tonality or harmonies. With the tones following each other according to a determined set of differences instead of being played according to their relation towards a key tonic or dominant note in a scale, the tones become equals in space. The strict sequencing of a set of notes guarantees that all tones are distributed equally in time and frequency throughout a piece. Schoenberg argues that “the use of more than one set was excluded because in every following set one or more tones would have been repeated too soon. Again there would arise the danger of interpreting the repeated tone as a tonic. Besides, the effect of unity would be lessened.”7

Pointing towards the aspect of unity and, complementary, towards a form of perception that renounces a specific sonic centre of listening, Schoenberg develops an acoustic equivalent to the deconstruction of perspective in the visual, as executed by Impressionism or Cubism in modern art: “the unity of musical space demands an absolute and unitary perception. In this space, as in Swedenborg’s heaven (described in Balzac’s Seraphita) there is no absolute down, no right or left, forward or backward.”8 Thus, Schoenberg in his method of composing with twelve tones develops an aesthetic theory which consists of manifold singular relations.

While Schoenberg in his first experiments still feared that “the exclusive use of one set would […] result in monotony”, he discovered, in introducing procedures such as notational inversions and mirrorings of the sets, that the simple but strict rule of observing differential relations allowed for “the creation of a sufficient number of characteristically differentiated themes, phrases, motives, sentences, and other forms.” Eventually Schoenberg discovered: “my fear was unfounded; I could even base a whole opera, Moses and Aaron, solely on one set; and I found that, on the contrary, the more familiar I became with this set the more easily I could draw themes from it. Thus, the truth of my first prediction had received splendid proof. One has to follow the basic set; but, nevertheless, one composes as freely as before.”9

The whole opera is based on a single row, made of all 12 tones of the chromatic scale, which all have to be played out before the row could be iterated. Of course, although the audience does hear certain motives and repetitions, it can hardly distinguish the row itself, since tones can be played simultaneously. What people do hear though is the specific sound of equally distributed tones and of a non-hierarchical structure of sound-layers, a simple effect of the compositional rule. Schoenberg has explained this in a diagrammatic form:

It is probably no coincidence that Schoenberg, in developing the system of composing with twelve independent tones, chose the Exodus, as exile, nomadism and the introduction of a new law, to be the subject matter of his opera. He thus relates his own new method of producing unheard of sonic spaces to an archetypal creation of a new space, associated with the creation of a new law and a promised land. But while his essay on the invention of twelve-tone-composing does carry a heroic tone, the opera itself and specifically the third act, which Schoenberg eventually failed to set to music, struggles to transpose the experience of exile, violence and alterity into a coherent, equal and incorruptible new social law, as Moses had been ordered to do by the call from the Burning Bush. Instead of establishing a new hierarchy, then, as the weight of the two leading figures would suggest, the opera fundamentally addresses the problem of who has or who is given a voice and how this may be heard. This is the central issue of the opera’s construction, with its choirs and many soloists and particularly in its leading figures, distinguishing between the eloquent tenor of Aaron and Moses, who, but for two short sequences, is intervening in a speaking voice. Aesthetics in this sense, is not just a redistribution of signifying elements but, in the distribution of tone colours and voices, also an imminent empowerment to redistribute.

3. Cinematic Transformations

In 1974, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet had already left Germany, where they had encountered “class struggle and violence”,10 executed, as they thought, more openly and aggressively than in other European countries, and had moved on to Rome’s then rather revolutionary environment in Trastevere. To prepare the shooting of the opera,  they travelled for Rome to different regions of Europe and to Egypt in search of an adequate location. They were looking for a topographical correspondence to the phantasmagorical desert in Schoenberg’s opera. Eventually, they discovered it not far from Rome, in the arena, literally meaning the sand, of Alba Fucense’s amphitheatre in the Abruzzian mountains. This space in its sonic qualities proved to be an unforeseen coincidence in many ways, historically, architecturally and acoustically.

In terms of the visual organization of the opera, the amphitheatre’s arena, enabled a visualising method similar to Schoenberg’s new form of musical composing. The “Straubs’” assistant Gregory Woods has given a diagram of it in his journal:

Using marked points in order to distribute figures in the image according to the relation of theatre-space and camera movements, the geometry of the amphitheatre operates as an organising principle to engender an almost equal distribution of faces, gazes, voices, sounds and light as they were recorded on film and on magnetic tape.11

Characters – or rather, people – were thus distributed according to a set of optical relationships in the theatre, so that every face was visible even if the camera panned between or over them. Danièle Huillet had called this «the rule of the game». In the journal, in which she planned and protocolled the shooting, she noted:

Shots 19 and 22 are like the fixed points of a rule of the game, from which all other shots of the first act develop: hence the necessity of exactly determining the location of the performers (chorus, trio: Young Girl, Young Man, Man; the Priest, and finally Moses and Aron): in relation to the centre of the ellipse, a group in relation to others, and every soloist in relation to his or her neighbour.12

This aesthetics procedure has systematic as well as practical reasons:

there has to be enough space between the Young Girl and the chorus, and between her and the Young Man, so that in shot 22, with the 50 mm lens, we can film her first without having her neighbour’s arm or the nose of a chorister in view on the extreme left.13

At the same time, this is a rule to distribute people and ensembles systematically in space – and of connecting it to the elements of nature.14

Supplementing the opera’s transformation in terms of the visual is the cinematic adaptation of its musical or rather acoustical forms. This is exposed in the very beginning of the opera, in the indistinct sonic situation preceding the scene of the actual calling from the Burning Bush, as readers of the Old Testament know it. The opera starts with a noise, a low sound or strange and inhuman voice, audible, perhaps, for the figure of Moses, and certainly for the theater’s audience. All the while, Moses’ head is shown in a close-up, in a half profile from behind, which makes it impossible to decide if what is audible is a sound from within or without, hallucinated or perceived, mental or environmental. The sound is interesting in that it is composed of voices and instruments alike. According to Schoenberg, these should be mixed “indistinguishably”: first soprano and flute, together with mezzo soprano and clarinet then alto with English horn, and, a bar later, tenor, baritone, and bass “in unison” with bassoon, bass clarinet, and cello. At first, this is perceived as an asemantic vocal singing, a vocalise, a simple O—. In the score, Schoenberg advises musicians or conductors:

That the six solo voices should always be accompanied by six instruments arose for practical reasons; the intention was to give them some security. But I would ask, that the six solo instruments should not be abandoned even if one believes that the singers can do without them. Their sound is worked into the fabric and should not be lost. NB: in places where singers and instruments should differ (in particular as regards dynamics), the markings are clear. Otherwise the sounds should blend with one another as thoroughly as possible.15

Only a few bars later, the unstructured, smoothed out, blended sound is structured by text. Language introduces slight distinctions, without completely interrupting the overall accord. From this initially indistinct sound, a new one emerges, sung by an unusually polarised choir of soprano, treble, baritone, and bass voices, which will then be called the “Voice from the Burning Bush”. At the same time, a gradual differentiation of reverberation, sound, and noise occurs – for the consonants that interrupt the sound space of the long “O—” are really nothing else but noises that structure the sound to make it a speaking voice. The twist, however, is that a voice is only heard providing one wishes to hear it as such, provided, the audience wants to accept, make and follow the distinction.

In this, the audience is exposed to making the same distinction Moses is confronted with while driving his sheep across the familiar plains: does he just perceive the noise of wind and sands, or is this a voice he is hearing, that of an omnipresent and invisible presence, a god, and thus a divine order, addressing him. In the same way, the opera’s audience will have to decide if it perceives the opening of Schoenberg’s opera as entering a new dominion of music or else simply hears it as a disturbance of familiar habits of listening.

Also in terms of the sonic, the initial situation plays out before the law, including musical and even acoustic laws. Its first impression is an indistinguishable mixture of tone colours, that then has to be distinguished to hear a voice. In terms of media theory, this is an undecided oscillation between signal and noise, message and channel. Once Moses does hear a signal, though, he is responsible for the liberation of his people. In Huillet and Straub’s film, this musical indistinctness is opened up towards a more general perception of the environment. In accordance with Schoenberg’s concept of the Cloud Diaries, this environment is conceived as a natural as well as a social one, and therefore as a critique of the 19th century division of nature and society.

In Schoenberg’s libretto, the words from the Old Testament are slightly changed. While according to the Bible it is God who says “I have surely seen the affliction of my people in Egypt and have heard their cry…”, in the opera Moses – and with him the audience – is personally addressed:

You’ve seen your kindred enslaved,
the truth you’ve known,
so you can do nothing else.
Therefore you must set you folk free!16

According to the Bible, Moses tries to resist the calling. He would rather take care of his sheep and not be bothered. With some humour, Schoenberg assumes the disposition of the general audience, reluctant, just as his Moses, to make distinctions and resume action. In the film, Moses remains between all opposing forces and between all (musical) formats. He sings in his speaking voice. Thus, he resists the ordinary flow of the musical procedure.

Again, Huillet and Straub find a very particular solution to transpose this resistance into the visual: Just as Moses says: “Meine Zunge ist ungelenk: Ich kann denken, aber nicht reden…   [But my tongue is not flexible. Thought is easy; speech is laborious]” the camera is lifted and a very long pan begins, linking the elements of the environment, sand, architecture, landscape, plants, trees, stones, clouds and mountains. It is the pan which distributes these elements equally in the picture. What we see due to this pan of nearly 360° is a nexus of cultural and agricultural layers, albeit in deterioration: ruins, remains of abandoned fields and orchards, exploited lands, deserted landscapes. Not only does the pan transform single figures into particular relations on a plane.17 It also points towards the dispositif, the rule of the game that enables this junction: the cinematic apparatus. As such, the pan fuses physis and nomos in the Aristotelian sense. Moses, in seeing the suffering, has to take care of justice for the people who are, obviously, neither audibly nor visibly present

This first pan of the film then leads to the question of justice and the people. And again, the filmmakers defy any aesthetics of representation. In his conversations and comments, Straub makes sure that the people in the film is not the choir and the choir is not representing the people. There is no standing in of actors for people or an “idea” of it. In an interview with the Jacques Bontemps, Pascal Bonitzer, and Serge Daney of the Cahiers du Cinéma, Straub says that it is the camera movement and the form of the gaze that marks what the people is – or are.

Cahiers: So you want to say that the pan is the figure that inscribes the people, and is hence not only a single eye moving fast, and also not the gaze of anyone in the film.

Straub: It’s certainly someone’s gaze. And in as much as it can’t be a single eye moving fast, this means it’s somewhere in between the two.18

In the process of panning, the world is constructed as a set of equivalent elements. The people then are conceived of as the production of an attitude. Gilles Deleuze, when describing art as resistance in his commentary on the works of Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, speaks of the absence of the people in their film. Proceeding from a remark by Paul Klee, “the people are missing”, he explains to the students at the French state film school in Paris IDHEC: “The people are missing but are, at the same time, not missing. This fundamental affinity between the work of art and people who no longer exist is never clear, and it will never be clear. There is no work of art that does not call on a people who do not yet exist.”19

4. The making of a people

Art, as Deleuze holds, has to bring forth the people which it is supposedly “about”. The people, then, is an act of creation. In marking a constitutive void where a people was supposed to have been, the film draws attention to the circular causal production of cultural perception between expectations and attention, and relates this to political awareness: there is no people, and there are no people before there are specific and historical forms of relating them to each other. The simultaneous perception of this procedure is understood  as social and political process. Aesthetics here, could be described as ontological operations in the sense of cultural techniques. Thus, a people does not exist as a sovereignty but as a phenomenon of differences, as an effect of the distinctions and differences that it must always keep open in speech, music, movement, and montage.

Apart from the distinction of noises and signals, Straub and Huillet had invented another acoustic strategy to translate Schoenberg’s system of equal distribution of sonic elements into cinematic form. Surprising in the film’s texture is the strange equipartition of image and sound. Visibly, not only in its close-ups, the film is neither based on playback, nor on the dubbing of sounds onto the images in postproduction. The solution to the sound level of the opera-film followed, as Straub recounts, a dream:

Moses and Aaron is a technical adventure on the level of sound recording that no one had previously dared […] I had dreamed of [the solution] from the very beginning, […] But we had our doubts, as most of [the sound engineer’s] experience was with jazz; still, it was the most sensible idea to record the orchestra alone first and then have the singers sing over it.20

The technical details of the procedure proved to be difficult. First, a dry, reverb-free, four-channel mono version was produced for the film and then copied on tape for Nagra-IV devices. In this form it supported the singers during their open-air appearances via small speakers installed among the choristers, ensuring that their emissions would not enter the sensitivity range of the microphones. The soloists sang with small earplugs, so as to be able to orient themselves to the orchestral sounds. The conductor Michael Gielen, who stood on a mobile pedestal, wore headphones “and beat time almost without hearing what was being sung”,21 while the acoustic supervisor Bernhard Rubenstein controlled the tone quality. In this way, a very fragmented acoustic space, achieved by acoustically isolating the individual participants, was recorded and mixed on set to create a continuous and collective sound space. The singing of the chorus and the soloists in the arena, with all its reverberation effects and ambient noises, was recorded with booms and several microphones. During the shoot in the amphitheater the sound engineer Louis Hochet added the Vienna studio recordings – as a live synchronisation – to those of the singers, whose voices were thus brought together again on tape. At the same time, he distributed them onto the Nagra’s double tracks on tape. After the shoot it only remained to mix the already synchronised material dynamically. The fact that in an amphitheater ruin in the Italy of the mid-1970s the regularity of the electricity frequency conveyed via copper cable had to be continually monitored is an indication of the fragile and volatile situation in which a temporal structure was established, that never obeyed a central meter or beat, but was an assembly of many singular variants. Quite differently from what Arnold Schoenberg had imagined when he hoped that “in a distant future […] electronically produced tones and sounds could make a performance of this powerful unfinished work possible”,22 Straub and Huillet staged a synthetic sound space in which instruments and voices from the studio were merged with voices and sounds on location, neither natural, nor completely technical. While the entire atmosphere of the environment was not recorded, as Gielen remembered – “interruption with every airplane, even with birdsong”23 – the sound track was not a montage of sounds but the superimposition of sonic layers. Finally, in the movie theatre a sound space can be heard which fuses the acoustics of the large studio of ORF and the amphitheater, possible because, as Gielen observed, “the Straubs and their sound engineer had found out through experiment that the natural reverberation of the studio in Vienna more or less corresponded to that of the arena in Alba Fucense, where the shoot took place.”24 This surprising analogy in a systematic but somewhat unhistorical media archaeology of acoustics points to an unwritten history of hearing the sounds of spaces, and a history of cinema sound as a layering of different acoustic qualities. The sound as it was finally added as the soundtrack to the film was mixed on set, literally live, from prerecorded parts and whatever was eventually recorded in the amphitheater. Only in the cinema, finally, the sound that produces the collective and, conversely, is produced by its distinctive listening is actually and audibly performed.

The people is the real subject of cinema, which not only invokes its folk in the collective of an auditorium and the shared experience of a public screening, but also, and from the very beginning, formed national and international networks, a virtual cinema-people between Los Angeles and New York, Moscow and Vladivostok, Bombay and Jakarta that was able to have the same film experiences from the 1920s onward. This relationship between cinema as an early mass medium and a virtual people of viewers is also a part of the complex making of collectives in the twentieth century. While no constitution has ever made room for the people as “rabble”, as opposed to the sovereign people, it was on the cinema screen that the infamous, the “uncounted” and non-registered could make a public appearance appear for the first time. Dziga Vertov gives a prominent place to an infamous bunch of homeless and alcoholics, to the mad and the indigent, thus allowing them to participate in the coming people. The challenge of the cinema as a cultural technique is that of developing a sense of where expulsions and exclusions from a people take place, where someone on the street is sans papiers, or suddenly no longer counts. It is this experience that Arnold Schoenberg writes about to Wassily Kandinsky, on May 4, 1923, a letter which Straub and Huillet had already quoted at length in their Einleitung zu Arnold Schoenbergs Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene (1972). Schoenberg begins his letter: “When I walk along the street and each person looks at me to see if I’m a Jew or a Christian…”, referring here to an incident in 1921 at Mattsee near Salzburg, when he was forbidden by a municipal resolution to vacation there with his family. And he continues: “You will call it a regrettable individual case if I too am affected by the results of the anti-Semitic movement. But why do people not see the bad Jew as a regrettable individual case, instead as what’s typical? […] But it isn’t an individual case, that is, it isn’t merely accidental. On the contrary, it is all part of a plan.”25 Attitude and eventually violent action develops from the way in which people look at you, is Schoenberg’s diagnosis of his experiences in 1923: “But what is anti-Semitism to lead to if not to acts of violence?”26

The effort to equally distribute signifying, sonic and visible elements in space is also an effort to change the patterns of what is included or excluded. Thus, the aesthetics of equal distribution operates not just on the logics of perceptions but might also operate to transform spatial patterns, and thus attitudes and possible judgements in respect to what an element of a social system is. These operations also include a second aspect: The effort to transcend the divide between culture and nature, which was initiated in the first panning motion of the camera, supplementing Moses’ difficulty to speak and to express the set of new relations he is to install.

5. Redistribution of life times

In a scene at the beginning of Act II, Huillet and Straub negotiate iconoclasm or the rules and regimes of images. To deploy the problem in terms of the cinema, they edit a consecutive set of different classes of images “on animals”. All of them however refer to the work of the camera itself. To begin with, Aron, filmed from below in a medium shot, with the metallic shining statue of the Golden Calf visible behind him, sings into the camera, in “Quasi Recit”, as Schoenberg instructs: “this image attests that in all things that are, a god lives”27 The word Bild (image) in Aaron’s part is set to two notes, more exactly to an interval, to the downward leap from D to F-sharp, minus eight semitones, and thus initiates an acoustic stratification, a difference and differentiation that then pervades the visual montage. A double or even triple referentiality divides and transforms the perceived image: “This image”, of which Aron sings, could be both, the immobile Golden Calf or the entire filmic shot, which is, in its metallic surfaces of sky and animal, so clearly out of line with the color and texture of the rest of the film. But the reference to “this image” might also announce the following very lively long shot: An image of a large herd of animals – donkeys, oxen, and a beautiful white camel – filmed with an extremely short focal length. The specific movements of each animal, as well as the visible high Abruzzi mountains in the background and the arena in the foreground point towards the cinematic image itself as a specific form of reality. Danièle Huillet remembers: “We made three very extended shots, because for such shots you only need to film and give life its time. Georges records the sound, and we greatly value the snorting of the animals and the lovely sounds of the harness and the wagon.”28

The sounds recorded indistinguishably mix natural and cultural sources. In its duration and serene movements, the image differs fundamentally from the previous shot of the stationary frozen Golden Calf. The moving images of film have, from chronophotography onwards, been able to capture singular movement of individuals, human, animal or plant – of course with the option to classify them as stereotypes. Classification is what Huillet and Straub resist. What they add, is the extended time of the shot, allowing for unplanned movements, systematically producing contingency. With duration they also allow the audience to observe relationships between figures, objects, movements and environments, declaring the time of life itself to be a time of developing relationships. The film insistently replaces the question of what an image is with that of how an image can be perceived and how it may transform perception, provided the audience develops its own set of differences and distinctions.

The extended shot of the many animals in front of the altar is matched by the one that follows: Through the roofless southern parodos of the amphitheater, which architecturally calls up a particular Graeco- Roman history, shepherds and peasants of the neighboring farms, wearing archaic costumes, drive more animals, herds of sheep and oxen, into the arena, with movements that recall a cultural history of a few thousand years. These historicising layers show that Straub and Huillet are not concerned with historic data but with historical realities. The shot brings cultural and natural history together in recorded gestures, traces, and voices.

At this point in the film Schoenberg’s music is overlaid for the second time, in this case by many kinds of animal noises, whose tone colours, at the end of a long orchestral section that juxtaposes extreme glissandi with a quasi-oriental rhythm, mingle with those of the instruments: piano and percussion, wind and string. Oxen and contrabassoon merge, in the way that previously the voice from the Burning Bush was a mix of instruments and human voices. Structurally, a second calling is enacted, one calling for a different approach to the resources of life.

In this scene of driving the herds, image and sound, as Huillet writes, waited for the rhythm emerging from the shot: “We made a second attempt, and it was better. The rhythm came.”[Ibid., p. 419.] This second calling, synthesised from animal voices and instruments, their particular and non-metric times coordinated by cinematic means, is, however, no longer heard from the otherworld, from transcendence or the divine, but as a call from life, its particular tone-colour mix of beings, things, instruments, of environments in their climatic and architectural histories and probably of recording machines: animal and machine, nature and culture fuse into an ecological perceptive process. This then becomes the proper meaning of “image” in the film’s critical sense. In this shot, echoing the sonic situation of the “Burning Bush”, the audience is challenged to make a last distinction: not to think of voices or gods, but of living conditions and class relations. For this one needs time, as making distinctions in listening is a recursive process that takes a while. To “give life its time”, Huillet’s concise formulation, exactly describes the lengthy and non-linear processes of understanding the world as a system beyond a divide of nature and culture, object and surroundings. While Huillet implies a concept of beauty with the practice of “giving life its time”, it can also mean that the process of understanding includes the heart standing still, the breath faltering, and the words failing: “O Wort, Du Wort, das mir fehlt”, as Moses calls out towards the end of the second act, when his relation to divine law is disturbed, a moment that Huillet and Straub push towards the experience of the real and the finiteness of each single life. This is the shock and terror of an equal distribution of elements. It is from here that the elements of an aesthetics of resistance would have to be assembled.


  1. See http://huilletstraub-berlin.net/de/huillet-straub/leben/ (own translation). Jacques Massu was a French general held responsible and hailed for his relentless and violent interrogation and torture of suspected members of the FLN in der Algerian war.
  2. See also Matthias Schmidt, “Vor dem Gesetz: Zur religiösen Dimension eines musikalischen Begriffs bei Schönberg”, in Christian Meyer (ed.), Arnold Schönberg und sein Gott: Bericht zum Symposium Juni 26.–29. Juni 2002 (Vienna: 2003), pp. 299-310.
  3. Alexander Ringer, “Schoenberg and the Politics of Jewish Survival”, Journal of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute III:1 (March 1979), pp. 11-48.
  4. See “Conversation avec Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet (Moïse et Aaron)”, Cahiers du cinema 258-259 (July-August 1975), pp. 5-24, here p.8. “Straub: L’idée d’Aaron, c’est celle d’une traversée pour arriver dans le pays. L’idée de Moïse, c’est que la traversée du désert est sans fin. C’est l’idee du nomadisme, tout simplement. Cahiers: Et ça, ce serait à la fois le point de vue de Moïse et celui de Schoenberg ? Straub: Historiquement, bien sûr, c’est une utopie. A moins qu’on en arrive à un point où le capitalisme ruine la planète. Alors, ça deviendrait une idée concrete. Mais ce ne serait pas un retour en arrière.”
  5. These structures of Western cultural systems remain a comparatively small minority among cultures, but the most powerful. See Philippe Descola, Beyond Nature and Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013). For equalising cultural techniques and cybernetic anthropology, see Ute Holl, Cinema, Trance and Cybernetics (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2016).
  6. Arnold Schoenberg, “Composition With Twelve Tones”, in: Arnold Schoenberg, Style and Idea (New York: Philosophical Library, 1950), pp. 102-143, p. 107.
  7. Ibid., p. 108.
  8. Ibid., p. 113.
  9. Ibid., p. 114.
  10. See http://huilletstraub-berlin.net/de/huillet-straub/leben/
  11. See also Benoît Turquety, Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, «objectivistes» en cinema (Lausanne: Éditions L’Age d’Homme, 2009), pp. 148ff.
  12. Danièle Huillet, “Appunti sul giornale di lavorazione di Gregory”, in Filmkritik 9/75 (September 1975), pp. 398-419, p. 403 (own translation).
  13. Ibid., Filmkritik, p. 403.
  14. At least, this is the visual or rather optical rule applied in Act I in the amphitheater. In Act II, however, in the orgy of the people Schoenberg conceives of as a return to the old oppressive law, the images follow the logics of the tableau, where groups of figures and their more or less violent and ritual interactions become visible in that they are isolated against distinct, sometimes monochromatic backgrounds. There is no fusion or confusion with environments. Nature, in Act II, is submitted to uninhibited exploitation, as exposed in the dance of the butchers, is an object of exploitation.
  15. Arnold Schönberg, Moses and Aron, Oper in drei Akten, Score, Mainz 1958, p. 4.
  16. Schönberg, Moses and Aaron, score I, act I, bars 23–27 (emphasis added).
  17. For more details, see Ute Holl, The Moses Complex (Zurich: Diaphanes, 2016), pp. 194ff, and Turquety, op. cit., pp. 132ff.
  18. Jean-Marie Straub/Danièle Huillet, “Conversation”, op. cit., pp. 5-24,  p. 13.
  19. Gilles Deleuze, «What Is the Creative Act?» in Gilles Deleuze, Two Regimes of Madness, Texts and Interviews 1975–1995 (New York: Semiotext(e), 2007), pp. 317–329, here p. 324.
  20. Straub/Huillet, “Conversation”, op. cit., p. 23.
  21. Michael Gielen, Unbedingt Musik: Erinnerungen (Leipzig: 2005), p. 180 (own translation).
  22. Hans Heinz Stuckenschmied, Schoenberg, His Life, World and Works (New York: Schirmer 1977), p. 500.
  23. Gielen, Unbedingt Musik, p. 180.
  24. Michael Gielen, “Aus einem Gespräch mit Michael Gielen: Wolfram Schütte spricht mit Michael Gielen”, in Filmkritik 221/222 (1975), pp. 280-283, p. 281.
  25. Arnold Schoenberg to Wassily Kandinsky, Mödling, Austria, May 4th, 1923, in Arnold Schoenberg, Letters, ed. Erwin Stein, (London: Faber and Faber,1964), p. 89.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Score, bars 308–310.
  28. Huillet, “Appunti sul giornale”, p. 418.

About The Author

Ute Holl is Professor of Media Aesthetics in the Seminar for Media Studies at the University of Basel in Switzerland. Her research area includes media aesthetics and theories of perception, media anthropology and experimental cinema, as well as film sound and electro-acoustics. Her book The Moses Complex: Freud, Schoenberg, Straub/Huillet was published by Diaphanes in 2016.