I am unaware of any influence, political or artistic, that I could have exercised on the film industry.
Bertolt Brecht, 19471

It’s cinema that invented the Nouveau roman; it clearly invented Brechtism (Chaplin, Hawks, Mizoguchi, and especially Ford, the most Brechtian).
Jean-Marie Straub, 19662

Brechtian/post-Brechtian?

In October 2005 Tag Gallagher reported in Senses of Cinema, in a substantial defence of “volcanic emotion” in the films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, that Straub had told him “all this talk about ‘distanciation’ is bullshit.”3 Gallagher’s piece programmatically wrestles Straub-Huillet’s works from the discourse of “isms”, “anti-conventionality”, and “calculation” and highlights their “Jesuit sensibility of each moment” over their Marxism.

Around the same time Jacques Rancière, in conversation with Philippe Lafosse, went a step further by identifying a paradigmatic shift in the work itself:

There is most certainly an important evolution over time. I would say that, if an open-air theater is involved, we nevertheless pass from a one kind of theater to another: let’s say from Brecht to Hölderlin or, if you prefer, from a dialectic dispositif to a lyrical dispositif. This is a change of the dispositifs meaning that, I believe, is also a change [sic] of Marxism and of Communism between the films of the 1960s and their latest films.4

According to Lafosse, what Rancière identifies is nothing short of an “ideological reversal for the Straubs: they move from a worker’s communism to a peasant’s communism, they move away from a Marxist dialectics à la Brecht, to get closer to a ‘defense of the earth’ communism.” Rancière agrees, but suggests a slightly more subtle distinction between “a dialectical model” and “a lyrical model”, before concluding – somewhat controversially, at least if one considers the potential political ramifications of his remarks – that “the Straubs’ Marxism has more and more of a tendency to move towards Heidegger and to distance itself from the Brechtianism of thirty or forty years ago”.

The claims made by Gallagher and Rancière quoted above illustrate that there is a shift in the reception of Straub-Huillet’s films since the 1990s and that this shift, at least as far as Rancière is concerned, is prompted by subtle-yet-significant changes within the filmmaking itself, even if the shift remains broadly within the parameters of what is rather loosely defined as Communism. In Gallagher’s essay “Communism” is only mentioned twice, and on both occasions it is associated with others, rather than Straub-Huillet directly: on the first occasion it is Empedokles’ “utopian Communism”, on the second Pavese’s.

The notion that a shift (or perhaps a “Shift” to give it a certain gravitas) has occurred in the politics and the filmmaking of Straub-Huillet from “hardline”, cosmopolitan Brechtianism to pastoral, “eco-communism” was raised and debated again and again in the introductions, post-screening workshops, and discussions formal and informal across the three-month UK retrospective of their films in London curated by Ricardo Matos-Cabo and held across a wide range of venues from March to June 2019. Possible “turning points” in their filmmaking and politics were identified by different speakers, ranging (in reverse chronological order) from the Hölderlin films of the mid-to-late 1980s – not least the programmatically titled Der Tod des Empedokles oder: Wenn dann der Erde Grün von neuem euch erglänzt (The Death of Empedocles, or: When the Green of the Earth Will Glisten for You, 1986), through Too Early/Too Late of 1980/81 and Serge Daney’s famous characterisation of it as “cinemeteorology”, back to their first Pavese adaptation, Dalla nube alla resistenza (From the Cloud to the Resistance) of 1978. Whilst some participants questioned whether this amounted to anything more than an embracing of a wider range of literary source material and locations, there seemed to be general agreement that the title of their second Vittorini adaptation, Operai, contadini (2000) could indeed be read programmatically – or more precisely consecutively – to indicate a shift of focus from workers to peasants, highlighted by the thirteen-year collaboration with the Teatro Francesco di Bartolo in Tuscany.

Furthermore, it is certainly the case that across their collected writings, as published in 2016 by Sequence Press, Straub and Huillet refer to Brecht very infrequently after the 1970s, except, inevitably, in the context of their Antigone adaptation. In early interviews, especially around the time of Nicht versöhnt, oder Es hilft nur Gewalt wo Gewalt herrscht (Not Reconciled, or Only Violence Helps Where Violence Reigns, 1965), Straub quotes Brecht frequently, and in the case of his famous definition of realism, no fewer than three times:

To dig out the truth from the rubble of the self-evident, to make a marked link between the specific and the general, to capture the particular within a general process, that is the art of the realists.5

This does not, however, imply that Straub-Huillet’s understanding of realism changes across the decades, merely that they no longer felt the need to footnote it so explicitly. Tellingly, Straub was also unequivocal, as early as 1968, in his rejection of doctrinaire Brecht(ian)ism, as witnessed by his condemnation, in an essay celebrating Carl Theodor Dreyer, of what he disparagingly refers to as “paint-by-numbers Brecht” (“Brechtisme de patronage”).[6 Jean-Marie Straub, “Ferocious”, in Straub and Danièle Huillet, Writings, pp. 102-104. The editors provide a useful gloss on the French terminology here (p. 104).] It is doubtless this aversion that Staub expressed, or rather reiterated, so forcefully to Gallagher decades later.

A Brecht epidemic

There is in fact ample evidence to support the claim that the final collaborative films made before Huillet’s death in 2006 and the twenty films made by Straub since then are in fact entirely in line with an unchanging political and aesthetic programme, one which merely expands the corpus of material addressed, a programme explicitly reinforced by the unequivocal title of their 2014 compilation film Kommunisten (Communists) which not only opens with Hanns Eisler’s and Johannes R. Becher’s rousing GDR National Anthem, but also includes episodes from Fortini/Cani (1976), Too Early/Too Late, and the so-called “communist utopia” passage of The Death of Empedocles (1986) alongside a new sequence based on André Malraux’s 1936 novel Le Temps du mépris, the story of a communist writer who escapes a Nazi concentration camp.

Corneille-Brecht (2009)

Moreover in 2009, in what can again easily be read as a programmatic gesture, Straub turned for a third time to a Brecht text as the basis for a film: Corneille-Brecht includes substantial excerpts from the anti-fascist radio play Das Verhör des Lukullus (The Trial of Lucullus) of 1939. Revisiting Brecht in this way can be read as an explicit reminder that Straub-Huillet’s work (and Straub’s alone) remains rooted in what Bernard Dort, writing in Cahiers du cinéma in 1960, defined as an auteurist obsession with Brecht and Epic theatre, including all those much-loved estrangement devices – the “distanciation” Straub remarked on to Gallagher – that had, in the early years of the Nouvelle vague, apparently reached epidemic levels:

Brecht and Brechtianism have become so fashionable that even the most diehard anti-Brecht critics and producers are ripe for conversion. […]

It can be seen that enthusiasm for Brecht has now reached cinema circles. […] Positif has been thoroughly infected and Cahiers du cinéma will be shortly, for Louis Marcorelles has been doggedly undermining its defences for years. Eric Rohmer casually referred to Brecht in its pages last October and this was an unmistakable sign that a Brecht epidemic was about to break out at Cahiers.6

In Sight and Sound in 1963 an essay by Marcorelles himself on cinema-vérité concluded:

If one can’t imagine any ultimate coming together of strict documentary and the cinema of fiction, none the less we might arrive at a cinema which could rediscover for the screen some of the epic qualities of a Brechtian theatre.7

Godard famously had Fritz Lang recite one of the Hollywood Elegies in Le Mépris (Contempt) in the same year, and indeed Brecht crops up all over the place in early Godard, a couple of times in La Chinoise (1967), for example, and in Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle (Two or Three Things I Know About Her, 1967), where he has affectionately become “Père Brecht”. In the so-called “Young German Cinema” of the 1960s Brecht is cited relatively infrequently, for example in Alexander Kluge’s debut feature Abschied von gestern (Yesterday Girl, 1966), before becoming ubiquitous in the New German Cinema from the late 1960s on, through Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Hans Jürgen Syberberg, Volker Schlöndorff and others.

Straub-Huillet and Brecht: a very brief survey

In 1965 Brecht makes his first explicit appearance in the work of Straub-Huillet, in their second Heinrich Böll adaptation Not Reconciled, which opens with the following quotation (frustratingly unsubtitled in the digital restoration that has been screened in recent retrospectives), the fifth of the seven “Instructions to Actors” (“Anweisungen an die Schauspieler”) of around 1940:

Instead of wanting to give the impression that he is improvising, the actor should show the truth: that he is quoting.8

Brecht is also there in the subtitle of the film: “Only Violence Helps Where Violence Reigns” is a quotation from Brecht’s play of 1929-31 Die heilige Johanna der Schlachthöfe (St Joan of the Stockyards) which, at least according Rancière in his essay “The Ethical Turn of Aesthetics and Politics”, also inspired another Brechtian, or perhaps post-Brechtian film, Lars von Trier’s Dogville of 2003. As Straub put it, commenting on Not Reconciled in interview with Geoffrey Nowell-Smith “sometimes it becomes an epic text in the Brechtian sense”.9 And it is certainly the case that “Brechtian devices” ­– the estrangement effects intended to invite the viewer to challenge or interrogate the fictional narrative and the protagonists – are quite straightforward in early Straub-Huillet films: Brecht-style back projections in Not Reconciled; the use of documentary material to contest or contextualise the way the characters behave, for example in the insertion of eighteen newspaper clippings about the unholy alliance of Church and State in their debut short Machorka-Muff of 1962; non-naturalistic delivery and text presented as a collage of fragmentary quotations, as in Der Bräutigam, die Komödiantin und der Zuhälter (The Bridegroom, the Comedienne and the Pimp, 1968); and, most obviously, the use of Brecht’s own work as source material, not least in what was to become their canonical work in the context of political modernism, Geschichtsunterricht (History Lessons, 1972), an adaptation of Brecht’s fragmentary exile novel Die Geschäfte des Herrn Julius Caesar (The Business Dealings of Mr Julius Caesar).

The Bridegroom, the Comedienne and the Pimp (1968)

As Martin Walsh and others have amply demonstrated, Brecht continues to feature in multiple ways, on the level of text and mise en scène.10 For example, the film which immediately follows History Lessons, Einleitung zu Arnold Schoenbergs Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielscene (Introduction to Arnold Schoenberg’s Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene, 1973), and which begins with a quotation of its predecessor (a Roman sculpture spewing water), includes a recitation of passages from Brecht’s famous speech to the International Congress in Defence of Culture in 1935 denouncing the indissoluble link between capitalism and fascism, first by Huillet herself – accompanied by a feline estrangement device (a black-and white cat which she strokes on her knee) – then continued by Peter Nestler in a recording studio. These scenes draw attention to the technology of film itself in a suitably, and quite straightforwardly Brechtian way:

But, asks Brecht: how will someone now tell the truth about fascism, against which he is, if he will say nothing against capitalism, which brings it to the fore? How then should his truth turn out to be practicable?

The second Straub-Huillet Brecht adaptation, via Hölderlin’s translation of Sophocles’s original play, is Die Antigone des Sophokles nach der Hölderlinschen Übertragung für die Bühne bearbeitet von Brecht 1948 (The Antigone of Sophocles after Hölderlin’s Translation Adapted for the Stage by Brecht in 1948) of 1991, framed as a response to the so-called “First Gulf War”. The long-winded title straightforwardly draws attention to the film’s citational and translational stratifications, to use a term deployed by Gilles Deleuze and others in discussing Straub-Huillet’s filmmaking, as do the period costumes in contemporary locations, the audible presence of a (presumably military) helicopter towards the end, the quotation of an absurdist, incidental music by Bernd Alois Zimmermann, and a concluding text of Brecht from 1952 warning against the new warmongers of the Cold War:

The memory of humanity for sufferings borne is astonishingly short. Its gift of imagination for coming sufferings is almost even less. It is this callousness that we must combat. For humanity is threatened by wars compared to which those past are like poor attempts and they will come, without any doubt, if the hands of those who prepare them in all openness are not broken. Bertolt Brecht 1952.

The two avant-gardes

As already noted above, Straub returns to Brecht for source material once again following Huillet’s death in 2006. In Corneille-Brecht he has Cornelia Geiser recite from Pierre Corneille’s Roman tragedies Horace and Othon and from Brecht’s The Trial of Lukullus which picks up, in its use of Roman history to reflect on the fascist present, where The Business Affairs of Mr Julius Caesar left off. But this is not the only film of recent years which refers back to History Lessons. The 2013 film À propos de Venise (Concerning Venice), a recitation of Maurice Barrès’s 1903 essay “La mort de Venise” (“The Death of Venice”), bears the subtitle “(Geschichtsunterricht)” (“(History Lessons)”) and is notable for its very explicit use of Brechtian estrangement devices, and – at least by the standards of Straub and Huillet up to this point – unusually explicit framing of its own technology: following the recitation, by a lakeside, of Barrès’s text, we very briefly see Barbara Ulrich seated underneath a microphone that is presumably capturing the ambient sound. Although we see the tuning up of the orchestra at the beginning of their third Schoenberg film Von heute auf morgen (1996) and, as already mentioned, the workings of a recording studio in Introduction to Arnold Schoenberg’s Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene, it is unusual for Straub and Huillet to show the apparatus of cinema in such a blatantly self-reflexive, overtly Brechtian way. And this shot is followed by another favourite device of Brecht already mentioned above: quotation. The remainder of this short-but-important film consists of a protracted extract (with marginally different framing from the rest of the film) of Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach (Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, 1967), the second and third movements of secular cantata BWV 205 – Zerreißet, zersprenget, zertrümmert die Gruft (Destroy, burst, shatter the tomb), a passage which bears a striking similarity to the chorus from the Matthew Passion quoted at the end of History Lessons and, indeed, written by the same librettist, Picander (otherwise known as Christian Friedrich Henrici).

Concerning Venice (History Lessons) (2013)

It seems to me that Concerning Venice (History Lessons) is particularly significant for an understanding of the reception of Brecht within the work of Straub-Huillet as a whole, and not only because it refers, explicitly or implicitly, to a number of their most famously Brechtian films from the 1960s and 1970s. In the workshop on History Lessons at the 2019 retrospective in London (“History Lessons: Brecht, Straub-Huillet and the British context”, 16 March 2019 at the BFI Southbank) all the speakers – Laura Mulvey, Ian Christie, Nicolas Helm-Grovas and the present author – independently drew attention to Peter Wollen’s landmark essay “The Two Avant-Gardes”, first published in Studio International in 1975, as a key text for understanding the significance of Straub-Huillet’s political modernism within contemporary British filmmaking.11 Underpinning Wollen’s essay is the proposition that a synthesis of the materialist concerns of avant-garde film – such as fixed frame, flicker, loops, extreme duration, scratching, re-photography – and what had become known as “Godard-Straub” Brechtian experimentation in verbal and written language, fragmentary narrative, and theatrical distanciation could generate a critical materialist cinema in which a film could become a text comprised of semioticised material rather than a “film-object” or “film-representation”. An experimental cinema of this kind, based on a synthesis of Brecht and the avant-garde could avoid, on the one-hand, avant-garde “navel-gazing” or self-referential tautology, and, on the other, the pitfalls of illusionism.

Isolated attempts have certainly been made by avant-garde artists to engage with Brechtian anti-illusionism, self-referentiality, and the correspondence of production and reception. Castle One (The Light Bulb Film) of 1966 by Malcolm Le Grice, for example, is an expanded cinema piece in which the film is interrupted by flashes from a light bulb hung in front of the screen. Le Grice himself described the bulb as “a Brechtian device to make the spectator aware of himself”.12 In her monograph on Austrian filmmaker and performance artist Valie Export, Roswitha Mueller cites as an example another expanded cinema performance, Up+Down+On+Off of 1968 by Export.13 A partially overpainted filmstrip of an encircling shot of a statue is projected onto a paper screen. A participant in front of the screen completes the sculpture by drawing it on the paper. The strip lasts three minutes and the lines are superimposed montage-like. The result is a painting that exists in its own right after the film has finished. Export referred to this as a Lehrfilm (learning film) in reference to Brecht’s Lehrstück (“learning play”), the intention being to eliminate the distinction between actor and audience and thereby replace passive reception with co-production.

Such attempts to unite Brechtian and avant-garde strategies have, however, remained few and far between and, some might argue, generally rather simplistic. As Wollen points out, “the stumbling block lay in the contrasted and incompatible views on representation”.14 The avant-garde structural filmmakers are resolutely anti-realist; Brecht, Godard and Straub-Huillet are, broadly-speaking, realists. The structural filmmakers are purists and frequently preclude both pictures and narratives; the so-called “Brechtians” are hybridisers, image-makers, and (Epic) narrators.

I would suggest that whilst Concerning Venice (History Lessons) explicitly – one might even claim programmatically – belongs to the materialist, “Brechtian” avant-garde identified by Wollen, a remarkable and perhaps unexpected installation by Straub for the 2015 Venice Biennale imagines and enacts the coming together of the two avant-gardes as proposed by Wollen forty years previously. In omaggio all’arte italiana! (A Homage to Italian Art!) was shown in a specially constructed gallery/screening space at the Biennale, a simple, white box-like structure. Straub had a short extract of History Lessons projected on a loop, a digital recording of the final scenes of a degraded, subtitled US celluloid copy of the film shot off-screen at MoMA in January 2014. The images are pink-magenta and the sound has deteriorated. The 9-minute, 36-second sequence begins with a handwritten title card: “*in omaggio all’arte italiana! Jean-Marie Straub dicembre 2014”.15

A Homage to Italian Art! takes Straub(-Huillet)’s work in a rather unexpected and exciting direction. Their most explicitly and canonically Brechtian film, History Lessons, is presented as prey to the passage of time: scratched, dusty, torn, and faded. As noted in an essay on the installation posted in 2015 on the Atelier Impopulaire website, there is “no ‘aesthetic’ appeal in the deteriorated material”, but rather an eloquent demonstration of the passage of time and its effect on the film material itself.16 In the light of the near-obsolescence of analogue film, this exposition is inevitably also a reflection on the passage of the medium itself, on its technology, and on the economics of distribution, the “wear and tear of capitalism” so-to-speak. In the exhibition space surrounding the screening room Straub exhibited documents – texts, images, and sound recordings – relating to the genesis of the film, including a French-language typescript of the dialogues and a hand-written note by Straub: “A banker, a farmer, a lawyer, a writer and a city introduce themselves to a young man. The film deals with business and democracy, which ultimately means imperialism.” These materials can be seen in some detail in photographs documenting the installation.17

Entertaining estrangement

If the framing of technology in Concerning Venice (History Lessons) suggested a self-reflexive, quintessentially Brechtian gaze on the apparatus of cinema, then the installation A Homage to Italian Art! frames the physical decay of analogue material in a way which, quite unexpectedly, reminds one more of George Landow’s 1966 Film in Which There Appear Edge Lettering, Sprocket Holes, Dirt Particles, Etc. and Rohfilm (Rawfilm) of 1968 by Birgit and Wilhelm Hein. I would suggest that this (to date) one-off experiment, documented but not re-staged at the 2017 Berlin exhibition Tell It to the Stones: The Work of Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub,18 experiments with spanning “The two Avant-gardes” addressed by Peter Wollen in his 1975 essay, the political modernism of Brechtian cinema on the one hand, formal, material and structural experimentation on the other. Its lucid and compelling demonstration of the passage of “film (historical) time”, alongside the historiographic stratification within the film itself (ancient Rome – Nazi Germany and fascist Italy – Rome in the 1970s), demonstrates that across five decades Straub-Huillet’s work, for all its variety of source material, has remained consistent not only with their pronouncements on political realism in the 1960s, but also with two key claims of Brecht, in 1926 and 1940 respectively, that “what is desirable is the creation of documents” and that the artist’s aim must always be to “educate entertainingly and to entertain educationally”.19

Endnotes:

  1. Bertolt Brecht, Große kommentierte Berliner und Frankfurter Ausgabe, eds. Werner Hecht, Jan Knopf, Werner Mittenzwei and Klaus-Detlef Müller (Berlin/Weimar/Frankfurt am Main: Aufbau/Suhrkamp, 1988-2000), vol. 23, p. 61. Hereafter referred to as BFA. Quoted in Martin Walsh, The Brechtian Aspect of Radical Cinema: Essays by Martin Walsh (London: BFI Publishing, 1981), p. 11.
  2. First published as a response to a questionnaire in Cahiers du cinéma, 185 (December 1966). See Jean-Marie Straub, “Questionnaire on Film and Narrative”, in Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Writings, ed. Sally Shafto (New York: Sequence Press, 2016), pp. 76-79, here p. 76.
  3. Tag Gallagher, “Lacrimae Rerum Materialized”, Senses of Cinema no. 37 (October 2005), http://sensesofcinema.com/2005/feature-articles/straubs/#b2
  4. “Politics and Aesthetics in the Straubs’ Films: Jacques Rancière, Philippe Lafosse and the public in conversation about Straub-Huillet after a screening of their films”, 16 February 2004, Jean Vigo Cinema, Nice, translated by Ted Fendt, 2011. See: https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/politics-and-aesthetics-in-the-straubs-films
  5. See Straub/Huillet, Writings, pp. 65, 67, 100.
  6. Bernard Dort, “Towards a Brechtian Criticism of Cinema” in Jim Hiller (ed.), Cahiers du cinéma, vol. 2 1960-1969: New Wave, New Cinema, Re-evaluating Hollywood (London: BFI, 1986), pp. 236-247, here p. 236.
  7. Louis Marcorelles, “Nothing But the Truth”, Sight and Sound 3 (1963): 117.
  8. Brecht, “Anweisungen an die Schauspieler”, BFA 22.2: 667-668, p. 668.
  9. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, “After ‘Othon’, before ‘History Lessons’: Geoffrey Nowell-Smith talks to Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet”, Enthusiasm 1 (1975), 26-31, p. 26.
  10. Martin Walsh, The Brechtian Aspect of Radical Cinema: Essays by Martin Walsh (London: BFI Publishing, 1981); Barton Byg, Landscapes of Resistance: The German Films of Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub (Berkeley: University of California, Press 1995).
  11. In Peter Wollen, Readings and Writings: Semiotic Counter-Strategies (Verso and NLB: London, 1982), pp. 92-104.
  12. Quoted in Gordon Gow, “focus on 16mm”, Films and Filming 5 (1971): 77-78, p. 77.
  13. Roswitha Mueller, Valie Export: Fragments of the Imagination (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), p. 11.
  14. Peter Wollen, “Semiotic Counter-Strategies: Retrospect 1982” in Wollen, Readings and Writings, pp. 208-215, here p. 212.
  15. The author would like to thank Barbara Ulrich (BELVA Film) for providing this information.
  16. See: http://atelierimpopulaire.tumblr.com/post/133592663010/jean-marie-straub-in-omaggio-allarte-italiana
  17. See: http://zomia.it/in-omaggio-allarte-italiana-di-jean-marie-straub-biennale-arte-venezia-2015/
  18. Akademie der Künste, Berlin, 14 September-19 November 2017.
  19. BFA 21: 165; BFA 22.2: 668.