Been a long time since Too Early, Too Late, so it’s time to give some more Straub/Huillet films a watch, via the lovely new Grasshopper blu-ray. The first five minutes is about the least visually dynamic thing imaginable, but I like the sound recording of the answering choir. Then a long circular pan across a boring landscape, but at least the blue sky is nice. Looking on the bright side here.
Moses (guy in red pajamas with staff) meets A(a)ron (green headband) in the desert, and they bellow-sing at each other, presumably trying to mesmerize the other with their cadence and beards. Staff is turned into snake… Moses turns leprous and back again. The people are extremely confused after Moses leads them away then disappears for over a month, and Aaron tries to talk them down, but screws it up. They sing about the old and new gods as the picture goes all violet… oh no, they butcher a cow during their little knife dance. I was not expecting the phrase “Holy is genital power.” When Moses gets back, he and A. argue over the best way to teach these idiot people. Discussion of how to use words and images to express larger ideas to the idiots = CINEMA!
I only halfway followed this movie… honestly, have no idea what bible story, if any, it’s retelling, and I have no practice in following stories told in opera, even with the aid of subtitles. But it had been a long, unsatisfying work day, and on the drive home I thought of a bunch of movies I could watch, and this is the one that stood out. Straub/Huillet movies aren’t exactly my bag, but they’re not bad, and my total inability to figure out what they’re on about, plus their weird stasis and precision makes them extremely relaxing to watch. Aaron also has dreamy eyes… but the soundtrack was hit or miss (from my notes while watching: “ban woodwinds”). Based on the unfinished opera by modernist composer Arnold Schoenberg.
Ted Fendt in the liners:
Schoenberg was unable to write music for this [third] act of his opera. The impossibility of resolving the opera’s central issue or committing fully to one side could have been the cause. Works whose internal contradictions resisted them, resisted easy solutions, fascinated Straub and Huillet. Unresolved tensions abound in their work…
Introduction to Arnold Schoenberg’s “Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene” (1972)
Sort of an essay film. Some abrupt cuts and blackouts mid-speech. Music rises up halfway through. Majority of the film in b/w and in a recording booth. Brecht and other writers are mentioned… Schoenberg is mad about Kandinsky. It covers a lot of ground in 15 minutes.
Official description is needed for context: “a fierce condemnation of anti-Semitism and the barbaric war machine of capitalism, inspired by a letter written in 1923 by composer Arnold Schoenberg to painter Wassily Kandinsky.”
“A satirical attack on West Germany’s re-armament and revival of militaristic tradition in the Adenauer era.” The most commercial-looking movie I’ve seen by them – based on a Heinrich Böll novel, as was Not Reconciled. Wikipedia may know why Böll was popular with the Straubs: “Böll was particularly successful in Eastern Europe, as he seemed to portray the dark side of capitalism in his books; his books were sold by the millions in the Soviet Union alone.” He would win a Nobel less than a decade after these adaptations came out.
“Maybe I’d have an affair with his wife… I’ve an appetite for petit bourgeois erotics sometimes.” We follow a general who is dedicating a building to a military bigwig who is posthumously judged a greater leader when it’s discovered that more of his men died in battle than was previously thought. Their debut short, and the only movie performance by Erich Kuby (a writer, journalist and “an important opponent of German rearmament”).
Not Reconciled (1964)
A boy is often beaten up at school – this isn’t shown, but discussed by a rapidfire narrator. A blonde hotel boy encounters a sheep-crazy knitting cult. Two identical-looking dudes out for lunch, the one in the lighter suit was darker-suit’s tormentor as a kid. Now architect Fahmel is narrating for us… I think we’re hopping between time periods… and it all ends in attempted murder. In general, I’m pretty sure I need to be smarter about European history and culture and politics to keep up with these movies, something they have in common with Godard. I can’t tell if it’s a stylistic choice for everyone to speak flatly, or if that’s just Germans… probably the former, since I know Bresson was an influence. The sound always matches camera angle, no attempt to smooth it out with room tone or make audio consistent between shots. From anyone else I’d assume it’s a technical limitation or lack of professionalism, but from these two I’m sure it’s a political position.
Thanks very much to Neil Bahadur for helping me make sense of this:
Not Reconciled charts a single family in two separate timelines – post World War 1 and post World War 2 – throughout these two timelines events will mirror each other and fold into the present of 1965. Virtually an attack on Germany more vicious than any Fassbinder picture, the purpose is to show the incompatibility of a democratic structure with the new ideas of the 19th and 20th century: communism and fascism. Straub shows us a post-war world where left and right never united after the collapse of both the German Empire and Nazism, and both periods lead (and presumed will lead) to essentially an internal and invisible cold war between classes and ideologies as both sections ascend to bourgeois standards of living – and in the first case, ends up leading to the failure of the left and the rise of fascism. The gun that goes off at the end of the film (in the present of 1965) is the only thing that prevents this.
Nick Pinkerton in Frieze:
The cinematic translation or transcription of texts – poems, letters, fragments, musical scores – is key to Straub-Huillet’s filmmaking practice, which began not in France but in Munich, where the couple landed in 1958 after Straub was faced with prison for his refusal to serve in the Algerian War. (They always put their money where their mouths were politically, and Straub has also crammed his foot in his gob more than a few times.)
“Despite the tendency to reduce their films to a uniform asceticism, there is no such thing as a typical Straub-Huillet film.”