Class Relations (1984, Straub/Huillet)

“I am French and now demand quiet.”

In the beginning, our young hero meets a ship’s stoker and I’m already excited, because this is my third stoker this month! First Emil in The Last Command (as punishment) then Bancroft in Docks of New York, and now this unrelated French/German movie throws another stoker on the pile. This is also the second German-language film I’ve seen lately made by a French director (after Perceval Le Gallois).

Karl arrives in America, shipped away from home for causing a scandalous pregnancy, and gets involved with the stoker’s plight along the way, before Karl’s big-shot uncle (a senator) has Karl taken to a friend’s country house. But he takes to the streets with his suitcase, losing all support from his family after a complicated bit involving a midnight deadline. Karl hooks up with a couple of drunken travelers along the way, who will keep dragging him down wherever he winds up, first as a hotel elevator boy then at the home of an eccentric woman named Brunelda. Karl finally escapes as a technician on a travelling theater group based in Oklahoma (not a group performing the musical Oklahoma!, as I first thought). “In Oklahoma everything will yet be reexamined.”

Adapted from Kafka’s Amerika, published posthumously and incomplete in 1927. Shot by William Lubtchansky (same year as Love on the Ground) with Caroline Champetier (Gang of Four) and Christophe Pollock (Haut bas fragile) – so was Rivette a big fan of this film? The cast includes directors Manfred Blank and Harun Farocki (as our guy’s troublesome traveling buddies) and Thom Andersen (as an American – that could be anybody) and at least two other filmmakers. As for the other actors, most appeared in no other films (even the lead, Christian Heinisch) – except for the uncle (Mario Adorf of movies by Schlöndorff, Fassbinder and Skolimowski) and Brunelda (Laura Betti, below, of Pasolini and Bertolucci movies).

Doesn’t seem like this was made in the 1980’s – it’s strangely timeless, as was Sicilia! fifteen years later. This seems less eccentric than that one (with less shouty acting), but still offbeat, like the Straubs are creating new definitions of what movies should be, with all their specific rules and procedures which they seem morally intent on following. The only rule I remember from the Pedro Costa doc is that they always use the audio that goes with the corresponding camera take, with no blending or other tricks, so you hear the dialogue levels and ambient noise change with every cut. A new quirk is that about every fifth line of dialogue goes untranslated in the subtitles.

Manfred Blank filmed the directors talking about the movie on a balcony, asserting his own filmmaking touches on the proceedings. Does your half-hour making-of doc need a four-minute operatic establishing shot? No.

I have to say, with the Straubs’ strong personalities – Jean-Marie ranting at length and Danièle staying reserved and concise – their communist ideals and views on filmmaking and work and politics – I still don’t get their point. I find the movies of theirs that I’ve seen to be more or less enjoyable, but I don’t see the political meaning behind them, and anything I read about their films gets dully academic almost immediately. So I tried to keep up with the doc, figure out what they’re on about, but it’s not working. I don’t get how Class Relations is not an adaptation or an interpretation, or that “film is not an illustrative or descriptive tool.”

Jean-Marie: “There already was a film adaptation of another Kafka book. That was The Trial by Orson Welles. He tried to show what Kafka had described. … But we wanted to do the opposite. We didn’t want to show what Kafka described.”

He’s saying they filmed the novel on a budget, attempting to pare down the larger-scale scenes and focus on details, so that “every moment is monumental.”

“An image has to stand on its own. An image is not something arbitrary. A finished image doesn’t describe anything; it is its own entity.”

But he swears what they’re doing is not minimalism. He also swears that Karl is not the protagonist or the main character, that every character is equal. Karl is only the “persisting” character. “I’m interested in viewers who are capable of practicing tolerance, who accept everyone and see everyone as equal, even when they differer greatly.”

The filmmakers:

D. McDougall gets it:

In Harun Farocki’s making-of documentary Work on “Class Relations”, one can see Straub and Huillet lead actors through rehearsals, changing their verbal emphases and body movements in minute ways to achieve an effect that seems of marginal significance. In the films of Straub and Huillet, these small details accumulate to create a world whose rules of interaction are the focus of our study; like Kafka, they use human relations as a means to exploring society’s structuring economic and political relations.

V. Canby uses the M-word, and the NY Times accidentally titled his piece on their website “Class Reunion (1984)”.

Though the Straubs do, in fact, move their camera throughout these adventures, the camera somehow gives the impression that it would prefer to stay where it is. It’s a cat that wants to sit in the sun. The minimalism is expressed in the impassive attitudes of the actors, and in the manner in which they deliver their dialogue, which sounds as if they were giving instructions on how to put on one’s life jacket in case of an unscheduled landing at sea. Robert Bresson does something similar, but the point in the Straubs’ film is not to call attention to the distance between actor and dramatized circumstance, as in Bresson, but to deny the viewer any chance to respond in predictable ways.

D. Sterritt:

It’s among their most accessible and “entertaining” works. I put quotes around that word because these filmmakers have stood in career-long opposition to the diversion and distraction that are endemic in commercial cinema; but even abstruse works like History Lessons, not to mention the visually magnificent Sicilia! and the sonically sensuous Moses and Aaron, are entertaining if having your intellect roused and your senses stimulated is your idea of a good time.