Jean-Marie Straub: “I Am the Terrorist”

Jean-Marie Straub

In April 2020, shortly after the pandemic had shut the world down, Andy Rector premiered a new ten-minute short by Jean-Marie Straub at his invaluable site, Kino Slang. In La France contre les robots (France Against Robots), the cinematographer and editor Christophe Clavert strolls along the shore of Lake Geneva and recites an excerpt from the 1945 essay by Georges Bernanos, whose novels had been adapted by Robert Bresson (Diary of a Country Priest, Mouchette) and Maurice Pialat (Under the Sun of Satan).

The camera follows Clavert from behind, but also slightly off to his left; Straub was fond of the dynamic diagonals lent to his compositions. Clavert’s voice is firm but emotionless: “Revolution is an absolute. There is no moderate revolution.” Toward the end, both Clavert and the camera stop: “In short: regimes formerly opposed in ideology are now directly united by Technology. A world dominated by Technology is lost for Liberty.”

Straub, who passed away this weekend at the age of eighty-nine, dedicated what would be his last film to his friend and neighbor, Jean-Luc Godard. Both filmmakers lived out their final years in the Swiss lakeside town of Rolle, and both, “each in his own individual way,” as Fritz Göttler writes in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, strove to “keep the images and sounds of cinema alive.”

For more than forty years, from their first short, Machorka-Muff (1963), to her death in 2006, Straub and Danièle Huillet—the team is often referred to as Straub-Huillet, or simply, the Straubs—were “cinema’s conscience,” as J. Hoberman wrote in the New York Times in 2016. They “may be Marxists, but their aesthetic can be gleaned from their admiration for Cézanne, the subject of two typically oblique short features,” Cézanne (1989) and Une visite au Louvre (2004). “It is not simply that Cézanne, like them, is an artist of landscapes, but that his paintings, like their movies, are as much tangible objects as they are representations.”

In 1982, Jonathan Rosenbaum organized the first Straub-Huillet retrospective in the U.S. He put a catalogue together and wrote in the introduction: “For starters, it won’t do to try to convince people that Straub-Huillet films can be as easy to take as gumdrops. One has to acknowledge the problematic side of their work and then do something about it—curse, rage, marvel, give up, renegotiate, avoid, confront . . . Nothing stylish (Godard), existential (Rivette), or comic (Moullet) ever seems to threaten their iron determination to change the world every time they position a camera and microphone.”

At the time, Rosenbaum considered Gilberto Perez’s 1978 essay “Modernist Cinema: The History Lessons of Straub and Huillet”—republished this summer at Caesura—to be “the best account of their work in English that I know.” Perez wrote that Straub and Huillet’s films “are about filmmaking, to be sure, but in the course of their being about something else; their real subject is history, they are history lessons all, one of the lessons being that we must attend to the means of our access to history.”

Decades later, Perez wrote another solid primer that ran in Film Comment a few months after he died in 2015. Perez begins by noting that Straub referred to the 1965 mid-length film Not Reconciled—a film beautifully analyzed by Richard Brody in a video essay by Kevin B. Lee—as “a sort of documentary oratorio.” For Perez, “that applies to all their films.” Performed by an orchestra, choir, and soloists, an oratorio relates a story or set of ideas without dramatic representation.

Straub and Huillet would select a historical text and “stage it and have it performed in a way that keeps it at a distance, at a remove from the present,” wrote Perez, “because they want us to recognize it as a document of its time, just as they want us to recognize its cinematic staging and performance as a document of a later time, and just as they want us to recognize our own situation as spectators at a still later time. In a film by Straub and Huillet, at least three different times always come into play.”

From April 2019 to August 2020, Christopher Small wrote a fifteen-part Straub-Huillet Companion for the Notebook, opening with a column on their first full-length feature, Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968). All the elements of the oeuvre are here, noted Small: “The curious vitality of technically unaffected performers. The reverence for a text’s (or in this case, piece of music’s) essence. The unpredictable, stop-start rhythm of the montage, determined more by the constituents of a shot than narrative flow. The structural excisions born of remarkable changes to the source text. Literary or musical ‘adaptation’ guided by a rare fidelity not simply to the spirit of the work itself but to its interpretation by readers and performers.”

For Daniel Fairfax, writing in Senses of Cinema in 2009, focusing “purely on the rigor and anti-spectacular quality of their work overlooks the intense viscerality of the performances of their usually non-professional ‘actors,’ and the equally sensual role of the material environment in their work: insect noises, mountainous backdrops, ruins of the ancient world, the rushing of a stream, the sun, the wind.

Fairfax also points out that the oeuvre “upsets” the notion of a national cinema. “Just what is the national status of a film such as Antigone [1992], made in Italy by a French couple from a German translation of a Greek play?” To avoid Straub’s having to fight in the Algerian War, the couple relocated first to Germany and then to Italy. “Famously combative, solidly built, and never without a Brechtian cigar, Mr. Straub enjoyed playing bad cop at festival press conferences to Ms. Huillet’s softer, more conciliatory personality,” wrote Dave Kehr in the New York Times when Huillet passed away. “Even as they became institutions on the festival and museum circuit, they projected the brash, provocative aspect of eternal Young Turks, always willing to upset any and all apple carts in the immediate vicinity.”

The last film they made together, Quei loro incontri (2006), which drew from Cesare Pavese’s Dialogues with Leucò, screened in Venice, where the jury headed up by Catherine Deneuve decided to present a Special Lion to Straub-Huillet. They didn’t attend; instead, Straub sent three messages. The third read: “I wouldn’t be able to be festive in a festival where there are so many public and private police looking for a terrorist—I am the terrorist, and I tell you, paraphrasing Franco Fortini: so long as there’s American imperialistic capitalism, there’ll never be enough terrorists in the world.”

Jury member Cameron Crowe, noting that the 9/11 anniversary was rolling around again, suggested that the award be rescinded. He was overruled. In 2017, the Locarno Film Festival presented its lifetime achievement award, the Pardo d’onore Manor, to Straub, and this time around, he seemed to appreciate the recognition. Carlo Chatrian, currently the artistic director of the Berlinale but still with Locarno at the time, wrote of the work of Straub-Huillet: “Rigorous’ is a term that has often been used to describe their practice; watching their films again one also feels how much freedom pulses through every frame.”

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