January 20, 2007

Andi Engel on Straub/Huillet

I have been searching for a copy of the magazine ENTHUSIASM, No. 1, 1975, for about 5 years. I'm still searching. UCLA had it once, but in the digitalization of their library it has been temporarily lost. It's there somewhere but no one knows how it exists. It took me a year to figure out that this magazine only ran one issue, but I knew this one issue entirely focused on Straub/Huillet, including two very precious interviews with them in English. Wolf André Oleg 'Andi' Engel was the kind of man to invent a magazine (ENTHUSIASM) and a distribution company (POLITKINO) in order to spread the ideas and cinema of Straub/Huillet. He was also the kind of man to make issue Number 2 of ENTHUSIASM 30 years after the fact of Number 1. In those intervening 30 years Engel created the distribution company ARTIFICIAL EYE with his wife Pamela Balfry -- one of the most important distributors of world cinema anywhere. I can easily choose one film I may have never seen if ARTIFICIAL EYE didn't exist: THE APPLE by Samira Makhmalbaf (1997). DVD distributors in the US still haven't mustered the courage to release this dynamically realist film by the then 17 year old Samira.

Andi Engel passed away on December 26th 2006. For a fittingly storied obituary, here's Colin MacCabe's. Below I offer Engel on Straub/Huillet (from: SECOND WAVE: NEWER THAN NEW WAVE NAMES IN WORLD CINEMA, Andi Engel. Studio Vista, Movie Paperbacks 1970. )


-AR

________Andi Engel:

To write about Jean-Marie Straub's (sic) four German films (Machorka Muff, 1962, Nicht Versöhnt , 1965, Chronik Der Anna Magdalena Bach, 1968, and Der Brautigam, die Kömödiantin und der Zuhalter, 1968) for someone who perhaps saw his films but could not understand, or only partly understand, the German dialogue is a bit embarrassing for me, because I feel I have to mention some basic things which if mentioned in an article for German readers would make me sound like a pompous schoolmaster.

Jean-Marie Straub's first four films are sound films and the dialobue is spoken in German. This does not seem to be an important statement, but it is, because most of the films made today are not sound films, but silent films with added dialogue and sound effects. They are only called sound films by general agreement. Not so Straub's films: in his films the sound effects, the dialogue, and the music are as important as the picture track. (Alberto Moravia about Nicht Versöhnt : 'We find ourselves confronted with a film, where the auditory element is as important as the visual.') Furthermore, the sound is no illustration of the picture and the picture is no illustration of the sound, but sound and picture form an entity. He has pushed his films to such an extreme, that if you take something away, for instance, the music, you no longer have a film; take the dialogue away and you have not a silent movie but nothing. And that applies not only to the sound, the cutting and the length of the sequences. I am sure too, that if you were to see his first colour film Othon (in 1970) in a black-and-white print, again it would not be a film.

So my problem is to write about films which most of my readers will not be able to see as an entity, though things are a bit easier with the Bach film, because here Straub was forced by a distributor to make an English version. But this naturally can only be a variation on the theme and not a proper transformation, even more so as in the original the German of Bach's time is used. The attempt to use old-fashioned English is not a satisfactory solution. Which brings us to translations in general . If you push the discussion to an extreme, you arrive at the conclusion that one should only read and listen to languages one can understand, because every translation is a betrayal, as much a betrayal as scientific articles in daily papers, which give the non-professional reader the impression that he too knows something about the latest research achievements in physics. No, translations are sedatives.

Important films are always multi-layered, meaning not only that different people see different films -- that is also the case with stupid or boring films -- but that the single person can see different levels of a film. Usually the easiest way to discover these is by seeing a film more than once. And surely it is one of the possible and desirable tasks of an introductory article, like this, to point out some of the different levels which a spectator might not see right way.

I think that Straub's films are very open to the viewer, and are really militant statements against what I would call the "Eeyore" attitude, towards films which is tremendously popular among "knowledgeable" film buffs: "The old grey donkey, Eeyore, stood by himself in a thistly corner of the forest, his front feet well apart, his head on one side, and thought about things. Sometimes he thought sadly to himself, 'Why?', and sometimes he thought, 'Wherefore?', and sometimes he thought, 'Inasmuch as which?' -- and sometimes he didn't quite know what he was thinking about.' I imagine that it would be helpful to mention three important though obvious things about his films. These are: their political impact, their simplicity, and their honesty.

a) Political Impact
Straub is a political man, which means that he knows he has to fight if he wants things to change. So, as he is a purposeful man, too, his films are political films, that is, they are his weapons in his (and our) struggle for change. Therefore his statement that the Bach film is his contribution towards the liberation fight of the Vietnamese people is not as idiotic or fashionable as most of the German press believed, or wanted their readers to believe, because like the guerilla fighter, Straub does what he thinks he has to do and, maybe more important , he does it the way he thinks he can do it best.

b) SimplicityFilm needs still (in spite of all protests and attacks) immediate recognition by the audience. It has been often remarked how cool and how detached the public finally is about Straub's work, but this is to misunderstand him completely because he himself says: "I react like Rivette and believe that film still only -- let's say it -- depends on fascination and that it touches people. And it touches them deeply if it depends on fascination, which is the contrary of detachment." As film needs this spotaneous acknowledgement, it cannot be too complicated, too longwinded -- like literature for instance. (As I have pointed out, this doesn't mean that film cannot be complex or have several levels.) The subject, the moral or whatever a filmmaker wants to get over to his audience, has to be quite simple, because everything has to be understood by the viewer in a much shorter time than for instance the same person would have while reading an article. So the most important thing about the films of Jean-Marie Straub is that here a very deep and thinking man succeeds in presenting his view of things in the simplest possible way to the people. Here simplicity triumphs. If you look at his first two films, Machorka Muff and Nicht Versöhnt , you really think, if you stare very hard that you can see through to the screen, like a watercolour painting, where you see the paper. If you take anything, one minute detail away from any Straub film, you can see how the whole thing crumbles under your fingers. And there is no higher praise to be given to any work, thant to say that everything that is not necessary has been cut out.

c) Honesty
All four films were recorded with direct sound, which was, at the time of his first film, 1961, more startling than it is today, when even a filmmaker like Roman Polanski, who used direct sound for the first time in Rosemary's Baby, says that now he is not sure whether one can any longer make films without direct sound. Anyhow, before Straub decided that he wanted -- come what may -- direct sound in his films, he had not heard of the Leacock/Pennebaker films. But he knew and loved the early sound films of Jean Renoir and Robert Flaherty. "The most beautiful films which exist are the first sound films of Renoir and not only because they all speak with this nice accent from the south of France, but because they are made with direct sound. For me one of the ten greatest films is La Nuit du Carrefour by Renoir, the thriller after the story by Simenon, whcih is also one of the greatest thrillers there is -- I agree with Godard completely...This sound of the first talkies is for me the best of all existing sound in films. A film like Man of Aran was something that impressed me most then. And Toni and La Chienne, and La Voix Humaine or Miracolo by Rossellini. In La Voix Humaine you can hear the dolly. That's beautiful! But you should not pursue that idea systematically, like some bloody intellectuals who would say: 'I'm going to let the audience hear the noise of the dolly, so that they realize that they are seeing a movie.' But if you have got it on the track, then you are not allowed to deceive. The idea to use direct sound above all came also out of the Bach project, because there it was clear to me that the whole film would only make sense if one recorded everything together with the images. And the other projects grew out of the Bach film." But this spleen, as most people thought -- "they thought I was mad" -- in wanting to use direct sound and not the usual, lazy and secure dubbing method didn't help him to find money for his projects. For instance,when he asked the producer Rob Houwer for money for Nicht Versöhnt , he got the answer: "No, not with direct sound, because then you will come afterwards and say you are unhappy about the sound and that you want to dub the whole ting. And that costs me double the amount." To which the proud and stubborn Straub answered: "If you want me to, I'll sign a statement here and now, that I'm not going to be unhappy." But Houwer said no.

Besides the fact that Straub thinks it is boring to film people who just move around without at the same time recording the sound, it is a matter of honesty for him. Language is our most important means of communication. Therefore he treats speech very carefully, and it is not an obsession -- as some critics have said -- but a necessity. Necessity, because he does not show Bach -- how could he? -- but a young musician called Gustav Leonhardt who plays Johann Sebastian Bach in a feature film by Jean-Marie Straub. And we see the man Leonhardt in costumes and wig playing the organ music by Bach. Straub therefore is not only honest towards his public but -- even rarer in the film business -- honest towards the people who work with him in his films. That is also the reason why he does not use professional actors in his films, because actors are trained to stop being themselves and to try to slip into a fictional figure, which anyway they very seldom bring to life. The usual attitude of traditional filmmaking with perhaps the exception of the American musical is one of deceiving the public. "But nobody is going to see that! Nobody is going to detect that" were words Straub often heard from producers. Because average filmmaking is based on contempt for the audience, his honest startles and sometimes even confuses people.

What also could startle some peple in the audience is the fact that Straub gets so near to them, because he treats them as equals and not as an unknown group of people who paid for their tickets and now have to be entertained. But in return he asks for their willingness to get involved, in the way demanded by Friedrich Schiller who said about beauty that it "addresses all the faculties of man, and can only be appreciated if a man employs fully all his strength. He must bring to it an open sense, a broad heart, a spirit full of freshness." But Schiller (and Straub, too) natually knew the reality: "...the bitter anger of small minds against true energetic beauty? They reckon on finding therein a congenial recreation, and regret to discover that a display of strength is required to which they are unequal." And still there are people who have a very easy time enjoying Jean-Marie Straub's films. No, no, not the "workers and peasants", but the people who don't make their minds up before they go to see a film, whether they are going to like it or not. These are the "professional" cinema-goers, who have left the baroque cinema behind them and are able again to enjoy simplicity, and children, who are open and interested in anything new by definition. The Bach film is among other things a perfect and beautiful film for children.

In spite of his bitter struggle to make his films -- the script for the Bach film was finished in 1958 -- Straub was never dependent on a producer. This sounds paradox, but it is true. Straub and his wife, Daniele Huillet, kept their freedom by suffering almost inhuman working conditions. He was never paid for the work he did on his films, but he never accepted assignments, nor did he ever make any compromises towards a producer or the imaginary public. His films are not made to please. If they please, naturally he is delighted. The remarkable thing about Straub's films is that they are exactly the films he wanted to make. He would not have made the films differently if he had had more money. So Straub's anarchistic way of making films is the logical conclusion of a man who knows that "under capitalism...the means of production and the apparatus of distribution are controlled by private owners who run them at their discretion, driven by an urge for profit."

Henry Chapier described Nicht Versöhnt in Combat as "the only revolutionary film, which came out of Germany since the war." That's true. But one can go even further: Jean-Marie Straub is the only revolutionary filmmaker to have worked in Germany since the 'thirties.

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