DOMINIQUE VILLAIN: On Corneille-Brecht (2009), for example, how did this work with these texts come about?
JEAN-MARIE STRAUB: It was an actress — Cornelia Geiser — who had seen Sicilia!. I think it was the first film of ours she'd seen. She knew that we work on texts before making a film, and she wanted to do this work, independently of the cinema or a film. She had no idea for a text. I ended up accepting when she insisted. One fine day, after five or six years, I said to her "Here you go".
And then suddenly, I found myself in the hospital, because I was run over by a Vespa while crossing the Caulaincourt bridge at half past midnight. The result was four small pieces. In the hospital I didn't know how to occupy myself. She sometimes came to see me, I said to her: “Sit down, we will finally do the work together”.
In general, professional actors do not know how to breathe. Even those from the famous Schaubühne in Berlin. We worked with them for three months. After three months, I said to them: “But nobody taught you how to breathe?" They said no. They have piano lessons every day, but they didn't understand when we told them to make an arc until there, to stop only after such and such a word, to start again at the next line, to breathe three, four, or five times... We make bars. A bar at the end of a line, or two bars, or five bars. This means: 1, 2, 3, 4, at 5 we go to the next line. Once it's decided, depending on the logic of the text, the syntax, and the dynamic that we're trying to capture or produce, it becomes a kind of score that each actor is obliged to exercise, instead of improvising. It involves preventing them from emptying their heart and soul and trampling on the text, from using the text as a springboard to express their personal petty bourgeois sentiments.
I should have brought you the text of the latest film, which is not this film, but a little after, in Italian. You would have seen that the text is retyped horizontally. Already, it's an attack on Mr. Gutenberg, because the book, obviously, must be vertical. Even among Arabs or Hebrews who read the other way. We make the page horizontal. To have room for longer lines. A line consists of several small sentences or a very large sentence that makes up several lines in the book. You need something visual, for the actor. At the end of the line we put bars, as I said. Then we put signs. The actor discovers the text, there's a key word in the middle of the text. He says this key word as if it didn't exist. So, we ask him shyly: “Do you know what this word means, do you know the weight of this word?” He replies: “Ah! I didn't think about it!" or he says nothing. We then say to them: “Without any intention, or without emphasizing, think of the weight of this word, and re-read the text to me." And there the word exists. Without vocal effect, the word has passed through the brain, through the heart, and through the nerves, and, by the grace of God — donnée par surcroît — it gains weight, it has its weight. That's the work. So, we mark a red line or a green line, gradually there are layers. There are blue, brown, black, purple marks. It becomes a score that needs to be exercised, exercised. Like a musician practices a score.
Everything is born par surcroît. Or by chance... Great art comes from chance, it does not come from intentions.
But there is a construction, when you make a film. The minimum work that one must demand of oneself as the so-called author of the film, even before working on the text, before filming, before discovering places and taming them, is to discover a construction. Without construction, nothing exists, in art even less than elsewhere. No more than there is a soul apart from a body.
STRAUB: No no. When I censor in the middle of a text, it's very rare, it's to prevent the author from putting on a bad face. In a letter from Schoenberg to Kandinsky, I took the liberty of removing the sentence: "There will always be wars, we can't do anything about it, we just have to let it happen." I said to myself that it was a cliché unworthy of Schoenberg, so I cut it.
STRAUB: In this case, I can't answer this question, because it was not a film at the start. So, I didn't do my job beforehand. I only did it at the last minute. I did it before filming, but I didn't do it three months, ten years, or three years before, since I had no intention of making a film. It happened like that. She was happy to have worked on these two little blocks by Corneille, and when I found the Brecht text, which had been like a ghost in my head for twenty years, there were three blocks which, without yet being a construction, formed a subject for a possible film, which may not be a film. It's different from our other films.