Cahiers du Cinéma no. 364, October 1984:
SOMETHING THAT BURNS WITHIN THE SHOT: AN INTERVIEW WITH JEAN-MARIE STRAUB AND DANIELE HUILLET (1984)
Jean-Marie Straub: We began by wanting to make a short film that actually turned into the first reel of the film and that corresponds to the short story that Kafka published in 1913 and to the first chapter of the novel. It was only after I looked at what he had added to this short story that I said to myself, “We could try to do the whole thing.” But I wasn’t sure we’d be able to. If it had been The Castle, which I’m just now reading and which I consider to be one of the most important books in contemporary literature, I would have held onto my short film because I find that it’s so literary, The Castle, it exists so much on its own that I would have abandoned it.
Cahiers: But where did the desire to make a film of the first chapter of Amerika come from?
J.-M. Straub: It came from the desire to make a film in German because it had been clear right away that we didn’t want to shoot it in the United States. And then we always go back and forth a bit between films where there is less fiction and those where there is more fiction. After History Lessons, we made Moses and Aron, after Moses and Aron, we made Fortini/Cani. Then, after Too Early, Too Late, we wanted to do another fictional film and to go back to the tone of Machorka-Muff, with an element of Ubu. The back and forth is also between 16 and 35mm and between large and small budgets.
Between Too Early, Too Late, which is by all appearances our least fictional film, and this one, which really is a return to fiction, there was the short, preparatory exercise of En rachâchant, which was like an instigator for Amerika. But the Kafka was the extra push and firm return to the beginning, Machorka-Muff.
Cahiers: Amerika is a pre-war novel since for the most part it was written between 1912 and 1914. You’ve called your film Class Relations. For you, what is similar between the period in which the text was written and today?
J.-M. Straub: The economic crisis. We wanted to make a film that confronted the period in which Kafka wrote with our own, to see how things are similar and how they are different. Alas, they are too similar! That’s why we immediately threw out the idea of doing a period film. And that’s something that I’m very proud of in this film, this equilibrium between old things, like the police officer costumes, the cars, the sets, and the architecture, and things that are entirely modern like electric trains, telephones, and modern typewriters.
Kafka, for us, is the only major poet of industrial civilization, I mean, a civilization where people depend on their work to survive. That’s why there is this permanent fear of losing your job, there are traces left by the fact of having been afraid, and there is constantly misery that appears and is threatening.
Danièle Huillet: It’s a world where a sense of justice has no place. It isn’t the fact that Kafka didn’t go to America that made us not want to shoot in the US. It’s because in this book the relationships between people are much more German than American. For Germans, Karl is a “Tor,” a fool, not in the clinical sense but like in Parsifal.
J.-M. Straub: A fool in Hölderlin’s sense of the word. It’s a voyage across communities of German immigrants in the United States. Even their linguistic community is German.
Cahiers: There’s something profoundly democratic about the way that your film poses the question of main character/secondary characters. When a character that Karl meets appears, he exists in a whole and immediate manner, the film takes him completely into consideration until he leaves the screen and we meet another one. In your film you also chose to get rid of groups and masses of people. In Orson Welles’ The Trial, on the contrary, we often see Anthony Perkins in the foreground and masses of people behind him.
J.-M Straub: When Kafka talks about 40 girls typing, he puts his camera on the ceiling and he films 40 of them.
D. Huillet: It’s true that there’s a choice there: we show one elevator and not 40. In fact, there is one filmmaker who could have shown 40 elevators, he’s dead, and the machine that would have helped him to do it is dead as well. It’s not Welles, it’s Stroheim.
J.-M. Straub: That’s how Amerika had to be done; the way Stroheim reconstructed Monte Carlo. But since we weren’t able to do that, it was more worthwhile to go entirely in the opposite direction.
Cahiers: Apart from that choice, you also took out the scenes with groups, like the ones in the bellhop’s quarters.
D. Huillet: We tightened certain scenes, like the first conversation with the head cook. At that moment, in the book, he was turned towards a very dirty, smoky bar where people were on top of each other. There were spectators, extras, and we didn’t want to show any extras.
J.-M. Straub: We also got rid of what happens after the audition for the Oklahoma Theater where there was a banquet before they get on the train. And in the train there’s a compartment where the people he’s with are smoking, playing cards, making noise, and where they are so close together that Karl has trouble getting to a window to see the landscape. None of that is in the film.
D. Huillet: But that’s an old thing for us since already in the Bach film we were reproached for not showing the people who were listening, below, in the church. When we saw Heaven’s Gate, we said that audiences have even learned to see clearly and that you can no longer “sell” them the extras. But filmmakers are no longer able to film scenes like that because one no longer manages to bring back to life…
J.-M. Straub: The other day, at the Cinematheque in Beaubourg, we saw a film by Stroheim that we didn’t know, Hello Sister. It’s great to see all that we’ve lost, in cinema, along the way. Because democracy shouldn’t only play a part among the characters but also at the equilibrium between the characters and the space in which they are shown. When Stroheim shows a street, the street exists. When a character crosses a street, it’s terrifying; you feel the danger of a street, the traffic, and a human being in a street. And the human being isn’t more important than the traffic, the traffic isn’t less important than the human being. And when you see a dog who throws himself against the curb – it’s a shot that lasts only a moment – it’s really terrifying. There are very few people who are still able to do that. I think that Kafka has that sense and it’s what interested us and what we modestly tried to do, not as well as Stroheim, with other means, but in that way.
Cahiers: Two things that have practically disappeared in most films are the sets, because television has none of that…
J.-M. Straub: Even space has disappeared. Today spectators are shown a space that doesn’t exist. It’s what bored me so much in Fassbinder’s last films, except maybe Querelle: we no longer know that we have two feet on something or on what planet we were on. Today, in films, you know longer know that it’s a wall or a door that opens. To film doors that open, to put people in a car, to film them in the street is very difficult. You have to pose the question of what three dimensional space is. In films made for TV, it’s cleared away, it isn’t necessary for it to be there, if so it’s a bad TV movie.
Cahiers: Concretely, what does it mean for you to pose that problem?
J.-M. Straub: Well, at the editing phase we find ourselves with 25 hours of synched film. We’ve burned 245,400 ft. of negative.
D. Huillet: Which makes the shooting ratio 1:20.
Cahiers: Why so much?
D. Huillet: Because it’s short shots. That’s when you realize that Bresson isn’t crazy.
J.-M. Straub: Neither was Chaplin, who shot even more still. Because he filmed action. If you film action, either the first take is good or you have to shoot 30 more, and it’s only the 27th that’s good. Sometimes with a guy who opens a door, sits down and moves a pinky, it’s only on the 27th take that he manages to do it freely in a frame, that’s the rhythm (partition) that imposed itself and that we discovered with him. And that, that is never produced before the 13th take. We noticed during the editing – it’s a bit pretentious to say it like this but it also brings us back to the question of democracy – that that’s how Sade should be filmed if you were filming Sade. We thought about that while looking at Klara and Karl’s relationships in particular. This film could have been called Karl Rossmann or the Misfortunes of Virtue.
Cahiers: You’ve made the character of Karl a figure that is a bit blank, he isn’t characterized…
D. Huillet: I believe that the fact that he wasn’t characterized is what seduced us, at the beginning, in the choice of this actor and it’s what then scared us a bit. But at the same time – and I hope that this is felt in the film – he always judges what happens to him.
J.-M. Straub: It’s true that you could talk about a blank slate there…What happens, I believe, is that he has no specific social existence.
D. Huillet: Except for when he is with people who are below him on the social ladder.
J.-M. Straub: In his relations with the stoker, for example, it’s a sentimental petit-bourgeois side that comes out.
Cahiers: At the end of the film, there is this amazing shot on the train where, for once, Karl is entirely equal, in the image, with the boy who is seated next to him.
J.-M. Straub: If that shot is impressive, it’s because for once there is no longer the third dimension. And moreover, it’s the only handheld shot.
Cahiers: Do you consider this ending to be the end of the novel or not?
J.-M. Straub: Max Brod says that Karl had to find his parents, that he would find them in heaven, so to speak. Others claim that that’s not true. I don’t know, but for me it stops there. I was totally incapable of inventing a utopia. The ending is the moment that he gets out of this mess and goes to a place where he will finally no longer be threatened, where the machine of lies will cease to function (we’ve never invented a character where the steam roller, the spiral of lies goes as far as in the extremely strong arguments of the hotel manager: it’s horrifying). At the end, he’s sitting with someone who will no longer threaten him and he is going towards a place where one hopes everything will be different.
Cahiers: If you consider that the whole film is a descent, then at the end we rediscover a kind of innocence.
J.-M. Straub: Yes, the whole film could be a vertical line and there, on the contrary, is the first time that you are on the planet. Everything becomes horizontal. Or should become so.
Cahiers: At that moment there is also the rediscovered innocence of the countryside.
D. Huillet: It’s funny. For this shot of the landscape seen through the train window, Jean-Marie was disappointed, he had imagined a sort of flash of the landscape…
J.-M. Straub: Let’s say that I didn’t want to do a “Straubian” shot. We had filmed entire reels of the landscape but I thought I was going to only use a few seconds. Danièle said to me, “There’s nothing you can do, this landscape supports itself.” Finally I let myself be convinced by Danièle and by the material.
Cahiers: This moment where Karl Rossmann begins to escape the steamroller of lies is the moment that you chose to inscribe the truth of the landscape, since you actually shot those shots in America.
J.-M. Straub: Yes, it’s no longer a set at all there, the United States of 1920 in Germany today. They take off for a new world, towards possible utopia.
Cahiers: Why did you shoot in Hamburg?
J.-M. Straub: When I left France in 1958 and I had been sentenced to a year in prison, I wanted to live in Hamburg. And that’s where I had been, after Amsterdam (where Gustav Leonhardt, who we wanted to act in our first project, Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, practically ready in 1959, lives) and after East Germany (where most of Bach’s manuscripts and partitions were located). But we said to ourselves that it would possibly be easier to find money in Munich. So we had lived in Munich and we shot Chronicle in 1967!
I really loved Hamburg. When we thought of the Kafka film, I immediately thought of the house where Karl makes himself put back the letter from his uncle. That’s a house where we already shot some shots from Chronicle. Once the permission to shoot for 10 nights in this house was obtained – which was not certain – we abandoned the idea of Berlin as a possible location and we began scouting locations in Hamburg. Why Hamburg? Because it’s a port, and it’s from there that he leaves. What you see at the beginning and what should help the projectionists to find the frame before the opening credits is a monument in the port of Hamburg, a pirate who had his head cut off with several others in 1411 by the patricians in Hamburg, because he threatened the nascent business of the Hanse. Let’s say that it’s the last image that Karl Rossmann has of the old continent.
Cahiers: What determined the choice of the black and white?
J.-M. Straub: At first, I wanted to return to black and white, that’s why in between we did En rachâchant in black and white, a bit as an exercise. Then I had to give it up, saying to myself, “Orson Welles shot The Trial in black and white, why does Kafka have to necessarily be in black and white?” Finally, I came back to it, a bit impulsively…
D. Huillet: It was important in facilitating the back and forth between the present and the past.
J.-M. Straub: Especially in Germany, where everything is so American, colors aren’t American.
Cahiers: How did you do the subtitles?
J.-M. Straub: Danièle worked on her translation, all alone for 3 years, every time she had a free moment during the rehearsals, the location scouts, etc…
D. Huillet: I must say that in French, Kafka doesn’t exist. It’s extremely difficult to translate into French: it becomes too weighty or unfaithful. When you do the subtitles, you’re lucky because the text is there. The subtitles are only an aid to hear the text. I don’t translate everything but what I translate I translate as literally as possible.
J.-M. Straub: The untranslated things never interrupt the continuity of the discourse. What is missing is often purely descriptive. But what is translated respects the spoken rhythm as much as possible. People have to be able to see the image without spending their time reading subtitles and those who don’t know German have to hear a bit of German for once, without being there to catch any concepts from the reading.
Cahiers: What does this film represent, for you, in your cinematic progression?
J.-M. Straub: What we try to do, with each film, is to open up a whole range. In From the Clouds to the Resistance, we tried to open the range of feelings as much as possible, from extreme horror to the extreme joy of life. Here we tried to open up the range of emotions as much as possible…
I believe that what we’ve looked for, consciously since Moses and Aron, is monumentality (that’s Seguin’s word). The monumentality of the character in relation to the set, the monumentality of the set in relation to the character. Something that in the spirit of two painters who I never think about while shooting but who I think about while imagining. The first is Giotto, not Giotto in general, but the one who I discovered in 1951 by riding my bike to Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. Films don’t have anything worthwhile if you don’t manage to find something that burns somewhere in the shot. And most filmmakers no longer have any relationship to the language they were born into, in which they work. There are films where the manner that people talk has nothing to do with the house in which they were born which is the same as their mother tongue. A specific language, not a universal language, because cinema is not a universal language the way the Italians, Lizzani and others pretend. Speech is a touchstone for judging films: there are films where the German or Italian language becomes sick (those by the Taviani brothers or Francesco Rosi, for example). The other aspect is that at each second of each shot, what Renoir called the magical, the magic of reality, must be felt. And that’s why Stroheim is the most important, more important than Griffith and John Ford, even though for me the most important thing that I know is Civil War in How the West Was Won. That everything you show is both magnificent and the opposite must be felt. Bunuel’s idea that we don’t really live in the best of all possible worlds, but that in spite of everything it’s the best of all possible worlds because we haven’t yet found a better one… The other painter is the one who painted Montagne Sainte-Victoire so often and who said “Look at this mountain.” He was trying to capture it as a mountain and not something else. It wasn’t abstract painting although it already went beyond that, it was already cubism and something that was richer than cubism. He said, “Look at this mountain, it was once fire.” And that, that goes for everything that we show: it’s like this but it could be different, it’s magnificent and horrible, man is not the center of the universe. Or again Rosa Luxemburg’s idea: the death of an insect is no less important than the death of the revolution.
(Interview by Alain Bergala, Alain Philippon and Serge Toubiana, Cahiers du Cinema no. 364, October 1984)
Translation by Ted Fendt, 2011
Straub-Huillet, The Smallest Planet in the World, Or How Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s Aim is to Scrupulously Respect the State of the World, as They Find It, and to Construct Their Little Planet According to the Inviolable Laws They Set Upon Themselves.
By Alain Bergala
THE STRATEGIC POINT
Jean-Marie Straub’s aim, for each scene in the film (meaning each set, each location) is to find the single, strategic point from which he will then be able to film every shot of the scene, changing only the angle and the lens. “Directors today,” he says, “no longer give themselves the trouble of reconstructing the reality of a location. Cameramen frame shot by shot, so they come up with shots that are not linked in relation to a location. It’s a lot easier to make small corrections, shot after shot, than to find the single, strategic point for the scene you want to shoot.”
This single height and position of the camera is not easy to find, in practice, even if it is already determined on paper. JMS arrives at the shoot with a map of the set on which is already designated, shot by shot, all the angles and all the positions of the actors. The lenses are already decided for each shot because the Straubs have already decided upon them on set several months in advance with a viewfinder. During the shoot, says Caroline Champetier, “all the work is to manage to respect as intelligently as possible the location as it exists, to understand its lines of force. The lines cannot be distorted.” And it’s a complicated problem when filming a small room of only a couple square feet involves 5 or 6 different angles and several lenses, sometimes including the 18mm or even the 16mm that JMS uses a lot in this film.
The actual search for the strategic point can take two or three hours. Once the camera’s placement is determined, Straub can spend over an hour solely to find the right height, to the exact inch, of the camera, and all of this of course with the actors in position, in costume. A direct consequence of the imperative of the “strategic point” is that William Lubtchansky does not plan his lighting shot by shot, but one time in each location for all the shots to be done there. This forces him to affix everything to the ceiling so that no bothersome light stand is in frame during a change of angle.
THE RESPECT FOR SOUND
The sound for a shot, in a film by the Straubs, is absolutely and always reduced to the real and direct sound that was recorded by the soundman during the take. “They never dub a word, they never add any sound effect or any ambience. They never take a sentence said off screen from another take. It has to be the sound from the take, and that alone. They are the only ones I know who do that.” And yet, Louis Hochet, who began to record sound in movies at the beginning of the sound era, has seen it all in an over 50 year career. With the Straubs, his collaboration began with Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, and today, while he is long past the age of retirement, it is for them alone that he agrees to take out his Nagra and microphones again. Because with them he feels a real demand, but a true respect for his work: “The Straubs attach major importance to the recording. They are terribly demanding but they organize things too. If there is the slightest undesirable noise, they do another take.”
As “everything happens during the take,” without the possibility of fixing something during the mix or editing, Louis Hochet tries to take all necessary cautions during the shoot, “all while looking for simplicity in the recording.” He has complete confidence in his boom operator, Georges Vaglio, with whom he has worked for many years (“with him, I know that the microphone is well placed”), and he uses equipment that he has known for a long time. After trying the new Agfa reel-to-reel tape, he went with the old version of the same brand which he finds to be of better quality (on the new kind he hears small cracklings). For the microphones, he remains faithful to the Neumanns that he remembers being the first in France to use, at a time when soundmen found them to be too “small”!
The recording is done with a stereo Nagra, most often with two microphones, one fixed on a stand, the other boomed, allowing him to avoid problems of boom shadow when the actors move. In some difficult situations, he ends up being constrained to using a wireless mic, but he always mixes this sound, during the take itself, with sound from a microphone outside the edge of the frame, giving it a bit of ambience and sonic space. “Wireless mics,” he says, “are inaccurate. I’m horrified by them, but sometimes I’m obliged to use them.”
If he almost always works with two mics, Louis Hochet prefers to balance the relative relation of the two levels during the recording; he mixes down the Nagra’s two inputs onto one track, without changing the levels.
As you can guess, with such a method, “the mix becomes purely and simply a re-recording, a report. There isn’t even any equalization because the sound is already equalized at the moment it is recorded. “In short, at the mix,” says Louis Hochet, “since not a single sound or ambience is ever added, not much remains to be done.”
What continues to astonish Louis Hochet, after a 50 year career, is the attention the Straubs bring to the precision of the sound. They came up with the idea of shooting at night, for the sound, scenes that everyone else would have shot during the day on sets where daylight doesn’t even reach. “Even an actor who is out of the shot has to stay the whole night to read a line offscreen, and in costume!” Jean-Marie Straub, for his part, declares, “I don’t have enough imagination to be able to imagine during the day something that happens at night.”
But the crew and the actors pay for these high standards with difficult working conditions, even if they were accepted at the start. During this shoot there were eleven nights of work in a row. “Ah,” concludes Louis Hochet,” you have to love them to work with them.”
ONE AT THE FRAME, THE OTHER AT THE LIGHT
From the beginning, the Straubs thought it would be impossible, for this Kafka film, to do both the framing of the shot and the lighting. They first proposed that William Lubtchansky operate the camera while Henri Alenkan (with whom they had done as a test, in black and white, a short film, En rachâchant) would do the lighting. Then they proposed that W.L. do the lighting while Caroline Champetier was at the camera. W.L. told them that, according to the conception that he has always had about his work, he cannot do the lighting if he is not at the camera as well: “I light while looking through the camera; I see the light in the viewfinder.”
But it seems that, in the end, the tasks redistributed themselves and that, in practice, after some time on the shoot, the discussion of the framing began to be between Jean-Marie Straub and Caroline Champetier. Danièle Huillet, omnipresent on the shoot and who discusses everything with J.M.S., never involves herself with the framing. According to C.C., “Danièle doesn’t talk about the frame. She leaves it entirely up to Jean-Marie, in all confidence. That power – cutting in space with a knife – she leaves to him.”
In so far as the framing is Jean-Marie Straub’s business (“I imagine the frame,” he says, “before finding the sets”), William Lubtchanksy is free to light as he pleases. The only direction Straub gave him, before the shoot (and because he asked him), is that the light should be “like Duelle, but in black and white.” “Then,” says W.L., “he left me very very free and I did the whole film without him saying a word about the lighting. Even though so much time is spent talking about the framing during the shoot.”
Caroline Champetier confirms this: “it quickly became clear that the lighting was a job at which W.L. was extremely alone, without there being any discussion or questioning, the planning of the lighting was entirely up to Willy. On the other hand, while he is used to being delegated the task of framing the shots for Rivette, here it’s Straub who does it.”
In spite of the constraints of the “strategic point” (one lighting set up per scene and not per shot, the lights on the ceiling), W.L. chose to create precise set ups, the opposite of ambient lighting spilling all over the place. He thus works mostly with Fresnel lights that allow him to precisly direct and focus the lights with shutters. Straub gives him all the time needed to set up and control the lighting. So for interiors, everything goes well.
Things are bit more of a problem in exteriors, where Straub wanted to rediscover the humility in front of natural (or “divine” if you like) light that presided over Too Early, Too Late, where the director of photography’s role consisted in observing, nose pointed upwards, the natrual variations in the light, the clouds that passed...and to choose the right F-stop at the right time. “Now,” Straub would say to W.L., “you aren’t lighting anymore, we’re going to just let it exist.” While W.L. agreed with this principal for a film like Too Early, Too Late, he doubted the possibility of integrating such “brutal, naturally” lit shots in a film in which 90% of the images are done with constructed light. This was the only point of friction between them on the film’s lighting.
WHY ALL THE TAKES?
For a well-off French film with stars, the director uses an average of 100,000 feet of film, which is already a luxury. The Straubs shot 250,000 feet. From that perspective, says C.C., “their cinema is a cinema of great luxury.” But the real luxury is that every take is printed and synched. While editing, the Straubs find themselves with 25 hours of film with sound. This isn’t surprising when you know that the Straubs never stop doing new takes of a shot as long as there aren’t at least two good takes on two different rolls and that they always finish a roll on the scene that they began it with.
Why all these takes? What progress are they hoping for?
First, it is clear that if there is any progress, they refuse to judge on set. Contrary to Rohmer, they never decide in advance to print such or such a take that they consider to be good. They have practically all the takes printed, except for the ones that were interrupted or during which there was an obvious mistake. “We noticed,” declares Danièle Huillet, “that there is real progress, almost with each take.” This progress, for J.M.S. is consistent. “Altogether, at the material level, it snowballs, to take an expression from Bergson, and it isn’t idealistic to say so.” He estimates that as far as the sound goes, there is constant progress from one take to the other, from the first take to the thirtieth take. For the image, on the other hand, an error or a mistake is always possible at the 15th take, especially outside, in natural light (thereby variable and unpredictable), or if there is a camera movement.
The film’s crew, for its part, is unanimous in thinking that these many takes make sense mainly in relation to the actors, because they have a feeling that as far as their work is concerned, on a strictly technical level, the preparation was so detailed that progress from one take to another quickly becomes minimal. “After several takes,” says Louis Hochet, “you can’t do better.” On this subject, William Lubtchansky raises a more paradoxical hypothesis, considering the Straubs’ concern for control, “Jean-Marie perhaps hopes that there will be something different, in the actors’ performances, or, outside, in the light. He waits to be suprised by something.” Caroline Champetier observed that if the whole crew, at one time or another, broke under the systematic repetition of all these takes (while everything seemed in place to them), “the actors never resist in the slightest in having to redo a take.” The Straubs, in her opinion, ask them to do something very difficult, even contradictory, and the repetition of the takes helps them no doubt to overcome this difficulty. “The actor must,” she says, “manage to be absent from the text and, at the same time, present to himself. The text must exist, with its own autonomy, and the actor’s body must also exist autonomiously in relation to the text.” It is true that in the Straubs’ films, the text must be performed by the actors with the precision of a musical partition. The definitive version of the text, that from which the actors work before the shoot is separated like free verse by the rhythmic cuts imposed by the Straubs and different colored marks mark the intonations, the tonic accents, the pauses, and everything that makes up the musicality of the language in their films. “Sometimes,” remembers W.L., “a take was started over because a tonic accent wasn’t in the right spot.” Over the course of a take, it is above all the respect for the text and its musicality that is important to them, witnesses say. “During a take,” says C.C., “it can very well happen that neither he nor she is watching what is happening. Jean-Marie looks at his feet and Danièle has on headphones to hear if the actors respect the pauses.” “When a scene is finished,” confirms L.H., “Danièle always listens to all the takes that were done before moving on to the next one.”
MEASURE SEVEN TIMES, CUT ONCE (proverb)
“With them,” Louis Hochet insists, “you check everything.”
“These are people,” says W.L., who has known them for a while, “who are dramatically worried. With them, you take precautions the way no one does on any film.”
For example, on most sets, a shot is filmed until a take is considered good from both a technical and performance perspective. Most often, as a precaution, a second, equally good take is done (the “safety” take) for the case in which an unforeseen accident makes the first one unusable. Since a lab accident during the shooting of Un coup de dés made them permanently lose a scene, the Straubs go even further in their safety measures. The systematically guarantee every scene on two different magazines for the case in which one of the two is damaged at the laboratory. Meaning that when they are sure that there are two or three good takes on one magazine, they stop the shooting of the shot unless there are two or three equally good takes shot on another magazine.
“I would rather give up a shot,” says J.M.S., “than to have to reshoot it three weeks later on the same set. That’s a nightmare. We’ve never done it, we’ve been lucky.”
At this level of care and precaution, can chance still be talked about? After an entire night’s shoot, when everyone hopes for a well-deserved rest, the Straubs refuse to allow just anyone to take the exposed film and they go take it to the lab themselves, 25 miles away, while the assistants who could do that go to sleep. W.L. says that Straub only goes to the sees the (silent) rushes to discover any accidents – hairs, scratches, etc. – that could have happened to the film. “For the rest,” says J.M.S., “I know what is on the screen.”
Can the unforeseen still find its way into a Straub shoot and foil this luxury of precautions? Yes, on the condition that two or three grains of sand manage to combine their effects to jam the precision of the machine. For example, for this film, principally shot in Hamburg, the Straubs made the trip to the United States, with two actors and the essential crew members, to shoot only a few shots: the Statue of Liberty, the inside of the train with the two young people, and the landscape on the edge of the river seen outside the train window. This train trip had obviously been minutely planned long in advance. “With them,” says W.L., “nothing is left to chance. They begin by scouting the locations two or three years in advance with a viewfinder. Two or three months before, I scout with them, we decide where to put the camera and what lens to use, and when the shoot begins we have an hour by hour shooting schedule with all the shots, etc. and we do what was decided in advance. Everything is planned and filmed as planned.” But this time, things didn’t exactly work as planned. “In the train,” says W.L., “we had a tiny scratch, we noticed it and said to the Straubs that what we had shot up until then of the landscape was useless. At that moment, the train had already passed the place they had chosen to film the landscape from. But it turned out that that day, moreover, because of work being done on the track, the train followed a route that it never follows and instead of following the river for 12 miles as usual, it followed it for 37 miles. So, we took off on an adventure and shot landscapes that had never been scouted...During this same trip to the United States, every precaution was taken to not lose the film and of course we lost the camera. When we arrived in Saint Louis, cases were missing. They were found pretty fast...but they are so pessimistic about everything that problems end up happening to them. When we left Saint Louis for New York, they said to the baggage people at the airport, ‘Take care of these bags, they already lost once.’ The guy, it was a black guy, said to them jokingly, ‘If you talk like that you’re going to lose them a second time.’”
As for William Lubtchansky, who declares himself to be a natural optimist and not especially worrisome, was it through infection that for this film he made recourse to the old practice of screen tests, abandoned today (it’s true it’s much easier to do with that black and white), which consisted of Christophe Pollock, the second assistant, developing on set several images from each shot?
(Cahiers du Cinema no. 364, October 1984)
Translation by Ted Fendt, 2011