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August 25, 2014

August 22, 2014

Too Early, Too Late
Interview with Huillet and Straub
by Hans Hurch. 1981. Translation and Notes by Ben Brewster.

Too Early, Too Late by Straub and Huillet consists of two parts -- Part A: Friedrich Engels, Part B: Mahmoud Hussein. The first part is based on a letter from Engels to Kautsky, the second on Class Conflict in Egypt, 1945-1970, a book written by two Egyptians under the pseudonym Mahmoud Hussein (1). In their film, Straub and Huillet have set out to make connections between these texts and images and sounds from present-day France and Egypt.

Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub were interviewed after the premiere of the film on November 10th 1981, in Berlin.

Also taking part was Bernard Mangiante, a friend and collaborator of Straub and Huillet. The interviewer was Hans Hurch.


Question     Too Early, Too Late is the first film you have made which has no people in it chosen by you for the film. People are heard speaking texts, but they are never seen. Everything there is to be seen in the film was shot without adding anything to it. Is this what you meant when you spoke of having made a small step forwards with this film?

Danièle Huillet     It is our first documentary film, really. The other, even Chronicle (2), weren't documentaries.

Jean-Marie Straub     Chronicle was fiction film using documentary methods. As for the small step forwards, I think every film, and this is also the problem with us, every film takes a small step along a different road. But when I say one must always go a step further, I simply mean one has to take more risks. But I don't think this would be the same road, along which one would go further and further. Every film is a different road, a new path.  Our next film will once again have lots of different characters and, let's say, is rather somewhere between Not Reconciled and From the Cloud to the Resistance (3). I think there are respects in which we have gone further than ever in the latest film, certainly, but not as a documentary film or in genre. Rather in the direction we once implied, I think you were there, in quoting Rosa Luxemburg to the effect that the fate of one insect in the world is just as important as the future of the Revolution. The last film is a small step further in that direction, that's probably right. 

DH     I think that the fact that there aren't characters that we have selected in the film isn't really so important. There are landscapes and they are handled just as if they were characters.

JMS     Really there are lots of characters in the film, only they aren't acted characters. And these characters are usually seen from a very great distance. 

DH     And although they weren't selected at the point of shooting, they were in part selected at the moment we retained them, afterwards .That is, selected one take as preferable to another.

JMS     And the ones you see closer to, in the Egyptian part, the ones who, as they pass by, become almost mythical and break the documentary frame a little, the woman with a child on the donkey, or the man who appears some time later, with a hoe over his shoulder, such a tall man, looking like a Greek king or some other figure from Greek tragedy, or, I don't know, perhaps Joseph from the Bible (4). There are a whole series of them in the film. But they're precisely the ones that are seen from close, not those in the distance.

DH     And in the first shot of the village with the peasants at the beginning and the cows that go into the water and a peasant comes along on a donkey with grass, you can also see two people walking along the road just as you might imagine the Greeks walked (5)So just like the story of Plato and the dialogues. You can imagine that two people walked like that.

JMS     Or on the same street. There are the boys, the schoolboys with their teacher. Then a donkey and earlier a beast that comes out of the water, then you hear a jet plane and through it, after a bit, a sort of noise, a rattling of iron and then this cart with empty milk churns appears (6)The boy sitting on it, as we only noticed at the editing table, is just like Pasolini's Ninetto (7). 

DH     He is more handsome. 

JMS     But ten or twenty years earlier and really a peasant boy. But of course, in the first part, that is for the twenty-seven minutes in France, it's not true that there are no figures. 

Q    The figures seem different from those in the second part. You don't see them cross the street, but a train passes by (8). And... 

DH     And the landscape itself, I mean, when I saw the film, after it was finished, it suddenly struck me: this is something new. That is, no one has ever shot landscapes in a film and then held and, as it were, caressed them. As if they were precisely characters. 

JMS     I think every landscape is a woman, really, but... 

DH    Yes, for you. (Laughs)

Q     How did you hit on the idea of the two parts? How did you come across the letter from Engels that is read during the first part, the French part? 

JMS     That's something Daniele discovered. 

DH     Straschek (9) brought me the complete Marx and Engels Correspondence one day. 

JMS     Just like that, we were in Vienna. In Vienna, at the sound studio and the guy turned up one evening. 

DH     And I said to him 'You're crazy. I'll never manage to read this.' I never have time, only in the evening before going to sleep and then always very briefly, an hour at most, for I'm always very tired. But I did manage it. From Moses and Aaron (10) to two years ago, so it took nearly four years. I read all the volumes, all the letters. And one day I came to this letter, almost at the end. This was long after Marx's death. 

JMS     The letter from Engels is a letter in three parts, the other two being about quite different things. And suddenly there he is talking about a book that Kautsky was then writing, not a book but an article, on the French Revolution, he had sent it to Engels who had read it and Engels begins to scold him, you know, 'As usual, you haven't understood anything' and 'You must surely realise that...' and then off he goes: 'That..., that..., that...'. 

Q     Engels writes that it was really the poor whose struggles brought about the victory of the bourgeois revolution, that the bourgeoisie turned it to their advantage and that their concepts 'Liberty, Equality and Fraternity' were in some sense empty concepts so far as everyone else was concerned. 

DH     You can see that in Italy, for example, where it didn't happen and the bourgeoisie were for various 
reasons left on their own and never managed to make the bourgeois revolution, because they were on their own. We had read the second text earlier. When we were shooting in Egypt. That was the winter of '71. 

JMS     It was while we were working on the Brecht History Lessons (11) and had already done a bit of preparatory work for Moses and Aaron. We were in Egypt for the first time, going right down South, by bike. 

DH     We wanted not only to find the two shots for Moses and Aaron (12) but also to see how people lived, the kind of things they owned, their clothes, how they moved, all that. And when we got back we had some more questions, ones which didn't come from Moses and Aaron but from what we had seen.

JMS     That is, political questions.

DH     And then this book, which a woman friend from Paris... 

JMS     No, that's wrong, it was in the Lusitania bookshop in Rome, on a shelf all covered in dust, and I bought it.

Q     That was Luttes sociales en Egypte?

JMS     Yes, but it was the Italian version, we obtained the French original later.

Q     How did two such parts come together, with two such different texts, to read them?

JMS     At first we had no notion of making a single film from them. That took time. We read the Egyptian text without thinking of a film.

DH     Just for information about the country.

JMS     Then we got the idea of the French part as a film on the Engels letter. Then we went to Egypt again, with Berta (13)to get the two shots for Moses and Aaron, secretly. We thought some more about Egypt there and reread the book, and gradually, I'm not sure when, the idea of a film emerged. And that there might be a connection, a unity there, occurred to us, I'm not sure, rather late.

DH     Probably after la Nube (14)Probably the idea of the two parts of la Nube made the later film possible.

Q     What strikes me about the two parts, now that I've seen the film again, is that the second is shot differently from the first. The first part, France, the country that ought to be closer to you, really, given your history and your origins, is shown from a great distance, a greater distance than Egypt. At least, that's what I felt. In Egypt, there's that long drive along a canal (15)It's really like a drive into the future, a drive that has a continuation. In France there's always a distance, the places are seen from some way away and the countryside is traversed by a pan.

DH     It should be said that we were very struck by Egypt when we first went there. 

JMS     It was really a shock for us. We knew nothing at all about Cairo, really, almost nothing.

DH     Cairo was awful. When you go to Calcutta you have expectations. But in Cairo we hadn't expected what we found.

JMS     And Cairo is worse than Calcutta. The population increase is greater and you don't have poverty -- Armut --, you have misery -- Elend --. The first thing I saw when we went walking in the city, in areas where Europeans had told us 'it's better to take a taxi', I saw someone dying on the sidewalk and hundreds of people walked past. The first impression was 'Get away. We can't stand this. There's no point. We come from another world and are privileged. It's almost obscene that we should be here.' 

DH     But we stuck it out somehow and then discovered the country, not the city any more but the country. And that was a second shock, because we discovered a culture there that no longer exists anywhere here in Europe. Well, one can still find traces of it if one has seen it there in Egypt. But only because one has seen it living can one discover here the traces left behind which weren't visible to one before. 

JMS     And what we discovered there no longer had anything to do with misery. It was poverty, and that is something quite different. That is still an equilibrium, people can still live like human beings in poverty and not in filth and misery.

Q     In the first part one sees places in France and these are really prosperous, green and fertile. And over them one hears the number of poor people and paupers who once lived there.

JMS     With a few exceptions, some places and villages have become poorer, it has become a prosperous countryside.

Q     But there's a contrast between the figures in Engels's letter and the countryside one sees, how rich and cultivated it is. And one feels that the world can feed everybody. In the second part, at the end, there is that camera movement down the skyscrapers, and in the first part there is a counter-movement. I'm not sure if that's right. A movement up the trees and at the same time the Engels letter can be heard saying '...(such and such many) are beggars'. (16)

DH     Yes, beggars. That's when you see the tree. It's an elm. They are trees that were planted at the time of the Revolution and have now nearly all died. There's a disease and that one is dying too, already half-dead, as you can see.

JMS     So it's still a tree from the period. We discovered it eighteen months before shooting, because I always like to walk around the places I'm going to shoot. Even thinking of something quite different or smoking a cigarette or just walking, to get used to the place. And the second time, that was a couple of months before we shot, half the tree was already dead. There's a tree that's now two hundred years old and suddenly in a year or eighteen months a half of it has died. And I should add that in that village...

DH's the only thing remaining from the period. Almost. For the village itself has been destroyed. 

JMS     The church then, the town hall, the main street, were all demolished sometime or other. There's a sense in which, that's right, the first part has a 'science-fiction' character. It's like a planet about to die, that is , one that belongs to the past or, thinking of the Mallarmé, our short film, Un Coup de dés (17), there's a phrase about the Pole Star, 'une constellation', but probably he is speaking about our planet, 'froide d'oubli et de desuetude', that is, literally translated, 'cold from oblivion and unfamiliarity'. That is the characteristic of the first part. By which I mean, the impression is correct, something did happen here which is no longer present. On the one hand prosperity has arrived, a certain superficial fertility, and on the other hand there is little hope for anything with a future. Then Egypt. Despite all the filth of present day politics and politics for the last few decades there, of the clique that controls the country, Egypt is a country with a future and with a political hope. Thus in the first part one seems to be surveying a dead planet, and in the second one is entering into a future, in some sense.

DH     And the irony is, nonetheless, that Egypt is really much older than France, for by Egyptian standards France is a young country. There is a contrast there. It's clear in that plain, in the Nile valley near Luxor, when the text is about massacres and people can be heard singing, in some way one can feel lots of layers going very deep (18)And one doesn't get that in France. Perhaps the colors, too, tell one it's not so old.

Bernard Mangiante     That contrast and the contradiction between the apparent prosperity of the French countryside, where there is probably also no hope of a revolution, where something was over long ago...

DH     Only for the time being, for it's never destroyed. 

JMS     It used to be a hope. 

DH     It's a bit like what Fortini says about the Jews (19). They were a hope and are not one any more and every people can become one again.

BM     I just wanted to say that the apparent prosperity of the French countryside contrasts with the apparent poverty of the Egyptian countryside.

DH (to JMS)     I was going to contradict you a little bit ago, and I'll do it now, as he has mentioned it. I don't think one does get the impression that the countryside in France has become all that prosperous. One does get that impression in Rennes (20)because of the white houses and the fact that building is going on, but a closer look shows that there is very little arable land and a lot of pasture instead, and that also means...

JMS     Correction. Let us correct my earlier stupidity, partial stupidity. (To Mangiante.) You say it. 

BM     In France there is a kind of apparent aesthetic prosperity. It is a result of the colors and because there are lots of trees everywhere and grass and everything is very green and looks rather prosperous. But it is clear with even a slight knowledge of agriculture that this is really a very impoverished landscape, for there is no real cultivation, only pastures for grazing cattle.

JMS     That is to say, a countryside that has in some sense been sucked dry. 

BM     That is underused, while in Egypt, as Daniele says, every square centimeter is used.

JMS     There is hardly any machine cultivation, for you do in the land with machine cultivation and chemical fertilisers, and things haven't got that far in Egypt yet. Agriculturally, probably, in Switzerland or the USA or the Federal Republic of Germany and most of France, the land has been laid waste as far as the peasantry and peasant cultivation are concerned. So land partly prosperous and fertile, but on the other hand, a land laid waste. And indeed it is a waste, a desert which happens to be green. If the Egyptian countryside is ever laid waste like that it won't go green, it will turn to sand. Where we have gone a small step further, to go back to the example, is that we film the dust there, the wind. In other films we've never gone as far down that road. Dust, wind, clouds. There are films that have tried to film the wind. There is even a film by Joris Ivens called Le Mistral, I think, or Le Vent (21) But I don't really think the wind can be filmed, it's clear, it can't be filmed in itself. It has been tried, but looking closely one has to conclude that what has been filmed is something moving in the wind. Or one has filmed in the neighborhood of something which is then blown away by the wind. That was the limitation of Iven's film. 

DH     Yes, but that's always the case in film. 

JMS     That was the so-called documentary method. 

DH     The wind, Ivens took it as his theme, and that's a recipe for disaster. What happens then always happens by some kind of contraband. You never thought 'I want to film the wind'. It was an extra.

Q     But there isn't just the wind, there are also other completely different things such as the long shot in front of the factory with people coming out (22).

JMS     Yes, that's the little aspect of the film which I'm very proud of. Someone told me that after he had seen the film in Paris. He told me the film is the discovery of the cinema, in so far as that bit of filming is done as if it were the first time ever. And that the people who were filmed discover the camera as if it were the first time. And in this case it almost was the case, for they had perhaps seen a camera a few times before, but not for so long and certainly not a microphone. 

DH     But even there you didn't think 'I will film the workers coming out of the factory'. That was done in '68. It's possible if it belongs in a film and has a place there and doesn't become a theme in itself, 'The Workers'.

Q     When something goes on for such a long time things one wouldn't think were possible become visible, for example, how many people do come out of a gate like that and while some are coming out you can already see others going in. And at second viewing I had the feeling that it also looks like a prison, the whole building, the gates, all things that go when you want to make a point about something.

DH     That's also the reward of patience, that one films and shoots something when one is ready to do so and not when it's the fashion to do so.

JMS     Ten years ago I wouldn't have dared to put a camera down in front of a factory, I just wouldn't have dared. It has to be prepared too, one can't go straight to it. And this shot best demonstrates the aspect of the film I call its 'art-of-vision' aspect, to quote a title of Brakhage's (23)that is, what one first sees, because of the length of the shot, is, to use a horrible word, a mass of people. And only slowly does one discover the single individuals and how varied everything is, in colors and movements, too.

BM     One also senses, perhaps only after a few minutes, that, although it's knocking-off time, that knocking-off time is, so to speak, an official concept. For there are a number of people who seem rather ill and who -- not just because there is a factory in the background but also in their physical appearance -- are still marked by labor and fatigue. And some probably by disease.

JMS     There are even two cripples. I didn't notice it at first. One comes from right to left, not out of the factory, and remains standing there for a while. He walks with a crutch. After a while he goes away again. It isn't clear why he has come, what he is looking for, probably a friend or acquaintance. He is almost concealed behind the many other people and then suddenly he is visible again, he's still standing there. Then he goes back to the right and vanishes from the frame. This shot is, let's say, an egg, an egg with lots of life in it. And that works, too, because there is a text running parallel which stops after the first quarter of the shot (24).

DH     It's a risk as well, because at the beginning the text almost carries the shot. Then the text stops and for a time it's not clear whether the shot can carry itself. And suddenly one realizes that it's getting stronger and stronger.

Q     When one sees France in the first part and then Egypt and also because of the confrontation between what one sees and the texts, such as the Engels letter, one gets the feeling that in France the peasants have no further part to play. But perhaps that's wrong.

DH     But I think partly they've been slaughtered or assimilated or scattered or reduced. 

JMS     Or suppressed or mechanized.

Q     Also because they are so absent from these places.

DH     That's also the reason why I protested when after the film someone said that the last shot of the first part closed something off (25)Because for me that shot was always a provocation. That's the situation, one can be pretty certain that it will never return, it won't work, it's only a minority and one can't go back now.

JMS     It's also partly a joke, because the writing says 'The peasants will revolt' and then '1976'. That's past. Where did it happen? 

DH     If it did that would be a reference to the second part.

JMS     Then there was the idea of that architect who was there. That is, someone who is an architect and has to struggle or to live or to deal with the land register. Things have gone so far that every square centimeter of the ground we live on is registered somewhere, belongs to someone.

DH     It was in Egypt they invented that, because it was connected with water, where the water should run. 

JMS     The fact is, in the Egyptian part, one feels very concretely that the paths belong to everybody, which is no longer the case in France, in Europe. They belong to some company that is renting them out. There are so-called public paths of course, but who coughed up the millions to pave them and so on, and where does it end? Eventually they're metalled roads that belong only to the cars. And his idea was: really this isn't a Marxist film, but a communist one, because it refers to a utopia, a future which is a very long way off or perhaps not so far off, when the earth will once again belong to every individual, that is, to all, and won't be so locked up.

Q     You have said that this is the film of a land surveyor. I seem to remember hearing that the first people who surveyed the land in Egypt were members of Napoleon's expedition (26).

DH     Yes, it followed from the French Revolution, for they had to be able to sell the land, to divide it. Yes, they made the maps, that's right, because they're the only maps still existing today that are very precise. 

JMS     They drew in every pasture, every field. 

DH     It's an incredible piece of work. But the story of land surveying and registration is the same as that of machines. The workers who, in the beginning, destroyed the machines weren't wrong, despite what even Lenin and others have said. For the workers sensed just how much they were threatened and they were absolutely right. Nevertheless, in itself machinery is not the evil. The evil is what is done with it. And to map a country and to know what it looks like and the best way to deal with water so it isn't wasted isn't an evil in itself. It's only an evil if...

JMS     That begins with property. I mean the land surveying thing, I put it in that way because I am a member of the class that introduced it. I wasn't claiming there was anything to be praised in it.

DH     And the other thing I wanted to say was, Engels's letter, it was an opportunity for us to investigate a country that is our country and which we have been away from for a long time. And to see what's wrong with it, without running the risk, because it is our own country still, of being infected by sympathy or sentimentalism, that is, so as to have the method for an investigation. This was Engels's letter and the result and what it makes visible is hardly very comforting.

JMS     It's clear, what we were aware of, aside from Too Early, Too Late, was the fact that what's still possible in Egypt is no longer possible in France. Precisely because the bourgeoisie has repressed the class that it used for its revolution. In Egypt: it's still possible that won't happen a second time. It's probably still possible. Despite Sadat, despite Nasser's betrayal and everything that preceded it, colonialism, the French, the British and despite all the prevailing shit there. 

DH     With Nasser it wasn't even betrayal, he acted as a member of his class. 

JMS     He betrayed the peasants. He had given them some hopes in the beginning.

Q     After the film people talked a lot about the end, the last shot. After the towns, after Cairo, after the countryside, come these two towers, skyscrapers, not built in the city but stuck down there by the water, like a threat to the countryside (27).

DH     For the first time I got an inkling of the story of the Tower of Babel, which I had always seen as just a Bible story, part myth, part piety, in other words not very interesting to me. And suddenly I got an inkling of the madness, of the hubris.

Q    So it's what might happen to the countryside, or is happening.

DH     Yes, and one can't tell whether the water, that is the movements of the water, will wash it away or...

Q     ...whether the water will quieten down again and show it once again.

DH     So it isn't determined yet... 

JMS      ...who will win, whether it will be the hubris or the water.


1. From Engels in London to Karl Kautsky in Vienna, February 20th 1889 (Marx-Engels Werke. Bd.37. pp.154-8; the corresponding volume of the English translation of the Complete Works has not yet appeared). Mahmoud Hussein: Class Conflict in Egypt, 1945-1970, trans. by M. Chirman from the French Luttes de Classe en Egypte, Monthly Review Press, New York 1973.

2.  Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach), 1968.

3. Not Reconciled (Nicht versohnt oder Es hilft nur Gewalt, wo Gewalt herrscht), 1965; From the Cloud to the Resistance (Dalla Nube alla Resistenza) l978.

4. Both in Shot 47, Shubra Ris.

5. Shot 31, Salmieh.

6. Shot 49. Bihut -- in fact, the plane is heard after the cart with the churns has passed.

7. Ninetta Davoli, who appeared in most of Pasolini's films from l966 to 1968, notably Uccellacci e Uccellini. the La Fiore di di Campo episode of Amore e Rabbia, and Teorema.

8. Shot 21, Landas.

9. Günter Peter Straschek. An old friend of the Straubs', who is the reader in Introduction to Arnold Schoenberg's Accompaniment to a Cinematograph Scene (Einleitung zu Arnold Schoenbergs 'Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielscene'), 1972.

10. Moses and Aaron (Moses und Aron), 1974.

11. History Lessons (Geschichtsunterricht), 1972, based on Brecht's novel Die Geschafte des Herrn Julius Caesar.

12. Moses and Aaron is a filming of the Schoenberg opera in the Roman ampitheatre at Alba Fucense, Abruzzi, Italy; between Acts I and II after shot 41 in the scenario, are two shots of the Nile valley, photographed in Egypt without the necessary official permission. Many of the props and costumes for Moses and Aaron were also obtained during these visits to Egypt. See Gregory Woods' journal and Huillet's comments in Enthusiasm no. 1.

13. Renato Berta, one of the cameramen for Introduction..., History Lessons, Moses and Aaron, and Fortini-Cani (1976). 

14. I.e., From the Cloud to the Resistance, which is adapted from two texts by Cesare Pavese, Dialoghi con Leuco, and La Luna e i Falo, in two parts.

15. Shot 50, between Sukur and Khedaria. The shot is 10'7'' long. 

16. Shots 57, The Plaza Hotel/Trade Center on the banks of the Nile at Cairo, and 17, Marbeuf, Eure, respectively. 

17. Every Revolution is a Throw of Dice (Toute Revoltuion est un coup de dés), 1977. The text for this film is S. Mallarmé's Un Coup de dés.

18. Shot 38, Gournah.

19. Franco Fortini, Italian poet and essayist, author of I Cani del Sinai, which furnished the texts for Fortini-Cani.

20. Shot 26. 

21. Le Mistral, made in France in 1965.

22. Shot 45, the sugar refinery at El Hawamdieh. The shot is a fixed one 10'42'' long. 

23. The Art of Vision by Stan Brakhage, 1961-5.

24. The text begins 19" in and ends 1'26'' later.

25. Shot 28; the scenario does not specify the location, but the previous shots are in Lons-le-Saunier, Jura. The shot is a fixed one showing a house or barn wall on the left with a field to the right; on the wall is written in red paint 'Les Paysans/ se revolteront/ 1976'/ Heavy traffic can be heard passing.

26. Napoleon invaded Egypt in July 1, 1798, defeated Mameluke forces at the battle of the Pyramids, and entered Cairo. Prevented from proceeding further by the destruction of the French fleet at Aboukir, he consolidated his hold over Egypt and repulsed several Turkish counterattacks in 1799, before himself secretly returning to France in August of that year. The French regime lasted two more years, French troops eventually being evacuated after defeat by the English in August 1801. The regime was not a purely military one, involving a civilian and academic element which both introduced European ideas into Egypt and increased European knowledge in Egypt. 

27. Shot 57. See note 16. Starting in the open sky, the shot tilts down past the skyscrapers of the Plaza Hotel/Trade Center to the waters of the Nile, finishing on grass growing on the near bank of the river at Zamalek. In the later part of the shot, the towers are visible as reflections in the calm water, until that water is disturbed, breaking up its reflection.

Translated from the German published in Falter - Wiener Programmzeitschrift, Nr. 1, 15-28. Jänner-11.Februar 1982. 

Thanks to Travis Miles.