|Photo courtesy of Cristina Fernandes|
The Fire in the Mountain
A conversation with Danièle Huillet by Helge Heberle and Monika Funke Stern
Danièle I was born in May 1936. In 1954, I did one year in a preparatory school for IDHEC. I saw a lot of films – like Buñuel's Los Olvidados – which interested me, and I wanted to try making documentary films. At the end there was even an exam that I took. But after the film that they projected for us, I simply handed in a blank piece of paper and said that it was a shame to project a film like that for an exam.
I met Jean-Marie in November. I still know this exactly because the Algerian Revolution was beginning. He had his idea for a film about Bach and asked me if I would help him write the thing together. In ‘58 he had to leave France because of the Algerian War. He didn't want to shoot Algerians and at the end of ‘59. I also came to Germany. That's all.
Monika And you’ve done everything together?
Danièle Yes, we've done everything together. Only, that at the time it wasn't fashionable to mention women. No one noticed. Until it came into fashion, then they suddenly noticed that I was always in the credits. That was funny.
Helge Did you develop the conception of your films together? They’re so distinctive and different from the films of the time.
Danièle Yes, but that also came through our lives.
Helge You came to Germany as emigrants. Did you first start learning German here?
Danièle I had learned a little German before, but only with the texts of Bach's cantatas and that was already a strange German. In any case, I didn’t learn German so well because together we speak more in French. There are things that we can only say in German, but otherwise we mainly speak French together.
Helge Having left Germany again, what does your time there mean for you?
Danièle The time in Germany was the discovery of the class struggle and a violence that also exists in Italy and France but does not appear so openly and clearly, probably because the hypocrisy is greater.
Monika The discourse about the class struggle often conceals that men and women are also two different classes. The difference can also be seen in the way your film work has gained recognition. In the back of the book Kluge/Herzog/Straub there is eventually also something about Huillet with a short biography and Karsten Witte is at least polite enough to talk about “the Straubs” - is your name actually Straub or Huillet?
Danièle Well, we aren't married. I kept my name. But it isn't so easy to pronounce. Straub is much easier. I don't think it’s so important. It's never bothered me. I don't really like talking about things and answering questions. Everyone has his or her own style and what you don’t do well, you shouldn’t do. There are other things that I do better and besides, what we’re interested in are the products and not the names.
Monika The distribution of your films is important to you. You go around with you films and talk about them. I feel that your silence is a form of denying auteur cinema and representation.
Danièle We won't be able to talk about the films anymore when we’re dead. Film material is very sensitive and the negatives won't last forever, but the films will outlive us for a certain amount of time and I hope that they will still speak to people. We talk about the films because in general the distribution system does not work anymore. Straub talks better than I do. I don't know if he enjoys doing it. I think that one destroys a bit of the work that way.
Helge What do you mean by destroys some of it?
Danièle A film is work that you’ve carried through to the end. A discussion is always something where you only say half-truths or force things that you have tried to keep balanced in the film. Also, in a discussion you can never take time to really reflect. Otherwise, you would say: it's going to take eight days before I can give you a proper answer. So, per forza, as the Italians say, sometimes you answer too quickly and sometimes falsely. However, whenever you make a film, you try out every possibility so the film remains open to people who will see and hear it.
Monika What does your role in the work look like?
Danièle With Too Early, Too Late, for example. A certain Straschek – he is a friend of ours – came to visit while we were recording the orchestral part of Moses and Aron in Vienna in 1974. He brought two suitcases full of books – the entire correspondence between Marx and Engels. I thought that I would never read so many books. I don't have enough time. I can only read a little before going to bed. Nevertheless, I read everything and the letter from Engels was in it too. I read it aloud to Straub and he said: Maybe we can make something about France. Then we went to Egypt because of Moses and Aron. We wanted to see how people in Egypt live, what clothing, what gestures, what living conditions, etc., before we looked for costumes. In Egypt, we asked ourselves questions besides ones relating to the film. In Rome, Jean-Marie saw a book called Class Struggles in Egypt with statistics and explanations about what was going on there at the time. We were always nostalgic for Egypt. I think that I said then: We could make a film out of these two things. It was easier with Engels' text, which in some way stood on its own. We had to check the information since Engels had written it to Kautsky from his memories of a Russian historian. There were false quotations in it. We verified everything in the archives in Paris where the parishes had sent the cahiers in 1789 in the great hope that something would change if someone recounted what was wrong. The notebooks are still lying there and are used very infrequently. It’s somehow moving when you get them in your hands. Then we checked the figures and the names, drove to the locations and together we looked for where the camera could be placed, what can be seen, and sometimes we argued very fiercely as well.
It was easier in France. We always went back to the locations. In Egypt we could only do this once and it was difficult to find the locations. There are no maps aside from the ones made by the colonial administration. The names on these are in Egyptian and underneath in European. We looked for the places using photocopies of them. The people there, five kilometers away from a village, don't know what the next village is called. We scouted locations with a friend from Paris, an Egyptian, in his car. Sometimes, we needed an entire day to find a village. So, about the same work as the people who had drawn the maps. Except that we only had about twenty days in Egypt. The organization came after we returned. What you can do with the money you have. What you have to pay for immediately and what later. These kinds of necessary discussions – I do this more than him. If he says, I'm not doing it this way, then I try it differently. Then comes the shooting. People must be paid, hotels arranged, etc. During production, I'm more involved with the sound and he's more involved with the camera. He frames the shots. During the editing, I operate the editing table. Now and then he does something that an assistant usually does, like rewinding the reels, and so on. We had an editor for the first short film. That lasted a week. As Jean-Marie began to say, here we have to take out five frames and three here, the guy had a nervous fit. Ever since, we've never had a third party. We always watch the rushes silent because I never went to let the sound out of my hands as long as it hasn’t been transferred, because I have good friends who have lost part of the location sound between the shooting location and the transfer. Or where the transfer isn’t right, if they mixed or dubbed. I want to be present for that. Jean-Marie is also present because while listening to the sound you can discover things that you wouldn’t hear otherwise. The hardest comes when we're cutting and begin to make choices: we have three, ten, fifteen takes of the same shot – choosing one is sometimes painful.
Monika If you take the raw material – the documents from the 18th century, the reports about villages and Engels' text – entirely different images could be imagined for them. For example, the reports say this many families are impoverished, this many can still live, this many are rich – and in the images, we don't see a single family now, not a single person. Today, now, we occasionally see a truck drive by over the asphalt highway, the village sign. How do arrive at this visual conception?
Danièle What we were interested in was clear from the beginning. It was seeing what traces remain there today and what has entirely changed. For example, a city like Rennes, where it's stated that a third of the population was living in constant risk of pauperization, is now much richer. A lot has been built there. But at the beginning, we see villages in Brittany that have perhaps become poorer. We were interested in seeing what traces remain today and what was swept away and left no trace. And in this regard, a topographical film: with camera and Nagra, with picture and location sound as the tools of an investigation.
Helge That reminds me of the talk at the DFFB. You said there that the long drive along the canal goes through as few villages as possible because driving through villages seems intrusive to you. So this investigation has a distanced relationship to the people.
Helge And in a different context during the discussion it was said that humans aren’t center stage in this film. But I perceived this entirely differently because through the panning movements and the intrusion into the space from the sides – whether from birds or butterflies, from bushes – we in fact feel the presence of the filmmakers very clearly. I mean that, on one hand, it is a world that is visibly desolate, but over it stands a human presence that has no face.
Danièle But this research is also applied to the landscape. There are obviously humans there because these landscapes are arranged and altered. The nature there has been completely changed by humans. That's one thing. But we were also interested in understanding a landscape. Why a village was built there, what it is like. Why irrigation in Egypt works with a large canal and smaller ones. It's clear that this is all from people. Us not wanting to drive through a village – that was not the subject because the narration is telling how struggles and revolts happened and when we see, for example, the plains of Luxor: first the camera is still, then it pans left to the mountains where there is a village, then we come back to the right – then how many people were massacred is recounted.
Monika Yes, it is also entirely clear from the text that someone is there, and the landscape is being considered from a particular perspective and intention. That's what I find fascinating in your films, that you consistently renounce any form of staging these landscapes: they are shown here and now, not as a costumes or a re-enactment of past times, but now, they way they are now with all the details and historical forces like wind, water, and rain that move the land. This point of view is charged with histories through these elements and above all through the text that is being read.
But these are texts that come out of a particular class conflict, the text by Engels as well, just as in History Lessons with the text by Brecht. For them, class conflicts are defined through property and not, for example, through gender relations.
In my opinion, these images of landscapes, of a city like Rome with its cobblestones, are charged with history, but this history misappropriates the history of women who have participated to a great extent in history and whose sweat, blood, and tears have been drunk by the cobblestones of Rome as much as the blood, sweat, and tears of the men being named and quoted. I don't know how much this interests you and how aware you are about making things from women present in the historical charge of the images.
Danièle I can say three things about this. First – I've already said this – there are rules of the game that we must obey. For example, sticking a woman into Brecht where he did not have one would also be false for the woman. In front of a factory in Egypt, we see one woman who is entirely dressed in black go through the frame. She is carrying something on her head; she's probably bringing her husband or her son something to eat. And we see a second woman who is dressed like a European out of the factory – probably a secretary. And no other women, only men milling about. We see more women on the country roads: at one point, a woman with a child on a donkey. During the long tracking shot we also see a woman riding a donkey and reading a book, probably going to school or coming from school.
That is one answer. I think a second answer is a film like The Bridegroom, the Actress, and the Pimp. That is a film in which the oppression of women is very clear. That's a subject that comes more from us. The construction doesn't come from anyone else.
There are actually no sentences in it that come from us. There are only texts from other people, but the construction and the story come from us and it began like this: we were in Munich – we lived there at the time – and went to a cinema downtown. We were coming back on foot because it was too late and there were no more buses. It was pretty far and we found this street where women were standing on the sidewalk and only men in trucks or cars were driving by and stopping. The rest of the film was organized around this. We drove down the street twice and we even covered up the license plate on the car because there were also pimps watching this.
That is a second answer and my third answer is I think it will go much faster and easier – and on this point Marx was right in some sense – that women will become liberated if there is a total revolution. For example, in Vietnam, women gained equality in one burst. That doesn't mean that afterwards the reaction didn't shut this down. As in all other areas, the struggle is just as necessary when the war is over. That's clear. But I mean, something happened there very suddenly because there is an entire movement and not only with women, but the women were part of it.
Monika Hope for the third world, for a total revolution that also solves the side contradictions, things with women, is also very clear in your films.
Danièle But the Egyptian woman at the Q&A at the Arsenal Cinema represented something even more radical. It really upset me because she came with arguments that originate with politicians and that she adopted. Of course, if we hear this from men it is already dumb, but it's even worse from a woman. She is not only colonized as an Egyptian, but also as a woman. She said that no revolution can be expected from workers because they can’t read. There is some truth to this argument, but still, I can't listen to it anymore. What is funny and sad is that not only the first revolts, but also revolutions partly came from workers, for example here in Germany. And they were also unable to read. But they had a culture, just not the clergy’s.
Monika The absence of women from the images is also a historical document. But that’s not what I mean. You two decide on particular texts that interpret history. That's a decision, whether you choose Engels or Brecht, or if you criticize them in your view of history. That is what the new women's movement does, for example. I'm very skeptical that the position of women will change with a revolution. Maybe intermittently in periods when they are needed and they help. That's always been the case, if women are needed for work during and after a war, but their own thing doesn't fundamentally change. I don't know if you were interested in dealing with these subjects with other texts that deal with women's things.
Danièle But this is also an encounter. A love story doesn't only happen when we meet a person, it can also be a text in which something seems right. It is always only partially true. I think we both agree that we can't make films with general ideas, that we must have something concrete and precise, and the text by Engels is concrete and precise for something very, very small and limited. We could make another film that is critical of it but that is not the same film and some kind of an encounter must happen in that regard.
Monika You could find something is missing, for example, and then develop it. Speaking for myself, it is possible for this kind of process of awakening consciousness to happen. After the discussion at the DFFB, you said: after History Lessons something like an absence opens. At the end, there is this fountain statue, a woman – although a very mythologized one who I didn't really recognize as a woman – with water flowing out of her mouth, she's vomiting. She says the final words of the film: vomit over the path of history. In one of your earlier films, the Böll adaptation Not Reconciled, the subtitle is Only Violence Helps Where Violence Rules. For me, that is a male saying that also determines politics, armament politics, for example. The ideology that we must make weapons because the enemy is making weapons, so only violence helps against violence...
Danièle I'll interrupt only to say that "violence" is not only violence with weapons. A strike is also a form of violence. Let's take a utopia, the biggest utopia there is: that suddenly every intellectual, women and men, would go on strike and this shit society would collapse. That would also be a form of violence that would essentially be bigger than every possible form of it.
Monika But you have shown the rudiments of alternative figures. The old Fähmel woman...
Danièle Yes, she stands for a kind of counter violence, but it is destroyed. And the pressure is so strong that she is also destroyed. Not only the pressure of the war or of all time, but also the pressure she has to feel and experience as a woman.
Helge I'd like to know which films by women you like. Can you find anything in common with Marguerite Duras, for example?
Danièle I admire her a lot. She has a lot of energy and is really sharp, but I have a lot more admiration for a woman who leads an everyday life, not only as an intellectual, but a woman who does this with a husband and children, who doesn't kill herself, and can live like this. I find that much harder than making films.
Monika But you don't want that?
Danièle I don't have the strength for both together.
Monika You prefer making films?
Danièle That is also a love story. You choose when you're very young and experience comes later. Maybe there are women who can do both. Maybe Caroline [Champetier] will do this, a husband and daughter or several daughters. But with the younger generation... It is very hard, not to oppress others, which would also not be a solution.
Monika What do you think of Chantal Akerman's films, Jeanne Dielman, for example?
Danièle I can say that I couldn't bear some of it. For example, the way the actress Delphine Seyrig peels potatoes and you notice that she never does it in real life. That doesn't work. And what I also don't like in the film are the obstinately systematic shots so that if someone stands up, for example, their head is cut off.
Monika But, I mean, you've gone pretty clearly against the film language developed in Hollywood – shot/reverse shot – where what is important at the moment always appears in the image, the head, and somehow this must have come to you – a particular obstinacy in the staging that maybe focuses more on a dress or a random detail...
Danièle But I don't think that you can replace one form of oppression with another and I also don't think that you can combat one system through another because then one thing simply becomes rigid and that's all.
Helge So you feel that the film grammar there is very arbitrary?
Danièle It becomes systematic in a way that doesn't work for me. That's all.
Monika But I find your films very systematic in their resistance, in their reflection on the commercialization of film language.
Danièle But I think, I hope, that it is not so much a system as a method to investigate something; that can also be blown up, a shot for example. I think it is the third village we see in Egypt, where we have the sign at the beginning and then pan left, then come back right again, then we see the village and people walking in the background. And a donkey. In the foreground, on the road, wagons, a truck, a cart and a donkey are coming – that is happening very much in the foreground. That was not planned. It was a surprise for us as well and so we wanted to keep it because we didn't want to clear away reality and only keep the shot as we had planned it. Because otherwise, if we had done a shot with what was happening on the street, we would never have cut it like that...
Monika Don't you also think that to understand your films, you also need a lot of knowledge about film history?
Danièle Well, empirically, people who have seen barely any or very few films are very moved. I think there are two kinds: there are people who have a film culture and have seen many films, who receive the films very well and are therefore interested. But people who are moved the most and, I think, perhaps perceive the films best are the ones with no film culture.
Helge Does that mean they have no film culture? Today there is also TV...
Danièle But people see more news and sports on TV and the people I'm talking about also barely see feature films. They see TV the way we used to read the newspaper. Or – yes, sports. They're right because that is the only thing that is filmed well. It gets hard with people who believe they know what film is and what film should be. They come in and immediately say, like the Egyptian woman: this is not a film; this is not what films are like. That's a barrier. They think film must be like this and that, and don't accept that it can also be different. And was different too.
Helge In the interview you did with Karsten Witte, you say that you want to make films that can't be understood through cinema, through film history, but that can be understood on their own.
Monika But I think there is something like tradition and a tradition of film language that people are trained in. Somewhere ideas like dream factory or "inspiring illusions" become combined with cinema, conventional cinema. And I think this is also something one shouldn't say pejoratively. Because with the possibility of constructing illusions, there also exists the possibility to think of, conceive, and dream utopias – which is also positive...
Danièle ...but I don't think that has a lot to do with utopias. Our dreams come from reality and are only partly different from reality and are an attempt to escape from it. But always from reality and not from nothing...
Monika Yes. Sure. We can also make this very intellectual. But I think your images are somehow renunciations and are therefore barren and rigorous.
Danièle I hope not only. I hope that sensuality and delight can also be felt in them. And the scent of things. Right?
Monika I’m fascinated by your appeal to Cézanne who painted the mountain again and again, always the outside of the mountain, and who knew that the mountain had burned. But he always painted the outside. The fire begins to appear through his energy.
Danièle I can say something else about Cézanne. I saw pictures by Cézanne in a museum for the first time when I was around fourteen. It was the bold thing with the naked women, Les Grandes Baigneuses. At first, I felt that he couldn't paint, that it was poorly painted. And yet, something in it made it so that I engaged with it for a long time and could no longer see the pictures from the other painters that were hanging there because I felt that they painted poorly.