May 1, 2018

Straub / Huillet

JMS / Jean-Marie Straub
DH / Danièle Huillet
MW / Martin Walsh
PG / Peter Gidal
SH / Stephen Heath
RC / Regina Cornwell
JR / Jonathan Rosenbaum

MW   A general question: all your work has been quite unique in cinema in the sense that all of your films deal with a pre-existing text or texts of some kind; that is to say, you always work through other artists in some form. Roland Barthes speaks of the contemporary convergence of the acts of reading on the one hand and writing on the other as being a characteristic of much modern art. Perhaps this is one direction that we should be aiming for, if you like, a convergence of criticism and creativity in the older jargon. I was wondering whether from a general perspective like that we might move to your approach more specifically to HISTORY LESSONS and MOSES AND AARON?

JMS   . . .We tried to find a subject that resists us because we have to live with the subject for many years, because to find money needs many years. And the secondary reason is that we tried to find subjects that are interesting enough for the audience, for people, and a subject more intelligent than we are, to give the audience a gift that is worthwhile. Do you want to take it further?

MW  Well, it seems to me that the subjects Bach, Schoenberg, Brecht, are all artists that. . .

JMS  It is clear that the reading of MOSES AND AARON is a critical one.

MW  Would you elaborate then on your interest in Schoenberg specifically? Why Schoenberg?

JMS  I don't know. No, it has to be said first that MOSES AND AARON is an old project--a project from '59. It's a thing that I don't think I would make now. It would have been the second film we would have made. The first project was CHRONICLE OF ANNA MAGDALENA BACH and the second MOSES AND AARON. But why Schoenberg, I do not know. . .

DH   Anyway, it's not Schoenberg, it's Moses and Aaron.

MW   But your handling of both Bach and Schoenberg has in a sense been markedly different from, one might say, conventionally bourgeois approaches to performances of the works of these people.

JMS   I don't know, because I am a bourgeois. . .

MW   But you are a bourgeois who is attempting to escape that or so it would seem. . . you said at the time that THE CHRONICLE OF ANNA MAGDALENA BACH was your contribution to the fight in Vietnam, for instance.

PG   Do you regret having said that?

JMS  Having said it? No. The approach is trying to. . . if you like, it is anti-bourgeois. I don't like this, but it is anti-bourgeois in what belongs to the mise en scène, to the theatrical, but not necessarily to the approach to the music. The treatment of the mise en scène is a reaction to the whole tradition of bourgeois opera, that has to be said. But at the same time, what interested us was the making of a film which would allow a public which doesn't ever go to an opera, to see an opera. This is what infuriated the music critics in the German papers--DIE WELT, SUDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG, DIE ZEIT. They didn't talk about the music but, with the idea of the cinema they have, they thought you could make the film more pornographic than bourgeois opera. By pornographic I don't mean showing the people naked, I mean the art of mise en scène in bourgeois opera, if you can talk about art in relation to something like that. They thought, with their idea of the cinema, that you could go further than Cecil B. DeMille, that one could see better things on the screen than what was actually done on the operatic stage. Ours was a reaction, a systematic subversion, destruction and reduction. In that sense all the--very precise--directions given by Schoenberg in the score regarding the staging (mise en scène), we reduced to spectacular points, a succession of spectacular points. We did this where he, Schoenberg, dreaming and working for the stage, established a simultaneity.

Schoenberg, it is true, like all of us, had a very limited ideology. He repressed politics systematically and determinedly. As Danièle said, he had an idea. . . well, that was his personal ideology and, as we see in the Kandinsky letters, he had fantastic intuitions which are even Marxist sometimes. But there is also the other aspect as related by Brecht in his ARBEITSJOURNAL (Work Journal) which has just been published. Brecht's last meeting with him was in front of a drugstore in Los Angeles, or at least in California, and he relates. . . (to SH) will you tell it?

SH  Brecht had been to courses by Schoenberg under the patronage of Eisler who had encouraged Brecht to go to these courses and had, in fact, inspired in Brecht the idea that Schoenberg was to be treated with kid gloves and definitely not to be gotten on the wrong side of or rubbed the wrong way. At their last meeting, I'll be corrected if I'm wrong in saying that Schoenberg said, "look at the way the world is going now."

JMS  What he said was "the proof that your democracy is useless is that it doesn't last long. That's why I am a royalist." And a few months before, Eisler had told Brecht "I am going to introduce you to my teacher, above all don't provoke him, even if he says terrible petit-bourgeois things, don't say a thing." And Brecht kept quiet when he saw him the first time. After that he went to one of his classes and had an impression of great clarity. Brecht said, "unfortunately, with the education we've had, we have no understanding of music, but listening to one of Schoenberg's lessons you feel that with only the slightest grounding in music, everything would be very clear, you would understand everything." And to get back to that last meeting in front of the drugstore, Brecht said nothing. He says himself in his ARBEITSJOURNAL, "I contented myself with shaking the old man's hand" . . .Seeing METROPOLIS again we saw that there are an enormous amount of Schoenbergian elements there. Perhaps Schoenberg had never seen it, nor did Lang know Schoenberg, but it's the atmosphere of the time. . .

. . .In fact we saw--and this is what the project came from--the first stage performance in Germany, Berlin in 1959, of MOSES AND AARON. It was totally a kind of stylization and theatrical abstraction. I detest stylization, all this talk of stylization but, I ask myself, what is it? What style? Not really abstraction obviously, but the costumes aimed at being abstract and stylized, and everything, even the scenes which Schoenberg did not envisage as being danced were danced in the form of a stylized ballet, not even bourgeois ballet but something even more academic. It was a reaction against this that gave me the wish to make a film in 1959, and the idea which immediately raised itself was--it should be in the open air. That was clear.

So to the question "Why Schoenberg?"--it was always a reaction to theatrical mise en scène etc. Now, as to why music?--where music is concerned there are no restrictions, still less because I am not a musician. Eisler didn't have any restrictions in the face of Schoenberg's music, the dialectical musical tissue of his work.

I believe it's possible to do one work, not ten. That's why you cannot make films and engage in political action. You can't have a political action and make films. That's why Lenin said he couldn't listen to music because he was engaged in political action and it was too absorbing. . . And I think a man like Schoenberg has pushed his musical work so far precisely because he repressed everything else and not just politics. For example, he also painted but he himself said that in painting he was an amateur. He did not take the work far in the area of painting.

Well, that's about music, now to return to Eisler who said that what we have is an unbelievable, impossible, very bad text set to irreproachable music. I don't agree with him. For the benefit of those who don't know, it must be said that Schoenberg wrote the text, since most people who write opera compose them around texts by others, and secondly he says in the letter to Webern or the one to Alban Berg. . .

DH  . . .that he transformed his text as the composition of the music progressed. On the other hand there is the third act where for whatever reasons, either he didn't have the time or I don't know what, he didn't write the music. And the text here, in relation to the texts which were set to music, is in some sense a draft. What's interesting for us in the film is to have both a text which has been re-written, tightened up and reduced, re-worked as the music was composed, and another stage in the work of Schoenberg, which is the first stage of work on the text.

What also interests us is the films we make is to leave the various layers, not eliminating anything. This is contrary to a whole Western artistic tradition, bourgeois of course, which consists of destroying, in effacing the traces and destroying these layers. There are other traditions. Western civilization is only a little drop in the bucket. For example the Bible, of which Brecht said when asked what had marked him most: "Don't laugh it was the Bible" and he of course meant the Lutheran tradition. It's a question of epochs--instead of taking away one adds, the things written five hundred years earlier are not removed, they're left. In a film what interests us is the stratification, like in geology.

PG  To what degree was the text changed?

DH  By us? Not at all.

MW  The last line of the libretto though says "Aaron, free, stands up and then falls down dead."

JMS  That's not the last line.

DH  That's the last indication (stage direction).

JMS  Yes, certainly in the film you don't see Aaron fall because we have left Aaron in order to pan round to Moses. He is off and therefore can't fall. I've been told by someone who knows Hegel well (I don't know the text myself), that this is a very precise reference to Hegel. Aaron falls because he no longer has substance.

But the text was not changed by us, the indications (stage directions), yes.

DH  Another change (in stage directions) is at the beginning, the burning bush. In our work there is no burning bush.

JMS  It is something which is changed so that the voice of the burning bush is no more the voice of the burning bush but already the voice of the people later. And he (Moses) already had mountains behind his head, which Schoenberg did not have. Other things changed, but not the text. But to finish with these questions of the text, and with reference to Eisler, we know the text by virtue of having reheard it, retyped it, translated it into English, French, Italian, we read it over a hundred times and each time we see it stronger. . . therefore I believe Eisler was mistaken on this. From the point of view of the textual tissue, these texts are not far from the work of Brecht. Ideologically, it's another thing of course, but. . . one could even speak of a dialectical texture. . . It is not just the music which pushes things very far in this kind of dialectical tissue, it is also the text.

PG  I didn't understand how you recorded the sound--I must have just not understood what was written in the notes. . .

DH  Every singer has it coming through one ear.

PG  That's what I couldn't figure out, where they got their timing.

DH  And they could hear naturally what was recorded in Vienna.

PG  It was all wired up right?

JMS  But the timing came from the musical director.

DH  And we had the music director Guillaume, as we shot the film because he had to direct them; and the problem for us was to find not only where the camera should stand but also where he had to stay, because when they look at each other or when the chorus looks at them (Moses and Aaron) it's always the right direction but a bit off.

JMS  We anticipated the constraint, each time, of having to find the position. . . this is very, very theatrical, really a work which goes in the direction of what interested Brecht in the sense that the singer sings in two directions. He sings for the person standing in front of him; that is, when it is the chorus, for Aaron or Moses; when it's Moses, for the chorus; or when it is Aaron, for the chorus or Moses. In other words, in each case, he sings for the interlocutor (the person he is singing towards in the action), but also for a slightly displaced pole--we're concerned here with displacements (a staggering)--which is the musical director. And often the real pole for which the singer was singing, was not there: the chorus was effaced, or Moses, when Aaron was responding to them, was not there--often, not always. Most of the time Moses and Aaron are together. So there is a displacement which really creates something more than distanciation.

PG  Do you think that comes out in the text of the final film?

JMS  Well, if I were to see the film as a film not made by me, I would sense that there were such displacements. You feel that these are groups which are opposed to each other but at the same time that those who decided the framing and placing of the groups have decided to de-psychologize the relations between them and to establish relations of power between singer and the group to which it is opposed, and between the group and the singer. These relations of power at the same time concern--in the moral rather than in the physical sense although in the first instance it is physical--the spectator. In other words we have relations of power which are addressed to the spectator, after having addressed themselves to the group to which the singer directs himself. . . they are no longer psychological relations (between singer and group and vice versa), they are relations of force.

DH  . . .which are addressed not only one to the other, or to the group, but also to the audience, because of the slight shift.

JMS  Perhaps one might ask if people have felt something of that kind without having a clear idea what. We will put the question when Danièle has finished outlining the way the recording was done. I have only a thing to add: not only did they sing in the direction of the musical director which was of concern for them and the director and consequently for the spectator who is behind the director because he is behind the camera, but the director had both ears plugged--he heard absolutely nothing of what the singers sang, he only heard the orchestra.

RC  I wondered about the relations and tensions producing this case, i.e. the theological conditioning... (inaudible) how this fits into the political considerations. . .

JMS  Theology is very important because it still guides the world. . . very important. . . It will still take centuries for mankind to be able to do without God, to learn to do without God. Moreover, you don't have to be called Engels--who did an analysis of the question--to know that monotheism within a civilization of flourishing polytheism which in the last stages consisted in, to an ever increasing extent, representing the gods in pharoahs and became more and more oppressive, the idea of a single, unrepresentable god who was nowhere and unimaginable is an enormous and revolutionary idea and a break. The fact that afterwards the idea of monotheism again becomes an oppressive idea is another question. That's what it turned into, but at the outset it was an enormous break.

PG  But the film isn't in at the start. Schoenberg's attitude towards monotheism is presumably not the same as the two of yours. . .

JMS  But the film is a historical reflection, nothing more. It's no different to. . . I don't wish to set myself on the same level, I'm only a little man, but if you read the letters between Karl Marx and Engels which run into seventeen volumes, you become increasingly aware of the interest these two had in plunging ever deeper into history to try to see what happened and to study the relations they were interested in and analyze these relations further and further in the past. I don't see this as a problem. Or perhaps you could clarify your question?

PG  You mentioned that it would take a long time to get rid of ideological power of God, of the belief God and I just wondered whether or your position and Schoenberg's--which in the film seemed to be such--whether your position and Schoenberg's to some degree coincided and not questioning, but rather reproducing.

JMS   . . .The film. . . I hope, it's for you judge, but I hope the film is in relation to the work of Schoenberg. I hope the work of mise en scène--I don't like the word very much--the mise en images, the mise en objet audio visuel is displaced in relation to the attitude of Schoenberg. I hope that at the end of the film not only has Moses destroyed Aaron, Aaron has also destroyed Moses. Aaron, even if he doesn't fall dead, disappears absolutely; Moses, even if his strong idea, the idea of the desert, lives on--has destroyed himself. One destroys the other and simply two aspects of the same thing. I hope that what is left is only the people and that the idea of the film is precisely, not just displaced in relation to Schoenberg, but even opposed to him; the idea that you have to invent a politics which starts from below and that it is not up to the leader to invent it but it's up to the people themselves. And while these two have destroyed each other and disappeared, you have to start from scratch. At this point I hope the idea that asserts is precisely that from the moment you have blown up the leaders who have blown themselves up, you have to. . . well, I don't need to indulge in rhetoric. . . In any case I hope when you see the pan, at least the second pan onto the Nile taken from the mountain, there I hope the audience feels through Schoenberg's music a call to violence which does not concern the Hebrew people alone. Schoenberg moreover stresses this in his text. He says "Vor allem Volke", he doesn't say, "Von allem Volke": not "From" but "Before" all people. This is a stage (etage), a people who were to be a stage. And the pan onto the Nile valley below shows the fields of peasants who are no longer Hebrew, but Egyptian. And at this point I hope the audience senses that this concerns not just a tiny people who no longer exist as a nation and who founded a State. . . well, enough said. . . Because you see in the background the cultivated fields of the Egyptians and in the foreground you see something which though not easy to distinguish, you sense to be the ruins of Egyptian temples. After that it ends on the mountain because you return to Moses' obsession which is the desert. But there is also the word Frei, Frei, Frei, which is a call to freedom. Has that cleared it up or are there still questions? I would like to clarify what I said at the beginning. This is no longer a project I would have done today. That ought to be clear; in that there is a kind of negative answer to your question, or positive, it depends. I have changed, and if I came across MOSES AND AARON  now, I would be just as interested but I would no longer wish to make a film of it. It is an old project, a fulfilled project.

JR  One last question of a different sort involving your short on Schoenberg, This may sound like a frivolous question but it's meant seriously. In all your films but particularly in this short I feel that each detail, each element carries a great deal of weight, both dramatically and in terms of the meaning of the images. And I was wondering if you could comment on two specific things in the film: one is your lighting of a cigarette, and the other is the cat.

JMS  I can tell you about the screen in INTRODUCTION TO ARNOLD SCHOENBERG'S "ACCOMPANIMENT TO A CINEMATOGRAPHIC SCENE" which is behind me when I'm reading Schoenberg's letters. I wanted to have the screen because I wanted the audience to have the impression that on the screen newsreels would be projected. But the cigarette was because the film had been envisaged without the stone figure of the fountain. It was to begin with me. But as the film was commissioned by the third channel of German TV. . . The Germans had two films, one made by Jan Mortensen, a Swedish musician, another by a young French musician called Luc Ferrari, two very different films (to ours), absolutely a-political.

DH  On the same piece of music.

JMS  We had an agreement, our film would be shown last, if it was put out at all, because there was a risk that it would not be. But if it hadn't been, well we had the negative, we'd made the film and we could have shown it somewhere else. The beginning had to be a rest for the audience and since I couldn't just stay like that, I lit up a cigarette. But after the fountain shot was added we left it like that because to go straight into the reading would have meant there would have been no breathing space. The cat, that's a bit more complicated. It's a cat we had at home. We found it three years before, starving in the street. The vet said it had to be put down at once. It had no hair left, it had rabies and every other disease imaginable, it was undernourished, it walked like this. . . Now it's beautiful. The cat is part of Danièle because without her it would have died, since it was isolated from other cats because its illness was contagious and people didn't bother with it, precisely because it was sick. Apart from that, I was beginning to have an immense problem, almost of the class struggle. I think there is a reflection to be made from this standpoint, and it's been going on for centuries, like the other. Obviously it will need centuries to solve it. . . and I believe it is important, really important. But what did you feel about this cat, to ask another frivolous question?

JR  It was a chance element, whereas everything else was in a sense pre-set, it's that you couldn't completely control what the cat was doing.

DH  It was very afraid, not of the camera, but of the microphone. . .

JR  It's sounds like a contradiction, but I like it. . .

JMS  Besides it's an elementary device when you have one who is not an actor, to have something which distracts him. Renoir does it better than anyone, and Brecht too for that matter. . . Moreover I think it was very important since it was a very terrorist text, to have an alien element. . . There is the terrorist direction vis a vis the audience, but at the same time there is an element of tenderness. There is a third pole, not just one, two, but one, two, three, because of the cat.

For the first time. . . For ten years I have been trying to film someone facing the camera and I've never succeeded. It always angers me in Godard's films to see people photographed facing the camera. I told myself, I'll do it one day and I'll do it differently. And they don't look as if they're photographed facing the camera. I wanted to do it and at the same time I didn't agree with it. And I found a way there, precisely thanks to the cat which is a third element. Because from the framing you don't know if the camera's looking at the cat or the person.

And now the final frivolous answer. The cat was a bit Chinese, the black and white pattern is a bit Chinese and this brings us back to Brecht who was interested in Chinese painting. It also had a relationship to the dress Danièle was wearing, one she'd had about ten years but we chose it deliberately from three others.

To take up just one last thing. I think that CHRONICLE OF ANNA MAGDALENA BACH is a film which should have been shown in the villages of Bavaria. If this wasn't possible it's because we live in the kind of society we do and that's that. I don't mean that I agree with taking a 16mm projector and showing films outside factories or in villages which people see badly because they are uncomfortable, tired, acoustics are bad, the equipment doesn't work, the prints are bad, etc. I'm talking about cinemas where people normally go.

(Vladimir) Posner tells a story in a thing he wrote on great men he had known. There are three or four and among them Brecht--the book came out a year ago. Brecht arrived one day with a text for one shot, which would have lasted for two minutes of speech. Posner and Cavalcanti had to explain to him that really, that wasn't done and you couldn't devote two minutes just to one shot. What interested me in this text was that one could make things longer than with a theatrical text. And our film is, in a way, as a revenge on Posner and Cavalcanti for Brecht, to prove, even if he can't see the result, that you can go as far as four minutes, because there are four shots which last four minutes. . .

PG  Are either Danièle or you familiar with Warhol?

JMS  Warhol'? I don't know Warhol. I have seen some of his films once.

DH  We didn't see the last. . .

PG  Which ones did you see?

JMS  CHELSEA GIRLS, another I don't remember. . . I don't hate Warhol, I don't know what he is doing now. . . But what interested me in Warhol is not that he takes 10-minute shots, that's not what is important.

PG  I just wondered what you thought about Warhol.

JMS  What I think about him is more complicated.

PG  That's what I meant.

JMS  To a slightly lesser degree what I felt watching the Michael Snow film the other evening (RAMEAU'S NEPHEW), that is, that it's very interesting for the use demanded of the spectator of his eyes and ears. Obviously seeing and hearing is a question of brainwork, but he isn't asked to use his brain elsewhere. I mean, there is a determination, but there too there is a repression, and not just the political. . .

PG  But Warhol. . .

JMS  They are different, but similar in one direction. Instead of aiding people to think, or to discover dialectical materialism, these films are a bit like a drug. But I must say, in spite of that, that I saw three hours of Snow's film, the first and the second reel, not the third.

DH  We saw WAVELENGTH years ago.

JMS  But I must say that afterwards I had gone to CITIZEN KANE. After seeing three hours, two reels of Snow, I saw about 10 or 20 minutes of CITIZEN KANE and it was CITIZEN KANE which became unbearable, it no longer existed, it was like glycerin. That speaks in favor of Snow in spite of what I have said.

DH  And I mean we should have seen the full four and half hours. If we did not it was not because we did not want to, but because it was really too warm, and we were tired and without air.

JMS  Above all without air.

JR  I just want to ask you some general questions which come out of the discussion of Warhol. Just which contemporary filmmakers do you admire?

JMS  I don't know, Mizoguchi. No, I mean it, but he's dead.

PG  Does that answer for both of you?

DH  Yes.

JMS  Then at the other end of the ideological scale, it would be John Ford. Of course there is Renoir and lots of people, Fritz Lang.

JR  I was thinking more about filmmakers now.

DH  He means the living. Lang is still living, Renoir too.

JMS  Well the one I respect most and will continue to respect is Godard, although I got to know his films very late because I didn't want to see them in dubbed versions in Germany. There first film I saw by Godard was VIVRE SA VIE. At the other end of the ideological scale, if one can say that, I don't know. And then there are others. You can't just draw up a catalog like that. I've seen Oshima, for example, and I'm not interested. I say simply because you know, Oshima's there, and he may well be more important than I think. But I don't think so because perhaps he has too much talent, I don't know. Talent isn't enough. The first film of Oshima's I saw was THE CEREMONY. That made a big impression, boom! Then we saw others and we saw THE CEREMONY again and it didn't work anymore. I find him too rhetorical. He tries to deal with everything. I'm not in agreement with Martin Walsh about Dusan Makavejev. I don't much like MAN IS NOT BIRD, but the second and third are interesting. Then the film about the fascist sportsmen, what's it called? That's interesting in its material forms. . .

Then there is a filmmaker I admire very much. I am willing to defend him until next year--things can change--even against all those who accuse him of being a fascist which he is not. He's the most important filmmaker of the French post-Godard generation--Luc Moullet. Especially for LES CONTREBANDIERS more than for the other two.

JR  I wanted to ask you particularly how you felt about--because of their use of sound--Bresson and Tati.

JMS  I like very much the last Tati.* Rivette was right when he said that Tati has become a political filmmaker. What he does with the blown up video material, what he gets from it is extraordinary. And it's outside that political group, those people who come out of the cinema in the evenings and experience reality entirely differently. What's exciting in PARADE is that it's a film about all the degrees of nervous flux, beginning with the child who can't yet make a gesture, who can't coordinate its hand and its brain and it goes up to the most accomplished acrobats. You know when you ask a question like that I'm sure I've forgotten ten filmmakers at least as important as us. I mean among contemporary filmmakers, young filmmakers, who are perhaps more interesting, I don't know. And among the old, living and dead, there are others. For example, seeing LIMELIGHT again, you are struck by something you've never seen before in the cinema and which has a relation to the class struggle. Knowing how far this is conscious, etc., is not of much importance.

There is a filmmaker who has just been discovered and whose THE NEW ICE AGE you will be able to see on Monday, who has made films with all the means that I am against, which I even thought ought to be condemned. He is called Johan van de Keuken who makes films on which he sometimes works for more than a year. You'll see this one. I think this too has a relation to the works of Brecht. It is a film which seems at moments almost to use the means and methods of capitalist oppression and television but seems to invert them into something which is a critique. Brecht said, Lenin not only said different things from Bismark, he also said them differently. Yet this is against the idea of using those methods. Johan van de Keuken has precisely proved to me that you can't be dogmatic. When you work responsibly, you can go very far with opposing methods.

The above is approximately half of the tape; the other half deals with HISTORY LESSONS, Schoenberg, Baader-Meinhof, etc.


Interview conducted at the Edinburgh Film Festival, 
Wednesday 27 August 1975.

Originally published in the 
Journal of the Royal College of Art, January 1976.
Translated from the French by Diana Matiaf.

*The last Tati film is PARADE, a film of a circus performance in Sweden, which is in videotape blown up to 35mm. (JR)


Past commemorations of Danièle Huillet on this day

2006 - Danièle Huillet, in memory of...
2007 - Examine Caesars 
2008 - Song of Two Humans, But...!
2009 - This Land is Mine
2010 - Men Without Women
2011 - Freedom
2012 - Small Grasses
2013 - That's Just What We Intend
2014 - The Lizards
2015 - (no post - misery)
2016 - Free Horse
2017 - M'aider
2017 - Huillet at work



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