March 17, 2019

Tonight in London: A double-bill of Straub/Huillet's En rachâchant (1982) and Klassenverhältnisse (Class Relations, 1984) will screen at the BFI as part of "The Films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet", a complete retrospective proposed, programmed, and realized by Ricardo Matos Cabo.  

In honor of this program, Laurent Kretzschmar and I present three new English translations of Serge Daney on the Straubs:  

  • "Straub rachâche", on En rachâchant 

  • "The Straubs", on Huillet and Straub as teachers, and as interlocutors of their work 

  • "Franz Kafka, Strauboscoped", on their film Class Relations.


Straub rachâche
by Serge Daney

Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, En rachâchant (1982)

There was a time when going to the movies meant seeing two films, a big one and a small one. There was a time when going to the movies meant saying, still mesmerized: "it was a beautiful program!" Is this time finished? Not quite. The audience who laughed watching Pauline at the Beach (Rohmer, 35,908 tickets in its first week) has every chance to laugh watching En rachâchant (Straub and Huillet, 35,908 tickets). This excellent production of seven minutes and a few seconds by Diagonale is the ideal complement to a program. First, because it proves that the Straubs are funny. Second, because there is a family resemblance between the two films: their strange relation to the idea of education, the clarity of the mise en scène which doesn’t suffer from the current evil plaguing French cinema: cellulite. En rachâchant is first a text by Marguerite Duras. The Straubs loved it, and loving it, they filmed it. Faced with the fait accompli, Duras must have found the film worthy of her text. Duras is therefore kind. In black and white (the photography is by Alekan and it is superb), in a kitchen, and then in an empty classroom, a few actors and a young child resist stubbornly. "Child Ernesto" (that’s his name) declares that he won’t go to school anymore for the simple reason that it teaches things that one doesn’t know. How will the child learn what he doesn’t know (asks, threateningly, a dinosaur of a teacher)? "In-ev-i-ta-bly", answers the child who, having looked at his mother with indescribable gentleness, leaves the grown-ups to their confusion and slams the door.

The film is funny and quick. It’s not a "short" but a real film, in short. We must see it thinking on the one hand of Renoir (who had very libertarian ideas about education, thinking that we only ever know what we know already, and of whom—I know this—the Straubs have thought) and on the other of Alain Resnais whose next film Life is a Bed of Roses (coming soon!) begins from the reverse hypothesis: that education, strictly speaking, is filler. A great topic of our time.

Libération, 7 April 1983

Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Andy Rector

Editor's note: In the 37 years since the release of En rachâchant no English translation or approximation of the phrase "en rachâchant" has ever been agreed upon; it has been declared untranslatable. The original Duras children's book Ah! Ernesto! (1971)—which Duras herself freely adapted in her own film Les enfants (1985)—was translated and adapted to English by Ina C. Jaeger and Ciba Vaughan here. Their translation: To the question of "How will Ernesto learn what he knows already?", the answer is "by re-de-de re-see-see re-pee-pee-ting!"

Fidelity aside, I take pleasure in this adapted translation, as it reminds me of the word mischief that Straub gets up to when contemplating things in public: "In the beginning the earth was without form and void. Your formless form, your formless formed, informed, invertebrate..." from Where Lies Your Hidden Smile? (Pedro Costa, 2001); or his occasional use of "caca-pipi-talism"; or the following while presenting Othon: "A muh-muh-muh-modern tragedy. Police pitfall. Political pitfall. A polis-puh-puh-puh-puh. A police politic. Puh-puh-polygon, puh-puh-polyvalent. Puh-puh.



The Straubs
by Serge Daney

One evening, amidst a group of the curious, the beggars, and other security guards, some members of the S.I. (the “Straubian International”) got together like early Christians who, before suffering martyrdom, may have founded a traveling cine-club. Thanks to Franz Kafka (currently honored at the Centre Pompidou), they were attending an advance screening of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s latest film, inspired by Amerika.

Amerika / Klassenverhältnisse* is the German title of the film. Of the two words, the longest and the most Marxian means "class relations". And—words being words, often playful—this evening was indeed about "class". But as in a class an educator might teach, a class you might repeat, or one (like many, more and more) you might want to skip. You would be wrong to do so. Non-conformists but good teachers, the Straubs, threading their way through the (naïve, expert, or irritating) questions from their audience that night, performed a brilliant act. While the Pompidou cleaners cleaned the projection room (class relations oblige) and the security guards talked on their walkie-talkies (idem), they talked cinema, and as we say with Renoir, these are "rare things" nowadays.

Straub has never enjoyed success (a little perhaps with The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, 1967), but his films have often frightened some. This way of taking on cinema without compromise—body and soul**—is simply too distant from the soft communication theories and systematic audience targeting that are talked about in the world of show business. Too hard, too simple. On top of that, the Straubs have had the malice never to present their work as "marginal" but—it’s a nuance—as minority. They are not even in a ghetto, but from where they are, they hold on to cinema like Ariadne’s thread. A false Jew (but he devoted a triptych to that issue), a true exile (from Metz to Rome via Munich), a conscientious objector (because of the Algerian war of independence in 1959, amnestied in 1971), Jean-Marie Straub, born in 1933, is "too old" (one of his leitmotivs) not to talk about his films gracefully. He’s the one that is poor, but his films (and they are Danièle Huillet’s too) are like children who, as poor people say, have "all they need".  

There’s not a centime, lira, or mark that Straub (and especially Huillet) do not personally know the provenance, circulation, and usage of. A good understanding of "class relations" begins by a simple understanding of the value of money. And it’s precisely because current cinema has lost sight of this that it is threatened by inflation and bloating. Straub-Huillet (like Godard, Duras, or Rohmer) are the cine-artists par excellence (I purposely don’t say "auteurs") of this era where the roles of the image and of the producer have vanished. Producing for them is to produce both their life and their art, or, more modestly, their work and their workforce.

All this is not some caveat before introducing, once more, the Straubs and their cinema as "indispensable", "rigorous and ascetic", or "sublime but boring". This has been done too many times. Plus, there is too much resentment in the way we talk about the "pure ones", too much hate for the illusion they give us to have chosen by themselves—meaning without us—the contradictions of their existence (saints are impossible to be with, one can only meet with them from time to time, hence the S.I.). Then, since 1962, the nine full length features and the five shorts constitute—whether we want it, or wanted it, or not—a body of work. (Beware of this little term: there will be many more beautiful films but who can tell if there will be other "bodies of work" of cinema?).

Finally, time is on the Straubs’ side. Not because they could suddenly become very popular (although Amerika/Klassenverhhältnisse is their most limpid film), but because the distance they’ve put, very early on, between themselves and the "world of cinema" and the solitude of those who count "on their strength alone" are becoming the common and inevitable fate of younger filmmakers who today (meaning very late in the game), would have the frivolity to want to benefit from the romantic aura and the "freedom of expression" of the auteur without having had the time to harden themselves on what that means. This time, the Straubs (perhaps because it’s the two of them) didn’t waste their time seizing it. And if that evening, in the gloomy mezzanine of the Centre Pompidou, there was something really strong in what they said, something that still questions the world through the means of cinema, it’s because they have invested all their pride in thinking that nothing will never be owed to them.

Libération, 3 October 1984

Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Andy Rector

* Although the German title is simply Klassenverhaltnisse, Daney keeps the dual title.

** In English in the text


Franz Kafka, Strauboscoped
by Serge Daney

Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Class Relations (Amerika / Klassenverhältnisse*), 1984.

From Kafka’s unfinished novel (Amerika, 1912-1914), Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet have created Class Relations. Filmed in Hamburg, in German, in black and white, in complete lucidity, with their best accomplices (Lubtchansky on photography and Hochet on sound), and for the joy of all.

There is this game that every child plays, and which is a sort of theory of cinema according to the Straubs. Someone, facing a wall, turns his back to those who advance towards him (and the wall). But they must advance without being seen by him, moving only when he has his back turned. As soon as he looks back, he has the right to send those caught moving back to the starting line. Visible movement is foul ball and invisible movement is fair (the movement of turbulent atoms, the Straubs would say, as materialists; the movement of the contradictions of the classes, they could also add, as Marxists).

The fun of the game is that contestants who progress toward the wall (America?) can only stand still in strange positions, one leg up, eyes staring, petrified, close to losing their balance. With or without pun, it’s a stroboscopic game where the path ultimately travelled can only be retraced through arrested moments. The game is straubsocopic too. If we take a film like Class Relations from the point of view of content, we are tempted to retrace the path as if we had followed it continuously. But then we are cheating, cheating with the form of the film which is a series of moments, of stops along the story**, of blocks of space-time, the incongruity of which we don’t know whether to laugh about (one leg up, eyes staring, etc.) or hallucinate in the void (what happens behind our back, off-screen) that which separates one from another.

Cold Burlesque

So goes the way the Straubs have always approached their subjects (texts more often than not, which must necessarily be cut and re-cut), but also the way that Kafka constructed his stories: a comical suite of facing the fait accompli that withdraws any possibility for the hero (or the reader) to backtrack. With Kafka as with the Straubs, this results in a certain cold burlesque. Cold, but still burlesque. It has taken us a long time to notice it because we only imagine burlesque through the Mack Sennett model, with its tumbles and pile-ups, because we have forgotten the stupid look we had when we were children, facing the wall in the schoolyard.

Karl Rossmann is this tall blond and virtuous boy sent away by his family to America by boat and whose story was retraced by Kafka in seven big chapters. We will assume that this story is known (it’s the Kafka year after all). When they film this story, the Straubs face a tough problem: how to show Karl both how he is seen (by the others, as a naïve and gullible boy) and how he sees himself (as a good man, caught in ridiculous and inexplicable situations). It’s their problem as filmmakers: how to make shots appear one after another and how to make bodies appear in those shots. The burlesque comes from all the avatars of the upright stance, of the stand to attention in front of the authority, of rectitude, of the sloppy appearance, of the hundred ways to stand up to shout an order or to bend over to suddenly kiss a hand (the end of the scene with the stoker).

The Straubs had rehearsed this body language in their preceding short movie En rachâchant, adapted from Duras. They have pretty much nailed it in Class Relations (including the humor brought by the simple presence-performance of the professional actors Laura Betti and Mario Adorf). In a multi-faceted space, with a Rubik’s cube logic, without any sentimental glue or Kafkian approximations, the Straubs’ direction is faultless.

Karl Rossmann (Christian Heinisch) is seen by the Straubs as a Sadean character.  That’s how they are tempted to read him, like a boy Justine who, because he has an abstract idea of his own good and virtue, goes from misfortune to misfortune without becoming evil as a result. In New York, Karl doesn’t only discover that life is hard and that classes are wolves to other classes. This would be the typical "rise to consciousness" script. Good but easy. Because he has the (moral) rectitude of those who think that relations between men are ruled by contract (written or oral), he advances toward a second—more disarming—discovery, that people never do what they say.

The German Language

Class Relations is a question of language as well. There is no shortage of examples. Whether it’s about saying and unsaying (Uncle Jacob), complaining and "uncomplaining" (the stoker), aping solidarity to betray it immediately (Robinson and Delamarche), delivering justice without seeking the truth (the head cook), etc.

Class contradictions are first people who contradict themselves and it only requires a single character like Karl Rossmann who believes in words for this other – less known but chilling – burlesque, the one of politeness, rhetoric, and grammar to nakedly appear. So much so that Karl’s final decision to join the Great Theatre of Oklahoma is a strange "rise to consciousness": he passes from a world that doesn’t work for him (the world where one believes in words) to a world where one can be content to merely believe that the words are said. A truly materialist world in the end, that of the theatre.

Through Sade, the Straubs add a Marxist slant to Kafka’s book. Through their work on the language, they add a "sadistic" slant on the spectator who, non German-speaking, will not cease reading the subtitles (translated by Danièle Huillet) of Amerika / Klassenverhältnisse . This spectator will have the feeling of finding himself in front of a bad German version where a not very subtle high school boy would have written that Karl has "irresponsibly insufficient equipment", whereas Alexandre Vialatte more elegantly translated ‘luggage, you see, unforgivably insufficient’. The Straubs, for whom any film dubbed is a film assassinated, not only want us to hear the German language and Kafka’s own text, but also to find in the subtitles a French which would not betray the breathing, the enunciation, or the grammar of this German language (Kafka’s).

As I suggested above, it’s a question of substance for them. And it’s also a challenge that can drive you mad: if the language is part of the class relations, it must be possible to materialize what Nietzsche called: "the sliding noose of grammar."

Libération, 3 October 1984

Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Andy Rector

* Although the German title is Klassenverhältnisse, Daney uses the dual title.

** Daney writes “arrêts sur l’histoire” which could be understood as “frozen history moments” in the same way that “arrêts sur l’image” are translated as “freeze-frame” or “freeze-image”.


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