His last films are pensive promenades, small digressions into great texts of the 20th century, Kafka and Pavese, but also unrecognized writers such as Maurice Barrès, who provided the basis for “Lorraine!”, 1994, or Georges Bernanos, after which the last film was created, “La France contre les robots”, 2020. It was filmed in Straub’s home or on walks in the area, on the shore of Lake Geneva, very close to Rolle, where Godard also lived, who died a few months ago. Two great dead filmmakers, two outsiders who, on their own individual paths, had the same goal: to keep the images and sounds of cinema alive.
Straub made most of his films with his wife Danièle Huillet, who died in 2006 – after her death, Barbara Ulrich was at his side. There were complicated productions among them, at various locations, many in Italy. In Rome they filmed “The eyes will not close at all times, or perhaps one day Rome will allow itself to choose for its part”, based on Corneille’s “Othon”, on the Palatine Hill and in the gardens of the Villa Doria-Pamphili. The opera “Moses and Aron”, by Arnold Schönberg, was filmed in the old amphitheater of Alba Fucens in Abruzzo, the film is dedicated to RAF terrorist Holger Meins, but this dedication had to be removed when it was broadcast on TV.
He fled to Germany to avoid military service and lived in Munich for a long time
These films are contrary to any usual notion of literary ‘filming’ in a resolute, consistent but thoroughly playful way, through a pleasure in the text from which they arose and which they convey while watching. They respect the text, responding carefully to its vibrations and rhythms. Frieda Grafe described this as opening up to images that are images before language, “not images, but something more concentrated, also quite monstrous, which is directed against the prevailing realistic logic, which is too closely negotiated with bourgeois thinking”.
“Born under Capricorn”Straub started a small ‘curriculum vitae’, “on the Sunday after the Epiphany in the birthplace of Paul Verlaine … and baptized in the name of one of the very first conscientious objectors (Jean-Marie Vianney, pastor of Ars), the year when Hitler came to power…”: January 8, 1933, in Metz.
The coordinates of this life and work are thus marked out, French literature and culture, a peculiar relationship with the Catholic Church, a strict anti-fascism. Straub became active in film clubs and wrote reviews, filmmakers he admired were Robert Bresson, Kenji Mizoguchi, John Ford. To avoid military service and deployment in the Algerian war, Straub went to Germany in the 1960s. He lived in Munich for a long time when Schwabing was the center of young German film. He made two films with Huillet based on Heinrich Böll, who had given them the rights, although of course he didn’t get along with the films then, but he still got involved so that the two could get their big project off the ground, 1967, “Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach” . Of course, the bourgeois film critics of the 1960s didn’t get along with this idea of cinema at all. In an issue of the magazine Filmkritik, Helmut Färber and Helmut Linder subjected the ambitiously ridiculous reception of the time to a meticulous reading, one still reads it with an absurd shudder.
The allegations from back then of being elitist and uncinematic have remained, mostly from people who obviously don’t enjoy the cinema much. Straub and Huillet do not take texts as intellectual constructions, they take them as bodies, let them sound and breathe. They copy the passages and scan them in different colors, the life of the later films is already present in these ‘scripts’. They work for weeks with the actors, mostly amateurs, but even when they have professionals with them, the cunning of the texts is enormous, as in “Class Relations”, based on Kafka’s unfinished novel “The Lost Man/America”, with Mario Adorf, Laura Betti, Harun Farocki.
It’s all original sound in these films, unforgettable is the creaking rumble of the ox-cart on which, in “Dalla nube alla resistenza/From the cloud to the resistance”, the seer Tiresias and Oedipus toddle their way. The 1978 film, based on Cesare Pavese’s “Dialogues with Leuko”, is a hinge, the turning towards Italy, towards the open, that is towards the mythical, archaic. The human world is one of bloody victims, of oppression, of violence, of capitalism, but the gods in their ethereal, nebulous existence still long for heaviness on earth – all Straub/Huillet films come to this dialectic.
Straub also developed his communist utopia from Pavese and Hölderlin, which years ago evoked the destruction of the planet through unrestrained capitalist exploitation. In a statement at the Venice Film Festival, where he and Huillet were to receive an honorary lion in 2006, he made a final open confession and rejected the award. A vehement text against capitalism and fascism. A text that caused an uproar, like the dedication to Holger Meins at the time. Revolution means giving back to very old and forgotten things their place – a phrase by Charles Péguy, also a forgotten but important man for him. The revolutionary Jean-Marie Straub died on Sunday at his home on Lake Geneva, like among other things Le Monde reporteda few weeks before his 90th birthday.