Obituary of Jean-Marie Straub

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Jean-Marie Straub, who has passed away at 89, and his wife, Danièle Huillet, have worked together as filmmakers for more than 30 years. Straub-Huillet, as they were often called by French critics, broke with accepted notions of realism, disengaged from bourgeois values, and questioned the primacy of storytelling.

His films were taken almost exclusively from pre-existing texts, be it from literature, theater, or music. The main stylistic resources were a normally static camera, sometimes with a panoramic shot or a tracking shot lasting several minutes, the use of non-professional actors and direct sound, to the point of preserving background noise and even the whisper of the wind into a microphone . The couple’s intention, they claimed, was to teach people “how to think, see and hear.” Straub was notoriously critical of “lazy” viewers who were unwilling or unable to interact with his films.

Straub-Huillet were part of the New German Cinema of the 1960s, which included Volker Schlöndorff, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, and Wim Wenders. Many of his films emphasized continuities rather than breaks in German history.

His first film, Machorka-Muff (1962), an 18-minute short, based on a story by Heinrich Böll, satirized the continuing power of the military in West Germany. “Germany missed its revolution and did not get rid of fascism,” Straub said. “For me it is a country that moves in circles and cannot free itself from its past.”

Jean-Marie Straub received the Pardo d'onore award during the 70th Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland in 2017.
Jean-Marie Straub received the Pardo d’onore award during the 70th Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland in 2017. Photo: Urs Flueeler/EPA/Shutterstock

More directly political was Not Reconciled (1965), adapted from Böll’s 1959 antimilitarist novel Billiards at Half-Past Nine. The film moves back and forth in time, emphasizing that Nazism did not begin in 1933 or end in 1945. Shot in black and white, with high-contrast interior lighting, sparse decor, and precise camera angles and movements, it was an examination of the collective psyche of the German people.

The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1967) was the first of her innovative approaches to presenting music on film. Thoroughly convincing in its historical accuracy and musical authenticity, with most of the roles taken on by professional musicians, and harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt playing Bach (both the man and the music), it is an almost documentary account of the instrumentalists in action in the century XVIII. .

In 1974, Straub-Huillet shot Schoenberg’s religious and philosophical opera Moses and Aaron, refusing to double the singers, as is customary in this type of project. The singers could hear the orchestra through headphones hidden under their headdresses and see the conductor on closed-circuit television screens. They also did Introduction to the Accompaniment of an Animation Scene by Arnold Schoenberg (1973), a 15-minute film essay, and the comic opera in one act From Today Until Tomorrow (1997).

Sicily!  de Straub-Hulliet was released in 1999.
Sicily! de Straub-Hulliet was released in 1999. Photograph: United Archives / Alamy

Bertolt Brecht spoke of “theater whose stage is the street”, and in his adaptation of Pierre Corneille Othon’s play (1970, released in the United States as Eyes Don’t Want to Close at All Times, or, Maybe One Day Rome Will Allow Herself to Choose in Her Turn), Straub-Huillet placed her non-French-speaking, non-professional actors on the terrace of Rome’s Palatine Hill, reading the play against the noises of the modern city. (The couple had moved to Rome that year.) It was a puzzling way to find a new approach to dialogue.

History Lessons (1972), based on Brecht’s novel The Business Affairs of Mr Julius Caesar, placed the story in relation to modern political life. As Marxist dialecticians, Straub and Huillet created severe film critiques of capitalism in a way that paralleled Brecht’s works on the stage. Straub once said: “I don’t know if I’m a Marxist. I don’t know, because there are many ways to be a Marxist. I have not read all of Marx. Marxism is a method, it is not an ideology.

In Fortini/Cani (1976), the Italian writer Franco Fortini examines his thinking on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. From the Cloud to the Resistance (1979), based on two works by Cesare Pavese, takes the form of six dialogues between mythological characters about the guerrilla movement in Piedmont during World War II.

Much of the original dialogue from Kafka’s unfinished novel Amerika was retained in Class Relations (1984), though each scene was pared down to its essentials, usually with only one actor on screen at a time. In 1987, Straub-Huillet took over another unfinished work, Frederic Hölderlin’s The Death of Empedocles, which they shot five times, three of which were shown at various festivals.

Later, increasingly minimalist, Straub-Huillet’s focus shifted to the works of the modernist novelist Elio Vittorini, with three features: Sicily! (1999), Workers, Farmers (2001) and The Return of the Prodigal Son (2003). Their last film together, before Huillet’s death, was These Encounters of Theirs (2006), adapted from the last five stories of Pavese’s Dialogues with Leucò, filmed as a series of meditative texts read by different couples in a landscape exuberant.

Although Straub said: ‘I try to make as little fuss about my life as possible’, quite a bit is known about him. He was born in Metz, northeastern France, and as a teenager organized a film society in his hometown. When he was at school, during the Nazi occupation, German was the official language and children were forbidden to speak French in public. He later referred to this experience in the short film Lorraine! (1994), based on a novel by Maurice Barrès.

Straub studied literature at the University of Strasbourg, then at the University of Nancy, where he met Huillet, a fellow student. They soon lived together, moving to Paris in 1954 and marrying in 1959. To avoid French military service in Algeria, Straub went to live in Munich, where he began his film career.

Huillet died in 2006. Still true to his dual vision, Straub continued to make short films in the same way, based on the writers they both loved, including The Inconsolable (2011), drawn from the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice.

Jean-Marie Straub, film director, screenwriter, and producer, born January 8, 1933; died on November 19, 2022

Ronald Bergan died in 2020

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