Straub & Huillet’s History Lesson

I saw History Lesson (or Geschichtsunterricht ) at TIFF tonight, a 1972 film by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet that’s my latest instalment in the retrospective “Not Reconciled”.

Straub & Huillet adapted an incomplete fragment of a novel by Bertolt Brecht. In a recent interview James Quandt (who programmed this series for TIFF) said

“Straub-Huillet repeatedly refuted characterizations of their cinema as one thing: severe, difficult, Brechtian, cerebral, etc.”

Difficulty is in the eye of the beholder of course. Sometimes people are stopped by the simplest things, such as a language barrier: because the films may not be available with the right subtitles. Thankfully this retrospective goes a long way to answering charges arising in a vacuum. There’s really no substitute for seeing the films.

And so, speaking of translations, the Brecht fragment is titled Die Geschäfte des Herrn Julius Caesar which can be translated as The business (or the business affairs?) of Mr. Julius Caesar. Oh how I wish I had read the Brecht so I could get a better handle on the adaptation, to discern how far Straub-Huillet (who co-wrote the script as well as directing it) might have strayed from the original. How much is Brecht, how much is them? i’ll know better once i get my hands on the book: although i don’t know if i can find it in English.

We’re in the presence of something deconstructive, as there is a kind of irony in the disparity between what we might expect, given what we’ve been taught about Rome and its history, and what Straub-Huillet give us instead. Modern Rome is the site for a series of conversations, apparently with ancient Romans –and I don’t mean senior citizens but rather figures brought to us from history– somehow brought before a camera and speaking German. And so when the film concludes, why not have a burst of Bach after all? These are not choices one might immediately think of as Brechtian: yet they are powerful reminders that we were not seeing real Romans in their context, not unless one allows some supernatural agency whereby they’re back from the dead, in modern Rome, and speaking German. I can’t be objective about this, as to whether these choices are designed to distance us or not. More Brechtian are the occasional abrupt pauses in the film during the conversations (reminders of the artificiality of the situation), or the shot of a face, staring directly at the camera for several minutes, as we hear the birds singing in the background: and nothing happens.

A man drives around Rome, interviewing different personages, who appear to be historical although we don’t actually find out their proper names. One is a business man, one is an ex-soldier who is now a peasant, one is a lawyer and the other one is a poet. The day after International Women’s Day, I can’t help noticing the preponderance of the male gender: but perhaps that’s unavoidable and surely a reflection of Brecht’s original. (but I am just speculating).

I glanced at a few commentaries and couldn’t help noticing that the things catching my eye aren’t mentioned by anyone. Am I off track? We are watching a series of interviews, conversations between a wanderer and the four subjects from different social strata, driving through the narrow streets of Rome. This is no Aston Martin, no wild car-chase. No, this is a beat-up old car that stalls at least twice, and is honked at regularly because it’s kind of slow. We are slowly descending through Rome, in a kind of labyrinth. Am I crazy to want to think of this listener as Dante? But there is no redemption or religion here. At one point a big truck crosses our path with the huge words EPIPHANI: suggesting that spirit and religion are just another business even in the Eternal City. But whether the listener reminds you of Dante or perhaps Diogenes (another D who came to mind), simply seeking an honest man, this is a very oblique sort of enquiry. The questions aren’t ever clearly stated. We are getting answers to unstated questions, long narrations that are alternatives to the usual explanations.


Director Jean-Marie Straub

That is a part of the history lesson. Our listener is hearing testimony from those who know,  or would be expected to know. A soldier who twice saw Caesar in the distance more or less confirms that none of the soldiers gave a damn, they simply wanted something to eat. It’s a classic Marxian reading, where the material conditions inform anything theoretical that one might surmise. The capitalist speaks of war and observes how commerce is like war, a very ironic series of assertions.

Another aspect of our history lesson is the meta-question, the matter of historiography that was such a central preoccupation for the New German Cinema. Now of course I’m not sure I should be lumping Straub – Huillet into that group, a huge and sometimes contradictory series of film-makers, but I see some clear parallels, or if you prefer, techniques and preoccupations in common with those German film-makers of roughly the same period.  Straub & Huillet were Germans who left the country behind, but likely had similar aspirations.

When we’re looking at historiography in this film it’s a matter of rejecting the usual approach to history. No we won’t study it via the great men, although this film does revolve around the big names –Crassus, Pompey etc surrounding Julius Caesar—but this is a deconstruction rather than a faithful study. The great men maybe weren’t so great, or not who we thought they were. That kind of project, revisiting assumptions especially sacred cows, is typical of the New German Cinema.

There are two very different sorts of discourse in this film, just as I saw with The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach that opened the retrospective last week. Straub-Huillet offer two very different sorts of content, juxtaposed against one another, namely on the one hand the words in the diaries of AMB, read aloud  and on the other hand the musical performances of the compositions of her husband, JSBach, that are performed. For History Lesson, we again have two almost irreconcilable discourses. The listener drives through Rome, meandering through crowds of people. And then we have the interviews, the verbiage from those who would tell us what it means. But maybe we see history not just in those words, but just as much in that stream of people in the narrow streets of Rome, blocking the movement of the car, sometimes lugging food, sometimes leading their children, sometimes honking horns: while little or nothing happens.

And speaking of lessons, Brecht & Marx suggest something nostalgic to me if not to everyone watching the film. The Cold War was supposedly won, Marxism conveniently buried. The insights of this film feel remote indeed from a world where the 1% are poised to take an even bigger share of the wealth with the help of their orange haired champion to the south. The rigor of the film both formally & ideologically seems like a remnant from another time when –thinking for example of the composer at the centre of Sunday’s films, Arnold Schönberg—matters of form and principle commanded our attention, and when audiences had a longer attention span. It’s refreshing being in the presence of film-makers expecting their audience to think.

The retrospective continues:

  • Friday: A Visit to the Louvre and Cézanne: Conversation with Joachim Gasquet
  • Saturday: Antigone
  • Sunday: Moses and Aaron, including a live performance by Against the Grain Theatre.
  • More information about the retrospective


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1 Response to Straub & Huillet’s History Lesson

  1. Pingback: Othon: au revoir à Straub et Huillet | barczablog

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