TIFF have been presenting “Not Reconciled”: which is both the epithet attached to this powerful retrospective and the first film from the uncompromising collaborative team Danièle Huillet and her husband Jean-Marie Straub. Tonight we ventured into a very dark, place, namely the decade since Straub was left alone, with the passing of his partner in 2006. Straub is now 84 years old. What kind of films would we see from the aging auteur, suddenly bereft of his companion and artistic partner?
Tonight we saw three of the last four films Straub has made alone.
- Kommunisten (2014) 70 minutes
- The Algerian War! (2014) 2 minutes
- The Aquarium and the Nation (2015) 31 minutes
IMDB also mentions a film that we did not see tonight, namely In omaggio all’arte italiana! from 2015, at ten minutes another short film. This ‘homage to the art of Italy’ includes footage from History Lessons. Similarly, Kommunisten (the film of the three upon which I want to focus) includes footage from a few previous films.
The published program from TIFF explaining the six vignettes that comprise Kommunisten says,
“five of these are gathered from Straub-Huillet’s previous films, making Kommunisten a kind of career summa.”
I suppose it makes sense that the film-maker should bring back images from before, at least as a kind of reminiscence or celebration of his collaboration with his deceased partner, if not to perhaps attempt some sort of valedictory or last statement. I couldn’t help thinking of the way musicians will re-purpose existing music, whether at the organ in church or creating a film – score, making something seem totally new. This can be both a pragmatic choice –when you have something that works and it’s much harder to make something entirely new & original – as well as an opportunity for inter-textual references. I can’t pretend that I got all the references, especially considering that some of the significance may be more personal concerning Straub’s own memories of Huillet rather than something meant for the audience to read. Setting aside the decoding of inter-textuality—which I can’t do without a great deal more research—I believe there’s a lots to be made simply from the composition of these vignettes, as a final statement in the same thematic area as the previous films. Most of the Straub / Huillet films explored aspects of Brecht & Marx, offering fresh views of class-struggle, celebrations of the common person & the material world (“material” in the sense of Marx not Madonna), and at the same time exploring new ways of employing Brecht’s dramaturgy on film.
For a Marxist widower in 2014-5, looking back on his body of work with his wife, in the quarter century since the USSR fell apart and the Marxist struggle more or less collapsed, I think he wanted to make a kind of statement.
I wonder if I was the only one in the theatre overcome by a profound sense of nostalgia in Kommunisten hearing the way he began the film. We start with a tune that for me represents the impossible dream of class struggle, at least in the 20th century, namely Hanns Eisler’s national hymn for the GDR. Let the words and melody be a kind of image of the dream, that would be unfulfilled in GDR, especially for the composer.
- The melody is about ideals and reconstruction
- Eisler’s tune reminds me of The Internationale
- That the GDR in practice never came close to practicing the ideals sung in their beautiful anthem
- Eisler himself was a martyr to that hypocrisy, first black-listed and then thrown out of the USA for being a communist, then after going home to East Germany as a true believer, hounded by the GDR government
In the film proper we see interrogations, the persecution of those who admitted to being communist. We again see the dignity of people filmed as they go about their business, in huge numbers and without any individuality. We see the land and the insignificance of humanity in the presence of mountains and nature’s majesty. And we come to some relevant texts, both retrospective (looking back at the fascist period in Italy) and prescriptive / idealistic, dreaming of what might be. The ending is upbeat.
The second film was only two minutes, yet sustained tension for what felt like much longer. In all their films I find that Straub & Huillet play with our perception of time. On this occasion we’re confronted with the war that a much younger Straub evaded, going to Germany instead: in its personal impact for him and anyone else for that matter. The film closes with the mad intensity of Schubert’s ballad Der Erlkönig, suggesting some of the obsession Straub must have felt concerning this war.
The last film began in the most innocuous way. Of the roughly half-hour of The Aquarium and the Nation, we spend the first ten-fifteen minutes watching fish swimming in an aquarium that fills the screen. It’s our whole world, which as we’ll discover, is totally apt. We see a reading from what I believe is a Malraux novel, linking the innocuous fish we were watching with something more metaphysical, as we’re told that fish don’t see their aquarium. Transcendence comes in an excerpt from Jean Renoir’s film La Marseillaise, the higher meaning coming in the new idea of a “Nation”.
I’ve been in very odd places. Saturday I was spirited away on the sublime sounds of the Tallis Scholars singing unaccompanied religious music in a reverberant basilica. Last night it was Kiss Me Kate on TCM, one of the more ambitious Hollywood musicals, but still, a very commercial alternative to Saturday, and again with tonight’s intensity. Tomorrow it’s back to something more commercial in the form of Raiders of the Lost Ark at Roy Thomson Hall with the Toronto Symphony. Straub & Huillet are (or in her case, were) artists with no interest in commercial success. If he does have any sense of a mission—and I think that’s a big “if”—it would be to inspire the next generation of activists & artists. I can’t deny I feel very inspired by tonight’s program, and am eager to see the last two films in the retrospective, taking us back to the 20th century for Othon (1969) and Proposition in Four Parts (1985).