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On the death of Jean-Marie Straub: Everything smashed to rebuild

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“I’ve always been bored with literature and am reading less and less. I don’t care about literature! We’re not interested in adapting a novel or a play.” To understand Jean-Marie Straub, one has to read this statement without flinching.

Anyone who is familiar with his work knows how much his films, which he mostly developed with his partner Danièle Huillet, who died of cancer in 2006, are based on texts, essays, plays and novels. They permeated the films in such a unique, immediately recognizable way, they were worked on and modulated until suddenly it seemed as if an Alexandrian by the playwright Pierre Corneille or a verse by Hölderlin could ring out – or shine with the reluctant brilliance of a modernist short circuit.

Straub-Huillet redesigned European memory

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Jean-Marie Straub died on Sunday at the age of 89 in Rolle, Switzerland, where Godard last lived. It’s not clear if they ever met and railed against the world at the kebab on the corner. Brecht, Böll, Kafka, Mallarmé, Pavese, Montaigne… Just like Godard, but with an almost reverse modality (where the copied and pasted snippets in “Out of Breath”, Straub-Huillet always maintained the integrity of the texts used) the couple redesigned part of the intellectual memory of Europeans.

“It’s about a process of expropriating the book, the written, printed page,” Straub once described her approach. “It’s an attempt to return to an earlier culture. A culture where people told stories around the fire.” But that only works when the fire is burning. We’re not in slippers here, and we’re not holding a glass of cognac.

The French directing duo Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub in 1996.
© Photo: Antonia Weisse
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In “Othon – Tell the Stones” the actors are amateurs, their mother tongue is not French. The filmmakers, with a sadistic ulterior motive, asked her to memorize Corneille’s tirades. They deliver them in robes, with accents and at a slightly crazy rate of speech against the background of the noisy streets of Rome. In 1969, this film stunned. The critics at the time were not unanimous as to whether they were avant-garde geniuses or a hoax.

Watching the film again today is confronted with the same grinding force: the ability to exercise one’s power not as an unleashing (the cinema as a comatose fascination) but as an extralucid exercise (the film as a critical machine). It needs feedback, resistance, contradictions, while at the same time categorically insisting on the unity of the place, on the recording in the continuity of the planned sequence: “Our films, that’s matter!”

All at the risk of not being noticed, not being understood, not being admired – or not being widely disseminated outside of the international circle of a hardcore fan club. “We have always cultivated Cocteau’s morality: what you are accused of, cultivate it yourself.” Straub, always chewing on his cigar, did not mince his words and never missed an opportunity in interviews or debates after the screening, in the anger of a perennial dissident who railed against the bourgeoisie, the destruction of the planet by predatory consumerism, and the stultification of the masses under the thumb of entertainment.

No complicity with torture in Algeria

Jean-Marie Straub was born in Metz on January 8, 1933 and ended up in Paris in November 1954. There he met Danièle Huillet and suggested that she work on the film Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1967). He moved in the galaxy of the Nouvelle Vague and teamed up with Jacques Rivette, François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. In 1958 he refused to be called up for military service in Algeria “and thus direct complicity in institutionalized torture”. This act of refusing war made him an outlaw who had to leave France and go into exile in Munich for eleven years.

This also explains the misunderstandings in the perception of a largely German-language filmography that, strictly speaking, is not embedded in the emergence of New German Cinema and that developed in the 1970s around Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders or Werner Schroeter, who was closer to Straub-Huillet. The later move to Rome continues this path of rooting and uprooting. The prosecution against him was only dropped in 1971, which allowed him to travel more freely again.

The big films of the 1970s and 1980s, such as “Moses and Aron” after Arnold Schönberg, “Too Early / Too Late”, “Class Relations” and “The Death of Empedocles” became the couple’s theoretical outburst, their biting lyricism and their desire to find “the people” where it is missing. “You have to throw people back on something that they have repressed or forgotten, which, through this repression, makes them slaves of the present and of fashion, of imperialist globality.” Patience and violence, contemplation and demolition, listening and disrupting – the great bipolar one Music by Straub-Huillet stops and then continues in a muted tone.

The obituary first appeared in Liberation.

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Source: Tagesspiegel

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