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The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach

Here’s an extract from a really perceptive essay by the pseudonymous “girish” on one of my favorite films, The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet; this is a film almost unlike any other, starring classical harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt as Bach, tracking the composer through his everyday life as a church organist and composer for hire, composed of onlky about 80 shots for the entire film, shot on many of the locations of Bach’s life, using period instruments, actual musicians rather than actors pretending to be musicians, and photographed in 35mm using direct sync-sound recording.

As “girish” notes,

“Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, the directors of The Chronicle Of Anna Magdalena Bach, stage some 25 Bach pieces or extracts, each of them as a single-scene long-take. What’s more, the camera’s often static, and soon you realize that there’s nothing to do but immerse yourself in the music and its flow. By not breaking up a musical performance into multiple shots, they preserve the unity of each musical piece, not allowing the music to devolve into a merely “accompanying” function.

What I find most interesting about this film is that it’s simultaneously both documentary-like and self-consciously artificial. By embracing these two (seemingly) diametrically opposed natures, the film finds one nature in the other: documenting involves artifice, and vice versa.

Documentaries purport to “document”. This movie goes one step further: it documents by means of documents. The greatest document that Bach left behind was his music. We see “authentic” period performance renditions of Bach’s music, juxtaposed with other documents: title pages of sheet music, notated scores, letters, citations, formal decrees, engravings and paintings of the period, city maps. Not all these documents are necessarily “authentic”: Anna’s diary, which is the basis for the voiceover that runs through the film, is fictitious, but constructed from letters and records of that period.”

The effect is transcendent; one feels that one is the room with Bach, his wife (played by musician Christiane Lang), present at the creation of some of the most gorgeous music that the world has ever known. Interestingly, The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach was have to been shot in color, using direct sound recording (as it has in the completed version), but at the last minute, the backers of the film pulled out, telling Straub and Huillet that they would only agree to fund the film if the director post-synced the film, using the same musicians, but after the fact, in a regular recording studio, to obtain supposedly “optimal” sound. Needless to say, such a move would have completely undermined the artistic integrity — to say nothing of the sense of verisimilitude — that pervades the final film, in addition to doing away with the acoustic values inherent in location shooting, and live sound recording.

It was only when the unlikely figure of Jean-Luc Godard stepped in at the last minute with roughly $100,000 of funding that filming was allowed to proceed; the film then had to be shot in black and white because of the reduced budget. I think it actually works better in black and white, and becomes more pleasingly austere, and seems like a series of line engravings from the period, accompanied as it is with fragments of Bach’s letters and scores shown on the screen for brief segments.

Indeed, Straub and Huillet were working on such a limited budget in any event that they had to scout locations for the film on bicycle, and arrange for the loan of authentic period costumes, instruments, and also filming permissions entirely on their own. Godard’s last minute intervention — as documented in the late Richard Roud’s superb book on Straub and Huillet, unfortuately long out of print, is one of the most dramatic and generous last-minute gestures, at a moment of crisis, in the history of the cinema.

The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach is available on DVD, but it’s out of print; if you can snag a copy, I urge you to do so at once. Click here for a link to superb piece by Daniel Fairfax on Straub and Huillet from Senses of Cinema.


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About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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