As the program notes for the retrospective announce, “MoMA presents the first complete North American retrospective of the films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, who together formed one of the most intense, challenging, and controversial collaborations in the history of cinema. Straub (French, b. 1933) and Huillet (French, 1936–2006) were inseparable partners from 1954 until Huillet’s death, working intimately on every aspect of film production, from script writing to direction to editing.
Straub-Huillet created highly personal film interpretations of profoundly ambitious art: stories by Böll, Kafka, Duras, and Pavese; poems by Dante, Mallarmé, and Hölderlin; a long-forgotten Corneille play, an essay by Montaigne, a film by D. W. Griffith, a painting by Cézanne, an unfinished opera by Schöenberg; and the biography of Johann Sebastian Bach as told through the (fictionalized) letters of his wife Anna Magdalena.
They sought to make what Straub called ‘an abstract-pictorial dream’ while remaining rigorously sensitive to the letter and spirit of the text, and to the relationship between sound and image. At the same time, all of Straub-Huillet’s films are political, whether obliquely, in reflecting on the lessons of history and advancing a Marxist analysis of capitalism and class struggle; or overtly, in considering ancient and contemporary forms of imperialism, militarism, and resistance, from Ancient Rome to colonial Egypt to wartime Germany. They aspire to nothing short of a revolution in political consciousness, especially among workers and peasants, the colonized and the exploited.
At 83, Straub continues to make films that never waver from his commitment to the subversion of all forms of cinematic convention, whether through the use of direct sound, disjunctive editing, amateur actors, and a foregrounding of the natural landscape; fragmentary and elliptical narratives spoken in various languages; Brechtian estrangement; on-location shooting of ancient texts in contemporary, anachronistic settings (for example, on the ground where the Circus Maximus once stood); and a privileging of musical and poetic rhythms and structures over the decorative, the spectacular, the psychological, and the satirical. Dialogue is shorn of emotion, and images are deliberately unflashy. ‘The work we have to do,’ Straub insists, ‘is to make films which radically eliminate art, so that there is no equivocation.’
Introductions by noted Straub-Huillet collaborators take place during the retrospective’s opening weekend. Unless they are listed as 35mm, films are presented in new digital preservations overseen by Straub, Olivier Boischot, and Barbara Ulrich. The series is organized by Joshua Siegel, Curator, Department of Film.” This once in a lifetime chance to see the work of these master filmmakers, most of which is unavailable on DVD, is simply not to be missed in one is in the New York area.
My own favorites of their work include The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968), starring harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt as Bach (whom I once had the pleasure of meeting and talking with about the making of the film, after he presented an organ concert in Amsterdam); the 16mm color feature History Lessons (1972), and the 35mm short The Bridegroom, The Comedienne and The Pimp (1968), featuring a young Rainer Werner Fassbinder as the pimp, but these are just a few of their many brilliant films. A chance to see these gorgeous, transcendent films should not be passed up if at all possible.