PRINT October 1977

Seeing Ideas: Straub and Huillet’s “Moses und Aron”

JEAN-MARIE STRAUB AND Daniele Huillet’s 1975 film Moses und Aron is based on Arnold Schoenberg’s opera Moses und Aron, composed (in California) in the early 1930s. The film, like the opera before it and the Bible before that, deals with interlocking problems of representation and authority. For Schoenberg dramatizing the ancient narrative about Moses’ promulgation of monotheism, and its correlative, the proscription of idolatrous visual art, had distinct modern appeal, as for Straub and Huillet the further transposition of the opera into cinema carried the same issue a step further (less aural, more visual).

As early as 1912 Schoenberg was writing at length about ways of dealing with mixed-means artworks, both in terms of setting lyrics against music and in terms of sound against image in film. An article called “The Relation to the Text,” from 1912, detailed the interior conflict between a literary work and a musical composition based on it. Schoenberg’s correspondence with Emil Hertzka, in the following year, shows Schoenberg’s terms for a proposed film collaboration with Wassily Kandinsky: to complement Schoenberg’s composition Der Glückliche Hand, Kandinsky’s visuals must possess the “utmost unreality.”

Although it would be hard not to be captivated by Schoenberg’s solutions to problems of form, content, and their interrelations, it was neither “The Relation to the Text” (published in Kandinsky’s Blaue Reiter Almanach) nor Schoenberg’s proposed movie collaboration with Kandinsky that attracted Daniele Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub to his work. A 1959 performance of Moses und Aron unsettled Straub so much that he made a costly long-distance call to Huillet in Paris summoning her to the next performance. Only later, while investigating Schoenberg’s work while preparing to make a movie of Moses und Aron, did Straub and Huillet come across the letters from Schoenberg to Kandinsky, dated 1923.

These letters, which were Straub and Huillet’s introduction to the polemical Schoenberg, were used as a text for what can be considered a “prelude” to Moses und Aron: Straub/Huillet’s 1972 movie Introduction to Arnold Schoenberg’s Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene. Less cumbersomely referred to as Introduction to Music, this 15-minute film uses readings from the Schoenberg letters and a quotation from Brecht, together with Schoenberg’s music, to sketch out an anguished and committed artist. The letters deal with an eloquent refusal to join Kandinsky at that suspiciously Aryan Weimar institution, the Bauhaus. Moved by Schoenberg’s initial refusal, Kandinsky tried to assuage Schoenberg’s apprehensiveness with something like, “Yes, you’re a Jew, my dear Schoenberg, but we know you’re an exception . . .” Schoenberg’s retort: “When I walk along the street and each person looks at me to see whether I am a Jew or a Christian, I can’t very well tell them that I’m the one that Kandinsky and some others make an exception of, although of course that man Hitler is not of their opinion.” Huillet and Straub were surprised that Schoenberg wrote that six months before the November putsch in 1923 that brought Hitler to the public eye, and a year and a half before Hitler wrote Mein Kampf. By the way, the quotation from Brecht in Introduction to Music is from 1935: “How is someone going to tell the truth about Fascism which he is against if he doesn’t want to say anything about Capitalism which created it?”

The main conflict in the Moses und Aron film concerns Moses and Aaron, themselves elite members of the Habiru (the tribe captive in Egypt from which the name “Hebrew” comes). Moses, confronted with the appearance and the reason of the Unique, Eternal, Almighty, has a mission: to persuade the people of the existence of only one God. But Moses has a flaw that makes for most of the dramatic tension: he can think but he cannot speak. God suggests a way around this problem. Moses can make himself understood to Aaron, his brother, and Aaron will be Moses’ “mouthpiece,” broadcasting the word to the people.

Now all communications systems, whether engineered by God or not, have implicit limitations. Moses is responsible for transmitting the word to Aaron, but he cannot be responsible for, and is incapable of encoding, the words that Aaron speaks to the people. Also, there are feedback limitations which Aaron cannot be responsible for: when Moses must go away for 40 days to the Mountain of Revelation to receive the Law, Aaron is incapable of communicating the word when he thinks that this cruel God might have killed Moses.

Aaron’s foremost concern is the unity of the people; his secondary concern is the accuracy with which he conveys the word. What good is the word, he thinks, if there is no people to receive it? The practical Aaron compromises his understanding of the word—thereby compromising the word itself—by saying it less well than he understands it. He builds the Golden Calf knowing he is betraying the true God to the mere gods, but believing he is justified because he is preserving the people for God. The uncompromising Moses, devoted to the monotheistic idea, is horrified at Aaron’s lack of rigor. A division of labor between Moses and Aaron puts Moses in a position where the idea, for which he is responsible, means nothing if not perfectly understood by the people, while it puts Aaron in the position of being responsible for getting the word to the people, knowing that the idea is nothing without them.

Here are the elements that attracted Straub and Huillet’s interest, and that comprise the political matrix of Moses und Aron. Their political interest is in the conflict between Moses’ uncompromising and authoritative theory and Aaron’s compromise of it in practice. And the conflict in Moses und Aaron of theory and practice is a conflict over the precise limitations of what can be used to encode or embody an idea in order to communicate it precisely. Moses views verbal as well as visual images as imprecise because they do not adequately embody the many-meaningfulness of his idea (Straub and Huillet, of course, rely on both images and sound in their presentation of these very issues).

The distinction between “idea” and “image,” which is the esthetic counterpart to the distinction between theory and practice, holds fascination partly because of the very difficulties involved in differentiating between “idea” and “image” in the Moses story. In the words of the Bible Moses transforms Nile water into blood and back again in order to proselytize on behalf of monotheism; in Schoenberg’s aural foray into divine dissonance God’s voice is attributed to a chorale group; in the Straub/Huillet film visualization a dazzling Golden Calf is bleached from the screen—confronted by Moses’ rage at representation—only to leave an eerie afterimage floating on the all-white screen. Are such images “representing” ideas “representationally” or not? Perhaps Straub and Huillet distinguish “image” and “idea” in practice where they offer a succession of images against the fury of the Schoenberg music when Moses, confused by Aaron’s accusation that he (Moses) has himself become an image to the people, beseeches God, “Dost thou permit this interpretation?”

(Significantly, Straub and Huillet avoid the use of props and trickery to the extent that when they are obliged by the text to illustrate “magic”—during one of the three miracles Moses and Aaron present to the people—they discreetly cut from the scene where the staff is thrown down to the scene where it has already become the serpent. Similarly, they cut directly from the scene where Moses’ hand is healthy to the scene where it is waxily leprous, and they cut from Aaron holding the urn of Nile water to the urn’s contents as having already been transformed into blood. If magic implies a manipulation of images to an illusionistic end, Straub and Huillet, like their Moses, seem deliberately and rigorously to avoid deception.)

The Straub/Huillet movie begins (literally, Shot 1) with an excerpt from what Cahiers du Cinema editors identify as the 1523 Martin Luther translation of the Bible. The fact that this is the Fraktur version has at least peripheral interest because Luther argued for a Bible that could be understood by those who were not scholars of Hebrew, Greek or Latin. One paragraph, bracketed in red ink, is read by a female voice. The words describe how Moses, simply by repeating God’s word about eliminating the non-believers, has the Levites take up their swords, run through the campsite, and slaughter 3,000 men. From the outset we are made aware that the biblical Moses employs the word of the Lord as a means to an end, investing both the Lord and himself with a vividly graphic authority in the process. Thus seeing Moses first as the instrument of punishment (in the depicted biblical text) puts him in a different light from the troubled instrument of enlightenment that we see him as “in person.”

Immediately following the opening credits there is a brief handwritten dedication in red pen on a white background:

Für Holger Meins
J. M. S. *
D. H.

Meins was a member of a West German anarchist movement called the Baader-Meinhoff Gang. Imprisoned with other members for activities that included a department store arson in 1967, and demonstrations against the right-wing newspaper publisher Axel Springer, Meins died as a result of a hunger strike in prison. This dedication to the victim of political circumstances establishes Straub’s and Huillet’s sympathy for Meins, whose death refers back to the exercise of unjust authority (and this is very much a film about authority).

The film takes place not indoors on an opera stage, but on location in an amphitheater at Alba Fucense, Italy. The site, originally consecrated as a temple of Apollo and later used by the Romans for a prison to incarcerate uncooperative rulers, is the location of the 12th-century Romanesque Basilica of San Pietro. The oval amphitheater, measuring 330 by 260 feet, is situated among foothills near the 7,500-foot Monte Velina, which, with a smaller peak nearby, appears frequently in the movie. First, the mountains serve as visual counterpart to the authority of God, his voice admonishing Moses: “I will lead you thither . . . you will be to all peoples a model . . .” Later, Moses and Aaron stand with the mountains behind them, reinforcing their power as Aaron warns the people: “Know the might of this staff that it imparts to the leader!”

The amphitheater itself serves for Straub and Huillet as an exterior and, through its severely demarcated boundaries, an interior enclosure as well. Playing with and against the interior/exterior ambivalence of the amphitheater as an enclosed space thus allows Straub and Huillet to convey with few props—even with a minimum of shots—an impact that depends on contrast. For example, Aaron appears against the contours of the amphitheater enclosure whining, “Can you love what you dare not represent to yourself?” But right after that, in the first frontal shot in the movie, we see Moses not confined by the walls. He “transcends” the confines of the amphitheater, outlined by pieces of sky, and the music tempo accelerates to Moses’ staccato confrontation of Aaron: “UNREPRESENTABLE BECAUSE INVISIBLE BECAUSE INCOMMENSURABLE BECAUSE UNENDING BECAUSE ETERNAL . . .”

As far as the music itself is concerned, Schoenberg argued: “The assumption that a piece of music must summon up images of one sort or another, and if these are absent the piece of music has not been understood or is worthless, is as widespread as only the false and banal can be.” There are, however, certain Schoenberg musical passages in the film version of Moses und Aron that do summon up obvious images, although these at least quasi-programmatic interludes all occur during the time Moses is not on the scene. Once, in a scene dealing with Aaron’s tacit leadership, Aaron defers to the demands of the people and a pizzicato of violin and cello strings lends a quavering, heartstring quality to Aaron’s remark to the frustrated people: “Thy gods I give back to thee and thee to them as you desire. . . .” A haunting melody first sung with the lyric “I’ve seen him [Aaron] as a fiery flame came up calling him” is repeated much later as a paean to the Golden Calf: “Thou Golden God, thy glow streams through me with pleasure.” This melodic recapitulation associates the people’s ecstasy with both the image of Aaron and the images he himself creates. By implication Aaron is associated with these image interludes, because they arise during Moses’ absence, when he is in control.

As Schoenberg’s music implicates Aaron with the occurrence of obvious musical images, Straub and Huillet’s delineation of his role reinforces Aaron as image-maker in the movie. The narrative space of the movie is clearly divided between Aaron, the imagist, and Moses, the ideator. Aaron, with disarmingly antiformalist insistence, tells the people during Moses’ long absence, “Do not expect the form before the idea! But they’ll make their appearance at the same time!”1 Aaron, who is responsible for giving “form” to Moses’ idea, here distinguishes between idea-less and idea-ful form. How can Straub and Huillet visually distinguish them? The very first “visual” in Moses und Aron confronts us with Moses’ occipital portion, and the same tight frame on the back of Moses’ head holds for some five minutes. His eyes averted, we see only a slice of sky and intimations of his beard, nose and puckered forehead when his head rotates slightly. Even more than with Rodin’s The Thinker, we are at a thinker’s idea-center, in his conceptual shoes, so to speak. We witness a stretch of time where God’s words lodge in Moses’ mind and during which the idea germinates.

Setting out with this image of a nascent idea, Straub and Huillet maintain that “idea” is at least visually approachable. Dictionary definitions of “idea”—“plan, scheme, project, intention, mental concept, mental image”—are all abstract. Straub and Huillet try to approximate the source of an idea: back there behind the eyes is a species of seeing (cf. “seer”) that has to do with understanding rather than with sight in the physical sense. A Platonic notion of the “idea”—what which all real things are imperfect imitations of—is the antithesis of the definition Straub and Huillet offer. The first shot does indeed represent a man absorbed in thought. Yet it embraces a material “realism,” because we are made so powerfully aware of elements like the clear sky and the way Gunther Reich, as Moses, can remain almost motionless for five contemplative minutes (or the way his left nostril dilates during a pause in speech).

The first shot of most commercial movies is seductive, kinetic, promising. It lures the audience into its domain. With some films of the New American Cinema—anything by Warhol, Brakhage, Snow—the first shot is more likely to be passive, distanced, remote. Everything is calculated not to lure the audience into its domain. Here even the five minutes of the still head of Moses are part of a single opening shot 9 1/2 minutes long, a shot oppressive (introduced to the back of someone’s head and prevented from seeing his whole, we are too close for a first encounter) and utterly convincing in its insistence that implacablity and oppressiveness must be the correct and only way of making the audience “see” an “idea.”

Contrasting the way Straub and Huillet present Moses with the way they present Aaron tells us a great deal about the dissimilarity between Moses’ ideational space and Aaron’s communicative space. Moses’ plight is one of a struggle to voice the correct words. Aaron can voice the words but compromises his facility when he creates the Golden Calf. At almost every point in the movie the communicatively crippled Moses looms larger than life against an infinite background, while the communicatively capable Aaron is confined by the background of the amphitheater walls. Moses’ fastidiousness, virtue, and lack of corn-promise is conveyed by his dissociation from props and images, while Aaron’s shrewdness, expedience,and compromise are manifest by his association with such.

The first time we see Aaron working solo, while Moses is at the Mountain of the Revelation, the space we associate with Aaron is established. He appears full-bodied, shot in medium range from a slightly high angle, the amphitheater wall behind him informing his entrapment. He speaks eloquently—“Do not expect the form before the idea . . .”—but indicates, by his wrinkled brow and reactive gestures, that he is uncertain. Juxtaposed against this scene is the succeeding shot of the Elders admonishing Aaron, “Give us back our gods that they create order . . . or we tear you to pieces.” Successive shots of Aaron and the people juxtaposed (each with a slightly higher angle on Aaron), diminish his stature significantly until he ultimately gives in to their demands. These shots are comparatively short, all under two minutes, thus reflecting an accelerated pace while Aaron leads in Moses’ absence.

Although Straub and Huillet compose the movie of 15 single shots with Aaron to 10 single shots of Moses, this in no way lends Aaron greater importance. The 10 one-shots of Moses show him in longer takes, always occupying screen left, and viewed frontally more often than in profile—which emphasizes his spiritual frontality. (And screen left signifies the authority position in the movie: the camera pans left when God’s voice is heard; Moses is always on the left while Aaron is on screen right when Moses is away; Aaron will be on screen left and the Calf will occupy screen right. Screen left indicates that whoever is on the left is in the position of authority to the right of anyone else in the shot.) In contrast, Aaron is shot most often in profile (almost as though he is exposed to the “two sides” of the issue at hand), in medium shot and medium close-up (while Moses occupies more screen area in that he is shot in the close-up and medium close-up, and in the 10 shots that Moses and Aaron share, Moses is also favored by occupying foreground space a greater proportion of the time).

But if the shot composition of the movie favors Moses, the acting within these structured shots shows the limited actions Moses is allowed to perform in contrast with Aaron’s relatively free activity. Moses’ relation to his props—the staff, the tablets of the law, his leprous hand—is impassive. By his staff he appears as a shepherd; by his tablets he appears thoughtful and judicious; by his hand he is represented as heartsick in the face of the unbelievers. Aaron’s relation to props is much more authoritarian. When Moses wails “My idea is impotent in Aaron’s word!” Aaron grabs Moses’ staff, announcing, “The word am I and the deed!” He brandishes the staff and “transforms” it into a serpent; like a referee at a prizefight, he champions Moses’ healthy hand after its bout with leprosy, and like an architect of the Howard Roark/Fountainhead School, he roughs up the one critic of the Golden Calf, a pauper who believes the Calf itself fosters polytheism.

In their contrasting definitions of Moses-space and Aaron-space, Moses-time and Aaron-time, Moses-image, and Aaron-image, Straub and Huillet advance notions about ideational space and communicative space. The Moses-image is conveyed through close-up, long-take, a lack of reliance on props and the directness of frontality; this concentrates the audience on the music, the text, the idea, and not on what the scene looks like. The Aaron-image is conveyed through medium shot, high angle, a shorter take, and the use of props to signify “ideas,” which, on the other hand, direct attention toward the surface quality of the visuals. In the Aaron-space the camera itself, no longer concerned with meditative propriety, moves more freely. That freedom is echoed in the less constricting feeling of time in the Aaron-space: because the takes are shorter, time seems to pass more quickly, making the Aaron-space like a recess from Moses’ didactic school, during which people interact—worshipping, dancing, making love, and drinking wine.

Although Straub and Huillet’s exegesis of Moses’ and Aaron’s characters emphasizes Moses’ lack of compromise in relation to Aaron’s compromise, it is sensible to the reasons behind these positions. They respectively perform jobs that have limitations that are, in a certain sense, at odds with each other. They are chosen for their tasks because of their different strengths, which makes for an uneasy coexistence. Lenin, legend has it, declared that the first 50 years of the Russian Revolution would be full of toil, suffering, deprivation, and disappointment; the next 50, however, would be splendid. Similarly, it is built into Moses’ role that the burden of a “first 50 years” is on his shoulders; Moses knows the struggle of voicing the word, and these incommensurable words and ideas will mean trouble. It is built into Aaron’s role that, to preserve the people’s unity, he must dwell on the happiness that the “next 50 years” of the monotheistic revolution (which did involve political liberation) would afford. Where Moses’ role is that of the unremitting laborer and careful thinker, Aaron’s is the shortcutter, the strategist of the expedient. Where Aaron is benevolent, practical, a popularizer, Moses is stern, theoretical and privileged in his idea. Most importantly, these characteristics are determined by the actual tasks Moses and Aaron must respectively discharge, not by a pre-existing notion that the sanctity of an idea is contaminated by its imperfect embodiment in an image. There is the implication that if the use of images in communication were manifestly imperfect, Straub and Huillet could not make a movie that itself treated the conflict of idea and image.

Of course Aaron, unlike Moses, receives the idea once removed from its source (remember that the film is based on an opera). A degradation can accompany the transmission of any idea or any image-just as with the transmission from Moses to Aaron, or from Aaron to the people. When Aaron says, “This is my mission: to speak it more simply than I understood it,”2 it is out of Moses’ ken that simplification might be the way to an increased understanding. He views that as an ill-advised and unforgivable travesty. Obviouslythis too reflects on the film as a whole, insofar as it gives Aaron a point.

The fundamental conflict between Moses and Aaron has its resonances on a less epochal scale in everyday life. The author is displeased with the editor because the text becomes more readable but less precise; the painter is upset with the printer for the unfaithful color in a reproduction. Thus Aaron fervently maintains, “No people grasps more than a part of the image which represents the graspable part of the idea. . . .”

But what here is the thematic whole? Freud claims that “in Egypt monotheism had grown—as far as we understand its growth—as an ancillary effect of imperialism; God was a reflection of a Pharaoh autocratically governing a great world empire.” Freud was addressing the situation of an exponent of monotheism and predecessor of Moses, Amenhotep IV. From an analytic distance, is the structure of monotheism at best the reflection of the power of the one dominating the many? Not for Schoenberg or for Straub and Huillet. Moses’ authority is shown as an ancillary effect of his altruism, not as a function of autocratic personality. The character of Moses transcends the formal limitations imposed by Schoenberg (he speaks, everyone else sings) and by Straub and Huillet (implacable, long takes, limited camera movement) because he knows his liberating idea will do for the people what it has done for him—effect unity with, not subjugation to, God.

The fact that Schoenberg worried, consulted biblical authorities, and wrote uncertainly about an unfinished third act for Moses und Aron rules out an unequivocal resolution of the tensions between Moses und Aaron. But as his widow Gertrud wrote, “As it is, so was it to be.” The Biblical Aaron dies or is killed rather obscurely; the passages that deal with his death in Exodus and Numbers have confused language. Straub and Huillet bypass Schoenberg’s stage direction “Aaron, free, stands up and falls down dead” by panning the camera away from Aaron and showing Moses alone against a marsh and mountains.

Why they should otherwise have followed Schoenberg must take into account that Moses und Aron is a readymade vehicle for an examination of conflict between divergent approaches to leadership. The people are, from the outset, distinguished from the luminaries Moses, Aaron and the supernumeraries. We are even introduced to the cast in order of importance: first God and Moses, next Aaron, then three supernumeraries and a priest, and finally, the people. Is Moses able to exercise control simply by intimating a unique and eternal Deity? Or does Aaron manifest authority by providing tangible evidence of that concept—evidence the very tangibility of which is regressively polytheistic? Is a multivalent idea degraded or trivialized by its communication through verbal or visual images? These are timeless problems in the communication of authority, and of the difference between theoretical politics and Realpolitik. Schoenberg thus called Straub and Huillet’s attention to a conflict, already embedded in a work of art (the opera), between theory—Moses’ idea—and practice—Aaron’s illustration of that theory in making the Golden Calf. The continuing work and struggle for uncompromising critical clarity is Straub and Huillet’s only liberation, as it was for Schoenberg and Moses before them. Only by careful delineation of their confines could they transcend them.

Carrie Rickey



1. A major problem with the Daniele Huillet/Gregory Woods translation arises here: their translation for “aber gleich zeitig wird sie dasein” is “But at the same time the truth will be there.” Schoenberg’s German indicates nothing about the truth, only about the simultaneous occurrence.

2. Schoenberg’s “Meine Bestimmung: es schlecter zu sagen als ich verstehe” is translated by Huillet and Woods as “My destiny is to have said it worse than I understand it!” which reads more like a confession of guilt than a statement of purposefulness.