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film

Jean-Marie Straub

Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Lothringen! (Lorraine!), 1994, still from a color film in 35 mm, 20 minutes.

THE MOST STARTLING CUT I saw in a movie last year occurred not in a high-tech action or horror film, but quietly and unassumingly in Jean-Marie Straub’s fifteen-minute revision of the Orpheus myth, titled L’Inconsolable. As always, Straub keeps faith with an aesthetic of economy that treats language and images as equals. From a rueful text by Cesare Pavese, he stages a dialogue—visually and philosophically—between Orpheus and Bacca (celebrant of Bacchus), in which the former reveals that his journey to the underworld was not, he now realizes, to retrieve Eurydice but to plumb the mystery of death. Concluding that death is nothingness, he cast the fatal glance that returned Eurydice to Hades, so as to avoid losing her again. An existentialist avant la lettre, he denies that Destiny turned his head, admitting that Eurydice was but “a season of life,” that he wanted much more. Shocked, Bacca protests that he has deceived the Thracian women, who believed he wept from love.

Though the dialogue does not follow an unambiguous shot/countershot pattern, Straub alternates a range of shots within the legible space of a forest glade. Orpheus sits alone on a mossy stone in frame right, while Bacca is first seen standing imperiously, looking beyond frame right. A space to the left of Orpheus suggests that she is off left, facing him. But the surprise cut to the final, belated “establishing” shot reveals that Bacca’s outward gaze was directed not toward but away from Orpheus, thus literalizing their talking past each other from diametrically opposed convictions. More tellingly, the cut speaks to the power of illusionism, to nearly a century of ingrained viewing habits still susceptible to disruption.

Also screened in Views from the Avant-Garde at the 49th New York Film Festival last October was Straub’s abridgment of Kafka’s Schakale und Araber (Jackals and Arabs, 2011), which can be read as an allegory about colonialism. A woman speaks the jackal’s lines to a “northerner,” offscreen, who is asked to slit the Arabs’ throats and free the jackals. No sooner do scissors appear than an Arab seizes them, mocks the beasts’ efforts at liberation, and utters the final sentences that clinch the cruel paradox of Kafka’s gem: “Wonderful animals, aren’t they?” he says of the jackals. “And how they hate us!” Though Straub omits the graphic scene of the jackals tearing into the carcass of a camel offered by the Arab, his film hardly lacks bite.

Two other Straub films screened at Views this year, both based on texts by Maurice Barrès, a controversial French writer of the fin de siècle. Lothringen! (1994) was codirected by Straub’s late wife and frequent collaborator, Danièle Huillet. The title is the German name for Lorraine, the French region bordering Germany that was seized by the latter in 1870 and returned to France following World War I. A long take of a map of Metz and environs, over which a string quartet plays the “Deutschland, Deutschland” theme from Haydn’s Kaiser quartet, captures the implicit cultural contradictions. With slow, lyrical pans, Straub scans the region as excerpts from Barrès’s nationalistic novel Colette Baudoche, set in Metz in the early twentieth century, are read in voice-over. An omniscient male narrates the history, while a woman recites the heroine’s grandmother’s account of the thousands of French citizens who fled west rather than bow to German rule. Colette herself is seen and heard in two brief shots—first, refusing to believe she is German, then, in view of the history, refusing to marry the sympathetic German teacher she loves.

Straub’s pans conjure the past, even as they constitute an unofficial survey of the boundaries once in dispute. A pan right, accompanying an account of an ordinance forbidding the teaching of French, reconnoiters before returning left when the ordinance is reversed. In fourteen shots and twenty minutes, Straub achieves an astonishing distillation of history via literature, as only one attuned to the essentials—of material and means—could do.

Un Héritier (An Heir, 2011) compresses Barrès’s 1905 novel In Germany’s Service to profoundly moving effect. An account of an Alsatian’s life under German occupation, it begins with two men walking through a wood. The older (played by Straub), from Lorraine, asks the younger why he remains in Alsace, where he suffers. “I am an heir,” Monsieur Ehrmann replies, recounting his familial and professional ties in long monologues (eloquently delivered by actor Joseph Rottner). He is a doctor devoted to the people, even to the husband who assaulted him when he tried to save the man’s wife. He recalls the humiliations and punishments to which French-speaking Alsatian schoolchildren were subject. Straub moves from a tracking shot in the first section to long shots and close-ups; finally, he alternates between black leader and Rottner’s readings—a catalogue of film syntax as minimal as it is replete. By the end, the weight of history lived through the individual is more complete than in any imaginable reconstruction of the novel. Ehrmann’s remark that he is “assaulted by speeches that arise out of the earth” could easily describe Straub’s incomparable aesthetic and consummately beautiful images, in which sunlit faces, rocks, and trees are at one with the colors and music of the words spoken in their presence.

Tony Pipolo is the author of Robert Bresson: A Passion for Film (Oxford University Press, 2009) and a psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City.