Dividing Lines


Dividing Lines

By Ted Fendt

On the reception of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s early films in the English-speaking world.

Straub-Huillet: Early Works streams on Metrograph At Home from July 1 and opens In Theater July 8.


Not Reconciled (1965)

Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet are not filmmakers who have ever enjoyed wide popularity. Their works have tended to be marginalized to what Straub has sarcastically called the “art cinema ghetto.” This is the case just as much in Europe as in the Anglo world. Yet, there was a time when their films, if not widely seen in commercial theaters, did garner a level of support similar to that of other major “art film” makers of their generation. Early on, they gained and benefited from the support of a small, dedicated and diverse group of critics, programmers, and exhibitors. While this has fluctuated and shifted over the years, it has allowed their films to be shown and discussed consistently. The once thriving non-theatrical circuit of university film clubs and small film societies provided venues in which the films could be shown regularly, exposing new, generally younger audiences to their work. The story of the distribution and reception of their films begins in 1965 when their second film, Not Reconciled, crossed the Atlantic for the New York and London film festivals.

Not Reconciled caused a scandal at the Berlinale when it was premiered at an unofficial screening during the festival in early 1965. One German critic declared it the “worst film since 1895.” Not only German critics attended the screening, however. Richard Roud was also present. An American-born Francophile critic and co-founder of the New York Film Festival as well as a programmer for the London Film Festival, Roud (1929–1989) was an influential voice in English-language film culture. Between the early 1960s and the mid-1980s he was instrumental in bringing much of the era’s more daring European cinema to England and the United States. Particularly knowledgeable about French cinema, he would have been aware of the fervent defenses of Not Reconciled in the pages of Cahiers du cinéma after it came under attack by the German press.

Attempting to convey some of the controversy in the first piece of criticism written in English on the film, Roud proposed aesthetic causes for the outrage: “Some thought [Straub] had no right to tamper with the novel. Others were annoyed because he has directed his non-professional cast to speak in a deliberately unexpressive manner, something between the intoning of a Bresson and the alienation technique of a Brecht. This was resented all the more because, it would seem, no Frenchman has the right to tamper with the German language.” (It should be noted that, as in Europe, it would take a number of years before critics recognized Huillet’s role as equal co-author of the films. Until the mid-1970s, Straub is almost exclusively referred to as the filmmaker.) These criticisms would continue to be levied at Straub and Huillet with each successive film. But Not Reconciled’s affront to mainstream German tastes valorized it for foreign critics who could also appreciate its formal qualities.

Although he’s happy to offer a detailed explanation of the action at hand, I suspect Barney intends the relationship between such explanation and the immediate, visual experience to be loose. In fact, he says he was preoccupied at the time of this work’s making with the action being “suggestion, not concrete, and for the narrative to be nonlinear but looping.” He says he wanted the monitors “to feel ambient in the space, like those in an airport or Off Track Betting parlor,” and that the videos could “function like a proposal rather than a fact.” In other words, a chase might be going on, and one with a central conflict, but “chase” and “conflict” are here repurposed into dynamics or moods more than narrative unspoolings.


Not Reconciled (1965)

In New York, the film received little attention, although a few years later Susan Sontag would tell Jonas Mekas in the Village Voice that when she first saw the film, she wanted to “go and kiss the screen.” Though Straub and Huillet did not travel to New York for the festival, they did go to London. A brief biographical sketch in The Guardian describes Straub as “a thin, anxious-eyed Frenchman,” with the “pale, frozen, inward look of a young Samuel Beckett.” Critics reviewing the film were split. In his festival preview for The Observer, Kenneth Tynan found the film incomprehensible and castigated the filmmakers: “movies like this discredit the cause they profess to serve. They encourage the belief […] that much of ‘art cinema’ is a playground where the fantasies of a few neurotics are patiently transferred to celluloid by hundreds of skilled and dedicated technicians.” The Times was far more positive, emphasizing “performances of a strange hieratic intensity and formality” and especially noting the film’s handling of time: “What M. Straub has done is to take the various elements of present and past, fragment them and reassemble them in such a way that they immediately interact and fuse before our eyes.” A week later the paper declared the film the “principle discovery” of the festival and a “hopeful sign that the rigid compartments in which German filmmakers have so long been confined are beginning to break down.”

The London Film Festival was an important occasion for the filmmakers personally. One evening, Misha Donat, a young film and television composer, was telling Roud how much he loved the film when Roud pointed the filmmakers out to him, having a drink alone at the bar, and suggested he introduce himself. He did so, contact information was exchanged, and a two years later Huillet got in touch to see if he would help translate the subtitles for their next film, Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, beginning a collaboration that has continued to the present.

Although the New York press had given no attention to Not Reconciled, the summer 1966 issue of Film Quarterly published a long review by Gideon Bachmann. The critic had a unique perspective: he was born in Germany but raised in Eastern Europe, spoke German and saw the film at the first Berlin screening. His review explicates the German cultural situation, clarifying the environment in which the film was made. There is “a great wave of consciousness in German cultural circles about the Nazi past,” he writes, but the critical reception suggests “it is most unlikely that a German could have made this film.” Like other critics, Bachmann is most struck by the film’s complex handling of multiple time periods: “By eliminating time in the traditional sense, Straub has found a first avenue towards realizing the motion picture as the sole art form to work in the fourth dimension: to change, eliminate, recreate, abstract, control—in short, use as a creative element—the factor of time.” He describes the filmmakers’ methods of adaptation (taking the text unaltered from the source material) and the documentary quality of the cinematography (“Straub cites reality”) and, of course, does not ignore their politics: “Just as punishment and destruction were handed out by the Nazis without explanation, Straub hands out pangs of consciousness without explanation.”

Thanks to Roud’s programming and support, Straub and Huillet had entered the radar of American and British film culture. The film was shown again in New York in January 1967 in a Museum of Modern Art series on contemporary cinema, programmed with Peter Kubelka’s Unsere Afrikareise.

Their next film, Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, premiered at a small festival in the Netherlands, the second edition of Hubert Bals’ Cinemanifestatie in Utrecht, before gaining wider recognition internationally when it was selected for the 1968 Berlinale alongside Werner Herzog’s Signs of Life, Godard’s Weekend, Welles’s The Immortal Story and Claude Chabrol’s Les Biches. Andrew Sarris, reviewing the festival in The New York Times, found Chronicle to be one of “the more interesting films of the festival […] though far removed from the country’s film in-dustry, which now seems to specialize in dull sex films.” Sarris expresses some concern that Straub “seems at times too conscious of his deliberate intellectuality and stylistic austerity,” but ultimately praises the film for coming to terms with “Bach’s essence as a musical genius,” ranking it with Herzog’s entry as the best film in the festival. The newly expanded selection committee of the New York Film Festival, which included Sarris and Susan Sontag, invited the film to screen in its 1968 edition.


Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968)

Another American paying attention to Straub and Huillet’s films was Daniel Talbot, the co-owner (with his wife Toby) of the New Yorker Theater at 88th St. and Broadway as well as the distribution company New Yorker Films, which had a growing catalogue of European and American art films. In the summer of 1968, before Chronicle’s New York premiere, Talbot contacted the filmmakers at their apartment in Munich to inquire about distributing their first two films, Machorka-Muff and Not Reconciled. Straub and Huillet were happy to accept. In their response on August 13, 1968 (in Straub’s handwriting but with Huillet’s English) they go over details of prints and subtitles: “subtitles cannot be printed in Munich, because the German never show a film with titles: all pictures here are German-synchronized…”

Another distributor, Robin von Joachim, had already contacted them about distributing Chronicle but as he could not promise a theatrical release, they preferred Talbot distribute that film as well. The subtitled print, paid for by MoMA rather than the German distributor Telepool (“too miserly to pay”), was on its way to the Lincoln Center in New York. The filmmakers asked Talbot to contact Amos Vogel, director of the festival, about seeing the film prior to its public premiere, but suggest he take his time: “I am very patient—and very glad that you like the films.” As the festival got under way in New York, two lasting, general critical approaches to Straub and Huillet’s films were quickly established. The mainstream press tended to dismiss them out of hand, while they found support among younger critics writing in film journals or alternative press. Allen Hughes, a dance and music critic for The New York Times who had reviewed some recordings by the film’s lead actor, Gustav Leonhardt, two years earlier, found the film “cheerless,” and although the performances were “mostly very good,” he concluded that “some will find it deadly dull.” In The New Yorker, Penelope Gilliat suggested one could spend the screening thinking about “dinner, and what to do with your life, and how bitterly cold the air-conditioning can be in America.” A young J. Hoberman, writing in what was ostensibly his own college paper, the Harpur Film Journal, was paying closer attention to the film when he saw it at the press screening: 

Nothing written can really describe its strange and beautiful quality and any plot synopsis will make it seem boring as a bitch. Straub fuses selections from the letters of Bach’s second wife (stoical descriptions of domestic tragedies and artistic frustrations), dramatizes a few short anecdotes, but concentrates most of the film on the music. The camera rarely moves but when it does the effect is tremendous. The whole film is suffused in Vermeer-like light & if you let it this film can do fine things for your head.

Chronicle also received enthusiastic support again from Film Quarterly

Most of the long shots as well as many closer ones are taken at an angle. The angles themselves as well as the restless curve of the Baroque interiors give such a strong impression of movement that I was several times surprised to realize that the camera had not actually moved at all. […] But of course there is movement within the individual shots, though always of a slow and subtle kind. Hands move on harpsichord and organ keys, and one remarkable shot shows feet moving over the organ pedals.

After New York, the film was shown in San Francisco in Leonhardt’s presence before the print was shipped across the Atlantic to London. Awarded the festival’s top prize, Chronicle also received more attention in the British press. John Russell Taylor highlighted the film’s minimalism and the qualities it shared with early cinema:

Much of it consists simply (if that is the word) of performances of the music by musicians in costumes of Bach’s day and in the original settings, photographed in long takes, either completely fixed or with one simple camera-movement. It sounds as though it could not be “cinema”, but in practice it could not be anything else. Straub himself says that one should observe in his film the hands on the keyboard, the musicians’ wigs moving as they play, in the same spirit of wonder with which the first spectators of Lumière’s first films saw the leaves moving on the trees.

This is an excerpt from the Austrian Film Museum’s 2016 book on Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, edited by Ted Fendt, available from Columbia University Press.

Ted Fendt is a filmmaker, translator, and projectionist based in Berlin.


Eyes Do Not Want To Close At All Times, or, Perhaps One Day Rome will Permit Herself to Choose in Her Turn (1970)