by Joel Rogers
Cut, no. 12/13, 1976, pp. 61-64
I interviewed Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet on two occasions in the fall of 1975, once during the New York Film Festival where they screened MOSES AND AARON, and again when they Passed through New York on the return leg of their month-long tour of the United States. The interviews were conducted largely in French, with some English and German. I am very grateful to Sarah Siskind, whose French is much better than mine, for all her help in translating.
What follows is a severely edited combination of the transcripts of those talks. It has been worked out in full cooperation with Straub and Huillet and has their approval. While the interview is “official” in this sense, it by no means represents a definitive statement of their views on anything. It’s just another attempt to prompt discussion of their films.
The interview was conducted under certain conditions which may be self-evident but ought still to be openly identified.
1) Because I wanted it to be as accurate as possible in presenting their ideas, Straub and Huillet were given final editorial privilege. Reliability was sometimes purchased at the price of narrowing the discussion. For example, in the original transcript there were some long digressions on the work of other directors (Godard in particular). I would have kept these in the final version, but Straub and Huillet asked that they be taken out as “too confused.” The deletions stand without comment.
2) There was a language problem. To save time the tapes of the talks were transcribed and translated in a single step. Daniele Huillet, who reads and speaks English well, then read through the transcripts and made the necessary additions and corrections. Later Daniele suggested that residual difficulties with English had prevented the interview from improving much during editing. Her tendency had been to cut sections out rather than work them through, to delete rather than clarify and explain. In retrospect, it’s clear we should have first offered Straub and Huillet a direct transcription in French rather than English, solicited all corrections in French. and then translated the completed new text. At the time I was rushing to make a deadline.
So much for special problems. More generally:
1) Many readers of the interviews with Straub and Huillet that have appeared in Cahiers du cinéma, Filmkritik, Enthusiasm, and elsewhere have found the discussion of their politics very frustrating. Some would even say evasive. The interview below offers little solace on this score.
As part of his response to my question about the film’s audience, for example, Jean-Marie Straub remarks,
I think that Straub and Huillet have been unfairly criticized on this central issue of their political interest and sincerity. It seems that what has been sometimes taken as evasiveness is simply an unwillingness to traffic in slogans, and an awareness of the difficulties that beset any serious political discussion in this age of social democrats. It remains welcome news, however, that Straub and Huillet have agreed to another interview which will center specifically on the political significance and direction of their work. Presumably the usual criticisms of their films will be taken up. Such criticism include the following—that they are geared to an elite audience of film buffs, pose no threat to the society they claim to attack, engage in formalist antics with no identifiable subject matter, and are humorless (the demand for humor being raised in common by Horace, Brecht, Kleinhans, and Feyerabend. And perhaps some unusual criticisms too. JUMP CUT people will prepare questions. Martin Walsh will mediate.
2) When Straub and Huillet “answer” their critics, they make implicit appeal to a certain analysis of capitalist society and the possibilities of autonomous production within it. Without the analysis, the answers remain incoherent, but the articulation of that analysis is not something they themselves have pursued in print. Instead they make films. It would remain a useful project to try to reconstruct a theory contemporary with their filmic practice. Such a theory might draw heavily from Adorno’s aesthetics. As justification, it would not try to put Straub and Huillet’s work beyond the reach of critical discussion. On the contrary, it would aim to make that discussion more sensible, by specifying what is up for grabs, or what would be required of an immanent critique of their work. The more modest and immediate hope would be to demonstrate the sheer plausibility of what they are doing within argument unbounded by the context of their work alone. I'll try to do this in a later issue of JUMP CUT.
ROGERS: Let’s talk some about MOSES AND AARON. What first interested you in making a film of the opera when you saw it in 1959?
STRAUB: I attended the opera because I had become vaguely interested in Schoenberg, but I didn't know at all what I was about to see. People had simply told me to see it because it was interesting. And when I finally did see it, it really moved me. Immediately I got ahold of the libretto and the score, and realized that what I had seen was not at all what Schoenberg had imagined. Not what he had planned.
ROGERS: What were his intentions in composing the work?
STRAUB: I think it’s simple enough. He wanted to provoke and rally the audience. Such a work in 1930 or 1932 was an incredible provocation. At that time of course anti-Semitism was institutionalizing itself. It’s an old Story, that goes from Paris to Vienna, and from Vienna to Germany, a story the Jewish bourgeoisie has always refused to believe. They refuse to believe in an explosion of anti-Semitism and violence. They always felt that they would be able to find shelter, that anti-Semitism would only affect Jews of other classes. Given this attitude, Schoenberg has written a work that is intended as a provocation and rallying force. From the point of view of an artist, it is important to understand that. He wanted to make an equivalent for the Jewish people of what The Passion of Saint Matthew is for Christians. At least that’s my impression.
Before he wrote MOSES AND AARON Schoenberg had attacked anti-Semitism violently. That’s shown by the two letters to Kandinsky in 1923 that we have cited (in INTRODUCTION TO A CINEMAGRAPHIC ACCOMPANIMENT BY ARNOLD SCHOENBERG [hereafter INTRODUCTION]. That’s a short that was shown with MOSES AND AARON at the New York festival, script available in Screen, Spring 1976). That was a pretty rare thing. There was no other Jew that attacked like that at that time. To the contrary, the Jews at that time practiced what they called the “politics of the ostrich,” saying to themselves,
And there were many artists at the time who thought that “because we are artists we will be spared.” For example we heard from Michel Gielen, the director of the orchestra for the film, about what happened to his father. His father was a theater director, quite famous and respected. And his mother was Jewish. It was not until 1938 that the family fled Germany, which is very very late. And they left so late because he thought his position as an artist would protect him. He was Herr Professor, and he had friends in high places, even near Goebbels. The crematories came late, in ‘42. The anti-Semitism up until 1938 had only reached to the small merchants and craftsmen and so on. Those were the people they were taking. Not world renowned artistes. And so he thought until the end that he would be spared.
This attitude of, “No, not us, they won't take us,” was common to the entire class of bourgeois Jews, and it was against this that Schoenberg was an exception. After the first letter to Kandinsky, Kandinsky replied and said,
And Schoenberg declares in the second letter that he doesn't want to be anything other than a Jew. In refusing to be an exception, he was unique. The letters to Kandinsky were not all he did of course. At a time when most Jews were afraid even to defend themselves, Schoenberg openly attacked the bourgeoisie. This was through the ‘20s, and then in 1930 he goes on to write Moses and Aaron. He was very aware of what he was going. It was an immense provocation.
ROGERS: I asked about his intentions because I had read in Richard Roud’s book on your films that you wanted to make a Marxist movie about an anti-Marxist opera.
STRAUB: Right, that’s from Richard Roud. It’s not exactly what I meant. As I recall, I said something, and then he rewrote the sentences. What is certain is that Schoenberg is anti-Communist. He didn't hide it. But given that foremost he was a Jew, he had a sense of dialectic, which is not yet a materialist dialectic, but is at least a dialectic. And that is his first step. Furthermore, his work pushed him very far, especially since it takes as its object history itself. In Schoenberg we see a very serious artist who is deeply involved with music, and whose involvement shut him off, systematically and voluntarily, from the world. But given that his general sensibilities and mind were not totally cut off from the world, he was able to hear, as he put it, the immense cry that was encircling the world. It was a cry which penetrated him completely, into his nerves and eyes and ears, that was necessarily translated into his musical work.
ROGERS: The art absorbed the political impulse.
STRAUB: Right. His work was all there was. There was nothing else, so it had to come out in his work. Now Schoenberg was certainly an anti-Communist, as declared in those same letters to Kandinsky. In fact, in a typical petty bourgeois way he declares that communism is not possible because there is not enough food on the earth for everyone to eat. And he confuses Lenin with Stalin in his writings. For him they're all in the same bag. Hans Eisler, who was a Marxist and belonged to a party, always spoke with very great admiration of Schoenberg.
But Eisler distinguishes in Moses and Aaron between words and the music. Eisler was very impressed with Schoenberg the musician, but thought that when he opened his mouth, he was just another petit bourgeois. And so Eisler argues for this divorce between the two parts of the opera, the words and the music.
I think however that Eisler is wrong, and that the work really is a unity. This is the conclusion that I've come to, more and more surely, as I've studied over the text of the opera and listened to the music accompanying it, to the structure and rhythm of the music. Eisler is wrong.
Most of all, the film is an idea. One cannot say simply that Schoenberg identifies himself with Moses, and that that is the way the opera should be interpreted. One cannot say he identifies completely with Moses because he shows Moses as clearly inhuman. Rather, the identification is with the idea, and this is the way the opera should be read. But then there are two ways to interpret that idea. The opera is not a Marxist work because it still believes in prophets and divine revelation. But one can also believe in this idea in another way, not as, coming to the demigod from above, but discovering that in fact it comes from below, from the people. And that is what the film does from the beginning. It doesn't talk about the burning bush. Rather, the burning bush becomes the people. You can hear them singing.
So taking a work which claimed to be anti-Marxist but which is, in a profound way, a sort of dialectical work, and one which demands our respect from an historical point of view, the problem becomes one of presenting a reading of this work, a work which sees itself as anti-Marxist, but becomes not un-Marxist or non-Marxist. That is, I believe we can read the work as an object of Marxist reflection. And that is what the film is.
Schoenberg was very prudent in his work. To give another example, when he talks about the “chosen people,” there is a mystical idea there, which is not a Marxist idea, but which he neither takes as an end in itself. The idea of the chosen people is instrumental. It enables a step into history, as it were, and is a means to something else. Subsequently, of course, the idea became an oppression. It became institutionalized. We have to start again every day. And when something becomes institutionalized it loses its revolutionary potential.
ROGERS: In making it an “object of Marxist reflection,” how would you compare your relation to Schoenberg’s work with your treatment of the stories from Boll’s Billiards at Half-Past Nine or Brecht’s The Business Affairs of Mr. Julius Cesar that serve as a starting point for other movies? NOT RECONCILED and HISTORY LESSONS, respectively? Superficially, MOSES AND AARON demonstrates a much greater fidelity to the “text,” by which I mean the words and music together, which just makes more pointed the specifically cinematic ways in which you subvert its meaning.
STRAUB: To start with, from the Boll stories we cut a lot, really enormously. Even though we cut in the Brecht novel, we had a very different attitude. We cut there, but we didn't cut in whole blocks, only between blocks. And then with the Corneille (OTHAN) we didn't cut at all. And we didn't cut at all in Schoenberg. Also with Brecht, when we cut we didn't cut the interior, so to speak. We didn't cut into the economic discourses, but only made anecdotal cuts. So there we didn't really put Brecht in question.
In the case of Schoenberg the differences between the film and the opera start externally. The first change we made relates to the Schoenberg’s intentions, but not to the text itself. He wrote out detailed instructions on the size of the chorus. It involved having some people actually singing, and others just filling up space. We decided to keep the chorus small and limited to people who were really singing.
Second, and this is much more important, when Schoenberg worked out his scenes for the stage, he didn't have to imagine them in a very precise manner. He imagined a number of scenes, within which several things would be going on at the same time. Little by little the opera advances in simultaneity. We reduced this simultaneity to a succession for the film.
Third, in approaching the idea of the burning bush, there is not only a bush, but the bush transforms itself. There are the sky, the rocks, and the mountain. In going through this, there is not just a refutation of the bush, as we said before, but the film also asserts a continuity. That is, all the themes of the film are there, even the mountain. In the second part of the first scene in the dialogue with the bush, there is this continuity which we introduce, which is not seen by Schoenberg.
Then the presentation of things not in a simultaneity, but a succession. Now what does it mean to systematically transform a simultaneity into a succession? Without making it overly systematic or evident, we put the text in question through realizing a continuity that in a way demystifies things, that demystifies the drama from the beginning. This demystification proceeds not only from the established continuity, but because everything takes place In the same amphitheater, except for the third act.
Louis Seguin wrote in the Quinzaine Litteraire that the amphitheater transforms all the theatrical representation into Jacobin theatre, meaning that really in an historical sense. It is in classical decor. Squared stones and all. Well-adjusted stones and nothing else! Which for him is classical decor. The idea of the open air, the conduct of the drama within this open space, for him makes the opera into Jacobin theatre. (1)
So there are several little subversions that put the text in question. There is a similarity in the way that we have treated the dramatic simultaneity of Schoenberg and what Godard does systematically in NUMERO DEUX, even if his way and our way of treating the story seem on first look completely opposed.
ROGERS: Unfortunately I haven't seen NUMERO DEUX yet, so I can't compare them.
STRAUB: There’s something else we might mention. That is that the emotional relation or rapport you have with the characters of Moses and Aaron in the film is not exactly the same as what you have in the opera. In the film I think we've somehow pushed the relation between the two. Their antagonism is exacerbated. And above all, I think it’s clear in the film that even though Moses is essentially right, after he has imprisoned Aaron, his role is finished. He has no more means of communication with the people, since, as the opera repeats again and again, Aaron is the mouthpiece of Moses, the only means by which Moses can express himself. And so what remains in the end is just Moses’ one idea of constantly renewed faith in the desert, and the people. I think that is where the film takes a somewhat different meaning than the opera. Moses’ limits are clear at the end of the film. And there is a second lesson from the film, more clearly expressed than in the opera: “Beware of prophets.”
Aaron is proportionally strengthened. A guy I know who knows the opera by heart said that it’s the first tine he had encountered an Aaron so strong that he had been interested in that figure. So often one makes a caricature of Aaron, the caricature of an opportunist, instead of assuming that he is a man who tries in good faith to communicate Moses’ ideas, at least for a while.
HUILLET: In the opera houses they were never able to see Aaron as someone who really loves the people.
ROGERS: And how do you produce this different effect?
STRAUB: In the last scene with Aaron singing at the end of the second act, we show him and not Moses. And so he becomes more important at that point. Often throughout the rest of the work, we have chosen to show Aaron. Not to make him systematically more important, but just because we didn't want Moses to be the central, or only character. Also in the last scene it’s very clear that we give as much attention to Aaron as to Moses, so that Moses is not really alone as victor there.
ROGERS: But it’s not, as Stuart Byron has suggested in his review in The Real Paper, that Moses is the monotheist and Aaron the materialist, presumably with you siding with Aaron.
STRAUB: No, not at all. That’s a mechanical conception of the dialectic. In the film it was necessary to avoid making either Moses or Aaron the central character. In making this balance between the two, it becomes a film without a hero, as Corneille would have said.
ROGERS: So that whatever victory there is, it’s the people’s.
STRAUB: Not a victory already, but something the people have to invent. They have to start completely from scratch. But at least at this point you know that you have to start from “zero,” that you have to start from the bottom rather than from up above. And that’s the whole idea.
ROGERS: Which is more than simple praise of what Roud called a “great utopian step into the desert.”
HUILLET: I think what we meant by the idea of Moses moving into the desert was not an end, of course, but simply that a people always has to be moving. Not to settle.
STRAUB: Not to settle either materially or ideologically. There are two parts to the idea of Moses. There is the idea of monotheism, which is not a personal invention. It’s the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It takes hold at this time because this is the right time in history for this idea, the right time to uproot the Hebrew people from Egyptian civilization, and their servitude. It’s a collective idea. The other idea of Moses is not as clearly expressed. Perhaps that’s because he only has it at the end when he says,
That second idea, I think, will make the film unsuccessful here in the United States. Because here we come to the end, and Moses is totally isolated. He’s come to power through violence and assassination. He’s lost his mouthpiece. And there’s this second idea, which people here in the U.S. will not accept, since they live in a society that is still based on the idea of success.
HUILLET: And people are aware of, conscious of, the threat to their success.
STRAUB: All of a sudden you see this reaction in the audiences that have seen the film. The bourgeoisie cannot accept this film, because it says something at the end that they don't want to admit. It says,
If the crisis doesn't come tomorrow, it will come after tomorrow, in ten years or three years or three months. The markets will just disappear. In fact they are already disappearing. There is a revolution, really, that is possible in Europe. There’s a possibility of throwing out the American imperialists. I don't just mean NATO or something. Anyway, it reminds us of going back to Paris once and seeing MONSIEUR VERDOUX, which had a terrible effect on audiences at the time, when they were expecting some sort of economic crisis. There was a terrible reaction to this film, undoubtedly for the same reason. They refuse films which talk of certain things at certain times.
HUILLET: I was just thinking, that’s probably why they always leave out the third act, the one without music. The second part of the idea is too subversive.
STRAUB: It’s more satisfying that way. Then the opera ends with the defeat of Moses, the defeat of the progressive idea. And that sort of production leaves out the process that Schoenberg doesn't make explicit in the work. But it is implicit in the transition from the second to the third act, which is simply the taking of power by Moses. This is the taking of power in the strictest sense of the word, according to the situation as it is recounted in the Bible, which is told even before it started, through the reading of the Bible text at the very beginning of the film. When they leave the third act out, they leave Moses just on his knees, the great idea defeated, and without the transition to power. It is his taking power again that upsets him as a religious character, that makes him again a strong character.
ROGERS: Before you mentioned the similarity between your treatment of the narrative structure of MOSES AND AARON and what Godard does in NUMERO DEUX. Although I haven't seen that film, it is true that you and Godard, and very few other radical filmmakers, have systematically set about “opening up” film. In a way, it’s analogous to Brecht’s demand that criticism should open up completed texts, rendering them incomplete. If the first general demand we can make of radical intellectuals is the disintegration of bourgeois ideology, the first demand we can make of our radical filmmakers is the now clichéd “deconstruction of cinematic language.’ ’
STRAUB: But of course that’s not enough. In Paris nowadays nobody talks about anything but the deconstruction of cinematic language. A revolution in cinematographic language is what they look for. But that’s clearly not enough at all. There are two good examples now of films which reconcile the demands of critics and the intellectual bourgeoisie in all of Paris, the thinking and the non-thinking. These films by Fassbinder (FIRST RIGHT OF FREEDOM or FOX) and Techiné (FRENCH PROVINCIAL) are saluted by both the left and the right. For example, in (the weekly paper) France Dimanche, they wrote that the films of Techiné have gone further than those of Godard. Techiné is a guy who is not stupid. He’s even partly conscious, and has some talent. But what he’s done is made a film designed to seduce the whole world, which can therefore reconcile everyone in the world with everyone else. But anyway, this film is an example that has revolutionized cinematic language. There’s an obvious problem here, that such a “revolution” doesn't go far enough. It’s indispensable, but not sufficient, a “necessary but not sufficient condition,” as in algebra.
ROGERS: I meant the deconstruction as a necessary preparation for a political cinema. After returning to degree zero, or the starting point, one could begin to build again, only differently. As in Godard’s claim to “reinvention” of camera angles and the tracking shot in TOUT VA BIEN, commencing what one critic called the construction of a new “grammar” for political film. Hasn't this been a main preoccupation in your work, maybe most self-consciously in THE BRIDEGROOM, THE ACTRESS, AND THE PIMP?
STRAUB: I don't believe in the cinema. Even when it’s Godard who says these things, it’s interesting and has meaning, but it gives me a stomach ache. I don't fetishize the cinema at all. I think of it as an instrument, a tool. I could say that the deconstruction one makes in THE BRIDEGROOM, THE ACTRESS, AND THE PIMP is interesting, but the whole film is the history, the story, of a hatred and that is all. The hatred is affirmed at the beginning, in the inscription on the wall:
Then there is the street with the girls (sic). Then there is the play, which contains the characters that place themselves against the inscription from Mao printed on the back wall. That says, “Even if the arch reactionaries are still, today, tomorrow, the day after tomorrow...” Again it’s hidden, you can't read it. The enemy is flexible, anyway. And in front of all this is a very precise spectacle. It’s not only a parody of bourgeois theater. The characters who appear later are within it, and the class struggle begins to appear within it.
Then there’s the threat of the pimp with the police, and the gunshot, and the black man is there. In fact the whole film is really the point of view of the black man. He is at the same time a spectator of the theatrical play, and a guy who moves along the street in Munich in the car, where the girls (sic) are at night with their umbrellas, and the motorists accost them. And later he’s the boy who is married by a Jesuit in a Catholic liturgical theatrical scene and is at the same time partner and outside of the whole thing.
The film is a look entirely at Western decadence. And finally there is the gunshot of the girl (sic) who has married the black and who doesn't even hesitate to shoot, because her hatred liberates her, or rather, it liberates itself. One sees clearly at the end of the film that there is a liberated Utopia, but the girl (sic) is burned. She is burned by her hatred.
And in HISTORY LESSONS the film does not consist really of those parts of it that would interest someone like Michael Snow for example. Above all, the film has a subject. And the reflection on the “language”—I'll use that term although I don't really believe in it—actually, reflection on the instrument and the methods you use in the cinema are only interesting because in HISTORY LESSONS, for example, it is the story of a crisis of conscience. There’s the birth of the political conscience of a young man who is completely unconscious, naive, in the beginning, who is in compliance with the banker, and who suddenly begins to see. The film tells a story of the birth of anger, which explodes at the end. The fountain continues to run over and above the gunshot. But there is an anger, a wrath, that explodes, that bursts, that is given birth to, which I hope is like the stream in the middle of the film. All the rest is not very important. You just have to do it. You have to have methods of dividing. Dividing not only the public, but also the ways that you choose, the instruments that you choose. But if it’s only to divide cinema, to divide itself, that is not very interesting. That’s like the serpent biting its tail.
HUILLET: That’s a favorite metaphor of his.
STRAUB: There’s also a question of responsibility.
ROGERS: To whom? To the left? STRAUB: Yes, well...
RCGERS: Do you see a leftist audience for your films, or see them aiding in particular struggles? You've been quoted as saying that CHRONICLE OF ANNA MAGDALENA BACH was your contribution to the fight of the Vietnamese people against U.S. imperialism.
STRAUB: That quote’s been used before and I'd like a chance to clarify it. The remark was made as a provocation, and it has little to do with this subject when you understand its context. It was made at a time when the bombardment of Hanoi was at its peak. The film was being presented to some industry people to see if the film was going to be distributed, to see if there was a possibility of distribution in Munich or broader distribution. And that morning we saw in the newspapers that the bombing of Hanoi had begun again, and we said simply, at that moment, showing the film to those people, that the film was dedicated to the Vietcong. We never said it was a contribution to their struggle. Only that the film was dedicated to the Vietcong. And we added that we hoped the Vietcong would not have, to struggle on for ten more years against American imperialism, the way we had to struggle for ten years for this film to finance it. And I also said at the time that the film was made for, was aimed at, an audience of peasants. And that, at that moment, was a provocation.
But seriously, I think it is a film that would have given a lot of information and have a lot of interest for an audience of peasants in Germany. And I also said that I would like to have OTHON seen by workers in Paris. They've never been told that Corneille is impossible to understand, nor that he has an “obsession” with politics. They know nothing of Corneille, nor how the French bourgeois intellectuals would like to present Corneille, or depict him in the theater. I think also that OTHON is a film that threatens not just a class but a clique of power, and that the French bourgeoisie recognizes this and is threatened by it. Workers, having no interest that would be attacked, could watch the film more calmly, more serenely.
I think these films find their audience in dividing. One divides the audience, and there is the difference between the films that I make and those of, for example, Techiné: One reconciles the world, the other divides it. It is the dividing lines that make one’s public. And the dividing lines end up in one way or another being lines which correspond to the lines of class, and class struggle. I believe that, or, I hope that.
The other night we attended a screening of a few of our films, including INTRODUCTION. And a fellow came up after them and said my early films were very interesting, but in INTRODUCTION there was too much cliché in showing the B-52’s at the end. I said “What do you want?” I was shocked by the reaction, but also pleased by it, because it showed a division within the audience, within the audience for these films. For this guy said that he had uncovered my obsession, an obsession which he noted as more and more evident in the later films, an obsession with the class struggle. And seeing this more in the later films, it bothered him.
HUILLET: He said that now the films comprise a “continuity,” not a “dialogue.”
STRAUB: And there was another word he used which was even more revealing actually. He said the film was too “affirmative.”
ROGERS: Could you comment more specifically on the Fassbinder and Techiné films?
HUILLET: Really I don't think it’s possible for us to comment on these films. The problem is that when we see these films and they disgust us, then we don't go back a second time and think about them a lot to figure out how to analyze them.
STRAUB: It’s more than that. We are simply not interested in films like MERCHANT OF FOUR SEASONS or THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT. We didn't even sit through the whole film once. And on the other hand I don't want to say that Fassbinder is a fascist, that he’s a conscious fascist in this way. He is now being attacked for this very latest film (MOTHER KUSTER'S RIDE TO HEAVEN), but I can only say that for me the development of his films is logical, and that the latest film can be seen in the earlier ones, that his films have been this way for a long time. It is the same with Louis Malle.
Let’s talk just a minute about Louis Malle. He’s a member of my generation, and completely engaged within the system. Frankly I can say without problems that after I saw the early film of Louis Malle, ZAZIE DANS LE METRO, I just didn't want to see any more. I saw the film and I thought there was something about the film that was fascistic. At the tine the left in Germany saw the film as anti-fascist.
It’s the same with Rossellini. The critics thought THE RISE OF LOUIS THE 14TH was a masterpiece. And then there were the other films, on Pascal, Socrates, and so on. And then this last film, ANNO UNO. And now one sees that the journals have discovered something. Especially the journal of the Communist Party in Italy, but also more left journals now disclaim this film. They announce it as “ignoble,” but I, well, I don't see the difference! I'm sure that film is ignoble and base, but the others are the same! They only give the impression that they're not. It’s all because the critics don't see the films, they see the subjects.
HUILLET: In the MERCHANT OF FOUR SEASONS, the critics who see the film are not fruit handlers, they are not merchants of four seasons. But then they see films like the one Fassbinder just made, which is about the political class...
STRAUB: Which is the bourgeoisie, even if it’s the left, or extreme left. And they look away, they decry it. It’s like Rossellini’s last film, where he shows the Italian CP, where they appear like Chicago gangsters. Perhaps if you quizzed the bureaucrats in the Italian CP, they would say that they were not at all in agreement with what they wrote in their papers about the earlier Rossellini films, saying that they were masterpieces; maybe the people who read the reviews disagreed; maybe they knew the films were not masterpieces at all. But anyway, that was the line, that’s what was said about Rossellini all through the sixties. And then suddenly the last one was an infamy, it was this disgusting film, and so on. And all this because the people writing the reviews are finally struck personally by it, because now they are the gangsters, it is they that the film is about. They see that they are in the film. “My God,” they say, “that’s us. He’s portraying us as gangsters!” and they rebel against it.
Just like in Berlin, where people who used to throw themselves after Fassbinder now are changing their mind. The students, who had admired Fassbinder so much, are now trashing him, and trying to get the films withdrawn, because he’s talking about them in his last films. In this latest film it becomes clear that what he is doing is not going to work. But it is only because for the first time he deals with a subject that is directly, immediately, obviously political. Here the unreality of what he is doing is clear. But this shows again how criticism is in the hands of the bourgeoisie. Because he can deal with other subjects, as in MERCHANT OF FOUR SEASONS. And when he does, no one protests. They rave. Because the film is not directed at them. The subject is not people of the same class.
HUILLET: But one can't use the term “fascist” loosely. It’s a precise term, with a certain historical meaning.
STRAUB: Yes, you're right. It’s wrong to say Fassbinder is a fascist exactly. It’s better to say simply that he’s very, oh, unpolitical. Or better, he is very irresponsible. We have to return to Schoenberg’s vocabulary in a way, when he talks about working with certain people who are responsible, and the impossibility of working with people who lack that responsibility. Fassbinder is irresponsible. And at this point of time in Germany, when anti-communism is flourishing, he is completely irresponsible. But his irresponsibility was just as great when he talked the way he did in BITTER TEARS OF PETRA V0N KANT and THE MERCHANT OF FOUR SEASONS, as in KATZELMACHER, and THE AMERICAN SOLDIER.
ROGERS: I'd like to ask about what you see as the main influences on your work. You started working with Bresson in ...
STRAUB (interrupting): No, I never worked with Bresson. There have been errors of translation on this. I never worked with Bresson. I never worked with Renoir. I never worked with Astruc. I never worked with Abel Gance. The only director I ever worked with in any way was Rivette, and all I did there was carry valises. I did it because it was a reunion of friends, and they didn't have money to pay for assistants. I was very happy to do it, of course, but my entire role was limited to carrying about valises. The error of my working with Bresson dates back to an early biography printed in Filmkritik under Patalas, I'm not sure exactly when. At the time when all the films that I'm supposed to have worked on were being made, in fact, I wasn't even living in Paris. I used to hitchhike to Paris often to see movies, and occasionally I would have the opportunity to go into a studio and watch them filming, for an hour or two, or sometimes a day. But it was really just like looking through a keyhole.
ROGERS: But you would count Bresson as a great influence on your work, wouldn't you?
STRAUB: I have great admiration for LES DAMES DU BOIS DE BOULOGNE and for DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST, and he has certainly influenced our work. But his later movies I don't like at all. LANCELOT DU LAC, for example, holds no interest for me at all.
It’s difficult to talk about my influences. Richard Roud always says that my culture is German culture, which is not true. I have the cultural training of a French university student, and no specific or deep training in German literary culture. I learned my German in first grade, during the war, did my extensive studies in French literature, and was in Germany really for the first tine in 1956. And then on the contrary, he says I have French cinematographic culture, citing Bresson and Gremillon as influences. Gremillon interests me very much, as a true communist filmmaker. But I haven't had a chance to look at his films carefully at all. And with Bresson, I saw those two early films, and I'm sure they influenced me greatly, but I'm not able to say just how. So I will leave such comparisons to people who know all of both of our work.
But really I think my most important influences in terms of films were from German directors. When I look over Fritz Lang’s German movies and U.S. movies again, I see not only in the former the problems and concerns of the German expressionist theater in the thirties, but something more, in the American movies, the subversion of American movies, his reflection on cinema, on American cinema.
And, as Louis Seguin has rightly pointed out, there is the influence from before 1933, the influence of Lang’s NIEBELUNGEN, and even METROPOLIS, on MOSES AND AARON. Then there are lots of U.S. movies that I've seen that have made an influence, although I would say a hundred times less than Godard or Rivette, for example. And because I soon left Paris and went to Germany, it was hard to see then there. And really that’s all. I'd seen some movies of Lang, and three or four films by Mizoguchi, and some films of Renoir who influenced me at least as much as Bresson did, by the way, and some films of Eisenstein, and that’s about all. But that’s enough.
It’s not important to know then all, but just to know a few well. You don't need to know all the museum when you go to a museum, but only a few paintings. In my case, in fact, for example, I know three paintings by Cezanne very well. It didn't do me any good at all to the museum all the time, but to reflect concretely on a limited amount of work. That’s culture, as they say. It does not consist of having it all, but in having reflected concretely on a few things. For that matter, in painting there’s another thing that I'm very familiar with, because in 1952 I spent some time in a church which has some work by Giotto. I returned there several times and that, I am sure, has also been a great influence on our work. In this sense our culture, or what they would like to call our “culture,” is precise, centered on two or three or four points. And to go back to your question, the influence of Bresson has played a role like these other examples. I should mention also Dreyer. I know two films in particular better than the films of Bresson, DAY OF ANGER and VAMPIRE. The difference is just that I know Bresson personally, and I didn't know Dreyer.
ROGERS: Would you comment a little more on Rossellini?
STRAUB: At one time I liked some of his personal films, for example, VOYAGE TO ITALY. But I find him, all in all, disgusting. I detest Rossellini. Even the so-called historical films, like THE RISE OF LOUIS THE 14TH and SOCRATES. Under the pretense of talking about history, he shows only the pomp and the machinery of the court. One comes out of these films empty handed. The LOUIS 14TH film flees from its subject in the end. And so what he does is disgusting because it is only decorative. He teaches nothing. These films say something about Italian television and Italian Christian Democrats, and that’s all. Even if Rossellini denies that he’s a Christian Democrat, that is certainly the subject of the film.
ROGERS: Are there any German directors working now whom you like?
HUILLET: We really don't know much about what’s going on now, since we've been living in Italy and so on.
STRAUB: We liked Bitomsky’s movies, and Peter Nestler’s.
ROGERS: What’s your next project?
STRAUB: An Italian language film without music, about and with Franco Fortini, the well known Italian poet who now teaches at the university in Sienna, who wrote a book in the middle sixties entitled I Cani Del Sinai (The Sinai Dogs).
1. Louis Seguin, La Quinzaine Litteraire, 16-30 June 1975, pp. 27-8: Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet present in MOSES AND AARON an alternative theater. Schoenberg desired an “Eastern” display which in its latest form (i.e., as developed by Hollywood) can be seen to coincide with that exotic style of late 19th century Europe when the power of the bourgeoisie was at its height. Straub and Huillet substitute for this ostentation an arena whose curved (elliptical) space obliterates the rigors of the footlights, the props and the visual effects. This liberation is a decisive step. The “Roman” clearness of the exteriors (sand, mountain, dry vegetation and undecorated and strictly placed stones) reinvents the thematic of neo-classicism by taking a welcome risk with the intervention of the costumes’ “archaic” simplicity and the declamatory gesture of the opera. It ties in with Jacobin theater which, as Starobinski writes, gathers “men into a space, one and indivisible with civic zeal and transparency of heart.” This theater is both univocal and instructive, proposing only a full didacticism but having the prime merit of denouncing the politics of its topography. Starobinski also recalls how neoclassic architecture devised “for parliamentary life the semicircles from which later came, by virtue of the diameter, the classic opposition of the right and the left.” The curved arena delineates, beyond enthusiasm, the field of conflict and breaks of the Brechtian dialectic.