“Our films are addressed to dulled senses. There are certain senses and certain sentiments that are in danger of disappearing from the earth, of becoming extinct.”—Jean-Marie Straub

Sometimes there are one or two upright figures in a shot, dressed for ancient times or for the mid-18th century, framed diagonally against the walls—there are many—or placed somewhere in the countryside. Their voices, sharply differentiated and measured and lovely to listen to, compete with a crammed inventory of recurring sounds: birds and crickets, railcars and airplanes, afternoon traffic, the wind. (The mixing of two or more distinct historical soundscapes, antique and modern, “picked up” by the filmmakers’ indiscriminating microphones, is typical.) When the camera moves, it’s usually in the form of a slow left- or rightward inspection of a place that was once horrifically ruined by a sacrifice, military or mythic, but that seems impeccable to us now. The performers—they aren’t actors in the traditional sense; they can be working journalists or schoolteachers or opera singers—recite rather than act out their words, often with noteworthy precision and speed, and sometimes in a language that isn’t their own. There’s a neatness to their posture, evident in the way they sit at their keyboard or kitchen table, or in the way their arms hang at their side and their hands fold in their lap. (Everyone, it seems, has good etiquette.) Their words are drawn from sources that are canonical, or at least familiar: Sophocles, Brecht, Corneille, Pavese, Böll, Schoenberg, Mallarmé, Hölderlin, Kafka. In some cases, the text was left unfinished by the author. Among the major themes: the collective hoarding (and purging) of historical memory; the fate of pleasure in a world of punishing impersonal forces, which are either internalized and uncritically repeated, or else resisted at the cost of psychic stability and social acceptance; the changing quality of sunlight.

These are no mere details. They are components of a very singular sensibility shared by two filmmakers responsible for some of the most forceful and lucid cinematic achievements of the past half-century. These conjoined artists, dubbed Straub-Huillet (for Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet), have been largely unknown to Anglophone audiences—their films either badly mischaracterized as strictly Marxist or Brechtian “texts,” model fare for the seminar room, or effectively suppressed into irrelevance by the craven prejudices of film distributors in this country—but the two are at last receiving their due: More than 30 shorts and features completed between 1962 and 2006 (the year of Huillet’s death), and nearly 20 directed by Straub—alone or in collaboration with Barbara Ulrich—since 2007, are all being screened through June at the Museum of Modern Art.

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Jean-Marie Straub was born in 1933, in Metz, a French city occupied by the Nazis from 1940 to 1944—a period that played no small role, or so one imagines, in the filmmaker’s continued fascination with the sound of accented second (or third, or fourth) languages. From an autobiographical sketch: “Until 1940 heard, learned, and spoke only French—at home and outside. And all at once I am only allowed to hear and speak German outside and have to learn it instantly in school.” Straub led a film club in the early 1950s; published a number of film reviews and festival reports; went to Paris in 1954; spent some time on the sets of Jean Renoir, Abel Gance, Alexandre Astruc, and Jacques Rivette; and met Danièle Huillet, who at the time failed her entrance exam for France’s national film school by refusing to write an analysis of Manèges, a 1950 film by tradition de qualité director Yves Allégret: “I left my exam book blank, except for three lines in which I said it was scandalous they should show us such a terrible film.”

The couple married in 1959 and moved to West Germany, where Straub escaped being drafted into France’s war in Algeria, and where they began research for a film about Johann Sebastian Bach, with a script drawn mainly from Bach family letters presented as entries in the (fictitious) journal of Anna Magdalena, the composer’s second wife. (Straub reportedly gave the script to Robert Bresson, who encouraged the couple to direct it themselves.) Having declined a financing scheme that would have cast the Austrian conductor (and former Nazi) Herbert von Karajan as Bach rather than the much less famous Gustav Leonhardt, The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach remained dormant for the next decade. In the interim, and with some money from a West German producer, Straub-Huillet made the first of two adaptations of fiction by Heinrich Böll: the 18-minute Machorka-Muff, a ghostly and remarkable condensation of sharp cuts, clinking glasses, revanchist newspaper headlines, hotel cutlery, and organ music, based on a short story from 1957. In it, Erich von Machorka-Muff, a colonel and former major in the Wehrmacht, travels to Bonn, where he dedicates the future Academy of Military Memories to a World War II field marshal, the disgraced Hurlanger-Hiss. At the academy’s cornerstone ceremony, Machorka-Muff reveals that the marshal lost 14,700 of his men during the war, 6,500 more than previously (and officially) recorded, turning a humiliating military retreat into a noble last stand, and thereby rehabilitating Hurlanger-Hiss’s name. Later, promoted to general and married to his mistress—the church annuls her last seven marriages, in another instance of official record-clearing—Machorka-Muff learns that the political opposition disapproves of the academy, at which point his new wife, decorously pouring her afternoon tea, slams the film shut: “Nobody has ever resisted our family.”

Machorka-Muff was rejected from the 1963 Oberhausen Film Festival, although it was eventually screened there unofficially; an impressed Karlheinz Stockhausen saw it and praised it in a letter to “Mr. Straub.” (Lamentably, Huillet’s contributions were misattributed to Straub for some time. The first English-language study of their films, written by Richard Roud and published in England 1971, was sold as a monograph titled simply Jean-Marie Straub.) From Stockhausen’s letter: “Let each element have its own irreplaceable and indispensable moment; no decoration…. You don’t want to ‘change’ the world, but rather engrave in it the trace of your presence and thereby say that you have seen a part of this world, have unfolded it as it gives itself to you. That has pleased me.”

Stockhausen was describing a quality that, if it wasn’t clear to audiences at Oberhausen in 1963, would become unmistakably so two years later, with the Berlin premiere of Not Reconciled: Only Violence Helps Where Violence Reigns. The oblique 50-minute adaptation of Böll’s 1958 novel Billiards at Half-Past Nine traces the continued psychic manifestations of Nazism across three generations of a middle-class family in Cologne, from 1910 to the postwar period. At the end of the Third Reich, and in protest against the war, architect Robert Fähmel demolishes the Abbey of St. Anthony, built by his father, the well-respected Heinrich, during World War I. Johanna, Heinrich’s wife, having once blasphemed against the kaiser, is sent to a sanatorium, where she remains for the next 16 years. Later, at the time of Heinrich’s 80th birthday, Robert’s son, also an architect, rejects a commission to rebuild the destroyed abbey after learning about his father’s ghastly wartime deed; and the sickly, aging Johanna, with Heinrich’s goading, fires a pistol (but misses) at a government minister during a military parade, shooting from a hotel balcony that opens onto the magnificent face of the Cathedral of St. Peter.

The special achievement of Not Reconciled is its capricious jamming together of three periods of German history. What in any other film might serve to clarify the action—descriptive titles, observable changes in costume and decor, expository voice-over narration—is here almost totally upended. Information comes without the customary gadgetry of narrative filmmaking; the attitude toward time is (always) wonderfully, strangely agnostic. Thus the abrupt illogic of the first few minutes, in which two images 25 years apart are made to seem chronologically continuous: the extremely compacted opening shot of a middle-aged Robert leaning over a hotel billiards table (circa 1960), followed by a rounders game from his student years (circa 1935). The task of separating the time of Hitler from the time of Adenauer becomes unendurable, senseless, grotesque.

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As Gilberto Perez rightly put it in Not Reconciled—and this is true across most of Straub-Huillet’s work—“things from the past are not experienced as past but as things with the same claim as anything else belonging to the present.” Straub spoke to a version of this when he described being especially “careful to eliminate as much as possible any historical aura in both costumes and sets, thus giving the images a kind of atonal character”; or when he told one interviewer that flashbacks are impossible in the cinema, since, after all, films can only ever move from “a block of pure, condensed present to another block of pure, condensed, ephemeral present.”

Such movement, if it’s to be intelligible at all, demands that an audience make adjustments in sensibility that can seem painful and gratuitous. Roud, recalling the premiere of Not Reconciled, wrote: “Of the four hundred people there, only a very few seemed to like the film. The rest screamed and carried on, making the reception of L’Avventura at Cannes seem like a triumph by comparison.” One wonders about all that screaming and carrying on, and about the comparison to Antonioni, a filmmaker very different from Straub-Huillet, with his own techniques for soliciting uncomprehending jeers from the room. (During the famous screening of L’Avventura at Cannes in 1960, the audience reportedly shouted “Cut!” during a single 25-second shot of Monica Vitti running down a hallway in the San Domenico Palace Hotel.)

Ted Fendt, editor of an impressive new English-language volume on Straub-Huillet published by the Austrian Film Museum, cites a relevant New York Times review of the couple’s 1969 adaptation of Corneille’s Othon, which played at the 1970 New York Film Festival: “This year, as in the past, the festival paid Straub its greatest tribute…when at the press screening of ‘Othon’ half the audience got up and walked out.” Whatever prompted these protests probably had less to do with the presumed slowness of the film—it isn’t slow, or at least not in the sense that Antonioni’s impatient audience would have found it to be—than with its scrambling, ebullient speed. In fact, one of the recurring pleasures of Straub-Huillet’s films—and, paradoxically, one of the reasons they might initially appear “difficult” or “boring”—is their ability to so quickly thicken and intensify and load up a given situation. The effect depends not on the usual distribution of dramatic incidents—in sequence, causally linking one shot to another—but on the rapid proliferation of sounds and images that are often contradictory (for example, the pairing of off-screen Roman traffic with on-screen togas and tunics in Othon) within a single densely packed space. This is what editor and assistant director of photography Christophe Clavert meant when he said, “Each shot is an autonomous block in [their] films. It’s the relationship of one block to the next and not the continuity of one shot to another as it would be in other films.”

To achieve any of this requires a stable repertoire of techniques, notably direct sound, which Straub-Huillet insisted on for every film they made, including The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (finally completed in 1967) and their extraordinary 1974 film version of Schoenberg’s unfinished opera, Moses and Aaron. In the former, fully costumed performers play uninterrupted selections from the Bach catalog on period instruments for Straub-Huillet’s fixed camera, in what Manny Farber called “a very hard presentation of minimal visual information.” Because none of the sound was studio-recorded, and because any mistake made at any moment during a given performance would force the musicians and the filmmakers to stop and start again, there is, as Barton Byg writes, something unexpectedly suspenseful about what we see and hear, since “something could go wrong, be lost or forgotten.”

The distinctive performances in these films result from careful, extended rehearsals, in which the actors’ many pauses, inflections, intonations, and exhalations were all thoroughly mapped and annotated, usually by Huillet, in a process that is radically de-psychologizing (Huillet: “We showed them how they could extinguish themselves”). Typically nonprofessionals, the actors often speak with accents, because, in Straub’s words, “a language comes back to life from the time that a foreigner must struggle against it to revive it.” One thinks of the precision and coolness of Bresson’s nonactors, although here the performances, for all their deliberateness, are astonishingly varied—whether the exalted, fitful outbursts of Antigone (1991); the moist buffo consonants of Sicilia! (1998); the beautifully differentiated singsong voices of Workers, Peasants (2001) and the short Every Revolution Is a Throw of the Dice (1977); or the frenetic declarations between a husband and wife in From Today Until Tomorrow (1996).

No less distinctive is Straub-Huillet’s peculiar handling of space and visual information. One common strategy is to let a shot continue long after a character has left the frame, or long after the end of a conversation, as when Oedipus and Tiresias suddenly finish a lengthy discussion aboard an oxcart in the first half of From the Cloud to the Resistance (1978). In Antigone, characters are sometimes described just seconds before we see them onscreen, and in Lothringen! (1994), depopulated images of Metz are accompanied by a voice-over narrator who says things like “All those mattresses, linen, furniture, piled in heaps” and “There were crowds like in the streets of Paris,” which compel imaginative conjunctions between sound and image in a way that’s haunting and central to Straub-Huillet’s work.

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When D.W. Griffith “frames an embankment, an electric pole, and a train track below it, it becomes a mysterious image and at the same time an absolutely realistic image,” Huillet once told an interviewer. “If one is not capable of this combination of realism and mystery, it’s better not to tackle image making.”

Griffith, arguably one of cinema’s great system builders, working in the time of the drawing-room drama and Spengler’s The Decline of the West, could take his version of realism for granted. With its obsessive, penitential clarification of dramatic and moral space, its grand old faith in “full,” intentional behavior, Griffith’s was a hopelessly belated and summarizing temperament, finding in all things the ideal setting for the bravura closing statement, for a rousing final act—and a Last Judgment.

Straub-Huillet, if they are to have any connection to systems at all, might be a little like the young Joseph in Not Reconciled: horrified by his father’s destructiveness but appalled by the idea of reconstructing the rubble and, therefore, of changing the record. Working in a time of chance operations and land art (fantasy double feature: Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty and any of Straub-Huillet’s three landscape films from the 1970s), they’re the loving proprietors of a small but always well-tuned and well-examined collection of things. Nothing is ever final, in cinema as in history, since we’re able to continue to impute faces or motives or feelings to what seems inert and not in the least mysterious.

Shoring up this body of work is a question—Pedro Costa thoughtfully used it as the title of his film on Straub-Huillet, filmed during the editing of Sicilia! and included in the Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective—taken from a bit of graffiti in the opening shot of From Today Until Tomorrow: “Where does your hidden smile lie?” Here’s what one French filmmaker, in his famous review of Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man, wrote in the 1950s:

It is worth noting in passing that none of the shots of the newspaper Balestrero is reading in the subway is expendable. Throughout his entire career, Hitchcock has never used an unnecessary shot…. In the newspaper, for instance, we are shown an automobile advertisement. We realize that Balestrero has a wife and two children because a young woman and two children are grouped round the car, making our unassuming hero smile.

One is reminded of another newspaper sequence committed to film, in which the headlines are far more sinister than Hitchcock’s advertisement could ever be: “A military past imposes duties”; “Defense is a citizen’s duty”; “To re-arm is moral”; “Unanimous ‘yes’ to army.” In MachorkaMuff, we never get the reaction shot of “our unassuming hero,” but the smile is implied. Like so much else in Straub-Huillet, the film gives us an idea: Impish and subtle, unyielding and defiant, it’s a grimace that spites its own catastrophes—and maybe ours as well.