“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.