Only death could do them apart: Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub in a portrait taken in France, 2002. Richard Dumas / Agence Vu
Soon after Alain Tanner and Jean-Luc Godard, two other grand masters of“radical cinema”, Jean-Marie Straub also died on the shores of Lake Geneva. Film critic Christopher Small traces Straub's Swiss twilight, and sheds a light on his commitment to“those who resist”. This content was published on May 26, 2023 May 26, 2023 Christopher Small
In November, radical filmmaker Jean-Marie Straub, known for his lifelong artistic collaboration with his wife Danièle Huillet (1936-2006), died a couple of months before his 90th birthday in the Swiss town of Rolle.
In their obituary, the French newspaper Le Monde characterised Straub as“Marxist, rebellious, uncompromising, contrarian, stormy and fiery”. They added that with Danièle Huillet, he created one of the most unified, poetic, and defiantly hermetic bodies of work in the history of cinema.
Credit: Tcd/prod.db / Alamy Stock Photo
In his last days, Straub stared out from his bed at the autumnal panorama of the French mountains on the other side of Lake Geneva, recalls his companion and collaborator Barbara Ulrich.
“A permanent cinema”, Ulrich called it when I spoke to her last month at the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, where a four-film homage was taking place.
As the night enveloped the lake in darkness for the last time, Straub stared out at the dimming colours of the landscape, listening to the beginning of the second movement of Beethoven's String Quartet No. 12.“I am sick”, he told Ulrich with apparent surprise on the day he passed, taking her hand as if registering his illness for the first time. Europeans in exile
Neither Straub nor Huillet were Swiss. Huillet was born in Paris on May 1, 1936, and Straub in Metz three years before that, a place that was French at the time of his birth, German during the war, and French again by Victory Day (May 9, 1945).
This biographical detail suggests some of the pan-European character of their films; while few works by the Straubs, as the couple was known, could credibly be called adaptations, all were based on existing texts, almost all by Europeans.
Unlike typical adaptations for the screen, where the source material is massaged or abridged to fit a cinematic narrative, theirs strived to transpose the original texts into another medium with as much care and vigour as possible; leaving the words room to breathe, untrammelled and unadorned.
Huillet and Straub met in 1954 in Paris; she was 18 and he was 21. In 1958, they fled France for the Federal Republic of Germany after he refused to participate in the terrorisation of Algeria by the French army. After living in exile in Munich for over a decade, the Straubs moved to Italy, where they continued to produce films until Danièle's death.
When she passed away from cancer in October 2006, Straub returned to Paris with Ulrich, where over the next few years he produced a series of short films and videos along with continued work in the Tuscan town of Buti. Their trips from Tuscany to Paris cut through Switzerland, where Ulrich, who is Swiss, had an apartment.
With each year their sojourns in Rolle grew longer and longer, and by 2015 they had moved permanently to the municipality once Straub's health limited the possibility for extensive travel. Four of the final six films he produced together with Ulrich were shot on the shores of Lake Geneva.
The Straubs' "Nicht Versöhnt" (Not reconciled, BRD, 1965), based on Heinrich Böll's novel "Billard um halb zehn" (Billiards at half past nine), shows the life story of three generations shaped by National Socialism, capitulation and reconstruction, in flashbacks during the course of a celebration for the 80th birthday of the architect Heinrich Fähme. Kpa
The Swiss connection
“Switzerland was not a terra incognita,” Ulrich tells SWI swissinfo.ch.“In the 1960s, when they made their first films in Munich, they went to Geneva to do the subtitling. At this time, they also knew [the Swiss film critic and curator] Freddy Buache. He always bought copies and showed the films.”
Straub-Huillet's work over nearly 45 years together was characterised by intimate and intense working relations. The impact of their friendship with Buache, the longtime head of the Cinémathèque Suisse (the national film archives), and his dogged support of their work, had a decisive effect on Frédéric Maire, the Cinémathèque's current head and the director of the Locarno Film Festival from 2005-2009. Straub received an honorary Pardo d'Onore at the festival in 2017.
Jean-Marie Straub poses with the "Pardo d'Onore" during a photocall at the 70th Locarno International Film Festival (August 10, 2017). Keystone / Urs Flueeler
Buache presented Straub-Huillet's first two films, Machorka-Muff (1963) and Not Reconciled (1965) at Maire's high school; on seeing them, he confessed to understanding little, but the experience left him fascinated: cinema would now be most of his life's work.
Straub's final films did not treat Lake Geneva merely as a backdrop: it was a specific site whose history required investigating. The French critic Serge Daney said that Straub-Huillet's films are all about“people who resisted”, and a film like Gens du lac (2018), the fiftieth film with Straub's name on it, is no exception.
Adapted from the novel by Swiss author Janine Massard, the film speaks about two fishermen – a son and a father – who at night transported food and medicine across the lake to occupied France during the Second World War, smuggling Jews and anti-fascist resistance fighters back on their return journey.
Figures from the resistance like these were neither honoured nor recognised as such until after their deaths, part of a dark, complicated Swiss history intermingled with anti-communism. In Straub's film, we hear not only about the heroism, the resistance, but also the calamities, the deaths, the violence inscribed on this placid, watery landscape.The catholic Marxist
The same String Quartet by Beethoven, heard throughout the film, featured again at Straub's funeral at the Saint Joseph Catholic Church in Rolle on November 25.
That Straub's farewell would take place in a Catholic church struck me as surprising, somehow; he was, after all, a pugilistic Marxist for all of his adult life.
When I asked Ulrich about the contradiction it in Oberhausen, she corrected my oversight. Jean-Marie Straub's first ideological love affair, before Communism, had been with Catholicism – he had attended a Jesuit high school in Metz – and thus it had never totally left him.
As ideologies, she said Straub had told her they were devoted to making“a brave new world” of one kind or another.“And neither of them work.”
Scene from "Klassenverhältnisse" (Class Relations; France/West Germany, 1983), based on Franz Kafka's novel "Amerika". The German film maker Harun Farocki, who played one the the lead roles, made a documentary about the filming process, "Jean-Marie Straub und Danièle Huillet bei der Arbeit an einem Film" (1983). Credit: Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo
Death by the lake
Straub's passing came mere months after two other deaths in Switzerland that registered as catastrophically seismic for international cinephiles: Alain Tanner, 92, on September 11, 2022 in Geneva, and Jean-Luc Godard, 91, who died from assisted suicide two days after Tanner, also in Rolle.
Three representatives of the radical filmmaking traditions of the 20th-century had not only been lost, but lost in quick succession and in remarkably close proximity. Tanner, Straub, and Godard had died within half an hour's drive of one another, along the side of the same lake, in the space of a couple of months.
Ulrich insists that the connection to Rolle was incidental, but that naturally she and Straub had considered it a bonus that“these two very different monuments (Godard and Straub)” found themselves there together.“They were not small-talk men”, she insisted.“They dialogued only indirectly, through films and gestures.”
In 1967, Godard had given a substantial amount of money to Straub and Huillet for their first feature film, Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968), and continually marshalled his greater fame to defend their films publicly; he insisted, even recently,“I don't think they like many of my films, but I like all of theirs”.
External Content A memory to restore
Straub and Huillet's films were for a long time unavailable on DVD or video. As published correspondence with various distributors, film museums, and festivals over the decades shows, Huillet was meticulous and forceful in insisting on the best possible viewing conditions.
After she died, and as digital transfer technologies improved, their work gradually became more available to watch at home. Ulrich, who acted as Straub's partner in their production company Belva-Film, began the steady work of preserving and distributing their work anew, culminating in a significant restoration project undertaken on almost all of the films.“A mad undertaking, since we started with nothing,” she said.
A retrospective of these new digital versions of the films showed during the pandemic on the arthouse streaming platform MUBI and toured internationally over the past couple of years, reviving interest in the work of filmmakers long considered marginal, difficult, outside even the arthouse mainstream, while the original negatives are now safely stored in“old, cold boxes” in France and Switzerland.
In his own words: Straub and Huillet in conversation, filmed by the Portuguese director Pedro Costa. This excerpt is part of the short film 6 Bagatelas (Six bagatelles), made with scenes not used in the final version of his documentary on the Straubs, Onde jaz o teu sorriso? (Where does your smile lie?).
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