Jean-Marie Straub was an extrovert and a visionary. The public face of the prolific filmic duo she and her husband Danièle Huillet formed, she is one of the cinematic legends of the twentieth century. Their career, which started when the couple were students in Paris in 1954, spanned four decades and includes over two-dozen films. Dividing their collaborative work equally, Straub’s focused her attention behind the camera lens. Her enigmatic camera-work, focussing on long takes their films ‘un-write’ the visible through the arrested movement of the camera. Most notably perhaps in their first full-length feature, Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, which appeared in 1968 as the couple’s second feature length film.
Jean-Marie Straub and her husband Danièle Huillet
Not Reconciled, 1965, their first feature length film, illustrates the proponents of minimalist cinematography that Straub experimented with in her cinema.
Straub and Huillet’s films have not, however, gained the deserved recognition for their contribution to cinema and cinema politics, critics have noted. In spite of their being the “darlings” of the Cahiers du Cinéma, numerous collaborations with legends such as Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Robert Bresson to name only a few, and occupying a substantial portion of Deleuze’s infamous book Cinema I their films have not made their way into the hearts of the revivalist film watchers of today.
Not Reconciled (Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet, 1965)
Not for the faint-hearted
Many critics hastily concede of Straub’s minimalist style that it’s “inaudible” and “unintelligible” and even those admirers of her work dub the films as “dry and intellectual”. Their films are, however, part of a body of cinema, a body that pertinently probes a social and historical backdrop in France’s ideological past. Straub and Huillet’s films are notoriously imbued with Marxist ideology, this is something that manifests in the textually on screen, objects, figures and music all bear equal weight, and indeed make watching these films a sensory marathon.
Class Relations (Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet, 1984)
“The films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet are best understood in the context of contemporary developments in radical, materialist cinema. They offer what many people see as a genuine alternative to both dominant narrative cinema and conventional art movies. Their work is formally austere and demands attentive, intellectual participation from audiences.” (Quote from The New Biographical Dictionary of Film by David Thomson.)
The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet, 1968)
As with running a marathon, I can only imagine, great satisfaction follows from watching these films. Straub-Huillet’s films are challenging but they incite an obscure reward beyond the sensuous towards the ‘sensible’ in the image, something like the Idea. Objects on screen are extended beyond their formal, prescribed and allocated positions and allow new forms to come forth on screen. As the infamous philosopher of cinema writes..
…the Straubs, are probably the greatest political filmmakers in the West, in the modern cinema. But, bizarrely, this is not due to the presence of the people; on the contrary, it is because they know how to show how the people are, what is missing, what is not there.
Straub and Huillet’s film The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach: