The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach
The Rigour of Resistance
There is of course a rigour to the films of Danielle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub missing from that of most other filmmakers' work, but we should never take this to be an absolute of the form; it is more a question of finding an essential purpose that then demands a certain rigour coming out of that essence. Now this will take a bit of unpacking, but let us think of some recent films that have had a very fixed idea concerning their formal aspect. We might think of Russian Ark, where the whole ninety plus minute film takes us through Russian history by semi-fictionally taking us through the Hermitage museum in St Petersburg. Victoria goes further, a two and half hour movie covering much more terrain, as it focuses on a heist in Berlin. In Son of Saul, the director shoots the whole film using a forty millimetre lens that keeps the death camp events the central character witnesses in the background as we focus almost exclusively on his face.
If of the three Victoria seems the most gimmick-driven and virtuoso, it rests in us feeling that it has no internal impetus and is too much a formal parti pris. It lacks the tension between its fixed formal idea and its execution. If one sees Rear Window as a greater film than Rope, and a far more important exploration of the Hitchcockian, it rests partly on this point. Hitchcock more or less limits us to the apartment that photographer Jefferies finds himself in, but this isn't only a formal notion on Hitchcock's part, it is pragmatically present because Jefferies has broken his leg and can't leave the flat. The reason why nobody can leave the flat in Rope rests on Hitchcock's decision to use a series of invisible ten-minute takes and remains inside the apartment as a consequence.
This doesn't mean that Rear Window is a better film simply because it allows the form to come out of character and story; that would be a conservative argument that insists everything must be driven by the content. No, it is more to say that an artwork has multiple tensions within it, and a decision too formally preordained can rob it of subtle choices that are made on a more invisible aesthetic level. Of course, to say that Rear Window is a better film than Rope, that Alexander Sokurov's Mother and Son (which albeit makes plenty formal demands on itself too) is a more meaningful work than Russian Ark, leaves us in the realm of opinion. Yet perhaps the danger of working with a fixed idea is that the exhaustion we might feel in the preconception of the form smothers the contingency we often seek in an artwork. If we believe that the artistic unconscious is hampered by the consciousness, then it is as if our faculties are being constrained too.
We needn't agree with David Mamet when he asks in On Directing Film, "'Where do I put the camera?' That's the simple question, and the answer is, 'over there in that place in which it will capture the uninflected shot necessary to move the story along.'" But if the camera decision is made to the detriment of what we will call the aesthetic decision, then the danger is that empty formalism results. Mamet's take is that you put the camera where the story demands it; the formalist might say we can put the camera wherever we choose and thus make clear that the film is much more than its story. But we are inclined to claim that the emphasis on the form is just an inversion of the emphasis on the storytelling. If the tension in the former dissolves in the conventional; the tension dissolves in the latter due to the unconventional. But in both instances, the aesthetic - the sum total of decisions made that allow the artists' unconscious to make the artwork - is in danger of being lost. Obviously, great films are made with strong formal requirements - and many would include Russian Ark and Son of Saul as instances - but if the formal procedures are too strong, then the aesthetic gets weakened. Georges Perec's The Void is a formally brilliant piece of work, an entire novel without the letter e, but is it the equal of Life: A User's Manual, a book not without a few fixed ideas of its own (it must have no more than ninety-nine chapters), but one where its demands are in competition with numerous more contingent elements? This isn't the place to go into the greatness or otherwise of experimental literature, but it is to say that in the novel form, as in film, the greatest works are rarely those that are the most formal, nor the most narratively conventional, but where the tension between the two is constantly at work, and at play.
But this is all by way of an introduction to Straub/Huillet's work, and especially Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach. These are directors famously 'difficult', artists who refuse many of the demands of the commercial film industry as they search a resistant aesthetic. Now resistant isn't the same as formalist, though there will be much in common between the two terms. Writing on the directors, Jean-Andre Fieschi says: "in any event, the nature of the mass of films is predictable: if they are indeed, like any social product, more or less diversified responses to a specific demand, the demand in question is a perverted one. In capitalist countries, cinema is indissolubly linked to Capital and to Ideology. Cinema sells dreams, the real disguised..." (Cinema: A Critical Dictionary)
Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach is a musical biopic, but to describe it thus would be to do an injustice to the film and would be no less an injustice to the paying Saturday night customer who goes along expecting a movie about the life of a musician. The musical biopic is a broad enough church to include Ken Russell's Mahler, Milos Forman's Amadeus and Olivier Dahan's La vie en rose, but they all fit within a range of expectations that can allow for the term musical biopic to be used without straining it. They might each in their own way reflect the director's style (exaggerated, caricatural and sentimental respectively), but the differences in form still leave the works without at all the resistant aesthetic that Fieschi invokes - a style that questions in form and content how art and celebrity are made. It is not at all the question of charisma and genius that interests the Straubs, but the universality of creative struggle. This might seem paradoxical since their film can't hope to reach the numbers of a film like Amadeus, but they would see such an attempt as part of aesthetic false consciousness: that people wish for the universal as feeling but through the singularity of the great individual. Any identification is predicated on putting oneself in the enormous boots of a brilliant figure, and stomping around as if the viewer has the chutzpah and talent of the character on the screen. The films might claim to be 'universal', but they praise the exceptional. There is little that we can learn from such films except 'inspiration', no matter the wonderful energy they sometimes evoke.
If Bach is exceptional, the film does not tell us this, though we might infer it from the music the film plays to us in a number of extended takes. It is as if the Straubs have asked not how lucky we are that we have the music of Bach, but also wonder how often art that has given us so much could easily not have been made at all. The circumstances of art-making is both internal and external: a relationship with one's art and with one's society. The film opens with a single take of Bach playing on the harpsichord, a medium close-up that then pulls out and shows a range of musicians performing with him, before cutting to an abrupt, high-angled shot of his second wife Anna, while in voice-over we are given information about Bach's life. The film then cuts to a young boy playing and we might wonder who this happens to be. The film tells us that Bach had lost his wife the previous year, and he had been left with three sons and a daughter. Is this one of the sons? Indeed it happens to be. And what are we to make of the brief insert shot of Anna? As with many of the directors' works, the film doesn't place us in the film; it displaces us - asks us to find our way in rather than welcoming us by the door. Perhaps this resides in a servant's entrance aesthetics consistent with Fieschi's belief that the films are really for the "people, the worker, the peasant. But these people are excluded from culture by the reigning bourgeoisie, its State and its institutions. Yet it is to them that the culture of the past belongs." (Cinema: A Critical Dictionary)
Of course some will scoff at such claims, but we might ask why films that present characters without any of the financial problems, health issues and personal crises are so successful when they are removed from people's lives. In this sense, mainstream cinema is a little like a lottery ticket: hardly anyone is likely to possess the life offered but, in its offering, resides a (false) hope that is more palatable than a pressing reality. This is partly why we talk of a resistant ethics evident in the Straubs' work rather than simply a formalist insistence. Certainly, their films are formally demanding and very, very far from conventional, but what they want to do is remove as many of the presuppositions evident in the cinema experience as they can. Straub and Huillet want to defy these conventions without at all assuming they make films simply contrary to mainstream cinema expectation. It is more that commercial cinema works with assumptions that can become oppressively normalised.
One can see this issue for example concerning the question of money. It is a point touched upon by Fieschi and theorised well more generally by Gilles Deleuze in Cinema 2: The Time Image. Deleuze believes "the cinema as art itself lives in a direct relation with a permanent plot [complot], an international conspiracy which conditions it from within, as the most intimate and most indispensable enemy. This conspiracy is that of money." Fieschi says: "in 1974 on the walls of Paris could be seen a surprising series of posters. A man with a vague smile and a meaningful look addresses the passer-by, a possible customer, in the name of a well-known bank. And he speak the truth: 'I am interested in your money.'" (Cinema: A Critical Dictionary) How to make films that are about cash which aren't interested in our money, as opposed to most films that are not really about money but are interested in our cash?
Let us not be too hasty here: many films, and numerous biopics, do address the problem of an artist's finances, and even dramatic arcs come out of this type of preoccupation. Most musical biopics are about famous people who became rich, and many who originated from poor backgrounds: La Vie en Rose, I Walk the Line, Great Balls of Fire, say, and frequently shows this rise out of poverty and, sometimes, the subsequent descent into debt. Yet money still serves character and plot - it can show that money is something we can get if we work hard and have talent, and something we lose if we are feckless and lazy. How many biopics show the ambitious young artist working all the hours God gives to make it, and then looking like they might lose it all when women, drink and drugs cause problems later on as the star spends all his time in his pyjamas or in his trunks, in the bed or by the pool, addled or coddled? This isn't finally about money, but a certain arced Manichaeism: working all the hours God gives only to waste one's talent in devilish decadence. The sort of films Deleuze and Fieschi would be talking about, however, would include Wenders' The State of Things, Tout va bien and Numero deux by Godard, Edvard Munch by Peter Watkins, and of course films by the Straubs. This is cinema that doesn't parade huge sums of money in front of our eyes in star performances and production design only to ask us to see how empty money is. If it casts stars at all (like Tout va Bien with Jane Fonda and Yves Montand), it does so to ask what is involved in the casting of them. In other words it makes the money visible, makes it part of a reflexive discourse. (Tout va Bien opens with the signing of cheques that are needed to get the production going.)
This is partly what can make a film possess the formal rigour that we opened with. The Straubs with Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach are making a film about music and money, and they don't want to couch it in a narrative that would get in the way of the examination of these two components. It is a work consistent with Feischi's claim that it is the proletariat that provides the cash for the culture others' absorb, but it is also consistent with the writer James Kelman who in Variant magazine suggested that the artist is the proletariat of the cultural world, with funding bodies, for example, possessing often more status than the artists themselves. How to find a form that reflects this? By paying great attention to the work done and the difficulties involved in doing it partly because those who hold the purse strings also have some control over the harpsichord strings too. Much of the film is made up of single take shots of the music being played, and we have an invented diary voiced mainly by Anna describing the social politics behind the scenes, while the film sometimes utilises letters written by Johann.
At one moment in the film, we are informed by Anna in voice over that Johann received the direction of the collegium musicum, and that he was asked to play in memory of the dead queen, only for someone else to protest. He was allowed to perform only as a 'pure favour" as the film then cuts to the performance filmed in one shot at an angle off to the side so that the musicians aren't seen frontally, but stacked, with the conductor in the distance, in the bottom left-hand corner of the frame. Talking about the film, Straub insisted that he wanted to make it based on points rather than dramatic scenes, to show "points in Bach's' life." he said in an interview at the time. (Filmkritic) What is the difference between a point and a scene, we might wonder, and one way of answering this is to see the scene as dramatic and the point as dedramatised. When for example we are told that someone wasn't happy that Bach would be performing at the queen's funeral, we don't have a dramatic action showing the conflict, we have a calm voice-over explaining what happened and then we cut to the performance itself. If Straub says that he wanted the music to be an aesthetic matter, rather than an accompaniment or a commentary if the film had focused very strongly and dramatically on the scene between Bach and the person unhappy that he had been given this opportunity, the music might have come as an afterthought - it would seem irrelevant next to the argument witnessed. Instead, the 'tension' (Straub's word) rests on the point made and the performance itself. The music retains its significant place and isn't subordinated into the dramatic. As Straub reckons: the music "must remain on the same level as everything else". (Filmkritic) But equally everything else must remain on the level of the music: dramatic scenes over biographical detail would have generated an imbalance. It would have ruined the rhythm of a film that wants have something of the 'meaning' of music. This is where film isn't there simply to tell a story and 'say' something, but to create an experience whole unto itself.
We might be contradicting ourselves here, and Straub could be as well, but perhaps ambivalence would be a fairer term to describe the film's aims. When Straub says "nor does a film exist - though I am not absolutely certain - to prove something," he also says, in another interview with Jump Cut, "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." Yet this isn't at all a tool as a recording device, nor it is a tool for political activism. If it happened to be the former it would accept that the film pragmatically captures Bach's life without caring too much about the shot choices: it would be closer to Mamet's notion of cinema. If it were chiefly a tool for the politicisation of the viewer again pragmatic decisions could be made as the film might show Bach as a put-upon artist constantly struggling against abuse and oppressive figures. The film, however, is neither Battleship Potemkin nor The Battle of Algiers, both brilliant examinations of struggle, finding an adrenalised form with which to convey categorical oppression.
But what happens if struggle isn't categorical, but much subtler, consistent and long-preserving, and manifest in many areas of life? When Straub will insist that "the film was made for, aimed at, an audience of peasants" (Jump Cut), he might be offering a provocation, but that doesn't mean it is without point. Why should Bach's music be reserved for the wealthy when, as Fieschi says, it is the poor whose labour allows such music to be produced? While Sergei Eisenstein can clearly show that the proletariat are being mown down and exploited in Potemkin, and Gillo Pontecorvo can examine how the French imperialists run a country to the detriment of the indigenous population in The Battle of Algiers, Straub/Huillet would say there is in The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach a twofold politicisation that Eisenstein and Pontecorvo cannot or choose not to reach. This is the artist as proletariat as we have discussed above, and the absence of the people in the company of great art. While many will say that of course the oppression of the poor is shocking; very few will insist that high art absorbed almost exclusively by the comfortable is shocking too. Straub/Huillet don't pretend that this is a simple issue, but they would be inclined to think that a successful revolution wouldn't only put the means of production in the hands of the proletariat; it would also put the great art of the past that they have slaved to create, however indirectly, into their minds.
This is why we talk of resistance rather than form: what type of approach is required to try and examine these types of questions; questions where the aesthetics is secondary to another question, but not quite secondary to the political? If the form is paramount then we have a film like Victoria, with Toronto Film Festival initially rejecting the movie (according to director Sebastian Schipper in IndieWire) because they didn't quite believe the film had been shot in one take - as if its final importance resided on exactly this issue. If the politics is paramount we might have a film like Battleship Potemkin. That would be all very well for a cinema of the twenties that wanted to create a nation, but it didn't at that time have to fret over the problems involved in so ideological an approach: that creating categorical ideological beliefs could lead to the Gulags, to the death camps. So where does the fundamental question lie? Gilles Deleuze, Serge Daney, Paul Virilio and Jean-Marie Schaefer come close perhaps to answering it, with Deleuze discussing the work of Daney, Schaefer and Virilio in Cinema 2: The Time Image. Here Deleuze talks about the spiritual automaton in film: the idea that the automatic movement of cinema, the ease with which we can follow the images and make sense of the story, leads to a figure of automatic responses. At its best we might find this exploration of the automaton evident in German Expressionism in the twenties. As Virilio says, "as war was succeeded by epidemic, hitting especially hard the age-group between fifteen and thirty-five, the 'ghost industry' had a huge impact on the aesthetic and technical vocabulary of cinema. This was particularly striking in Germany." (War and Cinema)
This would be a cinema of self-enquiry, but what would happen if the opposite took place? As Deleuze says, taking up some of Virilio's points, "there had been no diversion or alienation in an art of the masses initially founded by the movement-image; on the contrary the movement-image from the beginning linked to the organization of war, state propaganda, ordinary fascism, historically and essentially." The ease with which we watch images of ready movement, of easy linkages, of knowing what to expect, can lead to the viewer possessing all sorts of assumptions even if they aren't in the individual's interests. We might have a bullying boss, but we just as easily have a shirking worker: the point in such images resides in the viewer having a good time and the filmmaker making a clear statement. But if this is the priority, then it doesn't really matter what the viewer is shown: the point is that it adds up, makes for a neat, coherent viewing experience. In Soviet Cinema in the twenties and thirties it might be the bourgeoisie, but in German film in the thirties it can be the Jew, in American cinema of the eighties the redneck, and in British contemporary film the ned that are scapegoated. The viewer as automaton walks through the experience, an intellectual sleepwalker unable or unwilling to question the images in front of them. As Georges Duhamel says, quoted by Deleuze: "I can no longer think what I want, the moving images are substituted for my own thoughts." (Cinema 2: The Time Image)
Straub/Huillet want the opposite of the viewer Duhamel fears he might become, and this is where we can understand the essence of their work. They wouldn't pretend they can compete with mass media images that play much more successfully with the world's working classes, but they would prefer the hope of making very pure films for a majority of the future (in the words of Lenin whom they would quote), rather than pragmatically settling for the automaton of the present. In the scene where Bach has a dispute with a colleague, the scene isn't presented within the context of 'central conflict theory' - the Hollywood idea that what you want to generate are categorical conflictual moments that usually show our hero besting others. The image here is in medium shot as numerous people, one by one, pass through a door and out of the screen, passing the figure with whom Bach is in dispute. Finally Bach enters the room and the rector makes some claims that Bach responds to with a brief remark before leaving the frame. The film then cuts to a deep-focus wide-angle shot with the boys at dinner standing saying prayers while we can see in the distance, and the back of the dinner hall, Bach. As in the earlier scene where the composer is small in the rear of the shot, this is the opposite of melodramatic cinema. Instead of putting the camera in the appropriate place as Mamet would suggest, the Straubs often put the camera in the dramatically inappropriate place to create a different type of image. This not a dramatically momentous image where he leads the boys to rebellion, but a pensive shot suggesting the formalities at work and to which Bach is tied. The rigour of the image means we can neither counter power as we might in shots put together to illustrate Bach's rebelliousness, nor accept it as the image becomes exaggeratedly formalised. We must question it. We cannot immediately say what the film is doing and saying.
Straub wasn't afraid to engage in central conflicts of his own. He was always willing to be critical of other filmmakers and their working methods. Speaking of radical film he says: "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", he says "by Fassbinder (First Right of Freedom or Fox) and Techin (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 Techin have gone further than those of Godard. Techin 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." (Jump Cut)
This is a conflict of essences however. What can the filmmaker do to avoid falling into an empty formalism or an easy politics is vital to Straub/Huillet's work. The answer would seem to reside in modes of resistance and methods of interrogation. In History Lessons, the film shows a contemporary in a suit interviewing Ancient Romans, while the film intersperses these scenes with the man driving around modern day Rome. In Too Early, Too Late the landscape of modern day France is contrasted in voice-over with the atrocities that have taken place there in the past. The sound and the image, the past and the present, serve different functions in their work than in the conventional films Deleuze and others comment upon. Straub/Huillet expect the viewer to find themselves in the experience but accept they may have to go through the inexplicable, the confused, the bored, to get there. They want the viewer to think what they want, perhaps even to resist the experience they are watching as it invokes very different feelings and thoughts than the ones we are used to when watching images that pass before our eyes without insistently demanding they stay in our minds. This is of course a risk. One reason why many images fade from memory is because they become part of a regime of similar images not easily distinguished. Straub/Huillet create images that might stay in our minds, but they risk of course alienating viewers who are used to the visual resembling other visuals, and believe the film isn't telling a story, is stilted in its editing, stiff in its acting, and pedagogical in its voice-over. Yet it would be too easy a mistake to make to insist the films are either boring or of their time, even if it might be useful for a critic to acknowledge the aspect of their own wandering thoughts. Penelope Gilliat is quoted in Richard Roud's book on the directors saying "the terrible restraint is probably justified. It deliberately creates a vacuum which you have to fill yourself, in your own sloppy way...I fell into things that never get into reviews, like thoughts of dinner, and what to do with your life..." (Straub) To offer such a criticism would be valid only if one passes through the demands the images and sounds make on us, and to absorb the experience in a manner that could awaken us from our dogmatic and conventional slumbers. A century and a half ago we had so few recorded images of the world, and most of our perceptions would have been our own; however oppressed the society itself might have been. Now, our perceptions are crowded out by billions of images, many of them without much point or purpose beyond selling us something or entertaining us during our leisure time. It is these that we take for granted: we are automatons of these images that we take as natural because they conform to the many others we see around us. Victoria might be a film that is brilliantly shot, but little distinguishes the images from any we see in an average film or on television: it is the conventional done with immense virtuosity. The film does little to generate a new thought, to create something new in the spiritual automaton in front of the screen. When Fieschi says, talking of works that would generate the new, "these films then, would not be films, nor these spectators, spectators...they would be actions" he is expressing the wish for a cinema that can create new images and new thoughts. This isn't at all to fetishise cinema as a medium, but it might still be the best art form in which these images can be made. We cannot watch Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach as we would a typical musical biopic, but how should we watch it is the question. If we too readily formulate an answer then we wouldn't be doing justice to the question asked in the form the film takes. It is the framing of the enquiry, the attempt to ask very fundamental questions of what perception happens to be, what oppression and resistance are, that leads to the formal exactness of the film. It is not that cinema is so very important; more that cinema gives potential room and space to essential questions, and which conventional form so often hides behind.
© Tony McKibbin