In the 1960s, the German cinema was still trying to rebound from the war. Two filmmakers of the period are of immense importance, partly because they paved the way for one of the key directors of Das Neue Kino (New Cinema) in Germany in the 1970s, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. But Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s work is in a class by itself, among the glories of modern formalist cinema. Indeed, Straub and Huillet formed one of the few husband-and-wife production teams of true equality. Together they created some of the most demanding and interesting films of the 1960s and 1970s, beginning in 1963 with their short film Machorka-Muff(sometimes spelled Majorka-Muff).
Straub ran a local cine-club in his birthplace of Metz, France, and later worked in various assistant capacities for such directors as Jean Renoir, Abel Gance, and Robert Bresson, all of whom had an enormous influence on his work.
Straub and Huillet met in 1954 in Paris and immediately became artistic partners. In 1958 Straub, fleeing conscription into the French armed forces, moved to Munich, Germany, with Huillet, where they became involved with radical theater groups. Among Straub’s early collaborators was Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who appears in Straub’s short film Der Bräutigam, die Komödiantin und der Zuhälter (The Bridegroom, the Comedienne, and the Pimp, 1968). The movie combines the story of the murder of a pimp (Fassbinder) with a drastically condensed theatrical piece and a lengthy tracking shot from an automobile of prostitutes plying their trade on an ill-lit German thoroughfare. Perhaps the couple’s most famous early film is Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach (The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, 1968), which the directors shot on actual locations of Johann Sebastian Bach’s life, featuring Gustav Leonhardt, the renowned harpsichordist, as Bach, and Christiane Lang, also a classical musician in real life, as Anna.
With period instruments borrowed from various museums for a historically accurate sound, as well as costumes and props gleaned from a variety of private collections for added authenticity, the film nevertheless almost collapsed before production.
Huillet and Straub insisted on recording all the sound live on location, eschewing the use of any post-dubbing, to get the most natural and authentic performances from the ensemble of excellent musicians they had assembled, as well as to re-create the original acoustics. But this horrified the original backers, who withdrew their funding a few days before shooting was to begin. Jean-Luc Godard came through with emergency funding, but the reduced budget meant that the film had to be shot in black-and-white rather than in color, which the directors would have preferred. Nevertheless, The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach was a surprise hit at the 1968 New York Film Festival and remains a stunning artistic achievement.
Christiane Lang as J. S. Bach’s wife in Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s minimalist
In Chronicle, as in all their works, Huillet and Straub masterpiece ChronikderAnna Magdalena Bach insisted upon lengthy takes, some nearly ten minutes (The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, 1968). long, which were used virtually without editing in the final print. Coupled with the use of natural lighting, austere sets, and subdued performances, this minimalist shooting technique results in an extraordinary sense of place, as if one is watching the incidents of Bach’s life as they occur rather than a re-creation.
Other early successes include an adaptation of Heinrich Böll’s novel Billiards at Half Past Nine, which became the astoundingly rich and perverse Nicht versöhnt oder Es hilft nur Gewalt wo Gewalt herrscht (Not Reconciled, or Only Violence Helps Where Violence Rules, 1965). By the late 1960s and early 1970s, Straub preferred to function more as a producer than a director. Often working in 16 mm film, Huillet and Straub directed such works as Geschichtsunterricht (History Lessons, 1972) and Moses und Aron (Moses and Aaron, 1975). In all these films, the team demands a great deal from the viewer, using stylized sets, static camerawork, and spare visual compositions that avoid spectacle or artifice. Given the proper attention, however, Straub-Huillet films remain among the most haunting and visually resonant of the German filmmaking renaissance. Their partnership came to an end when Huillet died in 2006; without her guiding hand, Straub’s future as a filmmaker seems uncertain.