With the first English-language book on Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub in over a decade Ted Fendt and FilmmuseumSynema could not do much wrong. What we get is less a deep inside into the work of the filmmakers, but rather an introduction, an overview. It is a fitting book for students or anyone preparing for a new life with Straub-Huillet. Especially since the book has a sort of inherent sexiness that tries to give back a certain underground mentality to the filmmakers that often lose their attraction to young film lovers because in university, they are often presented as a sort of establishment or worse, the past. Which is absolutely wrong. How to experience the radical, the poetic when you are not alone (also among others) or in love? The book allows for this love or solitude by giving a mixture of straight matter of factness, transparence and quotes by the filmmakers as well as images, documents and a perspective on certain gestures, written or said. In other words: It leaves open a space that asks for discovery.
The book offers mainly an American perspective on the filmmakers. That as such is not necessarily a bad thing. The publication is motivated by a traveling North American retrospective and retrospectives are among the most common reasons to publish books on artists. Yet with Straub-Huillet it is a different, difficult case as the publishing history on them, and that included film criticism (very much so) is also the history of injustice, of simplification. With the book and especially the very intensely researched essay by Ted Fendt “ Dividing Lines. The Distribution and Reception of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet‘s Films in the English-Speaking World“ this becomes clear. It is also mentioned that this kind of simplification has not only taken place in the English-speaking world. Nevertheless the idea of the book proposed by the 90-pages-essay “(Not Only) for Children and Cavemen. The Films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet“ by Claudia Pummer is more comprehensive than that. So, reading the book from beginning to end does not make much sense in this case. Better decide for one text and a week later maybe the next. It gives the impossible promise of being about all of Straub-Huillet while ultimately it decreases to an English-speaking perspective. It might have been more interesting to decide for such a limited approach from the beginning instead of mixing texts by German, French and American contributors and giving the idea of being about the whole career of the filmmakers. This criticism might feel a bit exaggerated and certainly some counter arguments exist that might have led to the publication as it is, but my problem is that such an approach ultimately leads to simplification. Again. Maybe it is inevitable to have those simplifications but then, why not admit from the beginning? No, Ted Fendt announces in his introduction a survey of each film, working methods and how the filmmakers have been considered and discussed over the years. I cannot help it but those things are not in the book.
That being said I have to admit that Pummer does more than all right in her comprehensive text that covers Straub-Huillet from their beginning up to now. It is entertaining, full of information and love. She manages to capture the spirit of Straub-Huillet‘s filmmaking while at the same time holding the necessary distance. If there was ever a text on the filmmakers in the spirit of Huillet‘s quote in Pedro Costa‘s Où git votre sourire enfoui?, “I am not afraid. I am watching.“ it certainly is this one. She manages because she writes with a rare confidence on the filmmakers that often are surrounded by mysticism and questions. With Pummer those questions are not neglected but somehow they are all part of the work, the work of the filmmakers, the work of the researcher. Of course, one would have to discuss about certain issues. For example, Pummer proposes a very short way from Straub-Huillet to Truffaut. While reading one almost gets the feeling that they share the same anger. With the noble exception of L‘Enfant sauvage touching points in their films are rare and just because there is an anger against a certain kind of cinema, it does not mean it is made of the same emotion. Of course, there are bridges like Daney who championed both, Truffaut and Straub-Huillet, but then, one should at least ask: How can the same anger lead to Antoine Doinel on the one hand and Anna Magdalena Bach on the other hand? Being a lover of both myself the thought that there might be a deeper connection than just being filmmakers from the same generation and country, knowing each other and so on, is seducing at first. It would need a closer view than possible in this article.
In its mid section the book contains three texts, love letters by filmmakers shaped or influenced by Straub-Huillet: John Gianvito, Harun Farocki and Jean-Pierre Gorin. Especially Gorin‘s piece on Où git votre sourire enfoui? is outstanding. It is not only full of great observations on Straub-Huillet, Mr. Costa and the film, it also shows that writing can be influenced by filmmakers. In the case of great filmmakers like Straub-Huillet this is possible as their philosophy is not the philosophy of images (God beware!) but of perception, of living. This becomes also clear in a section where co-workers like William Lubtchansky or Angela Nugara give short accounts of their experience in working with Straub-Huillet. Related to those accounts is also Barbara Ulrich‘s text about organizing the North American retrospective. It is related because working with Straub-Huillet is very much like working with their films and Ulrich knows both as almost no other person. It is about work, struggle and precision: Cinema. In my opinion, this demanded precision and ethical point-of-view makes it so hard to write about their films. Of course, there are some good texts but in good criticism there is always a sort of volatility, speed, it is a clash, a reaction, a perception and its mediation. Whereas Straub-Huillet take the luxury of time and patience. They give it back to us, no question. So writing about Straub-Huillet must be related to time and attentiveness. The second is rare among film writers, the first is impossible. It would be a revolution.
The most seducing and dangerous text is a translated version of a great and divisive conversation of the filmmakers with François Albera. The interview was conducted at first by the Pompidou Center in 2001. Straub-Huillet refused to give in after those responsible for the publication demanded various cuts because among other things Straub makes a polemic comparison of the killing of animals and Jews. A conflict started with prominent Straub supporters such as Jacques Rancière taking the side of the filmmakers and the interview was turned down by the Pompidou Center while it was published in Hors-Champ in the same year. The interview is not necessarily great for its polemics, it is great because in it, the filmmakers give a very passionate and clear definition of what political cinema is in their opinion. The interview is crystal clear, thought-provoking as cinema itself, very passionate and tense. It also contains the observation many collaborators of Straub-Huillet (for example Thom Andersen) have made: Straub goes on and on, finds brilliant thoughts and then comes Huillet and sums it all up in one sentence.
Still, (somehow fitting) the most important part of the book is the materialistic part. It might seem superficial, yet it is so important to see that guy with his cigar, to see that woman sitting on the set of Moses and Aron with sandals, even to see their hidden smiles out in the open. To have it on a piece of paper. It‘s important to see their handwriting. This has nothing to do with illustrations, it has to do with sensual aspects of their cinema and way of living (which is the same as far as I can judge). It has to do with opening up to a cinema that is labelled so many things (even in the book), opening up to nowadays very difficult terms like radicalism. The idea of the terrorist has changed. When Straub repeatedly says that he is a terrorist there is no romanticism or sympathy in it anymore. Gianvito has some interesting thoughts concerning the terrorism of Straub in his text. He finds his personal way out with quotes by the filmmakers who say that their kind of rebellion is not for the apocalypse but for a better world. This better world beats at the heart of this publication. The Cine-Terrorists that Straub-Huillet are have nothing in common with the contemporary terrorist. It is about the way we work, about the way we live in and out of cinema. This is most touchable in the images the book contains, but also in the quotes and the gesture of writing about it, with it.