The film is an adaptation of Arnold Schönberg's unfinished opera, Moses und Aron. Two other versions of Schönberg's piece have been released in the last few years, neither of which I've managed to see, but both of which I am keen to see. If nothing else I feel they might help me get a better understanding of Schönberg's work to enable me to grapple with what Straub and Huillet are doing with the material.
In other words, then, Moses und Aron is not for the faint-hearted; I would class it as the least accessible film I have ever seen. Schönberg's opera is a complex exploration of how hearing God speak is an ineffable experience. It works on the interplay between Moses and Aaron. Moses is able to hear God's voice, but is unable to express what God has said correctly. Aaron on the other hand has the task of disseminating what Moses tells him for the sake of the masses. In the process much is lost, and essentially it's that which the libretto is trying to explore. What gets lost in translation?
Schönberg never finished the third act and so only his lyrics remain, which shows that even the great man never quite got a hold on his subject matter, which makes me feel a little better for never managing to write down my thoughts on watching the film. He also pioneered in the field of atonal music - which uses notes independently of the standard scales with a single central tone. This means that even the music to the opera is not easy to appreciate and enjoy.
Filming such material was never going to result in box office gold, but Straub and Huillet also have their own set of complex ideas that they wish to explore by adapting Schönberg's material. The majority of their work was, in fact, adapting established works. Indeed, the only other piece of theirs I have seen is Toute révolution est un coup de dés (Every Revolution Is a Throw of the Dice - 1977) was an adaptation of Stéphane Mallarmé's poem. I'm sure that in this day and age there are several others available to watch online, and so I should really watch more. Not to mention my need to read the two booksI have about their work.
Their style is so cinematically austere, that it makes your standard Dogme film look like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. They use long, long shots, with very little movement. The image that is most prominent in my mind of this film is such a shot of the back of Moses head. There's also a lack of dramatic action. The focus of the film is the relationship between Moses and his brother, but there are occasional scenes with the rest of the Israelites (the chorus). But they remain stationary in the kind of rigid formation you expect from watching a choir perform live, rather than how you would expect a crowd to act - even in an opera.
The austerity has a point however: it's pushing questions about cinema's form to an extreme. As David Thomson puts it in his essay on Straub 1.
What we think of as story is invariably the effect of a chosen way of filming. The medium is intensely decision based, and thus there has always been an abiding formal element to it.I'm not sure I fully understand that, but it's the most succinctly clear summary I have to hand!
...There is a further, inevitable kind of order in the sequence of shots within a film. And although Straub's work has alarmed audiences and been enjoyed by relatively few, it is built upon the assertion that in cinema we respond to those sequences; that composition; light, movement, and sound play upon our thoughts and feelings."
The final act is just read out - no music exists and so in some ways the final act is less accessible for more conservative opera fans, although conversely it does mean that the film becomes a little less accessible for the average film-goer.
In Straub and Huillet's hands the opera also explores the question of word vs image, which is very in-keeping with the second commandment's ban on graven images, often understood as a ban on using images to gain a greater intellectual or spiritual understanding of God.
So that's about it really, like I said, dim recollections. There are more perceptive comments from Richard Brody at the New Yorker.
1 - David Thomson, "The New Biographical Dictionary of Film", LONDON (Little Brown), 2002, Fourth Edition, p.843.