• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Sunday, November 19, 2017

    Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach
    The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1967)

    Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach (1968) is the film that put the "and" in Straub and Huillet. Whilst it was the third of Straub's films to be completed, they started working on it well before they created Machorka-Muff (1963) and Not Reconciled (1965) and thus it was the first film that they worked on together. It was also their first feature length film. Machorka-Muff and Not Reconciled (both of which are included on Grasshopper's Moses und Aron disc release later this month) were 18 minutes and 55 minutes respectively.

    It's fitting because Chronik tells the tale of Johann Sebastian Bach from the perspective of his wife Anna Magdalena and whilst the film never suggests Anna was a collaborator, there are scenes both of them working in close proximity and of her playing on her own. The vast majority of Straub and Huillet's work tended to be adaptations of a single work (in addition to Moses und Aron they also adapted Schöenberg's Von Heute auf Morgen (1997), as well as the Corneille play Othon (1969) and works by Brecht [History Lessons, 1972], Kafka [Class Relations, 1984] and the Italian poet Cesare Pavese [From the Clouds to the Resistance, 1979; These Encounters of Theirs, 2006]). Here, however, Chronik uses a variety of smaller sources, as whilst the film bears Anna Magdalena's name and is narrated by an actress playing her (Christiane Lang), none of her writings remain save a brief note at the bottom of a receipt. The note in question is shown part way through the film, as are a number of Bach's documents and other papers relating to him. The shots showing these are relatively short in comparison to the scenes of Bach and the musicians he is working with performing his work.

    These scenes are notable for a number of reasons. In nearly all cases the scene consists of a lengthy single shot, and in generally the camera remains relatively static for the whole shot. One notable exception is the opening shot which starts with a close up on Bach (played by specialist musician Gustav Leonhardt) as he plays the opening solo part of "Brandenburg Concerto No. 5", before quickly zooming out to reveal his accompanying musicians at the moment at which they join in.

    Another thing that is unusual about Straub's shots, both here and in many of his films, is the camera angles he adopts, most notably his diagonal shots. As Richard Roud explains "throughout the film he plays with binary symmetry, left-right polarity, and the changing direction of his diagonals both in the camera set-up and in the camera movements. In fact, one could comfortably claim that there is never an eye-level, straight-on shot in the film: the camera is always a little above or below the actors, either to the left or right." (Roud, 78)

    But perhaps what is most striking about these shots is the way they ignore photographing any kind of audience for the performance. The focus is solely on the musicians (save for one piece which focuses instead on the organ pipes). Occasionally Anna's comments suggest an audience was at least present, but frequently even that knowledge is denied to the viewer. This has a great impact on how the film's audience react to the various pieces. Shorn of a stand-in audience to show us how to react, our reactions are our own. The focus is on the musicians and their own subtle movements.

    The other things that these cameras catch is the carefully chosen locations. As Barton Byg explains Straub and Huillet's "choice of location is never arbitrary and is indeed preceded on the screenplays in some instances. The films then implore the physical traces of history that human activity leaves behind and confront these spaces with texts or musical pieces" (Byg, 55).Here we are treated to a series of 18th century church interiors as well as various shots inside the family home (though I do not believe this rooms shown here are the Bach's actual home).

    That said, it would be a mistake to think that the film is an exact facsimile of how things really happened. Aside from the wigs, Leonhardt does not resemble Bach physically at all. On top of this, whilst Straub/Huillet's later films were more faithful to one particular source, here Anna's narration is drawn from, and inspired from various documents. Furthermore, the flat, unemotional delivery with which the actors deliver their lines (even when discuss the deaths of their children) is unlikely to have been how the real Anna would have referred to her lost children.

    All of which very much puts the emphasis if the film on the music, the "most important element" according to Roud "but not its only subject" (1972: 65). It is also "a love story...a documentary on the actors and musicians of the film...[and] a film with social and political aspects" (Roud, 1982: 65). These and other aspects are all brought together under the film's title character. It might seem surprising to those who have not seen the film that it is named after Bach's wife and not the man himself. Yet as rigorous and "stripped down" as Straub and Huillet's film is, it still remains a subjective account. The story is told as a series of flashbacks as remembered by Anna Magdalena. She is the film's focus, even if her husband dominates the screen. Indeed "the central question posed by the film...is how the music of Bach (as a cultural treasure, religious expression, or simply pleasing music) can at all be connected to the physical life of a historical individual." (Byg, 62)

    One scene is particularly notable in this respect. At the end of one of the longest of Anna's monologues, in which she recounts the deaths of three of her children and the family's move to Leipzig, we see Bach playing and conducting a choir and orchestra in the presence of the Prince. But here the other musicians are kept off screen. Even more strikingly, rather than the scene being filmed inside a church, stately house, or historical communal building, the exterior of Leipzig town hall is back-projected behind Leonhardt. The result looks extremely false, as if expressing Anna's disturbed state of mind at the time.

    Despite all of the above Chronik has been described as Straub and Huillet's most accessible film. This is, no doubt, reflected in the fact that most people are at least slightly more aware of Bach's music than they are of, say, Schöenberg's atonal operas or Brecht's novels. Whilst it's austerity and complex ideas mean it's never found a wide audience, it does open up on repeated viewings. And unsurprisingly it has a good deal in common with Straub and Huillet's adaptation of Moses und Aron that was released just a few years later.
    Byg, Barton (1995) Landscapes of Resistance: The German Films of Daniele Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Roud, Richard (1972) Jean-Marie Straub. New York: The Viking Press.

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    • At 3:11 am, November 24, 2017, Anonymous Anonymous said…

      Never heard of this film. Sounds interesting.

    • At 6:02 pm, November 25, 2017, Blogger Unknown said…

      all true, Matt. But also true is 'less is more': we don't need Anna to express her grief because we can do it for her. Also the film is historically engaged: there was much more (Christian) resignation to these things than in our secularized world.

    • At 12:34 pm, December 17, 2022, Anonymous Anonymous said…

      Nice writeup
      The one scene where you describe zooming is I think done with the camera itself dollying back rather than as with a zoom shot keeping the camera fixed but shifting the focal length of the lens is


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