• 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


    Friday, August 03, 2018

    Machorka-Muff (1962)

    Machorka-Muff was the first project Huillet/Straub were able to complete as their plans for their film on Bach and the film that would ultimately become Not Reconciled were both stuck in production at this stage. Like Not Reconciled it was based on a work by Heinrich Böll, Bonn Diary and concerns the ongoing involvement of prominent Nazi-era figures in the post-war West German establishment.

    Straub had moved to Germany from his native France to escape military service in Algeria and found himself drawn by "the chance to make in Germany a film that no German could make - just as no German was able to make Germany, Year Zero..." (Roud 29). As someone that has spent quite a lot of time researching Rossellini, the connection Straub makes here is one I can appreciate. According to Barton Byg "The remilitarization of West Germany in the 1950s was Straub's 'first political rage', a sign that the country would be prevented from finding its way out of  the wilderness of World War II" (Byg 72).

    The film's opening screen card describes the piece as "An abstract visual dream not a story" and the pair set about distilling Böll's short story with their usual economy. A short piece of narration by Muff is swiftly followed by a dream sequence with the only indicators being his lying down in bed and the obviously unreal nature of the brief sequence that follows. He is then shown plugging in his electric razor the next morning.

    Despite the film' brevity (18 minutes) it still manages to tell the story as three acts. "This concern with rhythm and formal construction is one of the most important elements in Straub's films" (Roud, 37). Machorka Muff has come to Bonn for three reasons: to ingratiate himself, once again, with the German military establishment; to clear the name of a beloved, yet disgraced, superior officer from his days in the Nazi army; and to initiate the building of a military academy. This much is laid out in the film's opening act which culminates in him taking a break from his walk around the city to have an aperitif.

    However, as Muff sits and begins to read the papers the film ominously shifts gear. The natural sound of the first act is replaced by a bombastic and slightly terrifying organ music. This accompanies a montage of newspaper headlines and articles charting the progress of the remilitarisation movement, which are clearly from a variety of newspapers as opposed to just the one that Muff is reading. Within the continuity of the film, then, this montage is "fake" - Muff is not examining a variety of newspapers, just casually perusing the one. However, the clippings shown in this sequence are all genuine cuttings and articles from the time in which the film is set. Whilst Muff, the other characters and the story itself are fictional, the cuttings are, in fact, the only "real" part of the entire film. This use of historical artefacts and bringing together the varies layers of the past would go on to become a regular feature of Huillet and Straub's work.

    Montages of newspaper headlines go back to the silent era, but one of the things that is most interesting about this one is the way in which it quickly moves on from simply the headlines to the arguments in the articles themselves. The articles cite duty, honour to those who died in the German army, morality and democracy in defense of their position, even invoking Jesus and the religious establishment to make their case.

    It's not until the third act when we are finally introduced to the mysterious "Inn". Having been mentioned in the film's very first sentence ("I wanted to call Inn, but decided not to") there are various indicators that she holds some sway. It is she who tells him "the baby's christening is today", meaning that the ceremony for laying the cornerstone of his military academy has got the go-ahead.

    Despite her apparent influence Muff is a little dismissive of her place in society, describing her as "recent nobility, but old family line" before adding, in somewhat derisory fashion, that her family had only become ennobled in Hitler's final two days. This is turned on its head as the final act unfolds and in apparent contrast to what Muff, as the film's narrator, seems to think. We first see her as she arrives in her expensive, open-topped car to pick him up. He bows to kiss her hand and she continues to drive off in taking the dominant position. This seems normal today but would have been notable in the 1950s.

    Inn's influence is also apparent in the scene where Muff is promoted to brigadier general. Whilst he has been napping, she has been orchestrating events leading to the meeting with the government official. And when his promotion is announced, she is the only other person present. Significantly, she helps him on with the jacket from his new uniform.

    Then we get the couple's wedding, accompanied by an unusual low angle shot which captures the pair against the roof of the Cathedral, diminishes the height difference between them and places her more centrally on the screen. Following the wedding we learn that she has already been married seven times before, but that the church is more than willing to annul all her previous marriages in her case. As Inn remarks as the couple enjoy a very brief honeymoon, "This is how I always feel as a bride". Despite her apparently casual attitude to marriage the priest is more than willing to accommodate a couple of such high standing.

    Indeed class is a fairly prevalent theme of the film. In addition to the discussion of Inn and her family, there is also a significant moment in the one of the opening scenes. Whilst Muff is waiting for a meeting in the hotel lobby, Heffling, one of Muff's former colleagues, spies him and the two share a drink. Though initially he is willing to tolerate Heffling, we see Muff pull out a pocket watch during their short moment together. Furthermore when the government representative that Muff is waiting for arrives, Muff places his hand on Heffling's shoulder as if to politely shove him down the hall and out of the door. As Heffling leaves Muff's narration also reveals his true attitude to Heffling describing him as typical of "simple people" and calling his wife him "petit bourgeois".

    Byg also notes the length of time the film spends showing Heffling's drink being brought (77). This is far longer than the time the two men are actually shown together. Once Heffling is dispatched the two discuss the plans for the dedication ceremony and when Muff asks "Will the public swallow it?" the government representative replies "The public swallows everything". What pleases the two most is that they are able to get away with such a celebration of the German military in a democracy, despite the recent history. In a similar way, when Muff delivers his dedication speech towards the end of the film he proudly uses an affectionate name for Hitler that he and his colleagues have been permitted to use.

    Muff's speech is itself fairly significant. Just as the images of the newspapers acting as an official mouthpiece formed the "second act", now Muff's literal mouth is making militaristic arguments in the final part of the film. The speech is shot from an awkward high angle which captures a close up of Muff's gold-braided general's cap in the foreground, his mouth in the middle of the shot and the foundations of the academy in the background. As Muff speaks we see a workman in the background both literally and figuratively cementing Germany's future. The ceremony ends with Muff tapping the top of the foundations with a small hammer - seemingly answering the question at the end of the newspaper montage - "Will Germany be a hammer or an anvil?".

    It's here that the film is at its most satirical. Apparently the satire in Böll's novel is a little more forceful. Straub/Huillet rein it in a little bit, but still allow space for Muff to recount how his former general died from food poisoning after eating a lobster. The most scathing moment is in Muff's proud announcement of the discovery (by Inn - again she is pulling the strings) that Muff's former boss, General Hürlanger-Hiss, had lost more of his men in the war than had previously been thought. The discovery that the loss of life was greater meant that the number who died had now crossed the threshold of what constituted an acceptable retreat. Thus, rather than this greater catastrophe signalling further shame, it actually meant Hiss' reputation could be reinstated, and his memory cherished again.

    The film's closing line, which is also one of the most significant, is given to Inn. As she talks to Muff she tells him "No-one has ever dared oppose our family". As she does so there is a loud crash on the organ and the end credits begin accompanied by more of the heavy-handed organ playing from the newspaper montage. It's another reminder that Muff's rise to power is not, even within the military and the "democracy", down to his own merit but to his new wife's class and position of influence.

    Huillet and Straub were criticised for not making the film more political and, in particular for not caricaturing the former Nazi characters to the same extent that Böll did in the short story. This seems to be because they did not want to let their audience off the hook by giving them the cathartic release of seeing their opponents savaged on screen. Instead Straub reportedly wanted their audience to internalise their anger. Rather than having the characters in the film deal with the gangsters, Straub's hope is to inspire those who watch their films towards political action. Perhaps "the avenger is in the audience" (Delahaye). Seen over 50 years later, modern films have, if anything become even more comnbastic and pre-digested. It's good, then, to be reminded of a subtler form of film which can let its anger about those in power to speak for itself, if only we have ears to hear it.

    - Byg, Barton (1995) Landscapes of Resistance: The German Films of Daniele Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    - Delahaye, Michel (1966) "Entretien Avec Jean-Marie Straub," Cahiers du Cinéma 180 (July): 52.

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



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