• 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


    Thursday, September 06, 2018

    History Lessons (1972)

    Geschichtsunterricht (History Lessons, 1972) was the second of three films Huillet and Straub released in the early seventies that blended elements of the ancient and contemporary worlds together. It was seemingly produced with such relative speed that whilst Richard Roud in his 1972 book on Straub (and Huillet) includes a brief statement of intent from Straub about Moses und Aron, it fails to mention Geschichtsunterricht, despite the filmmakers' obvious involvement with Roud's book.

    As is typical with Huillet/Straub films, Geschichtsunterricht is an adaptation, this time of Bertholt Brecht's "The Business Affairs of Mr Julius Caesar" (Die Geschäfte des Herrn Julis Caesar).(1) So, as with their previous project, Othon (1969), the film is set, in a fashion, in ancient Rome and in similar fashion it also not only refuses to hide the fact it is filmed in the modern day city, but uses that fact as a key feature of the film itself. Indeed Geschichtsunterricht goes even further than Othon by not only including an interviewer in modern dress, but also having his various interviews interspersed with footage of him driving round the backstreets of twentieth century Rome.

    There are three such sequences throughout the film, which last for around ten minutes each and resulted in critical derision when the film first played to festival critics. Each is a single shot, taken from the back seat of the man's car, looking over his shoulder through the windscreen. The effect is rather curious providing three "screens" at once: a tracking shot of the action that is taking place outside of the car, as seen through the windscreen, sun roof and the side windows; a static shot of the inside of the car, including the man himself; and a reverse shot of part of his face in the rear view mirror.(2) This visual 'triptych' is similarly accompanied by three distinct sources of sound: the fleeting sounds of the action on the street that drift in through the car's open window; ever present drone of the car's engine; and the occasional sounds made by the interviewer and his contact with the controls of his car.

    As is usual Straub and Huillet's reliance on natural sound give these sequences a very distinctive sound and heighten the film's sense of the interviewer as one who is moving among the people, but not quite part of them. He is distinct from them but they continue their lives on the 'screen' almost entirely unaware of his presence. In the interviews themselves, the camera creates a similar dynamic, primarily using one-shots of the interviewee. The shot above is the only one in the film to show the faces of both interviewer and interviewee together. On a couple of occasions we see the back of the man's head, or his hand, but the majority of the interview footage is primarily a close up of his subject's face. In contrast, in one part of the film the interviewer recants a story of his own, but the man he is speaking too resolutely remains off screen.

    This is a fairly familiar technique in Huillet and Straub's films, deliberately keeping one or more of the primary characters in a scene off camera for a considerable amount of time. In their 1982 short film En Rachachant, for example, a schoolboy's behaviour is being discussed by his teacher and his mother. The scene continues for many minutes before a cut reveals, somewhat shockingly, the the boy's father is also present. Here the interviewer's presence is not in doubt, but his is similarly excluded. Indeed, the filmmakers compose these shots somewhat awkwardly, deliberately drawing attention to the interviewers absence from the frame, but presence in the scene.

    Brecht's incomplete novel concerns a young Roman intent on writing a biography about Caesar a few decades after his death. His quest takes him to the estate of Caesar's banker, Mummlius Spicer in attempt to access the diary written by Caesar's secretary, Rarus. Two of the four parts of the book that Brecht's work consist solely of long sections of these diaries, and excerpts appear also appear elsewhere. Spicer is more than happy to share his own opinions on Caesar, as are his acquaintance the lawyer Afrainius Carbo and the poet Vastius Alder. The man also meets an unnamed former soldier that had served under Caesar.

    In contrast to the more straightforward adaption of Moses und Aron, Straub/Huillet make significant cuts to Brecht's novel and rework the material in a similar fashion to their treatment of Böll's Machorka Muff. All of Brecht's narrative is cut such that the film is essentially a series of interviews interspersed with the 'driving' sections described above.

    It is the sound of one of these driving sections with which the film starts. The noises accompanying the opening credits. Then, as the sounds continue there is a short shot of each of series of three bronze maps showing the Roman Empire progressively retracting. Huillet/Straub often start their films with a shot, which is usually static. which gives a major clue as to their focus for the rest of the material. Here is no exception. The maps are products of Mussolini's Fascists which can still be seen today on the walls outside the 4th century AD Basilica of Maxentius.(3) However they are shown in reverse chronological order with the most recent of the three images first. Whilst on a gut level this gives the sense of the collapse of the Empire following what many think of as its high point under Caesar, this is more like the winding back of a clock, peeling away the layers of history back to the third century under Trajan, through Augustus' Empire circa 14 CE. back to the shape of the territory at the end of the Punic Wars in 146 BCE.

    In a sense then the stage is set for Caesar, yet he and his achievements are also absent from this historical overview. his ties in with the way both the book and the film, concern the history of Julius Caesar, but also never really feature the man himself. Brecht's biographer sets off to track down the truth about Caesar but ends up unable to find a coherent picture that corresponds to the ideas he started with. Straub/Huillet go a step further, the only image of Caesar that appears is in another static shot, this time of the statue in Rimini (around 200 miles directly north of Rome). Again we find layers of meaning here. Not only is this another Fascist monument, but the one depicted is actually a reproduction of the original which remains secured away, somewhat appropriately, in Giulio Cesare barrack. The image is recognisably Caesar but it is a long way from the real Caesar.

    In a nutshell these opening four shots encapsulate so much of what both book and film are about, namely "subverting the narrative form given to history" as a way of undermining the concept of the "great personality" (Byg 119). Clearly a central concern to Brecht was the rise of Nazism and so whilst the novel is not, on the surface, about Hitler, it is very much in the subtext. Given Huillet and Straub's previous work re-examining Nazism in Machorka Muff (1962) and Not Reconciled (1965) this seems like a natural extension. Brecht's broader intention however was not "merely to tarnish Caesar's image, but to expose the process of creating such an image" (Byg 119). Rather than seeing Caesar's (and by extension Hitler's) rise as an inevitability, he sought to bring to prominence factors in the background which contributed to Caesar's rise and other routes that might have been taken with better results.

    Following the first of the driving scenes (a nod to the biographer's journey to Spicer's home) we then see the Spicer character (in full Roman dress) speaking to the interviewer (in modern dress). Straub and Huillet's use of a modern character to conduct the interviews, rather than an ancient biographer as in Brecht's novel, is not the first time such a device has been used, but it has subsequently become far more popular subsequently, not least in sketch comedy where it's been used in everything from Monty Python to Horrible Histories. Whilst Python is absurdist, much of the message of Horrible Histories and the series of book that inspired it, is similarly Brechtian with its undermining of the traditional presentation of history.

    This initial conversation lasts for around 25 minutes and consists primarily of shots of Spicer. As an expert in commerce, Spicer is critical of the path that the Roman armies had taken during the Punic Wars,
    They didn't fetch the corn, they fetched the plough. Our generals said proudly, 'Where my legions set foot, grass grows no more'. But what we'd wanted was exactly that grass. From one of those grasses bread is made. What was conquered in the Punic War, at immense cost, was wastelands. These territories could well have fed our entire peninsula."
    He also talks at length about legal wranglings in the senate only really mentioning "C" (as he is mainly referred to here) to highlight his failed lawsuits. The focus on Spicer shifts for a few minutes when he asks his interrogator to recount the famous story about Caesar and the Cicilian Pirates.(4) The interviewer obliges, only for Spicer to turn the story on its head. "C" was illegally smuggling slaves into the area run by the Cicilians in the middle of a trade dispute. They captured him, but treated him civilly onto be butchered when he returned to pay his (relatively small fine). Spicer notes how Caesar had somehow transformed his brutal threats of crucifixion into a "reputation for humour with the historians" tersely adding how that was "(t)otally unwarranted. He didn't have a grain of humour".

    In the novel the young man is frustrated and disturbed by the way that the stories he is encountering contradict not only his own views, but also each others. However, one of the problems with the novel is that by making the young biographer the narrator, the novel still maintains an authorial point of view. The establish truth about Caesar might be challenged, but the novel still retains a degree of primacy.

    Huillet/Straub's adaptation of this progresses beyond where Brecht was able to take things. The initial driving scene not only places the viewer effectively in "the driving seat", but by running this shot for so long, it strongly encourages viewers to realise that they need to be active in their interpretation of the images on screen, rather than passively accept those images as is typical in much consumption of cinema. Furthermore, as the accounts begin, and conflict both with each other and perhaps with what the viewer has been told before, the interviewer's lack of emotional response means that we have to think for him/ourselves instead. In his recounting of the accepted version of the pirate story he is voicing the most popular account of that story, only to have his/our view of what happened immediately challenged.

    Of course there is an inherent contradiction in all of this, namely that whilst presenting our stand in as non-responding neutral does not force an opinion on us, it does mean the viewer is adopting an essentially passive persona, the opposite of what Brecht, Straub and Huillet are intending, and whilst their attempt to minimise their authorial influence is admirable and important, it is still nevertheless present to a small degree.

    The interviewer speaks next with a former Roman Legionary. In the novel the biographer is hoping for something more inspiring than the account he received from Spicer, but again he is disappointed: instead of talking about fighting and glory the soldier gives a more mundane account about provisions, indemnities and the price of wheat. He never really got that close to Caesar and his motives for joining up were primarily financial. Again the film does not allow the interviewer any responses, we have to sift the 'facts' for ourselves. More driving ensues, as do more interviews, but the rooftop discussions with the lawyer Afranius Carbo and his talk with the deckchair-bound writer Vastius Alder yet again come down to discussions about politics and trade and the ways in which they can be just as bloody as war.

    Alder in particular articulates this perspective. As the summary for the recent English translation of Brecht's novel puts it, "Was Caesar an opportunist, a permanently bankrupt businessman who became too big for the banks to allow him to fail – as his former banker claims? Did he stumble into power while trying to make money?"

    Indeed for Marxists such as Brecht, Straub and Huillet such perspectives lie close to the heart of the ideas that they are exploring. One of the most telling lines in the film is Carbo's statement that "when Caius Julius again raised the Democratic banners, every paving stone of Rome was drenched with the blood of the people." Again Huillet and Straub's interest in the history of the land - in this case Caesar's blood-soaked paving stones which have become the tarmacked streets over which the interviewer drives - comes to the fore. Again we are confronted with questions that eat away at the myth of Julius Caesar. Rather than being a great, but tyrannical man rising to the top on the force of his personality, he is presented as more of an opportunist, who was driven more by his desire for personal wealth than the for the glory of Rome.

    So for a film about the process of history, rather than simply its events, it is a very interesting piece of work. If Brecht's piece is about the importance of critical suspicion in looking at history, particularly that surrounding "the great personality", then Huillet and Straub take this a step further, wrenching their characters almost entirely out of their original contexts and using a modern character to interrogate them in such a way that he himself does not obscure the picture, to any significant extent, at least. The driving scenes not only emphasise that sense of the continuity of the "blood-soaked" land, but also encourage the viewer to take a critical and discerning look at the history that they think they know. Those taking such an approach, however, should beware. They may find that, like the film's driver / interviewer, challenging new perspectives may lie just around the corner.

    1 - The novel is incomplete comprising of only four of the six sections Brecht originally envisaged. He started writing in 1937, but little further progress was made after the start of the Second World War in 1939.
    2 - The observation that these shots create "a series of frames...on the screen" originates with Walsh (65) though he considers the sunroof to be a different frame from the windows. Byg expands this further by considering the side window to also be distinct from the front window resulting in five frames (128).
    3 - You can read more about these images as well as see a photo of them together at Jonathan Rome and Gretchen Van Horne's "Rome on Rome" blog.
    4 - You'd be disappointed if I didn't mention that there is a 1962 Italian peplum about this incident called Giulio Cesare contro i pirati (Julius Caesar Against the Pirates).

    - Brecht, Bertholt (1957) Die Geschäfte des Herrn Julis Caesar (The Business Affairs of Mr Julius Caesar). Trans. by Charles Osborne, ed. by Tom Kuhn (2016). London: Bloomsbury-Methuen.

    - 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.

    - Walsh, Martin (1981) The Brechtian Aspect of Radical Cinema. London: British Film Institute.



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