• 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


    Saturday, August 31, 2019

    Klassenverhältnisse (1984)

    Klassenverhältnisse (Class Relations 1984) is Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet's only adaptation of the works of Franz Kafka, which is itself a little surprising. It's based on Kafka's unfinished novel "Amerika", also known as "Der Verschollene" or, in English, "The Man who Disappeared". I'm sorely tempted to say that simply navigating one's way through those various titles feels a little Kafkaesque, but I'm aware that doing do is no doubt will prove too irritating for many. Nevertheless various commentators have discussed Huillet and Straub's change of title, which aligns with the Marxist nature of their cinema, yet for Straub "the title is good because this is precisely what the film does not do" (cited in Bösler 2004: 116). As Bösler herself observes "rather than telling us what we will be shown and told, the title Klassenverhältnisse encourages us to look and listen for what there is to see and hear" (Bösler 2004: 117).

    The novel, for those who are unfamiliar with it, focuses on a young German migrant, Karl Rossmann, who is essentially a stand in for Kafka himself. Aside from sharing a mother tongue, age and status in life and the prominent 'Ka' sound at the start of their names, Kafka and Karl also shared difficult relations with their parents. Karl has been sent away to America by his parents and finds himself being shunted around from place to place in search of employment. He is a largely passive figure seemingly unable to control his destiny, instead being manipulated  and oppressed by the vast majority of the figures he encounters.

    Whilst I've written about various of Huillet/Straub's adaptations from novels, this is the first I have actually read and it's interesting watching their always notable adaptation process more closely. As is typical most of the story and the dialogue makes it into the screenplay, but little of the text's elaboration, though the details are largely their to be observed. This contrasts markedly with Welles' adaption of The Trial (1962). Where he tries to capture all the details described so meticulously in Kafka's prose, Straub/Huillet try and limit it to the character's perspective.

    The shots are largely either static diagonal mid shots, or long panning shots, such as when Karl first observes the buildings housing his Uncle's business. Delivery is not-quite deadpan, but certainly muted. This is a development from Moses und Aron (1974) when Schoenberg's use of Sprechstimme (a form of speech halfway between singing and speech) formed something of a launching point. Speech delivery had always interested them and from there on they began to experiment more with language as an 'object' rather than merely a 'vehicle'. In an interview with Hans Hurch around the film's original release, the pair liken their use of language to the works of Bach, or an oratorio. They layer different styles of delivery and even get actors to pause on occasion in the middle of a word.

    The stilted nature of both the delivery and the acting serves to highlight  the handful of moments where sudden violence is done to Karl. This happens three times in particular where someone strikes or grabs part of Karl's head or neck. Each time it's a medium close-up of Karl against a solid object. Each time an arm thrusts suddenly towards him from the edge of the frame and then the pose is held for long enough to observe Karl's discomfort. The owner of the arm remains out of shot. It is not that Karl is necessarily hurt by these 'attacks', but they are nevertheless a shocking intrusion, not least because he offers no resistance as we are trained to expect. These moments are particularly striking because so many of the film's "gestures and actions are performed with a denaturalizing, and at times almost mechanical deliberation, [which] heightens the impact of even the minutest action which does occur" (Bösler 2004, 122). The attacks silence or oppress Karl, a summation of the story's overall oppression of its lead. There is at least one counter shot when Karl is talking to Theresa, one of only two characters who are sympathetic towards him. The framing is similar but her arm only touches his arm and the contact is gentle rather than forceful.

    The film is also deeply concerned about spaces, with the physical blocking expressing the awkwardness of Karl in this oddly ill-fitting and harsh world. It's a world where a young man might find himself sent to the other end of the world for getting a servant girl pregnant, or might loses face with his uncle for accepting a dinner invitation, or even might lose his job simply for stepping away from this post for a minute or to. These little injustices follow Karl around, while the behaviours of those around him get odder and odder. The sequence of shots breaks the Hollywood rules of continuity editing - there are few establishing shots, or master shots summarising the geography of the scenes. Even attempting to place how the scenes relate to each other by cross referencing eye lines, sources of light and so forth is frustrated by Straub/Huillet's shot selection. "Each new shot, however, introduces a variation in camera angle and distance" so that "the viewer's understanding of its spatial parameters" advances as the scene progresses (Plummer 2016: 66).

    A friend of mine, who knows Kafka better than me, says adaptations of his work are always somewhat odd, largely because the quirky nature of the source material attracts unusual filmmakers and inspires then to make bold and creative efforts to justice to the material. For Huillet and Straub it was the only other one of their films to be shot outside of Europe aside from Too Early, Too Late (1981) and sections of Moses und Aron. These include a tracking shot capturing New York's Statue of Liberty. In the book Kafka, famously, gets a detail wrong, (perhaps purposefully) replacing her flame with a sword. It's the kind of detail which adds to the confused dreamy nature of the book, which Straub and Huillet capture so well with their odd and semi-disengaging film.

    Bösler, Ursula (2004), The Art of Seeing, the Art of Listening: The Politics of Representation in the Work of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet", Frankfurt / Berlin / Bern / Bruxelles / NewYork / Oxford / Wien: Peter Lang.

    Pummer, Claudia (2016), "(Not Only) for Children and Caveman: The Films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet", in Ted Fendt (ed.), Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Vienna: Synema Publikationen.



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