• 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, October 05, 2019

    Der Tod des Empedokles (1986)

    On the surface the similarities between Der Tod des Empedokles (The Death of Empedocles, 1986) and Moses und Aron are plain: it's another pre-Christian era adaptation of a revered, unfinished German work. Throughout both works a mountain looms in the background, remote, yet nevertheless seemingly the source of a spiritual force exerting itself on the characters. Of all the films about Moses, Straub and Huillet's take is the one that focuses most squarely on his philosophical side. Here they deal with a philosopher-leader, Empedocles of Akragas, a city in the then-Greek city of Sicily.

    The film's full title is Der Tod des Empedokles, Trauserspiel in Zwei Akten von Freidrich Hölderlin 1978 Oder: Wenn dann der Erde Grün von Neuem Erglänzt (The Death of Empedocles, in Two Acts by Freidrich Hölderlin 1798 or: When the Green of the Earth will Glisten for you Anew), but hidden away amongst those twenty words is a year, 1798. This is significant because Hölderlin's play is not only unfinished but exists in three incomplete manuscripts: The first version from 1798 that Huillet/Straub cover here, the following year he wrote two other attempts, the last of which Straub/Huillet also adapted two years after Der Tod as the rather more snappily titled Schwarze Sünde (Black Sin, 1988). Then in 1991 they completed their final adaptation of Hölderlin's work Die Antigone des Sophokles nach der Hölderlinschen Übertragung für die Bühne bearbeitet von Brecht 1948 (The Antigone After Sophocles' Translation Adapted for the Stage by Brecht 1948).

    But the "Hölderlin films" as they are often referred to are not three works, but seven, because Huillet and Straub created two adaptations of Antigone and four different prints of Der Tod, and not just four different cuts of the same material, but four concurrent versions. The version which has been screening at MUBI is officially known as the Berlin version (as it fist screen at the film festival there) and is distinguished by a lizard which scurries across a step halfway through the film. The version originally intended for a wider (subtitled) distribution is the Paris version which according to Leslie Hill "began more gloomily, before brightening up as the sun came out" (Hill 2012: 143). A third, known as the rooster version, was "completed with a class of students" at Hamburg's Filmhaus and is distinguished by a cock crowing after around twenty minutes (Hill 2012: 143). This is the version that Pummer considers "the most beautiful version, because it has the most contrast and strongest color saturation" (2016: 69). Finally there is the version seemingly not connected with a particular geographic location, but marked by the occasional chirps of crickets on the soundtrack.

    Straub and Huillet's intention here seems to be to ensure that no version "could be considered as more or less authoritative than any of the others" and to avoid having a "privileged master text" (Hill 2012: 143). The different prints do not exists as longer or shorter cuts - each consists of the same 147 shots, each shot from the same position and with the same settings on the camera as the others and the actors perform in the same, typically deadpan, style. The difference, then, is down to what happens in front of the camera, that is outside of their control. Their repeated reliance on natural sound, and on this occasion natural light, means that these elements remain outside of their control, animals can intrude into the material text of the film, lighting can change the mood, the wind can blow or be still. The four variations, then, highlight these more material elements of cinema itself, the sheer variability of the options available to filmmakers. It also emphasises the differences between film and reality. What is recorded by the camera can be reproduced, but is never an accurate reproduction of how things really were.

    Furthermore it also prevents the three versions of Hölderlin's unfinished mourning play from being reduced down into one definitive version. Film adaptations compared to their literary works, particularly unfinished works, are not unlike the comparison between jam and the original. The jamming process involves cutting out the work's most widely appreciated parts and boils it down bringing out certain essentials meaning something is lost, but it is also preserving process which makes the fruit accessible for a far wider audience. Huillet/Straub attempt to highlight the nature of this process - their differing products retain a far stronger connection to the original, as well as highlight the essentially false nature of a film adaptation.

    In particular, making these four variations is also a way of reflecting the tragedy's unfinished nature, just as Hölderlin never made a definitive, official version of his play, so too, in an appropriately manner there is no single authoritative version of this film. Ironically, then, in some ways the mass-circulation of one particular version of the film, as happens when a company like MUBI makes it available for streaming worldwide works against this intention, as does writing about the films on the basis of a viewing of just one version as I have done here. The french Editions Montparnasse are a superb resource for fans of Straub/Huillet, not least because they provide a practically exhaustive collection of all of Straub's work, but they too only include a single version. It's understandable, and my citing of MUBI and Editions Montparnasse is not criticism as such - without them I would not have seen the film - but it does work some way against Huillet and Straub's clear intention to resist a definitive version of the film. Perhaps this is why the pair also adapted Hölderlin's third attempt at the subject just two years later, and in a different but related fashion.

    Hill also highlights the theological links between Moses und Aron and Der Tod, noting how Hölderlin was writing amidst the mental upheaval of the French Revolution - something the author was initially in favour of, and certainly something which appealed to Straub and Huillet's Marxist nature:
    Both took place at a time of upheaval, as one theological edifice, legal framework, political power, or conception of the artwork gave way to another, resulting in an interregnum in which what was at stake was the promise or threat of the future. Both texts, moreover, were stories of sacrifice, (Hill 2012: 148)
    The nature of that sacrifice, however, varies significantly between the two stories. It is unclear in Moses und Aron to what extent those being sacrificed are willing participants. However, in "Der Tod...", the sacrifice is an act of suicide from which his friend Pausanias tries to dissuade him. In Hölderlin's original version, Empedokles' death occurs at the end of the play when he hurls himself into Mount Etna's crater, though it is never explicitly confirmed that this is what has actually happened. This ambiguity is even more pronounced in the film, as it ends on a shot of the top of the mountain which begins with Empedokles speaking. Viewed apart from the rest of the film the natural assumption would be at this point he is still alive, gazing up at the top of Etna as he readies himself for his death. In other words, the "death" mentioned in the film's title never actually occurs during the duration of the film. That said, the discontinuity of the cutting that has been so prevalent throughout the film also questions this.

    The meaning of Empedocles death is no less ambiguous. For Small, "Empedocles dives into the fire in order to vanish into thin air"in order that his fellow citizens would believe by his death "he had been set...on the path to reincarnation" (2019). On the other hand, for Hill Empedocles' death is "in order to reconcile the epoch with itself by way of a spectacular fusion of the finite with the infinite, history with eternity, man with nature." (Hill 2012: 144).

    Two years later Huillet and Straub would return to Hölderlin and Empedocles in Schwarze Sünde (Black Sin, 1988), based on the third version of the play. At only 40 minutes in length and featuring a largely, but not entirely, different cast, the very static camerawork of Der Tod made way for a more varied style. Of particular note are a number of panning shots which, based on their descriptions sound not dissimilar to those in Moses und Aron. Sadly that film is not part of the MUBI retrospective, so it may be a while until I can write about it.
    - Hill, Leslie (2012), “O Himmlisch Licht!”, Angelaki (Journal of the Theoretical Humanities) 17:4, 139-155.
    - 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, pp.7-95.
    - Small, Christopher (2019), "A Straub-Huillet Companion: The Death of Empedocles", mubi.com Notebook Column, September 11, Available online:



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