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    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.


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    Sunday, November 03, 2019

    Kommunisten (Communists, 2014)


    When Danièle Huillet died in 2006 many wondered what would happen to Jean-Marie Straub. Would he carry on without his wife an career-long collaborator? Thirteen years later it's clear that he did, but in limited fashion. Whilst he has directed numerous short films since Huillet's death, at 70 minutes Kommunisten (Communists, 2014) is the only one to last longer than an hour. It's more than just coincidence, then, that this is the most well known of the films from this latter period and it's actually the first of his that I have seen from this era.

    All of this explains two key features about the film. Firstly, that this is clearly a work very much in Huillet's memory. One of the film's earliest image is a mid-shot of two of figures filmed from behind while they gaze out of an open window (above) as if on the verge of transitioning from the dark material world into the light. It's closing image is Huillet sat alone, still, but not necessarily peacefully, on a hill and is taken from the pair's Schwarze Sünde (Black Sin, 1988). Eventually she says "new world" as she turns her head away. Small highlights the link between the music accompanying the shot  - Beethoven's String Quartet No. 16 - the composer's "last major work before his death" (Small 2019, emphasis mine). The moment could not be more poignant.

    This segues nicely in the second feature of Kommunisten which is that it is largely comprised of excerpts of Huillet and Straub's previous films. Indeed the credits list the five works that are included as follows:

    1. Operai, contadini (Workers, Peasants, 2000)
    2. Trop tôt/Trop tard (Too Early/Too Late, 1981)
    3. Fortini/Cani (1976)
    4. Der Tod des Empedokles (The Death of Empedocles, 1986)
    5. Schwarze Sünde (Black Sin, 1988)

    These lengthy excerpts - the one from Trop tôt/Trop tard is the static, uncut ten minute take outside the factory, for example - are not from the couple's most celebrated works (which I would argue are
    Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach (1967) and 1973's Moses und Aron), but they are amongst some of the best and most memorable shots from the two's work.

    In a way, then, this is an adaptation of their own adaptations, another layer on an historical, multi-layered Schichttorte. Straub essentially takes those previous adaptations, and in typical fashion presents them anew, in a fresh context, but with also a high degree of continuity with his material. It's hard to think of a more appropriate tribute. The  Trop tôt/Trop tard section is the epitome of the pair's, long, static, diagonal takes; the excerpts from Fortini/Cani (1976) typify their slow circular pans. The footage from Der Tod - the "Communist Utopia" passage - embodies Huillet and Straub's politics. The sequence from Operai, contadini is perhaps the strongest example of the unusual, measured style they ask from their actors. In essence, then, it's a summary of their most distinctive traits - their fingerprint distilled down into a single film.

    Before this re-cycled footage, however, Straub adds fresh material in the form of an excerpt of André Malraux's 1939 "Days of Wrath" which concerns "how a man and a woman deal with being separated while the man is in prison" (Fendt 2015). Straub himself plays the off-screen representative of authority, interrogating two onscreen communists (one of whom is bedecked in a glorious Aran sweater - neither of the period of the novel, nor of adaptation, incorporating a look that is part timeless, part from the height of Huillet/Straub's career). The other man gets to return home to his wife and it is he who appears by his wife's side in the image above, "reunited, however fleeting this homecoming may prove to be" (Small 2019).

    However, this shot gives way to one that is almost identical in every respect except that the camera has now panned down to make the woman (not the male narrator) the focus. It's the kind of subtle yet powerful shot that typified the couple's work. Easy to miss, or to fail to notice the intention of the variation. Those who, somewhat unbelievably, criticised the lack of overt politics in the couple's work, fail to realise that theirs is filmmaking in the most nuanced of fashions. Indeed that cut typifies the entire film, Straub moving the emphasis on his career, or perhaps theirs, to her.

    Kommunisten, then, is a tribute to Huillet, but also to the dream of a better world, a dream that so many of those (communists) featured in their work have pursued, and a dream which Huillet herself pursued also. Straub's moving tribute seems like an act of adding his departed wife to this noble canon.
    ================
    - Fendt, Ted (2015), "The Dream of a Thing: Straub’s "Kommunisten"", mubi.com Notebook Feature, March 17, 
    Available online - https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/the-dream-of-a-thing-straubs-kommunisten
    - Small, Christopher (2019), "A Straub-Huillet Companion: “Communists", mubi.com Notebook Column, October 8,
    Available online - https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/a-straub-huillet-companion-communists

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