• 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, June 04, 2020

    Antigone (1992)
    Die Antigone des Sophokles nach der Hölderlinschen Übertragung für die Bühne bearbeitet von Brecht 1948

    Antigone is Huillet and Straub's final film set in the ancient world. Indeed, not only is that when the story is set, but the entire film is shot within the ancient Greek theatre in Segesta, Sicily. The location instantly recalls 1975's Moses und Aron, the majority of which is shot in the Alba Fucens amphitheatre in southern Italy. Antigone is Straub and Huillet's most visually similar film to Moses und Aron. In addition to the ancient white bleachers and stones, the distant mountains in the background, and the light from blue Italian skies, there is the use of the fixed camera - a technique that was used for significant chunks of the earlier film, but for the entirety of Antigone. While the camera is sometimes positioned high up, and a variety of focal lengths and compositions are used, all the scenes are shot from the one position. I'm tempted to call it stage right because while the action (such as it is) takes place on either side of the camera, a row of large stones runs down the middle of the theatre. Behind those stones there are really only a group of four elders. Occasionally a character crosses the line of stones, but otherwise the elders stand there almost motionlessly in front of the ancient bleachers, the empty stands suggesting both the remoteness of the king, Creon, and the elders' role as representatives of the absent people.

    Part of the reason the people are absent is that the men are at war with Argos. As king of Thebes, Creon is not at the battle and is detached from his people - unable to empathise with their suffering, read the mood of his troops, or sense the way the battle is going. "He orders victory before victory is assured and turns weapons against his own troops to drive them into hopeless battle" (Byg, 220). When Princess Antigone's brother (Polyneices) deserts, Creon orders him to be killed. Antigone resists his tyranny to the point that she is also sentenced to death. Creon presses on with the assault on Argos, but his campaign is struck by a series of calamities as the battle is lost; his sons die; and then the men, women and children of Argos instead turn, attack and indeed conquer Thebes.

    In addition to the location, the camera work and the static group of elders, there are several other links with Moses und Aron, though mainly those typical of Huillet and Straub's distinctive style. Shots are largely long takes which are largely static, but occasionally the camera pans well over 90°, almost whizzing by. Both films are adaptations of mid-20th century German works, themselves based on iterations of ancient sources. The film's full title in this respect, which translates as "Antigone of Sophocles After Hölderlin's Adaptation for the Stage Edited by Brecht in 1948" particularly draws attention to the literary stages of development the story we are witnessing has gone through - an event in the past recounted in its time and then adapted again and again by Sophocles, Hölderlin, Brecht and nowStraub/Huillet, each who bring their own themes to it.

    In  both works themes of truth and its inaccessibility are to the fore - Moses senses it but finds it impossible to transmit without distorting it; distortion of truth takes place in Antigone also as Creon prefers to believe a lie rather than listen to, or witness the truth. In both, Moses/Creon's acts of violence take place off-screen, as if merely the inevitable conclusion of the exchange of words we witness.

    A further similarity is the manner in which most of the actors deliver their lines with relatively little expression, though Werner Rehm's performance as Creon stands out in marked contrast. Byg praises his nuanced performance as "a picturebook version of a hammy, provincial actor" which corresponds to "the professionalism of power" (222). In contrast, Astrid Offner - the amateur actor who plays Antigone - gives a subtler performance which is nevertheless utterly compelling in its steely determination. Whilst the reasons for the dramatic turn of events off screen seem largely due to Creon's hubris, arrogance and failure to listen, such is the power of Offner's performance, that it's difficult to escape the feeling that Antigone's defiance has somehow called all this disaster down upon him in judgement.

    The actors' static poses, unmoving shoulders and with feet which typically remain rooted to the ground, bring a surface calm to proceedings that only focuses attention on the forcefulness of the spoken word. As a result, on the few occasions when characters are not static, it is suddenly quite shocking. The strongest example of this is when a messenger, having spoken out his message, drops dead, the onscreen death, not least because despite the numerous deaths that occur during this story, it is the only one actually shown on screen. Many movies these days show unending action and violence, but have little of any value to say about it. In contrast, Antigone refuses to distract or entertain its audience with on-screen violence. The violence takes place off screen, indicated only by the actors themselves leaving the frame of the camera shots. "Axes, axes" cries Creon as he heads off to save his son. Moments later he re-enters the ancient theatre carrying his son's bloodied robe.

    As the play reaches its terrible climax, Creon leaves the theatre once again, the camera pans once again, coming to rest on a distant Sicilian mountain, entirely unaffected by the human drama that has been unveiled. But Straub and Huillet are not done. The film cuts to a closing quote from Brecht in 1952, during the Korean War and surely with one eye on the Second World War in the rear view mirror: "For humanity is threatened by wars compared to which those past are like poor attempts and they will come, without any doubt, if the hands of those who prepare them in all openness are not broken".

    The quote is accompanied by the sound of helicopters, recalling not only a line from the play about "the whirr of birds above" but also the war-as-entertainment newscast footage from the first Gulf War which concluded just a few months before filming began. But the helicopter sounds also recall Bernd Alois Zimmermann's opening music - which integrates phrases from Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" - and combines with them to evoke Apocalypse Now (1979) and Vietnam. There's a parallel, then, between this portrayal of the war of the Ancient Greeks, and the American Empire of our own day. Antigone defiant stand against tyranny seems to halt Creon's kingdom and imperial designs in their tracks. Huillet and Straub bid that we do likewise in our own day.

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



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