The Chronicle of Daniele Huillet

By James Norton


On May 3 1936 the Front Populaire was elected to power in France in the face of increasingly fascistic opposition, forming a radical socialist government led by a Jewish Prime Minister and including three women, although women were not given the vote in France until 1945. This victory inspired a successful wave of mass strikes throughout France which quickly secured a programme of workers’ rights such as paid holidays, a limit to working hours and recognition of organized labor, all of which were to survive the government itself, was soon to dissolve in the crises leading to the Second World War.

Danièle Huillet was born in Paris on May Day 1936, two days before the historic election of the Front Populaire whose radical ardor she absorbed and sustained undiminished for 70 years until her death on October 9th 2006.

The entirely equal nature of Huillet’s creative partnership with her husband Jean-Marie Straub was not sufficiently acknowledged, even by admirers of their films ands those who shared their egalitarian political convictions. This was due to the chauvinism common to all areas of the political spectrum and Straub’s more egregiously vocal character which made him one of the most entertaining performers on the festival Q&A circuit belying the harsh aesthetic and doctrinal rigor of their films. But watch the dynamic of the couple in action: in a short documentary from 1968 on the making of The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, Huillet sits silently beside a typically ranting Straub, nodding with approval whenever he makes a particularly strident point, giving the impression that Straub is giving a speech which she has written, or at least that his theme is one that has previously been thrashed out between them. In the same film Huillet is seen on set, still, silent but intensely vigilant as Straub roams the room, directing his actor, airing his themes, as we witness the creative dynamic and complementarity of the couple.

Pedro Costa’s invaluable documentary Où gît votre sourire enfoui? from 2001 reveals much more of Straub and Huillet’s collaborative working methods as they edit Sicilia! Once again, Straub paces about restlessly as Huillet sits at the editing table, arguing with him and knitting together the film, notably a scene in which the characters are preparing a fish for dinner, so perhaps the more appropriate metaphor would be the meticulous preparation of a meal, the passionate claims made for the ingredients and their treatment whose expression is so typical of the couple’s adopted Italian home.

Straub and Huillet always insisted on the exactitude of their shots, the precise position of the camera, the distance of the actor from the lens, urgently debated as if each slight adjustment of the camera meant to give ground in a vital struggle. In the editing room, this preoccupation continued with arguments as to the precise length of each shot, every frame fiercely contested. The importance of this approach makes sense when one considers that in their native French ‘exacte’ and ‘juste’ have a similar meaning which makes exactitude a condition of justice with all its social and political resonance.

Straub and Huillet’s films are the end product of passionate debates (as well as being instigators of them), whose creative genesis originates as much in the private obscurity of their relationship as a couple as much as they do in the dialectical materialism of class, culture and landscape. One wonders whether there is a connection between the division of their labor and their ambivalence about the conflict between Moses and Aaron in their film of Schoenberg’s opera. Moses does not speak, but creates ideas. Aaron is the mouthpiece, and creator of images, notoriously the Golden Calf. Defending himself Aaron declares: “When thou makest thyself solitary thou are thought dead. The people had waited long upon the word of thy mouth from which rule and law spring. So I had to give it an image to look upon.”

On October 27 1995 two youths were electrocuted at an electrical transformer in the Parisian suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois where they had taken refuge from the police, setting off an incendiary uprising which devastated France for the following three weeks. The maverick Italian broadcaster Enrico Ghezzi commissioned a number of filmmakers to contribute a sequel to Rossellini’s Europa 51 as a commentary on contemporary Europe. Straub and Huillet’s contribution was to be their final work, the typically radical and uncompromising short Cinetract, taking its name from the agitprop series punched out by Godard and others in May 1968. The film consists of brief pans from a row of cherry trees in blossom, traditional images of transience, across the gates of the fatal electrical building and back again, ending with the words on screen “Gas Chamber. Electric Chair.”

With the death of Huillet we mourn the dissolution of a kind of intensive partnership, creative, political, dialectical and romantic, that is all too rare. Olivier Seguret in the newspaper Liberation wrote: “Dead, Danièle Huillet kills us twice, since Straub will also probably film no more.”

Straub and Huillet’s Cinetract can be viewed online at:

James Norton is film writer and researcher on television arts programmes.