We do everything for this art, but this art isn’t everything

By George Clark and Redmond Entwistle

daniele-huillet-jean-marie-straub.jpgDanièle Huillet and Jean Marie Straub

Notes on Danièle Huillet and Jean Marie Straub

The recent death of the filmmaker Danièle Huillet (1936-2006) was perceived to mark the end of a certain chapter in film history. The films that she co-authored with Jean-Marie Straub between 1963-2006 stand apart in critical opinion, widely celebrated for their uncompromising rigor and their dedication to the materials of cinema. Their work has inspired generations of filmmakers including Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Jean Luc-Godard, Harun Farocki and Pedro Costa. Inspired by a conversation with Danièle [1] the quotations and prose assembled here reflect on the richness of this body of work and its enduring relevance.

"Instead of wanting to create the impression that he is improvising, the actor should rather show what the truth is: he is quoting." – Bertolt Brecht quoted at the beginning of Nicht versöhnt [2]

"We want people to lose themselves in our films. All this talk about 'distanciation' is bullshit." – Straub/Huillet in conversation with Tag Gallagher [3]

You make a choice
A framing or a cut
Accent a word, step into the scene till there
And hold this angle

This happened here
It can’t be undone, everything that has happened remains for all time.

Listen, watch, more often, more closely.
Work for it, produce the work with us.
It means nothing otherwise.

This isn’t art, in fact it’s the last nail in the coffin.
It’s just the world
And who owns that?

"A kind of cinema could be imagined which would sell nothing, just as Stravinsky said that music expresses nothing; a kind of cinema which would not consider the spectator as a customer, which would not lure him, nor seduce him, nor flatter nor despise him….it could thus be imagined that beauty, violence and desire might be offered again, intact, to be discovered anew…this would be the stake; to speak to those who have neither heard nor read rather than to those who do it out of duty, through routine or idleness, and say to them: ‘Here, this too belongs to you, and is worth being read, heard or looked at; this violence is yours, and this desire.

"...for all this the film would not be a pure metaphor or an aesthetic displacement of social relations: that would be too easy. And it would vehemently repel the idea of passing for a model or for a giver of lessons. But, instead, with its means, its aim, it would be the place of a transformation. Delivering no message but a sign, in its way, that the shock can begin, and here or by others be brought to its term….these films, these acts, exist, fragile and insistent….They are signed by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet" – Jean-Andre Fieschi [4]

But any old thing won’t do.

Working with the materials that exist, the things that have been written, and types of speech, the way the world grows, paying close attention to all of it.

non-reconcilies-daniele-huillet-jean-marie-straub.jpgNon réconciliés, 1965

Not forcing connections, making no presumptions.

“to produce an image which is uncontaminated by the illusion of the omniscience of thought - a materialist image - producing a world outside of consciousness -rather than a world fully endowed with consciousness - room for becoming and making up your own mind” – Thom Andersen [5]

There are subjects
And these are given
There is a place
And a history
And these are given too.

There’s also an apparatus, sets of lenses, types of film stock, certain microphones
And these are given.

And before this there are people that one knows, a language that one learnt or was forced to learn
All given.

“Finding the right point from which to make shots of the scene, using different camera lenses, but of course finding a different point for the next scene. Respecting the space, not trying to reconstruct the space on film, that the space exists before and after the film – you can also see this in Griffith’s early films – the 20 minute shorts.” – Danièle Huillet

sicilia-daniele-huillet-jean-marie-straub.jpgSicilia!, 1999

We met her selling papers for the communist party in the street near to where we live/We take care with the people we work with/and with the places we film in/We pay people before shooting/and clean up the mess ourselves/and credit everyone equally/We take responsibility for the work/

“The Straubs […] accord much importance to the fact that a filmmaker should not disturb those whom he films. One therefore has to see the second part of TOO EARLY, TOO LATE as an odd performance, made up of approaches and retreats, where the filmmakers, less meteorologists than acupuncturists, search for the spot - the only spot, the right spot - where their camera can catch people without bothering them. Two dangers immediately present themselves: exotic tourism and the invisible camera. Too close, too far. In a lengthy "scene," the camera is planted in front of a factory gate and allows one to see the Egyptian workers who pass, enter and leave. Too close for them not to see the camera, too far away for them to be tempted to go towards it. To find this point, this moral point, is at this moment the entire art of the Straubs. […]

"These scruples are astonishing. They are not fashionable. To shoot a film, especially in the country, means generally to devastate everything, disrupt the lives of people while manufacturing country snapshots, local color, rancid back-to-nature museum pieces. Because the cinema belongs to the city and no one knows exactly what a "peasant cinema" would be, anchored in the lived experience, the space-time of peasants. It is necessary therefore to see the Straubs, city inhabitants, mainland navigators, as lost. It is necessary to see them in the middle of the field, moistened fingers raised to catch the wind and ears pricked up to hear what it's saying. So the most naked sensations serve as a compass. Everything else, ethics and esthetics, content and form, derives from this.” – Serge Daney [6]

We treat all things equally/We don’t invent/We use what we find

We don’t need to show the camera, the sprockets, the artifice of the dolly shot, these are intellectual games.

We reject naturalism.

"The German sub-titles attempt to convey an impression of Corneille’s language, which is very compact yet simple, very modern yet strange. These sub-titles (by Herbert Linder, my wife, and myself) are an ever-literal, yet fragmentary translation of the spoken text; and, in fact, one does not even need to read all of them. They are there for the viewer to choose from, as signal.

trop-tot-trop-tard-daniele-huillet-jean-marie-straub.jpgTrop tôt, trop tard, 1982

"In the spoken text, the words are no more important than the completely different rhythms and tempos of the actors and their accents – various Italian and French accents, one English and one Argentinean accent. No more important than the individual voices of the actors, caught in the moment, fighting against noise, air, space, sun and wind. No more important than their sighs, heaved involuntarily, or other tiny surprises of life also recorded, individual sounds that are suddenly possessed of a meaning. No more important than the exertion, the work the actors contribute (I myself amongst them, as the evil Laco, because I wanted to be part of it) and the risk they run, like tightrope-walkers or sleep-walkers, from one end to the other of long, difficult fragments of text. No more important than the space in which the actors are caught, or their movements and positions within this space, or the background in front of which they find themselves, or the jumps and changes in light and colour. No more important, in any case, than the cuts, the changes of scene, the focusing.

"If you keep your eyes and ears open at all times for all of this, then you may even find the film exciting and notice that everything here is information – even the purely sensual reality of the space that the actors leave empty at the end of every act. How sweet this space would be without the tragedy of cynicism, of oppression, of imperialism, of exploitation. Our earth, let us free it!  

"And if not too many viewers switch channels during the film, we – you as consumer and myself as producer – will have already won a small victory over stupidity, over contempt, over the pimps of the film industry, who out of their own contempt and stupidity claim that films are never stupid enough for the public." – Jean-Marie Straub, 1971 [7]

There’s nothing very complex or sophisticated about our films, it’s all been done before.

“You can’t teach people how to think, how to use their eyes and ears – or how to make effective politics for that matter – they either can or they can’t  – you can pass on a spark of something, show them a concrete operation, but not much more.” Danièle Huillet

One thing would be to mourn for the passing of Danièle
And her determined spirit
Which together with Jean-Marie
Will make no more movies
To excite and confound us

But these films are there
That have hardly been seen
Even by the experts
That are dense with material
About cinema
And the world


[1] All quotes from Danièle Huillet are from a conversation between Danièle and Redmond Entwistle in Paris, March 28th 2006
[2] This Brecht quote appears in a title card at the end of the Straub/Huillet film Nicht versöhnt oder Es hilft nur Gewalt wo Gewalt herrscht/Not Reconciled or Only Violence Helps Where Violence Rules (1965)
[3] Straub/Huillet in conversation with Tag Gallagher, Senses of Cinema, 2005, Issue 37.
[4] ‘Cinema: A Critical Dictionary’, Richard Roud (ed.), Viking, New York, 1980
[5] Thom Anderson on Straub/Huillet
[6] Serge Daney, ‘"Cinemeteorology,", LIBERATION 20-21, February 1982. English translation by Jonathan Rosenbaum.
[7] Quote is taken from an introduction to the German Telecast of Othon, by Jean-Marie Straub, ZDF, January 26th, 1971

George Clark is a writer and curator. He works for the Independent Cinema Office, London.

Redmond Entwistle is an artist-filmmaker currently living in New York.