The history of Straub-Huillet’s first three films is the history of the long-gestating project that would—as I discussed in the first entry of this series—become their third, Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968). In one form or another, they had been trying to raise funds for the project since they met in 1954. At the start of 1959, while Jean-Marie toured seven towns in the German Democratic Republic (visiting all the historical locations at which he hoped to film), the Straubs came close to making their Bach film. Huillet was in Paris, negotiating with money men for enough of a budget to make the film for the amount they both agreed was necessary. In the end, Huillet secured a promise of 300,000 DEM from a West German financier only if they themselves could cobble together the outstanding 100,000 DEM. As it happened, they could not, and once that particular deal evaporated, the two decided to settle in Germany, where they would remain until after the Bach film was completed, eventually moving to Rome in 1969.
After the apparent failure of funding their Bach movie, and aware it would be some time until another chance would present itself, Straub began to shop around a screenplay based on a novel by Heinrich Böll: “Billiards at Half-Past Nine.” While negotiating with Hanns Eckelkamp, owner of the prominent arthouse distributor Atlas Filmverleih, for a financial guarantee for the Bach project, Straub presented not only Böll’s scenario for “Billiards at Half-Past Nine”—which he hoped to produce for Eckelkamp as a way to “prepare” for the Bach film—but also a short treatment adapted from Böll’s caustic “Bonn Diary,” which Straub had happened upon while reading a newspaper on the eve of the federal elections that took place on September 17th 1961.
It was this adaptation of Böll’s story, in which a former Nazi colonel becomes a key player in the grand opening of the Hürlanger-Hiss Academy “for military memories” in Bonn, that Eckelkamp agreed first to finance for 12,000 and later for 20,000 DEM. Thus, the Straubs’ first three films came into existence in reverse order:
- This 18-minute adaptation of “Bonn Diary,” renamed Machorka-Muff, after its protagonist—adapted in 1961, shot in September 1962, released in 1963 (often playing in a program with Ken Russell's French Dressing!).
- Not Reconciled, their mini-feature version of “Billiards at Half-Past Nine”—conceived as early as 1959 (the year the book was released), shot August and September 1964 and April 1965, released July 1965.
- Finally, their original Bach project (adapted in 1953-54, with shooting commencing in August 1967).
The fact that Machorka-Muff was the world’s first taste of the Straubs is interesting not simply in light of this bizarre biographical twist of fate. In many ways it is an inversion of the typical Straub-Huillet film: it is not about the act of resistance—as so many of their fiercest movies are—but the triumph of bland, tyrannical men and women who, through their machinations, would render others subservient. It is a blistering flurry of sounds and images, far woozier and fast-moving overall than the “history” films that later cemented their modest reputation.
Yet their particular perversity is evident throughout. Just as Charles Chaplin, one of their heroes, would reportedly cut based on a mysterious continuity of gesture or emotion rather than actual screen continuity, so too are Straub-Huillet guided by similarly subterranean channels that flow below the surface of the images. The resulting ruptures, especially in as well organized a film as Machorka-Muff, shock and awe the viewer. In the later films particularly, these moments—such as the duo’s habit of lingering on subjects well after the given players have ceased their dialogues—are topics of much exasperation and derision among skeptics. Yet it is this kind of stubborn resistance to order and regimentation of style that defines the irregular, even atonal tempo of a Straub-Huillet movie.
Like many other of their idiosyncrasies, this specific technique appears for the first time in Machorka-Muff. A crucial conversation, for instance, taking place in the lobby of a hotel between the movie’s nefarious antagonists, is abandoned almost on a whim. Straub-Huillet, who clearly have no respect for the men, would rather hold on an adjacent spectacle of a bartender stacking glasses and bottles onto a tray, the sound of the men's conversation muted.
Equally, the scene of a worker constructing a knee-high “corner-stone” at the opening of the Academy, under the watchful gaze of the colonel, has the colossal feeling of a moment from a silent movie by somebody like Erich von Stroheim, so amplified are the motions of this mundane act and then, after it, the mechanical gesture of Machorka-Muff tapping gently, ceremoniously on the wood cover with a small hammer.
To be sure, Machorka-Muff has an enormous ceaseless energy all of its own, is trenchantly sardonic in spots, bitter as all hell, and is very much among my absolute favourite movies. Straub—sounding like Murnau, Griffith, or Dreyer—described it best in his own handwriting at the start of the film: “An abstract visual dream, not a story.”