A Conversation with Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub about "Class Relations"

A new translated interview between the filmmakers and Hans Hurch about their adaptation of Kafka's novel "Amerika."
David Perrin

This interview conducted by the late Hans Hurch, former artistic director of the Viennale, was originally published in the book, “Vom Widerschein des Kinos. Hans Hurch Texte aus dem FALTER von 1978 – 1991.” Falter Verlag, Vienna 2017. By Claus Philip, Christian Reder, Armin Thurnher (Hg.) Straub-Huillet's Class Relations (1984) is showing on MUBI from August 20 – September 18, 2019 as part of a MUBI retrospective devoted to the filmmakers.

Danièle Huillet and Jean Marie-Straub’s film Class Relations (1984) is based on the novel “Amerika” by Franz Kafka. Class Relations is a film in black and white, shot in the Federal Republic of Germany and the United States, with the participation of 31 actresses and actors, among them: Christian Heinish, Mario Adorf, Alfred Edel, Libgart Schwarz, Klaus Traube, and Laura Betti. The following text is an excerpt from a conversation conducted by Hans Hurch with Danièle Huillet and Jean Marie-Straub on 12 February 1984, after the film’s premiere at the Metropolis theater in Hamburg.

HANS HURCH: When was the first time you discovered and read Kafka’s texts?

JEAN-MARIE STRAUB: In principle, very late. I think it was around the time that I finished the Pavese script [From the Clouds to the Resistance], that I read his novellas, among them “The Stoker” [the first chapter of the novel]. As a Frenchmen, I barely knew Kafka. I skimmed through his work a couple of times, and then always put it away, because the work doesn’t make any sense in French. It is not at all a paradox to say that, with effort, it is possible to translate Hölderlin or Brecht or Marx exacter and more effectively than Kafka. Or conversely Mallarme into German. I could not get interested in Kafka, until I read him in German, and I was probably too young also. I don’t know, but for me, I don’t think I could get interested in Kafka ten or twenty years ago. That’s a bit dumb to say, because I think the film we’ve made is for young people around 16, meaning for people around Karl Rossmann’s age, maybe even little younger or a little older. I think I came to Kafka via Pavese. They don’t have much in common, but there is something there. Then I read “The Stoker,” and thought of making a short film, what ended up being the first reel of what is now the seven reels of the films: up to the point where they leave the captain’s cabin, where it ends with “But don’t carry on like this, for my sake, and learn to understand your place,” so right after the young man kneels before the stoker. And then out of curiosity I read the whole book—that which Max Brod has called “Amerika.”

HURCH: That means the reading of the book and the idea to make the film were relatively close to each other. It is not an idea that you carried around with you for a long time. 

STRAUB: It went a lot faster than some of the other films, but still my discovery of “The Stoker” was already four or five years ago. I just finished Kafka’s diaries, and I have more and more the impression in the end that Kafka… He died the same age as Pavese. He didn’t kill himself, but one has more and more the impression that even though he deeply enjoyed life there was still a drive towards suicide. I think that’s what his lung illness was, which today is stupidly called a psychosomatic illness, a kind of suicide…

DANIÈLE HUILLET: One develops a lung illness, because one doesn’t eat and sleep enough.

STRAUB: Yes, sleeplessness is very important in Kafka.

HUILLET: Because one doesn’t live in a warm place and so on.

STRAUB: The constant moving around, the bad hotels. But there are many jobs where, before the lung illness even shows up, something else is there…

HUILLET: That Kafka was unable to cope with life is another matter…

STRAUB:  And that of course comes from his profession. On one side, it was very important to him in order to have a well-ordered life, not just money to survive. And on the other hand, it totally devoured him. I think the most important things that are in Kafka come from his experiences of from his profession.

HURCH: As I was re-reading “Amerika,” I noticed that the entire book is also about how people have to sell themselves, and only at the end is there the promise of the Nature Theater, where everyone finds his place. 

STRAUB: That is the only way out from that which we call the industrial civilization, meaning that Kafka would really be the first and up until now the only poet of this civilization in which people have to sell themselves in order to simply survive. He calls this capitalism, the system of dependency. Like in the story that the head chef tells: “At present I can certainly be satisfied with my position and really don’t need to worry at all. But those earlier worries must be causing my insomnia,” she says. One must sell one’s own labor power; one must sell oneself as labor power.  And then the masses, who had an idea and or an intuition of that which was then called the economic crisis. For example, the whole story of Theresa’s mother, who goes from the deepest despair to working at the construction site until her suicide, which isn’t really a suicide, because she somehow hovers between finding work and… She is burnt out, totally burnt out. And how she suddenly doesn’t really throw herself over, but just keels over. It has something to do with what happens to the man high up in the tower at the end of Il grido by Antonioni. As Kafka wrote it, how she: “…knocked over the pile of bricks, fell over it and down into the depths.”

These were some of the experiences that Kafka had through his work at the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute.

HURCH: After watching the film, I had the impression that the sections in the book dealing more with social issues were explicitly highlighted in the film.

STRAUB: Meaning you had the feeling that they are not that strong in the book.

HURCH: You definitely made clear choices. Many lengthy sections from the book are not in the film, for example when Karl Rossmann tells about his uncle’s house, or describes his writing desk, or remembers his parents.

STRAUB: There is also nothing about learning how to horseback ride, which he learns at his uncles’ and so forth. But that was clear from the beginning, because we didn’t want to do over what some already did, with more or less success, like Orson Welles in The Trial. We definitely did not want to visually show or illustrate what Kafka describes. Everything that is visually described—an ugly word—I wanted to do away with from the beginning. Because I think film, meaning cinema, is not there to visually show things. In “The Trial” you read about a large hall where there are, I don’t know, 40 women, each sitting at a typewriter typing, and when you want to show that like Orson Welles, then you show it from above and so on. But that does not exist. Or when Kafka writes about I don’t know how many elevators in the hotel. I think it is much stronger to properly show one elevator, instead of trying to show 40 elevators together, which one cannot do. Then one elevator exists as one monumental phenomenon.

HURCH: In the book there is a description where Karl Rossmann first comes to the hotel, and there is a large hall full of people pushing and running around so that it takes a lot of effort for him to reach the bar. And in your film the head chef is standing alone behind the counter and the entire scene is stripped of all of the description [in the book]. Only this moment remains, this meeting between Rossmann and the head chef.

HUILLET: You can’t get whole crowds of people together in a room and tell them what to do, and record them and all that. I think there is only one person who could have done the film differently.

STRAUB: Only one.

HUILLET: And that was [Erich von] Stroheim. Stroheim could have made the film much more naturalistically. But no one can do that today, the system is not there anymore, the people who are capable of doing that are no longer here.

STRAUB: Then one would have had to build the film in a studio, like the way Stroheim had Monte Carlo reconstructed. And then with sound, which is even harder. But that is not possible today, and even if we had tried it, it would have been a bad job; to show too much would have suggested less of what Kafka describes.

HURCH: There were moments in the film that clearly reminded me of what Kafka wrote, for example, the scene in the beginning where Karl Rossmann bids farewell to the stoker, he kneels down in front of him and takes the stoker’s hand—just like the way Kafka describes it. In the film it is exactly like that. 

STRAUB: Yes, because one makes films also out of things that are close to one or out of one’s own experience.

HUILLET: Or things that scandalize one. A défi. How do you say that in German?

STRAUB: A challenge. That is also a challenge for us, that someone kneels down like a knight from the Middle Ages in front of the Madonna and kisses her hand.

HUILLET: That is something that someone like [Hans-Jürgen] Syberberg lacks the courage to do.

STRAUB: Meaning that Syberberg’s makes the film Parsifal and not in one moment does he believe in mysticism. All the crowd scenes in the Syberberg film do not exist. They have no imagination, because he himself does not believe in it. It was completely alien to him, whereas [Richard] Wagner must have believed in it. And when we show the youngster kneeling before the stoker, touching his hand and almost kissing it, then it is on one side a challenge, like Danièle just said, and on another side it is also an aspect—I am speaking now personally—an aspect that I have repressed: I always think, when I’m walking on the sidewalk, about the hands that lay the stones of the sidewalk and without sentimentality, I would like to—this doesn’t happen anymore, because I’m getting old and no longer a young mystic—I would like to kneel down to kiss the sidewalk. And that is in that one shot. But on the other hand it is also, and this too has to do with our own experience, the exaltation of the young petit bourgeoisie towards the stoker, whom he encourages to revolt and rebel, and then lets him down by deserting him. Also out of class differences— hence the title Class Relations. These are all class relations.

HUILLET: Yes, Karl is not outside his own class, he is a part of it. Even when he is with Delamarche and Robinson, it is still there.

STRAUB: “A fine fellow,” as Delamarche says, meaning is he expelled both from the upper and lower classes.

HURCH: I wanted to again ask you something relating to back to this issue with the oratorio. Yesterday during the discussion you compared the film to an oratorio.

HUILLET: I think he said that, because it’s hard with the audience. They are so— partially through their own fault and partially, because of the products that they always see± they are so distant from the notion that music has something to do with cinema. That which they would accept in music, it wouldn’t occur to them that that also…

STRAUB: ...has something to do with cinema.

HUILLET: And that one can treat language the way it is in music as a matter of course. Even someone like [Harun] Farocki, who plays Delamarche and himself makes films, he jokingly said to us: “Next time do it so that there are even separations within one word.” And that is a joke if you know that the musicians have been doing that for centuries. They really do separate words.

STRAUB: And syllables and vowels. Not to mention Schönberg, but let’s start with Bach and earlier. When it’s sung in Bach: “Wie will ich lustig laachen, la-a-a-achen, wenn alles durcheinander geht. Und wenn selbst Felder nicht sicher ste-e-e-eht. Und wenn die Dächer kra-a-a-achen!” And so on.

In a film when people make pauses in their speech that don’t appear naturalistic and linguistically is deeply realistic, then the audience sits there, especially other filmmakers or so-called film-knowers, and feel provoked and have the impression that none of this is real and so forth. But like I said, musicians have allowed themselves much more, but that is a long story. Alexander Kluge said before, when we appeared in Berlin with Not Reconciled, he said: “You treat language like an object. ” And you can’t do that, of course. You get these mass and chain reactions from writers. But you can view language as an object, and still treat it realistically even more so with regard to content than those who claim they don’t treat language as an object. Language is not just a vehicle. Besides, what interests us are these different spectrums/layers in the manners of speech and the voices. That’s what I meant with oratorio.

HUILLET: Like Therese and the head chef, for example. There is an opposition there. The head chef is like the foundational voice.

HURCH: That is also because Therese is an actress. They way Libgart Schwarz [actress who plays Therese] says the text, the way she modulates her voice is totally different, for example, from Karl Rossmann.

HUILLET: With Rossmann it’s even more complicated and also with Klara. They are young people and that plays a large role, because young people don’t act.

HURCH: Bresson said the same thing.

HUILLET: I didn’t know that, but it’s true. But for that, Libgart goes very far in one direction, and that is something that many people didn’t understand.

STRAUB: Her Therese would be one side of the spectrum: how Therese, as played by Libgart, makes long pauses and labors through every word and syllable, and on the other side there is Karl Rossmann, who, if you don’t properly look and listen, almost looks and sounds mechanical. Even though he isn’t like that at all. And between those two are different layers of the spectrum. Rossmann reacts out of the here and now, in the moment, and Therese tells this agonizing story out of her past. It’s different.  We wanted an actress for this, because we thought to show a real housemaid, a real Therese so deep in misery and so fearful, we didn’t want to do that, out of aesthetic, moral and political reasons. And what struck us last night after the film is that filmmakers that were there who we like and are our friends, they said to us: “Yes, well Libgart, she doesn’t work at all.” They didn’t mean it brutally, but they went pretty far. One said: “You probably did this [as an attack] against actors and actresses.” And really they were not struck by her story, and also not by these drawn out pauses and by her anguish. And what do they: they avenge themselves on the person, on the actress, instead of honestly recognizing: “This text did not strike us.”

HURCH: The speech is also like crying. There is a sense of crying in Libgart Schwarz’s voice.

STRAUB: Exactly. And at the same time she is the only one who laughs in the film. “Just think, so bad am I,” she says, and then loudly laughs. For us this has a lot of value, to do things that for us go a step further, while the others expect and think of us: “Typical Straub. A character like that with such long pauses and such pathos and so forth. That does not belong there.” And this is something that we’ve always said. These films should also be a school of tolerance. Without irony. Sometimes you even have the duty to be intolerant, but there is also a tolerance of which one has to be capable of practicing, especially as an intellectual. That one accepts Karl Rossmann on one end of the spectrum and Libgart Schwarz on the other end. And tolerant also in the political sense as well as aesthetically. That one accepts disparate forms, forms in sound and image.  

HURCH: Mario Adorf [actor playing the uncle] is also an example, how he sticks his hands in his vest and how he moves. It wouldn’t be that noticeable in another film, but here it is very distinct.

HUILLET: You wouldn’t see it, because they are all like that.

STRAUB: Because there are no contrasts. Like in Fassbinder, where it was always the same form and the same tone, that repeats: they sit there in Merchant of Four Seasons drinking beer at the table staring into their glass and do the same thing. That’s it. And then you think: “Oh, how typical. That is typical petit-bourgeoisie,” or I don’t know what.

HUILLET: With Adorf you can tell that he is capable. He has a certain precision and a certain decomposing quality, which others cannot do. The man is totally aware; he is able to simply act.

STRAUB: You notice the oppositions or contradictions. What Adorf can do in the positive and negative sense. And again what Karl Rossmann can do and what Adorf cannot do with feelings. And in turn technically what he doesn’t have and what Adorf does have and so forth.

HURCH: Is there a progression in your work where one can say that this film continues something from the other films?

STRAUB: Yes, certainly. It would be interesting to watch Not Reconciled and then afterwards the Kafka film. Then you can see the progression. And in between is the discovery of Schönberg, the spoken-singing of Moses, the pauses in Mallarmé and our pauses in Pavese. And in between that, closer to Not Reconciled, is the work and experience with Othon (1970). I think in our small body of work there is one end, let’s take two films that have almost nothing to do with each other, because the texts are different and also the language, one in German, the other French: Not Reconciled and Othon with regards to the work with the actors, the singing or the speaking of the characters. And then on the other end, let’s say, there is the Pavese film and the Kafka film. And in between are little steps like the short about Mallarmé or En rachâchant,which was more practice, in regards to the use of language, for the Kafka film.

HURCH: How did you come to make the film in Hamburg, with the exception of scenes filmed in America?

HUILLET: When someone sees the film, he probably thinks everything was taken care of in advance and that everything is just a matter of course. But it’s not at all like that. It comes with time, slowly. It is many decisions. Oddly enough we were certain that that what you see [in the film], you would see it as Germany, and not as America.

STRAUB: The America that Kafka dreamed up…When you think that the stoker story was already written in 1912, it is uncanny the foreshadowing he had of the coming economic crisis, the unemployment in the story with [Therese’s] mother. That America no longer exists. It’s probably more visible here [in Germany]. That was the first decision.

HUILLET: But the idea of Hamburg, we knew it was either Berlin or Hamburg.

STRAUB: That was all. After it was clear, not the United States, then we thought about Berlin, about certain streets. And then we decided on Hamburg, it also has to do with that we had the desire for a long time to make a film in Hamburg without wanting to force it. It came about very slowly and with care.

HURCH: Kafka writes about America as if he were imagining it.

STRAUB: Because he is honest. Even though he knew a lot from photographs, he didn’t want to give the impression that he was actually there. He does it like someone who is dreaming. The film is like the dream of a sleepwalker dreaming about another country, somehow. He dreams of a country that is familiar to him through documents, but he never directly experienced it. And that’s why it would have been wrong to shoot the film there. For us it would have been wrong.

HURCH: To get now to the end of the film, to the train ride along the Missouri, where you see the river and the trees. There is the connection there, one can say that Kafka intended the Nature Theater, the way he writes about it, to be a critique of a society that destroys everything.

STRAUB: He dreams of a utopia, where everyone is needed, where there is no more unemployment, and where everyone does the work that he wants to do and nothing else. And where every worker can become an artist. That is very clear. It is really a Jewish dream, which is something different from the Israel of today.

HURCH: The journey at the end along the river that is like a glimpse, like a feeling that everything can start over again from the beginning.

STRAUB: And it must. Finally a spot in the world or a different world, where Rossmann won’t be forced one day to throw bombs, because he can’t take it anymore.

Translation by David Perrin

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