A Straub-Huillet Companion: "Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach"

Our guide to the films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet—concurrent with a MUBI retrospective—begins with their first feature.
Christopher Small

A Straub-Huillet Companion is a series of short essays on the films of Jean-Marie traub and Danièle Huillet, subject of a MUBI retrospective. Straub-Huillet's Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968) is showing on MUBI from April 15 – May 14, 2019.

Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach

When he met an eighteen-year-old Danièle Huillet in 1954, Jean-Marie Straub, also a mere twenty-one years of age, already had the project that would become Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968) in mind, drawing inspiration from a fictional biography of Frau Bach by Esther Meynell; he immediately asked Huillet to collaborate with him on the script. Which is to say that the pair intended what ultimately became their third film—after the short Machorka-Muff (1963) and the mid-length Not Reconciled (1965)to serve as a true introduction to their practice.

All that is Straub-Huillet is there in Bach: The curious vitality of technically unaffected performers. The reverence for a text’s (or in this case, piece of music’s) essence. The unpredictable, stop-start rhythm of the montage, determined more by the constituents of a shot than narrative flow. The structural excisions born of remarkable changes to the source text. Literary or musical ‘adaptation’ guided by a rare fidelity not simply to the spirit of the work itself but to its interpretation by readers and performers. For many people, Bach became the introduction to Straub-Huillet that the pair intended in making it their first project together but that the circumstances of its financing denied them. More than fifty years later, the film remains the most acclaimed and revived of their works.

The Straubs had been flogging the project for well over a decade before they finally made it for 470,000 DEM (around $900,000 adjusted) in late 1967, surviving in the interim as translators of literary texts, among other things. During the long genesis of the project, the pair living ascetically, with scarce financial means, settling for seven years in a one-bedroom apartment in Munich and spurning all luxuries—including owning their own automobile.

It is also worth noting that neither of the two were fully German: Danièle, born in Paris on May Day 1936; Jean-Marie, in the border town of Metz three years before that, which was French at the time of his birth, German during the war, and French again by V-day. In 1958, he and Danièle fled persecution from France to the Federal Republic of Germany (via Amsterdam), for Jean-Marie’s refusal to participate in the terrorization of Algeria by the French army. In their Bach film, dedicated to the Viet Cong, the Straubs were adamant that the person to “impersonate” J.S. Bach would not be German, “because,” they said, “of what happened in [this] country, between 1933-45.” This is of a piece with their first two films, which sound the alarm against the rearmament of the Federal Republic of Germany in the 1950s. (More on those soon!)

Certainly, one of the reasons that state funding boards and private producers alike shied away from the project—besides, of course, the pair’s nascent reputation as being uncompromising—was their insistence on Gustav Leonhardt to “play” the title role. They had no quibble, these would-be producers said, with his qualifications: Leonhardt was an acclaimed harpsichordist and keyboard player, known for his insistence on using original, early 18th Century instruments. No, for them it was that he bore absolutely no resemblance to Johann Sebastian Bach and spoke German with a more than noticeable Dutch accent.

Eventually, the entire production and post-production budget came from sources in Munich (Franz-Seitz Filmproduktion and Telepool), in Frankfurt (Hessischer Rundfunk), and in Rome (Filmfonds e.V and IDI Cinematografica), as well as from Straub-Huillet themselves and from friends and benefactors like Peter Nestler, Jacques Rivette, and Jean-Luc Godard.

Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach does not exactly disprove the labels that have been affixed to it and the Straubs’ films more broadly: “slow,” “austere,” “difficult,” and so on. It does, however, refute the notion that their films are only those things. Take, for instance, the first few minutes of Bach. After a prolonged medium shot (two minutes and twenty seconds) of J.S. Bach at the harpsichord, the camera drifts back a few meters to place him among a six-instrument ensemble. The familiar arthouse tropes are all there: The anachronistic use of black-and-white film stock. The unadorned title cards. The plain, demonstrative camera movement. The impassive performers held in long shot, pinned in place to resist viewer identification. 

Yet before the last notes of the piece begin to fade, Straub-Huillet cut away from the scene to a three-quarter high-angle shot of Anna Magdalena that lasts a single second. Simultaneously, a breathless voiceover springs to life on the soundtrack, reading fast and in a disinterested tone of voice, as if from a list. Anna Magdalena (Christiane Lang) hurriedly, factually describes her first encounters with the man who would be her husband. We return to a shot of what later we intuit to be a young Wilhelm Freidemann Bach, his back to us, at the keyboard, lasting another minute and a half. The camera dollies in to his sheet music. Again, we cut away. The voiceover reappears like a hammer. Anna once more states facts about Bach’s life up to this point and the works he produced in the course of educating Wilhelm Freidemann.

The narration is brisk and toneless. The images fly by beneath it. We peer at two pages of the elder Bach’s slightly-smudged sheet music, appearing one after the other and filling the screen, for one or two seconds each. Cut to a serene shot of Anna at her own harpsichord (two minutes), then to what could be the only cutaway in their body of work, a less than four-second shot of Bach bowing to a young girl (could this even be a flashback to a young Anna Magdalena?).  

What we are confronted by, then, is a barrage of visual and aural information. Protracted shots and startlingly succinct ones. Quick flashes of information that barely register. A sensual overload of faces and places. Surely the idea of doing things that way is at odds with what we are conditioned to expect from the Straubs—as rigid, stuffy, icily intellectual, et cetera. Yet there it all is, right in the first few minutes of their best-known work. Often, as Rivette once wrote, the only sufficient rebuttal to this type of wilful ignorance is to point jocularly to the evidence on the screen itself.

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