A Straub-Huillet Companion: “Too Early, Too Late”

This 1982 film puts into dialogue struggles of class and revolution in France and Egypt through landscape, voiceover, and human figures.
Christopher Small

A Straub-Huillet Companion is a series of short essays on the films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, subject of a MUBI retrospective. Straub-Huillet's Too Early, Too Late (1982) is showing on MUBI from August 6 – September 4, 2019.

If there is an actor in Too Early, Too Late, it is the landscape. This actor has a text to recite: History (the peasants who resist, the land which remains), of which it is the living witness. The actor performs with a certain amount of talent: the cloud that passes, a breaking loose of birds, a bouquet of trees bent by the wind, a break in the clouds; this is what the landscape’s performance consists of. This kind of performing is meteorological. One hasn’t seen anything like it for quite some time. Since the silent period, to be precise.

—Serge Daney, Cinemeteorology, Libération, 1982

In Straub-Huillet films, humans stand erect and impassive like statues, possessed by the spirits of the past. The texts they recite are channeled through the imperfections of accent, dialect, and speech. Equally, they are refined and molded and rehearsed down to the smallest cadence, respectful of and alert to the slightest tremor of breath. Perfect renditions of Bach's music in Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach mix with creaking stools and the awkward shifts of performers existing in real space. In Fortini/Cani, Franco Fortini declaims his own words in a Straubian cadence, the non-naturalistic pauses and elongations reshaping the text into something new.

This feature is true of practically all of Straub-Huillet's work with texts and performers. Hölderlin, Brecht, Corneille—all are reanimated through this encounter with a given speaker. The individual performers, often chosen for a feature of their voice, face, or posture, act as mediums for the text, summoning it from the past and bringing its words to life through the regional or phonetic particulars of their speech.

Harun Farocki, with whom the couple lived shortly after shooting the Egyptian section of Too Early, Too Late, said that for them filmmaking "wasn't about finding the most suitable actors, but rather conforming to the actors' specific skills, as well as the suitability of a location or an object." Farocki expresses what would seem to be the essence of Huillet and Straub's way of doing things. That is, a minimum of interference in some respects and a maximum of control over others, done in such a way that the two work in tandem to produce conditions in which unanticipated results can appear.

The second section of Too Early, Too Late was shot in and around the Nile Delta over three weeks in May 1981, just months before Egyptian president Anwar Sadat was assassinated in Cairo. In this 75-minute stretch, the considerable majority of the film, this approach to humans as physical presences is taken to a dimension previously explored by the duo only in the driving scenes of History Lessons. Which is to say, like the Lumière brothers, they stake a point-of-view and wait for untouched documentary reality to compose itself as action. As Daney, the film's most famous admirer, says above: virtually for the first time, these most well-planned, regimented, and rehearsed of filmmakers take as their material a world of ambling peasants, countryside, trees lashed by wind, workers leaving a factory.

In the first section of the film—shot in Paris, Mottreff, Lyon, and Harville—Danièle Huillet herself reads a text from Fredrich Engels (in English!) over images principally that show a deserted French countryside. In the second, two voices read from the introduction to Class Struggles in Egypt by Mahmoud Hussein. Connections intended to be drawn between the two are obvious enough; what is immediately startling in the shift from France to Cairo is the stark difference in the number of people populating the frame. Straub has said the French countryside has a "science fiction, deserted-planet aspect," and it shows. Where in the French section, Straub-Huillet are freer to make a "landscape film" alone—in startling, circuitous pans that resemble Fortini/Cani's views of Italy's serene fields and mountainsides where atrocities were once committed—in the Egyptian section they have to contend with the presence of many more haphazard human presences than with which they ever previously had to deal.

In one scene, we see a few peasants mount a mule and march past the camera. Huillet and Straub then pan around to face a long dirt road cutting through a field. Boys and men and mules approach slowly, draw close to the lens, then pass by out of frame, glancing at the camera as they do so. In another—a widely acknowledged riff on the Lumières—we watch workers exiting a factory at the end of the day. Their movement is not, as in the Lumières' amazing film, regimented into lines but instead fans out across the whole courtyard over the course of nine minutes. The camera is far away enough to catch their attention but not so close as to compel them to approach. Making a film of Egypt as outsiders, and making as clear a connection between a French class struggle and an Egyptian one, Straub-Huillet do not, in the mold of much ethnographic filmmaking, seek to "understand" an alien people and their ways, at least not on the level of individuals. Quite the contrary: their respectful distance allows for the anonymous Egyptian peasants and workers to, unusually for Straub-Huillet, occupy and traverse the space entirely on their own terms.

While this stance is one of solidarity with the Egyptian people's struggle for autonomy as workers, it is also the case that—problematically—these same men and women are treated, as in early actuality films, as passive subjects bemusedly passing by a static camera. Though Hussien's words rather explicitly expand Straub-Huillet's anti-imperialism into a pan-African one—or, at least, almost do—it would be instructive to compare Too Early, Too Late's method with that of Peter Nestler, the man Straub once called the "only" German filmmaker since Fritz Lang. Nestler, like the Straubs, refuses to editorialize in the style of most ethnographic filmmakers. Startlingly, he often dubs the voices of his subjects, calmly repeating their embittered words but in his own uninflected voice, allowing for them to present their own work, struggles, and histories with a maximum of freedom, only with the necessary clarity and detachment required by his kind of analytical temperament.

Like Nestler, Straub and Huillet thread individuals into a grander formal tapestry that is wholly theirs, co-opting the presences of these people without actually tampering with their exact words and histories. Egyptians on the soundtrack give clear voice to an Egyptian fight for self-determination. Straub-Huillet give space for them to detail the blood-soaked working class histories of the region and themselves draw parallels with abortive struggles at home in France. Nevertheless the people actually in front of the camera remain anonymous passers-by. It is a limitation of Huillet and Straub's style that moving beyond this unblinking distance would violate their sense of the world as something that should not be subject to overt alteration and editorialization—it would be hard to imagine them giving direct voice to the workers and peasants in roadside interviews, for instance.

But it is not all so hands-off: Straub-Huillet end Too Early, Too Late with two violations of the film's otherwise strict adherence to a precise visual schema. In the first half of this one-two punch, we see archival footage of people being rounded up in the midst of the revolution of 1952. In the second, the visual pattern of the entire film—horizontal movement, whether pans or walks—is broken with a single vertical tilt down from sky, past two buildings, and finally to water lapping at the grass on a riverbank. On the soundtrack, we are told that after this "middle-class" revolution of 1952, any semblance of a genuine Egyptian workers movement was crushed by the new regime.

What explicit historical commentary the Straubs feel they have to include is expressed principally, to return to Serge Daney, through the moral particulars of camera movement.

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