The Dream of a Thing: Straub’s "Kommunisten"

A new film by Jean-Marie Straub, using new material and old, circles around survival in this world, alone or with others.
Ted Fendt
[...] and also, indeed more, perhaps in those who were in no way exceptional and have left no trace, there was something that went beyond the struggle against Nazism, something – be it only for a moment, the last one – that contributed, whether they knew it or not, to the “dream of a thing” which men have had “for so long,” to the enormous dream of men.

These words of Franco Fortini, spoken in Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub’s Fortini/Cani (1978), are a kind of summation of one of the major themes of their work. From one film to the next, they return to this “dream of a thing”: the day Camille dreams of in Eyes Do Not Want to Close At all Times (1969) when “Rome will allow herself to choose in her turn,” human’s desire to commune with the gods in From the Cloud to the Resistance (1979), the “new duties, higher duties, other duties” the Gran Lombardo desires in Sicilia ! (1998) and the village the characters try to re-build that winter in Workers, Peasants (2001)—“this reunion of people could become the best thing or also the worst thing.” Every major character in a Straub-Huillet film is a wild, crazy dreamer.

This is no less true of Kommunisten (2014), Jean-Marie Straub’s newest feature, comprised of 6 sections, one shot recently and 5 selected from earlier Straub-Huillet films. It is a matter here not of Kommunismus (Communism), of something abstract, of an—ism—it is never so in Straub-Huillet’s work as Tag Gallagher has argued.* Kommunisten, then—the word translates as communists—which is to say, living and breathing men and women. Even in the most cinetract-like of their films, it is always a question of men and women doing specific things, acting in concrete, material circumstances: Arnold Schoenberg’s letters to Wassily Kandinsky in Introduction to Arnold Schoenberg’s Musical Accompaniment to a Cinematic Scene (1972) or the electric power that killed the two boys in Europa 2005 - 27 October (2006) or the philosophers hiding in in their beds in Joachim Gatti: variation of light (2009) while the “women of the markets” are the ones who stop people from slitting each others throats. Their greatest film, Workers, Peasants (2001), has nearly an entire reel (the 6th) in which the characters, primarily the Widow Biliotti, recite a recipe for ricotta cheese and discuss the best wood to burn for cooking it. The Communists of the Kommunisten’s title, then, are not political philosophers but characters, wonderfully brought to life by Straub-Huillet’s brilliant cast of actors, who work day by day to try to realize or reach “the enormous dream of men” even if it kills them (Empedocles, Antigone). No theoretical, waxing poetic, no prescriptive politics, but tangible discussions of imprisonment, survival, sex, work and relationships.

The film opens with a new, recently-shot section (4:3, HD video, Canon 5D): three scenes taken from Le temps du mépris (1935, published in English as Days of Wrath), André Malraux’s follow-up to Man’s Fate (1934) concerning how a man and a woman deal with being separated while the man is in prison.

In the first scene, two men stand against a wall in a harshly lit, ugly white room. A man offscreen who we surmise is a Nazi (played by Jubarite Semaran, a.k.a. Jean-Marie Straub) interrogates them on their role in the “illegal communist party.” After taunting the man on the left who claims to not know of an “illegal” party (“Tell me, who’s been sleeping with your wife?”), he turns his attention to the other man. Identified by the interrogator as Kassner, the exchange between the two is brief. Straub’s tone of voice when addressing him suggests uncertainty as to whether the man is indeed Kassner. The man denies he is: “The most idiotic conspirator does not ask for a light from the gendarmes,” but the interrogator doesn’t buy it: “It is not more difficult to go to the legation with false papers than into the street.”

A brutal cut to black and Kassner begins narrating in voice over his time in jail, how he survives his imprisonment by escaping into his mind, using strong mental images to keep his sanity - the way Bakunin would edit an entire newspaper in his mind during his own imprisonment. Where the book explains this clearly, it is only boldly suggested by Straub through a sudden shift from first to third person narration: “A dizzying hunt sent his mind towards the images that maintained his life. It was necessary to organize this hunt, to transform it into will power.” The use of a black screen with voice over is a technique used by Straub and Huillet first in From the Cloud to the Resistance (1979) and a few of Straub's recent films—it is used powerfully in Itinerary of Jean Bricard (2009) and in the new 2 minute short that is screening with Kommunisten entitled The Algerian War! (2014)—suggesting the impossibility of representing this experience as well as dramatizing the darkness of his prison cell, described in the book as a "rather large dark hole." The sequence ends on a note of ambiguity: "There was still as much strength in him as menace around him."

A cut suddenly fills the screen with vibrant light, color and the sound of chirping birds, Kassner and a woman in a bright, red coat seated at his side stare out a balcony window in a classic Straubian shot (i.e. the blind Bach at the end of his life in Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach [1967] or Therese and Karl in the hotel in Class Relations [1984]). After a few remarks about Kassner’s time in prison, Straub abruptly cuts—and this is surely one of the year’s most startling—from this:

to this:

Same angle, same lens, tilted slightly down to shift the focus onto the woman, his lover or wife, who now recounts her side, how she survived while he was in prison through the joy brought to her by their child: “I live a life difficult to live… And yet nothing in the world is stronger, nothing, than knowing this child is here.” Men, who “do not have children,” says Kassner, must find other means to survive and for him this was music, to which he can no longer listen. But now that they are together again—and the dialogue suggests this is only for a short time—they want to go out together, if only to enjoy the simple pleasure of a walk.

In this sequence, Straub takes his adaptation work of paring down source material to a few lines perhaps further than ever before: from a 59 page book (in the Editions de la Pléiade version) there are only 89 lines of dialogue, taken from chapters 1, 2 and 8. The only comparable reduction of a text would have to be his paring down of the Ferdinand Bruckner play Pains of Youth in The Bridgegroom, the Actress and the Pimp (1968). Rather than the flat, toneless declamations of the actors in this earlier film, the actors in the filmmaker’s late films transform the words into speech, emphasizing and stressing the particularities of their personal manners of talking and their accents. “In the cell I tried to use music to defend myself” therefore becomes: “In the cell I tried to use music /// to defend myself,” actor Georges Pandel adding a three second pause where none is indicated by Malraux’s punctuation (Straub has often said that he tries to “dynamite” punctuation). The spoken word is what we must primarily focus on because we cannot see their faces and apart from one, significant moment when the woman takes the man’s hand in hers, they stare straight ahead, motionless, concentrating their energy into their voices.

The sequences that follow in Kommunisten—reel 5 of Workers, Peasants (2001), the Egyptian workers leaving the factory in Too Early, Too Late (1980-81), the Apuan Alps sequence and a latter sequence of Fortini reading in Fortini/Cani, Empedocles’ hopes for a brighter future when the “green of the earth will glisten anew” in The Death of Empedocles (1986) and Danièle Huillet’s call for a “new earth” in Black Sin (1988) accompanied by Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 16, “The Difficult Decision”—return to and circle around the issues introduced in the first sequence: namely, survival in this world, alone or with others.

In Workers, Peasants, the “thing” is a community but, specifically in the sequence Straub has selected, it is the relationship between Ventura and Siracusa (on the far right and center, respectively), its ups and downs and whether or not Ventura has changed and become a better person during the time recounted in the film:

“The thing between me and her actually continued to rise as if I were changed.” From the personal, the film widens to the larger community to incorporate class struggle in Egypt circa 1919 and Italian resistance fighters slaughtered by the Nazis.

Three times it a question of World War II: Malraux’s pre-WWII of Le temps du mépris, Elio Vittorini’s post-WWII in Workers, Peasants and the massacres perpetrated in the Apuan Alps by “[SS-Sturmbannführer Walter] Reder and his men” whose “mercy” the “people pronounce themselves against” in Fortini/Cani where the camera surveys endlessly hills and villages once covered in blood and now just grass, dirt and white marble shining in the sun. And the film returns four times to Italy: the above-mentioned films and Empedocles and Black Sin, both filmed in Sicily (the latter 4,000 feet high on Mount Etna). And when we are out of Europe, in post-colonial Egypt, the concerns are no different: the joining together of “the rural masses,” “embryonic forms of popular power” and “specific forms of struggle: occupation of factories and self-defense against the forces of repression.”

It is fitting that Straub ends his film with sequences from the two Empedocles films as there is perhaps no wilder dreamer in their entire cinema than the Greek philosopher who commits suicide out of his commitment to his dream, confusing everyone in the film. As Tag Gallagher writes: “Like Huw [in John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley], like Robert Bresson’s curé, Empedokles closes his eyes, conjures a fantasy, and sacrifices himself to it.” Is this not what any revolutionary-minded individual does, is this not what “the rural masses” in Egypt did in 1919 in revolting against the colonizer or Italian communities, “those who were in no way exceptional and have left no trace,” resisting Nazi soldiers? Or simply the workers and peasants who try to restore electric power and scrape together enough food to survive the winter?

Empedocles, here, is only an off-screen voice, speaking over a shot of the Sicilian landscape, the light changing drastically as clouds move across the sky. A favorite passage of Straub’s—he quotes it often in interviews—this is where Empedocles describes, ecstatically, his dream, his Communist utopia:

So venture it! what you have inherited, what you have acquired, what your father's mouth has told you, taught you, law and custom, the names of the ancient gods, forget it boldly and raise, as newborns, your eyes to godly Nature, as then the spirit is kindled on the light of the heavens, a sweet breath of life will drench your bosom as if for the first time, and full of golden fruits the woods will rustle and springs out of the rock, when the life of the world seizes you, its spirit of peace, and like a holy cradle song stills your soul, then out of the bliss of a beautiful dawning the green of the earth will glisten anew for you…

From “illegal” communists to Italian workers and peasants, from resistance fighters in Egypt to Italy, from Ancient Greece via 1790s Hölderlin to 1980s Straub-Huillet, from today to tomorrow, the dream, “the enormous dream of men” remains a constant, always longed for, never achieved. But Straub-Huillet stage the disappointment rarely, choosing instead to show the aftermath or focusing instead on the defiance of their characters (and here landscape is a character too). What remains with us from this film, and all their films, are the unforgettable characters, these communists. Toma’s womanizing and the slap Ventura gives him in Workers, Peasants, described in words alone but so vividly that it is as if we were there; Straub’s interrogation of the two suspected communists and the melodic voice of the woman Kassner talks to; Fortini reading from his book in the sun of an Italian summer and the grainy, rich greens and blues of the 16mm footage of the Alps; Egyptian workers in 1980 staring at Straub-Huillet’s camera as they go home for the day; the constant movement of the trees and clouds, the shimmering Sicilian light as Empedocles rhapsodizes; Danièle Huillet kneeling on the ground, statue-like, hands on her chin, high up on Mount Etna and her quick, sudden twist to her right, touching the dirt beneath her as she proclaims: “Neue Welt.”

*Gallagher, Tag. “Lacrimae Rerum Materialized.” Senses of Cinema. October 2005.

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