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 Workers, Peasants (2001) is showing on MUBI from September 24 – October 23, 2019.
PERFORMER: "...and of every thing came the end, and it was a whole that was living."J.-M.S.: Thanks—I'll stop you there. It's not bad, but some things should be done a little better. Some are tired. Let's start again from the beginning. First of all, fourth line: "...it lingers among the vineyards and on the seashore." You have to stress the Italian tonic accent on "sea," seeeea. But don't omit the rest of the word. After that, you have four bars to breathe, understand? So you can do it.
In the last years of the 20th century, after having produced films in a variety of contexts and countries and with a range of performers and collaborators, Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub began an extended collaboration with an amateur theatre troupe, the Teatro Municipale Francesco di Bartolo. Out of this collaboration sprung both film and stage productions, the latter of which Straub-Huillet used as rehearsals for the cinematic productions that would come into being further down the line. In the environs of the Apulgia region in the south of Italy, the Straubs and this team of actors—all of whom were also regular workers—channeled texts by Communist authors Cesare Pavese and Elio Vittorini as if summoning the word of God through their art. They did so with a minimum of resources and a maximum of affect.
In a more practical sense, the actors, the Straubs, and Pavese-Vittorini were engaging with a specific theatrical tradition of the region, namely that of the maggio, a dramatic form in which texts are read in a declamatory, highly stylized, and non-psychological style. In the early 1800s, open-air maggio theatres existed in great number all over regions like Tuscany and were produced, written, staged, and performed by peasants and for peasants. So remarkable is the match between this oral form and Straub-Huillet's own working methods that any viewer encountering these films without any prior knowledge could be forgiven for accepting this style as entirely the Straubs'.
Workers, Peasants is the second of these collaborations—and, with These Encounters of Theirs, maybe the most beautiful—but the first to establish the form that all the subsequent films would draw from. Noble performers stood in forests like Olympians. A powerful and melodic speaking style that accentuates not only word but intonation. Sequences built from single camera positions, with titanic close-ups that crash on screen when they appear and, in the larger context of the wide shots with which they share an angle, resemble meticulous frame blow-ups of a canvas or tapestry.
As is often the case, though contra to their reputation as the least audience-friendly of filmmakers, Straub-Huillet were producing work with the Bari troupe for—and this is not insignificant—a specialized audience. In producing them, the Straubs were not simply addressing the maggio audiences of the Tuscan hills, but were conceptualizing and asserting a utopian audience that may not have yet existed, just as the people of Workers, Peasants imagine and create a new world in the ashes of the one that was extinguished in the furnace of war.
When his and Danièle's The Bridegroom, the Comedienne, and the Pimp screened in Paris in 1968, Straub found himself defending the movie against eager denunciations by the likes of Daniel Cohn-Bendit. High on the fervor of the protests gripping France, protests in which Cohn-Bendit played a public and outsized role, a number of these cine-going students took Straub and Huillet to task for what they perceived as an apolitical film—and, therefore, a waste of time. Who were they making this film for? How was this "politics"? In the film, there is no mention of Vietnam, no images from the struggle. Straub's response, linked intimately to the space in which the movie was screened, was that he made the film not for students but pimps and prostitutes. This particular film showed in one of Paris' so-called "Cineac stations," forgotten, unfashionable, minuscule cinemas in which vagabonds and drug addicts often went to watch newsreels and actualities.
Workers, Peasants exists in this arena: a contingent but practical space, where the mere existence of the film—the public screening of and engagement with a certain kind of work—had a tangible impact on a particular group of people. This is the opposite of the universality, the mysticism, the emphasis on personal expression that plagues today's art-house. The Straubs and their actors are more concerned with routine pleasure produced collaboratively, that rewards concentration in spades, and illuminates an historical period and historical text fogged by the mists of time.
The movies of Straub-Huillet's are possessed of the kind of beauty that, once discovered, takes up a practical place in life. Since their release, most of these films have been sublimated and categorized into more general critical cartographies. Of course, this has its place—I like to universalize as much as the next writer. But it is worth waking up in the morning and re-jigging this hierarchy. If these films are thought about at all, they ought to also be thought of as particular historical responses to local artistic practice. These are films dense in their allusions but whose piercing clarity of form and subject is very much their own. Each is a trinket of the living universe that one can slip into the pocket, seized like a pea-sized gold nugget panhandled from a stream.