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. Jean-Marie Straub's Communists (2014) is showing on MUBI from October 8 – November 6, 2019.
The souls of all my dears have flown to the stars. Thank God there’s no one left for me to lose– so I am free to cry. This air is made for the echoing of songs.
—Excerpt from Anna Akhmatova's The Return (1944)
In the final shot of Jean-Marie Straub's Communists (2014), Danièle Huillet sits alone in the dirt, high up on Mount Etna in Sicily and all but static, as Beethoven's String Quartet No. 16—his last major work before his death from alcohol cirrhosis—swells around her. She is strikingly still, staring off ahead as if stupefied by the living world. After a long pause, she says two words: "neue Welt"—new world.
This reanimation of Huillet, who succumbed to cancer seven or eight years before Straub returned to her image in Communists, caps off her husband's elaborate reworking of key sequences from across their fifty-year collaboration. "Must it be?" was the alarmed question an ailing Beethoven scrawled on the manuscript for the aforementioned String Quartet. Later he wrote: "It must be!"
We revisit the idealistic peasants of Elio Vittorini's novel Women of Messina (1950-64) who set about building a utopia out of the ashes of war, embodied—as ever—by the players of the Teatro Municipale Francesco di Bartolo. We see Egyptian workers exiting a factory at the end of a work day and eyeing the Straubs' camera—when they do so at all—indifferently, in Too Early, Too Late (1982). We revisit the words of Franco Fortini and the plan-straubien circuitous pans of the countryside from Fortini/Cani (1977). We see the "Communist Utopia" sequence from The Death of Empedocles (1987): Empedocles' monologue on the soundtrack and a sun-dappled landscape of trees and foliage and far-off mountains on-screen, a picture suddenly transformed by the slow-moving and all-enveloping shadow of a passing cloud.
Among these acts of re-purposing, Straub's only original material in Communists adapts and abbreviates André Malraux's Days of Wrath (1935), a pre-WWII Nazi Germany-set precursor to his famous Spanish Civil War novel Days of Hope (1937; later adapted into a favorite film of Straub-Huillet's by Malraux in 1945). In the first part, Straub himself plays a fascist prison warden interrogating, from off-screen, two men in an anonymous, white-walled room; ever the ham, he takes evident glee in playing the villain and denouncing "the illegal Communist party" in wicked terms. In the second, one of the men—unsurely identified by the guard as "Kassner"—is reunited with his wife. He gives some detail of his time in prison. In turn, his wife speaks of her own hellish experience of his imprisonment, her solitude and worry. After a few minutes, they begin to speak serenely and with clear joy (as much as is possible for a Straub performer, at least) about having been reunited, however fleeting this homecoming may prove to be.
Straub thus begins this 76-minute configuration of and fierce tribute to his life's work with Danièle Huillet with an absence (his own dominating non-presence in the interrogation) and a gentle fantasy of their being reunited (Kassner and his wife). And he ends it with uncharacteristic sentiment but totally in character ferocity: the Mount Etna scene that I describe above, in which we are asked to observe Huillet at length, lifted from Black Sin (1989), a 45-minute reworking of their multifarious Empedocles project and one of the only Straub-Huillet films I have not seen.
Danièle and Jean-Marie lived a life together marked by their lifelong commitment to small but assertive and unwavering daily acts of resistance. In these final moments of Communists, Straub uses all his powers as a filmmaker—as a keen excavator of the obscure histories of slain resistance fighters, uncompromising utopians, and regular people driven mad by what Fortini memorably calls "the enormous dream of men"—to place his closest companion into this same noble lineage.
I, for one, never expected to cry at a Straub-Huillet film.