This brilliant, kinky adaptation of an unfinished three-act opera by Arnold Schoenberg is easy to love or at least to appreciate, even for morbid skeptics of Straub-Huillet.
For one, Schoenberg’s vigorous work, often unfairly labelled "difficult" or "easier to defend than to listen to," is treated with a materialist reverence that is quintessentially the Straubs’. Their phlegmatic, intellectual love of their subject fits the great Austrian composer to a T. For once, the Straubs, working with an unusually generous budget, allow themselves a modicum of spectacle: not simply in the physical scale of certain choral scenes and in one great sequence featuring dozens of animals being led to a sacrificial altar but also in their soundtrack (exhilarating) and their mise-en-scène (never have they bested this film’s complex network of epic pans and dollies).
For another, the film features an atypically salacious sequence in which the Israelites degenerate into an amoral mob of libertines and sex pests, throwing themselves from cliffs, slaughtering animals, and tearing off each other’s robes in the wild fits of a protracted orgy. For a moment, it is as if Straub-Huillet have briefly transformed into John Waters.
Even more than their great Class Relations (based off of an incomplete novel by Kafka), Moses and Aaron exemplifies their particular genius for adaptation. Where other filmmakers might have sanded over any roughness in the source material, Straub-Huillet preserve these same contours, finding in this incompleteness an aesthetic resistance they are able to repurpose to their advantage.
The Straubs were long able to reclaim the essence of a text without tampering with it in the course of adaptation. They were often drawn to religious sources within which the kinds of questions that interested them were already embedded. Like the Biblical brothers’ fretting over of the character of a future utopia (Semitic for Moses-Aaron, Communist for Straub-Huillet, and Zionist for Schoenberg) or, most famously, the life story of Johann Sebastien and Anna Magdalena Bach. Mr. Bach pledged a religious fealty to the contours of Creation, the so-called music of the spheres of heaven, not too distant from the Straubs' own loyalty to a materialist filmmaking mission in which aesthetics spring from a preexisting world and are not imperialistically imposed onto it.
The film retains both the traditional “ending” of Moses und Aron (1930–33) whenever it is performed—the end of the second act, in which Aaron has convinced the Israelites to follow him and establish Zion—as well as the libretto that Schoenberg drafted but never put to music. In that addendum, Aaron is face down in the mud and bound at his hands and feet, lorded over by his brother Moses, who scorns him for his desire to break with an ascetic interpretation of religious devotion and to manifest the religious impulse of the Israelites in a settlement of their own.
In all iterations of the story, Aaron is called upon by his inarticulate brother to express, profess, and proclaim the word of God for their people. Making him, therefore, the first "prophet." Unlike Aaron, Moses, who received the word of God, is no great communicator. He capriciously stalks off to Mount Sinai for forty days and forty nights. In the meantime, Aaron's interpretive mission bursts its seams. There is a need for heavenly representation among the burgeoning people he is overseeing. He acquiesces to the Israelites, who in the face of an uninspiring Moses crave a tangible vision of their newfound God. He erects for them an enormous Golden Calf. Then follows the idol worship, the orgies, human sacrifices, yadda, yadda, yadda.
And so the mere fact that both endings—victorious Aaron/despondent Moses and victorious Moses/hogtied Aaron—appear in succession suggests that the Straubs are more interested in sustaining an ongoing and unresolved argument. Their Moses and Aaron is a tension space where ideas of overt “representation” from Aaron (i.e. the Golden Calf that the Israelites worship in the film, the obsession with the Image) do battle against the more ephemeral, indescribable God that Moses professes.