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A Straub-Huillet Companion: "Not Reconciled, Or Only Violence Helps Where Violence Rules"

Quotes from interviews, criticism, and articles elucidate Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet's searing 1965 drama.
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 Not Reconciled, Or Only Violence Helps Where Violence Rules (1965) is showing on MUBI from May 8 – June 6, 2019.
Critics have often noted Straub/Huillet's preference for diagonals, for instance, but have underestimated the aesthetic and thematic significance of the contrast with more symmetrical composition. Scenes in Not Reconciled involving the characters' inability to reconcile past and present are most often shot in diagonals. In addition to making a simple set “vibrate with life,” Straub/Huillet's diagonal shots keep the viewer from relaxing at the point of a perspective triangle in relation to the screen. In this way they are able to vary the sense of narrative space inherent in all three-dimensional pictorial representations. Not only is the viewer not at rest as the subject for whom the composition is created but the composition itself, devoid of a vanishing point or balanced perspective focus, contains lines of visual interest that come back into the frame rather than seek to escape to another triangular point opposite the viewer on the other side. The restlessness thus created makes it possible for the viewer to feel a new sensation when, for a good thematic reason, balanced perspective returns.
—Barton Byg, Landscapes of Resistance, 1995, pp. 114-115
[Straub and Huillet] never enjoyed success (a little perhaps with The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, 1967), but [their] films have often frightened some. This way of taking on cinema without compromise—body and soul—is simply too distant from the soft communication theories and systematic audience targeting that are talked about in the world of show business. Too hard, too simple. On top of that, the Straubs have had the malice never to present their work as "marginal" but—it’s a nuance—as minority. They are not even in a ghetto, but from where they are, they hold on to cinema like Ariadne’s thread. 
—Serge Daney, “The Straubs,” Libération, 1984. (Translated from French by Laurent Kretzschmar and Andy Rector.)
 [A] sudden burst of newsreel images confronts us not with the iconography of the Second World War, but the First, with its rifles and Pickelhaube helmets. [...] Rather than present Nazi Germany as an isolated, alien system – one that could be easily disassociated from, including by the many former Party members turned democratic powerbrokers – Huillet and Straub depict it as one manifestation in a continuing history of militaristic nationalism.
—David Heslin, “Blowing Up the Past,” Senses of Cinema, issue 84
“The revolution is like God’s grace, it has to be made anew each day, it becomes new every day, a revolution is not made once and for all. And it’s exactly like that in daily life. There is no division between politics and life, art and politics. I think one has no other choice, if one is making films that can stand on their own feet, they must become documentary, or in any case they must have documentary roots. Everything must be correct, and only from then on can one rise above, reach higher.” 
—Jean-Marie Straub, quoted by Martin Walsh, “Political Formations in the Cinema of Jean-Marie Straub,” Jump Cut, no. 4, 1974, pp. 12-18
Photo: Digne Meller Marcovicz.
Not Reconciled caused a scandal at the Berlinale when it was premiered at an unofficial screening during the festival in early 1965. One German critic called it the ‘worst film since 1895.’
—Ted Fendt, “Dividing Lines,” Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, 2016, p. 185 
“As a Marxist, Straub is determined to undercut the traditional ideals of authorship and individual genius. There’s no creativity in a vacuum for Straub and his fellow materialist filmmakers: art is produced by the interaction of historical and personal forces, and Straub emphasizes the point by selecting sources or subjects that seem purposefully irrelevant to his political concerns. Out of the collision of Straub and Bach, of Straub and Schoenberg, the artist looks for a fruitful synthesis.
[He] is less interested in an artistic reflection of reality than [...] in the creation of an interior reality. There’s little for the spectator to grab hold of on the first viewing. The films create their own, individual systems of meaning, and those systems sometimes become apparent only after the film is over. Straub’s films are best seen once, thought about, and then seen again—the pleasure of his work is often an intellectual one, and often it is delayed.”
—Dave Kehr, “Moses and Aaron,” Movies That Mattered, 2018, p. 85
“Q: I’ve noticed that in your films you usually start from, and elaborate your own discourse about, an existing work of art - Böll, Corneille, the music of Bach.

A: Very often it is a critique. I mean, I take texts which I respect, but at the same time, with the Böll for example, there was a respect, but I chopped the text about a lot and it was presented for people to judge.”
—Excerpt from “After ‘Othon’, before ‘History Lessons’: Geoffrey Nowell-Smith talks to Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet,” in Enthusiasm no.1, 1975, p.26
Similarly, apropos of Not Reconciled, Richard Roud argues that nearly everybody is baffled by the shot continuity. I disagree. It’s not that the Straubs deceive us. What is original in their style is authenticity, not anti-conventionality. [...] In Not Reconciled, the Straubs’ découpage is traditional; they simply leave out everything except the magic moments. If we are baffled during either movie, it is not because of the Straubs’ choices. It is because we are not taking in the characters’ emotions as they perform their skits.
—Tag Gallagher, “Lacrimae Rerum Materialized,” Senses of Cinema, issue 37. (Available here.)
The least that can be said to explain why the films of Straub and Huillet are so important is that they embody the most rigorous practice in cinema of playing fair with one's materials: texts, actors, elements, landscapes, buildings. That means: letting the living live, letting what once lived, speak. What once lived: what was once intended, what was once thought within a network of links with its own time and with the more or less distant past (the connections from Brecht to Caesar, from Hölderlin to Empedocles, from Pavese to the ancient gods of Italy, from Schönberg to Moses and Aaron). Letting what once lived, speak and appear, somewhere. People and things may not be in their place, but they are in a place. [...] In Not Reconciled (1965), it's already clear, this attitude, or discipline, that makes it happen that the filmmakers place themselves in front of people, in the midst of reality, in such a way that people and reality do not give up to the camera. The people are always looking out of the frame, they are always escaping, out of allegiance to this system that Straub-Huillet's Brechtian cinema constructs and displays, whereby the actor remains in his/her own skin even while adopting the garb of another: without claiming, falsely, to be at home in this garb. (No pretended intimacy in their films, no false traffic with the inner life of people; what is discussed is public life, politics, work, genetic life, the activity of peoples and races....) What Straub-Huillet add to Brecht is cinema: the route through the real or the escape of the real through the real, at the moment of being filmed.
—Chris Fujiwara, “Resistance,” FIRPRESCI Undercurrent, issue 3, 2006 
Moviemaking [in the 1970s] divides into two main bodies of work: (1) the genre films that are so public a hermit couldn’t escape the omnipresent Nashville-Jaws hype; and (2), a less observed film (Death by Hanging, Not Reconciled, et al.) that leans heavily on the traits of other artforms, is strongly concerned with structure, and taxes the brain with motivations and ideas well worth the dredging it takes to find them.
—Patricia Patterson and Manny Farber, “Werner Herzog,” Farber on Film, 1975, p. 711 
This last part is not a surprise: every Straubfilm is an examination – archeological, geological, ethnographic, military as well – of a situation in which men have resisted.
—Serge Daney, “Une Morale de la Perception (De la nuée à la résistance de Straub-Huillet),” La Rampe. Cahier critique 1970-1982’ (Translation from French by Stoffel Debuysere.)
That’s why this idea of resistance is at this point essential for the Straubs. It also has a conjuratory value: resistance is the only indication that doesn’t deceive, that attests to some reality or other, to a node of contradictions. It is, in the Freudian sense, a symptom. Where there is resistance, one has to film. But one doesn’t know what one films and the more one can describe it, the less one knows. In the true inscription, there are only traces of inscription of which we are sure of. The rest is metamorphosis, avatar, double identity and double appertaining, error, betrayal.
—Serge Daney, ibid 
Straub has traced the original impulse of Not Reconciled back to his curiosity concerning what had become of his French friends who had fought in Algeria.
—Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Not Reconciled,” Monthly Film Bulletin, March 1976, vol. 43, no. 506 
“We must stop saying that sabotage is wrong, that it doesn't pay. It does pay! It makes us suffer, starve, and die. But, though it increases our misery, it will shorten our slavery.”
—Charles Laughton in This Land is Mine (Jean Renoir, 1943)
“Q: In one of your earlier films, the Böll adaptation Not Reconciled, the subtitle is Only Violence Helps Where Violence Rules. For me, that is a male saying that also determines politics, armament politics, for example. The ideology that we must make weapons because the enemy is making weapons, so only violence helps against violence...
A: I'll interrupt only to say that "violence" is not only violence with weapons. A strike is also a form of violence. Let's take a utopia, the biggest utopia there is: that suddenly every intellectual, women and men, would go on strike and this shit society would collapse. That would also be a form of violence that would essentially be bigger than every possible form of it.”
—Danièle Huillet in conversation with Helge Heberle and Monika Funke Stern, 1982. (Available here.)
These instances of [varied] duration which strike the viewer, by either being too short or too long, highlight a concern with the cinematographic sculpturing of time which had already been evident in Straub/Huillet's previous work. In Not Reconciled, their adaptation of Heinrich Böll's novel Hauptstadtisches Journal, Straub/Huillet had presented the period of the Third Reich and post-war Germany through a complex structure of unmarked flashbacks. By eliminating cues that signal the film's repeated shifts of levels of time, Straub/Huillet render highly problematic the integration of the narrative events into a historical continuum. Past and present are made to merge, and the flow of time itself is frozen into simultaneity and stasis. Time has literally stood still in the representation of a society in which the Fascist past lives on under a democratic veneer. The temporal structure which Straub/Huillet create in Not Reconciled thus enacts rather than merely conveys the central theme of the film. In a congratulatory letter, the composer Stockhausen acknowledged this “composition of time, which is - as it is to music - particular to film,” as one of the most salient features of Not Reconciled.
—Ursula Böser, The Art of Seeing, The Art of Listening: The Politics of Form in the Works of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, 1999, p. 34
“At the time of its release, Straub described his film, which covers several decades of a Cologne family during and after the Nazi era, as follows: “Far from being a puzzle film (like Citizen Kane or Muriel), Not Reconciled is better described as a 'lacunary film,' in the same sense that Littre defines a lacunary body: a whole composed of agglomerated crystals with intervals among them, like the interstitial spaces between the cells of an organism.” 

Stated differently, a seeming narrative discontinuity of time, space, and even identity is superseded by an underlying continuity of mood and feeling that belongs to what might be described as a public and political consciousness in Not Reconciled and a private and personal consciousness in Horse Money [...]
—Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Historical Present: On Pedro Costa’s Horse Money”, Artforum, June 2015
Besides the fact that Straub thinks it is boring to film people who just move around without at the same time recording the sound [i.e. as direct sound -ed], it is a matter of honesty for him.
—Andi Engel, “Jean-Marie Straub,” Second Wave: Newer Than New Wave Names in World Cinema, 1970. (Available here.) 
There is no film without images — but there are no films from us (and some others) without sounds...
—Partial inscription on the back of a postcard from “Danièle Straub-Huillet,” to Jonathan Rosenbaum and three other critics, 1976
[In the Adenauer years] realism became the order of the day, at least among those who wanted the Federal Republic to be something other than the German Reich of the National Socialists - those ready for a new departure, from all parts of the political spectrum. But what was that: realism? It proved impossible to find a widely accepted consensus. It is clear, however, what fed this need: on the one hand, the war experiences of many artists which made them skeptical of any frills and finery, on the other hand a deep-rooted mistrust of an emphasised rebelliousness. There was a striving for a poetry of austerity, clarity, stringence, which could mean a great deal - the spectrum ranges from the dark and dreamy poems and radio plays of Günter Eich to the carefully compassionate prose of Heinrich Böll [...] “Inexact” is what [Böll] called West Germany in 1960 in his essay Hierzulande - inasmuch as it never accorded with what one expected.
—Olaf Möller, “Adenauer Country,” Beloved and Rejected: Cinema in the Young Federal Republic of Germany from 1949-1963, 2016
Thinkers like Adorno and Arendt tended to approach Nazism through the lens of philosophy. They accepted Nazi self-assertions of “totalitarianism”; that a total, unified society was bound together through identification with party and leader, that all was driven through a Volksgemeinschaft (national community, or the consciousness of being part of an “authentic” national community). The reality was considerably messier. Adorno’s colleague Franz Neumann considered the same questions from the vantages of political economy and law. Far from “state capitalism,” where the profit motive is eliminated and production is under the complete control of the state, Neumann noted that under Nazism, business — especially large corporate interests — was given extraordinary leeway. They did not have perfect free rein, but large business interests were relieved of many previous social democratic restrictions. Independent labor organizations were crushed, and business was allowed to coagulate into massive, profit-generating monopolies as long as it produced the necessary goods and services the party and the army required.
The closer Neumann looked at the day-to-day operations of Nazism, the less convinced he was that one could call Nazi Germany a “state” in any traditional sense of the word. Along with his fellow Frankfurt School colleague Otto Kirchheimer, they noted that power, authority, and responsibility were not, as propaganda would have it, bound up entirely in the person of the Leader, but rather were confusingly diffuse throughout a disjointed and irrational system. Everyone (that is everyone included within the national-racial community) was to fall in line or develop themselves through Führerprinzip into autonomous self-starters, entrepreneurs, and pioneers of the national spirit in whatever sector they worked. Even as a rump state maintained the appearance of a heavy bureaucracy, with a great deal of actual organization still left to technocrats, industry was given wide berth. Society was dominated by myriad (in the parlance of our time) “thought-leaders” with overlapping and competing fiefdoms. The party itself maintained personnel connections within nearly every sector, and its own areas of control, particularly over racial questions — the sine qua non of Nazism.
—Ajay Singh Chaudary and Raphaële Chappe, "The Supermanagerial Reich," Los Angeles Review of Books, 2016. (Available here.)
 “The fact which interested me was to make a film about Nazism without mentioning the word Hitler or concentration camps and such things that a middle-class family did not suspect or want to suspect.”
—Jean-Marie Straub, from “Interview with Straub” by Andi Engel, Cinemantics no. 1, 1970, p. 19
This beloved “human interest” of theirs, this How (usually dignified by the word “eternal,” like some indelible dye) applied to the Othellos (my wife belongs to me!), the Hamlets (better sleep on it!), the Macbeths (I’m destined for higher things!), etc. If one insists on having it, this is the only form in which it can be had; simply to insist is vulgar. What once determined the grandeur of such passions, their non-vulgarity, was the part they had to play in society, which was a revolutionary one. Even the impact which [Battleship Potemkin] made on such people springs from the sense of outrage which they would feel if their wives were to try to serve bad meat to them (I won’t stand it, I tell you!), while Chaplin is perfectly aware that he must be ‘human’, i.e. vulgar, if he is to achieve anything more, and to this end will alter his style in a pretty unscrupulous way (viz. the famous close-up of the doggy look which concludes City Lights).
—Bertolt Brecht, Brecht on Theatre, 1964, pp. 48-49
"The most interesting thing about me is my date of birth: 1 May 1936.”
—a belated tribute to Danièle Huillet, only a few days after what would have been her 83rd birthday. Solidary forever. (From the shooting of Moses and Aaron [1975].)


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