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Seeking for Knowledge: Straub-Huillet's "History Lessons"

How an unconventional biopic is an education, a city tour, and an experience that tests our gaze.
History Lessons
Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s aesthetically and politically stringent History Lessons, originally screened in 1972, opens from the viewpoint of a passenger of a car whose visual horizon is circumscribed by the vehicle’s windshield. Under the flat light of midday, the car briefly travels along a daze-inducing, homogeneous kind of highway, before setting off on a meandering cruise through the nondescript, labyrinthine streets, bustling with people, of what the viewer comes to identify as urban Rome. A lengthy, unbroken shot sustains the viewer’s initial perspective. In the midst of this trip, the film abruptly cuts to a peaceful and sheltered park in which a seasoned, genial man named Mummlius Spicer airs a mixture of opinion and understanding to an attentive man who is his junior. Spicer, a weathered-faced banker, is clothed in an ancient Roman tunic. The young man, angular-jawed, sports a sharp, modern suit. The speaker recollects an arrogant and irresponsible novice lawyer named Julius Caesar, and a venal senate, unwilling to keep pace with the new way of the world. These adjacent scenes typify each dimension of History Lessons’ sui generis dual form. Through this dual form, the film not only models a notion of cinema that propels the viewer into action, that instructs rather than enthralls, but also presents a visible reality upon which the viewer’s newly critical gaze, one that takes perceptions for signs, and investigates their causes, might be tested.
The young man’s meeting with the banker sets in motion an ambivalent, mosaic-like biography of Caesar, which the film stages as a fictional chronicle of inquiries of men who knew or whose lives were contemporaneous with the eventual Roman dictator. This narrative is an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s unfinished novel The Business Affairs of Mr. Julius Caesar. While it comes to illustrate the ambitions and talents of Caesar which prefigure his future rule of the Roman Republic, it’s far from an hagiography. Caesar’s actions tend to recede from the queries’ purviews, which amount instead to conflicting judgments of the Republic’s political and economic tensions. That Caesar is referred to only as “C” highlights this demystifying attitude.
The string of inquiries is a mere hint of a story: The queries’ impetus is not advanced, the young man’s identity is never disclosed, and that of his interlocutors is ascertained incidentally. This austere story form functions to direct the viewer’s attention towards the substance of speech as oral history. Yet due to the narrative’s slim exposition, it’s worth noting a decisive political antagonism of the period it recollects: namely, that between the popularis, a group of political actors representing the common people, and the optimates, a group which included senators, who acted according to the interests of the patricians, or rather the oligarchy. Caesar, of patrician progeny, was nonetheless ostensibly a member of the popularis.
After listening to the banker’s recollections, the young man solicits the views of a soldier. The men meet by the ruins of a watermill settled in a mountain valley befitting a postcard. Among the opinions the lanky, obliging soldier imparts is his judgment of a law that dictates the sale of grain at a subsidized price to the poor, a class in which he is included. As a city dweller, he says, access to cheap grain is helpful. On the other hand, he adds, the law is detrimental to the small farmer—a way of life the soldier hopes to have—because it compels him to sell his grain at a low price. The soldier’s internally contradictory outlook reflects how the Roman social order artificially separates, and therefore puts at odds, the common people.
The young man’s queries of a pretentious lawyer and a cynical writer, detail the film’s insolubly conflicting portrait of Caesar. The lawyer, Caesar’s peer, praises the man’s efforts to democratize the Roman public sphere. By contrast, the writer voices his belief that Caesar’s political deeds served the bankers, rather than the common people. The inquiries conducted by the young man sum up to a judgment of Caesar as a politician spurred on as much by a desire for wealth and power as by his responsibilities as a member of the popularis.
Of the young man’s four interlocutors, the one he questions most extensively is the banker. The preeminent theme of their leisurely conversation is the advent of the needs of commerce as an influence on the Roman Republic’s acts of governance. Consider the banker’s account of Rome’s seizure of Lusitania, a territory consisting of what is now the bulk of Portugal, and a bit of Spain. Although Caesar is at the helm of this military operation, the point of the story is not to show his military brilliance. Rather, it represents the Republic’s adoption of a new military doctrine. Whereas the outcome of the Republic’s forceful annexations had once been a devastated land and people, in its seizure of Lusitania the Republic remained friendly with its ruling class. By preserving Lusitania’s commercial vitality, Rome was able to reap the territory’s debt of defeat. During this operation Rome also forcibly displaced Lusitanian peasants and subjected them to the land’s ruling class, thus amplifying the territory’s economic power.
The discordant découpage of this dimension of History Lessons yields a distinctly modern aesthetic enjoyment. Highly asymmetric framings, a preponderance of low- and high-angle shots, compositions that skew traditional cinematic perspective, and a rhythm that is irregular, and occasionally jarring: these qualities define the fiction’s dissonant style, a style that, at times, can leave the viewer agitated.
We know that fiction films are semblances. Yet, regardless of the cause, they seduce us into joyfully repressing their identities as mere appearances. Take this proposition not as a moral judgment, but rather as a dispassionate description of fiction films’ power. Resisting this power, History Lessons’ formal dimension that consists of a fiction impedes the viewer’s ability to gratifyingly subdue their perception of the fiction as likeness. How? For one, whereas each of his interlocutors are clothed in ancient Roman tunics, the young man is wearing a modern suit. For another, due to Straub and Huillet’s typical use of direct sound, the recognizable din of a modern city obstructs the judgment of settings as if they were Rome circa the time of Julius Caesar. Despite their suspicion of semblance, the filmmakers cannot justly be identified as Debordian iconoclasts. Rather, as their work testifies, they are acolytes of the cinematic reproduction of visible reality’s sanctity. Thus the backdrop against which the young man questions the soldier is the ruin rather than the simulation of a watermill—another instance of the fiction affirming its identity as mere appearance.
History Lessons unevenly alternates between the unorthodox biography of Caesar and the aimless tour through urban Rome. In terms of this dual form, the young man is a Hermes-like figure, in that he is both a character in the fiction and the mute driver of the car. What is it like for the viewer to see from the viewpoint of the vehicle’s passenger? The glimpse distinguishes this technologically-extended way of seeing, and it is one abundant with phenomena. This perspective also fosters a synoptic understanding of the urban space the car traverses. What might the viewer observe on the cruise? The car passes by anonymous facades, travels down streets at times lined with shops, at others with residences, and circles an open market. Overall, it is a prosaic image of the cityscape, which is conspicuous given Rome’s ample supply of landmarks. In the midst of the tour, the viewer might also note streets densely lined with vehicles. Not unrelatedly, the ride advances in fits and starts, as it is occasionally impeded by idling cars, and heedless pedestrians. However, the signs of life the viewer might see cannot be encapsulated by the vocabulary of urban planning. More faithfully, it can be said that the streets are noisy with people. The car’s route takes it past children playing, and folks congregating and crowding, laboring and lounging. Of the people who walk, the viewer might conjecture that some have a destination in mind, others are merely drifting about. The tour, then, is a vibrant reflection of social rather than intimate life.
In this dimension of the film, as in its counterpart, the young man is in action. That is, as the driver, he is in control of the car. By contrast, the car’s passenger, whose perspective the viewer shares, occupies a passive position. Yet this is an illusory passivity, illusory because from this perspective the viewer is free to look and to think. And the critical lessons and ethos of the film’s fictional dimension persist, like an afterimage, during the minor tour of Rome’s cityscape in order to instruct these faculties. Equipped with a refined gaze, the viewer might see the city’s layout not as a benign backdrop of urban life, withdrawing from habitual consciousness, but rather as an effect of contestable political and economic forces. Or they might find an unpunctual notion of the city’s temporality in the tension between its narrow streets, built before the automotive age, and the parked cars massed along their sides. For this notion, a place’s temporality is an accretion of eras, uneasily, or perhaps seismically, stratified. Looking further, the viewer might envision in the cruise’s display of an amorphous image of city life a figure of life precariously in surplus of social determinations, determinations by the names of “worker,” “consumer,” “citizen,” and “other.”
The section of Straub and Huillet’s recently published Writings entitled “On The Business Affairs of Mr. Julius Caesar” comprises Straub’s citations of Klaus Völker’s not-quite-biography of Brecht. In one of these excerpts, Brecht laments: “Terrible to read Shelley’s poems (not to speak of Egyptian peasant songs of three thousand years ago!) in which he deplores suppression and exploitation! Are we going to be read so, by others who are still suppressed and exploited, and will say: even then…?” History Lessons’ abruptly arriving, nigh apocalyptic coda reads as an expression of hope that such a wretched state of affairs will not be eternal. This end consists of a view of a fountain distinguished by a face imparting a look of stunned awe, which is accompanied by a climactic moment from Bach’s Saint Matthew’s Passion. In this moment of the song the chorus sings, “Open your fiery pit, oh Hell. Wreck, ruin, engulf, shatter with sudden force the false betrayer, the murderous blood!” This can be understood as a call for a Judgment Day, on which exploiters and subjugators such as the optimates, but also Caesar, will be punished. The portion of Bach’s piece ends as suddenly as it began, leaving only the sound of water trickling out of the fountain’s mouth. In this prolongation of the shot, deprived of superimposed sense, is an equivocation of the coda’s expression of hope—an equivocation that might imply that it is far from certain there will be a world in which a viewer of History Lessons is not compelled to say “even then.”   
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History Lessons is included in a travelling retrospective of the filmmakers' work entitled "Not Reconciled: The Films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet," hosted by the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, Canada beginning March 3, 2017.

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