The Beginning of History: "Class Relations"

A new translation of writer-critic Louis Seguin's 1984 article on Straub-Huillet's _Class Relations_, screening May 1 at BAM in New York.
Ted Fendt

On the occasion of BAM's screening of Straub-Huillet's Class Relations on May 1 for International Workers' Day, a text on the film by infrequently translated French writer-critic Louis Seguin.


Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet are afraid of nothing. To use as a title, in 1984, for an adaptation of Amerika, those “class relations” whose conception figures so prominently in The German Ideology is tantamount to either obliviousness or provocation. There’s nothing more absurd or more obsolete than being stuck in the past with these rapprochements that were already out of fashion ten years ago. Is it not understood, within the very small world of film criticism, that Marx—once more but for good, for the last time—is definitively forgotten, buried, and that any allusion, any reference to him will only provoke one of those smiles mixing the respect we owe saints of the recent past and the pitiable irony such vain perseverance calls forth?

Where are they coming from, then, Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub? Do they not see that they’re creating a disturbance? That their idea of bringing together Marx and Kafka can only bring back angry memories? It was in the name of Marxism-Leninism, over thirty years ago, that the Stalinists—the future “liberal” of the Central Committee, [Jean] Kanapa, in the first row of the squadron—opened “fire” on this “decadence” that the anxiety of The Trial and The Castle illustrated in such an exemplary fashion. What’s the point of stirring up cold ashes, even in order to light a counter-fire? Haven’t we already said enough? Why deliberately put oneself in the really difficult situation of the unwelcome archaeologist, the tiresome mouthpiece of old-fashioned sayings? Nothing more annoying than this obstinacy, more diabolical than this perseverance, more boring than this will to repeat—in the face of all liquidation, in the face of the rampant dogmatism about correct usage—that we aren’t quite finished with classes and that it is still necessary to take account of their “relations,” if not—the one following the other—of their “struggle.” Does Kafka really have everything to lose to this confrontation?

Something, effectively, disappears in Class Relations. It is the evidence of this fog into which “readings” of Kafka necessarily sink, this murky, indecisive, “absurd,” “Kafkian” universe. There's no longer a question of passing through the tunnel of “existential” condescension. Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet have finished with that “surveying of a divinity devoid of surface,” that Camus talks about at the end of The Myth of Sisyphus.1 They voluntarily deprive themselves of all the resources of morality and psychology. They efface the traces of that “cheap metaphysics” that we so easily attach to stories and languages. They deflate, finally, that “religious inspiration” in which Camus, again, saw a sign of “universality”—that residue of an “idealism” that has run out of arguments and is short on ideas. The Kafka of Straub and Huillet is a Kafka without house or home, deprived of the ordinary markers of recognition, aimed at the very material of the book, threatened by the obstinate outpouring of their reasoning, as if taken in turn by the excessive panic of the closing arguments.

Class Relations does not forget any argument of the procedure when it cuts out and summarizes. The chapters are in order and none are missing. There’s the Stoker, the Uncle, the Villa outside of New York, the March to Ramses, the Hotel Occidental, the Visit to Brunelda and the Theater of Oklahoma. But this scrupulous reconstruction is accompanied by a double “betrayal,” a double negation of the overly-written Laws of literary customs.

It is difficult to recognize that everything comes from Kafka for two reasons. The first—and most obvious—is the deliberate absence of any ornamentation. The restaurant of the Hotel Occidental is emptied of its “noisy crowd,” of its buffet that takes up “the length of the room” and the running about of its “numerous waiters."2 No extras, no luxury and no swarms of people. The film is also missing the race course in Clayton with its “long low stage, on which a hundred women dressed as angels in white cloths, with great wings on their backs were blowing into golden trumpets.”3 No more tableaux vivants and no more fanfare. Nothing that may recall Busby Berkeley, Welles or Fellini.

These disappearances can easily be attributed to the constraints of a tight budget but that pretext is insufficient. The satisfaction of its certainty ignores the detours of its perversity. Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub secretly take up the spectacle they have refused. They have nothing to do with a Coppola or Leone-esque picturesqueness, they film New York and New Jersey in Hamburg and dress their actors in perfectly anachronistic costumes but they travel to film the Statue of Liberty, while they could have found the shot in any cinématheque, and hold on an anonymous and unidentifiable Missouri River that any other river could have stood in for.

The second reason that is opposed to the renewal of stereotypes is this reserve in the direction of the actors that is maintained against all expectations. There is no trace, in Class Relations, of the hysteria and gesticulation that is the inevitable mark of every Kafka adaptation. The actors are always perfectly still, almost immobile, caught in a relaxed state that excludes rigidity as much as apathy, their arms hanging at their sides, their hands open in a kind of original availability, at the almost undetectable border between inertia and movement. Gestures sink into a quasi-Eleatic uncertainty, as if hypnotized by the impossible invention of their displacement.

And then, when this tension is finally released—when an arm bends, when a mouth opens, and when a foot is lifted—the simplicity and justness of the journeys and the signals are even grander than anything that had until then come to disrupt the silence and expectation. There was nothing that allowed the symptom to be foreseen or anticipated. The gestures are encumbered by neither realism nor psychology nor that vulgarity of meaning where realism finds the confirmation of its prejudices. These gestures don’t exclude—as En râchâchant has already shown—excess or slapstick when Delamarche and Robinson combine their little scams or when the bouncing gait of a helmeted Keystone Cop from Max Sennett’s glory days is brought back to life, but they are included in a paradoxical mise en scène—at once urgent and libertarian—that circumvents the comforts of abstraction just as much as the redundancies of naturalness.

Now—and it is here, precisely, that Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s provocation intervenes—the coherence of this aesthetic, the very necessity of its intelligence, is traversed, defined, organized by a strategy. The confrontations where the Uncle and the Nephew, the Captain and the Sailor, the Workers and the Vagabonds, the Servants and the Bosses, the Employees and the Employers clash, this continual and multifaceted conflict—all of this talks about what can only, effectively, create a scandal. Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub bring back onstage those “classes” whose “struggle” must never (we’ve been told again and again) be forgotten but whose conception has never ceased to be a problem for Marxist “theory” either.

If there is, in effect, Marxism here, it is not in order to prescribe a “reading” of Kafka that would be more radical and more complete since it would include every other “reading” in advance but, to the contrary, in order to demonstrate an uncertainty. The Marx of “Klassenverhältnisse”—this young, 28 year old man who doesn’t hesitate in writing this blasphemous statement, at the beginning of The German Ideology: “Hitherto men have always formed wrong ideas about themselves, about what they are and what they ought to be”4—is much more occupied with tearing down this illusion than opposing it with a truth, a spare humanism. He sets to work this “practical-critical activity,”5 this review, staging, that he reproaches Feuerbach so strongly for neither having known or wanted to develop. He attacks, in order to take it up again, the Hegelian novel. He opens up one thought to another.

Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s film is also projected, literally, in this uncertain space where concepts slip away, where time is suspended, where it is wedged between the medieval-Hegelian “state” (Stand) and this “class” (Klasse) whose antagonism has been described by David Ricardo’s “heroic abstractions,” but where the effects of a “social law of nature”6 are still visible. A fragile, suspended, precarious moment where “eternity” sways back and forth over time; it is not yet the torrent of the “struggle” (Kampf) nor the rush of “movement” (Bewegung) but the fleeting, boundless, quasi-Mallarméan instant of the “relation” (Verhältnis) where people and morals stand out and transform, where these neighboring relations, the “social relations,” are agglomerated and organized “together.”

There’s still no question of recognizing in the distance or even perceiving this “end of history” where work and its divisions are supposed to be lost. The “relations” have no hopes; they don’t predetermine any future harmony. They don’t come out of their precariousness. They are always watching for a beginning, observing what appears when the “state” is effaced before “class,” what is outlined when the “conditioning” of people by the “relations” is illuminated. Class Relations speaks about this time where everything, in a certain manner, ends, but where everything also begins, with a kind of sad insight. Dawn, [François] Moisson says in Jean Renoir’s La Marseillaise (and he would know since he’s a painter) has nothing enchanting about it; it’s cold and the colors are imprecise.

“Class relations”—this new and implacable condition where people are suddenly deprived of their eternity, where they are abandoned to their fears without recourse, where they have to invent their words and gestures little by little—are also, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet prove, a matter of lighting. Their film is bathed in a cold sparkling glow whose reflection flickers at regular intervals when a long camera movement tracks along the front of a building or lights up the overly-polished surfaces of desks, doors, walls and counters. Light no longer has a place. It blends together ages and seasons, days and nights, streets and bedrooms, parks and hallways in this icy phosphorescence that Murnau and Dreyer’s films developed long ago. It no longer describes and underlines even less what it reveals. It no longer has anything to do with “expression.”

The space it discovers poses rules of an unbelievable geometry that escapes the rules of juxtaposition as well as the mathematics of surveying. Nothing sticks. Each shot is an enclosed world, closed in on its own precariousness. Karl and the Stoker, at the beginning, are admitted into the commander of the ship’s quarters but they remain stuck to the door they’ve closed behind them. The reverse shot only appears much later, when it is not expected, deepening, again by surprise, the violent space of power and then immediately enlarging, with the Uncle’s intervention, the domain of his authority. The spectacle never allows us to anticipate its limits. It persists in thwarting in advance the charms and traps of its geography. Class Relations, from this perspective, rediscovers the erratic country Raúl Ruiz showed in The Territory.

Class Relations paints a picture of loss and conquest. Its phantasmatic America, both true and false, torn between the real and the imaginary, does not cease to widen and contract—as if the rhythm of its spasmodic respiration was married to Karl Rossmann’s constantly affirmed and constantly disappointed need for justice—between the park and the villa, the bridges, the harbor, the offices, the staircases, the bedrooms, Brunelda’s sofa, the balcony where the young man hears about “politics” for the first time, and that river, in the very long final shot, whose meanderings and escapes offer not signs but the aleatory area of utopia. Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub do everything so that we can’t recognize them in their Amerika but they also allow us to find our way.

1. Camus, Albert, The Myth of Sisyphus, Trans. Justin O’Brien (New York: First Vintage International Edition, 1991), 135.

2. Kafka, Franz, Amerika: The Man Who Disappeared, Trans. Michael Hofman (New York: New Directions Books, 2002), 78.

3. Ibid. 203.

4. Marx, Karl, The German Ideology, (New York: Prometheus Books, 1998), 29.

5. Ibid. 572.

6. Marx, Karl, Capital Volume I, Trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin, 1976) 96.


This text originally appeared in French in Aux distraitement désespérés que nous sommes..., published by the Petite Bibilothèque des Cahiers du cinèma in 2007.


Class RelationsStraub-HuilletJean-Marie StraubRaúl RuizFranz KafkaAmerikaDanièle HuilletTranslations
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