Jean-Marie Straub, uncompromising filmmaker, dead at 89

Jean-Marie Straub, an acclaimed French New Wave filmmaker who sparked critical debate with films he made with his wife Danièle Huillet and which were known for their aggressively cerebral themes, Marxist leanings and anti-commercial sensibilities, died Sunday in his House in Rolle, Switzerland. He was 89.

The Swiss National Film Archive announced his death.

‘The Straubs’, as they were often called (although they preferred Straub-Huillet as a professional nickname), emerged in the 1950s from the same circle of revolutionary French filmmakers as Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, a friend through the years lived near Rolle until his death in September.

New Wave directors upended filmmaking conventions, channeling their cinephile theories into author-driven works that reflected the anti-authoritarian sentiments of post-war France. Mr. Straub and Ms. Huillet took the same impulses in a more radical direction, eschewing traditional storytelling techniques and structures to create a form of ideologically driven film that proudly defies basic entertainment standards.

Her 1981 documentary Too Early, Too Late, for example showed Ms Huillet, in voiceover, reading from a letter written by Friedrich Engels to Marxist theorist Karl Kautsky on the economic despair of French peasants, while seemingly incoherent footage of locations in contemporary France played on the screen.

The source material for the films often seemed to stem from a graduate curriculum drawn from the likes of Bertolt Brecht, the novelist and literary critic Elio Vittorini, and the operas of the atonal composer Arnold Schoenberg.

Critics, film theorists, and discerning viewers held strong views of her work, which could be viewed as either poetic or boring. Her minimalist approach to editing, cinematography and acting required that “one be in a state of receptiveness so receptive it verges on brainwashing,” as Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times in his review of Class Relations, her rendition of Franz 1984, wrote Kafka’s unfinished novel America.

The film is now hailed as one of the most accessible and beautiful of the Straub-Huillet films, but Mr Canby said the actors’ listless speech sounded “as if they were giving instructions on how to put on the life jacket in the event of an unscheduled one.” landing at sea.”

For other critics, this unwavering commitment to an aesthetic was an artistic statement in itself. “Some films want to be loved,” wrote critic J. Hoberman in The New York Times of a 2016 Straub-Huillet retrospective of 45 films at the Museum of Modern Art. “Others prefer to be admired. And then there are films like those of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, which, indifferent to love or admiration, are monuments to their own integrity.”

Despite a body of work mostly limited to art-house theater and museum screenings, Mr. Straub was presented with the 2017 Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland’s Leopard of Honor Lifetime Achievement Award, an award previously given to the likes of Bernardo Bertolucci, Werner Duke and Lord Godard. (Mrs. Huillet died in 2006.) Richard Brody of The New Yorker wrote that Mr. Straub was “one of the least known of the major filmmakers – he never had a hit or sought one.”

If the audience shifted uncomfortably in their seats, so much the better. For the combative Herr Straub, filmmaking could be a revolutionary act. “If we hadn’t learned how to make films,” he once said, “I would have planted bombs.”

Born on January 8, 1933 in Metz, north-eastern France, Jean-Marie Straub was a film buff from an early age, showing an affinity for the films of Jean Renoir, Robert Bresson and Jean Grémillon.

He studied literature at the Lycée Fustel-de-Coulanges in Strasbourg and finally graduated from the University of Nancy. In the early 1950s he organized a film club in Metz to which he invited Mr Truffaut, then a provocative critic of the pioneering French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, and André Bazin, a founder of Cahiers, to discuss films. (Mr. Straub began contributing to the magazine himself.)

He met Mrs Huillet in 1954 and the couple settled in Paris, where Mr Straub began his film career as an assistant, working on films such as Mr Bresson’s A Man Escape, which was released in 1956. Two years later, to avoid conscription in the Algerian War, he fled France for West Germany. He and Mrs. Huillet married in Munich in 1959 and began a long career as foreign filmmakers, working mainly in Germany, Italy and Switzerland.

Her first short film, “Not Reconciled” (1965) was an adaptation of a novel by Heinrich Böll, which dissects the growth and legacy of National Socialism. Writer and public intellectual Susan Sontag later said the film made her want to kiss the screen.

In 1968, the couple gained international recognition for their first feature-length film, The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968), a deconstructed version of a biopic about Johann Sebastian Bach.

Set in locations in Germany where Bach actually lived and worked, the film features a sparse narrative composed of voice-over reminiscences from a fictional diary by Bach’s second wife (the text was written by the filmmakers). Musicians in historical costumes, who perform the great works of the composer, ensure a lot of action.

While the film stunned some critics of its time – AH Weiler calling it “repetitive and static screen fare” in The Times, others over time have come to regard it as a masterpiece, a work of art “whose visual rigor, determined slowness, and defiance of conventional narrative should advance a ruthless critique of the capitalist aesthetic,” as AO Scott wrote in The Times in 2018.

As their reputations grew, Mr. Straub and Ms. Huillet continued to push the boundaries over the decades. Her films From the Clouds to the Resistance (1979) and Sicilia! (1999) both premiered in the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival, a category reserved for artistically daring works.

Critics were less kind to her 1979 adaptation of “Othon,” a 17th-century French play, perhaps one day Rome will allow itself to choose.”

The film featured amateur actors, costumed as ancient Romans, barking the play’s text in an emotionally flat, fast-paced manner from the ruins of the Palatine Hill in present-day Rome, while the noise of the modern city hummed beneath them.

A utopian, Mr. Straub said he considered the target audience of “Othon” – about the political ambitions of a Roman nobleman amid demands to bring power to the people – the modern-day proletariat.

“I want workers in Paris to see ‘Othon,'” he was quoted as saying in a 1975 interview. “They were never told that Corneille was impossible to understand.”

The film, he added, “threatens not just a class but a power clique.”

This clique of power apparently included critics at the New York Film Festival in 1970, half of whom rushed to the exit during the film’s press screening.

But maybe that was the point. As Herr Straub once put it: “We make our films in such a way that the audience can leave them.”

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