A Documentary Reality: Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub’s “The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach”
No moment in the oeuvre of the late Danièle Huillet and her life and filmmaking partner Jean-Marie Straub matches the sense of ecstatic triumph of one scene in their 1968 The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, which opens in a new restoration at New York’s Quad Cinema March 2nd. Shot from a slightly tilted angle, it depicts Johann Sebastian Bach (Gustav Leonhardt) playing a clavier — a precursor to the harpsichord — in front of a torch with one hand while conducting an off-screen orchestra and turning his sheet music’s pages with the other. The scene takes place at night, and unlike the many other performance scenes in Chronicle, one suspects that the actor is “hand-synching” to a recording. Nevertheless, it brings out the optimism of Bach’s music and a sense that, at the time, he was on top of the world.
New Yorker critic Richard Brody wrote, “For [Yvonne] Rainer, drama and story aren’t innocent, and the very concept of a story and the way it’s told is political.” The same thing is true to an even greater extent of Straub and Huillet’s attitude towards their work. At the peak of the counterculture, this view of an inseparable mixture of politics and aesthetics led them to stances that now seem like odd excesses of radical chic. In 1971, Straub said that the negative of Elio Petri’s leftist but formally conventional The Working Class Goes to Heaven should be burned. At the time of the release of Chronicle, he dedicated it to the struggle of the North Vietnamese people, even though its only overt political content is a depiction of the ups and downs of Bach’s relationship with the state that commissioned most of his music. If the film were shown to North Vietnamese audiences in the late 1960s, many of them might like it, but they would have to be deeply immersed in the European critical discourse of the time to sense what’s political about it. At the time, many leftist critics who followed Cahiers du Cinéma pit directors like Straub-Huillet, Jean-Luc Godard (then working in partnership with Jean-Pierre Gorin), Philippe Garrel, and Jacques Rivette, whose work tried to combine formal and political radicalism but often emphasized more of the former against the equally politically minded but more melodramatic or genre-oriented works of Petri, Costa-Gavras, Francesco Rosi, and Ken Loach.
Straub and Huillet’s style mixed Robert Bresson and Bertolt Brecht. Acting is far less important to Chronicle than the vast majority of their films, because 90% of it simply consists of Bach performing music (if the “anti-biopic” has become a genre of its own, this is an “anti-musical” or at least an avant-garde one). However, their direction of actors, particularly the way they deliver dialogue, took Bresson’s use of non-professionals as “models” doing un-flashy performances, a step further. The cast in Straub-Huillet films simply enunciates dialogue in a plain, even zombie-like tone. The voice-over in the version of Chronicle released in America is in English, delivered by actress Gisela Hume as Anna Magdalena Bach, but she mumbles quickly with a heavy German accent, making its content hard to make out at times.
Chronicle has points of contact with the films Roberto Rossellini was making for Italian TV around the same time, which made a similar use of non-professional actors and took a Brechtian aesthetic to the biopic. Straub described it as “almost entirely a documentary reality.” As odd as that may be to say about a period piece made centuries after the events it depicts, it actually makes sense. The directors went to great lengths to bring the utmost authenticity to their film. Leonhardt was a real musician, and he and all the other players onscreen were recorded genuinely performing. In many films about pianists, the camera suddenly focuses on their hands in close-ups during concert scenes, leaving their faces offscreen to conceal the fact that the actor can’t really play the instrument and a double is filling in for the scene. Not so for Chronicle: Leonhardt is obviously playing keyboards in every scene, with his full body shown. The period clothes are authentic, as are the instruments used in the film. The locations are ones Bach really worked in.
For most of their partnership, adaptation was an obsession for Straub and Huillet, and they expected their audience to put in work to understand their films. Their first major film, Not Reconciled (1965), has a deliberately choppy narrative that makes little sense unless one is familiar with its source novel, Heinrich Böll’s 1959 Billiards at Half-Past Nine. After Chronicle, their best-known films are probably Moses and Aaron (1975), Class Relations (1984) and Sicilia! (1999). If Chronicle, Class Relations (based on Franz Kafka’s novel Amerika) and Sicilia! (based on Elio Vittorini’s novel Conversations in Sicily) are the couple’s most accessible films, this stems in part from the fairly direct appeal of their source materials.
In Chronicle, Anna Magdalena’s letters detailing her husband’s life are the origin of Straub and Huillet’s adaptation, but Bach’s music overpowers them. It’s a narrative film, telling the life of Bach from youth to death, but that’s not the way it comes across. After all, as Straub said, it’s only 1/17 fiction; the rest is simply music performances. They’re filmed as plainly as possible, almost always in static long takes. The scenes where Leonhardt speaks are the weakest parts of Chronicle. At their worst, defenders of the couple have reduced their work to an idea of “resistance” grounded in a dated European modernism. Nevertheless, it has a life of its own that still breathes and seems vital, and this re-release of Chronicle is proof.
The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach opens March 2nd at the Quad Cinema in New York City.