Class Relations

DaniËle Huillet passed away last year and although her filmmaking partner Jean-Marie Straub announced he won’t continue making films, their legacy lives on through not-fast-enough New Yorker DVD releases (last year’s The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach and this June’s Moses and Aaron) and implicitly through the work of contemporary filmmakers like Pedro Costa and Harun Farocki. Fans of Costa’s static but lush images, nonprofessional actors, social concerns, and elliptical narration are witnessing the spirit of Straub-Huillet firsthand. As Costa tells Thom Andersen in a recent issue of Cinema Scope: “They were the fastest, the most furious, the most beautiful, sensual, ancient, modern.”

Earlier this week, the REDCAT screened Straub-Huillet’s masterful Class Relations (1984), an adaptation of Franz Kafka’s unfinished novel, Amerika (1927). Andersen–who plays a small part in the film–introduced the movie and talked about Kafka’s social commitment. (For starters, the German lawyer implemented the use of the hard hat and other industrial safety reforms, saving thousands of workers’ lives.)

Class Relations tells a story that evokes monolithic institutions, impervious authorities, and slippages of justice; one could easily read it as a black comedy, but Straub-Huillet are more profoundly invested in its themes, once describing it as “a journey into the land of vampires.” Karl Rossmann is a serious-minded German teenager sent to America after he had an affair with a housemaid. In New York harbor, he takes up–and loses–the cause of a mistreated coal stoker, later finds himself adopted then abandoned by a long lost uncle, and continues through a series of jobs in which accidents or misunderstandings inevitably result in his blame; despite his rigid attempts to appropriate logic and defend his position, his status as a (disposable) lower class immigrant continually undermines his efficacy. In his book on the filmmakers, Barton Byg (who also appears in the film) makes a convincing case for how Straub-Huillet stylistically diffuse Rossmann’s impact on the narrative, isolating him through fractured space, intonation, and dialogue: “He speaks less and less until, in the final scene, he is completely silent.”

The film contains stunning black-and-white imagery, artificially lit–most noticeably in a night scene that occurs in the woods–emphasizing composition and figure placement and underscoring Rossmann’s position in relation to the world around him; characters are posed in counterpoint with little movement, as if fixed in a perennial courtroom. The few tracking shots in the film evoke Rossmann’s journey between stages, promising progress but inevitably depositing him in places of stasis and defeat. Yet the film’s final image is a gloriously extended tracking shot onboard a train traveling through the Midwest, and it simultaneously suggests eternal return as well as, perhaps, hope for Rossmann’s future.

In Cinema Scope, Costa complains bitterly that many of Straub-Huillet’s admiring critics have helped to scare audiences away with labels like “Maoist-Marxist-terrorist-hard intellectual,” and last week’s LA Weekly nearly followed suit, despite highlighted the film in its “Good Rep” section: “tracking shots of various landscapes offer brief moments of motion in a film otherwise filled with looonng static shots that encase the characters in clearly defined paradigms of power.” That’s not a particularly accurate description of the film’s form or its feeling, which didn’t feel looonng to me at all, but well-paced and immersive. It has been said that Kafka was raised by a strict, overbearing father, and the dramatic tension of the scenes in which Rossmann determinedly but ineffectively defends himself before domineering authorities are keenly felt. It’s an easy film to watch, and a compelling blend of reality, absurdity and horror.

Along with Andersen, the film’s final act casts another filmmaker, the aforementioned Farocki, as the lean, conniving drifter Delamarche. Farocki made his own 26-minute tribute to the filmmakers in 1983, Jean-Marie Straub and DaniËle Huillet at Work on a Film, which offers an account of the production of Class Relations. I haven’t had an opportunity to see it yet, but according to Acquarello, Farocki (as would be expected) emphasizes his acting experience, highlighting Straub-Huillet’s penchant for unending rehearsals and their demanding ear for rhythm. The influence of Straub-Huillet is vast, and one can only hope their entire oeuvre will become more readily available on DVD in the coming months.

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