Edition Filmmuseum is a Munich-based, joint project of film archives in Europe (mostly German-speaking) that is publishing a fantastic series of films of “artistic, cultural and historical value” on all-region DVDs; their latest release is Straub and Huillet’s masterful Class Relations, and aside from the film itself, the DVD offers a bounty of significant, archive-quality supplements.
There are two major short films on the two-disc set that offer rare and illuminating glimpses of the filmmakers’ working methods, both of them by filmmakers who acted in Class Relations: Harun Farocki’s 65-minute Work on ‘Class Relations’ by DaniËle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub and Manfred Blank’s 42-minute Work in Progress. If one includes Pedro Costa’s Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?, the number of films on DVD (with English subtitles) about Straub and Huillet now outnumber the films on DVD by Straub and Huillet, which is unfortunate given the importance of their work. Happily, all three documentaries focus on different aspects of their work–conception, shooting, and editing–and may be a fine place to start. This is true especially in conjunction with titles like The Chronicle of Ana Magdalena Bach and Class Relations, films that are highly structured and rigorous in their aesthetic form yet also highly pleasurable to watch (the first is musically invigorating, the second is a sublime black comedy; both are visually stunning).
Farocki’s film captures the filmmakers in rehearsal and later on the set of the film, and it highlights their obsessive attention to the slightest details of line delivery and the arrangement and movement of their actors. Rhythm is all-important, as the directors gently but firmly call for take after take, encouraging, refining, and slowly shaping their actor’s performances word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence. “You can tell you’re struggling to shorten the old pause without giving the sentence any momentum,” Straub says. “Why do you wait so long, Manfred, after ‘come’? I’d like to feel the colon there, even though Kafka used a comma.” Lead actor Christian Heinisch recites, “I will give you money, but only on the condition that you leave immediately and never again visit me here.” The filmmakers then converse about the proper way to intone “visit me here.” “Three words with breaks,” Straub eventually concludes. “No pauses, just breaks.”
Scholar Barton Byg–who also appears in Class Relations–provides a moving memorial tribute to Huillet (who died earlier this year) in the DVD’s liner notes, and he stresses Huillet’s supreme sensitivity to language and the lengthy process of translation required whenever he would help her write English subtitles. “In English more than in French,” he writes, “it is possible to find linguistic correspondences with the origin, sound and form of the German words, even if the meaning would be somewhat strained….whenever I suggested an English ‘equivalent’ for a saying or phrase unique to German, DaniËle would reject it….[her] concern was always with the material specificity of the words: ‘It’s better to be awkward than inexact.'”
Blank’s film catches Straub-Huillet in a more reflective mode while sitting on a patio, and anyone who has watched the filmmakers together will be able to predict their dynamics. Straub: highly talkative, free-associating and pontificating; Huillet: observant, concise and essential. Blank questions the filmmakers (generally through title cards) about their connection (like the character of Class Relations) to themes of exile and emigration. Huillet quotes a worker they interviewed: “If you have to work in a place, you can live in a place.” Straub says that was his answer, too, but then embarks on a meandering–but fascinating–consideration of the relationship between text and adapter, the importance of personal attraction as well as distance, and touches on Godard, artistic personas and the nature of interviews in general. This defines the film’s pattern, and though Huillet appears to be on the verge of falling asleep throughout, she is always quick to insert brief, striking observations. It’s an illuminating portrait of the filmmakers’ influences (Stroheim), thoughts (they hate the tag “minimalist”), and inclinations (for Class Relations they tried to keep the camera’s perspective somewhat consistent to suggest a merging of subjective and objective points of view).
Finally, the DVD is rounded out by a 20-minute “genetic analysis of the sign structure and rhetoric” of the opening shots of Class Relations, produced by the Filmmuseum M¸nchen, which includes outtakes, script excerpts, and texts tracing their development. A collection of 44 beautiful production stills complete what is surely a must-own package for anyone remotely interested in the work of Straub-Huillet.