Jean-Marie Straub, a famous filmmaker aligned with the French New Wave who sparked critical debate with films he made with his wife, Danièle Huillet, known for their aggressively cerebral subject matter, Marxist leanings and anti- commercial, died Sunday at his home in Rolle, Switzerland. He was 89 years old.
The Swiss National Cinematheque announces his death.
“Les 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 François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, a friend over the years old who lived nearby in Rolle until his death in September.
New Wave directors upended cinematic conventions by channeling their cinephile theories into auteur works that reflected the anti-authoritarian sentiments of post-war France. Mr. Straub and Ms. Huillet took those same impulses in a more radical direction, eschewing traditional narrative techniques and structures to create a form of ideological film that proudly flouts basic standards of entertainment.
Their 1981 documentary, “Too Early, Too Late”, for example, featured Ms Huillet, in a voice-over, reading a letter written by Friedrich Engels to Marxist theorist Karl Kautsky about the economic desperation of French peasants as seemingly unrelated images of locations in contemporary France played on the screen.
Sources for the films often seemed drawn from a college-level curriculum, drawing inspiration from Bertolt Brecht, novelist and literary critic Elio Vittorini, and the operas of atonal composer Arnold Schoenberg.
Critics, film theorists, and discerning viewers had strong opinions of their work, which could be considered poetic or boring. Their minimalist approach to editing, cinematography, and acting required “one to be in such a receptive mood that it borders on brainwashing,” as Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times. in his review of “Class Relations,” their 1984 take on Franz. Kafka’s unfinished novel, “Amerika.”
The film is now hailed as one of Straub-Huillet’s most accessible and beautiful films, but Mr Canby said the actors’ deadpan line sounded ‘like they were giving instructions on how to put on your waistcoat rescue in the event of an unexpected 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 while reviewing a Straub-Huillet retrospective of 45 films at the Museum of Modern Art in 2016. “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 working largely confined to art theaters and museum screenings, Straub was awarded the Leopard of Honor Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017 by Switzerland’s Locarno Film Festival, an award that was previously awarded to Bernardo Bertolucci, Werner Herzog and M. Godard. (Ms. Huillet died in 2006). Richard Brody of The New Yorker wrote that Mr. Straub was “one of the lesser-known great filmmakers – he never had a hit nor sought one”.
If the audience shifted uncomfortably in their seats, so much the better. For the combative Mr. Straub, the cinema could be a revolutionary act. “If we hadn’t learned how to make films”, he once said, “I would have planted bombs”.
Jean-Marie Straub was born on January 8, 1933 in Metz, north-eastern France, and 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, eventually graduating 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 Cahiers du Cinéma Français, and André Bazin, founder of the Cahiers, to discuss cinema. (Mr. Straub began contributing to the magazine himself.)
He met Ms. Huillet in 1954, and the couple moved to Paris, where Mr. Straub began his film career as an assistant, working on films like “Un homme évadé” by M. Bresson, released in 1956. Two years later, to avoid conscription during the Algerian War, he fled France for West Germany. He and Mme Huillet married in Munich in 1959, beginning a long career as expatriate filmmakers working mainly in Germany, Italy and Switzerland.
Their first short film, “Not Reconciled” (1965), is adapted from a novel by Heinrich Böll, which dissects the growth and legacy of Nazism. Writer and public intellectual Susan Sontag later said the film made her want to embrace the screen.
In 1968, the couple won international acclaim for their first feature film, “The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach” (1968), which is a deconstructed version of a biopic by Johann Sebastian Bach.
Set in locations in Germany where Bach had actually lived and worked, the film offers a sparse narrative composed of voice-over reminiscences of a fictional diary of Bach’s second wife (the text was written by the filmmakers). Much of the action, so to speak, is provided by costumed musicians performing the composer’s great works.
While the film baffled some critics in its time – AH Weiler called it “repetitive, static screen fare” in The Times – others, over time, have come to see it as a leader. -d’oeuvre, a work of art “whose visual austerity, resolute slowness and rejection of conventional narrative was meant to advance a ruthless critique of capitalist aesthetics”, 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. Their films “From Clouds to Resistance” (1979) and “Sicilia!” (1999) both premiered in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival, a category reserved for daring artistic works.
Critics were less favorable to their 1979 adaptation of “Othon”, a 17th-century French play by Pierre Corneille, which announced its intentions to confuse with a 22-word English title: “The eyes do not want to close at any time, or maybe one day Rome will allow herself to choose in her turn.
The film featured non-professional actors dressed as ancient Romans barking the text of the play in an emotionally flat and fast-paced way from the ruins of Palatine Hill in contemporary Rome, with the din of the modern city buzzing in below.
Ever a utopian, Mr Straub said he saw the target audience for ‘Othon’ – about the political ambitions of a Roman nobleman amid calls to bring power to the people – to be the modern proletariat.
“I would like ‘Othon’ to be seen by workers in Paris,” he reportedly said in a 1975 interview. “They were never told that Corneille was incomprehensible.”
The film, he added, “threatens not just a class, but a power clique.”
This power clique apparently included critics at the 1970 New York Film Festival, half of whom rushed for the release at the film’s press screening.
But maybe that was the point. As Mr. Straub once said: “We make our films so that the public can come out of them.