Typically based on theatrical or literary works, prone to long takes, minimal camera movements, stark settings, and mechanistic acting, the films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet represent an ultima Thule of cinematic distanciation and ascetic-aesthetic politico-modernism. Anthology’s mini-retro of rarely screened works by the French duo (who work almost exclusively outside of their homeland) allows them to be considered not only as extreme examples of post-’68 European anti-narrative, but overseas Marxist cousins to the grubbier, headier experiments in North American structuralism.
Straub and Huillet’s 1968 short The Bridegroom, the Comedienne and the Pimp digests a performance by the Munich Action-Theater group (featuring acting by Fassbinder and Hanna Schygulla) into an enigmatic movie-theatrical hybrid: Half the story of sex, angst, and death takes place on a barren stage, shot by an unmoving camera, then switches without warning to an outdoor car chase and downbeat-climactic suburban finale, wherein an interracial couple brings violent end to a love triangle while enunciating the mystical poetry of St. John of the Cross. Based on an unfinished novel by Brecht, the 1973 feature History Lessons takes on a loose journalistic form, as a young man drives through contemporary Italy to interview an ancient Roman banker on his views of Caesar’s reign. The discourse turns on the interpenetrations of politics, trade, and war, and the film’s relentlessly demanding pace marks its makers’ ambitions to wedge open a space beyond capitalist production, from which some new critique might emerge.