Intimate Bach Piece Finds the Primal Essence of Cinema


The European art film may have never come this close to being a non-movie—and to summoning the nascent force of cinema as a primal concentration of experience. Jean-Marie Straub and Daniéle Huillet’s famous, hard-to-see meta-thing, their first feature, is now on DVD, and it’s a living demonstration of less-as-more. Period-dressed performances of J.S. Bach’s music—in their entireties—are interpolated against a handful of static dramatic exchanges and glimpses of Bach’s manuscripts and publications. All of it is contextualized by narration spoken out of the eponymous diary. That’s it: But the restrictive form of the film liberates rather than limits, and, as in the movies of Warhol, Snow, and Sokurov (among others), our demands for distractive progression are slapped down and we’re given pure sensual intimacy instead. Marital love is not expressed but is inherent in every word and note; history is fastidiously resurrected, but only for its sounds. (In this, it’s a one-up on Rossellini’s historical pageants, which Straub and Huillet have claimed to loathe.) The net effect is not having seen a film but having lived a real moment, in the presence of monumental music. Is this a documentary, or a biopic, or something else we’ve never named? The disc comes with a rare 20-minute doc made at the time of shooting, and a booklet filthy with timeline context, Bach-ographic annotation, cantata lyrics, and writings on the film by Richard Roud, Armond White, and Straub himself.