The Well-Tempered Biopic: “The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach” Remains a Singular Movie Musical


Fifty years on, The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, the first feature from Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, remains a singular work of musical filmmaking, the first entry and perennial exemplar of a genre that still doesn’t really exist. It’s a re-creation biopic, a movie committed to nothing less than situating us in the audience that first heard the most gorgeous music the world has ever known. Here is the life of the great composer Johann Sebastian Bach, rendered in still-life scenes of live performance of key pieces by ensembles large and small, in churches and schools and castles where Bach actually lived and played. Bewigged musicians in eighteenth-century finery tease the master’s arpeggios from period instruments, claviers, and harpsichords, and all the rest.

Five minutes may pass, then six, then seven, without the shot cutting away. On occasion, the camera may nose in on a player, usually the harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt, who plays Bach himself. You can see that they’re truly playing the music you hear; Christiane Lang, who plays Anna Magdalena Bach, the narrator and Bach’s second wife, slows down to untangle a tough knot of notes as she works through one of Bach’s partitas for clavier. Between the performance scenes, Lang narrates, her words based on historical documents Straub and Huillet studied and photographed in their decade of preparation before filming.

Those words come as fast as the notes in Bach’s keyboard suites, but attend closely to them and they signify, even move: She speaks in a flat gush about the practicalities of marriage to a composer and teacher and organ master not yet celebrated for his genius. She speaks of his efforts to secure better terms of employment, to please potential benefactors, to survive as a working artist. And she speaks — quickly, the names and pain slipping by but still darkening the musical performances that follow — of the too-short lives of many of the children she birthed in this marriage.

We don’t see her talk. We see few scenes of actors speaking to one another. Instead, their musical performances are broken up mostly by glimpses of the title pages of Bach’s printed scores. (Look for some trees toward the end!) The film adopts documentary technique — it literally documents its performances — as it shows us nothing but what history has told us. It is a film biography scraped free of much of the usual speculations or reductive narratives. All it promises is that this is the music that Bach wrote and played, on instruments like these, in these places, in clothes that maybe looked like this, while he worried about, among other things, these nagging issues that have been immortalized in the scant nonmusical record of his life.

Straub and Huillet invite us to ponder, as the music washes over us, what we can know and what we can’t — and to wonder at what here is also false. Surely, there’s something intentionally false about that extended rear projection shot of Bach, at night, conducting a cantata before the edifice of Leipzig’s St. Thomas School. Like Bertolt Brecht’s alienation effects, or the god-awful street scenes that play behind Alfred Hitchcock characters in a car, the glaring fakery reminds us not to mistake what we’re watching for truth.

Straub and Huillet’s austere black-and-white photography suggests the distance between now and then while also imbuing a sense of timelessness — at least, as much as that term can apply to a work that could only have been produced after the invention of talkies. We’re denied the usual hair and makeup and costume clues that suggest a film’s vintage, and the editing and camerawork hold to no established tradition. You could probably convince much of an audience that had seen a couple of reels (but was unfamiliar with Straub and Huillet’s half-century filmmaking partnership) that this comes from 1978 or even ’98. But the spirit of the Sixties courses through the whole — Jean-Luc Godard himself offered a late assist in financing — and the film captures, for all its rapturous out-of-time beauty, one indisputable moment of history. Here is an early blooming of the 1970s movement toward historically informed performance in classical music. The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach is what Straub and Huillet think the past might have been like. Whatever its accuracy, it’s still something of a miracle. Now, why hasn’t someone made a movie like this about Thelonious Monk or John Coltrane?

The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach
Directed by Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet
Grasshopper Films
Opens March 2, Quad Cinema