Jean-Marie Straub, who has died aged 89, and his wife, Danièle Huillet, worked together as film-makers for more than 30 years. Straub-Huillet, as they were often called by French critics, broke away from accepted notions of realism, disengaged from bourgeois values and questioned the primacy of narration.
Their films were almost exclusively taken from pre-existing texts, whether from literature, theater or music. The principal stylistic devices were a usually static camera, sometimes with a pan or tracking shot lasting up to several minutes, the use of non-professionals as actors and direct sound, to the extent that background noises and even wind rustling on a microphone were retained . The pair’s intention, they stated, was to teach people “how to think, see and hear”. Straub was notoriously critical of “lazy” viewers unwilling or unable to engage with his films.
Straub-Huillet were part of the New German cinema of the 1960s, which included Volker Schlöndorff, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders. Many of their movies emphasized the continuities rather than the ruptures in German history.
Their first film, Machorka-Muff (1962), an 18-minute short, based on a story by Heinrich Böll, satirized the continuing power of the military in West Germany. “Germany missed out on its revolution and did not free itself from fascism,” Straub said. “For me it is a country that moves in a circle and cannot free itself from its past.”
More directly political was Not Reconciled (1965), adapted from Böll’s anti-militarist 1959 novel Billiards at Half-Past Nine. The film leaps backwards and forwards in time, making the point that nazism did not begin in 1933 nor end in 1945. Shot in stark black and white, with high-contrast interior lighting, sparse décor and precise camera angles and movements, it was an examination of the collective psyche of the German people.
The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1967) was the first of their innovative approaches to presenting music on film. Totally convincing in its historical accuracy and musical authenticity, with most of the roles taken by professional musicians, and the harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt playing Bach (both the man and the music), it is an almost documentary account of instrumentalists at work in the 18th century .
In 1974, Straub-Huillet shot Schoenberg’s religious and philosophical opera Moses and Aaron, refusing to dub the singers, as is usual in such projects. The singers could hear the orchestra through earphones concealed under their headdresses, and see the conductor on closed-circuit TV screens. They also made Introduction to Arnold Schoenberg’s Accompaniment to an Animation Scene (1973), a 15-minute film essay, and the one-act comic opera From Today Until Tomorrow (1997).
Bertolt Brecht spoke of “the theater whose stage is the street”, and in their adaptation of the Pierre Corneille play Othon (1970, released in the US as Eyes Do Not Want to Close at All Times, or, Perhaps One Day Rome Will Allow Herself to Choose in Her Turn), Straub-Huillet placed their non-French-speaking, non-professional actors on the terrace of the Palatine hill in Rome, reading the play against the noises of the modern city. (The couple had moved to Rome that year.) It was a disconcerting way of finding a new approach to dialogue.
History Lessons (1972), based on Brecht’s novel The Business Affairs of Mr Julius Caesar, placed history in relation to modern political life. As Marxist dialecticians, Straub and Huillet created severe cinematic critiques of capitalism in a manner that paralleled the works of Brecht in the theatre. Straub once stated: “I don’t know if I’m a Marxist. I don’t know, because there are so many ways to be a Marxist. I haven’t read all of Marx. Marxism is a method, it’s not an ideology.”
In Fortini/Cani (1976), the Italian writer Franco Fortini examined his thoughts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. From the Cloud to the Resistance (1979), based on two works by Cesare Pavese, took the form of six dialogues between mythological figures on the partisan movement in Piedmont during the second world war.
Much of the original dialogue of Kafka’s unfinished novel Amerika was retained in Class Relations (1984), although each scene was pared down to the essentials, usually with only one actor on screen at a time. In 1987 Straub-Huillet took on another unfinished work, Frederic Hölderlin’s play The Death of Empedocles, which they shot five times, with three of the versions shown at various festivals.
Later, ever more minimalist, Straub-Huillet’s focus shifted to the works of the modernist novelist Elio Vittorini, with three features: Sicily! (1999), Workers, Peasants (2001) and The Return of the Prodigal Son (2003). Their final film together, before Huillet’s death, was These Encounters of Theirs (2006), adapted from the last five stories of Pavese’s Dialogues with Leucò, filmed as a series of meditative texts read by different couples against a lush landscape.
Although Straub said: “I try to make as little fuss about my life as possible”, a fair amount is known about him. He was born in Metz, north-east France, and organized a film society in his home town while in his teens. When he was at school, during the Nazi occupation, German was the official language and children were forbidden to speak French in public. He later referred to this experience in the short film Lorraine! (1994), based on a novel by Maurice Barrès.
Straub studied literature at the University of Strasbourg, then the University of Nancy, where he met Huillet, a fellow student. They were soon living together, moved to Paris in 1954, and married in 1959. It was in order for Straub to avoid French military service in Algeria that the couple went to live in Munich, where their film career began.
Huillet died in 2006. Still faithful to their dual vision, Straub continued to make short films in the same manner, based on the writers they both cherished, including The Inconsolable (2011), drawn from the Orpheus and Eurydice legend.
Jean-Marie Straub, film director, screenwriter and producer, born January 8, 1933; died November 19, 2022