On a small monitor in an area titled ‘Too soon, too late’ (the first of five ‘studios’ that comprise the exhibition) Jean-Marie Straub’s wrath-reddened face bellows outraged. As a monoglot it is not possible to work out exactly what has so deeply incensed him (here, in this documentation of a public interview, he speaks German) but for an instant the video seems to be a fitting articulation of the investment and energy he and Danièle Huillet put into their work over five decades of collaboration.
One could reflect that an exhibition of the film works of Huillet and Straub is long overdue, but perhaps it is only now their significance has become fully recognised. French-born, the pair worked largely in Germany and Italy producing over two dozen films between 1963 and Huillet’s death in 2006. They achieved some notoriety for their first feature-length film Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach, 1968, a portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach mediated via the fictional diary entries of his wife. In the same way, each film here represents the radical treatment of a text: literary works by Franz Kafka, Friedrich Hölderlin, Stéphane Mallarmé, the paintings of Paul Cézanne and opera by Arnold Schoenberg.
Curated by Annett Busch and Florian Schneider, this show evaluates the films against a contemporary terrain, allowing for an examination of the political and aesthetic dimensions of their output. And rather than concede to a purely archival impulse, there is an equal focus on the viewing and making of the films, while considering issues that arise from a digital and information-driven age.
The project ‘Of A People Who Are Missing’ is proposed primarily as a ‘cinéclub’ rather than an exhibition platform. Extra City deploys both, although with methods of the former notion at its root, the exhibition neatly disrupts tendencies towards inert historiography. The use of such a model nods towards the French cinephile community in which Jean-Marie Straub played an active part in the early 1950s. This circle allowed makers, critics, theorists and general enthusiasts to meet, screen films and debate. That audiences should take such a participatory role in their engagement with the work here, is wholly confluent with the filmakers’ belief in the competence and subjectivity of their audience.
A temporary interior architecture, constructed from raw timber, divides the gallery space into the five distinct ‘studios’. The separating walls of each space suggest an architectonic armature; between the struts, you can see the entire exhibition.
The expedient directness in the possible visual cross-sections reflect the attention of Straub/Huillet to the fundamental constituent elements of their medium and subject matter. Light, voice, image and actor perform their role, communicate their position and configure themselves according to the filmmakers’ specific terms, although never with the intention of closing down or reducing meaning. The audience is invited to negotiate extracted images, documentary footage, projected fragments, theoretical responses as text panels as well as numerous traces and fragments from the production of their oeuvre.
Under the beguiling titles ‘Too soon / Too late’, ‘Mountains on Fire’, ‘The Homeless Archive’, ‘A Throw of Dice’ and ‘Act of Resistance’, each studio frames a particular reading of their output. To take one example, the meticulous and interminable rehearsal of lines in preparation for the shooting of their 1984 adaptation of Kafka’s Amerika, ‘Klassenverhältnisse’, is captured in Harun Farocki’s documentary ‘Work on “Class Relations”’. This provides a key depiction of the power and significance of speech for Straub/Huillet as the utterance of each line is modified and honed. As the exhibition’s accompanying text states, ‘In the films of Huillet and Straub the act of speaking becomes an act of resistance. Resistance against the gods or against fascism’.
One is likely to struggle with the sheer magnitude of sources addressed and the weight of history appraised here—aside from the texts from which Straub/Huillet have worked, the list of additional contributors to the show number over 20 and include Chantal Akerman, Manon de Boer, Ines Schaber and Eyal Sivan among others. Daunting perhaps, but there should be no call for reduction because, as the curators astutely recognise, this would be a fundamental contradiction to the filmmakers’ body of work. Instead, we are intelligently given space to engage with films that extend beyond their material bounds to implicate the world that surrounds them, the scrutiny of history and the acts of reading, seeing and translation.
Giles Bailey is an artist based in Rotterdam