The Death of Empedocles

Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet  1987  132m

The movies that got me thinking the most this summer were made by a French husband-and-wife team named Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. Straub-Huillet, or “the Straubs,” as they’re often called, made something like 25 features from 1963’s Heinrich Böll adaptation Machorka-Muff until Huillet’s death from cancer in 2006. Though each of these movies are discussed forbiddingly as totems of formal and intellectual rigor, it’s not hard to find out where Straub and Huillet are coming from. Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?, a 2001 documentary by the Portuguese director Pedro Costa, is only one among countless records of the two candidly discussing exactly why their films look and feel the way they do. (I caught their 1965 short Not Reconciled, also a Böll adaptation, as part of Lincoln Center’s Costa retrospective this past July.)

One of the concepts that keeps cropping up in such records is that of “identification”—mostly Straub’s outspoken disgust with it as a visual motif. This seems to me a key to digging into the core of what Straub and Huillet were doing, as well as my own frustrations with their project. Identification could also be called visual empathy: in its most famous formulation, the point-of-view shot, we see what the character sees, are fixed into his or her shoes. For example, in Jean Eustache’s autobiographical feature Mes Petites Amoureuses, the young Martin Loeb cranes his neck to see a girl in a blue dress across the street; in the next shot, his gaze becomes ours, and we both watch that blue dress mosey on by. This kind of perspectival “matching” constitutes the meat of the film’s visual joys, as well as its details-obsessed take on the bildungsroman genre. We are in some sense forced to “identify” with Loeb’s character, even as his expressions and motives remain blank.

Why, then, take issue with such an approach, as Straub and Huillet did? I’d like to look at one film in particular which I watched this past summer, 1987’s adaptation of Friedrich Hölderlin’s The Death of Empedocles, to answer that question. To start with, Straub and Huillet always structured their films around the written work of a past author, from Böll to Hölderlin to Kafka to Cesare Pavese and beyond. These texts, however rooted in a particular historical era they seem, were unfailingly employed to examine and routinely condemn the present environment of late capitalism in the various Western European countries the two hopped around during their career—Italy, Germany, France. (Straub and Huillet were both outspoken Marxists.) So although the text of Empedocles is a word-for-word adaptation of Hölderlin’s 1797 dramatic account of the titular ancient philosopher’s exile to Mount Etna, it’s meant to impinge on our present as the story of a revolutionized consciousness. This kind of transhistorical intellectual work is always part and parcel of how the Straubs’ movies looked and felt. The wild time-hopping of Not Reconciled intends to show its audience this very collapsibility of the past into the present. In 1970’s Othon, an adaptation of a 1664 play by Pierre Corneille, the political machinations of the Roman Empire play out against the backdrop–modern architecture, automobile traffic and all–of 20th century Rome.

Thus the problem of identification: how can we, as filmmakers and watchers, begin to agitate against the subjugation of the working classes if our aesthetic toolbox serves only to erase difference, to convince us of anyone onscreen that we’re just like them? The first step of radical action is to pinpoint exactly how the classes and the individuals who occupy them have been forced into irreducibly different positions in our broken world; shouldn’t movies made by so-called radical filmmakers confront rather than elide this step? How might we outstrip bourgeois aesthetics to visually formalize something like “solidarity,” understanding with the utmost clarity and then working to change the system to which a character or group of characters is beholden? What might that look like?

Well…I’m not so sure. But I can tell you what The Death of Empedocles looks like: actors decked out in period Greek costume stand rigid and deliver their lines with the weight and morbidity of Frankenstein’s monster, a weight far from relieved by Hölderlin’s own draggy if intermittently gorgeous text: “And now in refreshed pleasure, my inner self like a newborn unfolded again into the long lost world, my eye in youthful curiosity opened to the day, and there he stood, Empedocles!” Meanwhile, Straub and Huillet’s almost entirely immobile camera registers infinitesimal changes in light, shadow, the wind through the trees, the face of someone listening to an off-screen interlocutor. (After all, Rosa Luxembourg once quipped that “the fate of insects is not less important than the revolution.”)

As I said at the beginning, it’s hard not to give a good think about these movies—why does this look so off—neither “commercial” nor “arthouse” nor anything in between? Why is it so slow, so weighty? Why is the camera giving its undivided attention to this particular tree? In this sense, Straub and Huillet’s political project enterprise is successful—in the midst of such confusion and alienation, nobody is “identifying” with shit in these films. Herein enters the objective of bridging historical gaps: were the two interested in assuming an individual’s point of view or in visual “absorption,” perhaps we wouldn’t feel the need to reflect on how Empedocles might figure in today’s society. Were it embedded into the actorly rhythms of your favorite celebrity, perhaps a profundity like Hölderlin’ best-in-show “United remain those who at their own will the hour of separation” would pleasantly slip on by.

Recounted in such a manner, the Straubs’ overarching project seems not just worthy but utterly righteous. But having blasted through five of their projects and then multi-paragraph genuflections (often from their biggest promoter in the U.S., Jonathan Rosenbaum) for each one, I’m still left with the gnawing feeling that these films are just that: projects. “Exercises,” if you will, in which one does not participate but rather gazes with dispassionate interest, because that’s what intellectuals do, right? It feels as if the post-capitalist utopia which Straub and Huillet envision will have no place for visual delectation, or depth of feeling, and certainly not humor. Sounds sorta regressive, doesn’t it?

Far be it from me to condemn the efforts of any filmmaker who seeks to import radical politics into filmic structure; it was only a year ago that I raved about Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman for this publication to the exact opposite effect. Following in the tradition of that great polemic, I’ll also admit here a certain skepticism regarding the radical potential in formalist contortions of texts written almost invariably by white European men, many of them without much skin in the game of revolution. Often the unceasing austerity of the Straubs’ films starts to seem less like a genuine challenge to authority and more like a sneaky means through which the canon can keep on keepin’ on. But that’s the thing about Kafka: at least he had jokes.