Encounter with Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. Quei loro incontri

By Emmanuel Burdeau y Jean-Michel Frodon

(leer en castellano)

Cahiers du cinema: Why have you chosen these specific passages from Pavese’s book?

Jean-Marie Straub: These are the last five dialogues; Dialoghi con Leucò consists of 27 of them. In Dalla nube alla resistenza, we had six of them, the first three and three a bit further in. At the time, I never would have believed in going back there, I returned because of a challenge. We wanted to do this differently –without indicating the mythological characters like in the first film, without so-called Greek costumes, with people using their real names, and not the name of the role. The film happens in our time, it is supported by the fact that we made other films in between.

How did you see the possibility of a film in Dialoghi con Leucò?

J-MS: I don’t know anything about it, I don’t see anything at all. I began to write this (he shows the script, meaning, the cut-out dialogues) in the winter of 2004, we went to Buti in March 2004, we stayed there four weeks, we reviewed the locations we had in mind, we chose them definitively, and we chose the ten individuals. We gave them a text, typed, they read it with us. At the end of a month, we reconstructed the script with them, with the phrasings (les respirations) that we had found together at the table. And we left them alone for exactly one year, left to themselves. It’s the first time we’ve done that. At the end of nine months we called them to hear what was going on, they told us that they had read the text each day, I told them that that wasn’t enough, that they had to learn it. They met amongst themselves, in order to talk. We returned after one year, in March, we worked for several hours every day for three months. After Easter, we did four stage presentations, then we left them alone for ten days, and then we shot the film. I can respond like this, I can’t respond any other way.

Danièle Huillet: On stage, the positions of the actors were the ones we have in the film.

J-MS: They’re always the same constellations, on stage and when we shoot. As with all the previous films.

DH: The space is more reduced, but they are exactly the same positions.

J-MS: For us, when you do theater, you do theater, you don’t think about film. Nevertheless, the positions that seemed just and indispensable to us, the spatial relations and the energy between the characters, we keep them during shooting.

DH: You can’t ask the characters to change the way they look. In the end you can, but it wouldn’t be humane. Because how they look, it’s like the text, it’s like the rhythm, it runs in their blood, you can’t at the last minute say to them: Ah, no, you messed up, you have to look to the right instead of to the left.

J-MS: But we never answered the question! You have to rephrase it…

How did you see, while reading Pavese’s text, that it was material for a film?

J-MS: Ah, I don’t know anything about that. I sit down at a table at the bistro in front of our place, I begin to leaf through it, it happens. That’s all. I don’t see a film. I feel the need again to put certain situations and certain emotions on the screen. It’s a battle with myself and with an idea that I only discover slowly. In the beginning, there is a sort of intuition.

You spoke of a challenge. What did it consist of?

J-MS: These are not film dialogues. That’s what interested me. The majority of film dialogues become so dull…Today’s dialogue only serves to show off, to show the entire being, false emotions. Here, we proposed a challenge to actors who had never spoken a text, who discovered emotions that they had never known, but it’s this discovery that interests us. It’s a discovery first for me, then for Danièle when I say to her «There it is», since I don’t say to her that I would like to do this or that, I begin by manual labor. I recopy, bit by bit. I begin to see a construction, a découpage. And next, we propose this to them, hoping that it will interest them, that they would be pleased to get acquainted with an author who certain people have never heard spoken.

Who are these people you’re going to see?

J-MS: These are peasants that we have known for ten years. Ten years of meeting with people of very different educations and social origins, that’s what interests us, the wide range. When there are two characters that are a couple, they are a couple in real life.

DH: There aren’t only peasants. Vittorio Vigneri, who already played the grinder in Sicilia !, is a plasterer. There is the old mayor, who was a worker, a woman who manufactures rope, the theater director, the old postmaster of Buti. Several actors in Quei loro incontri had already appeared in the previous films. They are also of different geographic origins, one is from Piedmont, another is Sicilian…

What made them want to act in your films?

DH: What makes them want to do it is, first of all, the theater. I don’t believe they would have done all this work for the film alone. Their friends come to see them over the course of the four nights of performances. To perform these texts allows them to be in another world than their own. That’s what attracts them.

J-MS: It’s a lot of trouble for them. They have day jobs, the work on the text is more work. They make a gift of their evenings for us, of their Saturdays and their Sunday afternoons. And those who don’t have a role do as they please.

DH: Physically it’s hard, there is nothing more difficult for an actor than to remain immobile, their arms at their sides, and, moreover, under the sun and in the wind.

And what brings you to precede the films with theater?

J-MS: When the actors know their entire text well enough to have been able to perform it on stage, we know that we can shoot. I wouldn’t want them to know only one page of the text at the time of a shot, and then to go learn the rest. Most important, and newest, was this duration of a year between the first work on the text and the rehearsals. We said to them: Learn it, but don’t learn too much, try to live with this text and we will see how it is together in a year. This relationship with time is a true luxury. To precede the shooting with theater, we’ve done this for a long time –we did it with Fassbinder for Der Bräutigam, die Komödiantin und der Zuhälter. We did it at the Shaubuhne for Antigone because Peter Stein had been asking us to come for a long time. We ended up proposing the play to him –Brecht’s version from Hölderlin’s translation of Sophocles’ play– we worked for three months together with the actors from the Shaubuhne mixed with people we had brought from outside. Among the professional actors, two of them came from the East, from Gorki’s theater, those were the best trained.

DH: They knew how to breathe.

J-MS: Almost no professional actor knows how to breathe, they have to be taught. It’s an essential part of the work at the table. It is necessary to discover how each individual can find his own voice (ses propres respirations) in a text. Each person possesses a rhythm, an inner rhythm.

The people in Buti are more gifted for this than professional actors?

J-MS: Not necessarily, but they work more voluntarily.

DH: One of them is very strong in this area, the one that is standing in the last dialogue, it’s not by accident. He sings the Easter Passion annually; he possesses a fine breathing and vocal technique.

J-MS: And then when it’s ready, we retype the text, taking into consideration these phrasings. Sometimes it is necessary to leave several seconds of silence –he says a word and 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and the following word. But that happens while swimming, sometimes against the sense of the text, sometimes with it.

Can the subtitles acknowledge that?

DH: It’s very difficult, it’s why it occurred to me while writing the subtitles to do a little violence to the French language, so that what is written corresponds to what is shown and said. It’s important, because the relationship to the senses that Jean-Marie spoke of is not a rupture, it’s what allows it to reveal, or to suggest, another sense than that which appears to be the official meaning of the text.

J-M: The subtitles, I don’t mix myself up with them, it’s her who occupies herself with all that.

The colored marks on the dialogues define the manner in which they should be said?

J-MS: Not just that. The colors correspond to the days, to the successive meetings. And then, at the table, it is not a matter of going against the meaning of the text, or not considering it. The construction and the table work is, firstly, a question of the meaning, we aren’t there to juggle with the rhythms freely. The scansion comes next, it often has the appearance of going against the meaning and the sense of the text, but in reality it emanates from it in order to find the most profound meaning. It isn’t music! It’s grammar.

But these dialogues covered in drawings, that’s what you use to shoot?

J-MS: Absolutely not.

DH: During the shooting we never look at that, we only use our ears.

J-MS: When they are reciting the text, the instruction that I give them continually is «more consciously, more consciously». Serge Daney really upset me when he wrote that in our films people are reciting texts that they don’t understand. That’s entirely false.

DH: Even more than consciousness, what we ask of them is to see what they say. When they say «colle», to see hills, when they say «pour the blood», that is not an empty expression.

J-MS: «Piú consciente», that’s what I tell them as soon as I get the impression that an actor is dreaming, that we no longer have the weight of the words. What we are searching for thanks to the syntax and the grammar, with people who perhaps don’t really know what the syntax and grammar are, but who know what the texts speak of. To go look for it, that’s the job we give ourselves.

Of the spatial relations, you said earlier that only one was possible. Does this not apply to the manner of reciting a text?

J-MS: That’s what I believe. But under the condition that this manner of doing things must not be what the great theater directors do, it must not be an appropriation of the text, by anybody, not by us either. It should be like a clearing in a forest, which is to anyone, and through which one can enter in a number of ways. That’s what we have to offer to those who see the film. These stories of interpretations, these are stories of castration, it consists of putting the director at the center of everything, for whom the interpretation only takes into account a minute part of the initial material.

This film seems to form a trilogy with Operai, contadini and Umiliati !

J-MS: Without a doubt a bit because of the locations, which are now for us a bit like Monument Valley for John Ford. But I find that this film is closer to the two films about Empedocles. Pavese is very different from Vittorini.

But you didn’t want any period costumes?

DH: It was very clear, there was no question about it. But in regards to the issue of costumes, the actors don’t wear their daily, everyday clothes either.

J-MS: The clothes that they are wearing in the film are chosen, but often from their homes, or at the corner supermarket, or at a neighbor’s. Or it’s a pair of my pants. The one who is seated under the olive tree has an old hat of mine, the one who is speaking with him wears a necklace that is the only expensive gift I have ever given Danièle – we bought it when we were doing the location scouting for Moses and Aron, from a peasant in the Luxor countryside.

The choice of costumes reflects the film’s relation to history. The beginning of the film is very timeless, later we see a hunting rifle appear, the final shot returns to the present world by a panoramic shot of Buti today.

DH: That’s another challenge. We discovered this country more than thirty years ago, even before Dalla nube alla resistenza. It’s a country made of chestnut trees, an old woman down there made the staff for us for Moses and Aron.

J-MS: We knew this country at a time when there wasn’t even the slightest TV antenna. It irritates me. I was fed up with seeing these antennas multiplying for at least ten years, fed up with seeing one cable across a stream, and the stream that dried up year after year, that will soon have no more water, where it doesn’t matter what you throw in it. The film shows this. We were at the top with the trees, with rocks and people, we found ourselves again at the bottom with the civilization we have now.

You spoke about the «luxury» offered to the actors of waiting a year between the first encounter with the text and the beginning of the rehearsals. But what were you two doing during this year?

J-MS: We spent time nursing stray cats in Rome. But I thought about the film everyday. I dreamed of my locations, I saw them before me. I tried to clarify my lenses, my framings, even from 300 km away. I knew these places, I was familiar with them. This too is a question of patience. But you have to resume everything on the spot, the work of framing is above all a surveyor’s and a topographer’s work, it is necessary to be conscious of the spatial relations, of the slopes, etc. The locations that we’ve known for a long time, that attracted us, one day appear to correspond to some scene, some dialogue.

The end takes a polemical side, warlike, a bit like that of Sicilia !

J-MS: When we do this type of work, it’s a shuttle, or a zigzag, between a film that we did more than ten years ago, and another that we did three years ago. We tried to go in another direction while taking a step forward, or two steps backwards, and then we try to go back to the other side of the spectrum. That’s the work one calls artistic, aesthetic. It’s like playing chess, each film is like a piece that you move, the movement is different, but you are linked with what you’ve done before. It’s a game.

This film is, more than the preceding one, close to those it shows. The title says it well –between the abstraction of Dalla nube alla resistenza and the concrete, quotidian character of Quei loro incontri. This change is important, when we are today much more submissive at the feet of religions than at the time of your first Pavese adaptation.

DH: I discovered, thanks to reading it, how much his oeuvre is an incredible war machine against Catholicism, against the Church.

J-MS: Pavese is the most anti-clerical writer one can find. Along with Hölderlin. But while being very Italian and descending from Christian culture, it’s Pavese who goes the furthest.

Why did you have to date the film, 1947-2005?

J-MS: So that people know this text is not from today. 1947, it’s the time of hope after the war. The hyphen gives a feeling of «from birth to death», it’s a mistake.

Godard’s exhibition is entitle «Voyage(s) en utopie 1946-2006».

J-MS: That’s fine. At least there is a meeting there.

How did you get the production process going, where it was necessary to bring together the collaborators, the material, a bit of money?

J-MS: We like to work with people who are close to what we are doing, who know the locations and the local customs, the partners. Renato Berta had done the cinematography for the preceding films in the countryside around Buti…

DH: Moreover, he is Italian, Italian-Swiss, he has a more direct relationship to the text.

J-MS: And when you have a sound engineer with whom you’ve made films (Jean-Pierre Durat), it isn’t really necessary to go looking for another. It’s worth having people with whom you no longer need to discuss, to quarrel with, to control their work, that you know are craftsmen. You discover the result at the moviola.

DH: And they are happy to work with us. They always ask when we are doing the next one.

They must like to work with you, it’s certainly not for the money…

J-MS: Stop! You can’t make things up. Our technicians have always been paid, at least union wage. We have never exploited anyone.

DH: The first films where Willy Lubtchansky worked with us, we paid him, without a doubt, less than he could have gotten on industrial films, but when we did Une visite au Louvre, he told us that we paid him better than commercial films. The technicians are exploited more and more.

You received financing help in Italy to do the film? The Tuscany region helped you?

J-MS: Not directly, it was the theater that supported us. Those are pathetic amounts. At the time we shot Dalla nube alla resistenza, we had 25 million lira, the Tavianis, who were shooting Chaos, had 600 million. There’s the difference in how we earn our living. Then, we are punished because we make true European films. I remember a meeting with a representative from CNC for Dalla nube alla resistenza, after my amnesty1. I outlined the project for him, shot in Italian in the birthplace of Pavese, but with French technicians. He said to me, «Mr. Straub, I cannot stop you from filing for the avance sur recettes, but I will not send it to the committee». «Why?». «Because what you want to do is a savage film». «What’s that?». «You must understand that the French cinema is in a crisis. If you shot it in French, it would be different…». But Pavese wrote in Italian! I believe in the weight of words, that’s how we live.

DH: He finished by proposing that we shoot in Corsica, in the Corsican dialect, with French actors!

J-MS: We are punished for what we want to do, even if everybody does it later. We were punished for ten years because we wanted to do Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach with Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who nobody knew yet, but who is now a star, and with Gustav Leonhardt, who nobody knows neither. They proposed Karajan, I don’t know who else, and German actors…

Listening to you, one has the feeling that you follow your own path, despite whatever they want to impose upon you. Yet, the films are also addresses; they look for a common ground with the spectators.

J-MS: What interests us is to make a film so that someone, one day, will receive it, and share it, make something out of it for himself. That he feels while seeing the film the feeling that we felt and tried to share. All the artisanal work, the methods through which one arrives at speaking, derive from this. It’s what all filmmakers should do, they should occupy themselves with their subject, their subject, their subject, so that what they have to say is in the material of the film.

If you make a film, it’s to make a gift, to share what you yourself have discovered, with some work and some patience, like, for example, this text here. This gift is only possible through other gifts, those the actors make us, those the light makes, etc. But all the gifts can only be produced if there is a construction, an «iron frame» as Fritz Lang used to say. And in which chance makes everything explode, shine through. That’s it! But if there is not from the beginning a construction or a thought, chance won’t make you any gifts. It takes everything. Those who don’t leave it the possibility of intervening, poor souls. Chance is the most important of all. As much in life as in art.



1. Having refused to fight the Algerians, Jean-Marie Straub remained under charges for desertion until the mid-1980s. His amnesty, obtained thanks to the activism of his friends and the intervention of Jack Lang, allowed him to recover rights he had been deprived of for more than twenty years.


Statements registered on April 11, 2006 by Emmanuel Burdeau and Jean-Michel Frodon
Originally published in
Cahiers du cinéma, nº 616, October, 2006

Translation by Ted Fendt, 2009/2012