This review for the March 1976 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin was part of a larger project, tied to my position as the magazine’s assistant editor, to have other films by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet that were distributed in the U.K. reviewed in the magazine — in that particular issue, History Lessons (by Yehuda E. Safran), as well as The Bridegroom, the Comedienne and the Pimp (by Tony Rayns) and Introduction to Arnold Schoenberg’s Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene (by Jill Forbes). That same issue of the magazine inaugurated a back-cover feature that persisted for the publication’s remaining life and years, devoted in this particular case to a detailed bibliography that I compiled of interviews, scripts, and “other statements and texts” by Straub and Huillet, in half a dozen different languages. —J.R.
Nicht Versöhnt oder Es hilft nur Gerwalt, wo Gerwalt herrscht (Not Reconciled, or Only Violence Helps Where Violence Rules)
West Germany, 1965
Director: Jean-Marie Straub
“Far from being a puzzle film (like Citizen Kane or Muriel), Not Reconciled is better described as a ‘lacunary film’, in the same sense that Littré defines a lacunary body: a whole composed of agglomerated crystals with intervals among them, like the interstitial spaces between the cells of an organism”. Jean-Marie Straub’s description of his second film and second Heinrich Böll adaptation (after Machorka-Muff) helps to explain why, although it has more plot than any of his other works — containing even more characters and intrigues than Othon — it is virtually impossible to paraphrase in the form of a synopsis. Covering half a century of German history (roughly 1910-1960) as seen through the reflecting prism of one middle-class family — the architect Heinrich Fähmel, his wife Joanna, and their sons Heinrich, Robert, and Otto; Robert’s wife Edith and their children Joseph and Ruth — the films between various periods achronologically, a form of fragmentation counteracted by Straub’s decision to “eliminate as much as possible any historical aura in both costumes and sets, thus giving the images a kind of atonal character” and, in one instance, have an actor (George Zander) play two different characters some twenty years apart. Effectively placing all events in the same present tense, the film thus prevents the spectator from either reorder them chronologically or, in some cases, understanding whether the movement between sequences takes one forward or backward in time. That all these questions can be resolved by referring to Böll’s novel Billiards at Half-Past Nine or the chronological summary in Richard Roud’s Straub may be helpful in analyzing the film’s material origins, but is less immediately relevant to the experience which the film affords — a procession of events of varying legibility which all bear equal weight in their depiction of Nazism through what preceded, followed, and accompanied it, specifically in relation to the moral codes of the bourgeoisie. The difficulty, therefore, in describing Straub as a “minimalist” is that this implies a reduction of the original material to its “minimal” components, when in fact he has suppressed many of the narrative elements that are essential to the novel’s continuity while highlighting other aspects which point towards an independent reading of the text. Persistence rather than continuity is what emerges from Not Reconciled, and it is worth considering some of the active ingredients which comprise this persistence. While Citizen Kane and Muriel tend to converge on the spectre of an inaccessible past which is viewed as a form of causality in relation to the present, the achronological episodes of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and Resnais’ Je t’aime, je t’aime compose mosaics where the focus is more divergent, and Straub’s film appears at least superficially closer to the latter two examples. Where it differs crucially is in its avoidance of either psychology or lyricism to bridge its “lacunary” gaps, and a recourse to materialism that operates structurally in much the same way that romanticism functions for Faulkner and Resnais. The particular strategies behind this materialism can be found in Straub’s other works: direct sound; often beginning a shot before the “action” proper begins and concluding it afterwards, which partially serves to detach the locations from the characters; camera placement and movement which conversely serve to set off characters from their surroundings; violence suggested rather than depicted; a use of rear-projection (as in Chronik der Anna Magdalenda Bach) which calls attention to its own artifice; and performances by non-professionals which are largely “recitations” in the Brechtian manner. (Apropos of the latter, it is worth noting that Straub originally intended -– somewhat paradoxically -– to cast Helene Wiegel, an actress and Brecht’s widow, in the part of Johanna; the part of Robert Fähmel at 40 was iniotially planned for Karlheinz Stockhausen, one of the few defenders of Machorka-Muff, who bowed out of the role because of his inability to play billiards.) More specifically, persistence figures in the reiterated phrase of Johanna’s, “the fool of a Kaiser”, and her subsequent decision to shoot a government dignitary — her “grandson’s murderer” -– in the film’s closing moments, which succinctly illustrates the subtitle Only Violence Helps Where Violence Rules while providing a sharp contrast with the more quirky and lyrical murder (and subsequent pan to a bright window) concluding The Bridegroom, the Comedienne and the Pimp, which spells out a similar theme. For all its difficulty and complexity as an integral narrative, Not Reconciled registers more simply and conventionally than Straub’s other works within its individual sequences, and is perhaps his only film to which the usual concept of mise en scène can comfortably be applied: a circular pan of about 300° to Schrella visiting his old house after the war immediately recalls godard both visually and aurally, while the “musical” uses of silence and contrasting tempi often reflect Antonioni and Bresson.And thematically as well as structurally, Johanna’s murder of Minister M. ultimately brings one back to Bernard’s shooting of Robert, a fellow soldier in Algeria now working for the OAS, near the end of Muriel. (Significantly, Straub has traced the original impulse of Not Reconciled back to his curiosity concerning what had become of his French friends who had fought in Algeria.) But in sharp contrast to the linear and basically chronological fragmentation of Muriel, Straub’s “lacunary film” depicts a continuum of time and place in which nothing of consequence is elided, and where the state of being “not reconciled” -– Germany with its own history, the spectator with Straub’s “agglomerated crystals” –- is ultimately attributable less to what has been taken away than to what remains, implacable and inescapable, in the hard certainty of sounds and images.
–Monthly Film Bulletin, March 1976 (vol. 43, no. 506)