Class Relations
Reviewed by David Sterritt

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Written, directed, and edited by Danièlle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub; produced by Klaus Hellwig; cinematography by William Lubtchansky, Caroline Champetier, and Christophe Pollock; with Christian Heinisch, Nazzareno Bianconi, Mario Adorf, Laura Betti, Harun Farocki, Manfred Blank, Reinald Schnell, Anna Schnell, Klaus Traube, Hermann Hartmann, Gérard Samaan, Jean-François Quinque, Willi Vöbel, Tilman Heinisch, Anne Bold, Burckhardt Stoelck, Aloys Pompetzki, Willi Dewelk, Libgart Schwarz, Kathrin Bold, Alfred Edel, Andi Engel, Alf Bold, Salvatore Sammartino, Klaus Feddermann, Henning Rademacher, Franz Hillers, Lydia Bozyk, Georg Brintrup, Barton Byg, Thom Andersen. 1984. DVD, B&W, 122 mins. Released by Edition Filmmuseum.

Danièlle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub made films together from 1963, when their political satire Machorka-Muff helped launch the German New Wave, until Huillet's death in 2006 at age seventy. In one of film distribution's most unconscionable scandals, however, at the present time a grand total of two Huillet-Straub productions are readily available to American viewers, be they cinephiles with a longing for more exposure to these cineastes or more casual moviegoers who enjoy discovering new pleasures and challenges in film. Given the virtual invisibility of Huillet and Straub to the great majority of potential admirers, I'll begin this review by mentioning their most important titles. Their masterpieces as co-directors include the 1968 music-and-history film The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, the 1972 sociopolitical critique History Lessons, the 1975 opera film Moses and Aaron, the 1982 educational comedy En Rachâchant, and the 1999 cultural portrait Sicilia! Their other collaborations, equally stunning and original, include Not Reconciled or Only Violence Helps Where Violence Rules (1965), The Bridegroom, the Comedienne and the Pimp (1968), and Introduction to Arnold Schoenberg's Accompaniment to a Cinematic Scene (1973). The two films currently available on DVD in the American market are The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach and now, from Edition Filmmuseum in Europe, a two-disc presentation of Class Relations, the adaptation of Franz Kafka's novel Amerika that Huillet and Straub completed in the all-too-appropriate year of 1984.

Of the Huillet-Straub features awaiting DVD presentation, Class Relations is among the best choices to release, since it's among their most accessible and "entertaining" works. I put quotes around that word because these filmmakers have stood in career-long opposition to the diversion and distraction that are endemic in commercial cinema; but even abstruse works like History Lessons, not to mention the visually magnificent Sicilia! and the sonically sensuous Moses and Aaron, are entertaining if having your intellect roused and your senses stimulated is your idea of a good time, as it is for me. Class Relations is also a smart choice because Kafka's name might draw in viewers who wouldn't otherwise respond to the Huillet-Straub trademark, just as Bach's name surely helped The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach reach the DVD market. But while this may have motivated the Austrian Film Museum to initiate the DVD packaging of Class Relations, it's unlikely the filmmakers ever thought of Kafka's name as a marketing tool–their aversion to such capitalistic skullduggery is bone deep, and anyone who doubts it has only to notice that they named their movie Class Relations, not Amerika, despite the latter's prominence in the sixties and after as a shorthand word for United States imperialism, arrogance, and decadence. In avoiding Amerika as a title the filmmakers also follow Kafka, since he called it The Man Who Disappeared; the one-word title was imposed by Kafka's literary executor Max Brod when he prepared the manuscript for posthumous publication.

Kafka's novel – his first, and, like his other long works, left unfinished at his death– tells the peripatetic story of Karl Rossmann, another of the author's intriguing "K" characters, and of his exploits in the United States, where the young man is dispatched after impregnating a family servant back home. After meeting him on shipboard as he arrives in New York Harbor, we follow his adventures with a couple of ne'er-do-well friends named Delamarche and Robinson, various women, and ultimately the proprietors of the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma, where Kafka intended to leave him at the end of the narrative, the only one of the author's protagonists to be living a contented life on the final page.

Kafka never visited the United States, so his descriptions of American people, places, and things are gleaned entirely from reading, research, and imagination. Amerika has often been taken as a narrative of exile, and particularly of the mental and psychological exile that can afflict one even in one's own home. Huillet and Straub spent their careers in exile–geographically from their native France, since they worked mostly in other European countries, and professionally from the commercial cinema, which excluded them from its domain as relentlessly as they excluded it from theirs. Yet in a DVD bonus film by Manfred Blank, comprising a casual interview with them, Straub has no patience with the notion that they adapted Amerika because of an artist-in-exile connection. Rossmann is not Straub and Straub is not Rossmann, he declares, any more than Bach and Straub were equivalents for each other in 1968, no matter how many critics misguidedly said they were; injecting yourself into the text is the sort of nineteenth-century thing that Jean-Luc Godard does, he continues, and notwithstanding his "respect and reverence" for Godard, it's something he and Huillet don't want any part of.

If it's not about exile, then, what is Class Relations about? The title tells one part of it–as a fresh face in the land, with limited experience and an inconsequential résumé, Rossmann has all sorts of class-based encounters in the allegedly classless society he's visiting. Another key theme is embedded in the film's minimalist style and austerity of means, which reflect the staunchly materialist vision of Huillet-Straub cinema; in the Blank documentary, Straub speaks skeptically of Orson Welles's expressionist shot of a roomful of dehumanized typists in his 1962 adaptation of The Trial, saying that a single real prop would have carried more authentic ideological weight. The varied but usually low-key acting techniques of Class Relations, approaching the sprechgesang of German music and recalling the antirealist styles of Bertolt Brecht and the Living Theatre, are also important to its meaning, especially where the main character is concerned. French critic Alain Bergala has linked this with a democratic outlook in the film, but Straub has a very different take. "I don't think much of democracy," he says in the Blank documentary, "because it's always the lowest common denominator. We want the opposite of that – the highest common denominator, the broadest common denominator….Karl Rossmann is no more important or less important than any other character….The film has a subjective perspective because it shows everyone from Karl Rossmann's perspective, but it's also objective because Karl Rossmann is seen from the same perspective." Huillet adds a mild corrective to this – "It's a brotherly perspective"–and Straub accepts it, leading to general agreement that the filmmakers are ultimately "accomplices" with Karl, and so are the cameras and microphones, and so are we when we're watching the film. Class Relations is the first Huillet-Straub film since The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach to have what they call a "persisting character," and their preference for that term over "protagonist" reveals their embrace of a democracy defined very differently, and examined far more critically, than the phony individualism peddled by conventional movies.

In a statement about the DVD release, the project's supervisors say that they intend it as a "study edition" rather than a luxury package with lots of fun bonuses. Be this as it may, the two-disc set has generous extras. The most important is Blank's sixty-five-minute documentary, for its explicit content and also for what it reveals about Huillet and Straub as personal and professional partners; if I've mainly quoted Straub in the preceding paragraphs, it's because he takes over at the get-go and dominates the conversation from start to finish, occasionally letting Huillet get in a few words edgewise, which she does, sitting modestly at his feet, with quiet gracefulness. Also fascinating is a forty-two-minute look at rehearsals for the film, made by Harun Farocki, wherein Straub and Huillet direct the performances with full attention to psychological and emotional resonance, far from the dryly polemical approach you might expect from reading their harsher critics. The one disappointing extra promises twenty minutes of "genetic analysis of the sign structure and rhetoric" in the opening sequences, but provides only a few alternate takes with little analysis or interpretation. Also included is a CD-ROM section with German-language interviews, annotated script pages, and other such supplements. I found this time-consuming to access and awkward to use on my Mac, and since the movie discs are in PAL format, you'll need an all-region player to watch them.

None of which should stand in your way. Huillet and Straub rank with the masters of modern film, and this is a long-overdue chance to spend quality time with one of their most illustrious works.

To buy Class Relations click here

David Sterritt is Chairman of the National Society of Film Critics and adjunct professor at Columbia University and the Maryland Institute College of Art.

Copyright © 2008 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.