“Thingness over Illustration”
All Straub-Huillet on film in Paris

Covering the 1975 New York Film Festival, critics Manny Farber and Patricia Paterson described the style of Moses and Aaron as conveyed “through an uncompromising concern for Thingness over illustration. […] Ultimately, there is only examination of cracked walls, parched ground, wool, paralleling the same intense physicality of the musical sounds.” While I would add there is more to the film than this, Farber & Paterson do get at something few critics had homed in on at the time. And it was only in 2017 when I saw a good 35mm print of Moses and Aaron in Berlin that I really understood what he meant. In a good print of Moses and Aaron (and especially the films that came after it), the images have a nearly three-dimensional, tangible quality. The “sensual experience,” to quote Farber & Paterson again, of watching one of their films is best, maybe only, conveyed in the projection of a good film print.

If you missed the exhibition of these films on 35mm at the Austrian Film Museum this past summer, but you are now in Paris, the Cinémathèque française is offering such an opportunity. In an era when the world’s cinematheques and film museums are filling their calendars with more and more screenings showcasing the latest digital facsimiles, the Cinémathèque has made the excellent decision of an entirely analogue Straub-Huillet series running from February 29 to March 11. The prints, all from their own collection, include an array of pinnacle examples of what was possible with 16mm and 35mm technology between the 1960s and 2000s. As attested by their collaborators, Straub and Huillet were extremely precise and hands-on when it came to the processing, editing, printing, and projection of their films, always striving for the sharpest, most stable images, clear audio, and spotless prints. They went out of their way to print Moses and Aaron in Paris because they did not feel the Italian labs, closer to their home in Rome, could produce an optical soundtrack up to their standards.

Seen on film, Straub-Huillet’s films offer a projection of the world, intensified, on the screen. As such chances to see them this way have become rarer, the series at the Cinémathèque française is not to be missed.

Ted Fendt

Image of Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub delivering a print of ‘Sicilia’ with their Renault 4L by Richard Dumas, Agence VU.