- Orality and Objectification:Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, Filmmakers and Translators
Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub are filmmakers of principle. Since the beginning of the 1960s, they have been constructing a highly coherent body of work, based on a certain number of very precise, concrete laws. Some of those rules have changed with time and history; others have remained untouched, rigorously observed from the first film until today. They are not an artificial set of constraints, designed to complicate a game that would otherwise be too simple; rather, they define the artist’s position in the world, in the historical moment and political situation in which they live and work, the place where they stand. Some of those rules are explicit: for instance, the sound on the film has to be the sound produced there and then, when the film was shot. There can be no exception. Other rules are less clearly formulated.
For example, all Huillet and Straub films originated from a previous work. There is always a text before there is the film, out of which the film emerges. Probably not a single line was ever spoken by a character in a film by Huillet and Straub that was not a quote. That is not really a law; Danièle Huillet would probably have said that it is basically humility. In any case, it’s the way they worked: they needed something to react to, something that would resist them, for which they would feel both brotherhood and strangeness, admiration and anger.
So all their films have been adaptations1, in a very specific sense—whether from Heinrich Böll, Arnold Schoenberg, Bertolt Brecht, Cesare Pavese, Stéphane Mallarmé, Marguerite Duras, Franz Kafka, Friedrich Hölderlin, Paul Cézanne, Elio Vittorini, etc. In this perspective, one could argue, as Barton Byg did in his 1995 book on Huillet and Straub’s work, that it exemplifies a conception of “film as translation” (Byg 199). And it is true that the two actions of translating a text and of adapting it for film share common points and problems. But in fact, Huillet and Straub have had to become translators in the narrowest sense of the word.
Because of the place of previous texts in the construction of their films, Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub have had to build, from the very beginning, a cinematic approach to language that would be coherent with their poetics—and politics—as a whole. This implies considering language in all of its material forms and presence within film: as sound [End Page 47] and as image, as spoken word and as subtitles. Both are important objects of reflection for Huillet and Straubt, as both crucially engage the artists’ and the spectators’ relations to language as well as to film form in general. In their films, attention to language as sound and meaning involves questions of grammar as well as a precise organization of rhythm and diction; and subtitles involve translation and the configuration of the spectators’ gaze on the screen. In all those dimensions, the basic principle of Huillet and Straub’s approach is the only possible kind of respect to the original work: neither fidelity nor interpretation, but absolute literalness. In that, they are truly Benjaminian filmmakers, though their essays of reference may be more “The Task of the Translator” than “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In fact, as we will see, “The Storyteller” could also be considered a major reference for understanding their conception of cinema as essentially belonging to oral culture. This double aesthetic and political bind to the materiality of language and to orality led the filmmakers to give a very specific role to translation in their work.
Dubbing as Murder
Huillet and Straub’s particular conception of the place and function of language in film can be perceived through their relations to dubbing and subtitling. They have had many times throughout their career to defend their position on this matter. The first case, and probably the most resounding one, occurred during the post-production of Les Yeux ne veulent pas en tout temps se fermer...