- Technology, Liveness, and Presence in Straub-Huillet's Film of Schoenberg's Von heute auf morgen
Schoenberg knew that fashions can be destructive.—Jean-Marie Straub
Today is not the first time available technologies and materials have inspired the imagination.—Theodor W. Adorno
This article examines Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet's "live opera film" Von heute auf morgen, an adaptation of Schoenberg's twelve-tone opera of the same name, completed in 1928, first staged in Frankfurt in 1930, and a thinly veiled attack on what its composer viewed as the "here today gone tomorrow" quality of much contemporary modernism. Shot in Frankfurt on 35mm in 1996 and performed by the Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Frankfurt with Michael Gielen conducting and Christine Whittlesey and Richard Salter in the leading roles, the film premiered in Paris on February 12, 1997, and was first broadcast on German television by Hessischer Rundfunk and Westdeutscher Rundfunk on January 7, 1998.1 In a process Patrick Primavesi has described as "a revolution in the history of opera films," image and sound were recorded simultaneously, creating a new encounter between cinema and liveness a decade before the first cinecast opera (the New York Metropolitan Opera's Magic Flute of 2006).2 Situated unambiguously within the Brechtian tradition of political modernist filmmaking, Von heute auf morgen eschews what Martin Barker has termed the "technical transparency" typical of livecasting.3 It not only challenges the notion that liveness in film is "something impossible to conceive,"4 but also counters, I will argue, the claims of two of the most widely cited scholars in the field of Performance Studies: first, Peggy Phelan's assertion that [End Page 324] when "performance attempts to enter the economy of reproduction it betrays and lessens the promise of its own ontology";5 second, Erika Fischer-Lichte's contention in The Transformative Power of Performance that while technical media "might simulate effects of presence, they are unable to generate presence itself."6
Schoenberg's drama is a comic Zeitoper set in the period of its composition; its libretto, by Schoenberg's wife, Gertrud (using the pseudonym Max Blonda), incorporates a radio and telephone into the narrative. That the opera itself should engage with media technology is significant in the context of the questions of liveness and reproduction raised by Straub-Huillet's adaptation, and it is a reminder that Schoenberg was in fact an enthusiastic, if critical and demanding, advocate of the technologies of reproduction who, with considerable conceptual dexterity, managed to span Fischer-Lichte's apparently "unbridgeable chasm" between "performance and a fixed, reproducible artifact."7 This brings Schoenberg into unexpectedly close proximity to some of his more political contemporaries, not least Walter Benjamin, who claimed in his famous 1935 essay "The Work of Art in the Age of [its] Mechanical Reproduction" that "mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual."8 As will become clear in what follows, Straub-Huillet's Von heute auf morgen demonstrates how "the total function of art is reversed" through the cinematic construction of liveness, that "[i]nstead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice—politics."9
Schoenberg and Technology
As early as 1913, in a remarkable letter to Emil Hertzka concerning a proposed film adaptation of his "drama with music in one act" Die glückliche Hand, Schoenberg spoke enthusiastically about the new technology of cinema, suggesting that his drama should be accompanied by footage hand-painted by Oskar Kokoschka, Wassily Kandinsky, or Alfred Roller. The result, he wrote, would resonate "for the eyes alone" ("bloß fürs Auge klingen").10 Later in his career, for example in the essay "Art and the Moving Pictures," he enthusiastically welcomed cinema's ability to manipulate different perceptions of time through montage: "I had dreamed of a dramatization of Balzac's Seraphita, or Strindberg's To Damascus, or the second part of Goethe's Faust, or even Wagner's Parsifal. All of these works, by renouncing the law of 'unity of space and time,' would have found the solution to realization in sound pictures."11 For Schoenberg, film—like music—can...