Judge Joe Armenio has discovered the anti-biopic.
"The point of departure for our The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena
Bach was the idea of attempting a film in which music was utilized not as an
accompaniment, nor as a commentary, but as aesthetic material."
Biographical films based on the lives of artists ("biopics," in the slangy Variety-ese of critics) usually have at their heart some sort of theory on the origins of art. In Milos Forman's Amadeus, genius is a sort of cosmic accident; more commonly (see the recent twin towers of psychological biopic cheesiness, Ray and Walk the Line), art is a way of dealing with guilt, shame, and low self-esteem, usually inspired by events from the artist's childhood. As is perhaps fitting for stories about popular musicians, these films reassure us that the celebrity/genius is pretty much like us; he deals with issues we recognize (either from life or daytime TV) and gives them meaning through music. Thus the art itself is removed from the realm of the mysterious and made transparent.
Facts of the Case
All of this is an intro to Straub and Huillet's Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968), a film which is the opposite of the biopic: with its formal detachment, attention to historical detail, and focus on performances of J.S. Bach's music, the movie keeps its emotional distance and never attempts to explain the man's art in words other than his own. Most of the film consists of musicians in period dress and in historical locations performing Bach's music; the "story" is told through narration by Anna Magdalena, Bach's second wife (played by Christiane Lang; Bach is played by famed musician Gustav Leonhardt, in his only screen role). Dialogue sequences are few and far between.
The intensely formalist, mostly non-narrative work of Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet (the filmmakers are husband and wife) remains pretty much unknown in the United States. I've read about them through the articles of their main American champion, critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, but this New Yorker DVD of Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach is the first chance I've gotten to see their work. (Incidentally, the cover of the DVD calls it "A film by Jean-Marie Straub," but at the beginning of the film both Straub and Huillet are credited as directors. This seems like an ironically sexist gesture for a film which places in the foreground an artist's long-suffering, historically invisible wife.)
Their style could be called "observational" or "realistic," given that they avoid purely theatrical expressiveness, incidental use of music, cutting within scenes, and camera movement; most scenes here consist of a single long take using a fixed camera (there are occasional slow dollies in and out). The musical performances were all done using direct sound, so the viewer is hearing the actual record of concerts of sorts; these performances are all brilliant and vital, and constitute one of the most ambitious and fascinating of cinematic experiments in the possibilities of sound. Adding to the sense of realism is the strict attention to historical detail. The setting, instruments, and costumes of an actual Bach performance are meticulously approximated, and the story, such as it is, consists mainly of anecdotes involving Bach's day-to-day business, his disputes with patrons and fellow musicians, and his theories about music. But to call the film "realistic" is to ignore the fact that this is in no way conventional cinematic realism; a conventionally realistic film would not focus so intently on musical performance at the expense of almost all else, eschew narrative so entirely, or employ such emotionally distant actors. Look closely and you'll see that Straub and Huillet's camera placement often is far from straightforward; we see the musical performances at odd angles, usually rather close to the musicians, the camera dollying in or out occasionally for no immediately apparent reason, rarely giving us a full glimpse at the entire orchestra or its surroundings. Johann and Anna Magdalena Bach remain similarly shadowy as characters. Bach is primarily motivated by a strict and humorless German nationalism and Christian faith, not the most immediately understandable motives for a 21st Century cinephile, and he and Anna seem always to be losing infant children; no doubt a conventional biopic would see Bach's art as arising from a bottomless grief, but Straub and Huillet give us no
such explanation. Straub has described the film as a "love story," and indeed they present us with an Anna Magdalena who is quietly devoted to her husband. The closest the directors come to the conventional expression of emotion is in scenes in which Anna practices the harpischord (once with a child at her feet) using the exercises written for her by her husband.
So while Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach does not owe much to cinematic realism, neither does it draw much overt attention to its style. The filmmaker to whom Straub and Huillet seem to owe the most is Robert Bresson, whose style also travels past both realism and stylization. Like Bresson, they purge their film ruthlessly of all the cinematic devices that tell the viewer what to think. Also like Bresson, the Straub and Huillet style is built on paradox: they employ performers whose lack of emotion paradoxically suggests great turmoil beneath the placid surface, and they use intensely detailed physical environments to create a mysterious, ethereal effect.
New Yorker presents the film in a "windowboxed" format, with thin black bars on all four sides of the screen. The transfer is serviceable, if a little soft in places. The original mono sound is sharp, carrying the performances of Leonhardt and company with great force and clarity. The accompanying booklet contains a brief essay by New York Press critic Armond White, an excerpt from Richard Roud's book on Straub, a statement about the film by Straub himself, comments by Straub and Leonhardt about each other, a timeline of Bach's life, and a helpful listing of all the musical performances in the film. The only extra on the DVD is a 20-minute piece on the making of the film from around the time of its release; it's of unexplained provenance but I'd guess it's from West German TV. It features interviews with Straub, Huillet, and Leonhardt, as well as some interesting footage of Straub directing Leonhardt in one of his few dialogue sequences.
This one is bound to be a little puzzling if you're not on Straub and Huillet's cinematic wavelengh, but anyone who responds to Bresson, or who has an interest in some of the underexplored corners of European art film, will likely be mesmerized.
Good stuff. It would terrific to see next a DVD of Straub and Huillet's highly-acclaimed 1982 film Too Early, Too Late.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
• Historical "Making Of" Featurette
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