Jean-Marie Straub: Hölderlin experienced the birth of the Wilhelmine Age. He was a young poet, full of high-flying plants; he said that himself. He was twenty-eight years old when he wrote The Death of Empedocles. In Germany between 1789 and 1798 all kinds of things had happened. Things had gone well for the ruling class, less well for other people. Büchner had had to flee, and some others as well . . . Hölderlin dreamed of the revolution—let’s call it that, even if the word is no longer in fashion today—a revolution that did not take place. As an ambitious young man he dreamed of a theater piece that was to be performed after the revolution and (in my opinion) in the open air. This dream, this utopia, is two hundred years old today and, one has to observe, more current than ever. Herr Hölderlin only experienced the beginnings of the Wilhelmine era, the so-called cultural revolution, industry, progress— the greatest fraud since time immemorial! Only surpassed by the belief in limitless growth. . .
Hölderlin said what he thought of this. The progress that Wilhelmine society believed in has come about thanks to the support of social democracy. This idea was later pursued by National Socialism, after that by capitalism. Hölderlin—lo and behold—captured utopia in words and in his mother tongue put it on paper in black and white.
Danièle Huillet: Which does not speak against him!
Jean-Marie Straub: Which proves that he was honest. Most of us would have gone crazy. We have found ways and means to repress everything; otherwise, we would have to go crazy. Hölderlin writes the story of a man who kills himself. There is a right to suicide; in this regard we should be generous. An intellectual has a responsibility.
He never interested me. I tried to read him, but he bored me. That is my failing. In regard to his relationship with Hölderlin— although I can’t stand Adorno at all: everything that he wrote about the relationship between Hölderlin and Heidegger is rather cruel. Adorno, the grand bourgeois assailing a petty bourgeois—but he is right. I can guarantee you, in France people talk about that a lot. The people who have read him in French translation would be better off not saying anything about it. That would be in their own best interest and in the interest of Heidegger. We should accept our linguistic limitations as a given; after all, we accept our class limitations, geographical borders, physical limitations, national borders . . . Why can’t we also accept our linguistic limitations?
It’s true when I say I don’t know Heidegger. I know that his aberrations lasted only a year, that even in this time he defended and protected Jews. If I had done what he had done, I would perhaps regret it now. But if I had had a say after the war, I would have shot Heidegger. After all, they shot Robert Brasillach¹, too.
This interview of Heidegger’s is the only text of his I know. He granted it to Der Spiegel on the condition that it be published only after his death. What he says is basically exactly what Goebbels dreamed of. . . That is my opinion and it’s polemical, but let’s call a spade a spade. In this interview he even formulates—perhaps not consciously—that he dreams of a God who would reconcile humanity with technology. The Nazis dreamed of that, too, but they were not intelligent enough to do it. If the Nazis had been more perfect, if Goebbels had had the money that capitalist society now has at its command, we would now be at that point. Naturally not even democracy is what we need, any more than capitalism. That is the exact opposite of the message in this film.
It is very simple and yet very difficult. This democracy has a name, and it will be called “communism,” in three centuries or in ten years. And if that is not accomplished, things do not look good for the children of this earth. Which does not mean that we are speaking of an apocalypse, on the contrary: we are only saying that the time is now short, very short.
Danièle Huillet: We showed them how they could extinguish themselves.
Jean-Marie Straub: To extinguish oneself, to start again from zero—that is very difficult. More difficult than fueling inflation. The capitalists who live off of inflation do not work; otherwise, they would earn no money. People who work earn no money.
Dnièle Huillet: When they had succeeded in extinguishing themselves, we asked them to develop something, to go out of themselves.
Jean-Marie Straub: When they had reached that point, they had to internalize.
An actor is a body that exists and express itself when one has the impression that what is being said isn’t even clear to the actor, and that what is said has many meanings and not the sense that one wants to impose on it. The actor has become a kind of sleepwalker. That is difficult work. It takes a lot of time and patience, on both sides.
WHAT FILM HAS TO SAY
Away with information science, bureaucracy, management, atomic power plants, chemistry, machines, propadæutics, sociology, political science. Let us try to start from scratch, before it is too late. But those are words the French will only listen to when all around them is only wasteland. Certainly not before. Voilà.
GODARD AND US
Godard is more interested in his own navel than what is happening around him. We are more interested in the outside world than in our own navel. He makes wonderful films—essays. Godard is like Adorno—there is the poet and the essayist. The poet is the one who makes something (in Greek, poietes, to make something, to produce); the essayist is the one who puts himself to the test. That is fine, but that does not interest us. What we try to explore are things that are outside ourselves. We address ourselves to texts that offer us resistance. We try to test them out; we make audiovisual objects out of them, which consist of movements, movements within a visual frame, movements of light and sound. We are more interested in the music than the ideas. Godard is more interested in the ideas than the music.
IN THE SERVICE OF A GREAT WORK
[Audience member:”Every artist deforms.”]
I have spoken of deformation in regard to painting. I don’t like generalizations. Our lowly work, the work of minor artists at the lowest level, consists of deforming as little as possible. The more one deforms, the more one takes oneself for God the Father; the less one deforms, the more satisfied one is.
¹ Robert Brasillach was a French journalist and editor of the nationalist newpaper, Je suis partout. He was executed in 1945 as part of the épuration movement after World War II.
Originally an oral exchange between the filmmakers and the public in Avignon, following a screening of The Death of Empedocles in 1987.
Does this [Maurice Blanchot, La Communauté inavouable] correspond to your experience of May ’68 or of the idea that you have of it?
Jean-Marie Straub/Danièle Huillet: I have no experience of May ’68. I would answer, as in Empedocles: “Jeder sei wie alle,” (Each be as all). It’s Empedocles’ big speech that I call Hölderlin’s communist utopia. You couldn’t make a better democratic declaration.
Jean-Marie Straub, Danièle Huillet | Qestionnaire on May 1968
JEAN-MARIE STRAUB AND DANIÈLE HUILLET
EDITED AND TRANSLATED BY SALLY SHAFTO WITH KATHERINE PICKARD
SEQUENCE PRESS, NEW YORK