Renato Berta, AFC, hails the legacy of Jean-Marie Straub

by Renato Berta Contre-Champ AFC n°338

[ English ] [ français ]

The cinema of Jean-Marie Straub and his companion Danièle Huillet was a radical and demanding body of work. Since their Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1967), which was a rigorous portrait of the Leipzig cantor’s wife, the filmmaking couple never stopped exploring literature, theater, music and poetry. Renato Berta, AFC, was one of their longest-standing collaborators, and he filmed over a dozen of their movies. He reflects with us upon this unique cinema experience. (FR)

How did you meet Jean-Marie Straub?

Renato Berta: I met Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet almost by accident. It was in 1968. I was just beginning my career as a cameraman. During one of my trips between Switzerland and Italy, the director of the Cinémathèque de Lausanne asked me to do him a favor and bring a 35 mm copy to Jean-Marie and Danièle who were living in Rome at that time. When I dropped off the reels at their house, I began a conversation with them, and they told me about their upcoming project, which was a film based on a play by Corneille, shot in Rome. At that time, my major selling point as a beginner cameraman was an Éclair 16 Camera and a good series of lenses that I was able to acquire with the help of a producer who liked me. It was the late 1960s and the quality of cameras and lenses that were then available for rent wasn’t great. 35 mm was the norm, and 16 was considered to be a bit an amateur’s system, or just for television. So, it was really important to be able to rely on your own equipment if you wanted to film that way. When I mentioned the kit I was so proud of, I immediately noticed Jean-Marie’s eyes gleaming. “That’s great,” he said, “let’s shoot our film with your camera!” That’s how I began to work as an assistant cameraman with them on Othon, with Ugo Piccone as the DoP, the cinematographer who had also shot Magdalena Bach.

On the set of "Othon" in 1969 - From L to R: Danièle Huillet, Ugo Piccone, partially hidden behind her, Louis Hochet has his back to the camera with a Nagra III, the Éclair 16, Renato Berta and Jean-Marie Straub
On the set of "Othon" in 1969
From L to R: Danièle Huillet, Ugo Piccone, partially hidden behind her, Louis Hochet has his back to the camera with a Nagra III, the Éclair 16, Renato Berta and Jean-Marie Straub

Given that this was a super-low-budget film, they had offered me to stay with them in their apartment which had a view on the Piazza della Rovere. The weeks I spent in their company were a unique life experience, which went far beyond a simple shoot. This led to a long relationship between us and many films, with all sorts of highs and lows!

Who were they influenced by ?

RB : They were both major cinephiles. Even though their films might seem marginal, their masters were Fritz Lang and John Ford. But it must be said that you’d have to try hard to identify John Ford’s work in Jean-Marie and Danielle’s films! Yet, even though they always remained in a radical approach to filmmaking, their films were known throughout the world. Whether you travel to Chili or to Afghanistan, you can always count on finding someone who knows their body of work inside and out, a bit like an “Internationale” of Straub’s cinema. I myself had just this experience in Morocco, in Fez, during location scouting in a house located in the medina. I was so surprised when one of the young sons of the owners stopped me and asked me if I’d really worked with Jean-Marie… I almost passed out!

What was a shoot like with them?

RB: Their system was mainly based on the actors and their performance of the script. Sound was valued as highly as the image, and the musicality of the dialogues seemed often to me to take on more importance than the script itself. For them, form was capital, and they’d spend months practicing diction with the actors, who were often not professional actors. They worked on the musicality of words, which would lead to a pretty phenomenal amount of takes, usually around twenty. Danièle would say that the richness of their films came from the number of takes and the days where they’d shoot one or two shots per day (maximum). The camera was often static and the image and the lighting of course had to change during the takes. You had to remain highly attentive and keep an eye on everything, knowing that only one take would be kept during the whole process… The lighting and sound would move, even the actors’ performance would change with each take, and they’d take on slightly different forms that they relied on as directors, without ever reversing course. For them, only the continuity of the script mattered. The sound engineer and I, as cinematographer, were often “in God’s hands”. Their extreme approach affected everyone. There were their fans who loved it, and others who hated it.

How would you define their approach to cinema?

RB: Their cinema, at heart, was an attempt to create total freedom inside an extremely rigid setup. Therein lay a philosophical reflection on the very nature of liberty itself, which requires rules in order to exist. I remember, for example, spending hours determining the frame for each shot, like a precise structure inside which we allowed the actors, the lighting, and the text to come alive… Jean-Marie was more concerned with the image, the frame, and the placement of the actors, while Daniele would pay more attention to the sound, listening to the circled takes and deciding whether or not we’d move on to the next shot. I think that I never once met other filmmakers who took their system to such lengths and remained faithful to a logic of filmmaking that they had devised and perfected on their own. It was such a particular approach to them.

Was he a director who liked the technical side of things?

RB: It’s undeniable that the Nouvelle Vague popularized the notion of a director who is the absolute author and sometimes it portrayed technicians as obstacles to the creative process. Of course, there has to be an orchestra conductor on a set, but I remain convinced that any film is made by multiple people, exactly the way that soloists in an orchestra can bring their own contribution to the interpretation of a work of music. It’s true that I was often in disagreement with Jean-Marie on this point – as I was with Jean-Luc Godard, with whom I’ve also worked. Our discussions became a bit animated in their tone and their arguments! In any case, the discourse that tends to group all technicians together as “enemies” on set often exasperated me… It’s similar to a way of thinking that puts a particular group of people in the same bag, without distinguishing between individuals. The important thing on a film is to know what it is possible to do and what cannot be done… A bit like when music goes in a direction, and you know exactly which direction it is going in.

A memory from a shoot?

RB: On Les Chiens du Sinaï (adapted from the book by Italian writer Franco Fortini), I remember a discussion over a 360° panoramic shot from above on a rostrum. A complex shot that Jean-Marie had requested me to make. I’d come to terms with the idea, but I needed to know how he was planning on using the shot in the final cut, in particular to know whether it should begin with a fixed shot or whether it should be taken entirely in movement… Faced with the (multiple) options, I suggested we make not one, but two, continuous panoramas. That would enable him to precisely choose the starting point if necessary. Discovering the film’s final cut several weeks later, I suddenly realized that the two panoramic shots had been kept in their entirety. I still hear him saying to me with a smile “This shot is great. I can still hear your heart pounding when you saw it on screen!”

A film you’d recommend?

RB: I have excellent memories of Othon. I sometimes enjoyed teasing them by saying it was the only comedy in their entire filmography. Seeing the characters interpret lines of the classic play by Pierre Corneille in the midst of contemporary Rome, was so zany and brave that it even became comical. Jean-Marie would laugh when I’d say that… And then, of course, their first film Les Chroniques d’Anna Magdalena Bach which I didn’t work on, but is a splendid film about music.

(Interview by François Reumont for the AFC, and translated from French by Alexander B.-Raiffe)