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Gabriel Almeida

Professors Bruce Jenkins and David Kross

Form and Meaning
April 28th, 2015

Should I perhaps orient myself to a temporary phenomenon like the American

film market, which within two decades with a rapacious culture has
succeeded in destroying a thing that was good? When I think about film I
think about future films, which must necessarily be artistic films. And for
these films my music can be useful

Arnold Schoenberg, discussion on the Berliner Radio, 30th March 1931

If we would ever attempt a classification of the arts by their aesthetic
capacities to relate with the object we would easily find that cinema








representative and even when emancipation from representation is the

goal they are weighted as such rather than inherently free. Film, and to
lower extent photography, were originally created to fulfill the
psychological fixation with realism. Only music, in its abstractness,
wings further from the shadow of its object and falls in the
psychological tramps only by the less attentive. Language, however, is
different. The random relationship between signifier and signified as
first proposed by Saussure illustrate the degree of separation in which
we can conceive such a relationship. Language, by its long habitation
in human apprehension, has been even considered as a determinative

of the latter. During several years, scientific linguistics tough language

as schemata, for example, Whorf's linguistic determinism hypothesis
which is the idea that language and its structures limit and determine














mechanical/computational set of processes for communication and a

something that possesses the uniqueness of human language, even if
it is just the form the latter combines. The hypothesis is illuminating as
it shows the tendency to present language as a neural form (the








(mechanical or sensory-motor/ computational-intentional systems as

they are technically called) without leaving impressions on humans
mind. Thus, we might consider language, according to linguistics, both
independent of the mind and a natural determinant of it. This
ambiguous position informs most contemporary views of the subject.
Literature and cinema, which are the arts that are closer to the idea of










understanding. The question, for example, whether a novel can utilize

syntax and sound plastically and still narrate, is culturally problematize
by the reduction of language to a communicative tool, which is the
basic premises of the sciences.
The freedom of an image to express has changed historically more
prominently in the ways language has been understood. Early silent

films develop different methods of montage in which the plasticity of

an image; its lighting, angle, durations among other qualities permitted
the filmmakers to construct meaning. Around 1930-1940, films also

Moses and Aaron has been consistently throughout the years

considered one of the major films made by the filmmakers Jean Marie
Straub and Danielle Huillet. Staged in the Amphitheatre of Alba Fucens,
close to the city of Avezanno in Italy, at the foot of the Monte Velino
and based on the unfinished opera of the same title by the Austrian
composer Arnold Schoenberg, whose libretto is at the same time
composed after the story of Moses and Aaron in the Book of Exodus;
the film is normally recognized for its complexity and numerous layers
of expression. In this paper, I will attempt to describe how by means of








communicate important qualities of the story. At the same time, the

filmmakers seem to make an assertion about the relationships between
the characters by their position not only in the set, but also in the
picture plane. Similarly, in the second part of this paper will try to
highlight what is the correspondence between Schoenberg opera and
Straub-Huillet film, and how the music and the words are utilized,
changed or distorted by their relations to the image.

Cinematic Space

It is not the decor that determines the gesture; it is often the gesture,
in this extravaganza, that determines the decor.
It is a tragic blow when landscape and natural elements,
storms or waves, act as destiny.
Eric Rohmer,
The Organization of Space in Murnau's Faust.
Paris: Union Gnrale d'Editions, 1977.

Jacques Aumont correctly states on his essay The Invention of a

Place that the adaptation of Schoenberg text confronts the filmmakers
with a series of problems at the moment to decide exactly where the
film can take place. One of these problems is the locations in the text
by Schoenberg are only sketchy biblical locations, they are purely
symbolic, almost entirely coinciding with their specific names.
(Aumont 2) For example, the place of revelation, the place where
Moses meets Aaron, the place for the public address for the two voices
before the people, for the encounter with God, for the pagan orgies or
for the punishment of Aaron. However, as opposed to Aumont, I do not
believe that the choice of the amphitheater on Alba Fucens was a
solution just because of its historicity. A viewer of the film can absorb
all of the characteristics of the space without knowing that the place in

which it is being shoot was built in the year 40 of our calendar, under
the rule of the Roman Emperor Caligula, nor that it might have been
used for pagan festivities, the same that are rejected by Aaron in the
film. (Aumont 4) This are more intellectual pleasures, that although
can be considered as one of the layers offered by the film, does not
describe the best of what is created by the filmmakers in this specific

If we follow Huillets annotation in A Work Journal of the Straub/Huillet

Film Moses and Aaron by Gregory Woods, we find that:
In this search we covered 11,000 km on paved and unpaved
roads during five weeks, profiting from my mothers vacation
and, hence, from her small Citron. We discovered Alba Fucense
[sic] almost at the beginning of our trip, but as we didnt yet
know exactly what we were looking for (we left with the idea of a
plateau and a mountain it was left for us to discover as the
voyage went along that a plateau wasnt protected from the wind
nor from the noises that rise from the valley, and that the
theatre action, as well as the singing risked being dispersed
there, and that we did indeed need a plateau, but one with a
hole in it, and that this amphitheater was not the only hole in the
plateau in a mountain setting, but whats more the theatrical
space which would concentrate the action instead of dispersing

it, and all that in a geologically volcanic countryside ) (Woods


We can notice that, apart from being the practical (or realistic) option,
Alba Fucens, was not chosen for its historicity, but for its audiovisual
characteristics. Straub and Huillet greatly incorporate in Moses and
Aaron all the visual capacities of the landscape of Alba Fucens. By
means of mise-en-scene, as well as its correspondence with the
editing, the landscape and space itself become and element of the

The first visual feature mentioned by Huillet (and that according to her,
Straub fall in love at first sight), is the oval shape of the
amphitheater. As we can see in Image1, taken from Huillets writing,
there is a statement being made by the position of the characters in
real space. The image describes the longest section of the first act,
when Moses and Aaron met and try to convince people to believe on
their God. The priest is located in opposition to the three soloists, as
well as Moses and Aaron to the choir that represents the mass of
people. They are opposed to each other, as they are in conflict with the
ideas of the other. This arrangement determinates and is highlighted
by the editing and its correspondence with the text. The camera does
not cut in between Mosses-Aarons or the peoples speeches, but pans

through all the stage, making the viewer aware of their actual spatial
opposition. In a different scene, the soloists, a woman and two men,
are trying to convince people of the veracity and opportunity of
freedom offered by this new God, while they are rejected by the priest
talking about the forces of the Pharaoh. In these shoot, the camera
pans several times from one side to the other, going through the
people and keeping them always perfectly framed and focus. They are
shown in space as they actually are in the story, in middle of these two
forces, without certainty.


A different way in which Straub and Huillet use space onscreen is to

create a difference or any other relations between their characters. At
the beginning of the first act, as well as when Moses meets Aaron, we
can see how these two characters are differentiated with their way and
the space they occupied on the image. Moses seems always enormous,
using most of the space on the screen, while Aaron is slightly smaller
and thinner, he posses less power until the low-angle shot of the
second act, when Moses is not longer there. (Image 2)
Another used of the pictorial space seems to be highlighted in the
variety of shots of the chorus. The best example of this is at the
beginning of the second act, when we have several shots of people
occupying almost the entire space on the plane while they attacked








highlighted by the geometry of the group and the space that is left on











monumentality becomes evident. Additionally, this shot will pan

towards Aaron who is, in contrast, alone and small as being seen from
above, almost merging from the ground that due to his position acts as
a background. According to Aumont, these shots are meant to
emphasizes the geometry, or the topography, of these confrontations
and negotiations (Aumont 15)
In an interview with Joel Rogers, Straub claims about a change they
made to Schoenbergs intentions He wrote out detailed instructions on

the size of the chorus. It involved having some people actually singing,
and others just filling up space. We decided to keep the chorus small
and limited to people who were really singing. This decision seems to
be partly political, partly visual; political in the sense that by not
having Schoenberg overwhelming mass of people, the idea of the
group, as the place where individuality (or the essence) gets lost and
we are just left with a sheep that follows what is been said to them,









Schoenberg wrote the opera against the growing of anti-Semitism in

the late 1930s), is not longer part of the film.


A different feature that can help us to understand this expressive
quality of the presence in space in Straub-Huillets films is to be found
in the meeting of Moses with Aaron. This scene is shot completely from
a high angle position and allows the characters to be surrounded by
the ground that acts as a backdrop. In the images seen above, we can
notice how the filmmakers decision to always leave some space
around the characters emphasizes their compositional qualities in the
pictorial plane while increasing the ambiguity created around their
dimensionality. The film seems to take place not in a tridimensionalrealistic space, but to be using the different dimensionalities to
highlight certain moments on the narrative. For what the characters
are saying, from the mystical qualities of the original text to the
metaphysical implications of Schoenbergs analyses of language, is
being implied in their position and in how it affects the way we see
them and what is around them.

Finally, there is a more ideological, but not for that less

cinematically, way in which Straub and Huillet utilize space, real and
pictorial, in Moses and Aaron. Straub-Huillet in a way seem to have
certain refusal, as Andy Engels states, of evident aesthetic hierarchies,
means that an actor, a tree, a rock, a piece of music or a literary text
all have an equally valid material presence which demands to be

filmed with the utmost diligence and respect. (128) In this regard,
Engels mention a kind of shoot that in French criticism has come to be
called the Plan straubien (Straubien shot), which can roughly be
defined as a pan or tracking shot of a landscape lasting up to several
minutes in duration. On Moses and Aaron, specifically, the construction
of this shots formed part of the whole spatial arrangement.

If we see closer to Image1, we can noticed how the filmmakers

take in account not only the places where people can be located, as we
said, to emphasizes their oppositions, but also, the place of the most
important parts of the landscape to shown in the screen. The position
of Monte Velino, the city of Avezzano, as well as Alba Fucens, is
indicated in the map, it seems not only for organizational reason, but
also because they conform a whole with the position of the actors, as
characters in the film.

There can be different readings to the

importance given to the landscape by Straub-Huillet. attributed to

Czanne, that says, Look at this mountain, it was once fire. Engels
claims that in Straubs films, the spectator is encouraged to look at
the images with the same care and receptivity as Paul Czanne when
painting the Mont St-Victoire. The camera stops in its view on the
Monte Velino several times and just allow us to look, intensely, once
and again to this mountain that changes 24 times per second, being
respectful with its natural modifications of lighting and color.

Although, this seems to be a more romantic than a cinematic

description, and might be closer to what Engels sees on StraubHuillets films than what they have intended, if we analyze the last act
(scene) of the film, shoot not in Alba Fucens but in Egypt, we can see
how this light that changes from warm to cold while Moses is punishing
Aaron becomes part of the film as another a poetical gesture, like a
note on a requiem, that marks not just the death of the character and
of the drama, but also, the impossibility to communicate what is really
essential and has been always tried to be expressed trough language.

Sound Image - Text

In a way Straub and Huillet can be considered as filmmakers

highly concerned with what can be produced by sound, images and
words (as an auditory, visual and conceptual reference) relations.
Although the great variety of his films, a intention can be traced to
discovered the poetical and political possibilities of these relations.
These can be more clearly seen since their early films, especially those
in which an influence of Schoenberg can already be felt. For instance,

in first part of Einleitung zu Arnold Schoenbergs Begleitmusik zu einer

Lichtspielscene, we mainly see Gnther Peter Straschek, Danile
Huillet, Peter Nestler reading or saying excerpts from several Bertolt
Brechts text and certain letters from Schoenberg to Kandinsky, the
image disappears and appears sometime creating a rhythm according
to the emotional moments of the text. Schoenberg music start to
accompanying the readings, although it disappears as well, and finally,
we are left with a continuous editing of plain bombarding a city as the
music stays with us in an almost spectral way.

From this early

example, we will how this concern grew in complexity, and specifically,

how text, sound and image are approached on Moses and Aaron.

Image Text

We have already said a few things about the role text and image
plays in the creation of the characters and their relations, especially in
the second act that serves as an introduction to all of them. They, as
they are opposed to each other, are in constant conflict to the other.
However, the image in connection with the text is offers more complex
examples when it deals with the more conceptual parts of the piece, in
which Straub-Huillet clearly subvert or respond to the meanings
proposed by Schoenberg. For example, the first scene of the first act,
called normally the burning bush, show us Mosses talking with God

and appointed to lead the Israelites out of Egypt and into Canaan. The
best way to describes what happens in the film and how it is change
might be to quote Straub himself, that specifically about this scene he

in approaching the idea of the burning bush, there is not only a bush,
but the bush transforms itself. There are the sky, the rocks, and the
mountain. In going through this, there is not just a refutation of the bush,
as we said before, but the film also asserts continuity.
The opera is not a Marxist work because it still believes in
prophets and divine revelation. But one can also believe in this
idea in another way, not as, coming to the demigod from above,
but discovering that in fact it comes from below, from the people.
And that is what the film does from the beginning. It doesn't talk
about the burning bush. Rather, the burning bush becomes the
people. You can hear them singing.

As we can see, their awareness of the cinematographic elements

allows them to subtly change an approach that for Schoenberg could
have been key in he development of his work. The idea of an elite and
mysticism is one of the fundamental parts of what can be found on
Schoenbergs music. Several times, for example, when the narration

seems to be describing a passage dictated by the superior force,

maybe the more important ideas that can save the people or make
understand and accept God, the lyrics disappear or become totally
musical, as making us understand that is exactly that what cannot be
expressed or is beyond the possibilities of our spoken, everyday-life,
language. Straub-Huillet is extremely ambiguous when approaching
this idea proposed by Schoenberg. In the scene we have already
described they opt for connecting this God with people, because as
Straub says the origin of the revelation does not come from above but
from below. However, later in the second scene of the second act,
when the Chorus incites finally to the people to adore the now visible
God, the image fades, and we just listen to their excitement, we are
not allow to see the decadence of their acts, that have been produced
by their misunderstanding of Moses words, as if there is not image
sufficient to express what is being done without destroying our hope
for this people and their revelation. Finally, in the last part of the
second act, we are confronted with the scene in which Moses destroys
the golden calf, just by the power of his words, but what Straub and
Huillet actually destroy is not the calf, but destroy the image of the
calf; the image is overexposed and we are left again, in white.

The film is full of moments in which what is being said and what is
being done can suggest a variety of ideas that offer the viewer a new

perspective about the concept of the piece, and might be there the
reason why the approach given by Straub and Huillet to pre-elaborated
text on their film can be called artistic. Their mastery of a language,
image-making, and their awareness of its capacities and relations,
allows them not just to appropriate someones else work and impose
their own though over it, but, to do this without losing the plurality and
significance of the piece.

Image - Sound

It is maybe impossible to describe in a few pages the extremely

experimental approach given by Straub and Huillet to the sound of
Moses and Aaron. Not just because it is the product of several years of
work and films, but also, because correspond to that group of ideas
that might not be able to express through language.

There is a fragmentation expressed by the complex compositional

means of Schoenberg music, especially on Moses and Aaron and his
late pieces, which he almost totally composed on his twelve-tone
system. However, it is not just for the creation of a new musical
language why he can be regarded as a great artist, but because, even
in this fragmentation, we can find great moments of emotion, hope,
anger, etc. Straub and Huillet seems to be aware of those emotions

and echo them by elements that can as abstract as the music itself.
One of the clearest examples, and maybe not the best, is in the
begging of the second act, in which we start from black with the music
until an image of Aaron in front of a geometrical background with a big
square of black appears. At the same moment, the voices of the people
start complaining about the disappearance of Moses. The voices are
frenetic, and their timing and vocal range, disturbing. On the image, on
the other hand, we see Aaron moving just his head, extremely slowly
to the front, and then back as he is going to claim that Moses might be

Several times Straub and Huillet films have been characterized as

obscure and difficult for these same reasons. But it seems to me that
are exactly this moments of visual silence, moments that on the other
hand make the movement, when it is done at the correct time, feel like
the most descriptive gesture, fully charge of emotion or significance,
the ones that posses the core of Straub-Huillets poetics. Because,
after all, what is a film but a series of images that, being put together,
moves through light. This small gesture, that can be categorized as
part of the long take tradition (in the given example we see Aaron
moving for about 7minutes), that seems to be perfectly synchronized
most of the time with the musicality of Schoenbergs piece, and in a
way, the best of it for their purposes.

Certainty, the mastery achieved by Jean Marie Straub and Danielle

Huillet of his own use of the cinematographic medium has allowed
them to explore what has interested them through their 53-year long
career. There is still an enormous field to write and learn about their
films, and specially, Moses and Aaron, that here has been discussed
rather briefly. Several things are still unsaid about their editing
approach, the rhythm produced on their films or their lighting, among
numerous other topics that remain untouched, specially in the English
language. Most of their films remain and probably will remain untranslated, which makes in various forms a further investigation more


Eric Rohmer, The Organization of Space in Murnau's Faust. Paris:

Union Gnrale d'Editions, 1977.

Lefebvre, Martin. (Eds.) (2006) Landscape and film /New York ;

Woods, Gregory. "A Work Journal of the Straub/Huillet Film Moses

and Aaron by Gregory Woods." Enthusiasm 1 (1975):32-54. With

"Notes" by Danile Huillet..

Jump Cut, no. 12/13, 1976, pp. 61-64copyright Jump Cut: A
Review of Contemporary Media, 1976, 2004
Cameron, Ian Alexander,eds. Second Wav. New York: Praeger [1970.