Skip to main content

The Land as a Voice / in Exile

Thoughts on a film: Black Sin (1989)

On the soundtrack, a voice recites the words of the text.  Exact and unburdened by feeling, the words become statements.  They declare; they assert through the use of language - its rhythms and its intonations - a particular meaning (an intention), but they deny us the expression; the emotion that such words might suggest.  Instead, it is the image itself that expresses the sentiment of these words.  Not the voice of the actor, but the composition of the shot.  Through the image of this man - Andreas von Rauch as Empedocles, laying prostrate upon the earth - the filmmakers are already evoking the solitude of the great philosopher; his position, defined by the elements; "asleep", though not in slumber, with his back against the world.  Already we're experiencing the loneliness of the man; his sense of shame and disappointment expressed on a visual, purely figurative level.

The image - the composition of it, the mise en scène - presents the despair of this character.  Dead to the world but about to be woken, if only to be a witness to the stings of his former acquaintances, who question his decision to withdraw from life at a time when his own words of wisdom might have provided the greatest relief.  It reminded me of Godard, or more specifically, the Godard of JLG/JLG - Self-Portrait in December (1995).  The appearance of the older man, tired, in-exile.  The "thinker", the philosopher lost in the wilderness, reflecting on his own disposition; his displacement by a culture that he can no longer comprehend.

Black Sin [Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub, 1989]:

JLG/JLG - Self-Portrait in December [Jean-Luc Godard, 1995]:

While refusing to commit to a more conventional adaptation of the text - The Death of Empedocles (Third Version, 1826) by Friedrich Hölderlin - Straub & Huillet are once again able, through the rigorous practicalities of their filmmaking approach, to capture the essence of this character through the direction and its stylisation.  The words may be stripped of sensation, accent or the adornment of theatrical excess, but the sadness and the great despair of these characters is ever present, if not genuinely affecting, or overwhelming.  The isolation of Empedocles from the betrayals of the modern world is here within this warm and peaceful wilderness (itself an unchanging landscape; still entirely convincing in its evocation of the year 430 BC more than a millennium since) and where the soil of the earth (ashes to ashes, the dust of time, etc) becomes a portent of things to come.

Likewise, the distant form of the volcanic Mount Etna - which provides a silhouetted backdrop to these eventual discussions between Empedocles and his former allies, Pausanias and Manes - suggests the character's quiet fury.  Empedocles - the most 'elemental' of philosophers - is again defined by these natural characteristics, both physically and psychologically.  The earth, wind, fire and water - which are a constant for this character - become like a mirror to his tortured psyche; reflecting but also projecting, even at the moment of death...

Black Sin [Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub, 1989]:

The foreknowledge of the philosopher's subsequent demise on this same spot where the filmmakers record this dramatisation imbues the film with a tone that is both mournful and contemplative.  Again, like the general theme of JLG/JLG, there is a finality to the presentation of this character, which is woeful and withdrawn.  A sense of looking back at a lost opportunity with bitterness and remorse, all marked, like scars across the landscape...

JLG/JLG - Self-Portrait in December [Jean-Luc Godard, 1995]:

Throughout Black Sin, the unfurling dialogues and negotiations between these characters seem charged with the weariness and disappointment of the protagonist and the frustration of those trying to coax him out of his disillusioned retreat.  Through this, the film becomes a series of discussions on the nature of independence and existence; the characters attempting to understand the penitence of Empedocles, both in the historical and contemporary sense (as the filmmakers once again find the past in an image of the present), while also questioning the nature of existence, struggle and perseverance.  However, there is also an arguably more interesting ideology presented via the mastery of the filmmaking form; a cinematic ideology that is consistent with several other works by the same filmmakers.

Here, the delivery of the text is both mannered and precise.  The beats, pauses, cadences and modulations seem intended to adapt, verbally, the written punctuation of Hölderlin's language as it appears on the page.  This goes back to the filmmakers' earlier work, the didactic cine-tract Every Revolution is a Throw of the Dice (1977), in which the specific placement of the actors within the frame was intended to match the symbolist typeface of Stéphane Mallarmé's 1897 poem, A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance.  Through this meticulous emphasis on the use of language, the film itself - the cutting as well as the composition of shots - becomes a kind of conversation.  A dialogue between the sound and the image; between the words spoken and the images seen.  As the characters speak or converse, the editing keeps them separate, acknowledging their inability to 'meet', on principle, or to see eye to eye...

Black Sin [Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub, 1989]:

Later, when it finally seems as if these characters have reached an understanding, the filmmakers acknowledge the accord cinematically, framing the protagonists in a two-shot, as illustrative of this now 'shared' solidarity...

Black Sin [Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub, 1989]:

However, with the next statement the connection is broken.  The disconnection between the characters, the impasse, once again presented visually, via the use of the single-shot...

Black Sin [Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub, 1989]:

It is this commitment to the filmmaking form - the actual language of cinema - that makes Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub perhaps the greatest of all filmmakers.  For Straub-Huillet, an adaptation is never just an attempt to provide an optical illustration of the text; to turn the written word into a series of scenes through action and dramatisation, or to convert the narrative into an emotive spectacle for the benefit of an escapist audience.  Instead, it's a genuine translation, from the literary to the cinematic; from one 'language' into another.

For most filmmakers, the point of adaptation is to take the plot - the story and the struggle of its central characters - and turn it into a visual narrative.  For Straub & Huillet, it is a complete revision of the work.  The filmmakers adapt the actual words on the page (not just the characters and plot, but the structure of the words) and turn them into characters, sounds and images.  They give a voice to them, or place them within a landscape fragrant with historical significance, energy and atmosphere.  In Black Sin, the dialogue is not simply a quotation, but a projection.  The cutting and the placement of the camera become an expression of the full stops, the commas and the use of spacing.  It's an unconventional approach - especially in contrast to the more homogenised historical enactments proffered by Hollywood studios in films like Braveheart (1995) and Gladiator (2000) - but it's no less beautiful or moving in its own communication of thoughts, expressions and ideas.

Ultimately, it is the sadness of the film that lingers.  The loneliness of these images where characters can barely occupy the same frame for more than an instant, or the bitterness and the sad remorse of Empedocles, as he seems to realise that his own time has passed; that his ability to sum up, or to explain the mysteries of the world in greater detail, is waning.  This reflection on a loss, on the withdrawal from a society (the exile of the sensitive mind that thinks too much and seeks to question, without judgement), is as much a comment on the position of Straub & Huillet as it would prove to be for the melancholic Godard.  Their own exile (enforced or self-imposed) as the sea change of 1980s "art-house" cinema brought with it a new wave of filmmakers more concerned with irony and sensation - with provoking a response from the audience, rather than allowing the nuance of the text, the spirit of the place or the language of the film itself to communicate the true weight of feeling - left them as abandoned and forsaken as Empedocles himself.


Popular posts from this blog

Running Wild

Thoughts on the book by J.G. Ballard
"In a totally sane society, madness is the only freedom."
The problem with being prescient is that sooner or later the rest of the world catches up with you, leaving your predictions, once innovative and shocking, entirely out-of-date. It could be argued that such a fate has befallen "Running Wild."
Written by J.G. Ballard as a response to the Hungerford massacre, "Running Wild" outlines, in forensic detail, the peculiarities of a strange killing spree. The entire adult population of a gated, upper-middle-class, suburban enclave along the Thames valley, is dead, their children abducted. Over the course of the book, a psychiatric advisor from Scotland Yard will piece together the various clues and oddities surrounding the case until the shocking truth becomes clear.

Running Wild [J.G. Ballard, 1988]:
When Ballard wrote the book in the late 1980s, the concept of the "spree killing" was something of a rarity in the U…