A Tomb for the Eye (Straubian pedagogy)


By Serge Daney

Originally published as ‘Un tombeau pour l’oeil (En marge de ‘L’Introduction à la musique d’accompagnement pour une scène de film d’Arnold Schoenberg’ de J.-M. Straub)’ in Cahiers du Cinéma 258-259 (July-August 1975). Republished in ‘La Rampe’.

From Nicht Versöhnt to Moses und Aron, one idea predominates, entirely contained in this title: not reconciled. Non-reconciliation: neither the union nor the divorce, neither the whole body (to preserve, to regret), nor the bias of desintegration, chaos (Nietzsche: one must desintegrate the universe, lose respect for all), but their double possibility. Straub and Huillet basically start from a simple irrefutable fact: Nazism happened. Because of Nazism, the German people of today is not reconciled with itself (Machorka-Muff, Nicht Versöhnt), but the Jews aren’t either (Moses und Aron, Einleitung). Nazism, like any power but more than any other, challenges and provokes the artists, and as a result artists no longer have the right to be irresponsible: Schoenberg is still not reconciled with Kandinsky, neither is Brecht with Schoenberg. In the Straubian system, a retro mode is simply ludicrous. Everything is in the present.

Non-reconciliation is also a way of making and producing films. It is the stubborn refusal of all the forces of homogenization. It has led Straub and Huillet to what might be called a “generalized practice of disjunction.” Disjunction, division, fission, taking seriously the famous “one divides into two.” The look and the voice, the voice and its material (the “grain”), the language and its accents are, as Chou En-lai said “different dreams in the same bed.” Films: the bed where what is disjoint, unreconciled, not reconcilable, “plays”, simulates, suspends unity. Not an (easy) art of décalage but the simultaneous head and tail of the one and the same piece, never played, always revived, inscribed on one side (the tables of the Law, Moses), stated on the other (miracles, Aaron).

What is it that imposes this homogenization against which one always has to disjoint, not reconcile, if not cultural imperialism which is in the process of submitting the industry film throughout Europe (England, Germany, Italy), to submit it to its manufacturing standards (a non-rational mess), to bring, for example, a man who, as first and against all, dared to film with direct sound and in dialect (Visconti: La Terra Trema), to no longer think of his films – for the global art market – in any other way than directly dubbed into English, without anchor point, directly mutilated?

Anchoring films, images, voices means taking seriously the cinematic heterogeneity. And this anchorage, the idea that an image is only possible there and nowhere else, is not just a matter of language and voice. There is also the body. Strangely, the Straubian cinema allows us to understand that the naked body only has such exchange value, that it constitutes for capital (porn movies) such a precious signifier, because it has no attachment to History, because it makes us loose sight of it. Therefore it is necessary to anchor the body. I’m thinking of the shirts on the torsos of (true) farmers who lay their offerings before the golden calf in Moses and Aaron. And even of the erotism in the Straub films, discrete validation, of the most neutral parts of the body, the less spectacularly consumable (see images: an ankle, a knee).


The minimum device of enunciation is the voice, the phonic device. For Straub and Huillet this is the preferred device (Othon). But there are others, other places where speech circulates and where speech is emitted. In Einleilung, rarely enough, the technical recording devices, the “sounding boards” are filmed. Look at both pictures and forget for a moment what Straschek and Nestler are saying. What do we see? Images of a a recording studio, images connoting officiality, the weight of legitimate discourse, heavy, coming from above and destined to provoke no respons. Image of “speakers”, servants of speech, therefore not having to take it.

When we see the face of Léon Zitrone appear on the TV screen, we have to think – very quickly, once past the first moment of revolt – something like: “the bourgeoisie speaks to us directly.” Does this mean that Zitrone (his voice, his face, his eyes, his intonation) is completely transparent? No, it rather means that he is not talking but is just filling his speaking time.

Speaking in the device, speaking “in position”, means being exempted from enunciation (legitimation). For many years, we have seen oppositional parties fail to master this problem. They spent a huge amount of the time allotted to them (during which time they were actually seen) saying that the rest of the time they were never seen. And then they didn’t have anymore time to say what they had come to say.


Being removed from power means being removed from devices. Being removed from the devices means being constrained – if only we could break out one day – to take on the dispositive of enunciation (“to distance oneself”) even before stating anything whatsoever. Obligation to note, in the device, an enunciation (the legitimacy of the event: to speak out) which the device disposseses a priori. This is why the question of enunciation is always linked to one of power (ability to speak, not to speak – Clavel – to say things otherwise), while statements are on the side of knowledge (concentrated, archived power).

Returning to the two photos, it is clear – when we have a good look – that Straschek and Nestler are not “speakers”, not even mock speakers. Just look at how they are dressed, how they read (and are installed to read, with their eyes obstinately lowered).

And what do they read? Let us quote. In the letter from Schoenberg to Kandinsky: “When I walk in the street and all men look to see if I am a Jew or a Christian, I cannot tell everyone that I am the one whom Kandinsky and some others make an exception of, while doubtless Hitler is not of this opinion.” And Brecht:” Those who are against Fascism without being against capitalism, who lament over the barbarism that comes out of barbarism, are like people who wish to eat their veal without slaughtering the calf. They are willing to eat the calf, but they dislike the sight of blood.”

What do these two speeches have in common? These are speeches of victims, of people in exile, speeches that have never participated, do not participate in any power.

The question at hand is significant: how to stage speeches, and more specifically speeches that are literary texts? Question that Straub and Huillet answer in their own way. Not so much by lodging dominant discourses in the everyday life of the dominated (the path followed by Allio in Rude journée pour la reine), rather by inscribing – fantasy? – dominated speeches, “resistance texts” in fact, in the dominating devices. Fantasy: a state radio voicing Brecht. But there is not only the enjoyment of such a revenge (mechanically, this would mean Zitrone reciting Brecht), there is also the moment when, between dominated discourse and dominating device, the incompatibility, the non-reconciliation takes off. Question to ask about Brecht, today, in the German Democratic HGH Republic.

Remember Christian Metz saying that the linguistic translation of a shot of a gun would not be the word “gun” but something like: “Here’s a gun” (observe in passing that this example is not neutral: trajectory of finger, eye and bullit, scopic drive, ballistic drive). The whole problem of enunciation in cinema: knowing what, during the time of the projection of a film, functions as the instance that expresses, the voice that silently says: “Here it is. Here are corpses, a B-52. Etc.. “, all this can probably be formulated from this remark. Sound has the privilege to assert (as it is through sound that sense is made and from which militant cinema, for example, takes comfort), but the privilege of the image, presentification, the very act of “Here it is” (Voici) hasn’t really been examined.

By only considering the image as a surface, infinitely divisible, By only seeing in its iconic content what can be passed – decanted – from the realm of connotation to that of denotation, one leaves aside the simple fact that in the present of the film projection, something (but what?) functions as the instance that says “Here it is.” Something, someone, a voice, a camera gives us something to see.

The basis of our disagreement with Marc Ferro (see ‘Le Monde diplomatique’, May 1975) can be found there. As a good historian, he thinks he can help the maximum public (competence+pedagogy) by getting accross whatever the image contains haphazardly, implicitly, involuntary, in the domain of the denotable, of information, of knowledge – knowledge after the fact, protected knowledge. However, the problem is not to reduce the image or to dream up one that would be information, purely denoted. This reduction, we begin to suspect, is impossible, it secretes, like any implementation of code, something irreducible, a “third meaning” (Barthes). The problem is rather that the image is not a flat surface to anyone, except for those who have chosen to make it flat.

As much as an image is alive, as much as it has an impact (ideologically dangerous or useful), as much as it calls out to a public, as much as it provides happiness, it means that in this image, around it, behind it, something in the domain of enunciation (power + event = “Here it is”) functions. Admirable in this regard is the latest film by Marguerite Duras (India Song) which gives us to understand (to hear) where that what images give us comes from.

In cinema, enunciation might be, hidden somewhere, a little machine wound up to repeat the Lacanian phrase: “You want to look? Well, look at this”.

The cinematic image can not only be accounted for by the competence of those who know how to keep it at a distance. It is like hollowed out by the same power that has allowed it, that wanted it. It is also this thing that people have enjoyed making and others have enjoyed seeing. And this pleasure remains: the image is a tomb for the eye. Seeing a film is coming into view of what has already been seen. Seen by others: the camera, the author, the public(s), sometimes political people (Before starting operation Fascista, wasn’t it stated that it was Mussolini himself who chose the documents?). And what has been seen has already been enjoyed.

It happens that this power is inscribed in the image, as something that marks it, guarantees, authenticates it. Hitchcock, master of suspense and of each image of suspense in which he inscribed himself as a reminder that he is the master (the enunciator). And this “politique des auteurs ” can easily be turned to politics tout court: like in this extraordinary scene in Kashima Paradise where we see the police simulate for television a Japanese attack in order to justify in advance their response (that television will film).

The question can not be simple. The silent instance of “Here it is”, the mark of the “power-to-film”, the “film-to-destruct” is never locatable. It is always on the side of that part of the cinematic device that is most heavily invested by bourgeois ideology. Either on the side of the “genre” by way of garanty (commercial cinema, Hollywood), of the author by way of deposit (nouvelle vague, etc..) or even of the the camera as evidence (Cinema verité).


Let’s return to the two images. The Communards in their coffins, bombs from the B-52: these are of course not neutral images. They serve not only to identify such body or such bomb. They also tell us – whether they want to or not – that the camera was American, on the same side as the bomber, just as the photographer probably was on the side of M. Thiers. The non-neutrality of these images is not only that they put us in the presence of something horrible, it is that they show something for which there is no counter-shot, counter-proof, a positive image (that would be, for example, a photo taken by the Communards or the B-52 seen from the bombed field – that is to say impossible).

Same goes – a fortiori – for these images of Nazi or Nazified masses which fuel controversy and of which we do not know what to think. We have said that Nazism is a central event for Straub and Huillet. However, they never make use of images taken from the inside of Nazism. Why? Perhaps because they believe that the responsibility of artists is to create their own image – current, personal, risky – of their anti-Nazi (what made them dedicate their last film to Holger Meins), rather than reproduce images taken by Nazi cameramen in so-called “critical” montages, of which one is content just to add a hypocrite and weak commentary (silencing nothing at all) or to offer ideological neutralization through an influx of academic metalanguage (Fascita operation in Vincennes). Straub’s lesson: the derisory well-meaning assertions on the soundtrack and the “Here it is” of the Nazi image “have different dreams in the same bed.”

The two images are images of power. Not the power of enunciation of the authors (Straub-Huillet) in front of their camera, nor the power of enunciation confered by an ideological device (Straschek-Nestler), but the images produced by a bare power: that of repression and genocide, that could be signed by Thiers-Nixon. What makes Einleitung, as the authors say, “an agitation film” is perhaps its order of exposure, the time that it gives us to restore these images to what they are, images taken from U.S. power, taken from the other side. It consists of cleaning the images from every déja-vu. It consists of bringing out (to evidence but also to banish, eradicate) from these images the power that has wanted them and wanted them to not even surprise us anymore. Therefore, the horror is no longer the eternal return of the Same in the guise of the Same (retro mode), but the intolerable present (Holger Meins, 1975). Each shot is a tomb for the eye.


Translated by Stoffel Debuysere (Please contact me if you can improve the translations).

In the context of the research project “Figures of Dissent (Cinema of Politics, Politics of Cinema)”
KASK / School of Arts