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Moses und Aron by Straub and Huillet

December 17, 2011

Arnold_Schoenberg_la_1948If you asked me what my favorite (Western) opera was, I’d have to think a long time before answering.  But if you ask what my favorite (Western) opera-movie is, I’ll answer with no hesitation – Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s version of Arnold Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron.

I saw the film a while after it first appeared.  It was playing at a repertory theater, and in fact, it was the film I saw on the first date I was ever on.  I was a nerdy teenager, and I suggested it a friend.  We went together, and she wjean-marie-straub-daniele-huilletas even more affected  by the film than I.  The movie Moses und Aaron is certainly not what most people would think of as a date flick, but I must say, it made my date swoon.  Years after she saw the film with me, she claims that it had a great impact on her thinking.

The film is quite a good version of the Schoenberg opera.  The opera is constructed from a single tow row:


which is combinatorially combined with itself so as to be a perfect twelve-tone  serial composition:


The film features Günter Reich as Moses, and the music is conducted by Michael Gielen.  Because of the need to present Moses as a stutterer, the role is challenging.  Reich played the roles in a number of different performances (including a well-known recording by Boulez) by I think the Gielen performance is the strongest.  It is available on a CD release from Brilliant, and “the High Pony Tail” has made declicked MP3 and FLAC versions from the original LP.

Because Schoenberg never composed music for the third act, the film represents the third act with a single shot as Moses recites a monologue (with no music) based on Schoenberg’s notes.

New Yorker Films has finally released a  US DVD version (with English subtitles).  Here is a clip from the film (I cannot embed this video in our WordPress blog.)  Here are some stills from the film (which was filmed in Egypt and Italy):


(I wanted to link to an even more dramatic still from the film, but that film has some nudity and may offend some readers.  If you would like to see it, you can find it here.  That same still is the basis of the DVD’s cover.)

In the November/December 1975 issue of Film Comment,  Manny Farber wrote

Ultimately there is only examination of cracked walls, parched ground, wool, paralleling the same intense physicality of the musical sounds….  The delicious and joyful Moses and Aaron, however, is a very sensual experience, from its voluptuous 360-degree pan around the oval-shaped Roman arena in the Arbuzzi mountains to the Cézanne-like sculptural insistencies which make every crack in the arena’s walls seem extraordinary, a physical reality that reverberates in the mind.

Richard Brody of the New Yorker has nice things to say about the film, but writing in October 2011, he seemed unaware that the film was being released in this month.  He wrote about the movie

[It] brings to life, on location in the desert, a reinterpretation of several crucial episodes of Biblical history—Moses’s presentation of God’s covenant to his chosen people, his recruitment of his eloquent brother Aaron to preach to them on his behalf, and Aaron’s weakening during Moses’s forty-day sojourn on Mount Sinai, resulting in the worship of the Golden Calf and Moses’s breaking of the tablets bearing the Ten Commandments. The brothers’ conflict—between word and image, idea and emotion—is also the directors’ argument for their own radically austere style over popular methods. Here, their rarefied aesthetic coheres perfectly with the opera to come off as a kind of twelve-tone filmmaking which, like Schoenberg’s music, reclaims a classical ideal in a progressive way that owes nothing to nostalgia. Oblique angles, long takes, and static tableaux allow Straub and Huillet to go straight to the drama inherent in the story and the composition. They respond to every nuance of the opera and reveal both the complex modern music and their own stark images to be as passionate and engaging as they are profound and beautiful

Martin Walsh has a provocative, lengthy, and detailed analysis of the film here.

The DVD package is quite nice, with a 40 page booklet that contains the full libretto in English and German, essays by Michael Gallope (University of Chicago) and Allen Shawn (Bennington College), and a list of Web resources.  (However, I have a bit of frustration because it is claimed that one can download PDFs of A Work Journal of the Straub/Huillet film Moses and Aaron and Huillet’s Notes on Gregory’s Work Journal from the DVD publisher’s web site; but I have been unable to find them.)  Also included is the film Einleitung zu Arnold Schoenbergs Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielscene,

I recommend this DVD to all those who enjoy 20th century music, or who are interested in how Biblical stories have been translated to film.  While I cannot promise that you will find, as I did, that this is a great date film, I think you will find a fascinating artifact.

This review also gives me a chance to quote the Nazi reaction to Arnold Schoenberg, in my next post.

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