The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2013

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MAY 2013 Issue

Straub-Huillet’s Class Relations

May 1, 2013
New York

Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s 1984 film Class Relations, based upon Kafka’s novel Amerika, is a thoughtful Marxist take on the Czech writer’s first (and characteristically incomplete) novel. Presented as a special May Day screening at BAMcinématek, Class Relations is chock full of characters caught as victims of circumstance. While at first glance the viewer might assume the happy and productive lives of the individuals that our protagonist, Karl Rossman, meets upon his journey, in each case there is revealed some complication: the tyranny suffered by the stoker at the hands of his superior aboard the ship, the housemaid run ragged through the increasing demands of her job as secretary to a hotel’s head chef. Yet in each instance we are thrown a complete rebuttal and reversal of the claims made by each victim, leading us to doubt their testimony and suspect that they themselves are the troublemakers rather than the victims.

Class Relations. 1984. Directed by Jean-Marie Straub & Daniele Huillet. Photo Courtesy of BAMcinematek.

These Gordian-knot-like quandaries are quintessential to the work of Kafka—think of short stories such as “Jackals and Arabs,” “A Country Doctor,” or “The Judgment,”or the more developed reversals we find in his novels. As one begins tugging the story’s loose ends, what first appear to be the simple problems and complaints of the protagonist quickly develop into a hopeless mess, leaving the individuals in worse situations than when they began. Kafka’s characters are regularly driven to the brink of existence, their stories ending either with their sudden demise or with their being unhappily cast beyond the walls of society, leaving them to devise yet another way to gain admittance.

Kafka’s emotional and spiritual exile, however, is different than Straub and Huillet’s more overtly politically oriented angle. The author’s exploration of his characters’s internal alienation lines up beautifully with Marx’s notion of an objectified and alienated labor: the worker loses his humanity, becoming an “outcast” in a world where he is required to work for the benefit of others rather than himself. We see the laborers of Class Relations trapped in an economic cycle which simultaneously exploits and feeds them. Straub and Huillet’s interpretation is more than mere commentary on social alienation as experienced in the modern world—it is deliberately political in its position, confronting the viewer with the power disparities and exploitation inherent in our late-capitalist mode of production.

The filmmaking techniques employed in Class Relations further draw it out of the realm of straight adaptation or political parable. Their use of long takes, static camera work, and non-professional actors gives the film an austere and subtle power similar to the work of Robert Bresson. There is an underplaying of the film’s emotional (and political) tension, giving Class Relations an almost hypnotic quality. Despite its quiet pacing, the film’s intensity lends it incredible momentum, engaging the viewer from start to finish.

Indeed, this low-key approach is interesting in contrast with Orson Welles’s adaptation of The Trial. Despite their similar source material, the films’s rendering and ultimate effect couldn’t be more different. Where Straub and Huillet would use undertones and lighter shading to build their tension, Welles goes all out—the film is rendered in a grand style, featuring Anthony Perkins, Jeanne Moreau, Romy Schneider, and Welles himself in an all-star cast. Making use of striking locations, evocative lighting, and complex cinematography, The Trial gives the existential terror of Josef K. a very different, decidedly more dramatic feel than the minimalist austerity of Straub and Huillet.

In comparison, the subtlety of Class Relations somehow makes the anxiety and relentless pressure of Kafka’s world more realistic, less fanciful. The dream-logic of Welles’s Trial gives way to a very literal, almost everyday reality in Straub and Huillet’s work. While spiritual and economic entrapment accompanies the film at every turn, Straub and Huillet avoid any notion of frivolity in their decidedly purist work. Through their distinctly subdued style, the directing duo builds the film’s psychological cage with the utmost delicacy, unconsciously immersing the viewer in the complexity of Karl Rossman’s world. If we follow the Marxist notion that all good art must contribute to the struggle and raise class consciousness, Class Relations unquestionablysucceeds, and does so without compromising its artistic integrity.

30 Lafayette Avenue // Brooklyn, NY


Jonathan Andrews

JONATHAN ANDREWS is a Brooklyn-based writer and film critic.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2013

All Issues