Film Review: Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach

Revival of this radically minimalist 1968 biopic should pique wider interest in the films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet.
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Despite the ostensible simplicity of its presentation, Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach is by no means a simple work, yet it has been called the most accessible of the husband-and-wife filmmaking team of Jean-Marie Straub (1933-present) and Danièle Huillet (1936-2006). Best known today among academics and art-house enthusiasts for their subsequent, more experimental projects (e.g., 1979’s From the Clouds to the Resistance), Straub and Huillet were already pushing the limits of the biography and the documentary in what was their first feature. The more recent acceptance of revisionist techniques, coupled with the crisp elegance of this restored print, will help allow greater recognition of a movie that was practically booed off the screen at the New York Film Festival 50 years ago.

As Grasshopper Film prepares to release the entire Straub and Huillet catalogue, the company is launching Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach as a stark primer. In a project that took nearly 10 years to come to fruition, the French-born filmmakers pay tribute to the music of Germany’s Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) by telling his story through the eyes of his wife, Anna, and by emphasizing his work through unusually extended musical sequences. Shot in austere black-and-white, the film links together several major Bach compositions with truncated interstitials that depict events in his life as matter-of-factly as possible. Two highly regarded musicians, untrained as actors, play the leads: Gustav Leonhardt as Johann and Christiane Lang as Anna.

Using this atypical style, Straub and Huillet break with the tradition of stressing melodrama in the profile of the subject. So unlike such Hollywood “camp” classics as A Song to Remember (1945, the Chopin story) or Song of Love (1947, the Schumann story) or A Song Without End (1960, the Liszt story), there are no hyperbolic scenes of the composer struggling to create his masterpieces or late-in-life bathos over the maestro’s deteriorating health. Yet, Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach doesn’t ignore Bach’s career difficulties or health concerns, it merely reports them in the manner of a newspaper article. (Much of the information comes from Anna through Lang’s voiceover narration, a fictitious “diary” of sorts.) The conflicts with his patrons, deaths of his children and trouble with his vision are allotted stoic, flatly literal moments, though patient viewers will sense the poignancy nonetheless. Thus, if Straub and Huillet have a cinematic forebear, it is Robert Bresson; if they have a television forebear, it is the CBS News “You Are There” series.

What upset the few audiences who saw Bach in 1968 was not so much the dearth of drama but the excess of music—from the opening Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 to the climactic St. Matthew Passion, and more than 20 other compositions in between. Except to Bach lovers, it must have seemed odd to film all these works in lengthy single takes (usually in long shot and without camera movement). This theatrical tableaux approach does justice to the music above everything else—one oratorio is sung with the unidentified vocalist’s back to the camera—though it could prove tiresome for many viewers.

In the directors’ most daring move, all the pieces are recorded “live,” not pre-recorded or post-synced (as the producer originally wanted). Though beautifully lensed by Ugo Piccone in the very locations in Germany where they were first performed, these musical passages are meant to reproduce an authentic visual and aural ambiance for the Baroque era, not celebrate the ingenuity of cinematic montage. (There are only about 80 shots in 94 minutes.) In their sly way, Straub and Huillet were providing a contrarian pause to the art of the moment: The deliberately jarring editing of most French New Wave films had already pervaded the mainstream and had become passé by the time Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach was released in the late 1960s.

Today, viewers might be open to a different kind of biopic, but there remain a few issues that keep Bach from becoming a fully successful experiment. The deceptiveness of the title—one that suggests that Anna’s own story will be told in a new light—could disappoint those seeking another kind of revisionism: matters of gender. More of a technical problem is that Lang’s voiceovers are spoken so quickly in a thick German accent that some of the text is hard to understand. Subtitles, even for an “English-language” print, would have been a wise addition to the restoration (at least they are provided during the German-language dialogue scenes).

Despite these flaws and thanks to its deliberately challenging stratagems, Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach not only reimagines the life and times of a major classical composer but upsets the expectations of audiences that have become too complacent about generic movie conventions.

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