Apr 24, 2014

The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach

While determined avant-gardists during their entire filmmaking careers, French-born self-exiled husband-and-wife team Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet (Moses und Aron aka Moses and Aaron, Klassenverhältnisse aka Class Relations) did manage to direct at least one film, The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968) aka Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach, that was more or less made with a general audience in mind and, as far as I am concerned, it is their greatest film. A project that was apparently ten years in the making, The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, which was Straub and Huillet’s first feature-length film, only started shooting in the second half of 1967 after the filmmakers managed to get the Committee on Young German Film and producer Joachim Wolf to produce it after various filmmakers and critics actively campaigned for the work. As a man whose first two films, Machorka-Muff (1963) and Not Reconciled (1965) aka Nicht versöhnt, did as much as they could to trash Teutonic history (while also portraying West Germany as a 'post-fascist' entity of sorts run by ex-Nazis), especially in relation to National Socialism, Straub seemed paranoid that the German government was trying to prevent him from creating his first feature, complaining, “It was of course idealist in the bad sense [to try and work within the subsidy system] because I didn’t know the power relations yet that operated in film production and distribution. [We thought], if they try so hard to stop us making this film, then we just have to make it. I realized exactly what the score was when the Ministry of Culture in Düsseldorf rejected my application for subsidy three times in five years. They were desperate to prevent The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach from coming out in the cinemas […] It is obvious, a film made outside the system will never get inside. The system takes revenge.” Of course, Straub also took his revenge because, as he bragged in the documentary The Making of Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach (1967) while smirking in solidarity with his wife, he intentionally hired a non-German for the lead role of Johann Sebastian Bach, stating regarding the decision, “I wouldn’t want anyone to view this as a nationalist statement in any respect, that is…neither anti-, nor something else, but I do believe it is also…important that the person who, let’s say, impersonates Bach in this film—he impersonates Bach after all—is not German. Because of what happened in this country, mainly between ’33 and ’45, I am glad to have found a Dutchman.” Indeed, undoubtedly one of the film’s greatest qualities is its immaculate musical performances by Dutch harpsichordist, conductor, musicologist, Gustav Leonhardt, who specialized in the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, in what would ultimately be his first and last film role.  Ironically, I think Leonhardt's inclusion in the film only all the more Aryanized the work, as the Dutch people (the composer included!) tend to have more classically Nordic phenotypes that, according to most racial theorists (i.e. Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard), most Germans lack. While a majorly materialistic work (the film focuses on Bach’s struggles with money and patronage) that attempts to deconstruct and dismantle Bach’s ‘mythical’ legacy as a national hero and bearer of Teutonic high kultur, The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, which is based on a fictional diary ostensibly written by the composer’s second wife, attempts to make its own myths, ultimately presenting the great German Baroque musician as a ‘proto-revolutionary’ who subverted the system, at least musically.  Rather ironically, with its utilization of authentic wardrobes/instruments, static direction, and obsession with monetary matters, The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach seems like a hopelessly bourgeois work that feels like it was directed by a book store owner suffering from Asperger syndrome with a pathologically pedantic understanding of music history.

 Beginning with no less than 4 minutes of Johann Sebastian Bach (Gustav Leonhardt) playing on his harpsichord, The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach then proceeds with the incessant off-screen narration of Anna Magdalena Bach (Christiane Lang), which is accompanied by historical documents, vintage sheet music, old drawings, etc. While an ostensibly aesthetically subversive avant-garde work, The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach essentially has the same structure as Hollywood musicals (and, in turn, pornography), albeit minus the flamboyant pageantry. Indeed, the structure of the film is more or less like this: narration from Anna Bach, Bach playing, narration from Anna Bach, Bach playing, etc. While watching the film, one learns that Anna’s father was a trumpeter at the court of the Weissenfels and her brother did the same thing for the court of Anhalt-Zerbst. Chapel Master Sebastian (Anna calls her hubby by his middle name) was previously married to another woman in a marriage that sired three sons and a daughter, so 17 months after his first wife died, he married Anna and created a clavier book for her and his children. Sebastian originally received patronage from a music-loving Prince, but after his ‘serene Highness’ married a princess from Bernburg, things sort of fell apart. From there, Sebastian headed to Leipzig and became a Music Director and Cantor at the St. Thomas church but it was not an ideal situation for the composer to go from being a Chapel Master to a mere cantor. Apparently, Sebastian, who was born into a great musical family, always had an obsession with great organists and would travel to Hamburg and Lübeck on foot to hear such musicians play. Like many people of his time, Sebastian was not immune to tragedy, as his firstborn child, Christiana Sophia Henrietta, and second son Christian Gottlieb, died while still young children (although not mentioned in the film, between 1723 and 1742, Anna and Sebastian had 13 children together, though seven died in early childhood). Of course, during his career, Sebastian faced “vexation, envy, and persecution” from rivals, namely from a guy named Krause (Walter Peters) at the University of Leipzig. When Sebastian composed funereal music for a dead queen, the director of the ‘New Divine Service’ of the university protested, and thus he was only able to perform his music “purely as a favor” for a period of time. As Sebastian writes in an appeal for patronage regarding the imperative nature of financial assistance in enabling a composer to dedicate their time to composing new and original music: “It is in any case wonderful that one should expect German musicians to be capable of performing all kinds of music, from Italy or France, England or Poland, just as the virtuosi for whom it is written, who have studied it so that they almost know it from memory, and receive heavy salaries besides, as a reward for their care. This is not taken into consideration, but they are left to their own anxieties, so that many, worried over their bread, cannot think of perfecting, even less of distinguishing themselves. For example, one only has to go to Dresden and see how the musicians there are salaried by His Royal Majesty. All concern for their livelihood is removed. Chagrin is left behind. Each person has only one instrument to cultivate. It must be excellent to hear.” 

 As The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach progresses, Sebastian’s unwavering assertiveness as a composer who is more interested in creating revolutionary works than merely following an outmoded game plan only increases all the more. As a means to appeal to a Prince, Sebastian gave a number of cantatas in honor of the princely household. When Sebastian is told by his superiors that he is a cantor and should yield to Herr Principal and the Rector of the university, he replies to the threat with, “I really don’t care; cost what it may.” Indeed, Sebastian superiors make the following complaints regarding his character: “Not only does this cantor not do anything, but he doesn’t want to explain himself. He doesn’t give the singing lessons, and there are other complaints. A change will be necessary. It must break one day.” When students at the university refuse to play after Herr Krause gets his way, Sebastian is eventually given the title of ‘Court Composer.’ Upon composing works for a certain Count Keyserlingk, Ambassador to His imperial Russian Majesty at the court of Dresden, so that the royal could have solacing music to listen to during sleepless nights, Sebastian was handsomely rewarded with a golden goblet filled with 1000 gold Louis. While Sebastian’s eldest son Gottfried Heinrich’s genius never developed, his 18-year-old son Johann Christoph Friedrich’s genius did, as he entered a fellow named Count Schaumburg-Lippe’s chapel a few weeks before his father's death and created a grand credo. While working on the beginning stages of a piece entitled Art of the Fugue (which was never completed), Sebastian lost his eyesight, yet he managed to create an organ chorale on the melody “When we are in greatest need” while blind. While he eventually gained back his vision, a couple hours later he was overcome with apoplexy, followed by a high fever and expired “mildly and blessedly” on 28 July 1750 (modern historians believe he died from a combination of stroke and pneumonia). 

 As typical far-left feminist academic Caryl Flinn wrote in her stereotypically holocaust-worshipping philo-Semitic work The New German Cinema: Music, History, and the Matter of Style (2004) regarding the Frankfurt School influenced essence of The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach: “In the film, Bach’s music is performed on period Baroque instruments, not a common practice in the mid-1960s. That choice insisted on a concrete historical context for a figure whom, as Theodor Adorno argued at the time, Germans had transformed into an ahistorical myth of German nationality. Bach had become museumized, his music confined to the rarefied realm of concert halls. Certainly film theatres were not the place to hear him, as Straub and Huillet learned while trying to get CHRONICLE produced and distributed. Their use of Bach, then, was not just historically appropriate to the film, but helped criticize the contemporary deification that Adorno observed.” Indeed, the greatest aesthetic asset of The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach is undoubtedly its authentic instruments and wardrobes, with Gustav Leonhardt’s harpsichord-playing being easily the most emotionally potent aspect of the film (in fact, without his score, the film would be an exceedingly empty celluloid communist manifesto), yet that does not save Straub and Huillet’s work from being an innately static piece of historical revisionism and mythmaking twaddle disguised as state-of-the-art historical authenticity. Like with Straub’s next film Der Bräutigam, die Komödiantin und der Zuhälter (1968) aka The Bridegroom, the Actress and the Pimp, The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach concludes in a pseudo-spiritual manner with the lead character gazing out of a window as if staring into eternity. In that regard, as much as the film opts for taking a typically materialistic Marxist approach to history, it still ends up wallowing in the mystical world, if only for a moment (but at quite arguably the most important moment), as if Straub saw the act of creation as the greatest spiritual act and the only true form of transcendence. Ultimately, The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach is most interesting as a historical footnote of German New Cinema, and German film historian Thomas Elsaesser probably best summed up the importance of the film in his book New German Cinema: A History (1989) when he wrote: “’Bach’ is heard (rather than seen) struggling equally hard with poverty, child mortality, musical form, court intrigues, dull insensitivity, the blows of fate and bad medicine. He is seen with the only weapon at his disposal, which is his music. Deceptively coded as piety, J.S. Bach’s response to adversity is one of the clearest articulations of the possible freedom that the artist can have in relation to social demands: the freedom to resist through the discipline imposed by form. […] Precisely because it is not an allegory of the subsidy system, but an act of resistance to it, THE CHRONICLE OF ANNA MAGDALENA BACH, even before it encountered its difficulties with the public and the press, was already a formulation and a critique of the Autorenfilm and its concept of the artist.” Indeed, the influence of the film on German New Cinema is incontestable as Fassbinder would make the aesthetic style of Straub and Huillet’s work more palatable with his period piece Effi Briest (1974). Wim Wenders would also pay tribute to The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach with his work Falsche Bewegung (1975) aka The Wrong Move, which includes an excerpt from Straub and Huillet’s film where the suicide of a vice-rector is mentioned. An anti-melodramatic arthouse musical that wallows in antagonizing the audience in its aesthetic sterility and static camera work, The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach is ultimately a great argument as to why ‘French’ filmmakers should not touch Teutonic historical figures.  Indeed, Fassbinder, Helma Sanders-Brahms, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, and Alexander Kluge would only become great filmmakers after they discarded their French influences. As for Straub and Huillet, they would never make a greater film than their first feature The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach.

-Ty E


Jennifer Croissant said...

I really enjoyed reading this reveiw, it was very soothing.

jervaise brooke hamster said...

Christiane Lang looks so sweet sitting at the piano and shyly opening that door, i wouldn`t have minded shoving my willy up that little darlin`s bum at the time this movie was made.

jervaise brooke hamster said...

"The Dutch have more classically Nor-twat phenotypes than Ger-girls" ! ? ! ?, your racism (and jealousy{!!!}) is murderous at times Ty E, it really is.

jervaise brooke hamster said...

Actually, looking at the images from the film and reading the reveiw makes me think this is just a pretentious highbrow eletist version of the appallingly unwatchable (except for the stunning scenery obviously) 1970 Hollywood musical "Song of Norway" (albeit about a different composer admittedly).

jervaise brooke hamster said...

I love the way that EVERYONE was so rampagingly heterosexual back in the 18th century, pansy queer filth just didn`t seem to exist, that scum only seems to have appeared over the last 150 years or so.