The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach

When Kubrick said that “A film… should be more like music than like fiction.” I wonder if he ever envisioned anything like Straube and Huillet’s Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach? At least one can say that they seem to take the concept of “music as cinema” literally, as here’s a film whose music-to-narrative ratio must be something like 9-to-1. Even its title is rather misleading as it makes one think that the film will focus on Anna Magdalena Bach, Johann Sebastian Bach’s second wife. Instead, it also takes the title quite literally, and the film plays like a biographical chronicle read by Anna about her husband’s life and work. But these readings tend to only be a means by which Straub and Huillet can lead us into the music which dominates the film.

Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet were a husband-and-wife filmmaking team whom were French, but worked mostly in Germany and Italy. Straub got his start working as assistant to some of France’s biggest directors including Bresson, Gance, Renoir and Rivette, and it was in film school the two met. They married in ’59 and remained so until Huillet’s death from cancer in ’06. The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach was their first feature, and was a labor of love that took nearly a decade to finance and film. From the making of featurette on the DVD, one gets a real sense for just how determined they (especially Straub) was to get it made. In waiting for the money, the two took to living in their car for much of the time while Straub managed to convince legendary harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt to play Bach for very little money, stressing the importance of his artistic endeavor.

That endeavor is no less than this film, which is both a celebratory love letter to the music of Bach as well the Baroque era, but also a promotion of that music and culture. The film is shot with the kind of rigorous formalism that would have made someone like Bresson proud; consisting of mostly long, static takes that chronologically document excerpts from Bach’s works (usually, single movements are presented in full), the orchestras and actors are also shot in full period dress, playing period instruments. The rather immense musical selection (for a 90 minute film, anyways) is in itself a testament to Straub’s goal of bringing Bach’s music to the screen; everything from concertos to the Well Tempered Clavier, suites, sonatas, large scale choral pieces, cantatas, preludes, variations, organ pieces, and oratorios are featured.

The few narrative strands that exist are almost always brief; they’re usually introduced by Anna’s biographical voiceover that relates JS’s conflicts with, for example, the rector at a boy’s school. But these dramatic elements are always fragmentary and brief, usually just lasting long enough to move on to the next musical piece. This means that one’s enjoyment and appreciation of the film will rest almost entirely on one’s enjoyment and appreciation of Bach and great classical music. That’s not to say that there’s nothing to admire in the film even for those who don’t like the music, but I would definitely propose that liking the music is a prerequisite to enjoying the film at all.

It’s odd when one thinks that, by now, a film has been made for each of the West’s three monolithic composers; Mozart has Milos’ Forman’s Amadeus, Beethoven had Bernard Rose’s Immortal Beloved, and Bach has this Straub film. Of the three, Amadeus is the only one that’s fully worth of its subject. But more interesting in their comparative quality is the fact that all three films seem to stylistically suit their subjects, with Amadeus being so classical and spirited, Immortal Beloved being dark, lyrical, and romantic, and Chronicle of Anna Magdalena being so baroque and severe, with a paradoxical simplicity and complexity.

But from a more objective critical standpoint, it’s difficult to know how to qualitatively judge this effort. On the one hand, one can’t help but admire Straub’s originality, vision, and perseverance to achieve such a cinematic work of art. On the other hand, it’s hard to argue that the film works on a cinematic level. Throughout the film I sat wondering what I was getting out of the film that I couldn’t get out of listening to a compilation of Bach’s music. Sure, I’d lose the images, but other than the costumes, the architecture, and the somewhat mesmeric quality of watching masters play their instruments, I see very little in the film that’s of cinematic, visual interest.

This isn’t helped by the fact that the sound is sub-par, and for those who appreciate classical music, the sound quality can be as essential to enjoying and getting the most out of the music as the performances themselves. So even if the film can be (and should be) praised for presenting such glorious music from great musicians, even that praise can’t help but be hampered by technological limitations. I’m equally not prepared to say that those limitations are balanced by the austerity of the mise-en-scene or the authenticity of the historical reproduction. Even those these latter elements succeed, they don’t succeed to a degree enough to breathe life into the film. Ultimately, we’re left with a film in which the ambition and intent—and perhaps its presentation of the historical context—is all that’s left to unadulteratedly praise. It’s a shame, because Bach deserves better.


About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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