Two Thoughts on Exposition Regarding Straub-Huillèt’s History Lessons

“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas.”

Karl Marx, The German Ideology

History in Power, History in Practice

The opening shot of Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillèt’s History Lessons is from a backseat view of a car as it navigates slowly and cautiously through the the narrow streets of Rome. This long scene may be grueling to some, but it is perhaps one of the most interesting scenes in the film, and one that will be revisited a few times more before the film ends. The lengthy scenes function as a sort of barometer which may end up weeding out elements of the audience; the merits of which we will discuss later. However, only when these scenes begin to reappear — interspersed between our nameless protagonist’s meetings with several temporally displaced citizens of imperial Rome — do we begin to grasp their meaning more fully.

These scenes reveal the double meaning of the title ‘History Lessons’: the immediate one defined by the often didactic discourse with the Roman citizens, and the aesthetic one which gives its lesson on the practice of history itself. The prolonged scenes of somewhat chaotic yet beautifully scenic passage through the streets of Rome are the perfect illustration of history’s movement. It is a difficult and treacherous journey; one that requires careful and precise navigation: a journey that is, in fact, navigated. Far too often our understanding of history is limited to the realm of cold, hard facts; not first understanding that facts must first be sought out, collected, interpreted, and then dictated — perhaps not all of these are generally done, nor are they guaranteed to be done sequentially as is sometimes evidenced by the many bloviating talking heads who seem to pull ‘facts’ and ‘data’ from thin air.

The driving scenes also show us that much is passed by or forgotten on these journeys, that there are moments of navigational tension, and that there are deliberate stops along the way. In History Lessons these stops are populated by a poet, a banker, a lawyer, and a farmer. The banker graces us with his presence twice, and in contrast to the farmer — who is the only character who seems to be actively interviewed — his dialog seems to be fairly didactic. His conversation both begins and rounds out the series of interviews, giving it a sort of sense of prominence; his air is one that commands attention and respect: a presence to be taken seriously. The farmer, on the other hand, repeats bland facts as if being expelled from rote memory. It is clear to us that our banker’s vision is fixed on ‘the big picture.’ His concern lies not with daily necessities nor with immediate survival, but with wartime conquest, imperial politics, and business. He explains how his faith in the great Mr. C. — a moniker for Julius Caesar — through imperial strategy, comes to pay off in the literal sense. The horrors of war, and the injustice in oppression do not appear to him. The concrete, intelligible results are those which relate to the efficacy of his bank and the stability of his pocketbook. He closes both the film and his exposition saying, “My confidence in [Mr. C.] had proved well-founded. Our small bank was no small bank anymore.”

The subject of historical cognition is the battling, oppressed class itself. In Marx it steps forwards as the final enslaved and avenging class, which carries out the work of emancipation in the name of generations of downtrodden to its conclusion.

Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History

What History Lessons provides us with is a lens into history as a practice, and the dangers that present themselves when we passively allow history to be dictated to us by the ruling classes: history repeats itself — indeed Mussolini called upon the memory of imperial Rome to give ideological power to Fascism in Italy — and the proletariat of all nations is consumed in the service capital. The way to break out of this cycle viz. the way to comprehend history as revolutionary praxis is to situate not the movement or dominance of particular ideas, but the material conditions of working classes — those doing the generative work of capital — as the foundation for our historical practice. It is in this way that we can posit and build new futures that no longer work simply in favor of the propertied few, but open up liberatory potential to the masses.

What is Revolutionary Exposition?

When I was considering what to write about this film I had a small bout of writer’s block due to the thought that I had nothing substantial to say. In reality the gridlock was due to the fact that there were two primary thoughts emerging from my analysis which seemed to be somewhat at odds with each other, and of which neither had been fully developed. On the one hand I wanted to present a literary critique of the work and discuss those implications, and on the other the work’s relationship with Brecht and his method of exposition. Fortunately I’ve come to the conclusion that both thoughts may be worth discussing, and could both be developed enough to justify that conclusion.

Although the film is adapted from an unfinished Brecht novel, it retained very little of the revolutionary character of his works. Jean-Marie Straub is quoted as once saying, “We make our films so that audiences can walk out of them.” Whether this comment is facetious or not, this type of sentiment shows clearly in History Lessons, and I would argue that this lack of accessibility is one of the major shortcomings of the film. This is a sort of Brecht without Brecht: perhaps made for closed film festivals instead of the common person. Brecht’s narratives are almost always coupled with humor, drama, and wit. They move at a pace akin to a modern romantic comedy, yet they deal with truly revolutionary substance. And this substance is not so much taught as it is exposed — which may be the one thing that Straub-Huillèt got right in this adaptation.

If one is to build revolutionary narratives today, radical accessibility ought to be heavily considered. This does not in any way assume that everyday people as a whole cannot comprehend revolutionary ideas, but quite the opposite: it assumes that we all have the capacity to and will readily comprehend them, provided that a work speaks to us colloquially, as a peer or friend, and not in some unnecessarily elevated form. Without accessibility any potentially revolutionary character of a work immediately vanishes no matter the content; the work proves no better than any of those which serve the interests of capital and in effect does so itself.

It is worth noting that much of Straub-Huillèt’s work seeks to break the conventions of commercial cinema. It desires to split from this condescending treatment where the viewer is patronized and led through convention as if physically across an assembly line. However, a radically intentional relationship with the viewer cannot necessarily include elements of mass alienation. To create a truly revolutionary work is to speak intentionally, and to unyieldingly take the historical stance which posits the working class as the locus of revolutionary change.

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