Letter to Helmut Färber
I was fortunate to obtain a DVD from a Rai Tre telecast of Quei loro incontri  containing not only the movie itself, but also Quei loro incontri: gli uomini… gli dei, Jean-Marie’s video of the Straubs’ theatrical production in Buti which preceded their shooting. 1 At the price of Rai Tre’s graffito on every frame, I have been able to relive Quei loro incontri many times, with increasing affection. In a way, I am fortunate that my limited Italian obliges me to do this simply to connect with the words and follow the story. This and more: to read the text over and over; to subtitle my DVD with it in Italian; to try to translate it (I’ve corrected something almost every day for months now). The struggle is to understand the music of recited Italian.
Moreover, the text itself is difficult for me. As you know, it’s the last five (of twenty-seven) dialogues in Cesare Pavese’s Dialoghi con Leucò –—six of which Danièle and Jean-Marie used long ago in their Dalla nube alla resistenza . The dialogues are difficult in the way poetry whose richness reveals itself only through repetition over the years can be. I envy Danièle and Jean-Marie that they learned their texts by heart. It makes me think of Simone Weil repeating the Our Father in Greek while harvesting grapes in the Ardèche. But I’ve put so much effort into the “script,” that I worry, because it’s about the movie that I want to write to you. The movie is also the script––but not the same script as on the page. Scholars who know Pavese but not the Straubs quote the same lines I do, yet I am convinced they are talking about some other text.
So where is the movie?
The better to ask this question, I watched Jean-Marie’s video movie of the theatre production. I call it Jean-Marie’s “movie,” even though it’s just one, unmoving, 67-minute shot, because Jean-Marie is credited for photography and Romano Guelfi (Dionysius) for montage.
Compared to cinema, theatre-on-video is more level. There is less sense of physical form and rhythm, and this “less” affects the words too. One minor example: the first four dialogues end with their words suspended 35 seconds in the movie; in the theatre the stage darkens immediately with hardly a rest. Time is more focused in cinema.
And theatre has less space, too––less movement. Each dialogue gets one scene, the actors hardly budge. From the back of the theatre, next to Jean-Marie’s camera, we might notice only two movements in the first episode. Bia turns to face Kratos (telling him all the young gods are down among the humans).
Quei loro incontri: gli uomini… gli dei (Rai Tre broadcast, 2005)
Then Kratos turns to face Bia (to denounce Zeus for having sex with humans). Only two movements, but they sum up the conflict. Yes, Zeus likes “accosting” women like a man, Bia says. “That’s the point.” Gods want to be humans.
On screen, the actors behave the same as on stage, but there is more movement. We can feel them acting even with their bodies immobile. Tighter framing amplifies changing expressions and moving eyes. As on stage, their recitation is almost sung. Meter, rhythm and pitch have, by dint of months of rigorous practise, taken on musical form, become physical, sensual, and real––so that waiting for meter seems a sublime acquiescence to the gods. And on screen the characters are even more intense visually than vocally. Their words cease to be a text recited, and become their emotions in movement.
And in contrast to the stage’s one composition per duet, each movie duet has three “views”––a long shot of the two speakers, and a closer shots of each of them.
Thus each actor gets to resonate in space wholly his own, like in Vermeer, and the entire composition plunges us into the subject’s inner self. Their speech, no longer distantly embodied, is distended, denser, richer, more emotional.
Meanwhile the montage of these three views into many shots (10, 13, 16, 21 and 8, respectively) sculpts the waves of feeling. For instance, the irony in each duet’s final exchange is punctuated in the cutting. Along the way, we find a history of creation, the end of the world, an entire cosmology––and more. Quei loro incontri is a meditation facing death and therefore life, full of sorrow and joy. Like Goethe’s “Mehr Licht!” Like Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach . But Bach was a young person’s movie, visually abstracted; Quei loro incontri is an old person’s movie, sensual. Similarly, the dialogues in Dalla nube are full of the complaints of youth and middle age; Quei loro incontri’s burst with all the final, ultimate, unanswerable questions.
Quei loro incontri’s gods are formless and think us vile, for born of blood. Yet they confess dependence on our sensuality:
DIONYSIUS: Without mortals…, what would we Olympians be?
DEMETER: I existed before they did, and I can tell you we were alone. […] We were the earth, the air, the water. What could one do? It was then that we took up the habit of being eternal. […]
[SATYR: [We were] like plants, like rocks – like things without feelings that are mere destiny.]
DEMETER: [Humans] tear us from the heavy eternity of destiny to paint us colourfully in the times and lands where we are now. […] For them I am a wild, forested mountain. I am cloud and cave. I am lady lord of lions, fodder and bulls, walled fortresses, cradle and tomb. And the mother of Kore. Everything I am I owe to them.
And thus while watching Quei loro incontri, it is not a problem to believe the actress is the goddess Demeter (the earth mother). What else can a god aspire to than to be a human? or a human than to be a god? (“Such is the world,” says Satyr.)
It is our naming, as Demeter says, that brings gods into existence. Names which contain stories. Remember, Helmut, how we fantasised a Straub movie in which Eve would give names to everything in the Garden of Paradise? Naming, as for Hölderlin’s Empedokles, is both a method by which humans become godlike [the “black sin”] and by which humans lose the reality behind the name.
First Hunter: I wonder which came first, things or those names.
Second Hunter: They came together, believe me. And it happened here.
“Here” is on the mountain, where humans are discussing gods in the last dialogue, and where gods discussed humans in the first dialogue. Gods and humans have switched places. In the first duet, Kratos is insulted that Zeus is “accosting” humans. In the last, humans wonder if Zeus existed: today we see only a rabbit, whereas past people encountered a god, and did they really? In the theatre, the set for both dialogues is the same bright nothingness. In the movie, as in most of their movies, the Straubs pan up to the mountain and air––in which all things burn.
What Demeter foretold has happened: “The day will come when […] they’ll do […] without us, with a story. They’ll talk about humans who’ve conquered death. […] And then we’ll go back to being what we used to be: air, water, and earth.”
In fact, there has been only one “encounter” in Quei loro incontri. The first three duets are between gods; the fifth is between men. The sole encounter between mortal and immortal is Hesiod’s with Mnemosyne, which comes only in the fourth dialogue, along with Quei loro incontri’s first human––after whom there are gods no more. Plausibly, Hesiod’s encounter occurs only in his own imagination, like Ixion’s encounter at the beginning of Dalla nube:
Mnemosyne, indeed, is the goddess of memory, mother of all the Muses, goddess of inspiration. She even suggests that Hesiod, with his back to her most of time, might be talking to an olive tree.
And does she not pose as an olive tree? And authorize him to preach the divine word? “I like you more than others. […] Try to tell mortals these things you know.”
A god’s purpose for Hesiod, we realise, is agitprop for his verses. Indeed, Hesiod’s Theogony (c. 700 B.C.) is the source for the tales and names of the gods in Quei loro incontri’s first three episodes––tales by which, according to Demeter, humans have created gods from “earth, air and water.” Are gods useless without these names? Are they useful with them? Do they exist? When Hesiod wonders what name to use to describe his moodiness, Mnemosyne replies, “You can call it by my name, or yours.”
“What is your real name?” he demands––and gets no answer. “There’s nothing but these two things,” Satyr says, “hope or destiny.”
Destiny, “mere destiny” is what gods have, “like plants, like rocks––like things without feelings.” Eternity. What mortals have, and gods don’t, is time, says Demeter. “Everything they touch becomes time. Becomes action. Waiting and hoping. Even their dying is something.” Waiting and hoping––hoping that our lives will go on.
HAMADRYAD: Strange people! They treat destiny and the future as though they’re the past.
SATYR: This is what hope means. To give destiny the name of a memory.
In the cruel central dialogue, the world is destroyed by the flood. All of the humans perish, but at the last moment turn themselves into rocks, from which they will be reborn.
HAMADRYAD: And the stones and clods of earth which will one day turn to the light will not live in hope alone or in anguish. […] The new world will have a spark of divinity in even its most ephemeral mortals.
Is that what divinity is? A pet rock? No wonder, then, that the gods, as Hesiod depicts them, talk of nothing but us and want to love and care for us. In the first dialogue, Zeus gives us divinity by breeding with us. In the second, Demeter and Dionysius give us bread and wine, the “story of eternal life,” so we can share their divinity.
But the gods also give us eternity to contemplate––the “instant.” Demeter calls it “the happy life.” And Hamadryad wonders: “Why can’t humans learn to live caprice like an eternal instant in their misery?” Eternity is a memory.
And “What else is memory,” says the goddess of memory, “if not passion repeated?” When Mnemosyne tells Hesiod “to tell mortals these things you know,” she reveals our divinity to us, and effects her own destruction, because now we shall not need her any more, shall we? We have the olive tree, we have the “instant”––which the Straubs mark, as Mnemosyne reveals it, by having Hesiod turn quickly to look at her:
MNEMOSYNE: …an instant similar to so many in the past [which] suddenly makes you happy, happy as a god. […] You were looking at the olive tree, the olive tree on the path that you take every day for years, and one day your annoyance goes away, and you caress the old trunk with your eyes, as though it were a refound friend who said to you just the one word your heart was waiting for. Other times it’s the glance of some passer-by. Other times the rain which goes on for days. Or the sharp cry of a bird. Or a cloud you thought you’d already seen. For an instant time stops, and you feel the banal thing in your heart as though before and after no longer exist. Have you not wondered why?
HESIOD: […] That instant has made the thing into a memory, a model.
MNEMOSYNE: Can you not imagine [she turns her head to Hesiod] an existence made entirely of these instants?
HESIOD: Yes, I can.
MNEMOSYNE: Then you know how I live. […] What else is memory if not passion repeated? […] You know what immortal life is like. […] Don’t you understand that humans, every human, is born in [a] swamp of blood? And that the sacred and the divine accompany also you, in bed, in the field, in front of the fire? Every gesture you make repeats a divine model. Day and night, you haven’t an instant, not even the most trifling, that does not gush from the silence of its source.
Does the goddess give Hesiod divinity? Or does he do it himself? “No goddess has found me worthy of her bed,” he quips, “I only know the land I’ve worked.”
Demeter says we’ve put one of our own in heaven already, and yet we continue to kill each other (and gods too) to placate death. Demeter gives us bread and wine, which continue to be reborn, which will be “story of eternal life,” which will “lead” us to “conquer death” and thus be so occupied contemplating eternity, that we shan’t bother even to grow food, let alone kill each other. Demeter is mother.
Where do Christian stories begin, and Hesiod stories stop? In any case, we humans, in all the Straubs’ movies, are always inside stories––stories that have been told for us before we were born (in much the same way that communities in John Ford’s movies are washed in tradition to the point of suffocation). Particularly it is true in the Straubs’ Pavese and Vittorini movies, that characters are swimming in a thousand stories, because both authors breathed the air of Benedetto Croce, Antonio Gramsci, and the postwar dream of creating a new reality––through stories. Just like Demeter’s dream. How do we stop the shedding of blood? This and other evils exist in our stories (the same way Quei loro incontri’s gods exist in our names for them). We use stories to self-impose tortures on ourselves, as Demeter bewails. The solution is to create new stories, new names, a new reality. Which is what all Quei loro incontri’s characters are doing all the time, until the last dialogue––today. Today the ritual of blood persists, but hunters don’t encounter gods, and so they doubt they can create stories.
Pavese, obviously, had no such problem. He puts a compendium of stories into each of his twenty-seven dialogues, so that the whole is like a giant bowl of spaghetti, except that almost all the stories tell of pain and blood. The lacrimae rerum are once again sensualized and sung in Quei loro incontri, and with radiance. “There’s nothing but these two things––hope or destiny.”
In disagreement with Demeter’s hope, Dionysius affirms destiny. Humans won’t change; one can tell their future by knowing their past. Such is destiny. Humans killed the gods who gave them wheat and vines. Now they will change bread and wine into flesh and blood. Now it will be to gain eternal life that they kill each other––and the gods. Our leaders today impose killing. Such is destiny.
The last dialogue is between two hunters who, finding themselves on Hesiod’s mountain, now gone wild, wonder if the gods are gone, or ever existed, or are still here.
It is the Straubs who have made these speakers hunters. In Pavese, they are just dashes ( — ), no names, genders or occupations. It is the Straubs who dress them as hunters, give them rifles, make them both male (because they don’t see gods?), and give them big rocks.
The rocks refer to what Bia said, in the first dialogue, that even stones used to be gods, before the law. So perhaps the gods are here indeed. Today we just see a rabbit. Once people saw gods in rabbits, the earth, air and water, olive trees, and blood.
People used to hunt for gods up here; now they hunt for blood. Is there, was there, eternal life? Can we conquer death? Didn’t we used to encounter gods?
— If [their] distress was real, as it indisputably was, also real was their courage, the hope, the happy discovery of powers, of promises of encounters [with gods]…
— So do you believe in monsters? Do you believe in bodies being turned into beasts? In live rocks? In divine smiles? In words which could annihilate?
— I believe in what every human has hoped for and suffered. If at one time they used to climb up these stony heights or seek out deadly swamps under the sky, it was because they found something there which we do not know. It wasn’t bread, or pleasure, or precious health. They already knew where to find these. Not here. And we who live far away along the coast or in the fields, we have lost that something.
— Tell what it was, then.
— You already know. Those encounters of theirs.
Whenever I think of Danièle or Jean-Marie, Helmut, I’ll think of this line: “I believe in what every human has hoped for and suffered.”
Thank you all for being my Hesiod.
- Recorded on 23rd May, 2005. ↩