Let­ter to Hel­mut Färber

Tag Gal­lagher

Dear Hel­mut,

I was for­tu­nate to obtain a DVD from a Rai Tre tele­cast of Quei loro incon­tri (These Encoun­ters of Theirs, 2006) 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 (Dia­logues with Leuco, 1947) — six of which Danièle and Jean-​Marie used long ago in their Dalla nube alla resistenza (From the Clouds to the Resis­tance, 1979). 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).

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 (The Chron­i­cle of Anna Mag­dalena Bach, 1967). 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 autho­rise 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 sen­su­alised 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.



  1. Recorded on 23 May 2005.


Tag Gal­lagher is a writer and doc­u­men­tarist on cin­ema. He has authored books on Ford and Rossellini; arti­cles on Ophuls, Mizoguchi, Straub, Sirk, Renoir, Ulmer, Dreyer, Fer­rara, Fuller, Vidor, Walsh, von Stern­berg, Hawks; and pro­duced videos on Ford, Ophuls, Rossellini, von Stern­berg, Pre­minger, Dreyer, Hawks, and Renoir. When away from his desk he loves to ride his Vespa, play the piano and is a chef of ines­timable talent.