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A view of Bach, unfiltered by fantasy

Gustav Leonhardt as Johann Sebastian Bach in the film “Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach.” Miguel Abreu Gallery

On Oct. 14, the Harvard Film Archive’s retrospective of filmmakers Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet features the project that started their half-century partnership: “Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach,” a biography of composer Johann Sebastian Bach, told through the (fictional) recollected testimony of his second wife. Straub and Huillet wrote the script in the 1950s, then spent a decade trying to finance the film. It finally premiered in 1968, at seemingly oblique angles to that year’s political ferment. But the form and content made — and makes — contemporary commentary.

“Chronicle” exemplifies Straub and Huillet’s defiantly formal style. Anna Magdalena Bach’s narration is scrupulously based on historical records and documents — many of which appear, documentary-style, on-screen. Straub and Huillet filmed where Bach actually worked and lived, in churches and houses scattered across Germany (where the Alsatian-born Straub had relocated to avoid being drafted into France’s war in Algeria). Instead of actors, they cast musicians: harpsichordist and conductor Gustav Leonhardt as Johann Sebastian Bach, soprano Christiane Lang as Anna Magdalena Bach, conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt as an early patron.


Conventional narrative is aphorized in favor of music — long stretches of performance, filmed and recorded live on set, featuring then-novel period instruments and players. The monophonic sound subverts the music’s luxury, as does the fleet, expressively efficient early-music style. The acting is deliberately dry: Outtakes reveal Straub and Huillet, take after take, trying to get their cast to emote less.

It is a refined version of the alienation espoused by playwright Bertolt Brecht, throwing the viewers back on their own critical faculties. (Straub once said their goal was to let the audience feel free to walk out, as opposed to emotionally manipulating the viewer into passive surrender.) That radical inheritance hints at underlying themes, including the artist’s survival in a society driven by commerce and power: The bulk of the narration follows the ups and downs of Bach’s career, battling church bureaucracy, casting about for better jobs and positions, worrying over making ends meet.


But there is also Germany itself, the modern Germany coming to terms with its Nazi past, uneasily swinging between penance and amnesia. (Late in the film, Bach tours the then-new opera house in Berlin. “If someone in one corner whispered across the hall, another in the opposite corner heard it quite clearly,” Anna relates. “But in the other places, no one heard the slightest sound” — an allegorical detail underlined as the camera, stock-still through so much of the film, pans from wall to wall.) The film means to reclaim Bach from the subsequent Romantic and nationalist fantasies that were twisted into Nazi ideology. Straub and Huillet, rather, gave Bach the dignity of his provincial, professional life, untouched by the corruptions of fame.

“Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach” is at the Harvard Film Archive, Cambridge, Oct. 14. Tickets: $9. 617-495-4700, www.hcl.harvard

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.