By Ryan Krahn
The last film Danièle Huillet saw released in her lifetime (with three others finished posthumously) is one of Straub-Huillet’s most cinematically formal and politically literal works. Commissioned to pay tribute to Roberto Rossellini’s Europa ‘51, the couple produced a film that, on its surface, bears almost no resemblance to the neorealist Golden Lion nominee. In Rossellini’s film a boy ends up dead because Ingrid Bergman’s character loses sight of him. Bergman decides to dedicate the rest of her life to aiding those outside of society’s view. As a result, she loses everything and ends up arrested and institutionalized for helping a young thief. In Straub-Huillet’s version there are no spoken words, no actors, no narrative.
Yet despite its ostensible dissimilarity, Straub-Huillet’s film is equally a film about visibility and the symbolic exclusion that occurs via what Jacques Rancière calls the “distribution of the sensible.” Our setting is the grounds of a high-voltage electrical transformer, the decisive spark of which set off the October 2005 French riots predicted earlier that same month by Michael Haneke in Caché. This is Clichy-sous-Bois, one of the poorest of the Parisian banlieues, where Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré were driven to their deaths by police officers who wrongly suspected them of being thieves.
But while Rossellini’s film is at its core a humanist one, treating its topic of social injustice through the sacrifice and eventual martyrdom of Bergman’s character, Straub-Huillet have no truck with such individualism. We can attach Zyed and Bouna’s names to this setting if we’d like, but as with the 2005 riots themselves, the concrete particularity of Europa 2005-27 Octobre announces a struggle more universal than any face or signature, including Straub-Huillet’s. This is a film about structure, systemic injustice, and its vicious circularity. Five times we are taken around the execution site. GAS CHAMBER. ELECTRIC CHAIR. Capital punishment. Repeat. This is a film about the battle over public space, about the violent core that constitutes the perceptible order, and about the barriers to political agency. STOP! DO NOT RISK YOUR LIFE.
Absent are the classical, statuesque figures that have come to define much of the duo’s work. Absent as well is Rossellini’s metaphor of St. Francis of Assissi’s struggle. The sheer materiality of the surroundings is left to speak for itself. And it still speaks, in the daylight of the next morning when all the fires have been quenched. For despite the historical specificity of the date that serves as its title, more than half a decade later, with Paris divided and the Front National making historic gains, Europa 2005-27 Octobre has lost none of its immediacy.