The title, as a proper name, guarantees the unity of the oeuvre. Titles have the capacity to hold together, sum up, stand for and register an oeuvre as oeuvre, countering the threat of disorganisation, endlessness and dispersion. Different authors have interrogated the powers of the proper name and created new economies between title and work that question their presumed equivalence and unification. T. W. Adorno pursues in various texts a crusade against the conformist and exploitative titles of the culture industry[1]. Against titles-for-profit, he favoured titles «so close to the work that they respect its hiddenness», titles «into which ideas immigrate and then disappear, having become unrecognisable»[2]. Adorno imagines an intimacy between title and titled that does not sell. Roland Barthes, against the supreme authority of the title with regards to meaning, insisted on a fertile separation between title and oeuvre. He explored generative distances where the proper name does not exhaust the named, or, more precisely, where the relation between titles and titled can function as a terrain to play with the expectations of nominal identification.

In his essay Sagesse de l'Art”, Barthes analyses the work of the American painter Cy Twombly and observes that there is no immediate correspondence between titles and paintings. According to Barthes, Twombly's titles have a «labyrinthine function»[3]. Between the titles and the paintings there is not a direct relation (nor a mere non-relation) but a labyrinth for the spectators to produce different connections between the name and what there is to see on the canvas. In this labyrinth titles function as «the bait of a signification»[4]. Titles and their nominal authority to signify are the lure; the spectators in pursuit of meaning are the prey. The apparent distance between classical titles such as Arcadia, The Italians, Phaedrus and the calligraphic abstraction of the paintings frustrates definitive correspondences between name and named. For Barthes, the trap of the title as univocal signification is transformed into a labyrinth wherein the spectator is able to «walk», «go back», «set off again»[5]. Barthes does not simply negate the authority of the title but uses it to open a distance where different proximities between word and figure can happen. This labyrinth is for him something like the condition for the birth of the viewer. 

But, apart from making of Twombly another case for the vicissitudes of death and birth that preside over the production and transmission of meaning, Barthes marvels in his essay at the extraordinary stickiness of titles, at their adhesive resistance to separation. He insists on the phantasmagorical capacity of Twombly's titles to stick to the paintings: «something remains, of their ghost, and impregnates all the canvas»[6]. Titles share the fundamental characteristic of the ghost: its inability to depart. Ghosts simply won't go away, they stick around. The spectrality of titles attaches them to the titled even when they appear to be completely foreign to each other. Barthes admires the viscous resistance of the name, its refusal to be washed away in the multitudinous flow of the anonymous. The name does not exhaust the named but obstinately haunts it, allowing it to take different shapes across different readings. Between name and named, an improper relation continuously sketches emergent fields for possible reconfiguration.

Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet have also experimented with the stickiness of the title in their cinematic practice with names, images and sounds. If their films are always based on literary works, they never borrow their titles from the material they work with. This refusal to establish an eponymous relation between the titles of the film and the text it is based on is partly explained by the filmmakers' refusal of the genre of literary adaptation. Literary adaptions repeat the titles of the original written material: a lazy repetition that is also a manner of exploiting their connection to the original[7]. But for Straub and Huillet a film is the evidential assemblage of an encounter with a text, not its dependent and exploitative audiovisual conversion. As Straub insists: «One cannot adapt a literary work. Television does it, and it is like fabricating sausages. The film only exists if there is an encounter between the text and the author of the film»[8]. The non-eponymous titles of their films do not only translate their commitment to an open, anonymous encounter with a text. The nominal power of the title constitutes an occasion to intervene and re-draw the line of evidence between a name and the named, the distances and proximities between a title and a film.

Straub and Huillet have used, like Twombly with his paintings, a classical language to name some of their films - in their case the language of classical Marxism. I am thinking of cases such as Class Relations [Klassenverhältnisse, 1984] or Workers, Peasants [Operai, Contadini, 2001]. These titles give rise to a certain set of expectations concerning what we are going to see. But, more than a play with the authority of the name, I would argue that their practice also makes of the title an opportunity to intervene in the signification and the significance of the denominations in question. Interestingly, with Class Relations and Workers, Peasants, Huillet and Straub develop two different strategies of intervention. With the title Class Relations they render the relation between title and film strange (a strategy of dissociation), whereas in Workers, Peasants the title makes an explicit reference to the content of the film (a strategy of association). This difference is what mostly concerns me in these pages. It speaks of the mutations their practice has experienced along the years whilst also demonstrating the complex affiliations developed by their cinema.


The title frame of Class Relations (dir. Straub and Huillet, 1984)

Class Relations is based on Franz Kafka's novel Amerika. This unfinished, posthumously published work was given the aforementioned title by Kafka's literary executor, Max Brod. In fact in his diary Kafka would refer to the text under the title Der Verschollene [The One Who Was Never Heard of Again][9]. Straub and Huillet decided to call their film Class Relations − a title that makes, according to Straub, a conscientiously ‘brutal’ reference to Marxism[10]. However, the content of the film cannot be directly explained as a Marxist reading of Kafka's unfinished novel. As Straub comments about the title: «If the film would talk ostensibly of class relations I would not have called it like that. The title is good because this is precisely what the film does not do»[11]. How is one to understand this economy distancing the title and what the film does?

The critics and theorists who have written about Class Relations, altogether few in number, have most often understood that between title and film there is a radical separation. We are to take the abyss between film and title as a more or less empty Brechtian shock, a frustrating void. Götz Grossklaus laments that «the reading of Kafka's text which the title announces is not realised»[12]. Huillet and Straub have deceived us by calling a film Class Relations that has nothing to do with the subject announced. Implicit in Grossklaus' words, the concept of class relations would have a univocal meaning and, correspondingly, an appropriate mode of representation. Another author, Ursula Böser, understands that the mismatch between title and film demonstrates that «Straub/Huillet remain strikingly reticent about matters of politics»[13]. For Böser, between the ostensibly political title Class Relations and the film there is absolutely no relation. There is only an unbridgeable void that demonstrates a supposed reserve towards the political in Straub and Huillet's cinema. With these interpretations, Grossklaus and Böser demonstrate their critical competence: they have not swallowed the title's deception, the bait of signification lying in wait.

And yet, as Barthes suggests, the title haunts and sticks to the titled. The strange disjunction or even apparent non-relation between Class Relations the title and Class Relations the film does not simply signify an empty void. The distance between title and film opens up a gap that allows filmmakers and spectators alike to articulate different approximations between names, images and sounds. In the case of Class Relations, the distance and resonance at play between title and film allows the spectator to question the transparency of their nominative relation. To open up this distance and thereby re-articulate the relation between the designation class relations and its representation is not politically reticent, as Böser assumes, but on the contrary, an entirely loquacious gesture on the part of Huillet and Straub. A political relation between name and named re-stages the distance-proximity, the strangeness-familiarity of the two terms. It opens this relation to different configuration for different eyes and ears. Huillet and Straub perforate the line of evidence between title and film by exposing the authoritative act of naming to an instance of fundamental ambiguity.

The title Class Relations does not give a dogmatic description of the film, but nor is it an entirely figurative determination. The relation of strangeness between the title and the film (strange precisely because it sticks) questions the possibility of establishing a conclusive definition of the concept class relation. One could say that the distance broken open and sustained here calls into question the propriety of the name class relation – a propriety that both Grossklaus and Böser assume. Between Class Relations and class relation, the film becomes the field of a re-articulation concerning the stated name and its associated representations. The construction of a gap between title and film works as an operative distance with which to re-articulate the potential of the concept of class relation in terms of what we will go on to see and hear in the film. The latter makes visible and audible class relation as an active name, a name potentially tied to potentially endless visualities and auralities.

In Workers, Peasants the reactivation of the name(s) follows an opposite strategy. In this case,there is a straightforward relation between the title of the film and its content, a blunt accord with no trace of mismatch. Straub and Huillet consider this the frankest possible title[14]. The title Workers, Peasants not only names the respective classes that the characters in the film each belong to. With the comma that separates and associates the two terms, the title also visually acts out the relation these two classes will have in the film. Workers, Peasants graphically performs, from the opening frame of the title, a circumstance that at once separates and yet constructs a shared space of enunciation between these classes as they appear in the novel inspiring the film, Women of Messina (1949) by Elio Vittorini[15]. Here the title works in clear accordance with the film (its narrative, its construction, its politics). There are no cracks in the relation between the title and the film, which submits its terms to a perfectly plain unification. This coincidence encompasses the names worker and peasant without ceremony. And yet, in addition to didactically announcing the content of the film, the way in which the title is inserted within the film's opening credits starts to affect the names worker and peasant with a strange resonance.


The opening frame of Workers, Peasants (dir. Straub and Huillet, 2002)

The opening stages of the work announce the double movement at play in the film and in the title Workers, Peasants: the affirmation but also the re-arrangement of the audio-visuality of the names in question. The first frame of the film presents the text of the title: Operai, Contadini. The inclusion of the French and German translations of workers, peasants (Ouvriers, Paysans; Arbeiter, Bauern) insists on the internationalist significance of these names. Straub and Huillet underline the importance of these names further by making this first frame last thirty seconds. For thirty seconds we look at what could easily be the cover of a Marxist book discussing the roles of these two social classes (the protagonist role of the workers who come first and the secondary role of the peasants in Revolution). Underneath the text of the title, there is a red star that further emphasises the Marxist context.[16] This star is a cryptic reference to a left-wing party recently prohibited in Italy – however the general symbolism at stake here cannot but exceed such a specific allusion. Every element in this first frame of the film seems to announce a canonical Marxist reading of ‘worker’ and ‘peasant’. However, after ten seconds, the aria of a cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach starts to play (BWV 125-4, Aria duetto). Two voices sing a text with clear religious connotations: «Es schallet kräftig fort und fort / Ein höchst erwünscht Verheissungwort: / Wer glaubt, soll selig werden» («There echoes powerfully on and on / A word of promise most desired: / Whoever believes shall be blessed»). This cantata is hardly the official soundtrack of the proletariat and the peasantry. From the first, worker and peasant sound out differently.

How is one to see and listen to this juxtaposition of a Marxist iconography and baroque religious music? Huillet and Straub do not simply organise in these initial moments of the film a shock between the image of the title and the music, between the names worker, peasant and the aria. It is not a shock exposing, in a strict Brechtian élan, the social contradictions that establish a hierarchical gap between the working class (and the peasantry) and the noble art of classical music. The aria they have chosen is a duo, two masculine voices singing the same text. However, these two voices have different tones and timbers; these are the voices of a countertenor and a bass. Their singing happens at different intervals, coinciding and separating so as to create the effect, in the best operatic tradition, of two voices asking and answering each other, of two voices in dialogue. Between the title and the aria, more than a shock, Straub and Huillet suggest a similar conflictive duality. The partition worker-peasant announced in the title is reflected in the partition between the two operatic voices of the cantata. Between the Marxist duo worker-peasant and the Bachian duo tenor-bass, a coincidence gives to the names worker and peasant a lyrical intensity that agitates their standard Marxist audiovisuality. It is a radical accord that disrupts sociological partitions between high art and social class, religious music and emancipatory politics. 

Bach's cantata continues for the rest of the opening credits. It stops abruptly with the first sequence of the film, a 180-degree shot of the space where the action is going to take place, a forest interior. This shot lasts around three minutes: we see the forest, the light filtered through the trees. We hear an auditory close-up of running water and in the background birds singing. This long sequence of the forest contrasts with the opening credits (the Marxist title, the cantata), a contrast between nature and culture, and continues to disrupt any expectation of a canonical Marxist exaltation of the names ‘worker’ and ‘peasant’ in the film. The first frame with the title given in three different languages, the red star, the cantata with two different voices singing the same text, the violins, the birds chirping, the running water: all these are audiovisual elements that coincide and contrast, run parallel to each other and intersect, coming together to form an intense audiovisual conjunction. This effervescent opening resolutely affirms the persistence of the names worker and peasant while corroding the socio-political definition that binds them to a pre-defined audiovisuality. The malaise of naming becomes in the cinema of Straub and Huillet an opportunity to intervene in what is figurable in the present.












Manu Ramos-Martinez


[1] See T. W. Adorno, “Titles, Paraphrases of Lessing”, “A Title”, “Unrat and Angel” in Notes to Literature, Volume Two, Columbia University Press, New York 1994.

[2] Ibid., p.4, 6.

[3] Roland Barthes, Sagesse de l'Art, L'Obvie et l'Obtus, Essais Critiques III, Editions du Seuil, Paris 1982, p.170. My translation («une fonction labyrinthique»).

[4] Ibid. p.169. My translation («l'appât d'une signification»).

[5] Ibid. p.170. My translation («Les titres de Twombly ont une fonction labyrinthique: ayant parcouru l'idée qu'ils lancent, on est obligé de revenir en arrière pour repartir ailleurs»).

[6] Ibid. My translation («quelque chose reste, de leur fantôme, et imprègne la toile»).

[7] See Nicole Brenez, “T.W. Adorno, Cinema in Spite of Itself – but Cinema All the Same”, Cultural Studies Review, No. 1, Vol. 13, 2007, p.84.

[8] In Jean-Marie Straub, Danièle Huillet and Jean-Louis Raymond, Rencontres avec Jean-Marie Straub et Danièle Huillet, Beaux-arts de Paris les éditions, Paris 2008, p.13. My translation(«On n'adapte pas une oeuvre littéraire. La télévision le fait, mais alors c'est fabriquer des saucissons. Le film n'existe que s'il y a une rencontre entre le texte de depart et l'auteur du film»).

[9] See T.W. Adorno, “Titles, Paraphrasing Lessing”, Notes to Literature, Volume Two, Columbia University Press, New York 1994, p.7.

[10] Ursula Böser, The Art Of Seeing, The Art Of Listening, The Politics of Representation in the Work of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Peter Lang, Frankfurt 2004, p.116.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid. p.117.

[13] Ibid., p.116.

[14] In Jean-Marie Straub, Danièle Huillet and Elio Vittorini, Ouvriers, Paysans, Editions Ombres, Toulouse 2001, p.174. My translation («[le titre] le plus franc et le plus parlant»).

[15] The film focuses on four specific chapters from Women of Messina (chapters XLIV, XLV, XLVI and XLVII). These four chapters are significant within the structure of the novel because in them each character, peasant or worker, takes the time to narrate the events that occurred in their village during the hard winter of an unspecified year. The chorus of different characters displaces the voice of the narrator of the novel.

[16] Straub and Huillet have made three versions of Workers, Peasants. There are minimal differences between each versions (in the light, position of the actors), in one of them there is no red star accompanying the title. See Giulio Bursi, “Ouvriers, Paysans et la Pratique des Différentes Editions dans le Cinéma de Straub-Huillet”, Cinéma & Cie, Vol. IX, No. 13, Fall 2009, pp.51-60.