The Chronicle Of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968)
If you’re going to watch this film, get prepared to listen to some Bach. No, seriously....let me explain. Most composer biopics are interested in “dramatizing” the life of the artist and its struggles, and scoring that drama to the composer’s music. The opposite happens here: Bach’s life story is intentionally “de-dramatized” and the music is placed upfront and center, and occupies most of the screen time.
Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, the directors of The Chronicle Of Anna Magdalena Bach, stage some 25 Bach pieces or extracts, each of them as a single-scene long-take. What’s more, the camera’s often static, and soon you realize that there’s nothing to do but immerse yourself in the music and its flow. By not breaking up a musical performance into multiple shots, they preserve the unity of each musical piece, not allowing the music to devolve into a merely “accompanying” function.
What I find most interesting about this film is that it’s simultaneously both documentary-like and self-consciously artificial. By embracing these two (seemingly) diametrically opposed natures, the film finds one nature in the other: documenting involves artifice, and vice versa.
Documentaries purport to “document”. This movie goes one step further: it documents by means of documents. The greatest document that Bach left behind was his music. We see “authentic” period performance renditions of Bach’s music, juxtaposed with other documents: title pages of sheet music, notated scores, letters, citations, formal decrees, engravings and paintings of the period, city maps. Not all these documents are necessarily “authentic”: Anna’s diary, which is the basis for the voiceover that runs through the film, is fictitious, but constructed from letters and records of that period.
And yet, consciously complicating this documentary fidelity is an overt and forceful artifice. The musicians are shot from unusual angles that call attention to the framing, and even though musical performances begin with static shots, the camera suddenly tracks toward or away from the perfomer(s) as the scene ends, disrupting our calm “observation” of the performance. Compositions jump out at us with their slashing diagonals, and as a wonderful affront to the most basic demands of verisimilitude, Bach never visibly ages through the entire film.
Reminiscent of Bresson is the deliberate withholding of drama. Anna’s voiceover is matter-of-fact, evenly reciting events and details so that the banal and the tragic are shockingly juxtaposed. (She bore Bach twelve children; eight of them didn’t live past age five.) Discontinuity is commonplace, disrupting any dramatic arc we might wish for. At one point, a door bursts open and a boy announces: “The vice-rector has committed suicide.” It is the first and last time we ever hear of this “vice-rector”.
One of my peeves in movies is the way (non-)musicians are shown lazily faking it. I’m no literalist, but I think there can be something dignified and graceful about the work of playing music, especially as expressed through (1) human hands, and (2) the human face. When Sean Penn leans back on a bed and picks out “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” in Sweet And Lowdown, or when Romain Duris makes a nervy stab at a Bach toccata in The Beat That My Heart Skipped, their body language and movements and yes, fingerings, feel true, even though we know that the actors are non-musicians who were coached to get the passages right.
Some of the most satisfying moments here are watching Gustav Leonhardt's hands move as he conducts the ensemble, or his fleet fingers at the harpsichord, or his feet and hands as they control the pedals and stops of an organ. It reminds us of the labor of music performance. Ravel once nailed the sound of the harpsichord (“two skeletons copulating on a tin roof”), but watching Leonhardt play it—as opposed to just hearing him play it—adds a new subtlety of appreciation to the experience I wouldn’t have thought was there.