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Jean-Marie Straub, Uncompromising Filmmaker, Is Dead at 89

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Jean-Marie Straub, a celebrated filmmaker aligned with the French Latest Wave who sparked critical debate with movies he made along with his wife, Danièle Huillet, that were known for his or her aggressively cerebral material, Marxist leanings and anti-commercial sensibility, died on Sunday at his home in Rolle, Switzerland. He was 89.

The Swiss National Film Archive announced his death.

“The Straubs,” as they were often called (although they preferred Straub-Huillet as an expert moniker), emerged within the Fifties from the identical circle of revolutionary French filmmakers as Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, a friend through the years who lived nearby in Rolle until his death in September.

The Latest Wave directors upended moviemaking conventions by channeling their cinephilic theories into auteur-driven works that reflected the anti-authoritarian sentiments of postwar France. Mr. Straub and Ms. Huillet took those self same impulses in a more radical direction, eschewing traditional narrative techniques and structures to create a type of ideologically driven film that proudly flouted basic standards of entertainment.

Their 1981 documentary, “Too Early, Too Late,” for instance, featured Ms. Huillet, in a voice-over, reading from a letter written by Friedrich Engels to the Marxist theorist Karl Kautsky concerning the economic despair of French peasants as seemingly unrelated footage of locations in contemporary France played onscreen.

The movies’ source material often seemed plucked from a graduate-level syllabus, drawing from the likes of Bertolt Brecht, the novelist and literary critic Elio Vittorini and the operas of the atonal composer Arnold Schoenberg.

Critics, film theorists and discerning viewers held strong views of their work, which may very well be seen as either poetic or tedious. Their minimalist approach to editing, cinematography and acting demanded that “one be in a mood so receptive that it borders on the brainwashed,” as Vincent Canby wrote in The Latest York Times in his review of “Class Relations,” their 1984 interpretation of Franz Kafka’s unfinished novel, “Amerika.”

The film is now hailed as one of the vital accessible and delightful of the Straub-Huillet movies, but Mr. Canby said the actors’ impassive line delivery sounded “as in the event that they were giving instructions on the best way to placed on one’s life jacket in case of an unscheduled landing at sea.”

To other critics, that steadfast commitment to an aesthetic was a creative statement in itself. “Some movies wish to be loved,” the critic J. Hoberman wrote in The Latest York Times reviewing a 45-film Straub-Huillet retrospective on the Museum of Modern Art in 2016. “Others prefer to be admired. After which there are the films, like those by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, that, indifferent to like or admiration, are monuments to their very own integrity.”

Despite a body of labor largely confined to art-house theaters and museum screenings, Mr. Straub was awarded the Leopard of Honor lifetime achievement award in 2017 by the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland, an award that previously went to the likes of Bernardo Bertolucci, Werner Herzog and Mr. Godard. (Ms. Huillet died in 2006.) Richard Brody of The Latest Yorker wrote that Mr. Straub was “one among the least known of great filmmakers — he never had successful or sought one.”

If audiences shifted uncomfortably of their seats, a lot the higher. To the combative Mr. Straub, filmmaking may very well be a revolutionary act. “If we hadn’t learned the best way to make movies,” he once said, “I might have planted bombs.”

Jean-Marie Straub was born on Jan. 8, 1933, in Metz, in northeastern France, and was a movie buff from an early age, showing an affinity for the movies of Jean Renoir, Robert Bresson and Jean Grémillon.

He studied literature on the Lycée Fustel-de-Coulanges in Strasbourg, eventually earning his degree from University of Nancy. Within the early Fifties, he organized a movie club in Metz, to which he invited Mr. Truffaut, then a provocative critic for the seminal French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, and André Bazin, a Cahiers founder, to debate movies. (Mr. Straub began contributing to the magazine himself.)

He met Ms. Huillet in 1954, and the couple settled in Paris, where Mr. Straub began his film profession as an assistant, working on movies like Mr. Bresson’s “A Man Escaped,” released in 1956. Two years later, to avoid conscription within the Algerian War, he fled France for West Germany. He and Ms. Huillet were married in Munich in 1959, starting a protracted profession as expatriate filmmakers working largely in Germany, Italy and Switzerland.

Their first short feature, “Not Reconciled” (1965), was adapted from a novel by Heinrich Böll, which dissects the expansion and legacies of Nazism. The author and public mental Susan Sontag later said the film had made her wish to kiss the screen.

In 1968, the couple won international approval for their first full-length feature, “The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach” (1968), which was a deconstructed version of a biopic of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Set in locations in Germany where Bach had actually lived and worked, the film offers a sparse narrative consisting of voice-over reminiscences from a fictional diary by Bach’s second wife (the text was written by the filmmakers). Much of the motion, because it were, is provided by musicians in period costume performing the composer’s great works.

While the film baffled some critics in its day — A.H. Weiler deemed it “repetitious and static screen fare” in The Times — others, over time, got here to see it as a masterpiece, a murals “whose visual austerity, resolute slowness and refusal of conventional narrative were meant to advance a ruthless critique of capitalist aesthetics,” as A.O. Scott wrote in The Times in 2018.

As their popularity grew, Mr. Straub and Ms. Huillet continued to push boundaries over the a long time. Their movies “From the Clouds to the Resistance” (1979) and “Sicilia!” (1999) each premiered within the Un Certain Regard section on the Cannes Film Festival, a category reserved for artistically daring works.

Critics were less kind to their 1979 adaptation of “Othon,” a Seventeenth-century French play by Pierre Corneille, which announced its intentions to confound with a 22-word title in English: “Eyes Do Not Need to Close at All Times, or, Perhaps One Day Rome Will Allow Herself to Select in Her Turn.”

The film featured nonprofessional actors costumed as ancient Romans barking out the text of the play in an emotionally flat, rapid-fire fashion from the ruins of Palatine Hill in contemporary Rome, with the din of the fashionable city humming below.

Ever the utopian, Mr. Straub said he considered the audience of “Othon” — a few Roman nobleman’s political ambitions amid calls for bringing power to the people — to be the fashionable proletariat.

“I would really like to have ‘Othon’ seen by staff in Paris,” he was quoted as saying in a 1975 interview. “They’ve never been told that Corneille is unimaginable to know.”

The film, he added, “threatens not only a category, but a clique of power.”

That clique of power apparently included critics on the Latest York Film Festival in 1970, half of whom bolted for the exit through the film’s press screening.

But perhaps that was the purpose. As Mr. Straub once put it, “We make our movies in order that audiences can walk out of them.”

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