In the absence of a general Straub / Huillet thread, this seemed to be the best place to post.
I decided to go the whole hog for my first viewing of this film, on the fine Filmmuseum disc. Since Huillet & Straub are so concerned with the adaptation and translation of texts, I decided that I ought to read Kafka’s The Man Who Disappeared immediately before watching their version of the novel. It certainly made the experience all the more rewarding and fascinating, so here’s a report back.
Fidelity & Lacunae
Class Relations is an extraordinarily faithful adaptation of Kafka’s text. Although the text is filleted and condensed for the screen and there are some meaningful omissions, it seems that every scene and every line of dialogue in the film is taken directly from the book – though bear in mind that I’m comparing one translated text (the novel in English) with another (the subtitled film).
And so, what is left out of the translation between media becomes very important. Primarily, this is the narration. Straub / Huillet’s film is doggedly materialist. Though they faithfully reproduce the actions and words of Kafka’s characters, they stay well clear of their thoughts and other elements of narration. This automatically casts certain sequences in different lights. For example, when Karl is imprisoned in the apartment at the end of the film, we observe his attempted escape, but the preamble to this, his attitude towards Delamarche and his determination to escape, are elided. For similar reasons, the text of the (narratively important) letter from Karl’s uncle which sends him on his merry way is omitted. The letter is read onscreen, but not out loud, because Karl does not do so in the novel.
Other sequences or parts of sequences are left out, either for reasons of economy, be it financial (the political demonstration observed from a balcony, which would entail quadrupling the film’s cast) or narrative (Karl’s journey to and arrival in Clayton), and these lacunae are not papered over with exposition.
The film thus becomes, very consciously, a film of gaps, and these gaps are very artfully nested. I strongly suspect that this is the reason for the notoriously partial subtitles the Filmmuseum DVD sports – the need to instil in viewers the understanding that they’re not getting the whole picture. In fact, the subtitles are incomplete rather than sparse. Most of the film’s exchanges are translated fully and conscientiously, but in every scene a few lines are deliberately left untranslated. So I don’t think it’s correct to assume that this approach to subtitling was taken primarily to ‘free up’ the viewer’s eyes, as the subs come thick and fast for much of the film. Instead, the intended effect seems to be to continually remind the viewer of the gaps in the film, something that’s part of Class Relations’ deep structure: the subtitles convey only a portion of the film’s text, just as the film’s text conveys only a portion of the novel’s, and the novel itself conveys only a portion of the idealized, unfinished The Man Who Disappeared. At each level of adaptation and translation, more of the text disappears.
Viewers of the film may have trouble following the elliptical narrative, but without reference to the text, they won’t know at what level of translation each particular lacuna was introduced.
There may be an assumption, for instance, that the untranslated lines of dialogue contain some missing explanation (though most of the missing exchanges are phatic – there’s actually very little lost information of significance), but key information is also lost through the rigour of Straub / Huillet’s materialist approach (e.g. the uncle’s letter); through the necessary elision of parts of sequences (e.g. Karl’s reunion with Giacomo in the final sequence, something that occurs without comment in the film); and through the parts of the novel that went unfinished or unfound (Karl’s escape from Brunelda and Delamarche; the open ending). Viewers of the film unfamiliar with the novel will not be aware that the fragmentary non sequiturs of the film’s final sequences are actually faithful renditions of the novel’s partial remnants, not an arty imposition on the part of the filmmakers.
Well, that’s enough about what Huillet and Straub took away from the text: what did they add? There are distinct differences in some of the narrative’s actions, but these tend to be minor and pragmatic. For example, when Karl is beaten after his attempted escape, rather than having him wake in the darkness with a bandaged head and make his way to the balcony, he is simply dumped, unconscious and unbandaged, on the balcony in the first place. These minor compressions are interesting, but not particularly significant.
More substantial, for me, was the – again, pragmatic – decision to eschew Kafka’s world of darkness and grime in favour of stark, neutral spaces. Sequences which in the novel unfold in near darkness, such as Karl’s departure from Klara’s room in Pollunder’s mansion, are inevitably better lit in the film, and the film’s spaces are drabber and more mundane than the sometimes nightmarish or fantastical ones of the novel. Hence, no doubt, the elision of the novel’s most visually outrageous sequence, Karl’s encounter with the pedestalled angels. These changes are symptomatic of Straub / Huillet’s dry, transparent approach to adaptation, and they serve to give prominence to the text and to certain select visual elements, notably gesture.
The other big change that has been wrought is the title. Kafka’s original title is itself contingent. Der Verschollene was his working title, but Kafka also referred to the unfinished novel as The Stoker and his ‘American novel’, and it was originally published as Amerika, so it’s fair enough that they chose their own title. But ‘Class Relations’ is nothing if not pointed. The motor of the novel’s plot is job anxiety, and it’s this that drives Karl on through his picaresque adventures or persuades him to stay in place for a time. Huillet and Straub astutely cut to the chase in laying bare the mechanism behind the mechanism, and this simple act provides a new and revealing frame for the text.