The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968)

Viewed January 6th

In this Straub-Huillet film, long shots of Bach playing and conducting his transcendentally beautiful music are juxtaposed with relatively banal accounts of his life as recorded by his second wife, Anna Magdalena. 

On one level The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach is a treat for those who find Bach's music a spiritual cornerstone of Western culture. By employing long, slow camera moves over performances of the music in the actual locations inhabited by the great composer, along with authentic period costumes and musical instruments (e.g., the harpsichord instead of the piano), the film opens a window into the wigs-and-ruffles 18th century German milieu in which this music came to be. Stanley Kubrick used similar strategies to capture this time period in Barry Lyndon (1975). In both cases the effect is to draw the viewer into a slower mode of time, one perhaps closer to that which would have been experienced by the people of that era.  

For The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, this obsessive focus on historical authenticity not only brings the viewer into Bach's world; it serves to bring Bach down from the spiritual/transcendental and into a decidedly material space. This is Bach, the man, playing his music in a particular time and place with a particular set of economic realities in evidence all around him. The sense of this is buoyed by the filmmakers' juxtaposition of the lush performances alongside decidedly un-beautified accounts of his economic struggles as an artist. These accounts are read by Anna Magdalena under shots of Bach in the world or of historical documents such as professional letters, often regarding financial matters, signed by him in his hand. By pointedly titling the film The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, thereby shifting the focus away from the heroics of the composer and to the family he had to support, and by using a bird in a cage as the film's key symbolStraub-Huillet reveal their hand: devotion to the otherworldly aesthetic and spiritual beauty of Bach is supplanted by the historical materialism of Marx.