An early episode of a sacramental canticle recited by a monotonic, impassive chorus (in an oddly surreal scene that fuses home economics and religion) provides an integrally illuminating puzzle piece to Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s maddeningly opaque and fragmented, yet abstractly intriguing and curiously resonant film, Not Reconciled:
How shall we redeem the world?
‘Through sheep’s wool, sheep’s leather, sheep’s milk, and knitting.’
Wherein lies the world’s salvation?
Evoking such intricately interwoven allusive images as religious rigidity, blind faith, false idolatry, and passive complicity, the seemingly perfunctory episode distills the essence of Heinrich Böll’s, radical, anti-militarist postwar novel, Billiards at Half-Past Nine, an indicting examination of the collective psyche of the German people that contributed to rise of Nazism and its insidious perpetuation in contemporary society. Unfolding in disorientingly elliptical vignettes that eschew dramatic action in favor of oppressively distended temp morts, autonomic ritual (most notably, in the recurring image of Robert Fähmel (Henning Harmssen) playing a lone game of billiards), and decontextualized, uninflected monologues (that recall the dedramatized, pensive recitation of Robert Bresson’s equally spare and austere cinema), the film chronicles three generations of architects and their personal association with – and ancestral legacy through – St. Anthony’s Abbey and, in the process, presents an incisive and relevant portrait of a traumatized nation’s culturally fostered (but publicly unarticulated) xenophobia, suppressed memory, deliberate inaction, and tacit support for (and therefore, condoned harboring of) war criminals into positions of power, authority, and influence in postwar Germany. Filming in stark black and white, Straub and Huillet also set the somber atmosphere of figurative, unreconciled ghosts of souls (and histories) passed through the opening image of otherworldly forms and shadows cast by a bleak and desolate winter forest. Straub and Huillet further underscore the film’s recurring theme of alienation and distance through non-confronting dialogue, incongruous narration, and isolated and occluded character framing. Similarly, the film’s asequential structure conflates past and present in order to create a pervasive sentimental inertia – a metaphoric existential vicious circle for a national soul that is still haunted by its own past, even as it continues to steadfastly cling to its self-destructive behaviors – obfuscating moral complicity through delusive self-denial and perverted, hollow rituals. It is this inextricable sense of moribund transcendence that is captured in the Fähmel family’s intertwined destinies with the wartime-sabotaged cathedral, the tragic and tortuous course of human history that reveals only a shell of irredeemably lost grandeur and inevitable fall from grace.
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