Moses und Aron (1975)


(directors: Jean-Marie Straub/DanièleHuillet; screenwriter: Arnold Schönberg (libretto); cinematographers: Ugo Piccone/Saverio Diamanti/Gianni Canfarelli/Renato Berta; editors: Jean-Marie Straub/DanièleHuillet; music: Arnold Schönberg; cast: Günter Reich (Moses), Louis Devos (Aaron), Eva Csapo (Young Girl), Werner Mann (Priest), Roger Lucas (Young Man), Richard Salter (Another Man); Runtime: 107; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Jean-Marie Straub/DanièleHuillet; New Yorker Films; 1975-Germany-in German with English subtitles)

This is great cinema.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The acclaimed cinema artists, the German husband and wife team of Jean-Marie Straub and the late DanièleHuillet(“The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach”), who died in 2006, marvelously bring to the screen Arnold Schönberg’sprodigious unfinished twelve-tone opera Moses Und Aron. It was composed from 1930 to 1932 as ‘atonal’ music, that goes off on uncharted territory no longer based on major and minor scales. The opera, in three parts, tells the story of the Exodus. It was shot in the deserts of Egypt and Israel, and in the Italian Alba Fucens amphitheater. We first see Moses (Günter Reich) conversing with a unique invisible God–the offscreen ‘burning bush.’ A God without word who represents the pure idea of a single deity for the humiliated enslaved Jewish people to worship above all else. This unique God was perceived as more powerful than the gods of their Egyptian masters. Since Moses was inarticulate, he was to remain silent and be out of the picture like the God he worships and his clever pragmatic magician older brother Aaron (Louis Devos), who could turn Moses’ staff into a serpent, would be his mouthpiece to try and convince the downtrodden Jewish people, represented by a chorus seen standing in the desert in long takes, that this deity was their best chance of finding freedom from the Pharaoh and reaching the Promised Land of milk and honey.

Moses for forty-days was on Mount Sinai, when he returned with the Ten Commandments he discovered his followers returned to pagan worship and that angered him so much he broke the tablets. During Moses’ absence, the restless Jewish people didn’t have faith in believing in something unseen and refused to accept that this unique God given them because they were the chosen people had any power. Thereby Aaron placates them into accepting this unique God by providing an idol to worship, a Golden Calf that they can value because gold is so linked with pleasure and is so tangible. This highlights the rift between the brothers, as Aaron betrays Moses’ vision of an invisible God that must be felt to be believed and would allow the worshipers the opportunity to ‘know thyself.’ We are left with the impression that the eternal invisible God of Moses would always trump the visible god of the present, who can offer no lasting hope to the worshipers.

Thus the battle for the hearts and minds of the Jewish people is between the word and the image (the idea and the form), or another way of putting it as an ideological fight between demagogy and prophecy. The film strips away much of the religious patina through the music, without altering the story in the scriptures, to emphasize the opera’s modernistic Marxist view that this struggle is primarily about the need for unity in rebellion to overcome oppression. I’m led to believe by other knowledgeable critics, such as musical composer Allen Shawn in his brilliant essay in the December 2008 issue of Film Comment, that one can hear in the film that cry in the desert for freedom like from no other Schönberg production of this opera.

Adding to the pleasure of hearing Schönberg’s complex score is the innovative and intelligent experimental filming techniques of Straub and Huillet, who reward the attentive viewer by making it possible to tune into the opera to even a greater degree because of its ravishing unforgettable visuals. This is great cinema. With each repeated viewing, the film opens up deeper meanings and adds more subversive thoughts to ponder. Kudos must also go out to Michael Gielen conducting the Austrian Radio orchestra and chorus, with the superb singing tenor voice of Devos as the populist Aaron and the voice of Reich as the uncompromising prophet Moses, who does not sing but only speaks as would a seer. Their superb performances help make this a fascinating experience.