Three sequences are linked together in this short film by Straub; the first sequence is a long tracking shot from a car of prostitutes plying their trade on the night-time streets of Germany; the second is a staged play, cut down to 10 minutes by Straub and photographed in a single take; the final sequence covers the marriage of James and Lilith, and Lilith's subsequent execution of her pimp, played by Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
“It is one of my favourite films, but I couldn't tell you why. It is a peculiarity of films by Huillet and Straub that they are more than the sum of their parts. In his 1971 book Straub, Richard Roud offers a very concrete and detailed description of the film and account of its production, but in explaining its effect, he falls back on platitudes: "It is Straub's most lyrical, most moving ... most mysterious work, in that the emotional charge it gives off would seem to be in excess, as it were, of the facts, of the 'plot.'"
The most mysterious and mystical films are materialist films. I know this claim is impossible to defend in this space. But think about Paul Schrader's transcendental stylists: Dreyer, Ozu, Bresson.
Der Bräutigam is composed of three fragments. The first is a tracking shot taken at night from an automobile along Munich's Landsberger Straße, a street where women are known to go out whoring. Scenes like this have lately become a genre on YouTube; they have titles like "Aurora Avenue, Seattle" or "Figueroa Street, Los Angeles." Some of these actualitiés have a documentary interest. In one movie of Aurora Avenue, I noticed a midget prostitute out on the street and a motel that calls itself "21+ Recreational." But none have much aesthetic value. In the Huillet-Straub shot, however, we notice, first of all, rigor. They are willing to film spaces that are almost entirely black. The women in the street are like ghosts. The shot begins and ends at gas stations, more brightly lit than anything in between. As Richard Roud wrote, we find at the end "a strangely exalting outpost of light amid the encircling gloom.
There is no direct sound in this sequence. This silence makes the shot almost unique in the work of Huillet and Straub. Why direct sound? Michael Mann has explained his insistence on direct sound during the downtown gunfight of Heat in these terms: "We went to great pains to be sure we got the right sounds for the machine guns letting rip in the concrete canyons. There's a certain pattern to the reverberations. It makes you think you've never heard that in a film before, so it feels very real." Something similar happens in Huillet-Straub films. It is as if we hear the sound of the silence, something we've never heard in a film before. It creates a "reality-effect." You may not think about the difference consciously, but you feel it.
There is something else: music. Halfway through this tracking shot, they introduce the sound of Bach's Ascension Oratorio (BWV 11). There's a shock cut on the soundtrack from silence to "Gloria." Yet the music sounds right, the speed of the tracking precisely calibrated to the tempo of the music.
These are the material means to create a feeling of exhilaration. You can appreciate the work necessary to create this by watching Rainer Werner Fassbinder's first film, Love Is Colder than Death (1969). Huillet and Straub allowed him to use another take of the tracking shot in this film, and it is terrible. It starts in the wrong place (in almost complete darkness). The focal length of the lens is too long, so we see only details. The street is shot at a 90-degree angle, rather than at a 40-degree angle. Although the take in Der Bräutigam looks casual, the angle had to be right, and the scale had to be right.
The second fragment is the strangest. I can't think of anything like it in earlier or in subsequent movies: reducing a two-hour play into ten minutes and then filming a stage performance of it in a single take with an unmoving camera. The play is Krankheit Der Jugend, written in 1924 by a Berlin theater manager who called himself Ferdinand Bruckner. As an English translation of the title, I prefer Sorrows of Youth. The Munich Action Theater staged the play along with a 90-minute play by Fassbinder, a member of the group which became the nucleus of his movie stock company. Roud wrote that the storyline of the play "is almost impossible to work out from a single viewing of the film." I would say it is almost impossible after ten viewings of the film. What remains is the atmosphere, which is much like the atmosphere of Fassbinder's first films.
Fassbinder plays a pimp or a would-be pimp in the play, and he plays a pimp in the third fragment, which is somewhat more conventional than the first two, a story told in a few economical images. Again, the theme is prostitution. A prostitute (Lilith Ungerer) marries a black American (their wedding is depicted in a single four-minute sequence shot), and her pimp comes to reclaim her at their home. She grabs his gun and shoots him in the chest. "Only violence serves where violence rules," as the subtitle of Not Reconciled has it. The camera follows her in a panning motion as she walks to her right and stands by a large window. The camera tracks toward the window so that only the natural world outside is visible: a tall, lovely tree on a rainy spring day. Again, the Ascension Oratorio. Huillet and Straub once said, "Bach expresses not only feelings; he expresses air, fire, wind."
When I first saw Der Bräutigam, I was reminded of something D. W. Griffith said in one of his last interviews: "What the modern movies lack is beauty – the beauty of moving wind in the trees, the little movement in a beautiful leaf blowing on the blossoms in the trees." And I recall it each time I see it again. When I later saw the 16mm print of Der Bräutigam that circulated here in the United States, the final shot was blotted out by dust and scratches, and I almost threw up. I'm glad it was restored in my lifetime.”