Jane Madsen `Cutting Through the Seventies to Find the Thirties: A Consideration of "Fortini-Cani" as Marxist Reflection'. In T. O'Regan & B. Shoesmith eds. History on/and/in Film. Perth: History & Film Association of Australia, 1987. 159-65.


Jane Madsen

This paper considers some of the experiences and issues that arose in the 1930s as they are presented by Franco Fortini in Straub and Huillet's Fortini-Cani. In particular I want to look at the influence of Marx's early work on the 1930s and to propose a reading of Fortini-Cani on the basis of historical materialism - an option that Straub and Huillet's work indicates. Fortini-Cani was made in 1976 and is based on Franco Fortini's book I Cani Del Sinai published in 1967. In order to get to the 1930s, as far as film theory is concerned, one must pass through the 1970s and Screen. In 1974 Screen published Franco Fortini's article "The Writers Mandate and the End of Anti-Fascism" which contains Brecht's 1935 address to Anti-Fascist Writers.[1] In the same year they published their first special Brecht edition and in 1974/5 their second, and in 1978 they published the script of Fortini-Cani,[2] and other than a brief introduction to it, did not publish anything further about the film or Fortini.

Alienation & The Jewish Question

The theme of alienation is central to Marx's work, and was an important influence during the late 1920s and 1930s. The most prominent among those who were influenced by it were Brecht and Benjamin. Marx's concept of alienation needs some clarification, especially if it is to be considered in terms of its lineage from Brecht through to Straub and Huillet. In the section entitled "Alienated Labour" of the 1844 Manuscripts Marx states:

The appropriation of the object appears as alienation to such an extent that the more objects a worker produced, the less he can possess and the more he falls under the domination of his product, capital.[3]

Alienation is identified here primarily as an economic relation based on the workers' lack of property. It is this that creates the unequal exchange between labour and production. In The German Ideology this situation becomes "world-historical"[4] when the expansion of production has increased to the extent that there exists internationally a class of "propertyless".

The German word that Marx uses for alienation is "Entfremdung". It is from this term that Brecht coined the word "Verfremdung". Brecht began reading Marx in 1926, and pursued the concept of "Verfremdung" consistently through his work until 1956 (the last year of his life) when he began to propose a dialectics of theatre. The reading of Marx led Brecht to a deep interest in history. Dickson states that Brecht used the term "Historisierung ... as a synonym for Verfremdung".[5] For Brecht, following Marx, history became a way of considering the present as the first step towards radical social change. Consistent with his view of history, the sources of his plays became already existing texts, either pre-`Aristotelian', or `Aristotelian' which were reworked into his plays. Similarly, Straub and Huillet, have drawn from books, plays, letters and music as the sources for their films. Brecht wrote two novels, Der Dreigroschenroman which followed on from the play Die Dreigroschenoper, and the unfinished Die Geschafte des Herrn Julius Caesar. The latter, begun in 1938-9, is a view of the Roman Empire from an economic and political perspective. The novel is not a history, but is an analogy for the situation in Germany under the Nazi regime. Brecht said of the work: "I wanted to disclose the business affairs of the ruling classes at the time of the first great dictatorship, that is, with a mischievous eye![6] The novel does not just allude to Nazism. It is an interesting study of Caesar without being directly centred on him. Using the device of narration by and through the real or invented characters surrounding Caesar, Brecht avoided perpetuating myths about heroic figures from history.

A great deal of emphasis has been placed on the relationship of Brecht to the work of Straub and Huillet. This is partly due to the revival of interest in Brecht during the early to middle 1970s, as the two Brecht special editions of Screen reveal. Martin Walsh went so far as to rest a concept of radical cinema on theories derived from Brecht and Benjamin emphasising Straub and Huillet's work as Brechtian.[7] There are interconnections between the work of Brecht and Straub and Huillet which the filmmakers openly state. However their film practice does not rest entirely on Brecht's influence, to insist that it does places severe limitations on their work. The most obvious influence from Brecht is that of the distanciated position of the spectator. The very austerity of Straub and Huillet's work provides a sharp contrast to Brecht. One of Brecht's major interests was to conceive of a way of utilising popular forms of entertainment within epic theatre - he used songs and music, and also wanted the audience to approach theatre as they would a sports match. This populist element is entirely absent in the films of Straub and Huillet. There are also populist elements present in Brecht's only successful involvement in film, Kuhle Wampe. The populist aspect of Brecht's work has seldom been taken up by film theory, either within his work, or in the application to films outside the so-called "Brechtian" genre. Film theory has also tended to expand Brecht's involvement in filmmaking beyond its real importance.

The points where Straub and Huillet have acknowledged an influence from, and an interest in Brecht lie in Nicht Versohnt, History Lessons and Einleitung. In Nicht Versohnt the alternative title "Only violence helps where violence rules" is a quotation from Brecht's play, St Joan of the Stockyards, it is immediately followed by another from his theory: "Instead of wanting to create the impression that he is improvising, the actor, should rather show what the truth is: he is quoting."[8] These quotations are presented as graphics for the spectator to read. The source of History Lessons is Brecht's Die Geschafte des Herrn Julius Caesar. Straub and Huillet only present a fragment of the incompleted novel. They left out all the anecdotal material and concentrated on the discussions of economics. Straub said of the film while it was still in the planning stages: "It will be presented to be judged as a reflection on Marx."[9]

This is an important comment, since most theorists have "judged" it as a "reflection" on Brecht. Walsh only goes as far as considering it in terms of Benjamin's "Theses on History" and actually fails to mention Marx in his detailed essay on this film. In some ways this film should be regarded as Straub and Huillet's ideas coinciding with those of Brecht, since Othon had already demonstrated their interest in the political structures of the Roman Empire. In Einleitung Huillet quotes a brief statement from Brecht's address to the 1935 Paris Congress of Anti-Fascist Writers, a further link to this is in Fortini's article about the decline of anti-Fascism, where he includes the whole of the address.[10] In a 1975 interview with Andi Engel, Straub gave rather evasive answers as to how well he knew Brecht saying that he knew "very little Brecht theory" and that he had seen rather than read the plays.[11]

The concept of alienation is an important one in Fortini-Cani. The listener/spectator is clearly in a distanciated position in terms of the austerity of the images and the density of the sound. However, this is taken a step further in relation to the text.

Fortini's own position was, and is, one of alienation from the social relations around him. He is a Jew in Italy, the stronghold of Catholicism, but at the same time he is alienated from Judaism. With reference to his experience of the 1930s, he states: "as the son of a Jewish father and an "Aryan" mother (I could be "Aryan").[12] During the war, he is baptised which is supposed to save him, but to his acquaintances he remains anti-Fascist and Jewish. He is anti-Zionist as well as being outside the Communist Party of Italy. He is alienated from his own (petit-bourgeois) class through his political formations. He later refuses to become anti-Arab during the Arab-Israeli wars, perceiving it not only as racist, but as being motivated by the same forces that produced anti-Semitism thirty years before. He is critical of the portrayal of the Arab as crude, alien, antithetical to European culture and the Western vision of progress. Fortini speaks about alienation from the (then) present conflicts, through the revival of interest in the past, in Nazism and in the Second World War.

The alienation Fortini identifies on the sound track, is paralleled by the image track. This is highlighted by several shots. Take shot 22 of the Synagogue. This nine minute shot is one of the two interiors in the film. The camera remains in a fixed position where women sit in the synagogue. During this sequence the rabbi is chanting and Fortini's voice over enters telling of his awkward relationship to Judaism as a boy. When he begins to speak of the rise of Fascism in Italy towards the end of the voice over, he changes from the first person to the third person and thus for the moment places himself outside his own text. A further example of this is in the shot in Via dei Servi in Florence. The camera pans from left to right across apartment walls, finally presenting a view down the narrow street. Here the buildings on either side delineate a strong sense of perspective towards the focal point - the dome of the cathedral. It then tilts to include the traffic below, remaining static for the rest of the shot. Fortini once again speaks in the first and third persons about Fascism. It seems plausible to suggest here that the image adds something further to Fortini's words, an indication of the relationship of Church and State, two primary sources of alienation in Marx's terminology.

Another of Marx's early works of importance here is the 1843 essay On the Jewish Question. This essay is a reply to Bauer's two essays on the Jewish question. Its relevance lies in the parallels it draws between religious and social alienation, and for the arguments it puts forward concerning Jewish emancipation. Marx regards Bauer's position as too simplistic, and responds to him by stating: "It is in no way sufficient to enquire: Who should emancipate? Who should be emancipated? A proper critique would have a third question - what sort of emancipation is under discussion?[13]

Bauer had suggested the possibility of the Christian state emancipating the Jews. Marx is very critical of this proposition for it implies that the Christian state offers emancipation rather like a gift, a gesture that is as patronising as it is impossible. Marx criticises Bauer for using the term the "Christian state" rather than "the state as such".[14] By changing the terms Marx locates emancipation (in general) within the context of political emancipation. He argues that "the political emancipation of the Jew, the Christian and religious man in general, implies the emancipation of the state from Judaism, Christianity and religion in general.[15]

Marx also believed that the political emancipation of Jews would also be the emancipation from mythic characteristics that secular society had attributed to them: "Haggling" and "Money"[16] (the role of the eternal merchant).

Marx further specifies that the Jewish question differs depending upon the state in which the Jew is located. I think that this remark is meant to also encompass time as well as place. Italy and Germany during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s represent a situation where the combined forces of Church and State were unified in perpetuating the secular myth of the Jew.

During the 1920s and 1930s the options for young Jewish intellectuals, facing the threat of Fascism, were either Zionism or Communism. Both Walter Benjamin and Franco Fortini refused to be aligned with either. Benjamin, who was about half a generation older than Fortini, fell into the category of the first wave to be influenced by the publication of Marx's early writings. Benjamin's approach to Marx and Marxism was far more idealised, and more quirky than Fortini's. And it has been Benjamin's writings on Brecht that have been important to the Brecht debates within film theory. This has at times meant that Brecht's theories have been taken in a direction that is a little off the track. The most relevant part of Benjamin's work for this discussion is his "Theses on the Philosophy of History" - a set of eighteen paragraphs of varying lengths which emulate the form of Marx's "Theses on Feuerbach" but certainly do not follow Marx's style. They are consistent with the "oddities" of his Marxism. Their main project seems to be to define a separation between historical materialism and historicism. It is difficult to ascertain whether the Theses achieve this, primarily because the style that Benjamin adopts is more poetic than theoretical, which makes pinning down a definite issue, let alone a formulation, a difficult task. This further raises doubts as to the practicability of applying them to film theory, as Walsh does in his essay on History Lessons. I think that Benjamin's Theses are useful in a descriptive sense even though they are theoretically risky. Benjamin makes a statement in the eighth Thesis which seems to concur with Fortini's position:

..we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism. One reason why Fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as a historical norm.[17]

Fortini has asserted a conception of history which operates on a number of complex levels all the way through his text, a complexity that Benjamin does not acknowledge in his wild optimism. Fortini conceives of a "state of emergency" in the way he confronts the present, his sense of urgency about the need for continued anti-Fascist struggle can also be seen in his article "The Writer's Mandate and the End of Anti-Fascism" which in part works towards reviving such a "state of emergency".

It is over Messianism that their views most sharply diverge; in the sixth Thesis Benjamin says:

The Messiah comes not only as the redeemer, he comes as the subduer of Antichrist. Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins.[18]

The declamatory style of Benjamin is not matched by Fortini. In a sense it could be regarded as divergence on their concepts of Judaism. Fortini does not indicate any interest in Jewish mysticism through his text; in fact he does rather the opposite. In presenting his own Jewish question, Fortini shows how his relationship to Judaism is attenuated but never quite broken. A counterpoint to the above position lies in Fortini's statement that:

And if then to be Jewish means a certain synthesis of behaviours, movements and situations, a certain destiny in a certain measure undergone and chosen, then several human communities can be this. The attribute "Jew" is acquired and is lost, is concentrated and is dissolved. As far as "messianic Marxism" is concerned, I am aware that its identification/going beyond of State and Church (ie, the Party) is its most tragic weakness and that Marxism must be silent on that of which it cannot speak and degrades itself when it displays on this point, a sureness it cannot have.[19]

As such Fortini applies historical materialism to the state of being Jewish, but refuses to apply messianism to Marxism because it is a concept that can only fail.

Marx and Historical Materialism and Its Relationship To Fortini-Cani

In a talk about Moses and Aaron, the film immediately preceding Fortini-Cani, Straub said:

.. the film is a historical reflection, nothing more ... if you read the letters between Karl Marx and Engels which run to seventeen volumes, you become increasingly aware of the interest these two had in plunging ever deeper into history to try to see what happened and to study the relations they were interested in and analyse these relations further and further in the past.[20]

In other interviews, Straub referred to both Moses and Aaron and History Lessons as "Marxist reflections". For Straub and Huillet reflection is important, so to say that Moses and Aaron is "nothing more" than an "historical reflection" is not false modesty nor a denigration, but is to suggest that the film should be considered as "historical reflection" before other inferences are drawn. It is possible to view Fortini-Cani in the same light, not simply because it follows through the similar theme of Jewish oppression that is present in Einleitung ... and less directly in Moses and Aaron, but because the film is constructed in a way that invites a reading from the point of view of both "historical reflection" and "Marxist reflection". In Fortini-Cani, I believe that this can be taken further in that the film is both a "historical reflection" and a reflection on history, and in particular Marx's view of history.

In The German Ideology there are certain statements by Marx and Engels which illuminate a reading of Fortini-Cani from the point of view of historical materialism. In the summary of their conception of historical materialism, Marx and Engels state:

It has not, like the idealist view of history, to look for a category in every period, but remains constantly on the real ground of history; it does not explain practice from the idea but explains the formation of ideas from material practice ... each stage (ofhistory) contains a material result, a sum of productive forces, a historically created relation to nature and of individuals to one another ... a mass of productive forces, capital funds and circumstances.[21]

The statement that material practice remains in "the real ground of history" parallels what Straub and Huillet set out to do in Fortini-Cani. Shots 13 to 20 are a series of landscape shots which mark a break in the text as Fortini reads it. At the beginning of the first shot the voice over by Fortini states:

The local councils in the Apuan Alps, where twenty-three years earlier Reder and his men butchered hundreds of people, declare themselves opposed to the request for pardon, following their colleagues at Marzabotto.[22]

The duration of the landscape shots is nearly fifteen minutes. Early in the sequence, after the initial voice over, there is a sense of expectation that more information will be given, but as the pans continue with only direct sound, the spectator adjusts to this and is forced to consider the locations themselves. The locations of the landscapes are not specified in the film, with the exception of shot 17 which begins with a medium close up of a monument at Vinca which is dedicated to the people of the region who resisted and fought against "German barbarity" in the latter part of the Second World War. The shot pans upwards over the monument and the cyprus trees that surround it, to the sky. It is at this point that the relationship of these landscape shots to Fortini's text is made clear, that these are the sites of the massacres of Italian people by the Nazis during the war. The shot does not linger on the monument for any longer than it takes to read the inscription. The next shot begins with a pan past a large plaque on a wall, the angle of the camera and the fact that it moves past the inscription fairly quickly preclude the possibility of reading it at all. However, it is clear in the light of the shot preceeding this, that the plaque is dedicated to the same cause. The transcription of it in the script reveals that it is more fervent than the former. It is probable that Straub and Huillet effectively left this inscription out rather than allow any possible sentiment to arise from its inclusion as a readable, identifiable element. After repeated viewings, this sequence of Fortini-Cani has an impassioned quality that is unique in its absence of emotionalism, sentiment and identification. This is also true of the film as a whole, both in terms of Franco Fortini's text and the presentation of it by Straub and Huillet. In his introduction to the script of Fortini-Cani, Nowell-Smith seems critical of: "..the reliance of their films on a sub-text which does not form part of the signifying pattern of the film but which underpins it and can be spoken outside the film."[23] Even though in the film itself shots are not identified, they do not lose significance. It is probable that these shots would be more recognizable to the Italian audience, to which the film is directed.

Straub and Huillet refuse to compromise by overstatement. The landscape shots have been defined by Narboni as:

... stony inscriptions, places of remembrance, shreds of time engraved in stone, in the countryside, the mountains, the monuments, and the ossuaries ... Straub's films are a flow of words stumbling on stones.[24]

But Narboni's descriptions of the film are really an excuse for him to write prosaic passages which neither interpret nor analyse the film and are significant for the way in which they depoliticize the concerns of Fortini, Straub and Huillet. When questioned about these shots, Straub said:

What we are dealing with is the development of a very frustrating aspect, but nevertheless an aspect which I would like to develop further ... A type of geophysical, geographical, geological sequence, which is also a spectacle, a site of class struggle.[25]

Thus the inference can be drawn that Straub and Huillet consciously adopt a material practice in choosing to return to the "real ground of history", constructing and locating it as "a site of class struggle".

The notion of returning to the "real ground of history" is taken a step further within the construction of the film itself. There is no master shot of the terrace at the beginning of the film, instead shots 1 and 2 are close ups of Fortini's book I Cani del Sinai lying on the terrace table; shot 6 looks over the sea, shot 12 is a close up of the book open in Fortini's hands; shots 21, 23 and 27 are close shots of Fortini in half profile sitting reading, with an earth bank behind him (these are the first shots where Fortini is seen), the text is out of frame; shots 31 to 36 are a medium shot of Fortini in profile reading, his arm on a balustrade, in the background is a grassy hill, (these shots are interspersed with short spaces of white leader); and shot 41, which is the last shot of the film, Fortini is shown in the same place as in shots 31 to 36 but the camera angle has changed and he is now virtually facing the camera, behind him is the wall of the house, the camera pans past him across the green shutters of the house about 300 degrees. It is only in the last shot of the film that all the locations comprising the terrace are shown as part of a whole, in watching this shot the spectator recognizes the places that have been previously seen, or in other words, some of the sites of the film's internal history are recovered.

It is now worth returning to Marx's later formulations of historical materialism in the 1857 Introduction to the Grundrisse. It is at this point that Marx articulates his ideas about the "concrete", he says:

The concrete concept is concrete because it is a synthesis of many definitions, thus representing the unity of diverse aspects ... the method of advancing from the abstract to the concrete is simply the way in which thinking assimilates the concrete and reproduces it as a concrete mental category.[26]

Thus the concrete does not have an empirical existence of its own but is constituted by formulations in a material way. The concrete becomes a unity of social relations, thought, material conditions and determinations, it is a compact synthesis. The notion of working towards a representation of the "concrete" has long been an important aspect of the work of Straub and Huillet. When asked about the relationship between sound (the text) and image in Fortini-Cani, Straub answered:

... the relation is a concrete one and recognizes itself as such. It is the incorporation of a text with a particular instant, in a particular rhythm with particular images. That is why the relation is of a concrete kind.[27]

Huillet very succinctly adds here:

This seems to me an impossible idea, that there is aseparation; for the pictures come from the text, that means they don't simply fall from the sky.[28]

The relationship between the images and the text work towards a concrete unity not because they illustrate the text, but because they provide a backdrop that directs the spectator to the primacy of the text.

Marx's 1859 Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy might contain Marx's most succinct account of historical materialism, but it also contains statements about Marxism as a science. The considerable controversy within Marxism and film theory of the 1970s has tended to focus on the issue of "scientificness" forgetting that the 1859 Preface is ultimately of more importance for its formulations of historical materialism than for what it says about science. It is the former that is central to Marx and not the latter. As Hobsbawm puts it: "the materialist conception of history is the basis of historical explanation but not historical explanation itself."[29]

This comment to some extent explains Franco Fortini's position. The histories that Fortini defines are his own, in the autobiographical, and in his description of various conflicts - the Second World War, the Arab-Israeli, Algerian and Vietnam Wars. However, Fortini by choice, does not arrive at historical explanation for several reasons. Firstly he does not undertake to present a history of these wars in the "official" sense - nor does Fortini present his own history in the usual form that autobiographical writing takes. What he does do, is use parts of his own history to indicate a relationship between an individual (himself) and society. This can be further explained by referring to a statement from the 1859 Preface where Marx wrote:

The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.[30]

Throughout the work Fortini does just this, and it is for this reason that the autobiographical material is so intriguingly handled, whereby the primary relationship lies in "social existence" and not in the identificatory process of the listener/spectator. Secondly, Fortini could not possibly put down a fully determined historical formulation in a work that is so obviously and resolutely polemical. While historical materialism provides a "basis" for the construction of history in Fortini-Cani, it is utilised in a way that keeps the text open rather than closing it through historical explanation.

In conclusion I would like to quote a statement by Marx, that has become something of an axiom for historical materialism:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.[31]

It seems that this is precisely what Fortini, Straub and Huillet are exploring - the "circumstances" that are "not chosen"; giving dimension to the notion of "circumstances... transmitted from the past" by presenting through the text Fortini's continued struggle with them and paralleling with images that are a complex counterpoint. I think that Fortini-Cani provides such a means of reflecting on history.


1. Franco Fortini, "The Writers Mandate and the End of Anti-Fascism", Screen, v. 15, no. 1 (Spring 1974).

2. Fortini-Cani script, Screen, v. 19, no. 2 (Summer 1978).

3. Karl Marx Early Texts, Translated and edited by David McLellan, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1972), p. 135.

4. K. Marx and F.Engels, The German Ideology (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), p. 57.

5. Keith A. Dickson , Towards Utopia : A Study of Brecht (Oxford: OUP, 1978), p. 61.

6. Quoted in Ibid, p. 66.

7. Martin Walsh, The Brechtian Aspect of Radical Cinema (London: BFI, 1981).

8. Nicht Versohnt script in Richard Roud, Straub, Cinema One Series (London: Secker and Warburg, 1971), p. 124.

9. "After Othon, before History Lessons - Geoffrey Nowell-Smith talks to Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet", Enthusiasm, no. 1 (1975), p. 26.

10. Fortini, "The Writers Mandate", see pp. 53-56.

11. "Andi Engel talks to Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet is there too", Enthusiasm, no. 1 (1975), p. 19.

12. Fortini-Cani script, p. 27.

13. Marx, Early Texts, p. 89.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid, p. 91.

16. Ibid, p. 110.

17. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations introduction by Hanna Arendt (London: Fontana, 1982), p. 259.

18. Ibid, p. 257.

19. Fortini-Cani script, p. 30.

20. "Straub and Huillet talking and some short notes on some contentious issues", Journal of the Royal College of Art, January (1976), pp. 94-95.

21. Marx, The German Ideology, p. 37.

22. Fortini-Cani script. Although I am using Screen's translation of the text, I do not completely agree with their arrangement of shot numbers, and therefore there may be discrepancies with their shot numbers and my own.

23. Ibid, Introduction to script, p. 9.

24. Jean Narboni, "There: Fortini-Cani," Edinburgh Magazine, no. 2 (1977), pp. 34-35.

25. "Press Conference in Pesaro with Daniele Huillet, Franco Fortini and Jean-Marie Straub on Fortini-Cani", Filmkritik, no. 241 (January 1977), pp. 4-5.

26. K. Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977), Appendices: Introduction, p. 206.

27. "Press Conference in Pesaro", pp. 4-5.

28. Ibid, p. 10.

29. Eric Hobsbawm, "Marx and History", New Left Review, no. 143 (January-February 1984), p. 43.

30. Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, pp. 20-21.

31. Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977), p. 10.