Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach (Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach). 1967. West Germany/Italy. Written and directed by Jean-Marie Straub, Danièle Huillet. With Gustav Leonhardt, Christiane Lang-Drewanz. 35mm. 93 min.
Johann Sebastian Bach and his wife Anna Magdalena endured the successive deaths of 10 of their young children, a grief we can scarcely fathom any more than we can articulate the beauty of Bach’s music, at once an expression of his earthly anguish and his joyous faith in divine love. Nonetheless, Straub-Huillet attempt to capture Bach’s ineffable artistry in one of their most sublime films. The seemingly musical structure is based on recitations of Anna Magdalena’s intimately domestic, yet fictionalized, letters to her husband, and on performances in period clothes with period instruments and orchestrations—a radical conceit for the 1960s—of Bach’s cantatas, sonatas, and Passion According to Saint Matthew in the very rooms and churches where he composed and conducted them. “With the Bach film,” Straub said, “we have almost entirely a documentary reality—the actual music and actual manuscript pages, real musicians—and only one seventeenth of fiction, and despite it all, the totality becomes very nearly a novel…. [There is] no divorce in Bach between art, life and intellect, sacred and secular music.”