Fifty years on, The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, the first feature from Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet, remains a singular work of musical filmmaking, the first entry and perennial exemplar of a genre that still doesn't really exist. It's a recreation biopic, a movie committed to nothing less than situating us in the audience that first heard the most gorgeous music the world has ever known. Here is the life of the great composer, Johann Sebastian Bach, rendered in still-life scenes of live performance of key pieces by ensembles large in small, in churches and schools and castles where Bach actually lived and played. Bewigged musicians in 18th century finery tease the master's arpeggios from period instruments, claviers and harpsichords and all the rest.
Five minutes may pass, then six, then seven, without the shot cutting away. On occasion, the camera may nose in on a player, usually the harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt, who plays Bach himself. You can see that they're truly playing the music you hear; Christiane Lang, who plays Anna Magdalena Bach, the narrator and Bach's second wife, slows down to untangle a tough knot of notes as she works through one of Bach's partitias for clavier. Between the performance scenes, Lang narrates, her words based on historical documents Straub and Huillet studied and photographed in their decade of preparation before filming. All the film promises is that this is the music that Bach wrote and played, on instruments like these, in these places, in clothes that maybe looked like this, while he worried about, among other things, these nagging issues that have been immortalized in the scant non-musical record of his life.