Features | The Stubborn Utopian: The Films of Alexander Kluge

By Christopher Pavsek

Though often acknowledged as one of the most important avant-gardists of his generation in Europe, Alexander Kluge does not think of himself as such. He considers himself a partisan of an “arriere-garde” whose project is not to push into new aesthetic territory or be the vanguard of a new kind of film art, but to “bring everything forward”—to bring forward all the lost utopian aspirations of past political and aesthetic projects, all the wishes and hopes that history has left unrealized. His is a project of redeeming past failures. This might seem an odd claim by Kluge, who was a pioneer of the German New Wave as it emerged in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, and a signatory and moving force behind the famous Oberhausen Manifesto of 1962 which declared “The old film is dead.” But like his intellectual precursor Walter Benjamin, Kluge has always thought any project for authentic renewal must consciously detour through the past in order to avoid creating what another of his great intellectual mentors, Bertolt Brecht, called the “bad new”—essentially the recreation of existing oppressive social relations and tired aesthetic forms in the guise of a glossy, marketable and illusory “New.” For Brecht, Fascism was the exemplary “bad new”; for Kluge, the “bad new” consisted of the dreary products of the “culture industry” and the tedious social conditions prevailing in Germany—about which he once said that they were bad enough that no one was really happy, but not bad enough to make anyone do anything about them.
Maybe our times are not so different, so it’s fitting that the Goethe Institute and the German Film Museum in Munich have decided to bring out a definitive edition of Kluge’s collected cinematic works in honour of his 75th birthday. It is long past due to bring Kluge’s work into public consciousness outside of Germany, where he is far from forgotten and where his style of creation and his role as a public intellectual are not so foreign. To make us aware that such figures still exist might be the greatest service this new edition of DVDs will perform in North America, where it is hard to imagine a personage like Kluge emerging organically from the political and cultural landscape. For Kluge is not only a filmmaker, but an intellectualof an older type whose realm of activity and expertise is astonishingly broad.
Kluge’s influence on German cinema extends far beyond the formal or stylistic influences he has exerted over filmmakers such as Harun Farocki. Without Kluge’s untiring activism on the part of the newly emerging Young German Film in the ‘60s, the system of public funding and training infrastructure that helped produce some of the most recognizable names in German cinema—Herzog, Wenders, Schlöndorff—never would have come into being. In addition to producing some 15 feature-length films and almost 20 shorts in his almost five decades of activity, Kluge has also written at least two novels and thousands of short stories that have garnered virtually every major literary and cultural prize that Germany has to offer. He is also an important critical theorist, the most interesting heir to the Marxist tradition of Benjamin and Adorno, who has published several major volumes of political philosophy with his collaborator Oskar Negt, most notably The Public Sphere and Experience (1972), a veritable bible for many leftist intellectuals in the ‘70s, and the massive Geschichte und Eigensinn (History and Obstinacy, 1981), a beautiful and complex rethinking of Marx’s theory of labour that explodes the generic and formal bounds of what has become known as “theory,” mixing together original work with hundreds of images and quotations from the past 800 years of German history. And since the mid-‘80s, Kluge has been producing a series of eclectic weekly television shows as a private entrepreneur—a contemporary cultural businessman cast in the mold of the auteurs who came to prominence in the European new waves of the ‘50s and ‘60s.
It is difficult to think of a comparable contemporary intellectual anywhere in the world, nor someone who offers such a radically different image of just what a filmmaker can be. The Film Museum’s first DVD collection (to be released in North America by Facets Multimedia in January 2008), comprised of all the features and short films Kluge produced for the cinema from 1960 through 1986—to be followed by a second collection consisting of primarily video, film and television material shot since 1985—is both a thrilling and daunting encounter for those who have yet to discover the extent of Kluge’s work. Fortunately, the beginning is not a bad place to start, since Kluge’s earliest films are perhaps his most accessible and provide a manageable immersion into his characteristic obsessions and quirks, his refreshingly strange mix of high and low culture, and his juxtapositions of lofty intellectual abstraction with the most basely material of bodily humour. Starting with the early work also provides a slow immersion into what is a truly unique method of film construction, to use a metaphor Kluge prefers, one which becomes over time increasingly complex and seemingly arbitrary. A new viewer needs to learn to watch Kluge, and in some ways to be initiated into a new and exceptional kind of filmic pleasure. Resolutely Brechtian in this, Kluge considers it to be part of what he calls the “utopia of film” that even the spectator nurtured on standard Hollywood fare—or its German counterpart in the horrid ‘50s Heimat films—can learn new ways of enjoying which are not merely distracting (or “culinary” as Brecht would put it), but which combine the more aesthetic and visual pleasures of cinema with the less frequent but no less intense pleasures of learning, knowing, and thinking.
Kluge’s start came after a rather inauspicious attempt to break into film. As the now almost mythical story goes, his friend and mentor Adorno helped him get on to Fritz Lang’s set as he was filming The Tiger of Eschnapur (1958). Kluge, apparently appalled at the indignities Lang suffered at the hands of his producers, retreated to the studio canteen and began writing the short stories that would later be collected in his first published work of fiction, Case Histories (1962). The experience only furthered Kluge’s conviction that a new, independent kind of cinema, one not exclusively oriented towards commercial success, was necessary if a vibrant film culture was to emerge in Germany. In 1960 he teamed with Peter Schamoni to direct his first film, the 12-minute Brutality in Stone (1961), which inaugurated Kluge’s decades-long obsession with Germany’s contemporary relationship to its fraught past. Brutality’s topic at first seems remote from the horrors of Nazi Germany, being a study of Nazi architecture and its apotheosis in the Nuremberg Party Grounds, site of the famous Nazi Party rallies and the shooting set for Triumph of the Will (1935).
The choice of National Socialist culture per se, as opposed to National Socialist politics or racial policy, as the starting point for his lifelong historical project is no accident, convinced as Kluge is that the cultural realm, and cinema in particular, is crucial to “organizing human experience” in the 20th century. It is characteristic of Kluge’s adamant modernism that his work bears this mark of cultural guilt that must be processed as much as any subjective and personal guilt felt on the part of individual Germans. The film’s brilliance lies in the way it locates the Nazi genocide within the heart of this falsely utopian culture, a culture that took great pains to prevent the horrors of the regime from breaking through its glossy and well-choreographed edifice. In a fantastic bit of montage, the camera slowly tracks through abandoned rooms and colonnades on the party grounds as excerpts from Rudolf Höss’ Auschwitz diaries are read, as if the very spirit of Nazi crimes haunted these now empty spaces. Though Kluge remains concerned with the legacies of National Socialism to this day, it should be noted that Brutality stands out as the only consistent and sustained treatment of the Nazi genocide within Kluge’s filmic oeuvre, whereas his later, more reticent meditations on the subject have occasioned some serious criticism.
Kluge’s breakthrough came with his first feature film, grievously translated in English as Yesterday Girl (1966), which won the Silver Lion in Venice in 1966. A truer rendering would be “Taking Leave of Yesterday,” an ironic title pointing to the plight of the main character and her inability to ever really escape the past. This is perhaps Kluge’s most accessible feature, and many critics have noted its obvious stylistics affinities to the early work of Godard, who had an enormous influence on Kluge at this time (Kluge has remarked that Breathless inspired him to go into filmmaking in the first place).
Yet those critics who paint the early Kluge as little more than a degraded imitator of Godard miss out on the fact that there’s something very different going on in Kluge, something that sets him apart from Godard and the other modernist filmmakers who would later be celebrated in the ‘70s in journals such as Screen. The French brand of “political modernism,” as D.N. Rodowick has labelled it, emerged from an intellectual tradition deeply informed by various strains of French Marxism, especially Louis Althusser and Guy Debord, as well as the structural semiotics of Roland Barthes and the theorists associated with the journal Tel quel. Kluge, however, came of intellectual age under the aegis of Brecht, Adorno, and the other thinkers associated with the Frankfurt School. Adorno, who discouraged Kluge’s filmmaking aspirations despite introducing him to Lang, was deeply antipathetic toward mass culture, and cinema and television most particularly, as was clear from the notorious “Culture Industry” chapter in The Dialectic of Enlightenment. For Adorno, cinema stood at odds with reason and enlightenment and constituted little more than a very effective and profitable method of manipulating the filmgoing public. He had little faith that cinema could escape its integration into an all-encompassing system of commodity culture and ever attain the status of Art.
Perhaps this cultural and intellectual inheritance accounts for the nagging pessimism of Yesterday Girl, which is offset by the beautiful black-and-white cinematography of Edgar Reitz, who would later helm the epic Heimat series. The main character, Anita G., stumbles her way through the landscape of the Federal Republic, from boyfriend to boyfriend, bad job to bad job, always on the run from the police who may or may not be chasing her, until she turns herself in, having no other options, in order to find a place to deliver the child she is carrying. The film is a great portrait of the malaise Kluge saw following in the wake of the great Wirtschaftswunder, and the nascent commodity culture (which gets a far more sanguine treatment from Godard) of the Federal Republic provides minimal pleasures to distract the main characters from their unpromising futures. The film does not suggest any course of action to change this situation, or for that matter to change Anita’s fictive life, and though Kluge has always maintained that his films are “partisan,” this refusal to create an agitational cinema did not sit well with more radical elements of the German left in the ‘60s, as became clear in 1968 at the Berlin Film Festival when students pelted him with eggs.
In 1968 Kluge premiered his second feature, Artists in the Big-Top: Perplexed, which for many is Kluge’s true masterpiece, though it prompted such confusion on the part of many viewers that Kluge offered free tickets for a second viewing. To the extent that it retains a coherent narrative, Artists follows the circus owner Leni Peickert, a classically stubborn, even obtuse, Kluge heroine, as she tries to fulfill her dream of creating a “reform circus”, a pursuit which of course proves to be hopeless—in the end she liquidates her assets, including selling off her beloved elephants, gives up and goes to work in television, opting for the “long march through the cultural institutions.” For some, this was an obvious abdication of revolutionary cultural aspirations and the more militant strains of Brechtianism current at the time. But the film is also a rather complex, if perhaps ultimately failed, attempt to negotiate between the poles of a Brechtian engagement and an Adornian belief in the radical negative potential of high “autonomous” art, both of which seemed insufficient on their own as self-contained programs. Yet Kluge, ever the dialectician, does not abandon either of these projects but seeks a rapprochement between them, Brecht’s didacticism matched with a healthy dose of Adornian negativity and skepticism. At no point do Kluge’s films resolve into either propagandistic sloganeering or an irresponsible withdrawal from their obligations to engage the world.
As he constructed his program, Kluge withdrew to the Institut für Filmgestaltung in Ulm, a film school he had helped found in the ‘60s, and made two lo-fi science fiction films, The Big Mess (1971) and Will Tobler and the Sinking of the 11th Fleet (1972), both rather forgettable but nonetheless peppered with some hilarious moments and spectacular performances, most notably from the actor, itinerant intellectual and fellow traveller of the Frankfurt intellectual scene, Alfred Edel. After this Kluge embarked on a truly remarkable period of production, turning out his first major theoretical work with Oskar Negt, The Public Sphere and Experience, and a series of films deeply entwined with the political project outlined in this work. For Kluge and Negt, the term “public” or “public sphere” designated two things. On the one hand it referred to an actual social space where human experience was shaped and enabled, including a broad variety of institutions such as the press, the media, and of course the cinema. This public sphere is dominated by corporate-owned media and constitutes what Negt and Kluge call the “bourgeois public,” whose values and terms are those of the dominant class. On the other hand, Kluge and Negt’s notion of the public includes an ethical principle that demands an ever greater transparency for larger areas of collective social life, that the private dealings of politics, finance, and the economy be made matters of public control and discussion, and that greater control over the institutions of the public sphere be accorded to those most affected by it. It’s easy to see from this how Kluge could subsequently rethink the role of political cinema with this concept of the public sphere as a guide. As cinema helps structure experience, it can contribute to the creation of “proletarian” or “counter-public spheres” free from the influence of big money and the demands of the market.
The first of these films, Part-Time Work of a Female Slave (1973), follows Roswitha Bronski, wife and mother of two, who works as a part-time abortionist to feed her kids. This film was intended to engage with the emergent women’s movement in Germany, but its portrayal of Roswitha as a hapless ingénue, along with Kluge’s rather patronizing voiceover and its problematic representation of abortion and abortion rights, elicited well-deserved criticism in Germany and abroad. Nevertheless, the film is an attempt to carry out part of the program put forth in Public Sphere and Experience, namely to reconstitute the realm of public debate in terms generally excluded from conventional public discourse. The next film, In Danger and Great Distress the Middle of the Road Brings Death (1974), continues this program, this time focusing on issues of the “redevelopment” of Frankfurt’s west end and more generally the inability of individual human experience to adequately come to terms with the pace of economic and social development in an advanced capitalist state. The characters in this extremely fragmented and difficult—but rewarding—film always seem outpaced by history, trying to understand their world and orient themselves within it with obsolete tools and social skills incompatible with the pace of modern life and its cold rationality.
These two films were not particularly successful, and with Strongman Ferdinand (1976), Kluge embarked on a new experiment in response: to make a political film with a conventional, realist narrative and a recognizable television star (Heinz Schubert) in the title role. Ferdinand, a “security expert” who has a hard time keeping a job because he pursues his work a bit too enthusiastically, ends up getting arrested after shooting a low-level government minister in a botched attempt to highlight the inefficiency of German security services. Another commercial failure, the film also fails within the context of Kluge’s project. Kluge’s films always convey some sort of political content as a legible “message” or idea, but the heart of their politics lies in their form, in the degree to which they not only oppose or ignore the protocols of Hollywood realism, but also prompt a new form of engaged spectatorial activity. Kluge’s fundamental conviction is that film form is as significant as its content in situating the viewer. When the concern for form falls away, the truly utopian elements of Kluge’s project disappear with it.
The late ‘70s saw another remarkable burst of activity with Kluge’s participation in the classic collective film Germany in Autumn (1978), along with such others as Schlöndorff, Reitz, and most notoriously Fassbinder, who plays himself as an abusive lover and exhibitionist, desultorily masturbating as he talks on the phone with his mother. The film was made in response to the events of the “German Autumn” of 1977 when the RAF abducted and killed Hanns-Martin Schleyer and three members of the RAF, Johannes Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and Jan-Carl Raspe, were found dead under extremely suspicious circumstances in their cells in Stammheim prison. Special laws were enacted to combat terrorism, and there was a palpable fear on the left that an older form of authoritarianism might be emerging. Though made as an intervention into an extremely specific political context, the film has held up amazingly well over the past three decades and stands as an example for a potential collaborative political cinema or video practice today.
Kluge’s episode from the film features the fictive history teacher Gabi Teichert, who he would reprise in the equally celebrated and condemned The Patriot (1979). Teichert, played by one of Germany’s great theatre and film actresses, Hannelore Hoger, gets quite practical in her efforts to better understand German history and the particular fascination nationalism has held for the country: she drills into historical tomes, cooks them in beakers in makeshift science labs and literally ingests them. In one of the best examples of Kluge’s favoured formal trick of combining documentary and fictive modes, Teichert attends a (real) SPD party gathering to demand a “German history worth teaching” from perplexed and annoyed delegates.
But despite the film’s obvious claims to deal with German history and nationalism, it ignores the most obvious victims of that history. Its opening passages tread on extremely controversial ground when Kluge’s voiceover declares that Teichert, as a teacher of history and a patriot, “is concerned with all the dead of the Reich.” This is followed by old war-film footage of a battlefield strewn with corpses, accompanied by Hanns Eisler’s well-known music from Resnais’ Night and Fog (1955). Perhaps this juxtaposition is meant to register the presence of all the victims of the Reich, with Eisler’s music somehow standing in for the victims of Nazi extermination policies and the visuals somehow standing in for the German dead, but the effect is to equate the two groups and their suffering. In the subsequent two hours of the film, there is no mention of the Holocaust, let alone any distinction made between innocents and perpetrators or soldiers and civilians, nor is there any reflection on the degree to which German national identity, ostensibly a serious concern of Kluge’s, relied upon the demonization of an entire people. It is this sort of historical obtuseness which at times lessens the power of Kluge’s often remarkable formal efforts, and it makes us recall that at a fundamental level no degree of formal subtlety or innovation makes up for a crude insight.
After The Patriot, Kluge made two further collaborative pieces, The Candidate (1980), about the candidacy of the corrupt, far right Franz Josef Strauss for Chancellor, and War and Peace (1982), a rather moving montage film made in clear opposition to the stationing of Pershing II missiles on German soil by the US. Both of these films pushed forward Kluge’s program to create an alternative public sphere responsive to the needs and demands of the so-called New Social Movements that had emerged in the ‘70s. But the works that stands out from this late period are his two essay films, The Power of Emotions (1983) and The Blind Director: The Assault of the Present on the Rest of Time (1985). The Power of Emotions, according to Kluge, combines 26 separate stories into a fragmented montage; each story seems to contain a small moral about the capacity of human emotion to fill out our more conceptual, rational understanding of the world. Formally the film attempts to fulfill one of Kluge’s oldest ambitions to “bring everything forward” and reproduce, within one film, the exhibition contexts familiar from the early days of cinema, when films were exhibited as one screen attraction amongst many in the raucous and diverse contexts of variety shows and fairgrounds. Within this so-called “Varieté” format, the spectator is not locked into the compulsions of a monolithic and linear narrative, and instead is free to make connections amongst the various micro-narratives laid out before her. Many of these small stories demonstrate utopian victories of human emotion: a woman who unwillingly fosters an orphaned girl discovers a love for her equal to any parental love and fights to retain her custody; and two small-time criminals learn the pleasure of cooperation as they rescue a potential murder victim and care for him until he recovers from his wounds.
Similarly, The Blind Director confronts the viewers with a variety of narratives with no obvious or apparent connection. We meet here a perverse historian with a theory of the number 16, in which he dissects history into discrete and wholly arbitrary 16-year periods. There is a scrap metal dealer who thinks history will be good to him since it leads to so much obsolescence—believing, like Kluge, that great things can be done with all the scrap, literal and metaphorical, which history leaves behind (including obsolete cinematic forms). And there is the titular story of the blind director, which at times seems be a metaphor for the inability of cinema to realize its dream of redeeming reality as well as a comment on human stubbornness: the unwillingness of human beings, once invested in a particular life’s work or goal, to abandon it. This sort of stubbornness is a virtue Kluge values highly and in it he sees the real source for potential social change, a willful resistance on the part of individuals and groups to let go of the things they have grown to hold dear. As enjoyable as each of these little stories is, the real pleasure in the films arises from the combination of the stories, in the montage which brings them together. In these two late films one understands the real productivity of Kluge’s montage, his understanding of films as unfinished construction sites to be completed in any number of ways in the spectators’ minds.
Perhaps this is the best way to approach Kluge’s work as a whole: as a massive collection of stories, a rich collection of filmic materials, a crazy erector set of the mind with which to build all kinds of new and unimagined combinations. For in the end, as Kluge has always argued, it’s not what a film says but what the spectator does with it that really matters.