Alexander Kluge’s Truly Anarchic Spirit: ‘Kluge in the Beginning’

This DVD release of four films by Alexander Kluge subtitled in English was long overdue. Finally, a wider audience can experience the works of one of the most important voices of the 20th century.

A political philosopher, writer, film and TV director, Kluge is one of the most important filmmakers in the history of cinema. Currently, Kluge is still productive as a writer, while he recently directed one of the most experimental and ‘risk-taking’ films in the history of cinema, that is, News from Ideological Antiquity: Marx, Eisenstein, The Capital [Nachrichten aus Der Ideologischen Antike – Marx – Eisenstein – Das Kapital, 2008]. The film explores Sergei Eisenstein’s unrealised project of filming a version of Marx’s Capital and of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Importantly, the historicity of such a gesture, that is, of returning to the Marxist past, is significant given the current economic crisis, in which the film refers to quite a lot. Before proceeding to a discussion of this DVD collection, it’s necessary to introduce some of Kluge’s key ideas on cinema and film form, so that the reader is aware of Kluge’s formal and artistic innovations and experimentations. What characterizes Kluge’s filmmaking is a resistance to succumb to the film industry’s norms and to the mainstays of dramaturgy, character and plot. In 1982, another enfant terrible of the New German Cinema, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, wrote an essay to celebrate Kluge’s 50th birthday; the essay has brilliantly captured Kluge’s radicalism. Fassbinder in a very idiosyncratic way stated that Kluge’s films and writings:

“…do document after all that is one of his chief aims to call every kind of institution into question, particularly those of the state — If I interpret halfway correctly – and if his work is not indeed even more radical, that is, designed to prove that Kluge is interested in the destruction of any type of institution. Furthermore, an anarchist just does not go and turn fifty, the age at which people celebrate you. Categories like that are meaningless to him. I mean it is precisely rumours of this sort about one of us, serving the processes of cooptation, that make various things clear, and at the very least remind us of the necessity of continuing to struggle for our cause and of the eternal danger of growing weary in the face of gray, streamlined reality.” (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, “Alexander Kluge is Supposed to Have Had a Birthday” in Michael Töteberg & Leo A. Lensing (eds.), The Anarchy of the Imagination, Baltimore & London, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.)

But how does Kluge retain his radicalism and how do his films challenge film form and subject-matter to such an extent that even art-house film festivals find it hard to include them in their list? Primarily, one needs to acknowledge Kluge’s debt to the theory and practice of Bertolt Brecht. Kluge’s films employ voice-over narration and quote the character’s feelings, dialogues and actions, so as to prevent the audience from identifying emotionally with them. Unlike, the classical cinema narration which consists of a causal sequence of events, normally motivated by psychology, Kluge brings together points of tension that interrupt the narrative and give the audience time to reflect on the material. Intertitles intervene to comment on the narrative, while music is used as a commentary and not as a means of guiding the viewer to a specific emotional response. In effect, the final object retains some imprecision that allows the audience to make its own associations.

By rendering the film imprecise, Kluge aspires to resist the consolidation of the final object into an item to be sold. He respects his audience and sees its members as co-creators in the production of meaning. The dialectical relationship between the precise image offered by film’s material connection with its referent and the audience’s perception is manipulated in a way that aspires to create radical effects and make the audience question the reality outside the world of the cinema. This is achieved only by means of formal imprecision that activates the audience’s critical faculties. As such, his films intend to generate an imprecision that characterises verbal language, which is neither completely abstract nor totally concrete. As Kluge explains:

“The image always refers to an individual instance. This could be counteracted by devices such as an extreme long-shot or close-up, both of which introduce a high degree of indeterminacy. Likewise iconic information can be reduced by means of shallow focus, high contrast, shots of extreme brevity or duration, transgressions of chronological order, multiple exposure, negation of the image track through sound or written text. All these and other devices that one might use to achieve the effect of indeterminacy are devices that interfere with reality and question the apparent concreteness of iconic information. If a film were to give its viewers conceptual instructions as they are implied in phrases like dressed to tease, for instance, or pretty as a picture, it would have to resort to concrete clichés , which is what Hollywood films tend to do. We conclude, therefore, that film, as long as uses its resources legitimately, cannot convey any really precise mental images.” (Alexander Kluge, Edgar Reitz, Wilfried Reinke, Word and Film, trans. by Miriam Hansen, in October 46:1 (1988), pp.83-95)

Thus, Kluge’s films aspire to bring a conflict between the film on the screen and ‘the film on the viewer’s head’. In many respects, his films show eloquently the shift from a Brechtian cinema dedicated to the communication of concrete knowledge effects, to a dialectical cinema that draws on the politics of perception without communicating an ambiguous amount of knowledge to the audience.

With these comments in mind, one can understand that Kluge’s films cannot be fully described in terms of character and plot, so I’ll try for a schematic description of the films that are part of this collection. The first film, Artists Under the Big Top: Perplexed [Die Artisten in der Zirkuskuppel: Ratlos, 1968] tells the story of Leni Peickert, who inherits her father’s circus after the latter’s death while performing a dangerous act. When trying to change the circus and turn it into a place that can address society’s worries and problems, Leni fails.

The film functions as a comment on the cinematic institution, and as Brecht would say, the artistic apparatuses’ tendency to flatten any social contradictions and propagate an artistic institution that serves solely economic purposes. The film is followed by The Indomitable Leni Peickert [Die Unbezähmbare Leni Peickert, 1970], (included in the extras) which shows Leni having abandoned her dream and working on television. After being fired from the TV station, Leni returns to the circus and Kluge leaves the film open-ended.

The second film of the collection, The Big Mess [Der Grosse Verhau, 1968] manipulates the sci-fi genre only to comment on the contemporary capitalist present and the commodity production that keeps the masses subdued and voyeurs of the larger historical narrative. This is also important as a homage to the early cinema and in particular to George Meliers. Kluge employs superimpositions, drawings and intertitles in his films — some formal elements that characterised Meliers’ narratives– and manages to use formal austerity in a way that the audience’s imagination is not limited by the image. By contrast, the images invite the audience to adopt a reading attitude and not an attitude that requires to be totally immersed into the film’s narrative. In the extras of the DVD there is another interesting film titled Engine Cough [Triebwerk-Husten, 1996], which can familiarize the audience with some of his more recent works.

The third DVD, Willi Tobler and the Decline of the 6th Street [Willi Tobler und der Untergang der 6. Flotte] is another film that returns to the sci-fi genre and is pretty much a sequel of the previous one. During the Galactic Citizen’s War, Willi Tobler decides to leave behind his bombarded sector, his possessions and his family. Searching for security, he realises that one cannot remain neutral in moments of historical crises. The DVD has two bonus short films, The Day is Nigh [Der Tag ist nah, 1977] and Space Flight as an Internal Experience [Raumfahrt als inneres Erlebnis, 1999], which continue Kluge’s interest in the genre.

The last DVD is perhaps one of his most well-known films, Part-Time Work of a Domestic Slave [Gelegenheitsarbeit einer Sklavin, 1973] which tells the story of Rosewitha Bronski, a woman who works part-time as an illegal abortionist to provide for her family. The film points to the tensions between family life and work and it manages to bring to light the politics of everyday life. When Roswitha is forced to leave her job, due to the police’s interference, she has more free time and eventually gets actively involved in radical politics. The film tells the story in a semi-documentary way that shows respect both for the characters and the audience. The gender politics are shown as part of the broader social and historical reality and not as oversimplistic stories of female exploitation that lead to emotional and apolitical responses. In the extras, there is a short film titled Teachers in Transformation [Lehrer im Wandel, 1963], which draws on the political implications of the educational system.

Kluge’s films aim to politicize aspects of life that one considers to be apolitical. In this way, his films do not simply politicize the stories they tell — by embedding them in a social and political context — but also the very cinematic institution and the uncritical habits of film consumption. The films are also indices of a filmmaking practice that engages with the objective constraints of the impoverished means of its productions and shows that a film can be both complicated and intriguing without having to look like special effects-laden Star Wars.

RATING 10 / 10