Nostalgia for Political Modernism in ‘Yesterday Girl’

“The world needs cinema now more than ever.”

— Theo Angelopoulos

In a previous DVD review I argued that there are some DVD publishers whose work goes beyond the classic supply and demand logic of capitalism. (“The Ozu Collection: The Student Comedies Makes Us Nostalgic of Modernity”) On the contrary, they publish films which are very difficult to watch on television, and difficult to find outside the festival sector. Facets also belongs to this group of publishers.

Facets’ recent publication of Alexander Kluge’s Yesterday Girl (1966) is important not only in terms of the film’s artistic value, but also because of its historical relevance. The film tells the story of Anita G, a young East German immigrant of Jewish origins, who struggles to integrate herself into the West-German reality after the end of the war. Anita has crossed the Berlin wall, aiming to find a better life in the ‘promised land’ of Western Germany. However, she soon realises that the oversimplistic binary ‘good political system versus the evil one’ cannot be applied to social processes and historical realities in every-day life.

Despite being structured as a character-based narrative, the film goes beyond goal-orientated dramaturgy. Kluge offers de-dramatised compositions, withholding access to the psychological state of the characters. This de-dramatisation is heightened by the use of voice-over, which at times operates as a quotation of the characters’ dialogue.

The film pairs away with the inessentials of plot, by means of off-screen narration and intertitles that aim not at describing, but at questioning the portrayed actions. Yet the final result is more a collection of materials and voices that fail to integrate into a unity. In this manner, there’s no authoritative voice that the viewer can identify with. The polyphonic narrative questions the homogeneity of the fictive cosmos shifting the attention from the imitation of actions to the process of the film’s assembly of different materials from the historically formed reality.

Kluge’s refusal to separate Anita’s story from the broader historical and political context of post-war West Germany demonstrates his influence from the theory and practice of Bertolt Brecht. In his film writings Brecht argued in favour of a film style which would downplay character psychology and feelings, in favour of a camera-movement which would reveal social and political processes. As Marc Silberman explains:

“The camera’s operation of registering physical reality – objects and gestures rather than emotions and psychology – in other words its Von-Aussen-Sehen (seeing from the outside) becomes the cornerstone of an aesthetics of making visible das Sichtbarmachen. Finally, in the cinema the perception of the image undergoes a disintegration of visual perspective with the levelling of difference between the image and the original. Aura is no longer attached to the photographic or cinematic image as material value, but to the process, to the functioning of the reproduction.” (Silberman, ‘The Politics of Representation: Brecht and the Media’, in Theatre Journal, 39:4 (1987), pp.448-460.)

In this context, Kluge’s camera serves an explorative rather than a recording role. We see Anita struggling in West Germany, but the filmmaker constantly reminds us of the traumatic past of the Second World War and questions the idea that Germany has overcome the historical traumas of the past. This is made evident in the film’s opening in which some intertitles read: ‘What separates us from the past is not a rift, but a change in position.’

The film’s complex form raises issues with regard to its relation to the historical reality. Kluge refuses to reduce history to a dramatic backdrop and places emphasis on aspects of everyday life which can be understood in a historical context. The director is more of a ‘seeker’ rather than a didactic one in the Orthodox Brechtian sense. In an interview he gave me last year, Kluge suggested elaborated more on his idea that a political film should be shot ‘blind’. As he says:

“This is very essential. You have to be blind, that is, without intentions. You should respect the object or the subject of what you describe. You are the author, but you must not impose anything. Therefore, the object you describe, or the persons you film are the second author or the third author. It is an anarchic idea. The author is as important as the object of representation and the object as important as the author. You see, there is a balance between the filmmaker and the product. The author in the classical sense does not exist at all. You might comment on something but you must not dominate by writing or making a film. Heiner Müller, my friend, advocated a blind argumentation and we should never forget that the ancient poet Homer was blind.” (Angelos Koutsourakis, ‘Brecht Today: Interview with Alexander Kluge’, in Film-Philosophy, 15:1 (2011), pp.220-228.)

Yesterday’s Girl raises issues of our relation to the historical past and this makes it timely given the recent animosities which have resurfaced in Europe due to the economic crisis. This masterpiece of political filmmaking is a must for all those who see film not simply as a product, but as a medium which can help us reconsider our position in history. The DVD contains some very rare extras. Two short films by Kluge: “The Brutality in Stone” and “An Experiment in Love”. Also, there is a news clip report from the 1966 Venice Film Festival in which Yesterday Girl won an award. It’s a great work from Facets which makes us more and more nostalgic of the political modernist filmmaking of the past.

RATING 9 / 10