Screened December 17 2009 on .avi format downloaded from the website that dare not speak its name in Brooklyn NY
This post is dedicated to Matthew Dessem, proprietor of The Criterion Contraption. I’m going to co-opt his lengthy, conversational approach to writing up films, to savor this film as well as the remaining entries of my own project…
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“What separates us from yesterday is not a rift but a changed position.” This enigmatic title that opens the film may sound like a distinction without a difference. But as we follow the travails of Anita G., an East German refugee trying and failing to get a foothold in West Berlin, the notion emerges that her sense of alienation (as well as the film’s) is a rift caused by the shifting positions – economically, socially and intellectually – adopted by West Germans as they busily build a future. What’s fascinating is how much this thesis is embedded in both the film’s style and its lead performance by Alexandra Kluge (the director’s sister), both indulging a dazzling display of rampant, disjointed eclecticism. Take the above shot beneath the title card, with Anita clearly out of place in a high class hotel lobby, and acting even more conspicuously by fussily changing chairs. It’s as if she and the film are mimicking the shiftiness they see in polite West German society but stripped away of socially acceptable conventions.
Even before this shot, we as viewers are thrown off by the opening scene (really a fragment of a scene) where Anita is in the midst of an unexplained fit of laughter, before reading an unidentified text (possibly an account of Nazi officers separating Jewish families during the Holocaust) in an unsettling, specious tone.
For the most part, Anita’s default demeanor is blank-faced incomprehension, smiling and nodding while trying to get along with others. In these shots, one can’t help but think that Anita is modeled after Anna Karina’s Nana in Godard’s Vivre sa vie:
Here she’s in a courtroom listening to a judge sift through certain facts of her life: that she’s from East Germany; that she was caught pinching a sweater from a co-worker; yet she left the sweater in plain view which is how she was caught; that her parents were Jewish and were persecuted during the Holocaust. As the judge sifts through this data, it becomes clear how much of his verdict is pre-determined by his assumptions of her, as he repeatedly reads subtext into her ambiguous responses. (Judge: “Why did you move West? Because of certain incidents?” Anita: “Because of prior incidents.” Judge: “You mean from ’43-’44? I don’t believe that. In my experience, they don’t affect young people.”). In the midst of this there’s a disconcerting cut to the judge’s stern, tight-lipped gaze, even as their dialogue continues, acting like a cutaway to his inner judgmental state:
He’s but the first of several caricatures of social types that Anita encounters, none of which are portrayed with much charity. As such the film is clearly a polemic; yet its discombobulating array of stylistic approaches keep its rhetoric from being two-dimensional. A social worker is introduced with a Bergmanesque direct address to the camera:
Before she becomes a stand-in for an overt Christian moral-mindedness that all but stifles Anita during her probationary stint:
She eventually escapes to work for a sales manager of foreign-language recordings, who’s also introduced in Bergmanesque direct-address manner. But whereas Bergman’s characters bare their souls when facing the screen, these vignettes show their characters as they would like to see themselves, putting their best public face forward.
The manager isn’t exactly Don Draper in terms of looks or charm, but his austere marketing spiel drives home a message of self-improvement that apparently works on Anita, as we come to learn that they’re having an affair. This development is conveyed with an obliqueness that’s brilliantly original. First we’re given random shots of idealized German family life:
That gradually fold into these ambiguously nostalgic illustrations of old-style German towns:
culminating in a majestic shot of a dinner table revolving across vast Berlin cityscape. The world is literally yours for consumption, the modern consumerist fantasy par excellence.
This leads to a shot of Anita in a department store trying on fur coats, and expensing them on her boss’ account. Not only do we now learn that she’s a kept woman, but retrospectively we wonder if that skyscraper restaurant table was the site of one of their trysts. In any event the manager’s wife catches wind of the affair and Anita is swiftly given the boot. But Anita won’t give up on making it in this society, as this title (harkening to the silent age of film, a period of nascence and limitless potential) makes clear:
After getting fired from a subsequent hotel housekeeping job for suspected theft (or was she scapegoated?), Anita moves onto another dead-end tryst, this time with a much younger man, though their encounter is treated with an intimacy found nowhere else in the film, with shades of tender, desperate empathy.
In these moments the camera exposes the lines on Anita’s face, bringing a vulnerability and rawness to their moments together:
Through their brief time together she resolves to make a go at attending university, and sits in on lectures, though the results aren’t very encouraging:
She bluffs her way into enrolling by pretending that she’s taken courses before; her good looks appear to compel one professor take her at her word, while also eliciting one of the weirdest come-on lines in cinema history:
Her efforts at entering academia prove to be a fiasco, while her habit of staying at hotels without paying starts catching up with her; she’s recognized on the street as a deadbeat tenant, leading to an episode on the lam rendered in psychedelic police lights mixed with footage of police parades and carnivalesque exhibitions of their precision. This leads to scene of two men, presumably Nazis, forcing a woman to make an excruciating decision:
Could this be a flashback from Anita’s childhood? We are never told the answer; it plays as much as an unaccounted, repressed memory for us as it might be for her, lurking like some demon kept in the basement of history only to seep out at an unexpected moment. Other unhinged images ensue:
Eventually she and the film return to the “real” world, and she takes up with Pichota, another married man, and a member of the Culture Ministry. She accompanies him on one of his appointments, where pleasantries are read from cue cards:
Kluge seems to save the best of his satircal venom for this guy, as he represents the cultural establishment and thus the forces of aimless ceremonialism and convention that Kluge dedicated himself to opposing (see the Oberhausen Manifesto). Pichota foregoes an official ceremony to unveil a rare Goethe notebook so he can go another round bedside with his paramour, then chastises her for not finding a flat of her own, but won’t give her any money towards a deposit. Instead he decides to mold her in his own image, reading literature to her and teaching her an 19th century song of unrequited love. Guess what he does when she finds out she’s pregnant?
Shots like this one above threaten to turn this girl’s outcast status within a West German society that is unable to either fully understand or incorporate her into its own kind of mythography. It risks placing her in the category of romantic anti-establishment type, which, if it wasn’t a ready-made cliche back then, certainly is these days. The saving grace is Alexandra Kluge’s performance, no doubt a conceptual collaboration with her brother director, but in her hands the character Anita G. defies any easy categorization, vacillating incessantly between being an icon, a postulation and a flesh-and-blood human being. This results in an unstable dynamic between protagonist, her world and the viewer, who becomes as much an alienated observer of this world of surfaces and pretensions as she is. Dissonant in their dissidence, the shifting modes of filmmaking and onscreen behavior have an energy and engagement with its world, doggedly picking apart its assumptions and presumptions, that’s as valuable today as ever.
The following citations were counted towards the placement of Yesterday Girl among the 1000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?
Hans Gunther Pflaum, Steadycam (2007)
Hans Helmut Prinzler, Steadycam (2007)
Jeanine Meerapfel, Sight & Sound (1992)
Ulrich von Thuna, Steadycam (2007)
Wolfram Schutte, Steadycam (2007)
Sight & Sound 360 Film Classics (1998)
They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films
WATCHING the plight of “Yesterday Girl,” a poor, buffeted young derelict in West Germany, some viewers may wistfully hark back to the teary but untangled sagas of Sylvia Sidney in Hollywood during the Depression years. Miss Sidney’s cases, at least, were stated with soggy succinctness.
The hard-luck drama that unfolded last night at the New York Film Festival, the first feature directed by the German novelist Alexander Kluge, is so hell-bent on stylistic effects and so sauvely stingy in siphoning simple case-history facts that we learn little and subsequently care less about the heroine. A pity, too, for the hapless girl peering from the circuitous labyrinth of film footage is the director’s sister, Alexandra. She even has Miss Sidney’s stricken eyes and quivering under-lip. That much is obvious.
It seems—repeat, seems—that the girl has fled from East Germany and been arrested for shoplifting in the West. She serves a jail sentence, then starts a descent on the fringes of society in a succession of odd jobs, including a brief go at prostitution. Bruised by bureaucracy, fate and at least one lover who discards her, the girl slinks off into the night, clutching a suitcase, and has a baby at a state hospital.
Mr. Kluge’s picture, with its down-and-out protagonist, is according to advance publicity, an ironic commentary on the West German’s economic well-being. How? We see little evidence of prosperity in Miss Kluge’s mouse-hole itinerary. Most of the people who speed her on her descent are glacial, urban stereotypes. And from what little is revealed about the heroine’s true character, she appears to be a listless girl who would have a tough time mastering a job anywhere.
Whatever “Yesterday Girl” symbolizes, Mr. Kluge applies his camera like a clouded microscope, side-stepping simple compassion for bland, clinical detachment. A stethoscope, applied just once, would have conveyed much more.
– Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, September 22, 1967
Kluge’s first feature traces the misadventures of Anita G. (played by his sister Alexandra), a young refugee from East Germany, as she wanders through the Economic Miracle but fails to find a place in it. Always penniless and often involved in petty crime, she meets a string of people who try to ‘improve’ and/or seduce her, but never gets to the root of her problems. Kluge makes it clear that she’s a product of Germany’s past, and his basic point is the simple one that Germany is trying to sweep its history under the carpet. But his Godardian wit and informality give the argument countless resonances, and keep the movie surprisingly fresh.
– Time Out
The film’s tersely written preface, “What separates us from yesterday is not a rift but a change in position” reinforces this sense of subconscious, recursive inevitability, as the heroine, the titular Anita G, is introduced through incisive, cross cut images: initially reading a piece of paper in subtly varying intonation, then subsequently, from a high angle-shot title sequence as she repeatedly assesses her vantage point before changing seats at a hotel bar lounge. From the juxtaposition of these fractured opening images, Kluge establishes the idea of postwar collective memory as an empty shell game that has been essentially formed from the simple, but implicitly deliberated modulation, displacement, and reconstitution of latent, prevailing cultural mores.
This sense of an ingrained, un-rehabilitated, and perhaps even defiant national psyche is also reinforced in Anita’s appearance in court before a judge over a theft charge stemming from a colleague’s appropriated cardigan sweater. Reviewing Anna’s background as a German Jew from Leipzig, now in (the former) East Germany whose family business was confiscated by the Third Reich, then reinstated after the war, the judge is eager to exonerate the possibility that the “certain incidents of 1943-44” had contributed to Anita G.’s current charge – an association that she, herself, never implied – attempting instead to trivialize her relocation to West Germany as a simple search for opportunity that, like any other outsider (despite being born in a unified Germany before the war), is an attempt to exploit the country’s bourgeoning economy. Challenging her sense of guilt for the offense by her curious behavior in not hiding the cardigan – an inaction that Anita admits stemmed from confusion over “prior events” that the judge, once again, is quick to erroneously suggest that she is attempting to evoke the tragedy of the Holocaust in order to gain sympathy from the court – the inquisition itself reveals the underlying hypocrisy of German society after the war, where people who served in positions of power during the Third Reich (obtained through party loyalty) were often restored to their bureaucratic appointments. This contradictory behavior that is, at once, an all-too-ready admission of (factually verified) historical culpability and a trivialization of the consequences of its legacy reflects a culturally pervasive attitude, a tenuous co-existence between half-hearted acknowledgement and adamant denial that is encapsulated by the judge’s curt dismissal in continuing the line of inquiry that raises the specter of the human tragedy (one that he, himself, has introduced out of apparent habit): a pre-emptive declaration of its particular – and implicitly broader – irrelevance towards the resurgence of an inclusive, tolerant, and transformed “New Germany”. Ironically, it is a metamorphosis that, nevertheless, perpetuates a climate of exclusion (East versus West), moral imprisonment (the evangelical probationary officer attempts to convert her to Christianity), and dispossession (the landlady’s decision to evict her from the boarding house by impounding her suitcase). Inevitably, perhaps the key to Kluge’s fragmented, yet lucid and penetrating social interrogation is revealed in a university professor’s sterile and philosophically dense lecture on the relativity of the Greek concept of aischron and the opposing corollary ideas that the greater shame resides either for the one who commits the transgression, or the one who suffers from it – a delusive posture of righteousness that re-invents collective history through the perspective of defiant transgressors as the greater victims of their own willful, moral complicity.
– Acquarello, Strictly Film School
Alexander Kluge’s debut feature Yesterday Girl is a kaleidoscopic burst of energy, a frenetic but never haphazard film that gives the impression of an eager young director, unwilling to commit to any one storytelling mode or aesthetic, instead experimenting with anything he can think of. The result is a quickly paced collage, a jittery, jazzy patchwork that augments its sparse central narrative with myriad diversions and non sequiturs. The film owes much to the example of the French New Wave, and especially to the montage and stylistic catholicity of Jean-Luc Godard, but there is undeniably something distinctive about Kluge, something unmistakable. His rhythms are his own, as is his sense of playfulness, his unexpected detours into surrealism and absurdist farce. Kluge’s sister Alexandra plays the heroine, Anita G., an obvious stand-in for the New Wave’s young archetypes — she even has those big, black-lined Anna Karina eyes.
Kluge tells Anita’s story through an astonishing variety of cinematic language. As in the first sequence, each scene throughout the film is methodically broken down, with blunt editing that serves to fragment Anita’s story. Her experience of life is discontinuous, marked by abrupt breaks and disjunctions, and Kluge passes this experience on to his audience. He frequently resorts to extreme closeups, in which talking heads orate from an abstracted, empty gray space. But just as often he avoids showing the characters’ faces at all, cutting to their hands or the backs of their heads or to the walls and objects around them. At other points, he inserts entire, seemingly unrelated sequences into the film, cutting away to visual non sequiturs like a shot of a rabbit that appears during a hallucinatory sequence in which Anita shoots, or more likely imagines she shoots, a police officer who’s chasing her. Even time itself is malleable in Kluge’s hands: the action frequently speeds up, with Anita and her pursuers racing around like Keystone Kops, and time-lapse photography condenses hours of time spent on a city street into a blurred, pulsating few seconds.
The effect of this elaborate montage aesthetic is to position Anita’s story as just one element, one brick, in a mad societal structure. This also seems to be the point of the enigmatic final epigram, “we are all to blame for everything, but if everyone knew it, we would have paradise on earth.” Kluge’s vision of the world, on the other hand, is far from a paradise — if anything it’s a dystopia — but his dense, free-associative aesthetic crafts a cogent and darkly funny critique of the systems that preside over this nonsensical world.
– Ed Howard, Only the Cinema
Already in Kluge’s first feature, Yesterday Girl, the editing is very abrupt. Scenes are juxtaposed without transitions and, within scenes, jump cuts and other temporal elisions abound. A love scene becomes a wrestling montage. Sometimes parts of different scenes are intercut. Nonnarrative materials such as drawings of a city, an interview, or a child’s storybook are interjected between and in the middle of scenes without motivation or explanation. Scenes of a Jewish cemetary are inserted, like documentary B-roll, into a conversation about German history. This quirky editing results in the brisk pace of this film and similar sequences in other Kluge films. But Kluge also employs a variety of techniques to slow down the ace. Shots are often held longer or started earlier than in classical Hollywood cinema, leading frequently to uncomfortable silences and strange facial expressions. Often, reaction shots do not seem to work because the timing is wrong.
– Peter C. Lutze, Alexander Kluge: The Last Modernist. Wayne State University Press, 1998. Page 112.
Viewers of conventional Hollywood films are accustomed to having certain expectations fulfilled in the course of the work: we assume the events portrayed on screen to have some causal, temporal, or spatial connection, we expect to have at least some sense of resolution at the end of a film, and we often premise our viewing on conventional styles of cinematography and mise-en-scène. In Alexander Kluge’s 1966 film Yesterday Girl, however, the modern viewer is presented with a challenge. Many common cinematic assumptions are undermined by Kluge’s deliberate refusal to follow Hollywood guidelines; at the same time, though, the film does not attempt a blanket refusal of all narrative conventions. Indeed, it is this very mixture of traditional and innovative narrative techniques that makes the film especially fascinating, and the sense of ambiguity that arises adds to the viewer’s resulting insecurity and even confusion.
– Nancy Thuleen, University of Wisconsin
FROM INTERVIEW WITH ALEXANDER KLUGE
The theme of forgetting and remembering runs constantly throughout your films. In Yesterday Girl, Anita G. is encumbered with a double past that society is encouraging her to forget: at the beginning of the film she’s being told by a judge to forget her wartime experiences because they’re not “relevant” to her present situation; later, when she’s supposedly being rehabilitated for society, she’s told by one of the prison counsellors that she’ll soon be out and able to forget all about it. It seems obvious to me that, through your films, you’re attacking not just the politics of oblivion, but also the moral notion of absolution that this frequently implies.
Experience is always a question of a specific situation. In this concrete situation, there is always future, past, and actual present: it’s the same. In a mass medium like the cinema, or in art, it seems as if you have a choice. A great deal of art—Proust, for example, or any of the 19th-century classic novels—attempts to counter the dominance of the present, to invent a second reality to serve as viceroy to the forgotten or demolished past. That’s one choice. The other choice, which is made by television and by the press, is the actuality principle. It’s also the choice made by the film camera, which can only photograph something that’s present. And I think it’s a false choice, because in a concrete situation, such as we actually live in, you can never make that separation: you can never give up the past, you can never exclude the future. Which is why I prefer the past or the future to the present. Whether I’m making a science-fiction film or historical film, using inserts, making a documentary or mixing fiction and nonfiction, it’s exactly the same. The three parts that exist in our minds and in our experience are always present. When Freud describes the way a person thinks and feels, he always talks about free association as the elementary unit. Grammar, for instance, is one of mankind’s most interesting illusions. It’s a sort of repression of an experience, like logic, or like rationalism. You have to understand that I’m never against grammar, rationality, or logic; it’s just that they’re only abstractions. In any concrete situation, these abstractions must be reduced to the concrete situation. And that’s the province of film. This sort of mass medium film has its basis in people’s minds and experience over several thousand years.
For instance, the title Abschied von Gestern [the German-language title for Yesterday Girl] provokes a contradiction. Because you never can say goodbye to yesterday. If you try to, you get as far as tomorrow only to discover yesterday all over again. The whole film is a contradiction of this title… What part of your question shall I answer now?
– Interviewed by Jan Dawson, Film Comment, May/June 2008
ABOUT ALEXANDER KLUGE
Anthony Nield reviews the Alexander Kluge Edition Filmmuseum 2008 Region 2 Box Set on DVD Times
The rumour that Alexander Kluge is supposed to have turned fifty recently is as persistent as that other absolutely ridiculous assertion that this very same Kluge got married sometime toward the end of the year! It is reported that he actually went ahead and had a private matter officially institutionalized by an official state institution. An absurd notion—several hours’ worth of stirring movies by the filmmaker Kluge, as well as a whole lot of illuminating and stimulating prose by the writer Kluge, do document after all that it is one of his chief aims to call every kind of institution into question, particularly those of the state—if I interpret half way correctly—and if his work is not indeed even more radical, that is, designed to prove that basically Alexander Kluge is interested in the destruction of every type of institution. Furthermore—an anarchist just doesn’t go and turn fifty, the age at which people celebrate you. Categories like that are meaningless to him. I mean, it is precisely rumors of this sort about one of us, serving the purposes 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. Cited in Michelle Langford, Senses of Cinema Great Directors biography of Kluge
Alexander Kluge, the chief ideologue of the new German cinema, is the author of various books in the areas of sociology, contemporary philosophy, and social theory. In 1962 he helped initiate, and was the spokesman for, the “Oberhausen Manifesto,” in which “Das Opas Kino” (“grandpa’s cinema”) was declared dead.
His method is grounded in a rich and representative mosaic of sources: fiction, public records and reports, essays, actual occurrences, news, quotations, observations, ideas, and free associations. The method is used by Kluge as a principle of construction in his best films, such as Abschied von gestern, Die Artisten in der Zirkuskuppel: ratlos , In Gefahr und grösster Not bringt der Mittelweg den Tod , and in the series of collective films: Deutschland im Herbst, Der Kandidat , and Krieg und Frieden. The theme of war, in particular the Second World War, appears in all his works.
Kluge’s films probe reality—not by way of the fantastic fictions of Fassbinder, or film school pictures as with Wenders—but through establishing oppositions and connections between facts, artifacts, reflections, and bits of performance. The protagonists of his feature films are mostly women who seek to grasp and come to terms with their experiences. For the sake of continuity these women are played either by Alexandra Kluge, his sister, or by Hannelore Hoger. They move through the jungle of contemporary life, watching and witnessing, suffering and fighting. The director mirrors their experiences.
– Maria Racheva, Film Reference.com
“The old film is dead, we believe in the new one” – that is the concluding sentence of the Oberhausener Manifesto. Alexander Kluge was one of the authors of this legendary avowal from 1962 which marked the beginning of New German Cinema. No one meant this as earnestly as he, either at that time, when he was still making his mark on German cinema, or 45 years later. For Alexander Kluge, cinema is a constant development; the spirit of discovery and joy of experimentation are inherent to everything he touches. Then, he wanted to turn cinema upside down, and he still does. And he is probably the only filmmaker who still reflects seriously about how Internet and cinema can be united by more than the mere sales and distribution platform.
Kluge believes that the aesthetic and political possibilities of cinema should and can be based on subjective modes of experience. A term frequently used by Kluge in his writings on the notion of spectatorship in the cinema is that of ‘Phantasie,’ (literally, ‘fantasy’) and this term acquires a very particular meaning in the context of his work. Phantasie is not like the English term ‘fantasy’ in the sense described by psychoanalysis, but is more akin to imagination. It equates with the spectator’s ability to make connections between disparate things and it hinges on Kluge’s conception of montage.
…since every cut provokes phantasy, a storm of phantasy, you can even make a break in the film. It is exactly at such a point that information is conveyed. This is what Benjamin meant by the notion of shock. It would be wrong to say that a film should aim to shock the viewers—this would restrict their independence and powers of perception. The point here is the surprise which occurs when you suddenly—as if by subdominant thought processes—understand something in depth and then, out of this deepened perspective redirect your phantasy to the real course of events. (12)
In other words, Phantasie is that which lies beneath the guarded exterior of the stimulus shield, and it is Phantasie that is set free when shock is able to break through the barrier.
Kluge has often invoked the figure of the child as the ideal spectator of his films. Kluge contrasts his cinema with that of conventional narrative cinema with an evocation of two different kinds of landscape. He writes:
– Michelle Langford, Senses of Cinema Great Directors biography of Kluge
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.
– Christopher Pavsek, Cinema-scope, Issue 32
Kluge’s feature films challenge customary patterns of recognition. German history provides a point of departure and a constant site of return for his endeavors; complex and conflicted, this history, maintains Kluge, does not readily lend itself to easy identification or transparent presentation. The bombing of his hometown, Halbersradt (80 percent of which was leveled by American and British planes on April 8, 1945), and the demise of the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad in February 1943 remain defining experiences in his films (and throughout his work), which must be thought of first and foremost as attempts to reflect truthfully the impossibly complicated and contested “reality” of postwar Germany–a task that could not be achieved, Kluge argued, by conventional means. Thus he eschewed the spurious sutures of continuity editing and the seamlessly neat, easily accessible narrative packages that they produce. For all its intellectual resolve, his cinema is also loath to the dynamics of Eisenstein’s montage. The Soviet master’s collision of attractions leads the spectator, through an appeal to the senses and the emotion, to an inevitable dialectical conclusion, which is, in the end, just a more sophisticated sort of other-direction, and therefore anathema to Kluge.
Reality and realism are central terms in Kluge’s aesthetic conception and important for any understanding of his films. Neither a state of nature nor the way things are, reality is produced and not given; for that reason, it can be comprehended only in its constructedness and its connectedness, its Zusammenhang. Simply to document something, Kluge submits, is not realistic; reality does not exist without actions, fantasies, and wishes, which is to say, unless human senses and feelings are in motion. Feelings, to be sure, are anarchic and often unreliable; for that reason one tries to harness them, often with success (sometimes, as in the case of National Socialism, with too much success), and enjoys all the more indulging their power in the form of films, operas, plays, and novels. Inclusiveness and generosity figure seminally in Kluge’s suggestive and elusive choreographies of sights and sounds. They generate networks of meaning linked by interrelation rather than by flow or continuity, bringing together things that do not seem to belong together at all. This higher realism aims to encourage responses that go beyond directorial design and authorialvolition
. Viewers should be free to pick and choose from a wealth of offerings so that films might arise “in the head of the spectator”–without question Kluge’s key concept and best-known catchphrase
– Eric Rentschler, “A Cinema of Citation.” Artforum, 2008
Gary Indiana In many of your films you show found footage from very early movies, archive photographs and drawings with the frame cropped in various ways, a Brechtian effect: the films are like free-ranging meditations rather than linear narratives. The viewer notices the cutting. What do you see as the advantages of these techniques?
Alexander Kluge I show the cutting because I don’t believe pictures have to do with one another, whether they’re contrasting or similar. They don’t carry the information, the information is carried by the cut, the splice. Therefore, the cut should be visible. This is an ideal of early Eisenstein; it’s an ideal in literature. In music also, you always reveal your effects. The early forms of cinema are better: before 1907, and before the sound track. The problem isn’t with sound, but with the theater principles and middle-class interests which came into the cinema and destroyed some of its rich possibilities. Theater is a little schematic, while epic texts, like Joyce’s, are rich.
GI Epic narrative is porous. In other words, you can cut into it at any point?
AK Yes. Nowadays, we live in something like the Babylonian Empire. One text doesn’t understand the other. People can understand each other but the texts they speak are, to some extent, autonomous. If I speak to you, and a policeman hears this text, it’s no longer the text you and I speak together. Texts have their own life, and images too. As I have to deal with the situation of the 80s, not of 1907 if we have this Babylonian confusion that one language doesn’t understand the other, it’s also necessary to bring more context into narration. For example, it isn’t useful to tell the story of a complete industry. Like the German chemical industry—there’s been a huge 12 hour film made on this subject, but in it you see the family life and the love stories of the bosses and their daughters and so on. All of that isn’t the reality of the German chemical industry in the ‘30s. It was a very cruel reality for some people. To be more realistic, you need more context.
GI One more question. You’ve often said that cinema exists inside our heads, that the repertoire of mental images and feelings that cinema creates corresponds to the mode of consciousness of human beings over the past several thousand years. How is that different than music?
AK Music is an elaborated art. It is more than we’ve carried within us for thousands of years. It’s more to do with the four billion years we’ve existed on earth—with our ancestors, who were very small. Music has to do with sounds within the belly, sounds within the ancient oceans, when the oceans were 37 degrees celsius, like our blood. Some people believe the cosmos is making music, and so on. Music is older and more differentiated. Film is very robust. It’s only 90 years old. It corresponds more with anthropology. Music is made in a very aristocratic way, never by majorities. Cinema, from the beginning, was made as a counter-effect to what our senses do all the time. It’s an imitation of what our brains do. Music is not an imitation of what our ears do.
– Alexander Kluge interviewed by Gary Indiana, BOMB Magazine