PRINT September 2008


I. BEHOLD THE COVER of Alexander Kluge’s most recent book, Cinema Stories,1 and you find yourself eye to eye with a gorilla guarding a slumbering woman, an image you take to be a production still from King Kong (but you’re wrong). The half-title page bears another unidentified photograph: Here a dashing man, with a nocturnal metropolis as his backdrop, embraces Catwoman (but no, it isn’t Halle Berry or Michelle Pfeiffer or Lee Meriwether). The table of contents lists thirty-nine tales, a mixed bag of titles ranging from the generic (“Cold Shower”) to the convoluted (“How We Cameramen Became Patriots, Simply Because We Were Efficient”); from the decidedly straightforward (“The Final Film Screening in the Reich Chancellery”) to the downright obscure (“The Plöger Delicatessen as the Replacement Target of a Demonstration”). Skimming the volume’s 111 pages, you begin to realize that these entries are not so much stories as mélanges—texts comprising sketches, musings, dialogues, interior monologues, quotations, and other fragments of quite differing consistency and emphasis.

Some of Kluge’s cinema stories run a few lines, some several paragraphs; others are broken into sections and go on for many pages. Striking, amusing, on occasion bizarre and even grotesque, these whimsical snippets meander through film history, witty and wild, consistent only in their proclivity for not staying put or on topic. The collection opens with an account of the Eldorado Cinema in Beirut, which steadfastly maintained its eclectic programming in the midst of civil war. From one entry to the next (and even within entries), we leapfrog through time and space: to an exclusive shopping avenue in Frankfurt, the Lido in Venice, the streets of Baghdad, the Berlin studio where Fritz Lang is shooting The Tiger of Eschnapur (1959), the office of a DVD distributor in Lagos, a film festival in Tashkent. Along the way we encounter Sergei Eisenstein, Joris Ivens, Federico Fellini, Erich von Stroheim, and Dziga Vertov’s brother, partake of a conversation with Jean-Luc Godard about “blind love,” and sit down for tea with Andrei Tarkovsky. A distinguished cast of philosophers, writers, artists, scholars, politicians, astronomers, and inventors holds forth on a heady assortment of topics. A professor muses as to how subsequent ages might record and decipher light waves that left the Earth during the French Revolution. We return to cinema’s various beginnings (Georges Méliès, the Lumières, Thomas Edison), regard the endeavors of a czarist propaganda cinematographer to film his opponents “in a partisan way,” mull over the most effective techniques for the cinematic representation of dragons and dinosaurs and the reasons why spectators like to behold atrocities, hear of a film agent with Nazi sympathies who tries to smuggle German spirit into American productions, follow the destinies of both famous and lesser-known players (Harry Liedtke, an UFA idol who takes years to build a career, is killed in seconds by Soviet troops; Olive Thomas, a rising star for David O. Selznick, comes to an early end in a Paris hotel room), and contemplate the impact of television as well as the future of cinema, which most definitely, come what may, will “emerge without a planner,” that is, “by mistake,” “like so many good things.” The compendium’s concluding take, “The Cosmos as Cinema,” describes speculations “that the images of all previous ages stream past and through us,” so that even scientists cannot predict what kinds of effects “the pictures of this totality” will have.

Literal in its suggestiveness, the title Geschichten vom Kino intimates the historical quality of cinema as well as of the feelings that animate and sustain it. (The double meaning of the German word Geschichte captures precisely the inextricable link between stories and human histories.) The “principle of cinema,” according to Kluge, comprises something that “moves us inwardly”—not so much films themselves, but rather the emotions that generate films as well as those that film productions enact and catalyze.

Kluge’s short stories, as his cinematic scenarios, have a studied and systematic (although the author would probably grimace at such a description) indeterminacy; this is, among other things, what distinguishes them from most narratives. He does not want to impose sense but rather to further the play of elementary immediacy in order that the sensual impressions people have might come to life. Privileging Sinnlichkeit over Sinn, sensuality over making sense, Kluge implores his readers not to obsess about meanings. Any attempt to interpret every piece in his new book would be misguided. To want to understand it all, he would say, is at best a schoolmasterly ideal that forsakes the more fundamental experience of spontaneity and pleasure in favor of intellectual mastery.

For the uninitiated, understanding it all is, in any event, out of the question. But, for people who have followed Kluge’s work, this new publication is readily legible and in fact contains numerous reprises from the author’s previous books and films. The seventy-six-year-old human dynamo has been remarkably visible and productive—frighteningly so, on a number of fronts—for half a century. Conversant in literature, film, television, music, opera, theater, art, history, politics, social theory, jurisprudence, and science, Kluge is at once a polymath of the old school as well as a modernist and an innovator. A student of history and religious music, he took his law degree in 1956. His acquaintance with Theodor W. Adorno at the Institute for Social Research offered a crucial introduction to the work of the Frankfurt School; firsthand exposure to Fritz Lang’s work in a West Berlin studio, where the old director suffered at the hands of producer Artur Brauner, also proved to be a valuable formative experience. Dismayed by what he saw (and remembering it later as he formulated alternative models of film production), Kluge spent much time in the studio’s canteen writing short stories, which appeared in 1962 as Case Histories. Six further volumes, proffering thousands more pages of short fiction, would follow. At the same time, on a parallel track, Kluge pursued a rigorous program of cultural critique together with social theorist Oskar Negt, a collaboration that yielded Public Sphere and Experience (1972), History and Obstinacy (1980), and a two-volume compendium of their collective endeavors titled The Undervalued Human Being (2001). Over the past four decades, Kluge has won virtually every distinguished literary award Germany has to offer, including the highly coveted Georg Büchner Prize in 2003.

This past April, Kluge also received a lifetime achievement award from the Deutsche Filmakademie for his distinguished contributions as a filmmaker. Director (or codirector) of fourteen features and sixteen shorts between 1960 and 1986, Kluge has been the preeminent proponent of the New German Cinema, whose founding moment was the publication of the Oberhausen Manifesto (an episode related at length in the German edition of Cinema Stories). Twenty-six West German directors (none of whom had yet made a feature), spearheaded by Kluge, gathered together at the International Short Film Festival in Oberhausen, West Germany, in February 1962 and read this dramatic proclamation. Enacting a postwar generation’s virulent Oedipal rage (their slogan was “Papa’s cinema is dead!”), they protested the abuse of film under Hitler and postwar cinema’s collusion with the reactionary film establishment (the majority of whom had pursued successful careers during the Third Reich). Brash and outspoken, they declared their intention to create a new German film, about which they claimed to have concrete formal and economic conceptions. And, to a remarkable degree, they would fulfill this promise.

By the late 1970s, New German Cinema had arguably become the world’s most prominent national cinema, sporting a triumvirate of luminaries—Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, and Wim Wenders—along with a mind-boggling diversity of talents, including Harun Farocki, Volker Schlöndorff, Helke Sander, Ulrike Ottinger, Jean-Marie Straub/Danièle Huillet, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, Werner Schroeter, and Margarethe von Trotta. Kluge, with his legal background and his diplomatic finesse, acted as the loose collective’s most ardent public defender and, beyond that, its theoretical engine. Along with directors Edgar Reitz and Detten Schleiermacher, he established, in 1964, West Germany’s first film academy, the Ulm Institute for Film Design, a vanguard site for reflection and experimentation, which he oversaw until 1970. In subsequent years, he coauthored various pamphlets meant as interventions in the German film scene, most notably Taking of Stock: The Utopian Film (1983). Nimbly negotiating with government officials, Kluge successfully lobbied for an Autorenkino, or auteurs’ cinema, sustained by unique public funding setups that allowed directors to be their own producers and freed them from the constraints of the commercial market, bringing into existence what would become a viable and visible alternative cinema long before there was a Sundance Film Festival or an Independent Film Channel.

But no matter how prominent his role at home, Kluge’s films received modest exposure in North America—even during the heyday of New German Cinema, from the ’70s through its demise in the mid-’80s. The subject of innumerable international tributes and various academic symposia, Kluge was highly regarded, but outside of classroom showings in German Studies departments (usually limited to the same two or three films), his work has more often been read about and cross-referenced than actually seen in the United States.2 For this reason, the sixteen-disc comprehensive edition of Kluge’s films from 1960 to 1986, which appeared last year in Germany, is a welcome event. Replete with English subtitles and a wealth of additional materials, it comes to us like a time capsule and a treasure trove.3 The entire body of his film productions can finally be viewed and considered as a whole and, as is appropriate, placed in relation to his other endeavors.4

II. LIKE HIS STORIES, 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, Halberstadt (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 emotions, 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 authorial volition. 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.

The German title of Kluge’s first feature, Abschied von gestern (Taking Leave of Yesterday, 1966; released in the United States as Yesterday Girl), is programmatic: The narrative recounts episodes from the life of Anita G., a young Jewish refugee from the GDR, who wends her way through an inhospitable West Germany, repeatedly confronting the “continuation of social practices and attitudes underneath [the nation’s] official stance of having accomplished the break with the Nazi past,” as Kluge specialist Miriam Hansen puts it.5 In this sense, at least, the title is poignantly ironic. Nonetheless, the film’s form and style marked a radical departure from popular German cinema of the Adenauer era. Influenced by Brechtian strategies of distanciation and what critic Richard Roud called Godard’s “fragmentation/collage method of narration,” Kluge employed a dialectical assemblage with surplus value rather than creating a coherent unity, interspersing Anita G.’s odyssey with fairy tales, dream sequences, paintings, photographs, drawings, legal tractates, documentary footage, and intertitles. The sound track merges his own laconic voice-overs, operatic and classical music, popular melodies from the ’30s and ’40s, and sound montages not always in sync with the images. Even so, Yesterday Girl is one of Kluge’s few commercially successful films. The German entry to the 1966 Venice International Film Festival, it won a special jury award.

Die Artisten in der Zirkuskuppel: ratlos (Artists Under the Big Top: Perplexed, 1968), Kluge’s second feature, provided an allegorical portrait of a cinema that dares to be different. Leni Peickert, who has inherited a circus from her deceased father, renounces tamed animals and domesticated meanings, wishing to offer novel attractions driven by love and respect for the richness of the real rather than by commercial calculation. Her creative designs, however, run up against economic challenges as well as practical realities; audiences neither understand what she is up to nor have any desire to partake of her whimsical experiments. In the end she takes a job in television, hoping that a “politics of small steps” might allow her, over time, to realize her designs. A reflection on the gap between Young German Film’s fondest fantasies and the stark reality of unreceptive audiences in the Federal Republic, both a critical taking of stock and a statement of hope, Artists Under the Big Top anticipated the director’s own subsequent move to television. (Beginning in 1986, he would devote his energies exclusively to the small screen.)

Kluge’s early films dissolved boundaries between fiction and documentation, showing how fantasies and dreams collide with and yet help determine the shape of reality. His protagonists, full of energy and hope, have great ambitions but only limited logistical acumen; their uncertain courses of action are of a piece with narratives that ramble and take detours. The protagonist of Gelegenheitsarbeit einer Sklavin (Part-Time Work of a Female Slave, 1973), Roswitha Bronski, supports her family by performing illegal abortions. Increasingly sensitive to social problems and eager to become an activist, she experiences a tension between the needs of the nuclear family and her emancipatory political endeavors, not fully recognizing what the one has to do with the other. In his case studies of isolated individuals seeking purpose and connection, Kluge often frames his figures in close-up as they contemplate a problem or a crisis, his gentle voice-over commenting on and contextualizing their dilemma. Take, for instance, the opening of Der Starke Ferdinand (Strongman Ferdinand, 1976). As the camera zooms in on a well-meaning but overzealous security expert whose thoughts revolve around states of emergency, we hear Kluge’s reassuring voice intone, “There sits a man, Ferdinand Rieche, who works in the security business. He knows all there is to know, and can’t comprehend that others don’t.” Ferdinand defines his life in terms of security zones, from his own person to his job to “everything in its entirety.”

A high-school teacher named Gabi Teichert and (rather bizarrely) the knee of Corporal Wieland, a soldier who fell in Stalingrad, guide us through the past in Die Patriotin (The Patriot, 1979), Kluge’s definitive exploration of German history. Teichert regrets that the pedagogical materials available for advanced courses in German history are deficient (“It’s hard to present a patriotic version of German history,” she remarks), and she urges politicians (prominent Social Democratic officials filmed at a party convention) to create something better. The knee, part of what once was a leg, part of a body that belonged to an army and a nation, is also part of German history, a history that this voice and the film as a whole seek to recollect in the hope of revising and redeeming it. We must do away with the notion that the dead “are somehow dead,” the knee insists. “We are in fact full of protest and energy.” Merging shards of history in a variety of shapes and forms, The Patriot is an extended act of mourning and an encyclopedic memory of violence.

Deutschland im Herbst (Germany in Autumn, 1978) was the response of a filmmaker collective to the state of emergency that gripped the Federal Republic in the fall of 1977 as violence by the Red Army Faction escalated. The first of three cooperative projects initiated by Kluge (followed by a critical portrait of conservative politician Franz Josef Strauss, Der Kandidat [The Candidate, 1980], and an antiwar exercise, Krieg und Frieden [War and Peace, 1982]), it was an urgently felt intervention at a moment of danger, at a time when the actions of terrorists had led to harsh reactions by the government—a parlous situation in which suspicion, witch-hunting, and denunciation proliferated and threatened West Germany’s hard-won democracy, a state of siege that brought back memories of Hitler’s Third Reich. Working together with Fassbinder, Reitz, Schlöndorff, and others, Kluge sought to record “images of our own country” that the media, blacked out and skittish during this crisis, refused to show, providing alternative information in the hope of restoring an endangered public sphere and putting a stop to the violence. This demonstration of group solidarity was perhaps New German Cinema’s finest hour.

In his final three features, Kluge became even more thoroughgoing in his fragmentation of narrative and his penchant for heteroglossia. Die Macht der Gefühle (The Power of Emotion, 1983) continually interjects into its flow of images scenes from operas, and reflects on their inevitable tragic outcomes. An actor, fully aware of the drama’s dire conclusion, nonetheless always plays the first act with a sense of hope. “To have a way out,” Kluge insists, is essential. “There must be a place for human happiness.” Replacing plot logic with a horizontal string of associations, a collection of aphorisms, quotations, and dialogues, Kluge’s philosophical essay on feelings and their hardships forwards a latter-day variation on Blochian hopefulness, a veritable smorgasbord of culinary pleasure, emotional nourishment, and food for thought. Der Angriff der Gegenwart auf die übrige Zeit (The Attack of the Present Against the Rest of Time, 1985; released in the US as The Blind Director) ruminates on an all-consuming present that engulfs the past and threatens the future. “One could say: the principle of the present rages against the principle of hope and against all the illusions of the past,” Kluge wrote in the book that accompanied the film. “We live in a present which for the first time has the potential to become the power ruling over all other times.” Vermischte Nachrichten (Miscellaneous News, 1986) simulates a television news format. Perhaps its most disturbing pairing of images is a simple title—“Saturday, April 26, 1986, 10 pm,” signaling the accident at a nuclear reactor in Chernobyl—followed immediately by an infant’s curious gaze, the combination suggesting the presentiment of global catastrophe and the vulnerability of human life. Miscellaneous News, Kluge’s last film to date, opened without advance word or publicity and went all but unnoticed by the press and the public.

Shortly thereafter, Kluge shifted his base of operations to German television, where he has worked ever since, presenting short films and interviews on shows such as The Hour of the Filmmakers, 10 Before 11, News and Stories, and Prime Time: Late Edition, continuing—in the hope of renewing—his long-standing dreams of cooperative cinema. His presence on commercial television is in his mind anything but an act of capitulation or accommodation. (Leni Peickert did not see it that way either.) Rather, as filmmaker Tom Tykwer said in a recent tribute, Kluge works within the culture industry in order all the better to resist it, providing reflection instead of anesthesia, surmise in place of certainty, and interrogation rather than smug assertion. His playful short films and fascinating interviews, commingled with suggestive intertitles and illustrations, confirm that there is a place in a sea of crass commercialism for incongruous and unique islands. Kluge insists that one make necessary distinctions, even at the risk of being irritating or tedious, in order to assault the hackneyed and the conventional. In the process, he of course comes into conflict with interests vested in clichés, who readily promulgate and sell them. Contrary to claims of his detractors, he has nothing against entertainment. Nonetheless, he insists that we distinguish between other-directed amusement and more spontaneous and meaningful forms of diversion. He is fond of saying that he transferred Autorenkino from film to television, sustaining the project of New German Cinema in a different medium and, in the process, contributing toward the future of cinema.

III. WITH THEIR DENSE WEAVES of disparate materials, Kluge’s elaborate collages are undeniably imposing in their intertextuality. These wisps of experience shun linearity in the name of an unruly realism. They bring to mind what critic Raymond Bellour describes as “a cinema of . . . discourse, of critical intent, dissociation, thought, the apparatus, the brain,” which assumes “the duty of speaking the states of the world,” and, in Kluge’s case, of registering the effects of German history.6 Inordinately deferential to other visions and voices, Kluge’s is a cinema of intellectual communicability and, as such, one of citation. “He thought in the heads of others and in his head others thought as well,” Bertolt Brecht (whom Kluge quotes approvingly) once said of a person he admired. Cinema Stories plays with film history and reflects Kluge’s predilections in this larger course of time. How precisely, though, does film history figure in his own film features? Do his references to other films reflect, as we see in Cinema Stories, a more embracing love of the principle of cinema rather than a concrete love of films? Adorno liked to go to the movies; the only thing that put him off were the images on the screen. Is Kluge, like his mentor, more an iconoclast than a cinephile?

Surely in his redemptive relationship to popular culture (despite his acute awareness of its regressive potential), Kluge does not share Adorno’s dismissive determinism regarding industrialized amusement. (In this respect, he is much closer to Walter Benjamin.) And though the terse plot summaries in Cinema Stories at times recall the ironic pungence of Siegfried Kracauer’s Weimar film notices (especially the 1928 exemplar of symptomatic criticism, “The Contemporary Film and Its Audience”), they spare us ideological insinuations. Godard’s own cinema of citation offered, as Kluge has often pointed out, an essential point of orientation. Nonetheless, in crucial regards, Kluge’s actual intertextual practice differs dramatically from that of his French role model. We find no clips from classic Hollywood films by Hitchcock or Hawks, no affectionate glimpses at The Lady from Shanghai or Duel in the Sun, no fond recollections of westerns, film noirs, musicals with Gene Kelly and Doris Day, or screwball comedies, no celebrations of star signs like Humphrey Bogart, Dean Martin, or John Wayne, much less of sex symbols such as Jennifer Jones or Elizabeth Taylor. Kluge’s films pay no attention to Yankee fetish objects, to big cars, cigarettes, or pinball machines. And forget jazz, rhythm and blues, or rock ’n’ roll—the music in Kluge’s films is never cool or hip. Likewise, there are precious few of the insider jokes and cross-references that abound in films by Godard and his former Cahiers du cinéma compatriots.

For all of Kluge’s upbeat words about the diversity of New German Cinema, his own films do not seem to be in dialogue with the work of his peers. It would boggle the mind to imagine Kluge embracing Samuel Fuller, John Ford, or Nicholas Ray as ersatz fathers, as Wim Wenders has done, or writing affectionate tributes to Douglas Sirk and Michael Curtiz and reflecting this fond regard in his features, as Fassbinder did. What Kluge and Wenders, along with Herzog and Schlöndorff, do have in common is a great respect for Fritz Lang and F. W. Murnau. But Wenders’s repeated nods to Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu would be unthinkable in Kluge. Indeed, films from Asia, Africa, and Latin. America seem altogether out of his purview. Beyond the Nouvelle Vague, French cinema does not appear at all in his work, nor do films, by and large, from most of Europe.

Of course, Hollywood is not altogether absent in Kluge’s films. In Yesterday Girl, for instance, Anita G. walks by the Gangolf-Lichtspiele in Bonn, where a film with Tony Curtis, Jerry Lewis, and Thelma Ritter is playing. Although a title on the marquee does not come into view, it is apparently John Rich’s Boeing Boeing (1965). On the run with suitcase in hand, Anita buys a ticket so that she might enjoy several hours’ refuge from the cold streets. Artists Under the Big Top’s Leni Peickert, working at a television station, looks at a monitor and scrutinizes the scene in Where Eagles Dare (1968) in which Richard Burton masquerades as a Nazi officer. In passing we glimpse a poster in The Patriot advertising the rerelease of The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) during the holiday season in Frankfurt. In his short film for television Der Eiffelturm, King Kong und die weiße Frau (The Eiffel Tower, King Kong, and the White Woman, 1989), Kluge transposes the face of the ape onto a shot of Bob Hope in a white tuxedo. By and large, Kluge’s features show no sign of the Nouvelle Vague’s Americanism or of the love-hate relationship with Hollywood so essential to the cinemas of Fassbinder and Wenders.

The features before The Patriot contain a very limited range of references to other films. One finds clips from Nazi newsreels and, on occasion, narratives, Soviet hallmarks (October [1928], Man with a Movie Camera [1929], and Chapayev [1934]), and Joris Ivens’s Rain (1929). Der große Verhau (The Big Mess, 1971) and Strongman Ferdinand (by far the most unambitious film in Kluge’s corpus, in formal terms) do not in fact have a single citation. Subsequent productions make a much more concerted use of German fi lm history, especially Weimar classics (both sound and silent, from Sumurun [1920] and The Nibelungen [1924] to The Wonderful Lies of Nina Petrovna [1929], People on Sunday [1930], The Last Company [1930], Kuhle Wampe [1932], and A Blonde Dream [1932]) and overtly political films from the Third Reich by directors like Karl Ritter and Veit Harlan. On occasion, Kluge also revisits early cinema, whether the Oskar Messter newsreel Jenny the Elephant (1918), which is quoted at length in The Patriot, or the German documentary about the Lumières’ invention of the film camera, in The Blind Director.7 More often than not, Kluge embeds his films of choice within dense and suggestive constellations. The opening sequence of Artists Under the Big Top, for instance, couples documentary footage from the 1939 Day of German Art with a Spanish-language rendering of the Beatles’ “Yesterday,” creating an ironic contrast between Nazi art’s grand illusions, with its bogus merger of aesthetics and politics, and a popular tune, diminished and defamiliarized in its reproduction as a foreign knockoff.

The texts that Kluge selects are rarely identified (not even in the published scripts that accompany many of his films in book form) and, on occasion, even willfully misrepresented. The clips frequently (but not always) undergo an obtrusive working over; they are twisted and tinted, matted and fragmented, manipulated into shapes that make them at times resemble found materials and undermine any aura that they might have once possessed. The first ten minutes of The Power of Emotion put on display clips from Fritz Lang’s Kriemhild’s Revenge (1924), Karl Ritter’s Stukas (1941), and Gustav Ucicky’s Dawn (1933), films commonly considered either fascist or protofascist. In Kracauer’s assessment, Kriemhild’s Revenge was part of a nationalistic epic meant to renew the patriotic spirit of a disenfranchised country. Dawn, likewise, elevated “war to the rank of an unquestionable institution.” The heroic speech cited from Stukas (“Yet gladly will I sacrifice myself for the fatherland, bleed my heart’s blood for the fatherland!”) celebrates soldierly obeisance to a collective death wish. Kluge does not single out these films as bad objects and castigate the hollowness of their ideological appeal; he takes their affect and pathos seriously and trusts that subsequent history will enable us to read and understand their meaning. There is a retrospective irony that comes through, in the lethal outcome of these films and in the lethal outcome of the histories from which they issued and in which they circulated. One might be tempted to call what Kluge does here postmodern; he takes films out of context and inserts them into designs of his own making. It would be more accurate, however, to say that he disassembles and decontextualizes these disparate pieces before going on to reassemble and rehistoricize them.

Kluge bears little resemblance to the classic cinephile (as described by film scholar Christian Keathley in Cinephilia and History [2006]), who ferrets out indeterminate meanings in highly coded films, who scans (especially Hollywood) features for moments that stand out and take on their own stirring and independent existence. His citations from other films are not epiphanic evocations (e.g., Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless twitching his lip like Humphrey Bogart), but rather pieces in larger constructions, fragments inserted within the Zusammenhang of his own discourses. To what degree Kluge’s own films lend themselves to cinephilic appropriation is another question. One might, for instance, linger over his many nature interludes and stirring cityscapes. But these seem self-consciously idyllic (and prospects that initially seem beautiful quickly become kitschy) or intentionally evocative and, as such, too obvious for a cinephile’s personalized and highly discriminating poaching. Kluge’s cinema of citation privileges Zusammenhang and not auratic moments; what is important above all is that sights and sounds interrelate and resonate as thought-images (Denkbilder).

IV. THERE IS AN UNDENIABLE DISPARITY—already apparent in Artists Under the Big Top—between Kluge’s utopian conception of cinema and his work’s meager public following. He may well have fancied his films to be collections of materials so richly diverse as to offer something for everybody, but even sophisticated and indulgent audiences often found them confusing, less likely to stimulate and intrigue people than to make them feel they were missing the point. During the ’70s and ’80s, Alexander Horwath has reported, many cinephiles became disenamored of what they considered to be a “cinema of film theory,” which lent itself best to academic appreciations rather than enthralling experiences in the dark.8 Long-standing admirers, filmmakers clearly in Kluge’s debt, also wondered how his ostensible nondeterminacy and theoretical munificence translated into actual praxis.9 In his trains of thought, they submitted, he remains the conductor; his commentaries control the way we see and what we hear; his voice, for all its nuance and irony, always has the last word. Kluge’s notion of emancipated feelings, argued feminist filmmaker Jutta Brückner, remains undifferentiated and disembodied, abstract and ahistorical, insensitive to gender and difference. Feminist critics like B. Ruby Rich have complained about the way in which Kluge’s voice always spoke for his female protagonists and reduced them to the status of puppets. Still other commentators have wondered about the conspicuous absence of the Holocaust in Kluge’s elaborate historical panoramas. Gabi Teichert, Kluge’s voice-over claims, is “interested in all of the German Reich’s dead,” but The Patriot, much less any of his other features, does not show a single image of the Shoah or acknowledge the effects of wartime genocide. Watching the film now in the context of recent discussions about German suffering is even more disconcerting, given the many scenes stressing the disastrous effects of Allied bombing on the German population. “Forgetting extermination,” in the words of Godard, “is part of extermination.”

These concerns resonate within larger discussions that have helped to problematize, refine, and historicize our notions of auteur cinema. Self-reflexive cinema was once held to be the mark of a higher and more illustrious consciousness. Commentators have long since come to realize that the self that reflects is not above criticism. For all its alternative impetus, the New German Autorenkino to a great degree remained a site of male fantasy (as the interventions of directors like Helke Sander have attempted to make clear). And the pliers of German retro films, eager to rewrite the nation’s history while renewing its film history, would ultimately create narratives of German victimization and vicissitude with a revisionist quality, as Anton Kaes argued in his book From Hitler to Heimat: The Return of History as Film (1989). Despite the continuing relevance of these objections, Kluge’s films as a whole have stood the test of time. Indeed, they have gained new meanings in light of recent celebrations of 1968 and its legacy, the revived attention to terrorism in Germany and the Red Army Faction, recent debates within fi lm studies about early cinema and its relationship to modernity, and, of course, the concern about what the end of cinema will mean for the world at large.

As someone who ceased making features more than twenty years ago, Kluge realizes that we live in a time of shifting medial paradigms and that film as we have known it for more than a century may soon cease to exist. Nonetheless, he is not one to speak of cinema’s impending death or to let the presentiment of its demise serve as, in film critic Nicole Brenez’s words, “a grand melancholy theme” in the production of new films, as it has for so many of his peers. He does not share Godard’s bleak persuasion that the redemptive power of the film medium has been vanquished and superseded for all time by Hollywood’s spurious harmonies and television’s industrialized falsehoods. Indeed, he insists that his work for television contributes to the future of cinema. With fondness and animation, he extols early film’s primitive diversity and consciously seeks to replicate its resistant energies in his own recent productions. Prenarrative cinema with its one- and two-minute films is robust, he enthuses; it furthers the joy of curiosity and astonishment that comes with our ability to love, enlivening viewers without deceiving them. These films are so compelling because they do what they do without needing to know why, providing proof, in Kluge’s words, that “there is such a thing as a filmic unconscious.” At the Deutsche Filmakademie awards ceremony this past spring, Tykwer lauded the director’s one-minute films (which introduce many of the features in the DVD collection) and their recourse to the impetus of early cinema.

In The Blind Director, a cranky filmmaker (apparently modeled after Fritz Lang) is losing his sight. “I hate images,” he snaps at a journalist, and he calls himself an iconoclast. In the final sequence, we gain access to what goes on in this disaffected artist’s mind. “Inside he was full of images,” says the voice-over. A publicity still of actress Louise Brooks (looking to the right) appears next to a circle with a tinted excerpt from the Lumières’ L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (1895). We cut to a garish poster depicting the country couple from Murnau’s Sunrise (1927) kissing in the midst of the big city; to the right, we see the circular matte of the train, but the locomotive now moves in reverse away from the station. Kluge’s second-to-last film concludes by going back to the past, celebrating early cinema’s arrival, suggesting that the future of film might well rest in the not fully realized promise of its beginnings. By taking leave of cinema as it is now, Kluge searches for its future, recalling the great hope of its mythic founding text and literally rewinding the image. Indeed, his concept of film’s possibility harks back to the utopian potential of what film historian Tom Gunning has called “the cinema of attractions.”

Indefatigably productive as a writer, philosopher, media entrepreneur, and public intellectual, Kluge believes that films need not exist for there to be cinema.10 After all, cinema arose centuries before there were films, as “the spontaneous workings of the imaginative faculty,” “raw material of associations” for which “the invention of the film strip, projector, and screen only provided a technological response.” In Kluge’s assessment—a point recapitulated in Cinema Stories, which combines the principle of hope and the power of a stubborn resistance—cinema has abided as a capacity in the human mind for thousands of years, and it will continue to exist long after film’s passing. Ever one to nuance his insights, the director goes on, “It could well be that, following its rebirth, cinema will adopt a form that we won’t immediately recognize,” and he punctuates the thought with a quotation from Michelangelo: “‘I’m not dead / I’m merely changing places / I am still with you / In dreams you’ll see my traces.’”

Eric Rentschler is the Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures at Harvard University and The author of West German Film in the Course of Time (Redgrave, 1984), among other titles.


1. The English edition, Cinema Stories, was translated by Martin Brady and Helen Hughes and published by New Directions in 2007. It constitutes a radical and somewhat reordered abridgment of the German edition, Geschichten vom Kino (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2007). The expansive German version, boasting 120 stories and 351 pages, is at once richer and, despite its organization into seven chapters with thematic headings, much more unwieldy. At the very least, the discrepancy between the two editions confirms that Kluge does not set store by definitive shapes but believes strongly in the malleability of materials for different audiences. For English-language readers, apparently, he thinks less is better.

2. Kluge’s work received significant critical attention in special issues of New German Critique (Winter 1990) and October (Autumn 1988), the exemplary analyses of Miriam Hansen (which, to this day, abide as the most compelling guides through the complexities of his films), the partisan comprehensive interviews with Jan Dawson and Stuart Liebman, and, later, Peter C. Lutze’s thoughtful monograph Alexander Kluge: The Last Modernist (1998). Of Kluge’s fourteen features, only three films (Part-Time Work of a Female Slave, Strongman Ferdinand, and Germany in Autumn) have ever appeared in the catalogues of an American distributor; seminal titles like Yesterday Girl, Artists Under the Big Top: Perplexed, The Patriot, and The Power of Emotion have circulated in increasingly beat-up 16-mm prints administered by InterNationes and the Goethe-Institut. Until early last year, Germany in Autumn was the only production commercially available on a subtitled video; not a single film could be found on DVD. After a welcome retrospective sponsored by the Goethe-Institut played in a handful of repertory cinemas, museums, and universities in late 1988 and early 1989, none of Kluge’s short films was accessible in any form.

3. The collection of eight two-disc DVD sets (part of a planned thirty-disc set titled The Complete Alexander Kluge, due out in November 2008, which will also include a rich sampling of Kluge’s work for television), produced with the support of the Goethe-Institut and the German Federal Cultural Foundation, has appeared in Edition Filmmuseum, a distinguished new series of DVDs sponsored by the Filmmuseum Munich under the supervision of Stefan Drössler. It can be ordered at

4. In addition, Princeton University now houses the comprehensive Alexander Kluge Research Collection. Likewise, Kluge’s television interviews with Heiner Müller (1988–95) are available online, courtesy of Cornell University, with full transcripts and English annotations at

5. Miriam Hansen, “Space of History, Language of Time: Kluge’s Yesterday Girl (1966),” in Eric Rentschler, ed., German Film and Literature: Adaptations and Transformations (London: Routledge, 1986), 193–216; 195.

6. Raymond Bellour, trans. Lynne Kirby, “[Letter] from Raymond Bellour (Paris, September 25, 1997),” Film Quarterly, vol. 52, no. 1 (Autumn 1998): 51–53; 52, 53. Reprinted in Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia, Jonathan Rosenbaum and Adrian Martin, eds. (London: BFI, 2003), 30, 32. Unlike the cinema of John Cassavetes, Claire Denis, Nagisa Oshima, or Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Kluge’s is one of speech and not of the body. His films demonstrate a general lack of interest in the body’s shapes and functions; what matters above all is the mind and its thoughts and fantasies. People do not sweat; sex does take place, but it is perfunctory, antiseptic, or awkward.

7. A lengthier account would be necessary to discuss the ways in which Kluge has employed early cinema in his television productions. In this vein, see Miriam Hansen’s thoughtful essay “Reinventing the Nickelodeon: Notes on Kluge and Early Cinema,” October 46 (Autumn 1988): 178–98.

8. Alexander Horwath, in “Movie Mutations: Letters from (and to) Some Children of 1960,” in Movie Mutations, 15.

9. One of the high points of the Filmmuseum Munich DVD collection is Reform Circus (1970), a two-hour-long unedited recording of a live discussion on the German television station WDR in which Kluge confronts increasingly harsh and unabashedly hostile objections to Artists Under the Big Top: Perplexed and to his project as a whole. This stunning exchange documents just how fierce the resistance was to Kluge’s cinema, even right after 1968, and how in the larger scheme of things it has always represented a minority opinion.

10. Recently he has been working on a planned seven-hour adaptation of Das Kapital, picking up where Eisenstein left off eighty years ago. The collaborators for this project (which bears the tentative title Nachrichten aus der ideologischen Antike, or “News from Ideological Antiquity”) include filmmaker Tom Tykwer, poet Durs Grünbein, and philosopher Peter Sloterdijk.

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