The Assault of the Present on the Rest of Time (The Blind Director), 1985. Curiously opening near the end of the second act of Tosca as the heroine (Maria Slatinaru) fends off the advances of Scarpia (Günther Reich), the corrupt police commissioner, the unexpectedly abrupt, in medias res performance of the Puccini opera provides an incisive prelude to the elliptical structure of Alexander Kluge’s “anonymous city” symphony, The Assault of the Present on the Rest of Time, an organic and fractured, yet humorous, intuitive, and poetic rumination on the integral – and correlative – nature of technology and (urban) identity, the intersection of film and new media in the creation of art, and the delusive quest to manipulate time. A rearticulated theory by Professor von Gerlach (Hans-Michael Rehberg) presented during a radio interview discussing the seemingly patternistic evolution of history – remapping the twentieth century as a cumulative progression of compartmentalized, four-year plans that, when stitched together, reveal a tabula rasa, generational life cycle of social change and political reinvention – serves as an introductory paradigm for Kluge’s multi-faceted approach to the film. Observing that the year 1984 intriguingly represents exactly sixteen years since the height of the May 68 revolution, as well as sixteen years from the end of the twentieth century, the recursive, yet arbitrary reduction of human history as binary multiples of repeating intervals reflects the perpetuated myth of time as a conceptual, yet quantifiable point of convergence – a precise demarcation of an idealized, indefinable present that exists only in relation to another. It is this illusive idea of time as absolute and infinite that the narrator (Kluge) reinforces in an abstract composition that occurs midway through the film:
Time is what you can measure with a clock. A child, a city, a love, death…these are clocks. One cannot measure that which we consider past, present, future. People, being at fate’s mercy, interpret the period of time in which they decide as ‘the present’. They want this period to be long. This is the source of illusion.
In a chapter entitled The Superfluous Woman, Kluge dispels the argument of time as an interminable entity through the case study of a well-respected doctor (Rosel Zech) who goes away on an extended vacation to Africa and returns to find that her superior has recruited an additional physician to the medical practice (enticed, in part, by the ambitious doctor’s offer to finance the purchase of expensive diagnostic equipment for the clinic) and has demoted her to the basement office. In a subsequent chapter, The Hasty Ones, the idea of manipulating time through arbitrary parameters of (apparent) activity, preoccupation, and speed is subverted by the randomness of fate as a business executive’s “saved time” proves meaningless against the inevitability of death – an egalitarian destiny that also recalls a researcher’s (Alfred Edel) earlier conversation on the transitory nature of time as kairos, an intense, but fleeting consciousness of experience (a conversation that is wryly prefigured by the interstitial, keyhole shot of a fluffer at work in an anonymous, high-rise building). Contrasted with an earlier vignette of a young Polish woman who reluctantly entertains the romantic overtures of a German soldier during the war in the hopes that his infatuation will aid in delaying the confiscation of her parents’ film collection, Kluge illustrates the paradox of time as both malleable and inalterable – a tradable commodity and an irreplaceable endowment – an interplay between the ephemerality of kairos and the eternity of chronos (whose essential Truth resides in its enduring quality).
In The Handover of the Child, the idea of time as a surrogate for desire is illustrated through a lonely single woman, Gertrud Meinecke (Jutta Hoffmann) who decides to become a foster parent to an orphaned child (primarily out of financial incentive), only to face losing her when the girl’s wealthy relative is found years later. The theme of surrogacy similarly infuses the final chapter, The Blind Director, in which a veteran filmmaker (Armin Mueller-Stahl), struggles to complete his latest film despite his increasingly failing eyesight. Enlisting the aid of assistant directors to describe the shot footage, Kluge captures the underlying dichotomy between rote image and vision. In both episodes, time exists, not in the present, but in the acute awareness of its eroding passage – its finiteness. Moreover, Kluge’s fragmented, idiosyncratically assembled sequences of narrative vignettes, time lapse sequences, found film, and rough hewn, artisanal compositions also reinforce an integral aspect of the discourse that culminates in The Blind Director (a theme that is also broached in a segment chronicling the captive life of a computer-addicted family): the illusion of technology as a surrogate for human imprint. Juxtaposed against images of steel recycling that allude to the obsolescence of traditional production (the materials having been reclaimed from an automobile salvage yard), Kluge’s intriguingly dense exposition transcends the simple novelty of creating thematic variations on the dual nature of time, and instead becomes a stage for articulating its repercussions. Concluding with the extended shot of the blind director alone on the ledge of a fire escape as a montage of heavily matted, vintage film stills supplants the frame, Kluge presents an indelible metaphor for the enduring role of film in an age of immateriality, the relativity of images, and the isolation of creative vision.
The Power of Emotion, 1983. A subtly interconnecting mosaic of staged vignettes, non-fiction footage, archival prints, and found film excerpts, Alexander Kluge’s The Power of Emotion is an organic, densely layered meditation on the intangible (and often irrational) essential mechanism of human emotion. At the core of Kluge’s exposition is the interrelation between two disparate observations: 1) that objects, in their materiality, are the opposite of emotion; and 2) that emotions, by nature, search for a happy ending. The illogical nature of emotion is wryly illustrated in a chapter entitled The Shot in which a woman, Frau Bärlamm (Hannelore Hoger) testifying at an inquest over the apparent shooting of her husband, trivializes the gravity of her actions as an unmotivated compulsion, thereby frustrating the judges’ attempts to find some psychologically motivated, extenuating circumstance that could help thread together the gaping holes in her story and resolve the case. Similarly, the disconnection between logic and emotion ironically plays out in In Her Final Hour…, when the victim, still harboring wounds from a badly ended love affair, refuses to condemn her attacker and unintentional rescuer following her opportunistic violation in the midst of suicide attempt, arguing that the emotional damage she suffered from her lover’s rejection inured her from the trauma of the subsequent attack.
Motifs repeat in unexpected, yet coherent ways. The traditional construction of operatic tragedy inherent in Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto and Aida causes Kluge to observe, “In all operas dealing with redemption, a woman is sacrificed in Act V”. The tragic irrationality of human despair during a high-rise building fire evokes the confusion of languages (and consequently, the confusion of emotions) created by the Tower of Babel, and is subsequently revisited in the chapter, The Opera House Fire, where a fireman, fascinated since childhood by a stage prop, sneaks into the burning building to catch a glimpse of its contents, the Holy Grail embodying the elusive quest. A woman’s (Hannelore Hoger) eccentric, Chaplinesque appearance during an undefined interview is similarly reflected in a prostitute, Betty’s (Suzanne von Borsody) excessive makeup, each suggesting the commerce of created desire. A tradesman’s detailed explanation on proper bolting technique (itself, a crude visual metaphor to a woman’s expressed wish to be handled by her husband as if he were a “repairman”) resurfaces in the unusual weapon used during a robbery, representing both an object of fetish and an entwined fate that binds Betty and Schleich – the professional burglar who buys her freedom – to each other.
In the chapter, The Power Plant of Emotions, Kluge expounds on the early images of music as the crystallization of grief (in the actual footage of a memorial service attended by Helmut Kohl), examining the role of opera in nineteenth century society as a medium for harnessing emotion: a projected scale reduced to the level of the personal (most notably, in the tragedy of the century old war between the Egyptians and the Ethiopians that is distilled to the triangular conflict of Aida). Juxtaposed against the construction of the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London as a showcase for the Great Exhibition of 1851 that will display a collection of valuable, cutting edge products from around the world, the correlation between the opera house and the Victorian-era Crystal Palace reflects their intrinsic connection between the physical and the ethereal within the mindset of colonial (and Industrial Revolution) era contemporary society – a corrupted convergence of dissimilar ideals that is embodied in the opera singer’s alchemic quest for eternal life in Leoš Janáček’s The Makropulos Case. In essence, the opera house and Crystal Palace have evolved into figurative temples that, like the Tower of Babel, reach towards the false idols of manufactured desire. Framed against the fire that destroyed the Crystal Palace and short circuit fire of the opera house, their destruction becomes a metaphor for the redemption of emotion – disconnected from the material pursuit – a dismantling of the fifth act.
Strongman Ferdinand, 1976. Something of a wry spiritual ancestor to Harun Farocki’s 1990 found film montage, How to Live in the German Federal Republic on the pervasiveness of efficiency training and preparedness exercises in German society and their intrinsic reflection of a people’s stunted growth, repressed conformity, and evasion of human experience in a climate of increasing economic competition and ever-refining (and consequently, more dehumanized) industrial production, Alexander Kluge’s Strongman Ferdinand is a bracingly prescient, humorous, astute, and understated satire on the obsessive culture of rote rehearsals, role-playing, and fear-mongering as delusive reinforcement towards an (otherwise) insupportable effectiveness and self-justification under an ambiguous, and largely untenable, responsibility of upholding security. An early argument between the stocky, middle-aged detective (and quintessential Napoleonic figure) Ferdinand Rieche (Heinz Schubert) and a superior officer following the botched police pursuit of a burglary suspect reveals Rieche’s underlying ideology in his obsessively inhabited role as security expert, insisting that the escaped suspect should have been apprehended prior to breaking into the house when the crime had not yet been committed – a pre-emptive that would have ensured, not only a successful arrest, but also the safety of the pursuing officers who, with their lax training and marginal shooting accuracy, were destined to miss their fleeing target. Falling out of favor with his superior officers for his constant insubordination, Rieche is relegated to a dead end desk job until an opportunity for a position as security expert opens up following the sacking of a security chief for an industrial corporation auspiciously called Deutsche Neuropa (an allusion to the emergence of a new Europe under Nazi-era Germany) in the aftermath of a worsening scandal involving his controversial deployment of snipers to subdue protestors, and his subsequent cavalier statements to the press on his instituted policies that has brought even more unwanted attention to the image-conscious multinational company. Having assumed the responsibility of chief security officer under a six month conditional employment, Rieche is eager to make a strong impression over his irreplaceable (and more importantly, immeasurable) value to his new employers – in particular, a skeptical executive, Wilutzki (Gert Günther Hoffmann) who was not consulted during the board’s decision to recruit him – by seeking to dramatically (or at least palpably) transform the security operations of the industrial complex while restoring the legality of their enforcement and mitigating any potential scandal that could fall into the hands of the press (in one comical encounter, Rieche rejects an informant’s complaint of sexual indiscretion between amorous co-workers by countering that his corroborating proof was verbal and not visual). Nevertheless, despite implementing a series of security and detection measures (including a lockdown of offline areas during non-working hours that traps a bemused cleaning lady in the utility room), reinforcing classroom theory (a return to the discipline of intelligence gathering that Rieche believes will prove useful during indeterminate interrogations), and conducting elaborate field maneuvers that begin to resemble battlefield combat and guerilla warfare, the industrial complex soon falls prey to a targeted, coordinated night-time bombing in an apparent – and ultimately unsolved – act of sabotage. Emboldened by his new corporate mandate to secure the plant and handle the media in such a way that the public does not begin to question the integrity of their products, Rieche embarks on an increasingly maniacal quest to ensure the security of the industrial complex by attempting to inhabit the mindset of the agitators whom he believes to be behind the attack (a predisposition towards blaming the left movement that is suggested in his earlier purchase of Marxist literature at a bookstore for research purposes), inevitably resorting to his own perpetrated acts of theft, intimidation, and sabotage under the expedient justification of enforcing security. At the heart of Kluge’s penetrating and profoundly relevant exposition is Rieche’s assumed – and largely inflated – role as the guardian (or more appropriately, exterminating angel) of Security, a self-anointed posture that conceals his incompetence, systematic abuse of power, and arrogant excesses under an inherently corrupt policy of strong-armed tactics, unchecked authority, and willful disregard of legal consequences. Framing Rieche’s paradoxical, self-perpetuating act of terrorism as a sensationalist, cautionary statement on the perils of terrorism itself, Kluge presents a potent metaphor for the vicious circle of violence and exploitation, where the idealistic goal of a noble end no longer justifies the draconian means, but metastasizes into a grotesque inhumanity and corrupted, if amnesic consciousness.
Yesterday Girl (Anita G.), 1966. In his early short essay film, Brutality in Stone, Alexander Kluge channels the contemplative spirit of Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog and Statues Also Die (co-authored by Chris Marker) to convey the idea of architectural memories, the traces of memory that subconsciously remain within the de-contextualized images of derelict structures and abandoned ruins, in this case, the decimated Nazi Party Rally Grounds in (then) present day Nuremberg. For Kluge, this evidence of a haunted, inerasable palimpsest of tragic, forgotten history is an unspoken reality that continues to shape Germany’s unreconciled, postwar collective consciousness – a nation eager to put its turbulent and ignominious past behind and re-emerge internationally as an enlightened and formidable economic world power (enabled by an economic miracle that would lead to the implementation of a liberal guest worker program during the 1960-70s). It is within the resurfacing of these abandoned, yet apparent traces of a scarred history – this persistence of suppressed memory – that Kluge also frames his first feature film, Yesterday Girl, an acerbic, deliriously fractured, incisive, and darkly comic satire on a young German woman (and archetypal embodiment of the postwar generation), Anita G.’s (Alexandra Kluge) search for happiness, liberation, and independence in the illusive wake of a transformative national recovery (a parallel history of postwar reformation not unlike Japan’s recovery). Indeed, 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). Ultimately, 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 2007-2008 [reprinted]