Alexander Kluge: Films for Cinema Review

You can sample Edition Filmmuseum’s Alexander Kluge discs in one of three ways. They are available as 15 individual two-disc sets, as an eight-set Alexander Kluge: Films for Cinema collection (under review here), or as an entire whole, taking in everything Kluge has put his name to, from the early sixties right up to 2008. Each two-disc set is arranged as a thematic pair of features and each disc comes with accompanying shorts, Kluge’s writings in DVD-ROM form (short stories, novels, autobiography, etc, albeit in German only), plus a booklet with bilingual (English-German) notes. To demonstrate consider the first which collects Kluge’s debut feature Abscheid von gestern/Yesterday Girl (1966) with Gelegenheitsarbeit einer Sklavin/Part-Time Work of an Occasional Slave (1973). The connection is that both feature Kluge’s sister, Alexandra, in the lead role; “two films in black and white… but how wonderful the contrasts are, the grey tones” as the director puts it. Accompanying them we have the 1961 documentary Brutalität in Stein/Brutality in Stone on the first disc alongside a 1998 Holocaust-themed television work, and on disc two the 1963 doc Lehrer im Wandel/Teachers which Alexandra co-directed. In other words the connections branch out between the features, shorts and TV pieces: thematic, stylistic, familial. And this too points up the fact that these films really do need to be viewed as part of a complete set. Each two-disc effort jumps about only so far – to get the fuller picture Kluge’s oeuvre must be approached as a whole, sometimes infuriating, sometimes invigorating as it may be.

In addition each disc also opens with an example of Kluge’s “one-minute cinema”, made-for-television pieces which demonstrate where the director’s post-feature methods lie. (The remaining seven sets in the overall collection are devoted squarely to the 1998-2008 period and do away with the thematic pairings of those housing the features.) Silent movies and filmed theatre are split-screened, overlaid and video FXed as they vie for a single minute of our attention. One pays homage to Dziga Vertov (Am Vertov [1998]), another drastically reduces a five-hour performance of Parsifal (5 Stunden Parsifal [1998]), another is just plain odd and ultimately unclassifiable (Sam Remembers Papa Kong [2006]), and so on. Such pieces are also present in compiled chunks on some of the later discs amongst the features as Kluge began to show his work in galleries (most notably at the Serpentine as part of their Video Show festivals) as well as cinemas and television.

The final note to be made regarding these discs’ programming is their essentially chronological nature. The first feature on each set follows this progression and the accompanying film on the second is generally from around the same period having been made just prior or immediately after. (Only Gelegenheitsarbeit einer Sklavin has a pronounced shirt – in the seven years between it and Abscheid von gestern Kluge had produced another three features.) Thus approaching the discs in numerical order – Edition Filmmuseum adopting a similar method to Criterion and Eureka’s Masters of Cinema releases – we can follow Kluge’s career pretty much as it was, excepting the pre-feature shorts which are more liberally dotted around. Beginning at Abscheid von gestern we move from this confident, easily accessible work (accessible, perhaps, as its influences are the most apparent, the nouvelle vague stylings especially) into the more hermetic, self-enclosed world of Der Angriff der Gegenwart auf die übrige Zeit/The Assault of the Present on the Rest of Time (1985) by which point Kluge’s cinema has become entirely his own, removed not only from the “Oberhausen Group” of fellow German directors (Werner Herzog, Rainer Werner Fassbinder et al), but any of his filmmaking contemporaries.

Watching these films in one giant chunk – though I’ll admit it took me the better part of two months given all the material on offer – it is tempting to consider Kluge’s body of work as a single film, one which mutates and grows, repeats itself, returns to the same ideas and themes as it grows ever more distinctive and unique. Some titles could be considered sequels or continuations (Die umbezähmbare Leni Pickert/The Indomitable Leni Pickert [1970] picks up where Die Artisten in der Zirkuskuppel: ratios/Artists at the Top of the Big Top: Disorientated [1968] left off), others resurrect material for different means (the documentary footage from In Gefahr und größter Not bringt der Mittelweg den Tod/In Danger and In Deep Distress, the Middleway Spells Certain Death [1974] is reused in Biermann-Film, produced the same year, this time without fictional attachments) and so on. Indeed, the works from Deutschland im Herbst/Germany in Autumn (1978) onwards especially seem to bleed into one another, borrowing footage, replaying scenes and being more blatantly political in their concerns than the earlier pieces, though this element has always existed.

Indeed, it could be said that there is a specific Kluge model. Political themes; predominantly female protagonists; documentary stylings or inserts (occasionally it is hard to discern what is “real” and what is not; is Porträt einer Bewährung/Policeman’s Lot [1964] a genuine piece of documentary filmmaking or a construct as per Ich war Hitler’s Bodyguard/I Was Hitler’s Bodyguard [1999]? – without context it is difficult to be sure either way); the calm voice-over (and the same voice each and every time); the use of intertitles and chaptering; the strange digressions that threaten to flummox the casual viewer as in Kreig und Frieden/War and Peace (1982) and its mini-narrative midway concerning Russian and American astronauts stranded in space; the recurrence of characters and their surnames; the overall intellectual rigour. Such is the distinctiveness of this model that when his contribution to Deutschland im Herbst comes into play we recognise it immediately, just as Fassbinder’s opening passage swaggers into life instantly calling attention to itself as an RWF mini-movie.

However, Kluge doesn’t always come away with artistic success. The late sixties and early seventies saw a brief move into science fiction and the results were as incongruous as the pairing suggests. Too intellectual to be dismissed as kitsch, Der Große verhau/The Big Mess (1969) and Willi Tobler und der Untergang der 6. Flotte/Willi Tobler and the Decline of the 6th Fleet (1971) nevertheless fuse crude aesthetics with even cruder effects. Interest is intermittently piqued – as when progressive rockers Amon Duul II put in an unexpected appearance – but otherwise these are barely watchable, hampered as they are by poor pacing, incomprehensible plotting and ill-placed political subtexts (Der Große verhau touching, for example, on issues of unemployment). Yet when see as part of the Kluge oeuvre, and indeed this collection, their presence becomes easier. Firstly, we can choose to politely ignore them as plentiful riches lie elsewhere. And secondly, we can note how the approach would go on to inform later works. In Gefahr…, as way of example, is stylistically similar but the techniques become far more acceptable within its realist, non-genre context: a semi-documentary effort with a dose of the Medium Cools about it. We should, perhaps, expect it to be as dated nowadays as other politically-minded “youth” movies (Sweden’s I Am Curious pair or The Strawberry Statement from the US) yet interestingly this style – so all ill-at-ease when juxtaposed with science fiction – keeps the whole thing surprisingly fresh.

Yet if we accept that Kluge’s cinema bleeds into and feeds off itself, then we should also be aware that it can, at times, throw up delightful one-offs. Der Starke Ferdinand/Strong-Man Ferdinand (1976), recently described quite aptly in Sight & Sound as “precision tooled”, is a deadpan parable that shows Kluge could be funny as well as incisive, doing away with the female protagonist of the norm and as such yielding a film that feels quite different, even if many of the other tics and tropes remain. Similarly, the discs themselves deliver the occasional unexpected curveball: Reformzirkus, a television panel discussion that descends into its own polite anarchy; or a charming interview with Jean-Luc Godard from 2001 in which the director reveals more than he perhaps intentionally planned.

Furthermore, the discs themselves are uniformly flawless. Each presentation comes from the finest materials meaning that all but the very few look and sound utterly perfect. Kluge’s preferred Academy ratio is maintained (even when combined with the wider methods preferred by his collaborators on the likes of Deutschland im Herbst) as are the mono soundtracks. At times watching these films you wonder if you’ve ever seen black and white, or indeed colour, ever looking quite so good. Even the shorts – which you’d rationally expect to be variable – are never short of pleasing. Only Die Menschen die das Staufer-Jahr vorbeiten/People Preparing the Staufer Anniversary, a 1977 documentary short, seems to have come from a video rather than film source, though given Kluge’s own involvement in the project it must surely be the case that this was the only version available. Indeed, Kluge can no doubt be extremely happy that his work has been translated so well and so definitively onto disc: this realty is a major DVD project, both rare in that it offers the viewer the complete chance to experience everything the director has turned his hand to in a single place, and utterly essentially for the very same reason. My only problem is that it forces me to consider Kluge’s wide-ranging career within the confines of an “out of 10” rating. How do you sum up all these hours and minutes – and years of planning and production – in such a succinct (reductionist?) manner?

These discs are available direct via the Edition Filmmuseum website.


Edition Filmmuseum 20
An Vertov (1998, 1 min)
Abscheid von gestern/Yesterday’s Girl (1966, 84 mins)
Nachtrict von Filmfestival in Venedig 1966 (1966, 1 min)
Brutalität in Stein/Brutality in Stone (1961, 11 mins)
Ein Liebesversuch/An Experiment in Love (1998, 13 mins)

Sam Remembers Papa Kong (2006, 1 min)
Gelegenheitsarbeit einer Sklavin/Occasional Work of a Part-Time Slave (1973, 87 mins)
Lehrer im Wandel/Teachers (1963, 11 mins)

Edition Filmmuseum 21
5 Stunden Parsifal (1998, 1 min)
Die Artisten in der Zirkuskuppel: ratios/Artists at the Top of the Big Top: Disorientated (1968, 100 mins)
Hinrichtung eines Elefanten/The Execution of an Elephant (2000, 15 mins)

Die taurige Nachtrict (2006, 1 min)
Die umbezähmbare Leni Peickert/The Indomitable Leni Peickert (1970, 33 mins)
Reformzirkus/Reform Circus (1970, 127 mins)

Edition Filmmuseum 22
Learning Process with a Deadly Outcome (1998, 1 min)
Der große Verhau/The Big Mess (1971, 90 mins)
Triebwerk-Husten/Engine Cough (1996, 15 mins)
Das gab’s nur einmal (2006, 1 min)
Willi Tobler und der Untergang der 6. Flotte/Willi Tobler and the Decline of the 6th Fleet (1972, 78 mins)
Der Tag ist nah/The Day is Nigh (1997, 15 mins)
Raumfahrt als inneres Erlebnis/Spaceflight as an Internal Experience (1999, 15 mins)

Edition Filmmuseum 23
Die Frau auf dem Schlachtfeldt (2006, 1 min)
In Gefahr und größter Not bringt der Mittelweg den Tod/In Danger and Deep Distress, the Middleway Spells Certain Death (1974, 86 mins)
Biermann-Film (1974, 3 mins)
Porträt einer Bewährung (1964, 12 mins)

La Habanera (2006, 1 min)
Der starke Ferdinand/Strong-Man Ferdinand (1976, 91 mins)
Ich war Hitler’s Bodyguard/I Was Hitler’s Bodyguard (1999, 45 mins)

Edition Filmmuseum 24
Neonröhren des Himmels (1998, 1 min)
Deutschland im Herbst/Germany in Autumn (1978, 119 mins)
Nachrichten von den Staufern/News of the Staufers (1977, 22 mins)

100 Jahre deutscher Rhein (1998, 1 min)
Die Patriotin/The Patriot (1979, 118 mins)
Die Menschen, die das Staufer-Jahr vorbereiten/People Preparing the Staufer Anniversary (1977, 39 mins)

Edition Filmmuseum 25
So tückisch sind Friedensschlüsse (2006, 1 min)
Krieg und Frienden/War and Peace (1982, 118 mins)
Auf der Suche nach einer praktisch-realistischen Haltung/Looking for a Practical and Realistic Behaviour (1983, 12 mins)

Sturm über Ägypten (2006, 1 min)
Der Kandidat/The Candidate (1980, 124 mins)
Große Reiche muß man leiten wie man kleine Fischlein brät/Rule a Great Country as You Would Fry Small Fish (1993, 15 mins)

Edition Filmmuseum 26
Das tödliche Dreieck (2006, 1 min)
Die Macht der Gefühle/The Power of Emotion (1983, 112 mins)
Feuerlöscher E.A. Winterstein/E.A. Winterstein, Fire Extinguisher (1968, 11 mins)

La Paloma (2006, 1 min)
Serpentine Gallery Program (1995-2005, 100 mins)
Rennen/Racing (1961, 9 mins)
Protokoll einer Revolution/Transcript of a Revolution (1963, 12 mins)

Edition Filmmuseum 27
Zwischen Mitternacht und der vierten Nachtstunde (2006, 1 min)
Der Angriff der Gegenwart auf die übrige Zeit/The Assault of the Present on the Rest of Time (1985, 106 mins)
Blinde Liebe – Gespräch mit Jean-Luc Godard/Blind Love – Talk With Jean-Luc Godard (2001, 24 min)
16 Minutenfilme/16 One-Minute Films (2007, 17 mins)

Nach jedem Untergang kommt ein Dampfer (2006, 1 min)
Vermischte Nachrichten/Miscellaneous News (1986, 96 mins)
Frau Blackburn, geb. 5. Jan. 1872, wird gefilmt/Mrs. Blackburn, born 1/5/1872, is being filmed (1967, 13 mins)
Ein Arzt aus Halberstadt/A Doctor from Halberstadt (1970, 29 mins)
Besitzbürgerin, Jahrgang 1908/A Woman from the Property-Owning Middle Class, Born 1908 (1973, 11 mins)

A note on co-directors and collaborators: The various discs focus not only on Kluge’s solo directorial credits but all films on which he lent his name. The following titles were made in partnership or collaboration with the following filmmakers:

Peter Schamoni: Brutality in Stone (1961)
Alexandra Kluge: Teachers (1963)
Edgar Reitz: In Danger and In Deep Distress, the Middleway Spells Certain Death (1974); Biermann-Film (1974)
Maximiliane Mainka: News of the Staufers (1977), People Preparing the Staufer Anniversary (1977)
Volker Schlöndorff, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Alf Brustellin, Bernhard Sinkel, Katja Rupé, Hans Peter Cloos, Edgar Reitz, Maximiliane Mainka, Peter Schubert: Germany in Autumn (1978)
Volker Schlöndorff, Stefan Aust, Alexander von Eschwege: The Candidate (1980)
Volker Schlöndorff, Stefan Aust, Axel Engstfeld: War and Peace (1982)

9 out of 10
10 out of 10
10 out of 10
10 out of 10



out of 10

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