As part of the European Catalyst theme at the Leeds International Film Festival there were two films directed by Alexander Kluge in the 1960s. Kluge was the moving spirit behind the Oberhausen Manifesto (1962) which led to the New German Cinema. He was also a key negotiator in obtaining the state funding that enabled many of the early films of this movement to be produced.
The first film was short documentary Brutality in Stone (Brütalitat in Stein, 1961 12 minutes in black and white). The film uses stills, found footage and recordings from the period to produce a montage of the fascist period displaying Nazi architecture, designs and sketches and statements on art. An opening voice-over [and subtitle] informs the viewer that ““very structure expresses the attitude of the builder.” Then, through a series of both discontinuities but also of parallels and continuities in the images, the film evokes some of the ‘brutal’ aspects of Nazi culture. The effect is powerful and provoking and the editing of the material draws out allusions and significant symbolism. One particular technique alongside the cutting is the use of tracking shots that emphasise the mammoth and often bleak Nazi designs. The film appears to being strongly influenced by Alain Resnais’ key documentary from the 1950s Night and Fog (Nuit et Brouillard, 1956).
The second film was a feature length drama Yesterday Girl (Abscheid von gestern, 1966, in black and white. The cinematography was by a co-signatory of the Oberhausen manifesto Edgar Reitz: later director of the successful Heimat series for German Television. The film follows the travails of a young woman [Anita G. played by Kluge sister Alexandra) who leaves East Germany (Deutsche Demokratische Republik) when her parents are arrested and she moves to the West. The film shows her problems with authorities, landladies, state institutions and in prison as well as several relationships with men. But what is most noticeable is the style, a variation on montage. This includes abrupt edits; the insertion of found sound footage, silent film footage, asynchronous sound and unmotivated ellipses. The film is as much about how we respond to the telling of Anita’s story as it is about the actual events and relationships. Kluge was strongly influenced by the work of Jean-Luc Godard and this film reminded me in particular of Vivre sa Vie (My Life to live, 1962, also in black and white).
Both films were clearly intended to be challenging for an audience. We had the advantage of an introduction by Jo Gilbert, a post-graduate students at Leeds University who is researching Alexander Kluge’s early films. She talked about his importance for the New German Cinema, both in his film work but also in his activities in making funding available. He was influenced by Theodor W. Adorno and by Walter Benjamin. He felt, as certainly did Adorno, that film audiences were too passive. This led to his unconventional style designed to ‘interrupt’ the film viewing and stimulate an ‘active viewer’. He wanted to constantly question the viewer. So his films tended to the non-realist, anti-naturalist and to render narrative continuity problematic.
These aspects were strongly apparent in both films. I tend to think that the view Kluge espoused over-estimated the passivity of viewer. Hence I found that Yesterday Girl overdid the disruptions and discontinuities. The film did not strike me with the force that I found in Godard’s films of the same period. To be fair it was his first feature. I think that a later film like Occasional Work of a female Salve (Gelegenheitsarbeit einer Sklavin, 1973) achieves greater coherence and impact.
However, it is now extremely difficult to see films directed by Kluge, or indeed his fellow directors like Rainer Werner Fassbinder or Volker Schlöndorff, at the cinema. So top marks to Leeds Festival for screening. And top marks for Jo Gilbert for giving us a helpful introduction. I should add that the film was only available for screening in the Digibeta format, which meant that the image quality was not especially good. So finally, bottom marks to the Goethe Institut. They had a whole catalogue of films by Kluge, Fassbinder, Schlöndorff and others available in London in 16mm and 35mm prints. Then they packed them off to Germany early in the digital transition.