“I am a patriot of the 20s”: An Interview with Alexander Kluge

A discussion with one of the leading founders of New German Cinema, upon the release of his films on DVD and his 80th birthday.
Candace Wirt
Alexander Kluge

To celebrate the 75th birthday of a leading founder of New German Cinema, the Film Museum in Munich released a collection of Alexander Kluge’s fourteen feature films and sixteen shorts from 1960 through 1986.  Facets Multimedia is now bringing them out in North America, and In Danger and Deep Distress, the Middleway Spells Certain Death (1974) will be available this spring.  Kluge is a master director of Autorenfilm as well as a great author and theorist who has produced several volumes of social theory, dozens of films, and thousands of short stories and television programs.  Influenced by his friend and mentor Theodor Adorno and by his experience as Fritz Lang’s assistant on The Tiger of Eschnapur (1959), Kluge recognized “the necessity of a new politics for the cinema” early in his career.  In response to the crisis of German cinema in the 1950s, he led twenty-six West German filmmakers to declare “Papas Kino ist tot!” and to inaugurate a New German Cinema in 1962 with the famous Oberhausen Manifesto.

In his first feature film, Yesterday Girl (1966), Kluge explored a young Jewish individual’s struggle with her country’s history in the newly formed Federal Republic of Germany.  With the film, he announced his raison d’etre to the larger world: to interpret the relationship between the complicated reality of postwar Germany and its deadly past from which he narrowly escaped as a 13-year-old boy.  From Artists under the Big Top: Perplexed (1968) to Germany in Autumn (1978) to The Patriot (1979), Kluge constructs alternative (hi)stories of Germany and its people to counter “the strategy from above” later translated into History that we recite from our textbooks.

Describing his style as antagonistic realism or a realism of protest, Kluge once stated, “Realism is not a natural condition.  The natural condition is ideology, dreaming.  Whenever I protest against the reality principle, i.e., against what reality is doing to me, I’m being realistic.  Therefore my motive for being realistic is antirealist.”(1)  Opposing the conventional means of filmmaking, he uses an experimental montage to render the constructedness and connectedness (zusammenhang) of reality.  At his “construction sites” (also known as his films), he digs through a great variety of ideas and images to discover why events unfold in Germany's past, present, and future.  Similar to Leni Peickert in Artists under the Big Top: Perplexed, Kluge turned to television in the mid-1980s, producing films of varying lengths and interviews through his Development Company for Television Programs (DCTP).  He relocated the project of Autorenfilm in a new medium, contributing again to the future of cinema.  I recently spoke to Kluge about his celebrated career upon the release of his films in America.

NOTEBOOK: To begin with, how did you become interested in filmmaking?  Why did you want to be a filmmaker?

ALEXANDER KLUGE: I am an author of literature.  I have been a lawyer, and on the other hand, I wrote books.  But I was intensely interested in modern music—Alban Berg, Webern, Stockhausen, etc.  Adorno took the same interest in modern music.  This music is moving.  A book is not moving, and therefore I was interested in film as something between literature and music.

We were very enthusiastic about the film of the 20s.  We did not like the film of that present day, of the 50s at all, especially German film—the same UFA-principled film of the Nazi period.  But the Nazi period minus politics.  This is bad enough.  Therefore our favorites were Hans Richter, Fritz Lang, Griffith, and the earliest films.

NOTEBOOK: Yes, I read a recent interview with Werner Herzog in which he said, “My connection to the cinema of the Twenties has anchored my work much more than anything else.”(2)

KLUGE: This is exactly the same with my patriotism in film.  I am a patriot of the 20s concerning film.

NOTEBOOK: A vibrant avant-garde culture flourished in the Weimar Republic for men such as Lang.  Do you believe that the filmmakers who came to prominence in the 1970s relocated it in New German Cinema?

KLUGE: Well, I think that we learned from these filmmakers and from dramatists like Bertolt Brecht and Piscator.  We have never been only filmmakers.  Cinema d’auteur is always open to other kinds of art—to literature, to music, and not so much to photography because it doesn’t move.  We liked James Joyce as much as the filmmakers of the 20s, and we introduced this style of montage into the 60s.  The film I made, Yesterday Girl, has more to do with Eisenstein than with any German director of the 50s, 40s, 30s.  And Fritz Lang belongs to the 20s.

Above: Soldiers from the past still pursue Anita G. in the postwar German setting of Yesterday Girl.

NOTEBOOK: Why does Yesterday Girl have so much to do with Eisenstein?

KLUGE: It has to do with him because it is a similar kind of film montage.  But my kind of montage is more like Godard than Eisenstein. 

NOTEBOOK: You once stated that Breathless (1960) inspired you to become a filmmaker.  And many critics have observed similarities between Yesterday Girl and Godard’s early work.  What was the impact of Godard on you?

KLUGE: He’s my alterer bruder.  He’s two years older than me.  I was struck by his first films.  We are followers of this French kind of filmmaking.  The German way to make Autorenfilm/cinema d’auteur—if you compare Fassbinder, for instance, it’s a little bit more wild.  We are more barbaric than the French.

NOTEBOOK: Do you believe that the Autorenfilm of the 1960s and 1970s fulfilled the Oberhausen Manifesto’s aims?

KLUGE: To some extent, yes, because all these short filmmakers started to make feature films.  But there’s always been a fraction that stayed with the short film.  For instance, I made a lot of one-minute films during the last five years.  They are even shorter than the ten-minute films we made in the 60s.  I believe in very short films, pieces, fragments on one hand, and on the other hand, in films of eight or ten or twelve hours.  Did you ever see the film News from Ideological Antiquity: Marx – Eisenstein – Capital (2008)?

Above: Kluge introduces Karl Marx and Sergei Eisenstein in News from Ideological Antiquity.

NOTEBOOK: Unfortunately, I haven’t, but I do know of it.

KLUGE: It is a nine-hour film consisting of fragments, and this is exactly the way Adorno wrote books, Walter Benjamin made The Arcades Project.  Or in music—the modernists in the 20s tried to make new kinds, to find new forms of music.  I still belong to this modernism of the 20s.  A lot of others, like Edgar Reitz, did the same and made one hundred minute films on one hand, and on the other hand, one to ten-minute films and then twelve-hour films, eight-hour films, four-hour films.

NOTEBOOK: The one-minute films remind me of the films from the very earliest days of cinema, such as those of Georges Méliès and the Lumière brothers.

KLUGE: Yes, and Edison.

NOTEBOOK: Early cinema is very important to you.  Was there a certain promise it held?

KLUGE: I believe film is like the phoenix.  He dies, and then he rises again.  This is the symbol of film history for me.  If you go online, on YouTube, you will find one-minute films again.  And we make them in 65mm.  This is a very valuable kind of filmmaking.  35mm is the normal feature film format, and if you have double the negative, then you have 65mm film.  It’s huge and very brilliant.  We showed these minute films at the Venice Film Festival. 

NOTEBOOK: To return to Autorenfilm, how do you view the contributions of your fellow filmmakers?

KLUGE: Well, they are very different.  Each is an individual.  It was a very strong group of about thirty young people—men and women.  Some of them are still unknown, but they belong together.  And our center of theory was at the Ulm School of Design.  It is a college of design and the successor of the Bauhaus of the 20s.  We had a film department in the school. 

NOTEBOOK: Members of New German Cinema also made cooperative films, such as Germany in Autumn (1978), The Candidate (1980), and War and Peace (1982)How did you go about making these films?  And how were your experiences on the cooperative films different from others?

KLUGE: I am a great ally of cooperative filmmaking, because film is not something you can make in your own room.  Something exists that the economist-philosopher Adam Smith calls “animal spirits.”  One worker, he says, works less in one hundred hours than one hundred workers in one hour.  Because if people work together and there is cooperation, there is a certain spirit.  Smith calls that “animal spirit.”  If they are together, they feel stronger and are more inventive.  I believe that imagination itself is collective.  In my mind, there is a chorus of 20, 40, 50 ancestors and friends.  For instance, my sister—I worked very often with my sister, an actress, and she is always present in my mind.  Therefore I am not alone.  And in a collective film like Germany in Autumn, all these people who work together behave more freely.  The cameramen also behave differently.  The directors are not tiger tamers anymore; they are more like gardeners.  So they behave different on a collective film than on films they make only for themselves.

Above: Protesters at the funeral of Red Army Faction members Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, and Jan-Carl Raspe in Germany in Autumn.

NOTEBOOK: How are the filmmakers of cooperative films more free?

KLUGE: If there is one director and he behaves like the king, there will always be a hierarchy, and cinema is completely anarchic as a way of production.  You have to have a lot of chaos and chance to help you.  Film is not a machine.  It is contrary to one.  It’s like a living coral reef where many different animals cohabitate together.

NOTEBOOK: You previously described yourself as a collector similar to the Brothers Grimm, who briefly appeared in The Patriot (1979).  In the film, the voiceover commented, “At the time of this emperor [Napoleon I], the scholars Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm dug intensively into German history.  They dug and dug and unearthed the fairy tales.  Their content: how a people deals with its wishes over a period of 800 years.”  What do you collect, and why do you do so?

Above: A portrait of the Brothers Grimm in The Patriot.

KLUGE: It is not just me.  There is a large number of us.  A poet is always a collector.  You have to find something.  You do not have to invent reality, but to find reality.  In the 30s and 40s, there was the Holocaust in our country.  It is necessary to dig for the reasons and to dig deeper and deeper and deeper.  You can’t carry on with the poetry of ancient times.  You have to find these ancient times.  Where are the roots of criminal behavior?  And then there may also be roots for the remedy.

I previously wrote a book on biographies, Case Histories, and now I’m writing another one with similar content.  History is something that is extremely interesting, and it is vivid in our present time if you look for it.  The Brothers Grimm of the 1800s, for instance, are very good collectors.  A filmmaker of today could imitate to a certain extent this way of being curious to find things.  Herculaneum and Pompeii are under the lava.  In other words, film, to my understanding, has to do with something you can see and with something that is invisible.  The best moments in film, connected with montage, show something that is not directly visible.  It is between the pictures, and your imagination makes it jump to a second reality, which is the reality of filmmaking.  Homer was blind, and therefore he was a very good poet.  He had invisible pictures in his mind, and he was able to write about them.  I wrote a story on Fritz Lang, who had very bad eyes.  This, again, is the work of invisibility, which has to do with visible things.  Both you need—you need the dialectic between both.

NOTEBOOK: In The Patriot, the knee of Corporal Wieland urges us to do away with the notion that the dead “are somehow dead.  We are in fact full of protest and energy.”  What do the dead protest?  Are they successful in doing so?

Above: Caspar David Friedrich's drawing Landscape with Owl, Grave, and Coffin in The Patriot.

KLUGE: It is an idea.  Someone unnecessarily died.  He is slain by history.  He is an enemy of the reality that hurt him.  The dead are not dead—this is an idea.  You can read it in the writing of Heiner Muller or Ovid or Walter Benjamin.  It is a truth that the dead are not dead, so they might be wiser than living people.  It is poetry, it is film.  I am not a scientist.  I cannot prove it.

NOTEBOOK: You have a unique method of constructing films.  How did you develop this form of montage?

KLUGE: It’s not my method.  For instance, James Joyce used the same kind of montage, but he worked with words.  I have a lot of teachers.  Even a Roman writer like Tacitus used a very similar kind of montage to try and find what was the most intense contrast to the picture before.  It is not to add one picture to another picture that is similar.  It is not to make everything the same—like normal film cutting, which tries to imitate reality.  This does not find the contradictions that live in reality.  It doesn’t recognize that in the mind of a human, there are always these contradictions.  You look at something with tears in your eyes, and six hours later, you can’t help laughing.  At a funeral it is typical that at five o’clock in the afternoon, all the people that were very sad in the morning start laughing at jokes.  We call this the anti-realism of emotion.  Emotion is not realistic.  It likes illusion.  It likes what is good for people, and it denies those things that hurt them.  So we have one realistic eye and one anti-realistic eye, one realistic ear and one anti-realistic ear, and so on.

NOTEBOOK: You collect and assemble a great wealth of materials in your films.  How do you go about doing this?

KLUGE: I am convinced that the material—it’s not what I make as a director, but what I meet as a director.  This helps to bring a plurality into the film.  The idea is a prism, not spectacle.

NOTEBOOK: So the material comes to you?

KLUGE: Yes, but I am able to seduce the material sometimes.

NOTEBOOK: You construct literature in a similar way to film, and you adapted some of your films from stories that you wrote.  Yesterday Girl is based upon “Anita G.” in Case Histories and Strongman Ferdinand (1976) upon “Big Business Bolshevik.”  How do your literary works inform your films and vice versa?

Above: Anita G. entering a prison in Yesterday Girl.

KLUGE: I wrote a story on Anita G., but when I made the film, I returned to the actual person and portrayed her.  The film is not the same as the short story.  I made the film in the exact prison where this Anita G., who is a real person, was imprisoned.  My sister knew this young girl.(3)  So the film begins again from the bottom.  It does not transform the literature into film, but tries to dig once more and to tell a story with pictures, music, etc., independent from the short story.

NOTEBOOK: You have mentioned Benjamin, Adorno, and Brecht.  How did the critical theory of the Frankfurt School influence your practice of filmmaking?

KLUGE: Well, to some extent, I belong to this group of philosophers.  Though they would not treat me as a philosopher, but as a poet.  This is like the gardener, the servant, but I am a servant in the garden of critical theory—a good servant.

NOTEBOOK: I like that description!  In 1972, you and Oskar Negt published Public Sphere and Experience in response to Jurgen Habermas’ The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere.  Can you describe your notion of the public sphere?

KLUGE: Well, I am the type that lives in cities—like Richard Sennett, for instance.  He cannot stand the country.  He lives in the city.  He’s a citoyen, and so am I.  Public life is for me something like second nature.  First nature is nature and second nature is city.  The city is an imaginary city where we read books, we make music, we look at art.  It’s not a city with just houses, but with ideas and with a certain flood of emotion.  In this I live like a fish.

NOTEBOOK: And how do you engage with the public sphere through filmmaking?

KLUGE: Well, I write books, I write in newspapers, I make films, I make TV programs.  I don’t believe in the separations of public life.  I think it’s necessary to combine different types of public life, so that you have a rich kind of it.  This might be the answer. 

We studied, Oskar Negt and myself, the conditions.  It’s not difficult to describe the bourgeois public life.  It’s nearly the same as the traffic of whales.  If you follow the traffic of whales, you will find the kind of thinking in public life.  There is a German philosopher named Alfred Sohn-Rethel, and he says, "Before human logic and Immanuel Kant's system of critique and reason can emerge, there already is trade, the commodity fetish, and capitalism.  From real, existing practice, that which they do, humans later derive logic and that which they think."  You have capitalism, and on the other side, logic, principles, abstracts—philosophy.  This might be true or untrue, but it is an observation that is interesting.  So it’s not very difficult to explain bourgeois public life, but if you take proletarian public life, you have to look and to observe.  It’s very interesting—this other kind of communication.  Even in totalitarian society, you have, underneath the hierarchy, a lot of very interesting and impressive communication.  It’s a hidden kind of public life there versus no public life.  The antithesis to public life is Nazi-organized life, uniformed life.  But the way of the human fishes is a very different kind of public life.

NOTEBOOK: You have said that films arise in the heads of spectators.  What do you mean by this?

KLUGE: Since the Stone Age, people carry a kind of cinema in their heads.  They painted memories of fights with rhinoceroses and other wild animals on the walls of their caves during this period.  That was the beginning of cinema.  This was already a kind of film, because it moved in their minds; outside it was static.  Therefore cinema existed long before cinema was invented as a technical method.  This kind of observation within every human being…they cannot but use their imagination.  It is a film that is revitalized if you go to the cinema.  Today people do not go to the cinema as often, and TV is not the same.  But the pictures in people’s minds are still cinema.

NOTEBOOK: And these pictures, in a way, help them to live their lives?


NOTEBOOK: Considering people do not go to the cinema as often anymore, what do you think is the future of cinema?

KLUGE: It’s a very complicated question.  The cinema within our minds will continue and has an eternal life.  Outside, in the cinemas, the distributors avoid real cinema.  They show—well, you know what happens in the cinema.  This does not have too much to do with film history.  In Venice or Cannes or the Museum of Modern Art or film museums, you find a lot of film, and this is the second life of film—sometimes without much of an audience.  But if you have two people who are interested in cinema, it’s still cinema.

NOTEBOOK: Lastly, you deal in wishes in your films.  Would you share some of your own?

KLUGE: Well, you do not wish in every moment.  You should ask me in what context.

NOTEBOOK: Well, what do you wish as a filmmaker?

KLUGE: I wish to cooperate with at least ten or twelve young filmmakers and to make film.  This one is very simple.  Film history is a matter of practice, and therefore I would like to have this practice.  By the way, we have dctp.tv (Development Company for Television Programs) online, and there you will find a lot of films of mine and of others.  Then you can understand it is not necessary to wish, because I have good cooperation with a lot of people there.  You can find films of 140 minutes consisting of twenty or thirty pieces on different subjects.  The pity is it’s in German.  But you can watch the pictures regardless of the language, and there are lots of pictures. 

I can tell you another wish.  I would love to be accepted by an audience on the other side of the Atlantic.

(1) Hans-Bernhard Moeller, “Introduction,” in Case Histories, Alexander Kluge, ix-xix (New York, NY: Holmes and Meier, 1991).

(2) Werner Herzog, Film Comment, May/June 2011.

(3) Kluge’s sister, Alexandra Kluge, stars as Anita G. in Yesterday Girl.


Alexander KlugeFritz LangInterviewsLong Reads
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