Time Keeps on Slipping (Some Recently Projected Videotapes by Alexander Kluge)

By Marina Vishmidt, 25 February 2004

Three of Alexander Kluge's 1988 videos, made for the German television programme '10 vor 11', were screened last month at Whitechapel Gallery. Here, Marina Vishmidt unravels their tangled collage of wartime imagery, advertising and philosophy, in relation to Kluge's conception of an 'oppositional public sphere'

The New German Cinema. This is the New Criticism. 'We got there two years too late,' Kluge apocryphally describes the Federal Republic of Germany's riposte to the nouvelle vague, 'but we explored it thoroughly.' It could be seen in context of that era's spate of national minor cinemas, characterised by its insistence that social conditions were the proper stuff of celluloid magic. And that the image could and should speak its own mediation, shuffling genres and motifs , flagging up its own constructedness and by implication that of the social and productive relations that traversed it. Alexander Kluge has been practicing cinema since the early 1960s, but is now principally known for co-authoring Public Sphere and Experience with Oskar Negt in 1972 and his episode in the Baader Meinhof-themed portmanteau film Germany in Autumn. From the Benjaminian élan of arguing for a mass counter-cinema to materially usher in an oppositional public sphere, to the conspiratorial glee of late-night broadcasting slots on private German terrestrial channels twenty five years later, the modernist polymath (lawyer, critical theorist, sci-fi novelist, film and video maker) has been nothing if not thorough. The current Whitechapel film programme, curated by Ian White along the Gerhard Richter Atlas exhibition, showcased some of this work not long ago.

These 1988 made-for-television short subjects encapsulate some of Kluge's main concerns. What kinds of subjectivities are produced in the relation to history? Or, rather, the relation to historical images? What are the synapses between seemingly distinct eras and symbolic orders, and can their forced interaction make the imaginary explicit, the explicit absurd? And how crucial is a tiny, video-generated pointer in decoding archive footage? Yet besides just offering a speculative counter-history of Germany's twentieth century, couched in the usual didactic instability between visuals and ideology, each film is a repository of buried code that develops furiously after one or many viewings. Given the variety of source material intricately pastiched, collating advertising, philosophy, wartime newsreels and the rudimentary charm of its stock video-art special effects, it would be strange if it were otherwise, though it's quite strange already.

Mnemonic Collage/Montage is MeasurementThe three films, Antiques of Advertising, Changing Time (Quickly), and Why Are You Crying, Antonio? are between 15 and 25 minutes in length. They constitute a sort of polemical reverie on the German cultural groupmind, realised in a fitful and captivating mosaic of old and new media – archive footage, stills, text, and the wonky incursions of analogue video-manipulation technology. The idea of incompatible times, of constant repositioning of events and moods and just-in-time historicisation emerges from the visual content and structure – but also from the vying addresses of these media forms, already purposely anachronistic at the time the project first aired, and how much more so in the eternal present of the digitally malleable data manifold. This experience of haptic, troubled seeing underscores the impossibility of transparent processes of reading history: found footage is grievously interfered with, pointing to (at times literally, with a winsome arrow or circle) the intervention of human agency, creativity in the drone of received history. There is a Nietzschean whiff of 'any documentation is already evaluation', particularly when it intends to document nothing but its own frisky commodity appeal (Antiques of Advertising). The problematisation of the visual relation to history, exposing the contingency of its reality effect, can seem old-hat as critique by now, so ultra-embedded in what we see around us as to almost go without saying. But if the critique was absorbed, it was also neutralised, and Kluge eschews the great postmodernist levelling of image truth-claims that finishes by shining the instruments of domination. The juxtaposition of unlikely timeframes and image formats doesn't flatten, it proliferates other possibilities of memory and experience. There is a sequence in Changing Time (Quickly), where a group of contemporary German chic intellectual females are grouped around a table on New Year's Eve, tipsily trying to remember the lyrics to Beethoven's Ode to Joy. Their dogged but absent-minded efforts might be a small emblem of the re-appropriations that high culture is prey to, with the grandiloquent paean to nationalist emotion later shown performed by a Japanese choir numbering in the thousands. This might just seem incongruous at first, until you consider the fatally entwined histories of the two countries.

Kluge's hatchet job on the historical record also utilises spiritualist techniques to dissolve time, signalling his serious approach to the old cognomen of TV as the 'haunted fishtank'. The aesthetic devices of alienation here concurrently evoke the 'alienist', both in the sense of the early term for psychoanalyst, unearthing the solemnly displaced subtexts of historical events, and a medium, channelling another zeitgeist through making the 'wrong' associations in this one. They also perform the haunting on the sensory level of ectoplasmic compositing, spooky coloured filters on archive stills, and spectral computer-generated forms flitting through those stills. If the image is the authenticator of historical doxa, it is also the privileged field of its perversion.

> British air raid in Hagen, 15 March 1945

The Long Sleep of Reason

The specifically German referents are not elided with their diffusion into the wider European (seldom American) context – although Changing Time (Quickly) and Antiques of Advertising montage debris of German material culture like old advertisements, the Heidegger-Arendt pathos, and Nazi athletic manoeuvres. Why Are You Crying, Antonio? reflects on epoch-defining phenomena for all of Europe like Chamberlain's policy of appeasement, Mussolini's ascent, and the immediate aftermath of ceasefire in WWI. They are read, however, through the markedly German Romantic tradition of the uncanny. This is coupled with the abiding influence of the Frankfurt School on Kluge, leading him to link Benjamin's and Adorno's theses on the Fascist aestheticisation of politics with a quixotic take on the legacy of irrationalism in German culture that another New German Cinema exponent, Werner Herzog, also found enticing. The faulty domestication of unreason is a point that Kluge systematically accents. Fascism's pre-history is traced through the sequential tableaux of New Year's Eve fireworks and Allied aerial bombardment that Kluge composites to look virtually the same and with the antiquated astrological diagrams annotated with significant dates in history sporting an illustration of Beethoven at the centre. A national predilection for mysticism is not really what's at stake; Kluge is more interested in Germany's reluctance to negotiate the implications of its recent past in the several decades after the war, and parodies this reticence by invoking the putative monsters of unreason that dwell on long into the desultory project of modernity. For Kluge, this will inexorably provoke a recognition of the persistence of Fascism, [return of the repressed] in social democratic West Germany, ramified by Cold War Realpolitik.

Why Are You Crying, Antonio? sees Chamberlain on a peace-brokering trip to Italy, accompanying Mussolini and his henchmen to the opera. The performance is Verdi's Macbeth. The intertitles observe that Chamberlain and his cabinet were rationalists and did not believe in witches. Hence they had no way of apprehending the threat posed by the geomancers of Fascism and National Socialism. Neither did they have the historical perspective to decipher the harbingers of catastrophe, adopting the phlegmatic view that Hitler's lebensraum was not too remote from the militant sectarianism of a colonially subdued Indian population. Later on, a voiceover hits on this historical caesura by putting it to us that the policy of appeasement 'either leads to peace, in which case it must be pursued consistently, but if it leads to war it was always wrong.' Further exposition dwells fetishistically on archive images of Chamberlain and Hitler's momentous summit in a charming rural hotel, calling on contemporary and post-War souvenir postcards to graphically map their tryst. If Chamberlain didn't understand what he was getting into, neither was Nazism by any stretch transparent to itself: the hybrid fuel of technocratic rationality and paranoid occultism that propelled the killing machine was surprisingly resilient but finally doomed – like the zombie charisma of embalmed Lenin at his funeral in the old Soviet newsreel that takes up a large part of Changing Time, (Quickly). And the figure of the golem here might be a suggestive heuristic. These archive images, reanimated with Kluge's dense artisanal craft and Marxist politics, are undead, but no more so than when they were judged to have life – it is only when we can seize upon the equivocal nature of their legibility, their authority, that lived experience can actually do something with them. The golem, too, was an avatar engendered by a marginalised community, Eastern and Central European shtetl Jews, as a gnostic disclosure of the hollowness of domination and an attempt to imaginatively purloin some of its power. This is telling, in light of the disruptive potential Kluge assigns to critical media practices, and the debunking of institutional narratives with alternate constellations of meaning that can in turn be used to transform subjective and collective reality. At any rate, there's definitely a spectre marching through Europe.


There are moments in the films where the spectacle of mass social mobilisation is pruned back into risibility, and popular genres are inoculated against their own schmaltz by the virus of commercialism. A fantastic sequence of Nazi-era athletes concluding their paroxysm of strength through joy by an artful and maybe spontaneous arrangement into a human swastika is one; there is also a lovely series of outtakes from a Nazi-era romantic film where the framespace of tender moments is never free of the graphic ministrations of 1930s ads for superior matches and luxury footwear. The Nazi athletes are also assailed by an ad for a children's textbook company, highlighting the intimate traffic between Aryan doctrines of perfectibility and the self-improvement touted by education providers; whereas the amorous couple is reminded of the fungibility of human emotions with consumer items in capitalism.

Kluge comments in the 1965 essay 'Word and Film' that there is a risk in the kind of disjunctive cinematic/textual practice he projects of becoming a 'total work of art.' Mobilising so many affects and discursive approaches to craft a contestational new cinematic language for him evokes parallelisms with a Nazi 'gesamtkunstwerke'. A cinema that neither replicates illusionist narrative forms nor founders in depoliticised 'deep structure' abstraction must conceive of itself as consciousness-shaping implement, and Kluge identifies this as the bridge precariously spanning leftist and reactionary movements for social change. The Frankfurt School axiom that Nazism was the apotheosis of capitalism since it proved capable of mobilising the whole productive process (not just in the piecemeal fashion of liberal democracies), is allegorical here for desires that animate the production of revolutionary culture; but this axiom also prefigures contemporary discussions about affective labour and real subsumption of social productivity by the panoply of 'cognitive capitalisms' and administrative models of governance. Kluge contended that there could be a counter-productivity, an 'oppositional public sphere', but he seemed ambivalent about the prospect of this translating onto a grand scale, because then totalitarian impulses might establish themselves. This was the aporia that the terms 'oppositional' and 'public' tried to contain: as long as there are refractory strata in the field of constituted power, then they can operate to create critical ruptures in the tranquil circulation of consent. But oppositional is always inherently parasitic. What happens when the alibi of the public sphere is as etiolated as it is now, and counter-productivity has no choice but to operate immanently across the atomised zones of administrative functionality, often under deep cover in its lifeless interstices? The parasitism is now mediated differently, the stakes have shifted. In a 1998 interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, Alexander Kluge remarked on 'the conservative interest in the public sphere' coinciding with the moment of its relative obsolescence. We can conjecture perhaps that at this point for Kluge the strategic indispensability of an oppositional public sphere may have been due for a return to the drawing board, once the public sphere it was opposing no longer counted for much in the calculations of power.

Alexander Kluge's Why Are You Crying, Antonio?, Antiques of Advertising and Changing Time (Quickly) were screened at Whitechapel Gallery on 29 January 2004 as part of the Gerhard Richter Film Programme curated by Ian White. The related Gerhard Richter - Atlas exhibition will be open until March 14, 2004

Alexander Kluge's films for German television are available for rental or sale from Electronic Arts Intemix