Friday, May 22, 2009

Alexander Kluge's Early Shorts, 1961-1964

Alexander Kluge's first film, co-directed with his friend Peter Schamoni, was the short Brutality In Stone. It's a tightly edited essay film, mixing archival footage with images of the remains of Nazi architecture, the lingering tangible evidence of Hitler's reign. The film advances the idea that architecture reflects ideology, an idea that the Nazis themselves were well aware of. They designed grandiose buildings, modeled after Egyptian pyramids and Mayan temples, massive structures that balanced spiritual fervor with bureaucratic anonymity. In these buildings, rows upon rows of tiny windows mirrored the tight arrangements of soldiers in formation. Even buildings, for the Nazis, were warlike, and Kluge and Schamoni explore this idea by filming the remains of the Nazi architecture in ways that enhance and accentuate the violence and austerity of these structures.

Buildings jut up into the sky. Towers loom above, thrusting powerfully against the clouds. Long corridors trail off to the horizon line, seemingly endless, lined with rhythmically repeating structures like guards stationed at intervals along the hallway. Everything is composed of hard, rigid lines, reflecting the horrible precision and the grandiose ambitions of the Nazi war machine. The soundtrack is a collage of elements: audio of Nazi speeches and rallies where it's available, transcripts where it's not; descriptions of Hitler's plans for reconstructing Berlin as a drastically reimagined capital city called Germania; Nazi music and samples of lyrics. Most horribly, there's a lengthy account of the way a concentration camp supervisor methodically organized and controlled the mass executions of prisoners arriving on transport trains. The voice of the speaker is flat and uninflected, and he describes in precise terms the time tables of the trains, which were perfectly paced so as to leave just enough time for the killings and the clearing of the bodies afterward. He describes how they would keep the crowds calm, how they'd quietly shoot any rowdy elements behind the building, how they'd keep a close watch to make sure that the mothers in the crowd weren't trying to hide their babies away before heading into the showers. The bodies were burned at night, so as not to tip off those arriving on the next transport. It is all so perfectly organized; they thought of every detail, every possible impediment to their work. It is swift and methodical, and all the more monstrous for its efficiency and precision.

Kluge and Schamoni pair this terrible efficiency with images of buildings designed by the Nazis, linking the horrors of the regime with the aesthetics of what they built and left behind. The hard lines, the grand size, the flat undecorated surfaces and tiny black window holes: it's an architecture of inhumanity, created on a scale far beyond the individual. It's an architecture of aggregation, reflecting a mindset that makes mass murder not only conceivable but routine. This short visual essay was an auspicious start to Kluge's career, already displaying the abrupt, associative editing and keen, analytical mind that would characterize his first feature Yesterday Girl.

Kluge's second film was the far more straightforward Racing, a documentary about an auto race; one guesses it was a commission rather than a project Kluge initiated himself. Nonetheless, he makes it his own. On its surface, the film is just a document of a race, and its imagery is relatively conventional: cars circling around the track, spectators cheering, lap after lap of the same images repeated. Kluge's presence makes itself known primarily in the wry voiceover commentary, which purports to be objective but actually slyly undercuts the images of the race. This narration toys with ideas like the interaction between human reflexes and intelligence and the increasingly complicated machines we operate. More subversively, Kluge probes the pacifying effect of populist entertainment, which provides a harmless distraction from politics and more important social issues, and he wonders aloud why this kind of entertainment so often flirts with death and violence.

Indeed, the race ends with a fiery car crash, which Kluge cuts to immediately after showing the winner crossing the finish line. In documenting a race and its aftermath, he subtly suggests that such spectacles are an outpouring of hostility and an expression of the public's desire for close (but not too close) confrontations with mortality. At the same time, these events take the focus of public discourse off of political matters, which is convenient for the ruling classes. Even in this brief and unshowy little film, Kluge suggests the outlines of deeper ideas beneath the commercial documentary form.

Transcript of a Revolution is another collaboration for Alexander Kluge. He's credited with writing the film while Günter Lemmer is the nominal director, but such distinctions don't seem to matter that much with this particular film. It's a strange work, essentially a mockumentary about a fake revolution in the fake West Indian island nation of Las Villas. It presents itself as a objective account of the events that led to the overthrowing of the country's brutal dictator, stitched together from radio reports that narrate the film. But the imagery is a patchwork of archival newsreel footage, sequences from old Hollywood films, and clearly staged scenes in which young men in sunglasses try to act like movie tough guys.

It's bizarre and, once its intent becomes clear, kind of hilarious, seamlessly blending together footage in many different styles and from disparate origins. The various kinds of film stock grate against one another from shot to shot, and the varying content of the images creates an internal tension between documentary and fiction. When real military maneuvers coexist on an even plane with the staged antics of amateur actors and clips from mainstream movies, the foundations of this cinematic reality become very shaky indeed. And yet on its surface the film plays it entirely straight, as though it was a true report on a conflict being waged in another country. It's also an absurdist nose-thumbing at dictators everywhere, a warning that revolution is inevitable. The film closes with the people of Las Villas, having won the battle, initially wary of their deposed dictator but, within the period of a few weeks, forgetting about him altogether.

Teacher, co-directed by Alexander and Karen Kluge, is another interesting documentary from the director's earliest years. This film starts as a wickedly funny report on a ceremony for the dedication of a new school building. Kluge condenses and briskly edits together a series of very similar speeches from various school and government officials, all of whom repeat virtually the same clichés, sometimes just parroting the same phrases but shuffling the words around. It's a wickedly funny satire, but Kluge surrounds it with more serious material, slowly building towards a rumination on what purpose teachers should serve, how they can fail their students, and what the ideal of education should be.

It's clear, of course, from the way he deflates the self-congratulatory nonsense of this ceremony that Kluge doesn't have a very high opinion of the current education system he's documenting. He does, however, appreciate the possibilities of education. The film's second half is thus dedicated to three stories of teachers who were prevented, in various ways, from really attaining the educational ideal they all aimed for. The first of these teachers was an idealistic man who, throughout World War II, taught at a rural German school where he fostered independent thought and creativity in his students; needless to say, the Nazis hanged him towards the end of the war. The second teacher also taught during World War II, and had the misfortune of seeing most of his class killed during attacks by the Russians; he finally escaped with only two of his students left alive, and quit teaching thereafter. The third teacher was a woman who continually pushed back her calling to teach, aware that in the less-than-ideal circumstances of World War II or the Communist years in East Germany, she would not be able to teach the way she would want to. The result was that, except for a brief period before the Communists forced her to quit, she never taught at all.

All of these teachers were oppressed and defeated by war, dictatorship and ideology. Kluge presents their stories with a calm voiceover, accompanied by period photographs. As in his first film, Brutality In Stone, Kluge is clearly very interested in the way that Germany's unique and horrible history has shaped and deformed the country's present. In the earlier film, he studied the lingering aesthetic effects of Nazi architecture, while here he traces the influence of World War II and its aftermath on the German educational system. He clearly longs for a system that would reward rather than punish the three dedicated, intelligent, resourceful teachers he cites here, and he regrets that history has conspired to keep such people down, to promote instead empty airbags like the school officials seen at the beginning of the film.

Kluge's final short before his first feature was another deadpan documentary (or, more likely, mockumentary?) called Policeman's Lot. This film presents itself as a chronicle of the life of the former policeman Karl Müller-Seegeberg, a man who had simply rolled with the many changes to beset German culture in the previous few decades. As a policeman, he had willingly served with the Communist-leaning Prussian guards, then had switched allegiances to the Nazis when they came to power, going to Russia to fight for Hitler. After the war, however, he just as willingly became a guard for the military tribunals, and even captured a fleeing Nazi prisoner. This is a man who takes pride in his professionalism, in his strict adherence to his duty — but he has no ideology, seemingly no preference about who's giving him his orders. He is willing simply to adapt to whatever circumstances come his way, to let history flow independently of his own life. He has no moral qualms about anything he's done; Kluge does not include the trite line about "only following orders," but that is the essence of this policeman's character. He is continually trying to "prove himself" anew as social conditions change: to prove himself a good Communist, then a good Nazi, then a good democrat.

He hardly seems to know what these words mean, only that they're new masters to impress with his professional skill. He is perhaps over-zealous in this, but he shows no remorse for the time when he accidentally killed a Nazi during a riot before Hitler's election, nor for the time when the Nazis had him shoot an innocent Russian woman, nor for the time, post-war, when he stumbled across a couple making love in a park and fired his gun into the dark at them. It is, ironically, this last incident that finally gets him dismissed from the police force. This, and not his earlier atrocities, is an inexcusable act because it happened in peacetime, and because he was for once not following orders but acting on his own.

Kluge documents this proud but broken man's life in the same fragmentary style he would soon employ in Yesterday Girl, integrating uncomfortably tight closeups (textural shots where every pore is a crater, every blemish a mountain) into a dense framework of vintage footage and other inserts. But his playful, satirical spirit comes out in Müller-Seegeberg's ironic closing line, expressed in a title card at the end of the film: "I would punch anyone in the face who did not act in a democratic way."


Sam Juliano said...

OK, Ed, I was turned on to Kluge a scant five months ago, when I received copies of the German Kluge set from Allan, and I was mesmerized by ABSCHIED VON GESTERN (which you just have reviewed) and ARTISTS UNDER THE BIG TOP. Both of these film were trademark Kluges, integrating the realistic footage (a la cinema verite) with the fictional passages. I was most impressed with both, but I have not yet gotten to these shorts, two of which are obviously right up my proverbial sphere of interest: BRUTALITY IN STONE and TEACHERS. Kudos again on a superlative five-prong review of films that few have ever heard of, much less seen. You really have given Kluge noble treatment here.

Ed Howard said...

The two you're interested in are definitely the best of this early batch, and the ones that look most clearly forward to Kluge's first feature. I'm looking forward to exploring Kluge in more depth; he seems like a fascinating figure.