Thursday, May 21, 2009

Yesterday Girl


Alexander Kluge's debut feature Yesterday Girl is a kaleidoscopic burst of energy, a frenetic but never haphazard film that gives the impression of an eager young director, unwilling to commit to any one storytelling mode or aesthetic, instead experimenting with anything he can think of. The result is a quickly paced collage, a jittery, jazzy patchwork that augments its sparse central narrative with myriad diversions and non sequiturs. The film owes much to the example of the French New Wave, and especially to the montage and stylistic catholicity of Jean-Luc Godard, but there is undeniably something distinctive about Kluge, something unmistakable. His rhythms are his own, as is his sense of playfulness, his unexpected detours into surrealism and absurdist farce. Kluge's sister Alexandra plays the heroine, Anita G., an obvious stand-in for the New Wave's young archetypes — she even has those big, black-lined Anna Karina eyes.

Anita is a bit of a lost soul, struggling to find her place in a society that seems to care little for her or her ambitions and desires. In the film's crisply edited opening, Anita faces a judge for stealing a sweater, a minor offense that is treated with the severity and earnestness of a murder trial. Kluge chops the scene into abrupt fragments, often filmed from odd angles, like a memorable and sustained shot of the back of the judge's head, demystifying his authority and seriousness by pointing the camera at his spiky crabgrass hair while he lectures at Anita. The trial is a farce, with the judge asking questions that clearly have no bearing on anything, then dismissing Anita's honest answers: he asks her if she's Jewish, and if she had grandparents who were victims in the Holocaust, but when she says yes he dismisses these matters as irrelevant to the trial. At one point, he bends down and reads at length from the laws on "safekeeping" and ownership, a digression that seems to have no effect on the outcome of the trial. This scene establishes Kluge's essential method here very quickly. He breaks the overall scene down into individual moments, isolated and disconnected from one another, severing the chains of cause and effect so each moment, each image, stands on its own. The cumulative effect of the scene is not the narrative details — which could be much more economically summarized as "Anita is tried and convicted for stealing" — but the impression of absurd authority, of social and political systems designed to deal with abstractions rather than living, breathing people.

This is a running theme throughout the film, as after her release from prison Anita struggles to reintegrate into a society that doesn't seem to want her. She drifts aimlessly from job to job and apartment to apartment, unable to keep a job very long, rarely getting paid, perpetually living in debt with no money. She's always just a week away from a pay check that never seems to come, and she's always getting kicked out (or sneaking out) of a succession of apartments and hotels. She drifts from man to man too, though she finally does settle down for an extended amount of time into an affair with a low-level government minister named Pichota (Günter Mack). Even this is transitory, however, since this man is married and can only meet her sporadically in secret; the affair ends without fanfare or fuss and Anita is back to drifting again.


This is a portrait of a young woman completely without recourse. Again and again, societal institutions that are supposed to help her fail to do anything. All she wants, as Kluge keeps reminding the viewer through intertitles that serve as de facto chapter headings, is a "better life," a cliché that could mean just about anything. Anita herself doesn't have any idea what it could mean, but she tries just about anything to get it. Her parole officer seems to think that prayer will help, and otherwise has Anita cycle through a series of questions to which the girl is obviously learning the "right" answers by rote. In any event, they're questions — like "what does it mean to be good?" — that could only have a "right" answer to a totalitarian. Education similarly offers no solace for Anita, as her attempts to go to university are met with smug, oblivious professors who ignore her practical questions to recite strings of abstractions. They have nothing to offer her as far as the concrete realities of day to day living. Pichota is the same; because of his wife, he can't give her any money or any other tangible help, but he does try to teach her about culture, singing through an opera with her and reading Kafka to her. She gets nothing out of it. The message is obvious: culture and education are meaningless in the absence of social and material stability, in the absence of some way to anchor one's life.

Anita never achieves this stability, and ultimately turns to the only social institution that ever provides her with any concrete answers: she gives herself up to the police and goes to prison again, where at least she knows what to expect. Kluge tells Anita's story through an astonishing variety of cinematic language. As in the first sequence, each scene throughout the film is methodically broken down, with blunt editing that serves to fragment Anita's story. Her experience of life is discontinuous, marked by abrupt breaks and disjunctions, and Kluge passes this experience on to his audience. He frequently resorts to extreme closeups, in which talking heads orate from an abstracted, empty gray space. But just as often he avoids showing the characters' faces at all, cutting to their hands or the backs of their heads or to the walls and objects around them. At other points, he inserts entire, seemingly unrelated sequences into the film, cutting away to visual non sequiturs like a shot of a rabbit that appears during a hallucinatory sequence in which Anita shoots, or more likely imagines she shoots, a police officer who's chasing her. Even time itself is malleable in Kluge's hands: the action frequently speeds up, with Anita and her pursuers racing around like Keystone Kops, and time-lapse photography condenses hours of time spent on a city street into a blurred, pulsating few seconds.

The effect of this elaborate montage aesthetic is to position Anita's story as just one element, one brick, in a mad societal structure. This also seems to be the point of the enigmatic final epigram, "we are all to blame for everything, but if everyone knew it, we would have paradise on earth." Kluge's vision of the world, on the other hand, is far from a paradise — if anything it's a dystopia — but his dense, free-associative aesthetic crafts a cogent and darkly funny critique of the systems that preside over this nonsensical world.

2 comments:

Sam Juliano said...

It's a great review of an essential film that needs a much wider audien, but I love the ending best:

"This also seems to be the point of the enigmatic final epigram, "we are all to blame for everything, but if everyone knew it, we would have paradise on earth." Kluge's vision of the world, on the other hand, is far from a paradise — if anything it's a dystopia — but his dense, free-associative aesthetic crafts a cogent and darkly funny critique of the systems that preside over this nonsensical world."

Kluge's "newspaper footage" style and montages accentuate the realistic focus. He's a talented auteur who work with in his own, singular aesthetic.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Sam. I love Kluge's montage style, the way this film incorporates talking heads, children's books, surrealist diversions, and classical storytelling, treating all of them equally.