Alexander Kluge in Context

By Celluloid Liberation FrontOctober 26, 2018

Alexander Kluge in Context

Toward Fewer Images by Philipp Ekardt

PHILIPP EKARDT’S Toward Fewer Images doesn’t chronicle “The Work of Alexander Kluge,” as its subtitle reads, so much as it represents a textual complement to the multiple projects that Kluge has been involved in over his very long career in film and media production. Not only is it the first book in English about the German polymath, a cofounder of the New German Cinema, but it also avoids tenuous biographical interpretation and hagiographical flattery. The reader learns about Kluge’s aesthetic practice exclusively through the meticulous dissection of his work, which Ekardt manages to disentangle, bringing out its layered complexity. If Kluge’s films seem mechanistic in some instances, Ekardt fleshes out their rigorous conceptualization. Toward Fewer Images is therefore not only an entry point into Kluge’s multiverse, but also an interpretative key to unlock its depth, not always visible to the naked eye.

Kluge’s theoretical density is both reflected and unraveled in Ekardt’s prose, which is at times burdened by academic jargon. Films and other projects are not discussed in chronological order but are deployed by the author to illustrate Kluge’s modus operandi. Kluge’s constellation of work stretches over different media (film, television, digital production) while maintaining a sort of editorial coherence. Footage from previous films is often incorporated into new ones, repurposed for the occasion in a perpetual process of transdisciplinary contamination. Suffice it to say, the publishing house that issued on DVD his nine-hour-long investigation into Sergei Eisenstein’s unrealized attempt to film Karl Marx’s Das Kapital is the same one that published his books. Indeed, Kluge’s literary output is as vast and ambitious as his filmography. In collaboration with Oskar Negt, he has written and published social and philosophical criticism, some of which was translated into English, including Public Sphere and Experience: Toward an Analysis of the Bourgeois and Proletarian Public Sphere (2016) and History and Obstinacy (2014). No less remarkable is his anecdotal history of cinema, which was translated into English in 2007 as Cinema Stories (a project that Ekardt returns to throughout his book).

Introducing Kluge’s work, Ekardt draws parallels between Kluge’s cinema and architecture, highlighting the many different ways in which these two disciplines have intersected in Kluge’s practice (“Film is a medium that houses emotions,” the director once remarked). But architecture is more than just a metaphor in Kluge’s films. It’s sometimes an allegorical subject like in one of his early shorts, Brutality in Stone (1960), where he films the Albert Speer–designed Reichsparteitagsgelände, a “building which was notoriously intended to last for a thousand years” and on whose ruins the film comes to an end. Through the observation of this decayed temple of National Socialism, interspersed with photographs of Hitler, Kluge comments dryly on the catastrophic failure of Nazism and its granitic persistence.

Ekardt follows Kluge’s trajectory from film through television to the digital realm, analyzing the ways in which the German director approached each field. When exploring his cinematographic output, Ekardt focuses on Kluge’s idea of editing, which opposes the traditional concept of “continuity” with “contrast.” The director himself has claimed that “theories of the invisible cut merely pretend to have a program, they place it ‘in front of’ perception in order to generate a closed building that blocks the cinema.” Continuity, in other words, represents for Kluge an illusory trick that walls meaning up and makes it impervious to open and proactive interpretations.

The opening sequence of his 1983 documentary The Power of Feelings features a juxtaposition of footage from World War I, a sunrise over the German city of Frankfurt, a passage from Fritz Lang’s film series Die Nibelungen, a state funeral, and images of a dying child. These sequences “are positioned in confrontation with each other” Ekardt notes. “In this process of ‘destruction’ they will not form a closed ensemble, but will set off series of contrastive and heterogeneous statements.” Eckardt analyzes Kluge’s precursors and aesthetic muses in the art of montage: Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, and Jean-Luc Godard. From each director, Kluge was more critically inspired than directly influenced. While Eisenstein, for instance, devised a montage of attractions based on a dialectical process, “such a collisional project cannot be found in Kluge’s work, which holds images in tension, but does not treat this irresolution as [dialectical] opposition.”

More editing affinities are to be found with the work of Dziga Vertov whose notion of distance, though primarily spatial (think of how many different places he brings together in his film Man With a Movie Camera), finds a correspondence in Kluge’s ability to edit temporal distances into the same sequence, or even into a single image. “Kluge takes this distance even further when it combines images from different categories and origins: documentary, fictional, appropriated historic footage, filmed illustrations, etc.” Of all three directors, his debt to Godard is the most pronounced. For both Kluge and Godard, Ekardt writes, “[m]ontage is no longer the general technique for the production of images […] it has become the object of the image itself.”

Kluge’s technique and theory of montage is not only in dialogue with other filmmakers, but also with his former teacher Theodor Adorno. With Adorno, he shares a Kritik der Abbildlichkeit (a critique of likeness, or mere depiction), which the Frankfurt School philosopher articulated in his essay “Transparencies on Film,” published in support of Kluge and the other authors of the 1962 Oberhausen Manifesto that promised a new cinema in Germany. In “Transparencies on Film,” Adorno denounces “the reactionary character of any aesthetic realism today” for it tends to “reinforce, affirmatively, the phenomenal surface of society.” Even when making documentaries, Kluge never surrenders to the appearances of the real, but methodically attempts to pierce their gloss and expose the contradictions of realism through editing. Traces of this determination can also be found in History and Obstinacy, where the following quote from Bertolt Brecht is reprinted: “A simple “rendering of reality” says less than ever before about reality. Actual reality has slipped into the functional […] hence the necessity to ‘build something up,’ something ‘artificial,’ ‘contrived.’”

Similarly, Ekardt says that for Kluge, “montage’s interruption serves on the one hand as a tool for blocking the formation of false surface resemblances […] it also produces a type of representation that depicts functions, contexts and distinctions.” In other words, Kluge reveals through montage what seemingly unadulterated long takes can’t capture on their own. “Montage is a theory of context,” the director wrote, by which he means that through editing, a film has to provide those contextual references that the surface of images often hide. By dynamically interrupting the flow of images, the director is able to question what’s behind them.

By contrast, most of Kluge’s work for television is characterized by the stillness of the frame and the absence of montage but leaves plenty of room for unplanned action in the background. Kluge’s programs for German networks such as RTL and Sat.1 are, for the most part, interviews that take place not in a TV studio, but in public spaces (theatre foyers and bars, for example) where diegetic action and sounds can never be fully directed. Furthermore, the conventional mode of televised interviews, shot reverse shot, is set aside in favor of medium shots and close-ups of the interviewees on whose faces the spectator can visibly read the emotional responses to the questions they’re answering. Conversely, in his films, Kluge consciously sabotages the emotional manipulation of close-ups, which classical Hollywood trademarked, by “confronting” spectators with “faces whose expressions and feelings are difficult to decipher.” In a medium like television, which orchestrates emotions through format manipulation rather than close-ups, Kluge reacts with overlong shots of his interviewees’ faces. Feelings and affection for him are not to be considered in antithesis to critique and distinction — quite the contrary, he suggests; it is through feelings that we discern and filter inputs. Ekardt points out that “by turning feelings into objects of enquiry — i.e., by stripping them of their supposed motivational, and thus explanatory, quality — Kluge’s work seeks to link affectivity and analysis, and thereby leaves the viewer or reader in a puzzled state.”

In a penultimate “excursus,” Ekardt contextualizes Kluge’s oeuvre in relation to the work of two other artists, Caspar David Friedrich and Gerhard Richter, in order to place it in both contemporary and historical perspective. The German director has, in fact, collaborated with Richter on two occasions — on the books December (2012) and Dispatches from Moments of Calm (2016) — while Friedrich serves as a historical conveyor belt connecting Kluge’s work to German romanticism. In an exploratory movement that is both horizontal (in the present) and vertical (back in time), Ekardt establishes transhistorical kinships and synergies between Kluge’s artistic concerns and those of others, both present and past. Kluge features Friedrich’s work in books and films from the late 1970s and early ’80s like Die Patriotin (The Patriotic Woman, 1979), which includes a shot of Friedrich’s sepia drawing Wallfahrt bei Sonnenaufgang as well as one of the 1811 Winterlandschaft. Ekardt notes how Friedrich’s images “stood within the frame of works on the subject of history, German history.”

Finally Ekardt ends with an examination of the “artistic politics of time” that distinguish Kluge’s films, including “his rejection of a suspense-oriented cinematographic style that obfuscates the viewer’s experience of time passing while watching a film.” For the German filmmaker, films shouldn’t be a way to kill or waste time, but instead a way to generate time — “to add to one’s own lifetime,” as he put it. This explains the anti-spectacular structure of his cinema, resolutely opposed to canonical entertainment but traversed by an inexhaustible stream of reflexive thinking. The value of Toward Fewer Images is its ability to unravel and disclose the conceptual richness of Kluge’s oeuvre. After reading it, one feels compelled to return or discover his films anew and, wherever possible, his other work for TV and print. Ekardt brings to light filmmaking that denies the spectator instant gratification but rewards those willing to pierce its surface.


Celluloid Liberation Front is a multi-use(r) name whose writing is visible to the naked eye from outer space. For reasons that remain unknown, the name was borrowed from a collective of anti-imperialist blind filmmakers from the Cayman Islands.

LARB Contributor

Celluloid Liberation Front is a multi-use(r) name whose writing is visible to the naked eye from outer space. For reasons that remain unknown, the name was borrowed from a collective of anti-imperialist blind filmmakers from the Cayman Islands.


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