Alexander Kluge has led several different lives. In the fifties he worked as a legal advisor to the Frankfurt School Critical Theory's Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, the former of whom introduced him to Fritz Lang. Lang in turn hired Kluge as an assistant on The Tiger of Eschnapur (1959), one of his last films. Witnessing the great director having to humble himself before profit-hungry producers radicalized Kluge with regard to the German film industry, which he and two dozen likeminded filmmakers set out to reform with the famous Oberhausen Manifesto of 1962, calling for a complete overhaul not only of production but of distribution and consumption. In one way or another, this desire to revitalize stagnating forms of public discourse has animated every project Kluge has undertaken as a filmmaker, an author of short stories, a social theorist, and a TV producer.
Anthology’s program today consists of two features typical of Kluge’s output from the 70s and 80s, several made-for-TV shorts from the late 80s, and his latest feature. These works represent the wild heterogeneity of Kluge’s approach, what Stuart Liebman calls his “radical cinema impur.” His early features are a mix of fictional narrative and documentary, peppered with still images ranging from photographs to engravings, punctuated by intertitles, and often overlaid with long, quoted texts in voiceover, from fairytales to scientific treatises. His 80s work is conceptually similar, but laced with experiments in video matting. In his television work there’s further exploration of computer-generated effects and a completely bizarre use of intertitles, which are often so staccato and in so many hokey fonts that they can become truly irritating for the less patient or aesthetically obliging among us.
Besides his film and video work, Kluge has several short story collections and two massive theoretical works under his belt. Of the latter, History and Obstinacy (1981), co-written with social researcher Oskar Negt, is just as formally heterogeneous as his films, with abundant illustrations and variations in typography and genre. Kluge has even called it a “film” despite its printed and bound objectivity. If this is Kluge’s theoretical magnum opus, his cinematic one might be Nachrichten aus der ideologischen Antike (2008), a very long documentary about the greatest film that Sergei Eisenstein never made: an adaptation of Karl Marx’s Capital that would have taken James Joyce’s Ulysses as its formal model. The documentary’s nine and a half hours may seem excessive, but not for a subject of such complexity (Eisenstein’s film itself would have been nearly 24 hours long, which explains why it was nixed by Sovkino).
If, as Wallace Stevens (allegedly) once put it, “Communism is an instrument to improve men’s attention,” then Kluge’s cinema is communism. His central theoretical precept is the “more-than-ten-thousand-year-old cinema” that has been running through people’s heads since the dawn of consciousness, a primordial cinema that the projector-screen apparatus is nothing but a technological response to. The true medium of cinema, therefore, is not film (or a digital screen) but the sum of the spectators’ experiences. No two people see the same film since their associations will always be different, and these combined wanderings of the imagination have a political, utopian function. Far from passive spectators, people produce their own cinema from the interaction of the movie they see and the movie they imagine; through this shared experience they create worlds together. And what more concise definition of communism is there?