Peter C. Lutze,
Alexander Kluge: The Last Modernist.
Wayne State University Press. Detroit, 1998.
ISBN 0 814326 560 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Wayne State University Press)
Uploaded 30 June 2000
While Cinemedia’s holdings of Kluge’s films are wideranging, taking in both shorts and features, it would be interesting to know their current lending rate. In terms of its subject, this is not likely to be a book many have been waiting for. Kluge, a name from somewhere back there, and you’re right – it’s years since he’s made a feature. Even his better known films, such as The (female) Patriot, were never the stuff of box office, and the director, whose gentle voice dominates the soundtrack of many of his scenes, is one of the most cerebral and least visceral around. This is in keeping with his credo, which Lutze cites, that “the film is realized (…) not on the screen but in the head of the spectator”. (22) But his examinations of identity and gender issues were never confined to German identity, his virtuoso mixes of pre-existing music always made the soundtrack arresting, and his directing of his own sister Alexandra in Yesterday’s Girl(1966) yielded one of the outstanding performances to come out of the “New German cinema” (whose origins he prominently figured in, both creatively and as lobbyist). In addition to those achievements this polymath merged cinema with the arts of opera and literature to an extraordinary degree. Even within a film movement that continually interrogated its own place in its divided nation’s cultural traditions, Kluge was the exception. The subject of this book, then, is not just one of those hallowed figures to be respected but rarely actually liked, and a monograph on him in English is welcome.
Lutze attempts to contribute to the modernism/postmodernism debate by situating Kluge in the former category, or else “as a bridge between modernism and postmodernism”. (136) This eventual relaxation of the categories he imposes means the whole discussion of categorization is not very productive. And the debate itself is never made compellingly relevant to the book’s subject matter, largely because it is never related with real conviction to a German context (where postmodernism has never made the same inroads in any case). Some other efforts to make Kluge more palatable or at least comprehensible for U.S. readers/viewers remain at a surface level:
In general, the music in Kluge’s films is a more vital presence than it is in Hollywood films because his is stronger music. Typically, Hollywood music is composed to reinforce the visuals without calling attention to itself. Kluge’s found music, however, was composed to stand on its own… (115)
Fortunately there is much that is worthwhile in the book that delves far deeper. The strongest section is chapter 6, “Kluge on television: high culture meets the small screen”. None of Kluge’s earlier provocations matched this one, as he turned to his own advantage the requirement of all channels that some degree of high culture be present. In response he basically offered a five minute timeslot of avant-garde culture to an audience that up till 10.55 p.m. had been watching much racier fare. But Kluge did not do this as a bastion of conservative culture – he attempted to engage his viewers. This is an extreme of the direction indicated by Kluge’s talented beginnings with short films, and Lutze both documents and analyses it very well, considerably expanding the going image of this important filmmaker.
Just as German history inevitably looks different since the fall of the Wall (and the withdrawal of the occupiers), Kluge must look somewhat different, for alongside so much else he has ever been a visual historian. Like Reitz, Kluge – not least in Die patriotin – has often been regarded as suspect because of his supposed omissions in what was clearly never designed as a mainstream view of his nation’s past. In another new publication on a seemingly inexhaustible area of film studies, John E. Davidson writes: “One might reasonably claim that by 1979, any rigorous engagement with German history (which Kluge’s film undeniably is) necessarily brings with it, evokes, or opens the question of the Holocaust, even if, as in this case, inadequately (the rigorous is not the perfect)” (Deterritorializing the New German Cinema, Uni. of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, 1999, p.62). The concession here is a relatively new critical tone. Kluge, Reitz, maybe the “New German cinema” as a whole, may need reassessment. And that’s just West German cinema – our engagement with East German Cinema of the same period has been minimal (but keep an eye out for Leonie Naughton’s That Was the Wild East: Film Culture, Unification and the ‘New’ Germany. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2001) . Given this, any book on Kluge is as provoking as its subject, and this one has undoubted strengths.