“I’m a stalwart of critical theory!”
Interview with Alexander Kluge on his Minutenfilme exhibition at argos centre for audiovisual arts
Julian Volz and Marlena von Wedel: Since September 2021, argos in Brussels has been showing a five-part exhibition of your Minutenfilme [Minute-films]. The eight films shown at a time thus become a complex constellation. The Minutenfilme often distil multilayered themes in summary form. In the fifth and final programme of Minutenfilme at argos, which launches this September, we find different themes such as work, cosmos and war, partly juxtaposed and partly intertwined. What prompted you to make minute-films?
Alexander Kluge: First of all, the form of these minute-films. In the early days, the industry only had 30-metre reels of negative film available. When screened, those 30 metres correspond to one minute of film. So minute-films are the beginning of cinema.
Film history actually began around 1896 with Eadweard Muybridge’s “films” about the human and animal body. He was interested in how people, horses, animals and so on move. That’s also the exact year that the Olympics reopened in Athens for the first time since ancient times. It’s interesting that the Olympics, which deals with the human body, and cinema begin in the same year. Cinema begins with objectivity not with plots. At some point, horses lift all four legs when galloping. That’s what Muybridge discovered through cinematic means. He introduced the camera as a means of cognition. I’m a devotee of Muybridge’s silent cinema and these cinematic beginnings. And of course I’m also a devotee of our present. I believe both can be combined very well.
So the minute-film form derives from the technical limitations of the early days of cinema. You pick it up again and make a virtue of necessity, so to speak. Could this principle also be utilised in the other arts? For instance, in opera, which you love so much?
What I’ve always regretted about opera is that there’s only eating, drinking and chatting during the intervals. Yet it stands to reason that opera, which generally lasts three hours and which is a bit too much for most people, could be helped by the making of minute-films, minute-operas during the interval. Modern opera came about because in the opera seria of the 18th century someone like Pergolesi broke with the grand opera of heroes and gods, in his peasant farce La Serva Padrona. It’s only twelve minutes long – and that is in keeping with the minute-film. The minute-opera. Even great Wagner operas could be freshened up in the interval by, as it were, supplementing his great poster painting with attention to the tremendous precision with which this master, juggler, but also phrasemonger treats small details.
You don’t just make minute-films. You became known as one of the pioneers of the New German Cinema, with feature-length films such as Yesterday Girl (1966, 88 min.), The Artist in the Circus Dome: Clueless (1968, 103 min.) or The Power of Emotion (1983, 115 min.).
We’re filmmakers of the 1960s. We started in 1963 and the New German Cinema continued for about twenty years. It copied everything from the French, from Godard, Truffaut and others; it simply imitated the Nouvelle Vague. We were never as good as the French, but we kept going. We lasted twenty years. Some of us are still persevering today, such as Edgar Reitz or Herzog or Schlöndorff. Like me, they’re still active, but largely outside normal cinema. They sort of moved into exile. We hibernated in television for a while, which is not our medium, although you can also develop independent nooks there. And when we can, we go back to cinema. We never renounced it.
Since the beginning of the 2000s, you’ve also released some incredibly long films...
Indeed. The other side of my work is long film collections such as News from Ideological Antiquity. The film is dedicated to Eisenstein and his plan to turn Marx’s Capital into a film. It’s nine and a half hours long. Or Früchte des Vertrauens [Fruits of Confidence], which is ten hours long. That’s the other side, and in the middle there is the “urine length”, that is, 90 minutes. It fits human beings, that films don’t last more than an hour and a half. You understand: one is the main road, but the others are the wonderful hiking trails of film history. They can either be very long, or should be very short. That is the basic principle of the minute-film.
Another new development in your work is that you are increasingly turning to exhibition making. What does it mean for you to enter the exhibition space and present the films as an installation?
Freedom! It means freedom! Forming constellations! That’s what cinema does, really.
The celestial bodies in the cosmos aren’t connected to each other with rods and screws, are they? They’re connected to each other by Newton’s laws and gravity, functioning as precisely as clockwork. At the same time, they’re very autonomous. This form of constellation actually applies in all the arts, in music, in visual arts and particularly in film, the youngest of the arts. You see, the great artists are 40,000 years old and go back to cave painting. Music came first, but film is only 126 years old. Such a whippersnapper!
How nice it would be if we only had silent films with music and not this occupation by theatre and dialogue that strangled cinema with sound. We could make something good. In a way, we could rediscover what is so special about the world of people like H.B. Warner, Fritz Lang and D.W. Griffith. That only works for a short period of time, however, and only with the consent of the viewer. If I do that all the time, I’m positioning myself against Hollywood, and Hollywood greatly shaped the world.
The small form and especially the method of constellation, which we recognise in the minute-films, unmistakably stem from the tradition of Frankfurt School critical theory. With forms such as aphorisms, fragments and essays, the Frankfurters turned against closed philosophical systems. In his inaugural lecture as a Privatdozent in 1931, Theodor W. Adorno already envisioned for his dynamic-dialectical theory a philosophy that “brings its elements [...] into changing constellations [...] until they fall into a figure which can be read as an answer”. You lived in Frankfurt from the 1950s to the 1970s and worked with both Adorno and students of his such as Oskar Negt or Hans-Jürgen Krahl. Could one say that the method of your minute-film installation is fundamentally influenced by critical theory, or would that be an exaggeration?
You could indeed say that, quite literally: I’m a stalwart of critical theory!
Critical theory has always had a certain openness to the arts. Human expression is not only discursive reasoning. Enlightenment needs both mathematics and music. One is intuitive and the other slightly more precise, I would say. The cosmos is mathematical. But Johannes Kepler already said there is music of the planets, that the cosmos consists of music as well. If you want, these two languages belong together and they come together in cinema.
But you always have to stay with the plebeian audience. You see, the circus is high artistry, right up under the circus dome, but the artists can also fall. And below are the feet of elephants. They are on the ground. They are pulled towards the centre of the earth. There are also clowns, the servants. On the one hand, I’m responsible for the groundedness. For the plebeian audience. On the other hand, I also love artistry. I can’t get rid of it.
How does this insight shape your own work?
If you deal with these rhizomes, so to speak, but on the other hand focus on concision, you realise that a news item in a Leipzig newspaper, which is at the very back under Murder Stories & Miscellaneous, has plebeian sensational interest. The article describes the murder by a corporal of his lover. This then becomes Büchner’s Woyzeck and Alban Berg subsequently turns it into the modern model opera. In other words, you have the high artistry of a well-developed and enchantingly complex opera, but it goes back to a very simple murder story.
In the next opera by Alban Berg, the soprano is murdered by Jack the Ripper in the last act. The Ripper is an invention by the tabloid press, both highly plebeian and highly sensationalist. It brings together the worst qualities of humankind and the press in the figure of Jack the Ripper (and the accompanying murder story) who murdered maybe twelve prostitutes. Once again, it is literary art that is then passed on by cinematic art.
We found out that they didn’t know who Jack the Ripper was at the time. Today we know he was a Jewish barber who went back to Warsaw. When he gets there he’s of the age to be sent to the concentration camps. I assume – and we enter literature now (I wrote a story about it) – that in order to save his life, he uses the only thing he has, his monstrosity, as a criminal. He tells the nearest SS official. They are keen to explore the depths of humankind because that might help bring about the final victory. So he comes to Berlin. And there he and his interrogator are killed in a bombing. The big question is: was this God’s judgement? Professor Rudolf Bultmann from Marburg says it wasn’t. God doesn’t use SS henchmen to carry out his justice.
You see, the rough simplicity of a murder ballad, this popular fairground narrative, easily leads you to high scholasticism with the question “How does God work?”, to which of course no one knows the answer. To reconnect this is my true passion. In this, I’m the executive body of Benjamin, Adorno, Horkheimer and a slew of other great minds.
You’re not only a lawyer, filmmaker and writer but also a critical theorist. In your theoretical work, you mostly collaborated with Oskar Negt. This theoretical work is reflected both in jointly written books, but very often also in a joint thought process in front of the camera. How did this collaboration come about?
In 1968-69, I filmed the protest movement in Frankfurt with my film crew – I myself am a pre-’68er, rather a ’62er.
When the Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund (SDS) had disbanded, Oskar Negt invited everyone for a roundtable. All the enemies of the various leftist factions were there together again. I was there too, filming it. Afterwards, Negt asked me if we could write a book together about the public sphere. That was the beginning of our collaboration. Public Sphere and Experience our first book is called. I think the public sphere is incredible nourishment. It’s incredibly stimulating. I experienced it in 1946. In 1946 I came from Halberstadt, my small town, to my mother in Berlin. The city was governed by four occupying powers. You have to imagine it like Tangier, like Casablanca. It was an international city and all four occupying powers were doing their absolute best. They were rivals and everyone wanted to be the best. For me, that was an urban experience of the public sphere, and I’m still attached to that. In that sense, the public sphere is constantly in danger. It has heights, such as the Renaissance or 1807 or even 1946 in Berlin; it flourishes again and again. That’s my work, really.
Last autumn, together with the Literaturhaus Berlin, you launched a big festival of collaborations. It’s hard to imagine your films without the numerous collaborations with artists, academics and intellectuals. For instance, artworks by Katharina Grosse or Jonathan Meese regularly appear in the minute-film exhibition at argos. You also did extensive projects with other important artists such as Georg Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer and Christoph Schlingensief. What does collaborating with other artists mean for your own artistic work?
When I work with Anselm Kiefer, Katharina Grosse or Georg Baselitz, I know exactly that what they can do I can’t, and that what I do adds to what they do. I leave the métier boundaries very much intact. But the collaboration, the borderland and the point of contact really delight me. That is the source of the public sphere. Incompatibility and friction make out the essence of the public sphere, and not out of belligerence but, in a sense, because I change perspective.
I was very charmed by this collaboration with Brussels. We did a fourteen-day collaboration in Berlin, in which argos took part. It feels nice to be able to work together in another language, in a foreign public sphere. Because I was not there. We talked the way we’re talking on Zoom here now. I always wanted to go to Brussels. That corner up there. Both the Netherlands and Belgium, they’re an interesting stopover between northern Italy and Edinburgh. Modernism emerged in these three areas in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Elsewhere, you brought up the subject of war – the war in Ukraine. War is one of the themes that you’ve been dealing with throughout your entire work. On the one hand, we would like to know whether you think that art is particularly well suited as a means of reflecting on questions of war and peace, and on the other hand of course we would also be interested in the current issue of the Ukraine war, in which you’ve also been very publicly involved. You co-signed open letters and even created minute-films about the Ukrainian war. Perhaps you could start with the topic of war and the extent to which it pervades all your work...
Let’s put it this way: what has been driving me as a maker my entire life is a very simple situation. When I was eleven, my parents had the crazy idea that they had to get divorced. I was strongly against it. I kicked my mother’s friend in the shins, I ranted and raved, all in vain. Forty years later, things changed and I was an experienced man who could, for example, bring negotiations to a peaceful conclusion. My parents are unfortunately in the Elysian Fields, they’re dead, but even today I would still try to bring them together.
That has nothing to do with war, but it’s the opposite of war. But I take this war very seriously. It is a very serious situation. You see, that brings me to the opera, which is a temple of seriousness. Opera hasn’t got many everyday questions like “How do I light my cigarette?” I don’t know any operas about that. “Oh my, I dropped my plate” doesn’t happen as an opera. It deals with quite earnest themes. The sopranos all get killed in the fifth act. So quite a lot of sopranos died there. The tenors, on the other hand, almost never die. That doesn’t correspond to any real-life experience, and yet the sadness grips you, in an opera.
You notice that opera and music are not war. But they are earnest. And one of my first names is Ernst. My name is Ernst Alexander. My name is Ernst, I am earnest and I want to remain earnest all my life. That’s a phrase from the epic Herzog Ernst.
That is the condition, but my funnybone cannot remain earnest. Nor can my eyes. Nor can my senses. I also like to make nonsense. I love Dada. But on the condition that there’s seriousness. And that’s the reason why I think one has to deal with war in earnest.
I’m appalled that at the moment it’s clearly impossible to make peace in Ukraine, on both sides. Hardly anyone is making any effort to do so, anyway. Mr. Kissinger, whom I respect very much and with whom I conducted many interviews, was one of the few who said: having reached a certain point in the disaster, it doesn’t matter who’s right and who’s wrong. One should just make peace. End the misery. Even if it comes at a cost, some river or a national border, that cannot be decisive. One cannot randomly sacrifice people for the sake of justice. The question of whether the NATO border has to go where German troops stood in 1942, namely east of Kharkiv, is hard to answer. It’s not a reason for Russia to invade and wage war. I would only adjudicate upon the question of right and wrong in a trial. But that’s not what matters. What matters is to find a way to end the war. War is a chatty demon that constantly finds reasons to prolong itself. Clausewitz described this very accurately and precisely and also philosophically correctly. And with Clausewitz’s diligence, with the care and respect for all people who died in wars, we should deal with it as serious people.
Eliminating war cannot be done by wishing it away. That’s why I’m not a simple pacifist.
In any case, it’s very courageous to take that strong an anti-militarist stance. In the West European public sphere, one gets the impression that there is far too little of that at the moment. You also sent us a minute-film on the subject of the war in Ukraine. In it, images of animals are superimposed on media images of the current war. What is that about?
The images of animals come from Walter Benjamin’s favourite book. This is a book from 1824. Incidentally, the publisher was also the publisher with whom Kleist wanted to release his Phöbus in 1807. Every week from 1807 to 1824, the publisher published three sheets of images of animals in German and French. This accumulated into twelve volumes. It was Walter Benjamin’s favourite children’s book. He bought it again as an adult in 1918 and always carried it with him.
So here I am sneaking messages from the Arcades Project and from Benjamin’s area of interest into current images – in an unrealistic way besides. So they mustn’t be small and mediated; they just come from another world. That’s the view from 1824 – or rather 1807, the view of the Brothers Grimm or Benjamin on our present. And it makes you think. That’s the point of such miniatures. That’s why I appreciate the minute-films so much.
Could you be more specific about why you chose animals from this book as a commentary on today’s situation?
Let’s begin with the Chimaera, which is an animal from antiquity, a lion with a back in the shape of a ram and a tail like a snake. Such an animal is depicted on one of the sheets in Berthold’s picture books for children. In the film, it can be seen against the background of Kyiv at night. In another image you see a snake from the same book. It rises up like the smoke from an explosion. It’s not normal of course, I know that such a snake doesn’t exist. Nor does the Chimaera. But whether they don’t exist in our souls or whether war isn’t something similar, we don’t know.
The music also has a very special meaning in the minute-film, it seems...
Oh yes, the piece is by Georg Philipp Telemann: Emma und Eginhard. Charlemagne had a daughter. She fell in love with Eginhard, his scribe, who was a commoner. It mustn’t come out that he spent the night with her. But it had snowed and you would see every footprint. So she takes him on her back and carries him away. That’s the story. Telemann made this into an opera. The couple is almost executed, but in the end they’re pardoned. In the film we hear the funeral march from the opera. In the second half, I used You Fell Victim. It’s the piece of music that was played during the Second International whenever a famous person died. The first piece of music simply means it’s sad, that the killing should not go on. The second piece of music is fundamentally inappropriate, and I think there’s also an image of Lenin looking a bit sad on his pedestal. That’s what it drives at.
These short forms get me the spectators’ permission to show such contrasts, which are not entirely politically correct. Through the minute-films I can afford that they deny me their permission. Without the permission of spectators, there’s no art. Especially not in cinema. I have to be polite, and I do that by being brief and by using these forms in such a way that they don’t require an explanation but at best provoke a question. That’s why it doesn’t say what kind of music it is.
You turned ninety this year, yet you seem tireless. What are you currently working on, and on what topics?
I have many other films. I make new ones every week. I’m always in my studio on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, at a film factory where celluloid and digital are neighbours. There I work with my collaborators, making small films that, when they are put together, are ten hours long. The themes are always the same. Firstly, there’s the theme of work, which fascinates me because humankind is constituted through work. Secondly, there’s the theme of libido, that is, the tender force within us. The labyrinth of the tender force. That’s the second theme. The third one is lifespan as a currency and the times outside our snail-shell “course of life”. It’s a little game in outer space, 600 light years long. One and the same cosmic weather, in the constellation of Perseus, of a superior calm. Measured against our lives. And we recognise this in the forms of the generations. Now we’re back at high-velocity stars. It’s within us. We’re very old creatures and, as I said, it’s cosmic time, the infinitely small. Like, for instance, the virus that is knocking on our door, which is even smaller, right down to Planck length. There’s a world outside of us and that’s quite a comfort. And that’s reality, too.
Das Staunen der Tiere / Trauer der Kreatur [The Wonderment of Animals / The Sorrow of Creatures] (Alexander Kluge, 2022) – new Minutenfilme
“Alexander Kluge: Minutenfilme #5” runs from 24 September to 18 December 2022 at argos centre for audiovisual arts, in collaboration with Literaturhaus Berlin and Goethe-Institut Brüssel.
On the occasion of the exhibition, Sabzian also published a new Minutenfilme.
Images from Das Staunen der Tiere / Trauer der Kreatur [The Wonderment of Animals / The Sorrow of Creatures] (Alexander Kluge, 2022)