Alexander Kluge is a German filmmaker, philosopher and writer, born in 1932 in Halberstadt. He has developed an extensive and powerful body of work over a period of almost sixty years that defies media-specific boundaries and combines words and images to form the core of a narrative method aligned with History, experience and emotion. Born into what he calls a “Dark Century”, he has endeavoured to awaken his contemporaries who, after the Second World War, exhibited endemic amnesia based on an economic miracle. How, then, is it possible to give an account of History? His first film, Brutality in Stone (1961) – a deep dive into the ruins of the Congress Hall built by the Nazi party at Nuremberg – is an early testament to the urgency that exists to this day, in these times of deregulated and degenerate capitalism.
In his work, which reveals “the weight of emotion where it was not valued”, Alexander Kluge argues for an alternate reading of History, one that situates him within the philosophical tradition of the Frankfurt School, with which he was closely associated at the end of the 1950s, as confidant and collaborator of Theodor W. Adorno. “What Kluge demands from historiography, in addition to historical facts, is whatever was not realised: the feelings, the desires, the opportunities, and the ideas that did not become reality.” He questions, notably, the concepts of reason and emotion to consider their mutual contributions to society and their influence on societal behaviour.
As a writer, Kluge has presented a colossal work in France, a book of oceanic proportions that sheds light on his encyclopaedic thought. The volumes of Chronik der Gefühle (Chronicle of Feelings) that P.O.L. has published in French since 2016 are the result of his labours over a fifty-year period. They contain stories that combine historical facts, anecdotes, historical documents and illustrations, and constitute a unique commingling of news reports, History and intimacy. This work reminds us that, since the 1950s, Alexander Kluge has thought of himself as a writer – an undertaking that Adorno discouraged on the pretext that, after Proust, it was no longer possible to write.
It was, in fact, Adorno’s advice that led him to become an apprentice of Fritz Lang during the filming of The Tiger of Eschnapur (1959). He went on to produce his first short films in the early 1960s and signed the Oberhausen Manifesto that marked the beginning of the new German cinema. Championing a form of creation that was scarcely visible within the workings of the entertainment industry, he received the Golden Lion at the 1968 Venice Film Festival for his feature Artists Under the Big Top: Perplexed (1967). Fifty years later, he presented his new film at Venice, Happy Lamento (2018).
At the end of the 1980s, Kluge opted to migrate into enemy territory of television in order to “inject a hint of the best of what we have at our disposal – music and literature – into the heart of the medium”.
In 1987 he founded his own audio-visual production company, DCTP, broadcasting cultural programming on private networks. Resolutely anti-television, he created a place for reflection and discussion, the interview being among his preferred formats, one that would become, as Vincent Pauval has noted, “like an extension of his work in literary fiction; except when it nourished it, such as is clearly the case for his interviews with the playwright Heiner Müller”. At the same time, he continued to write, on his own and collaboratively, creating such works as History and Obstinacy (Geschichte und Eigensinn, with Oskar Negt, 1981), The Devil’s Blind Spot (2004), December (Dezember, with Gerhard Richter, 2012) and Worldchanging Rage: Dispatches from the Antipodeans (Weltverändernder Zorn: Nachricht von den Gegenfüßlern, with Georg Baselitz, 2017).
Together, these elements make Kluge, as a thinker, one of the most important writers and filmmakers of our time. The proliferation of exhibitions over the past few years attests to the acuity of his resolutely contemporary vision that straddles the centuries (The Boat is Leaking, the Captain Lied, Prada Foundation, 2017; Pluriverse, Folkwang Museum, 2018; Pluriverse – The Poetic Power of Theory, Belvedere Museum, Vienna, 2018) and reveals his cinematographic style, recognisable by its use of fractured narrative, the inclusion of archival images and snippets of opera and music, the presence of expressive intertexts, or again by the elaboration of so-called associative or constellation-based thought.