Alexander Kluge: Raw Materials for the Imagination by Tara Forrest (ed.)

Is there anybody on the face of the Earth, in any field of the arts or sciences, who is more prolific than Alexander Kluge? His reputation in cinema history may primarily rest on a handful of films which are all too smoothly placed within the rubric of the New German Cinema (most notably Abschied von Gestern [Yesterday’s Girl, 1962], Der starke Ferdinand [Ferdinand the Strongman, 1976], and Deutschland im Herbst [Germany in Autumn, 1978]). But these prominent works in fact represent only a tiny fraction of a vast audiovisual corpus which, after 15 feature films between the 1960s and mid-1980s, has tumefied out to hundreds of hours of footage upon his Damascene conversion to television production. Moreover, this output has been accompanied by the discharging of literally thousands of short stories, gathered in an ever-accumulating stockpile of anthologies, as well as a steady stream of theoretical texts making interventions into the Frankfurt School tradition in which Kluge was schooled. This is not to mention his participation in a prodigious number of lectures, debates and interviews – in the latter case as both interrogator and respondent. Had Kluge’s talents been so fecund in only one of these domains, he would still provoke a sense of astonishment from his public. That he has managed the feat in such varied disciplines has, simply put, no comparison in the contemporary era. We would have to go back to the polymaths of earlier times – Goethe, Voltaire, Leonardo – to find equivalents.

In a prefatory contribution to this anthology of texts on, by and around Kluge, Thomas Elsaesser thus speaks for a general sentiment when he states that “Faced with such relentless productivity in so many media, one’s first reaction is awe, followed perhaps by scepticism and incredulity,” and he goes on to acknowledge that “one could be forgiven for also sensing something almost monstrous in so much talent. His energy never flags, his curiosity is inexhaustible, and no occasion is too ephemeral to ignite his enthusiasm for reform or creative engagement.” (p. 23) This stupefaction is possibly responsible for the relative paucity of sustained exegetical work on his corpus, particularly in English. (1) How to tackle such an œuvre, when, it seems, even a lifetime’s study (at least for a mere mortal) would only scratch its surface, and whose irrepressible accretion shows no signs of abating? Only Peter Lutze has heretofore thrown his hand at a monograph, with admirable, if piecemeal results, (2) while, among others, Miriam Hansen (a privileged interlocutor), Stuart Liebman and Eric Rentschler have also devoted a number of key, albeit shorter, critical commentaries of his work.

In editing the anthology Alexander Kluge: Raw Materials for the Imagination, a new instalment in Amsterdam University Press’s “Film Culture in Transition” series, Tara Forrest was thus set a formidable task: to do justice to Kluge’s gargantuan work while preventing the volume from dilating out to indigestible lengths. From the start, any pretension to a comprehensive overview of the subject matter is dismissed out of hand. Instead, Forrest nurtures the more sagacious hope that her collection will primarily serve to “spark thoughts and associations that inspire further thinking about Kluge’s extraordinary body of work,” (p. 18) an appropriate strategy for exploring an aesthetic practice which “consists not of finished texts, but of ‘raw materials’ for the imagination: that is, images, stories, quotes, ideas, interviews, diagrams and other found materials that encourage the viewer/reader to actively participate in the meaning-making process that is initiated, but not foreclosed, by his work.” (p. 13-14)

Apt too, is the notably heterogeneous nature of the materials collated by Forrest. Comprising both texts furnished by Kluge himself and critical appraisals of his work by others, it alternates between scholarly articles, manifestoes, interview transcripts and literary anecdotes, and ranges from reproductions of well-known pieces, to articles specially commissioned for the volume, as well as fresh translations of texts hitherto unavailable in English. This laudable approach results in the frequent generation of curious montage-effects between (and even within) the book’s various chapters, which adroitly gels with the montage-aesthetic which is indisputably key to Kluge’s cinematic praxis.

The central role of montage for Kluge is avowed in the collection’s opening entry, his 1981 manifesto-like assemblage “On Film and the Public Sphere”. From the beginning of this forthright text, Kluge lays out his artistic vision, affirming that, “Telling stories, this is precisely my conception of narrative cinema; and what else is the history of a country but the vastest narrative surface of all? Not one story but many stories.” A pregnant paragraph break heralds the unequivocal rejoinder: “This means montage.” (p. 33) Kluge proceeds to relate his conception of montage, defined as “the morphology of relations” (Formenwelt des Zusammenhangs), to what is widely regarded as his most incisive intervention into critical theory, the radical reinterpretation of Habermas represented by his concept of the “oppositional public sphere” (Gegenöffentlichkeit), developed in tandem with Oskar Negt in the wake of the student unrest of 1968.

Such a link is also made in Hansen’s foundational study “Cooperative Auteur Cinema and Oppositional Public Sphere,” in which she relates Negt/Kluge’s neo-Habermasianism to Deutschland im Herbst, a collaborative effort instigated by Kluge as a response to the police repression of the left during the witch-hunt of the Rote Armee Fraktion. The opening segment of the anthology is rounded out by Schlüpmann’s analysis of Kluge’s relationship to the women’s liberation movement (a hotly contested issue in the 1970s, provoked especially by the depiction of abortion in Gelegenheitsarbeit einer Sklavin [Casual Work of a Female Slave, 1973]), which, in contrast to earlier shrill polemics, strives to tease out the nuanced implications of Kluge’s formal practices for a feminist political stance.

Forrest follows this trio of texts with a section on the rethinking of history in Kluge’s early work, with Anton Kaes focussing on Die Patriotin (The Patriot, 1979) and David Roberts on the short story “The Air Raid on Halberstadt on 8.4.1945”, accompanied by a reprinting of the short story itself in English translation, one of Kluge’s most stirring, and most deeply autobiographical (he was born and raised in the eponymous town), literary works. The ensuing section on Kluge’s relationship to cinematic realism completes the discussion of his pre-1980s work with a thorny topic. Given his continued adherence to a modernist tradition, interpretations of Kluge’s artistic practice often ascribe a straightforward rejection of realism to it. But Eike Friedrich Wenzel’s superb overview of his numerous short films combines with two of Kluge’s own theoretical interventions (“The Sharpest Ideology: That Reality Appeals to its Realistic Character” and a 1980 debate with Klaus Eder on documentary film) to convincingly present the argument for conceiving of his work as a dialectical re-working of realist aesthetics. For Kluge, “the motive for realism is never the confirmation of reality but protest” and it is precisely “what is realistic here, the anti-realism of the motive (protest, resistance)” which “produces the unrealistic.” (p. 193) Here, Kluge is avowedly following in the tradition of Brecht’s epic theatre – an affinity which is underscored by his fondness for (loosely) citing the dramatist’s dictum from Der Dreigroschenprozess that: “Less than ever does a simple ‘reproduction of reality’ tell us anything about reality. A photograph of the Krupp factory or of the AEG yields practically nothing about these institutions. The genuine reality has slipped into the functional.” (passim) With a surface level documentation insufficiently able to pierce the deeper reality of social functioning, Kluge follows Brecht’s lead in advocating a constellatory approach to realism, in which “the concreteness of the situation presupposes a radical complexity of the narration.” (p. 195)

Gelegenheitsarbeit einer Sklavin (Casual Work of a Female Slave), 1973

This discussion leads smoothly into the strongest section of the book, entitled “Opera as a ‘Power Plant of Emotion’,” which acts a hinge for the anthology as a whole, in the image of the knee which narrates Die Patriotin. Three texts by Caryl Flynn, Gertrud Koch and Florian Hopf (the last an interview with Kluge) focus squarely on one of the director’s most theoretically fertile and formally innovative films, Die Macht der Gefühle (The Power of Emotion, 1984), whose montage-strategies mark the moment of transition between his previous work in auteurist cinema and his shift to television production. Koch’s 1990 article “Alexander Kluge’s Phantom of the Opera”, in particular, in arguing that Kluge “attaches much greater importance to music as an autonomous aesthetic element in the overall montage construction than do other directors who work predominantly with the possibilities afforded by montage,” (p. 247) can help us even now, more than twenty later, in contextualising his work within a diverse cultural tradition which takes in a wide range of artistic practices.

Die Macht der Gefühle (The Power of Emotion, 1984)

The same can be said for Andreas Huyssen’s “An Analytic Storyteller in the Course of Time,” a crucial endeavour situating Kluge’s short stories within post-war West German literature, largely divided between the absurdism of the 1950s, the documentarism ascendent in the 1960s and the new subjectivity which reigned over the 1970s – none of which can be straightforwardly associated with Kluge’s writings. Huyssen’s piece opens the latter, and more groundbreaking, half of the book, with its focus on Kluge’s media output over the last three decades. This section is dominated by texts produced by Kluge himself – including television interviews where he deploys his typically gnomic questioning style in one-on-ones with figures as diverse as East German playwright Heiner Müller and Detroit-based DJ Jeff Mills. To these contributions is added a smattering of secondary literature focussing on Kluge’s television programmes, which, with texts by Forrest herself, Christian Schulte and Tim Grünewald, represents an admirable venture in triggering critical discussion of a corpus whose relatively marginal status (at least outside of Germany, where viewing figures have always outstripped his earlier films), ephemeral nature and sheer volume pose daunting impediments for the scholar.

Forrest ends her collection with a curious diptych, creating a montage effect between Hansen’s analysis of Kluge’s use of silent film footage in much of his later output and Schulte’s response to one of his most recent works, the nine-hour essay on Eisenstein’s project to film Marx’s CapitalNachrichten aus der ideologischen Antike (New from Ideological Antiquity, 2007), which, with a presiding structure specifically tailored for a DVD-release, represented an undertaking in a new technological format for Kluge (a step, he acknowledges, which was heavily influenced by Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma). Along with its follow-ups Früchte des Vertrauens (Fruits of Confidence, 2009, on the current financial crisis) and Wer sich traut, reißt die Kälte vom Pferd (2011, on Adorno’s plan to make a film about the cold), this work, with its dense, multilayered montage structures, may in time come to be seen as the summum of Kluge’s œuvre, and Schulte gives a valuable overview of the opus. Notably, Schulte picks up on a quote from an interviewee in the film, Joseph Vogl, which synoptically captures the essence of Kluge’s entire politico-aesthetic project: “a revolutionary”, in Vogl’s view, “is a montage artist, since he can juxtapose and stitch together different times. He assembles history. He is a vessel for temporal states. He collects potentials for action.” (p. 412)

If I have a misgiving about the anthology, then it is one which is symptomatic of Kluge’s critical reception as a whole. His films and literary texts are remarkably open works, inviting a wide range of responses, and yet these are accompanied by an authoritative theoretical apparatus provided by Kluge himself which, with its roots in the critical theory of Benjamin, Adorno and Habermas, appears to brook no dissent as to the validity of its application to his artistic output. Without exception, his battalion of interpreters falls into line with this conceptual prism, and the result is that his work tends to elicit a rather univocal critical appraisal. Indicative of this tendency is the curious phenomenon that certain terms and phrases associated with Kluge – his Brecht-quote on photographing an AEG factory, the notion of the “film in the spectator’s head” or the concept of Gegenöffentlichkeit – crop up in this anthology with a mantra-like degree of repetition. The challenge for a Kluge scholar, therefore, would be to leave this well-ploughed terrain and strike for theoretical pastures new, even to the extent of rejecting, or at least relativising, Kluge’s own readings of his films. This is a challenge, alas, which is not countenanced within Forrest’s collection.

Such a shortcoming, however, should not overly detract from what is, in the end, the most thorough collation of writings concerning Kluge yet to appear in English, whose merits centre on its judicious selection and arrangement of texts, which are not only of reliably high quality, but also interact with and bounce off each other in stimulating, inventive ways. The reader seeking to navigate the vast oceans of Kluge’s bountiful work will find Raw Materials for the Imagination to be an indispensable compass.


  1. The situation is substantially better in Kluge’s German-language reception, but this is only a relatively recent phenomenon, and nowhere near the level that his status as a cultural titan in Germany should warrant.
  2. See Peter C. Lutze, Alexander Kluge: The Last Modernist (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998).

Alexander Kluge: Raw Materials for the Imagination, Tara Forrest (ed.) (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2012).

Alexander Kluge – Great Directors: