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Eclectic retrospective of work by German film-maker Alexander Kluge

Tearsheets: Bo Smith, Film Coordinator, Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., Boston, MA 02115

Suggested headline: Alexander Kluge: father of the New German Cinema





Written and directed by Alexander Kluge.

Starring Hannelore Hoger,

Siegfried Graue, and Alfred Edel.

Plays Thursday, March 23, at 5:30 pm

at the Museum of Fine Arts.






Written and directed by Alexander Kluge.

Starring Alexandra Kluge, Bion Steinborn,

and Sylvia Gartmann.

Plays Thursday, March 23, at 7:30 pm

at the Museum of Fine Arts.


ON FEBRUARY 28, 1962, twenty-six filmmakers joined forces at the Oberhausen Short Film Festival to boldly proclaim that "The old cinema is dead. We believe in the new." In the two and a half decades since, this declaration has come to be known as the Oberhausen Manifesto, and the resulting film movement in West Germany has been labeled Das Neue Kino, or "New German Cinema." Alexander Kluge, one of the original signatories of the Oberhausen Manifesto along with Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, has a remarkably eclectic background as a lawyer, teacher, writer, and philosopher, and he has been hailed as the intellectual father of Das Neue Kino.

Unfortunately, Das Neue Kino has not found an audience in its native country, and the reasons for its economic foundering are easy to discern. In his effort to replace the conventional narrative of commercial cinema with a "counter-cinema of ideas," Kluge has produced a number of films that have been called abstract, extremely intellectual, and difficult to understand. Judging from the two films being shown Thursday at the Museum of Fine Arts -- which are, curiously, his most difficult and most accessible films -- one should add "problematic successes" and "fascinating failures" to the growing list of terms used to describe Kluge's body of work.

stars Die Artisten in der Zirkuskuppel: Ratlos ("Artists Under the Big Top: Perplexed") was made in 1967 and can best be described as a collection of mostly self-contained sequences that appear to be tied together loosely or not at all. It's more than a collection of unrelated shorts, but the film deliberately eschews any narrative or plot structure in the conventional sense.

In between its numerous excursions runs a thread of material focusing on a young woman named Leni Peickert (Hannelore Hoger). She inherits a circus from her deceased father Manfred, whose ultimate dream was to create the spectacle of an elephant performing an aerial ballet at the top of the circus tent. Peickert and the film point out that the classical circus was born around the time of the French Revolution, and that it glorifies the omnipotence of humans over animals and nature in general. Rejecting this basic tenet of classical circus, Peickert sets out to reform the circus and to present "animals as they authentically are."

This goal immediately transforms Peickert into an allegorical figure. Clearly, Kluge is using the problems of the classical circus to create a metaphor for the state of filmmaking that he and other Oberhausen Manifesto signatories were trying to reform. This is a most fascinating comparison, since Kluge merges two processes that are usually thought of separately, the process of reform and the process of artistic creation. What's more, it is from this synthesis that the film's central topic of the nature of the barriers that inhibit or hinder these equivalent processes emerges. Kluge's efforts not only call attention to a seldom-addressed issue, but also give Kluge's audience a handle with which they can discover the film's numerous underlying dimensions and complexities.

Kluge's manipulations of plot and circumstance clear the way for him to focus on the Peickert's external pressures, such as the inertial weight of tradition, reactions from conservative forces, and most damning of all, public indifference. As might be expected, it is in the external resistance to her ideas that Peickert finds the heaviest pressure to succumb, closely mirroring the state of the Oberhausen signatories in the mid-1960s. They remained a fairly close-knit group, many of them making collective films together, but they were feeling pressures from all sides since their movement had failed to justify itself economically.

Kluge's metaphor is indeed contrived, but it is contrived to reflect a particularly urgent reality: when Peickert fails to reform her circus in spite of the advantages working in her favor, she inexplicably moves into television, which also happened to Kluge in the 1970s. Kluge has been criticized for this alarming aspect of his metaphor, since his omission of any hint of a solution casts a despairing and gloomy vision of the future of the New German Cinema.

Strangely, it was not Kluge's intention to create an existentialist exploration of despair. In fact, Kluge recently declared that through collective work in television, the Oberhausen group will finally reach the mainstream audience and make a lasting mark. Whether this will consolidate the movement remains to be seen, but this stance can hardly be called despairing.

Kluge's whole approach in this film involves working in short, fragmented pieces to replace or add to the conventional meaning ascribed to images and sounds. As might be expected, this causes the film to meander all over the landscape, a major weakness. Consequently, Kluge's work is just flawed enough -- in spite of its giant intellectual strides -- that it remains doubtful whether Die Artisten in der Zirkuskuppel: Ratlos could have singlehandedly heralded the birth of a new cinema. That is why for those looking back at the twenty-odd years of cinematic history since the film's release, Kluge's film will remain a problematic success.

stars Unfortunately, the only way to characterize Kluge's 1973 film Gelegenheitsarbeit einer Sklavin ("Part-Time Work of a Domestic Slave") is as a fascinating failure. The film focuses on a 29-year-old woman named Roswitha Bronski (AlexandraNote: this is not a mistake. Alexandra is Alexander's sister Kluge) who performs illegal abortions to help support her husband and three kids. The film begins on a jarring but fascinating note with extremely graphic footage of what appears to be an actual abortion -- including the extraction of the fetus from the woman's vagina.

The rest of the film goes downhill from there, however, as the police close down Bronski's abortion clinic and Bronski becomes a political activist. She first tries to convince the local newspaper to join her crusade and then attempts to organize a militant union of workers at the chemical plant where her husband is employed. Both of these campaigns end in failure, and the film closes with Bronski selling sausages wrapped in political pamphlets to continue her efforts.

The film is ostensibly a feminist work, and Bronski is one of Kluge's most sympathetic and accessible heroines. But the film's feminist perspective never really materializes into anything intellectually or emotionally concrete, and the whole film is severely marred by voice-overs from an unseen male narrator whose tone can only be described as unctuous, condescending, and patronizing. Kluge portrays Bronski as a sincere activist, but she seems hopelessly na"ive, and her actions are usually for nought. Feminists have rightly criticized this film for its weak-handed portrayal of Bronski.

Gelegenheitsarbeit einer Sklavin is fascinating mainly for the question of how Kluge -- given his previous accomplishments -- could make such a failure.