“The cinema is the public seat of feelings in the 20th century,” thus wrote Alexander Kluge in the book that accompanies Die Macht der Gefühle (1983), a film that he himself considers a key work in his continuing effort to rethink feelings in all their complexity and ambivalence. With this effort Kluge seems to take up concerns voiced earlier by Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, who argued that the instrumentalization of reason implies a domestication of feelings. Hence the need, in Kluge’s words, “to release feelings from their Babylonian captivity,” to recall them from their banishement to the intimate sphere, where they find themselves disempowered. And where better to bring back feelings in full force than in cinema, this peculiar art form that, in the course of the twentieth century, has assumed Opera’s role as "power plant of feelings" (“Kraftwerk der Gefühle”)?
Strangely enough Kluge discovered his love for cinema due to some of those who were most influential in its dismissal as a a kind of mass opiate. It was notably Adorno and Horkheimer who introduced Kluge, then serving as a legal counsel for the Frankfurt School, to Fritz lang, for whom Kluge ended up working as an assistant on the making of Der Tiger von Eschnapur (1959). As it turned out, the critical theorists who thought they could cure an educated lawyer of his affection for literature, an art form which they considered worn out, by sending him to the depraved industrial arena of cinema, accidentally nurtured the singularity of an artist who went on to “make cinema like writing books with moving images” as well as “writing books with the means of cinema.” Appalled at the indignities Lang suffered at the hands of his producers, Kluge began writing the short stories that would later be collected in his first publication Lebensläufe (1962) and he teamed up with Peter Schamoni to direct his first film, Brutalität in Stein (1961), which inaugurated a new attention towards Germany’s relationship to its fraught past, at odds with the cinematic amnesia that characterised “Papas Kino”.
The example of the French Nouvelle Vague confirmed Kluge in his conviction that a newborn, independent kind of cinema was necessary if a vibrant film culture was to emerge in Germany. In 1962 he was one of twenty-six signatories to the Oberhausen Manifesto and co-founder of the Ulm Institut für Filmgestaltung, which both laid the foundation for the so-called “New German Cinema”. In his venture to safeguard alternative forms of production and wrest media from the exclusive control of the culture industry, Kluge founded the Development Company for Television Program (DCTP), which proudly calls itself an “independent producer in the midst of commercial-TV”. Since 1987, DCTP has served as the platform for Kluge’s own Kulturmagazine which consciously both appropriate and subvert standard television formats. Instead of reporting on cultural events in the same old standardized ways, Kluge chooses to “develop forms that can survive inside this impossible situation which destroys expression,” forms that aim to put pressure on the viewer’s “muscles of imagination.”
Kluge posits himself as an ally of the “suppressed classes” of the human senses, dramatising qualities like curiosity, memory, stubbornness, the hunger for seeing, hearing and correlation. He contrasts the “dramaturgy of inescapable tragedy”, which characterises nineteenth-century opera with a “dramaturgy of Zusammenhang”, based on principles of montage, cross-mapping, simultaneity and polyphony. This search for Zusammenhang is also central to his literary oeuvre, which has been largely collected in Chronik der Gefühle (2000), bringing together a multitude of socio-fictional miniatures that interconnect and interact with one another. At the heart of this “livre-océan”, as Georges Didi-Huberman has recently described it, is an endeavour that has been Alexander Kluge’s decades-long preoccupation: “to tell stories of how feelings are not powerless.” An endeavour which deserves all our attention.
In collaboration with CINEMATEK, STUK & Goethe-Institut. The screening in Leuven is organised by STUK and Courtisane, in collaboration with the Lieven Gevaert Centre, the Institute of Philosophy (KU Leuven) and the Research Group German Literature, Fac. of Arts (KU Leuven).