Originally published in CTEQ Annotations on Film no. 4, 1996, pp. 6-7. It appears here with minor corrections. Republished with the permission of the author.
“Among well-know German authors Kluge is the least well-known.”
– Hans Magnus Enzensberger (1)
The same may be said for Kluge the filmmaker, who is as theoretically sophisticated and artistically radical as his French contemporary, Godard. The same Alexander Kluge is also political analyst, cultural historian, law professor and translator of “Winnie the Pooh” into Latin!
Near the beginning of Gelegenheitsarbeit einer Sklavin (Part-Time Work of a Domestic Slave, 1973) (2) we are told: “This film depicts six months in the life of the Bronski family”. The family consists of Roswitha, 29, her husband Franz, and their three children. Reading the clues in their drably adorned apartment, we infer that they have no surplus income. Franz is not well paid for his chemistry research; in addition to all the housework, Roswitha perfroms abortions in another suburb, assisted by her friend, Sylvia. We see no passion in Roswitha’s life with Franz, only familiarity. Reflect on that word; it’s what the film is about: family/familiarity – and, subsequently, politics.
“It is always the suppressed element in society that has to be described. The dominant element describes itself.” (3)
Roswitha is strongly favoured in this depiction of the family; she is the only one whose political role is active. When chance and circumstance force her out of abortion practice, Roswitha resolves to be “concerned” about issues outside the family: the environment, industrial safety, workers’ health. She attempts consciousness raising through books, but she’s s slow reader. Impatient with analytical language, she brings the directness of the private sphere into her dealings with the public sphere. Her energy sometimes transforms into comically misplaced action.
She finds a “mission” – the rumoured shifting of a large industrial plant to another country. The factory workers (including Franz) don’t want to believe it will happen, trade union officials procrastinate, a newspaper editor insists it’s a page five story – “local” – the front page is only for “politics”. Independently of her efforts the factory management decide to stay in Frankfurt but Franz loses his job because of her, Sylvia, who has been working with her, returns to being a full-time wife/mother.
Roswitha is undaunted. She has become what Marxists used to call a “radical individualist”. She sets up a food stall next to the factory and sells sausages wrapped in industrial pamphlets to the workers. She is kept under surveillance by the factory security: “We consider these sausages a threat to industrial peace…. This business must have some meaning. But what?”
A perplexed audience, frustrated by the lack of customary “dramatic logic”, may echo these final words of the film. Another audience will leave their seats excited. Heroic and Utopian impulses have been aroused though not indulged, countered by a critique of such impulses. So many problems have been raised but not resolved, so much thinking yet to be done – even now, more that 20 years after the film was made.
“Hollywood films try to persuade the audience to give up their own experience and follow the more organised experience of the film.”
Part-Time Work of a Domestic Slave does not “tell the story of…”, for Kluge’s method is opposed to classical narrative cinema which utilises psychological building blocks and interlocking causality of events to enthral the spectator in the dramatic illusion. Classical narrative persuades the spectator of its rationality in order to contain the issues it raises within that illusion. Part-Time Work of a Domestic Slave has a narrative, not is a narrative. There is no delightful anticipation of what-happens-next, no opportunity to download fantasies of desire and dread onto the characters on the screen. As Kluge sees it, to “tell the story of…” (how easily the expression suggests itself to the reviewer!) is to lapse into the predigested habits of corporatised entertainment – the “consciousness industry”, which separates the spectator’s imagination from her/his central interests, deep feeling from social action. Thematically, Part-Time Work of a Domestic Slave is comparable to Imamura’s Nippon konchuki (The Insect Woman, 1963), in which a woman of no independent means doggedly seeks to realise Self instead of Role and hence is seen as a moral undesirable. However, Imamura’s style is stodgily realistic, whereas Kluge’s is dynamically avant-garde (he rejects the label “post-modernist”) (4). Style itself becomes the tool of consciousness.
“A riddle in art is not a riddle. It is a hidden reality.”
Roswitha’s struggle to test her productive strength in the public sphere is chronicled in a succession of episodes interrupted by passages from other films, news photos, book illustrations, aphoristic quotations and tales for children, while accompanied by a coolly benign voiceover (which may sound patronising to some) and snatches of music, both classical and popular. The result is an abrasive but densely woven text, intermittently humorous, ironic, startling (5). These apparent digressions are the weightier substance of the film as they intervene and interrogate the narrative. They do not paraphrase or clarify, they do not converge, centripetally, upon the diegesis but ramify, centrifugally, beyond the diegesis. They locate the story in the world – the reverse of classical storytelling which locates the world in the story.
Kluge’s working method lends itself to creative collaboration: with Edgar Reitz he co-wrote and co-directed In Gefahr und gröbter Not bringt der Mittelweg den Tod (In Danger and Dire Distress the Middle of the Road Leads to Death, 1974), which I consider the best German film I have seen. He has acknowledged the crucial contribution of Beate Mainka-Jellinghaus who has edited almost all his feature films, and he yielded to the wishes of his sister Alexandra, who plays Roswitha, in the writing of the latter half of Part Time Work of a Domestic Slave.
“The real mass medium is the people themselves, not derivatives like film and television.”
Kluge’s artistic strategy disrupts the homogeneity of classical narrative, the spell of the dramatic illusion which closes down exploratory thought about the extra-diegetic world (Hitchcock is the example he has cited). This also puts him at odds with the distracting virtuosity of “art cinema”, the authoritarian certitude of Soviet cinema (there are ironic references to Eisenstein in some of his films) and the righteous posture of “message” realism, as in the films of Helke Sander who attacked Part-Time Work of a Domestic Slave because it gives no consideration to organised feminism.
“Society is a text that we attempt to read.”
When we watch a Kluge film we need to read two texts: the film, and society. The function of his cinema is to provoke rather than enlighten. The function of the spectator is to react productively rather than consume contentedly. The film comes to completion in the spectator’s mind, not on the screen. But ellipsis and provocation dispose a film to hostile interpretation: Heide Schlüpmann is not alone in her opinion that “Kluge advocated a political behaviour which, in Part-Time Work of a Domestic Slave, he asserted to be essentially female, but which originates more in a male desire for the woman than in woman’s desire itself” (6).
In my attempt to synopsise Part-Time Work of a Domestic Slave I described Roswitha’s action in the public sphere as “comically misplaced”. That was my attempt at provocation. What I had in mind was Kluge’s comment: “One cannot make the productive strength of women visible as long as they continue to be repressed without getting involved in the consequences of the comic, of ‘madness’ and of backwardness” (7).
The passage through a Kluge film is a rough trip but a joyous one. The recurrent principle in his films is hunger nach sinn, appetite for knowing, or as Godard put it, le gai savoir, the joy of learning.
1. Andreas Huyssen, “An Analytic Storyteller in the Course of Time”, October no. 46, Fall 1988, p. 116.
2. There are a variety of English language titles for the film (such as Occasional Work of a Female Slave); this one is Kluge’s own.
3. The various passages of uncited italicised and indented text are by Kluge and are “quoted” by the author from memory.
4. Kluge interviewed by Stuart Liebman, “On New German Cinema, Art, Enlightenment, and the Public Sphere: An Interview with Alexander Kluge”, October no. 46, Fall 1988, pp. 23-59.
5. With his interest in wordplay and the vulgate, Kluge would be amused that a free translation of his name into English might be “Smart Alec”.
6. Heide Schlüpmann, “‘What is Different is Good’: Women and Femininity in the Films of Alexander Kluge”, trans. Jamie Owen Daniel, October no. 46, Fall 1988, pp. 129-50.
7. Kluge interviewed by Jan Dawson, Alexander Kluge and the Female Slave, Perth Film Festival, Perth, 1975.