Born in Halberstadt in 1932, the German essayist, social critic, author and filmmaker Alexander Kluge would, by the 1980s, become a figure in the Frankfurt School of criticism, where he counted among his contemporaries the philosopher and sociologist Theodor Adorno. In 1958, Adorno introduced Kluge to Fritz Lang; Kluge later assisted the director on one of his films. Kluge was one of 26 signatories of the Oberhausen Manifesto in 1962, which strikingly declared “Der alte Film ist tot. Wir glauben an den neuen” (“The old film is dead. We believe in the new cinema.”) The young filmmakers who signed the pact aimed to bring about a new kind of cinema in Germany, and the manifesto would in time give birth to ‘The New German Cinema,’ or the jdf—the „Junger Deutscher Film“ movement—whose members included Werner Herzog, Jean-Marie Straub, Wim Wenders and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Of the films that emerged from the movement, Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Herzog’s Aguirre: the Wrath of God, and Wenders’ Paris, Texas are the best known.
Kluge’s 1983 film Die Macht der Gefühle (The Power of Emotion) is classed primarily as a documentary but incorporates elements of fiction, and reads like an essay film closer in tone perhaps to Guy Maddin than to Chris Marker or Chris Petit, though it’s considerably less accessible than any of these, and is certainly nothing like the air of romanticism that descends upon viewers in Éloge de l’amour, Jean-Luc Godard’s 2001 paean to love, which, outwith its obtuse, scabrous anti-American sentiment, is a beautiful piece of filmmaking. (It was in fact Godard’s À Bout de souffle that apparently spurred Kluge into filmmaking.)
The Power of Emotion, which runs just under two hours, layers four distinct, seemingly disconnected narrative sections atop one another. These are preceded by something of a city symphony in the style of Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, Walther Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis or even Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi, which was made just a year earlier and includes time-lapse imagery similar to what Kluge employs in his opening gambit. (The film reverts to and intersperses its main narrative segments with time-lapse footage throughout.)
After this brief prelude, the film proper begins with newly-shot footage of a state funeral in then-contemporary Germany, attended by numerous dignitaries who are either bored or unsympathetic to the solemn occasion before them; the person being mourned goes unnamed. From here Kluger switches to what is probably archival newsreel footage of tanks running rampant across a city, and intersperses this with other war footage (of naval ships and so on) and scenes from old silent movies. All of this black-and-white footage is tinted shades of bright green and purple, and seen through unusually-shaped binocular like masks which obliterate portions of the image.
The next segment, Der Schuß, or The Shot, concerns a woman on trial for shooting her husband; it emerges that he engaged in incest with their daughter. The indifference she shows to the criminal events that led to her committing another crime is puzzling, and the judges’ decision hinges upon the physical impossibility of her being able to fire the gun given the material evidence at hand, as well as both the lack of emotion she displays and the illogical conclusion at which she arrives. This illustrates Kluge’s two central observations in the film, which are that objects, in their materiality, are the opposite of emotion; and that emotions, by nature, search for a happy ending. This segment is basically the most straightforward; the film from this point on becomes increasingly avant-garde through its interspersed non-narrative segments—but returns to formal narrative in the story of a murder and a robbery, which involves a border-crossing prostitute and her lover, and in the story of a man who rescues a woman who would have been a suicide. In the segment called Das Kraftwerk der Gefühle (The Power-Plant of Emotions), staged inside an opera house, performances of Verdi’s Aida and Rigoletto are cut-up and re-combined in new ways.
At one point early on in the film, Kluge observes that “in every opera dealing with redemption, a woman is sacrificed in Act 5.” Perhaps in order to explain what he was aiming to do in the Kraftwerk segment of the film, Kluge has said, “For years I have been attempting through literary and filmic means to change opera stories: to disarm the fifth act… We must work to develop an imaginary opera, to bring forward an alternative opera world.” The entire film, it turns out, stands as an alternative filmic world, one where the past collides with technology to illuminate the present. While not as captivating as the films of Chris Marker, or as accessible as Guy Maddin’s wonderful black-and-white phantasmagorias, Kruger’s work—as represented in The Power of Emotions—is definitely thought-provoking and shows the filmmaker using his deep knowledge of music and art in service of a philosophical enquiry.
The new disc from Madman includes as a special feature an excellent commentary by Dr. Michelle Langford of the School of English, Media and Performing Arts at the University of New South Wales.