Alexander Kluge, Cinema Stories
Alexander Kluge’s first experimental film, Brutality in Stone, opens with a title card that reads: “Every structure left to us by history expresses the spirit of its builder.” The quote is reminiscent of W.G. Sebald, whose name appears on the back of Kluge’s book, Cinema Stories (2007), under review here.
Cinema Stories recalls Sebald’s fragmented narratives, his erudite tangents, his oblique analyses. I make the comparison not to lump the authors together but to suggest that fans of one go read the other. (Fans of Sebald’s Austerlitz would find further affinities in Kluge’s Brutality of Stone. Both works trace the development of European barbarism via extended architectural observations).
Alexander Kluge is a German author and film director whose name is attached to the New German Cinema movement and the Oberhausen Manifesto that inaugurated it. As author-photographers, Kluge and Sebald are concerned with images of history and the history of images. Cinema Stories, as one might guess from the title, is a book of stories about cinema, especially early film (1890s to 1920s, roughly). But to Kluge, cinema is older than “film” and includes the cosmos itself as a kind of ur-cinema, which he describes in the book’s final story as a kind of vast auditorium in which ancient rays of light from our planet beam images of world history into the void of space. Space, he says, is an “eternally indestructible and unerring archive of the images of the past” (91). It’s a nice idea, perhaps a comforting illusion of the retrievability of history.
There are thirty-nine stories in the book, almost entirely disconnected except for certain thematic resonances. They are half-fact, half-fiction. So it’s not easy to tell what’s what, unless you happen to be a “cinema addict” like the intrepid neurologist in the book, who wins the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the “transport phase” in film — the 1/48th of a second of blackness between frames in which the brain registers a theater’s darkness so that we end up watching two movies, not just one (rather, the film and its negative).
The book is fundamentally about people in the film industry: oddball directors, unlikely actors, film scholars, pioneers, and the author himself. If names like Sergei Eisenstein, Ernst Lubitsch, Olive Thomas, Erich von Stroheim, Jean-Luc Godard, Walter Benjamin, and Federico Fellini register with you, then you’ll enjoy reveling in the kind of strange anecdotes that Kluge either unburies and invents.
Some of these anecdotes are genuinely funny, as when Fellini casts a Roman film extra from the suburbs in the role of emperor. The film is Satirycon. The actor, an amateur, is directed to keep a straight face while two industrial fans blow wind (the winds of history) directly at him for seven minutes. Every reflex tells him to avoid the wind, but he keeps a straight face anyways. The actor, according to Fellini, succeeds because he is not an actor. And when asked how he did it — how he kept a straight face — the man says he doesn’t know. When the film is released, the man has the scene, two-minutes long, replayed forty times for his comrades back home, triumphantly (70).
No doubt the book will set off a chain reaction of secondary readings and viewings for anyone interested in factoids and trivia (for one, you might end up watching Fellini’s Satirycon). The gaps between the fragmented stories have this effect. They are the unseen images in Kluge’s book. You have to look elsewhere for them.
Kluge, Alexander, Martin Brady, and Helen Hughes. Cinema Stories. New York: New Directions, 2007. Print.