In the current period of global economic crisis, Kluge’s documentary can be seen as a toolbox for investigating what is happening to our modern lives. Marx is relevant because he was occupied by the forces extending our understanding of what it means to be real. But is cinema itself another form of capitalism?

Alexander Carnera
Carnera is an author and essayist living in Copenhagen.

SYNOPSIS: Most of the film consists of involved discussions between Alexander Kluge and other Marx- savvy writers and artists. Poet and essayist Hans Magnus Enzensberger compares the soul of man with the soul of money; author Dietmar Dath explains the meaning of the hammer and sickle on the Soviet ag and, from the standpoint of the Stoics, leaps (rather than marches at an orderly pace) into industrialisation; the actress Sophie Rois makes an impassioned appeal for Medea, differentiating between additive and subtractive love; filmmaker Werner Schroeter stages a Wagner opera featuring the “rebirth of Tristan in the spirit of battleship Potemkin”; philosopher Peter Sloterdijk talks about Ovid and the metamorphosis of added value; a man at the piano analyses the score of a strike song while workers and factory owners face off in an opera by Luigi Nono; the poet Dürs Grünbein interprets Bert Brecht’s aesthetisation of the Communist Manifesto in swinging oceanic hexameter; cultural scientist Rainer Stollmann emphasises the myriad meanings of Marx’s writings as science, art, story telling, philosophy and poetry; and social theorist and philosopher Oskar Negt looks sceptical when asked whether it is possible to find the right images for all this stuff when you are less interested in pedagogical content than the encompassing theory.

The German filmmaker and author Alexander Kluge has turned Karl Marx’s Capital (Das Kapital) 1)See http://www.suhrkamp.de/buecher/nachrichten_aus_ der_ideologischen_antike-alexander_kluge_13501.html into a nine hour long exposé, a learned and intriguing odyssey. What appears to be an almost impossible project turns out to be a very inventive cinematic experience.

Capitalism belongs to the world of art, poetry, film, theatre, and fairytales, because capitalism is a world of images in which nothing is what it appears to be – just like the world of commodities. Kluge combines interviews of German intellectuals such as Durs Grünbein (poet), Oskar Knegt (sociologist), Peter Sloterdikj (philosopher) and Hans Magnus Enzenberger (author) with archive clips from the war of machinery (WW1) and short readings from Capital. It makes a theatre-like performance, an elegy based on modern opera, with conceptual de nitions and questions written in cabaret-letters appearing as posters, all from the beginning of the last century. Kluge creates a spectacular enlightened collage that dives into the history of capitalism, showing how the image-making and the phantasmagoria of capitalism gives us essential answers to why and what we have become as modern humans. In our period of global economic crisis Kluge’s project can be seen as a toolbox to investigate what is happening to our modern life.

The documentary gives us the chance to step back and see why we have to move away from the locomotive as the metaphor of history (the runaway train of progress) and instead to pause, to apply the brake and reflect on the inherent contradictions at stake within capitalism itself. This film is a conceptual journey, and as such is never as tiring and boring as most university-lectures. Concepts like ‘ideology-critique’, ‘false consciousness’, ‘alienation’, ‘commodity-fetishism’ and ‘revolution’ are all taken up in a stimulating and unusual setting. Often Kluge sits at a small table with a solitary pendant lamp, as if in a renaissance tableau. “False consciousness’ is the name of an ideology, a world where the empirical reality of your cognitive faculties and desires is based on a false dimension and context – you are made to believe that you live while in fact you are slowly bringing about your own destruction. In this world the element of “fetishism” relates to commodities, and the magic and extra-sensual forces that invite us all into the cult of capitalism – a modern game-show based on a controlled society in which we are taught to take part in our own suppression, desire things we do not need as if they were our path to salvation.

Zrzut ekranu 2016-08-31 o 23.25.35To understand humanity we have to understand this transformation of energy into a thing, an object. Marx’s point is clear: “ The industrial landscape is like an open book of human psychology.” The work of demystification consists in going back to the point of production, digging up what has been buried. You have to dig up the curses, that were hammered into the fetishes as well as the commodity. As Sloterdijk reminds us in the documentary: to understand capitalism and modernity we should study alchemy, we need to study how the body of fetish (magic) is hammered into both the old African medicine-man and the modern worker and commodity – something unknown flows into the product, into the world: “You have to know your way around in this huge transformation laboratory.”

Revolutions are the halting of history, a pause in which humanity begins to reflect

What appears quite surprising in this odyssey is the emphasis of the fact that without the integration of artistic, poetic, literary and cinematic elements we will not be able to fully understand Marx and his project. Back in 1928/29 the Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein was preparing to make a film of Marx’s Capital using the narrative style of James Joyces’ Ulysses. This film was never made but the research and idea behind it say as much about Marx and capitalism as they say about modernity. The parallel world views and techniques of these two crucial works can be explained thus: In terms of Marx, the world of money is a world that transforms everything else. A world-soul is taken over by the money-soul. The forces of the world invite the material of all things into a grand changing room. Money and capitalism combine into a matrix for this transformation of all things, something that would never have been possible by one element alone. So, capitalism is a world in which nothing is what it appears to be, in which the metamorphosis has already taken place.

Likewise Ulysses by Joyce is the story about the metamorphosis of a man (Leopold Bloom) whose whole life will change only in one day. We do not need more than a single day to be transformed. In this way Joyce describes the material world by showing how it transforms itself at the smallest level of interactions and encounters with other forces. This is not only modernity but history made of theatre. This is what inspired Eisenstein to adapt Marx’s Capital into a film that stages the history of the world as a theatre of metamorphosis. We can grasp capitalism from a day in a worker’s life. All the vital history of humanity takes place on one single day. Eisenstein would have ended the film with a worker’s wife speaking in an inner monologue like Molly in Ulysses, collecting all the desires hidden in a worker’s life. Eisenstein wanted to combine materialism with Joyce’s, and Virginia Woolf ’s, ‘stream of consciousness’. His ambition was to make his film The Capital in the same way as Ulysses was written. Eisenstein and Joyce met in Paris at a time when Joyce was blind. At this meeting Joyce did not say much, but at some point afterwards he recorded his own voice reading several passages from Ulysses out loud.

Zrzut ekranu 2016-08-31 o 23.26.35Sloterdijk emphasises how Marx, after Hegel’s seriousness, posed another kind of question about intelligence and what it means to capture history. Marx’s point was that man has multiple kinds of intelligence: an honest intelligence that takes everything seriously, as characterised by the worker, and then the trickster -intelligence, most often associated with the lawyer who never really takes anything seriously – everything one says becomes a case, a strategy. Marx’s point was to cultivate the deceptive intelligence. He himself found it necessary to think like a lawyer, to take the role of the sophist and play this kind of intelligence against the serious intelligence. To understand modern economy and capitalism we need to play these two kinds of intelligence against each other.

The link between metamorphosis, image-making and humanity seems to be a thread in understanding modern capitalism. A beautiful example is set by the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam who was in opposition to Stalin and as a result had to report his every move to the party. He published a remarkable poetic work called Tristia which lays the path for a kind of ‘underground-economy’. Tristia was a reference to Ovid’s Metamorphosis. 2) Publius ovidius Naso (20 March 43 BC – AD 17 or 18), known as ovid in the English-speaking world, was a Roman poet who wrote about love, seduction, and mythological transformation. He is considered a master of the elegiac couplet, and is traditionally ranked alongside virgil and Horace as one of the three canonic poets of Latin literature. Ovid was banished for political reasons to the Black Sea, but longed for Rome and his wife. Mandelstam followed in his footsteps with the awful experience of the 20th century, described in his words as: “My century, my beast.” Tristia exudes the kind of longing that will never be a part of the state nor the capitalistic machinery. The famous canon of Marx, Engels and Lenin should therefore also include Ovid. Only great storytellers can penetrate the world of Marx. The world of commodities is also full of human characteristics of transformations. Capital should be read along with Ovid’s Metamorphosis.

Kluge approaches the idea of cinema itself as a form social innovation … that points towards new ways of seeing, feeling and thinking

There is a fairytale underlying Marx’s work that is in constant competition with bourgeois science. This brings us back to an earlier stage of Kluge’s film in which we learn how Brecht in 1945 wrote part of Das Capital in Homeric verses. Brecht tried to capture social theory in hexameter verse. He wanted,to capture and address our knowledge of nature in poetic images, believing that to grasp capitalism one needs to understand that what is important is what forms thought can take. Here art and thinking go together.

Between the more conceptual journeys, Kluge also enters into more mundane kind of encounters that give the film a nice balance. We meet a man who no longer works on a industrial factory in the Ruhr-district – but still goes back to his factory every evening to teach Marx’s Capital to the Chinese workers! The worker reminds us in the interview that Marx would have been 190 years old now, and that he is more alive than most people – particularly because he was so concerned about the forces that extend our understanding of what it means to be real. This is his small revolution.

We are also reminded of Walter Benjamin’s quote: “Revolutions are locomotives of history.” Perhaps the reality is quite different: Revolutions are the brakes which serve to halt a train that is heading for disaster, that is going the wrong direction. Revolutions are the halting of history, a moment, a small but important pause. It is the pause in which humanity begins to reflect and tries to pick up something that has been left behind. Whereas capitalism and victorious history speed up history, revolutions will slow down things. Benjamin moves away from the metaphor of the locomotive – a revolution is the processing of the undigested problems of history. A “revolutionary” is an acute observer – he is a bridge linking an end-situation with a beginning-situation. He is a specialist in the art of connections, for instance when the collapse of regimes becomes linked with a moment of inception. As such the revolutionary is a ‘montage artist’, a man connecting two societies, two time intervals, two collectives, and even two types of humanities which are always at play. The montage artists can join the strands of history: For instance Mirabeau (1749-1791), who saw the turn-around caused the French revolution, and expressed the phrase: “ The king no longer exists!”, thereby creating a new momentum, a new powerful event. As a montage artist he illuminates something that was not previously visible. He confronts the world of misery, the global jungle, and sets the stage for a new kind of visibility.

Kluge approaches the idea of cinema itself as a form social innovation, a mode of production that reassembles the life of mobility into new inventive dimensions – that points towards new ways of seeing, feeling and thinking. In this respect it would have been interesting to see Kluge meditating on cinema itself being a form of capitalism. The two books on cinema by the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze: L’Image- Movement and L’Image-Temps invite the reader to speculate on how the world of movement is a world of images. This image-world on one hand manipulates (nothing is what it appears to be), creating abstract values based on the shock- effect of visual stimulation, and on the other hand creates new perceptions and new thinking based on inventive compositions of images that confront remembrance and collective memory.

Kluge’s film is a fascinating tour de force, using documentary as our modern enlightened “alchemy” and helping us understand the enchanted condition of modern life.


© EDN/ModernTimes (previously published in DOX Magazine).
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References   [ + ]

1. See http://www.suhrkamp.de/buecher/nachrichten_aus_ der_ideologischen_antike-alexander_kluge_13501.html
2. Publius ovidius Naso (20 March 43 BC – AD 17 or 18), known as ovid in the English-speaking world, was a Roman poet who wrote about love, seduction, and mythological transformation. He is considered a master of the elegiac couplet, and is traditionally ranked alongside virgil and Horace as one of the three canonic poets of Latin literature.
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