Alexander Kluge Critical Essays

Introduction

Alexander Kluge 1932–-

(Born Ernst Alexander Kluge) German short story writer, novelist, essayist, and filmmaker.

The following entry presents an overview of Kluge's short fiction career through 1998.

Kluge is known as one of the most experimental and controversial writers and filmmakers in Germany. His short stories explore the German experience during and after World War II and are distinguished by their documentary style, a narrative technique that utilizes an objective voice and bureaucratic documents, including bits of interviews and sermons, government statistics, drawings, and biographies. Critics consider Kluge an important voice in the cultural life of postwar Germany.

Biographical Information

Kluge was born on February 14, 1932, in Halberstadt, Germany. In April 1945 his family's home was destroyed in an air raid. Soon after that event his parents divorced, and he moved to Berlin with his mother. This early and sudden upheaval left a huge impact on the young Kluge and is reflected in his later fiction. He went to university in Marburg, Freiburg, and Frankfurt, and received his doctorate in law in 1956. He became interested in film production and released his first short film in 1960. Kluge was one of the founders of the Oberhausen Group, a group of experimental filmmakers. They issued their manifesto in 1962, which proclaimed the need for artistic freedom in German film. In 1963 he set up his own film production company, Kairos-Film, and released his first feature film, Abschied von gestern (1966; Yesterday Girl). During the 1970s Kluge's popularity declined, and he increasingly turned to nonfiction and television work. In recent years he has published books of interviews with politicians, literary figures, scientists, and journalists. He has received several awards, such as the Munich Culture Prize (1986), the Lessing Prize (1990), the Heinrich Böll Prize (1993), and the Darmstadt Ricarda Huth Prize (1996).

Major Works of Short Fiction

Kluge's major works of short fiction focus on the German experience during World War II and its aftermath. Thematically, his stories explore the meaning of life, the powerlessness of the individual versus the collective, and the impact of war on individual lives. Stylistically, his fiction has been described as a montage of contemporary and science fiction elements, as well as historical material, interviews, biographies, anecdotal information, and documentary reports. In one of his early stories, “Attendance List from a Funeral,” Kluge opens the piece with a list of family members and friends attending a funeral, with one or two adjectives to describe the state of mind of that person. “An Experiment in Love” utilizes lengthy quotations from Nazi documents about medical experiments on Jewish concentration camp prisoners. “A Change of Career” compiles quotations from Nietzsche, Humboldt, Socrates, and other philosophers to chronicle the story of a teacher who quits his job in disgust over the shabby treatment of a fellow instructor. In Schlachtbeschreibung (1964; The Battle), Kluge explores the defeat of Hitler's Sixth Army at Stalingrad. Sometimes classified as a novel, the book is comprised of Third Reich field manuals, troop reports, drawings, diary excerpts, medical records, photos, interviews, speeches, and sermons delivered by military chaplains blended with fictional material. In a later collection of short stories, Lernprozesse mit tödlichen Ausgang (1973; Learning Processes with a Deadly Outcome), Kluge explores the capitalist work ethic and the passivity of the modern worker against economic exploitation.

Critical Reception

Initially Kluge's short fiction garnered critical and popular attention for its experimental style, but in the 1970s interest in literary experimentation faded. Subsequently, Kluge's reputation went into decline. Critics often have difficulty classifying Kluge's work: some view fictions such as The Battle as a novel, others as short stories, and still others as a workbook of documents, biographies, and statistics. Most reviewers consider these works as difficult, dispassionate, and enigmatic, but others find Kluge's objective approach as a fitting treatment to the absurdity of war and the modern experience. A few commentators have noted that Kluge's documentary style of fiction forces the reader to participate in the literary process. Critics also discuss his work as protest literature, particularly against war and the capitalist order. In recent years, there has been a renewed appreciation for Kluge's role in Germany's cultural life.