Alexander Kluge Essay - Critical Essays

Kluge, Alexander


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.

Principal Works

Lebensläufe [Attendance List for a Funeral; also translated as Case Histories] 1962

Schlachtbeschreibung [The Battle] 1964

Lernprozesse mit tödlichem Ausgang [Learning Processes with a Deadly Outcome] 1973

Neue Geschichten: Hefte 1-18 1977

Neue Geschichten: Hefte 19-28 1977

Chronik der Gefühle. 2 vols. 2000

Die Universität-Selbstverwaltung: Ihre Geschichte und gegenwärtige Rechtsform (nonfiction) 1958

Kulturpolitik und Ausgabenkontrolle: Zur Theorie und Praxis der Rechnungsprüfung (nonfiction) 1961

Öffentlichkeit und Erfahrung: Zur Organisationsanalyse von bürgerlicher und proletarischer Öffentlichkeit [with Oskar Negt; Public Sphere and Experience: Toward an Analysis of the Bourgeois and Proletarian Public Sphere] (nonfiction) 1972

Filmwirtschaft in der BRD und in Europa [with Michael Dost and Florian Hopf] (nonfiction) 1973

Geschichte und Eigensinn [with Oskar Negt; History and Obstinacy] (essays) 1981

Die Macht der Gefühle (workbook) 1984

Theodor Fontane, Heinrich von Kleist und Anna Wilde: Zur Grammatik der Zeit (nonfiction) 1987

Ich schulde der Welt einen Toten [with Heiner Müller] (interviews) 1995

Ich bin ein Landvermesser [with Heiner Müller] (interviews) 1996

Verbrechen: Gespräche mit Dr. Ulrike Sprenger, Prof. Dr. Joachim Kersten und Manfred Pichota (interviews) 2000

Verdeckte Ermittlung (interviews) 2001


Joseph Bauke (review date 8 October 1966)

SOURCE: Bauke, Joseph. “Inferno Revisited.” Saturday Review 49, no. 41 (8 October 1966): 106-07.

[In the following review, Bauke describes reading Attendance List for a Funeral as a sobering and enlightening experience.]

In the last five or six years German literature has made the comeback for which readers in and outside Germany had been waiting since the fall of the Third Reich. Günter Grass and Jakov Lind, above all, have revived a language that seemed all but dead and unfit for any artistic purposes, after the uses to which it was put under Hitler. In their work these authors descend into the hell of the past and reflect their vision of it in a profusion of surrealistic images that has compelled the attention of audiences in many countries. In his collection of short stories, Attendance List for a Funeral, Alexander Kluge demonstrates that there are other ways of exorcising the evil spirits of an era.

Kluge, born in 1932, was too young to experience the Nazi years consciously; but, like many of his generation, he is profoundly concerned with the sins committed by the fathers. A lawyer by profession, he writes with a precision and a detachment rather rare in the German tradition. In these stories about the paths of people under Nazism there are no verbal cascades, no intellectual fireworks, no expressionist flights into the absolute. Instead, we have a prose as reasoned and as dispassionate as a lawyer's brief. In one of the stories, a superb piece about the career of an academic, Kluge resorts to lengthy footnotes to underscore his quest for the factual.

Sometimes the tendency to documentation is mannered and...

(The entire section is 708 words.)

Stanley Kauffmann (review date 10 December 1966)

SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. “Almost-English.” The New Republic 155, no. 24 (10 December 1966): 26, 38.

[In the following review, Kauffmann faults the translation of Attendance List for a Funeral.]

The subject of translation is worth continual discussion, and I am especially qualified to discuss it because I cannot read any foreign language.

I had just written the above when the November 18 New Statesman arrived with an article on translation by the always stimulating Hans Keller. Says Keller: “So far as my views on translation are concerned, I only accept criticism from bilingual people: nobody else...

(The entire section is 1294 words.)

J. P. Bauke (review date 30 September 1967)

SOURCE: Bauke, J. P. “Defeat on the Volga.” Saturday Review 50 (30 September 1967): 43-57.

[In the following review of The Battle, Bauke maintains that Kluge's documentary style of fiction functions to demystify the Battle of Stalingrad and lay “bare the absurdity of that and every other battle.”]

No battle in modern times has agitated the Germans more than the one they lost at Stalingrad in 1943. The annihilation of the Sixth Army jolted the German masses into the realization that the tables were about to be turned, and for the first time during the war even fanatic Nazis had their optimism put to the test. Goebbels's ministry of propaganda, while...

(The entire section is 965 words.)

Times Literary Supplement (review date 12 September 1968)

SOURCE: “Legal Fiction.” Times Literary Supplement (12 September 1968): 977.

[In the following review, the critic provides a negative assessment of The Battle.]

This is a reedited version of a book that created a great stir in 1964 when it was published by Walter in Olten. Since the new version has been prepared for paperback publication by the author himself, it is worth reviewing it in perspective.

Alexander Kluge, whose great-uncle Kurt (1886-1940) wrote some charming pieces of entertainment fiction (Der Herr Kortüm, Die Zaubergeige), turned away from entertainment with a vengeance when he decided to study law. Born in 1932, he...

(The entire section is 887 words.)

Peter Labanyi (review date 9 July 1976)

SOURCE: Labanyi, Peter. “Programmed for Disaster.” Times Literary Supplement (9 July 1976): 854-55.

[In the following review, Labanyi considers the defining characteristics of Kluge's short fiction.]

A wholly quixotic bid for Lebensraum by white Africa has failed, unleashing a major crisis. The world waits, trying to piece together fragmentary reports and scattered communiques—while there is still time. Confusion and despair prevail. Meanwhile, the sociologist H., “a sensitive seismograph,” is in a basement room in the hotel where he is attending a conference, hastily trying to compose his thoughts “in case there will be time for the publication of a...

(The entire section is 3848 words.)

Rainer Stollman (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Stollman, Rainer. “Reading Kluge's Mass Death in Venice.” New German Critique, no. 30 (fall 1983): 65-95.

[In the following parodic essay, Stollman uses the fictional character of Professor Noodlekopf to provide an interpretation of Mass Death in Venice.]


Having just read the story Mass Death in Venice by Alexander Kluge, Noodlekopf, Professor of German in the university town of B, wrinkled his brow in astonishment. Since he knew that his present condition might presage some new insight, he did not give up on the dry report of horror which, although its literary allusion was certainly...

(The entire section is 13761 words.)

Hans-Bernhard Moeller (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Introduction to Case Histories, by Alexander Kluge, translated by Leila Vennewitz, pp. ix-xix. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1988.

[In the following essay, Moeller offers a thematic and stylistic analysis of the stories comprising Case Histories, which has also been published under the title Attendance List for a Funeral.]

Radically experimental, Alexander Kluge's writings, films, and other creative activities have contributed greatly to the development of contemporary Central European intellectual life. Although recognition of his achievements has been slow in coming, he is now recognized as one of the leading lights of the German cultural scene....

(The entire section is 3234 words.)

Miriam Hansen (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Hansen, Miriam. “Introduction.” New German Critique, no. 49 (winter 1990): 3-10.

[In the following essay, Hansen discusses Kluge's treatment of sexuality and sexual politics in his short fiction and novels.]

In the United States, the critical debate on Alexander Kluge's work has only just begun, thanks to a comprehensive retrospective of his films organized by Stuart Liebman and sponsored by the Goethe Institute and Anthology Film Archives. A retrospective, Kluge might say, is a bit like an inventory of boxes left behind in the basement after one has moved to another city—the boxes still contain some useful things, though one's current life is elsewhere....

(The entire section is 3079 words.)

Christopher Pavsek (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Pavsek, Christopher. Introduction to Learning Processes with a Deadly Outcome, by Alexander Kluge, pp. vii-x. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Pavsek elucidates the challenges of translating Kluge's short fiction.]

Alexander Kluge's novella Lernprozesse mit tödlichem Ausgang was originally published by Suhrkamp in 1973 as part of a larger collection of stories by the same title, the remainder of which Duke University Press hopes to publish at a future date. The translation of this fascinating story comes at a moment of increasing interest in Kluge's extremely diverse body of work, as marked by the dedication of two...

(The entire section is 3112 words.)

Further Reading


Review of Attendance List for a Funeral, by Alexander Kluge. Booklist 63 (15 October 1966): 237.

Generally positive review of Attendance List for a Funeral.

Cassill, R. V. “Waltzes and Goosesteps.” Bookweek (13 November 1966): 6.

Favorable assessment of Attendance List for a Funeral. Asserts that Kluge's stories mean “to sing the heroism of the commonplace and to celebrate a tragedy so fragmented and proliferated that our age seems incapable of noting it except by documents and statistics.”

Review of The Battle, by Alexander Kluge. Publisher's Weekly...

(The entire section is 160 words.)