Ever read T.W. Adorno’s Minima Moralia and think, “Hey, this would make a great movie”? Alexander Kluge might be your man. The most intellectual and abstract filmmaker of the New German Cinema, Kluge in fact studied under Adorno, and his films retain a Frankfurt Schooled obsession with German trauma, the brutality of history, and the vagaries of the culture industry. Thus, even Kluge’s lightest fare is heavy stuff. Yesterday Girl (1966) opens with a courtroom scene in which one Anita G.—a Jewish defector from the East—is tried for stealing another woman’s cardigan; pondering Anita’s biography, the judge casually declares that the events of the war have no lasting effects on the younger generation, “So let’s forget it. It’s past.” Yesterday Girl may evince the New Wavey, cheapo charm of a ’60s low-budget pic, with its echoey sync sound and disintegrated borderline between fiction and actuality, but its disassembled moviemaking serves as a cockeyed peep into the darker aspects of the West German psyche, as Anita G. moves through a series of alienating jobs and unhinged bosses.
The shabby chic of Yesterday Girl evolves into sharper, headier kulturkritik in Artists Under the Big Top: Perplexed (1968), Kluge’s self-reflective touchstone, which opens with footage of a Nazi “day of German art” kitsch parade set to a bachelor-pad reprise of Lennon-McCartney’s “Yesterday.” A mixture of black-and-white and color segments, shot with varying degrees of exposure, Artists shambles through its fragmented narrative like a visionary philosophy professor too brain-bound to tie his shoes or comb his hair. The story concerns Leni Peickert, a woman determined to create a new form of circus-as-art, one in which the audience would be “confronted by the animals” rather than entertained, with surreal acts like bears lighting fires, tigers battling red mice, and clowns who “mourn their lost honor”—a witty and absurd allegory for Kluge’s own aspirations for cinema.