News from Ideological Antiquity

Alexander Kluge’s News from Ideological Antiquity. Marx — Eisenstein — Das Kapital.

Marc James Léger in Conversation with Michael Blum and Barbara Clausen

This FUSE article from issue 35-4/Baltics is available full-text online for your reading pleasure. If you like what you read, please consider subscribing to FUSE or making a one-time donation.

In his 1927 “Notes for a Film on Capital,” Sergei Eisenstein describes some of the ideas that would constitute a dialectical approach to film form. The scenes that are depicted in his films Strike, Battleship Potemkin and October, he says, are not events, but the “conclusions of a series of theses.” [1] These works, as they depict the “nearsightedness of Menshevism,” were considered by Eisenstein to be both judgments on history and “fragment(s) of tomorrow.” [2] This idea of historical time as an interstice is aptly associated to Alexander Kluge’s realization of Eisenstein’s plans to film Marx’s Capital via the stream-of-consciousness, day-in-the-life strategy used by James Joyce in Ulysses. Kluge’s nine-hour-long production, News From Ideological Antiquity: MarxEisensteinDas Kapital, was released in 2008, a few months before the banking crisis in the United States sounded the death knell for the neoliberal view that history has come to an end. Shortly afterwards, Marx’s Capital appeared on the German bestseller list. The moment was propitious, as it anticipated the revolutionary upheavals of the coming years: the Arab Spring; the uprisings in Greece, Spain, Chile and the United Kingdom; the Occupy Wall Street movement; and the student-led Printemps Érable in Quebec. Yet whenever socialism and communism are mentioned, a series of objections are raised—not that kind of communism, not the continued domination of labour by state regimes, not the party politics of the emancipatory working class. A reformed capitalism appears to most people as the least worst of political options. This leads us to the question that was asked by Oskar Negt, the German sociologist and Kluge collaborator, just one year before the collapse of the Soviet Union: What is a revival of Marxism and why do we need one today? [3] His answer then was that to find a new way of understanding the role of the proletariat one needed to adopt the way of seeing that Marx himself used, which emphasizes the contradictions of the commodity as the basis of all reification. If the power of capital lies in the ability of the object to subjectify itself, then the response of the proletariat is to objectify itself in new social formations that are able to abolish the old relationships. Marx’s Capital is important because it points not to the existing reality, nor the traumatic past, but beyond them. The key to Marxism is that it promises the subjectivation of reality and the abolition of class society.

So what’s the news? For one, Kluge does not offer a meditation on Capital itself but lets a series of interlocutors do most of the talking. Among those interviewed in the film are the writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger, famous for an important essay on media theory, actress Sophie Rois, philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, Oskar Negt, Eisenstein biographer Oksana Bulgakova, Galina Antoschewskaja – the great-nice of Lenin’s translator, novelist Dietmar Dath, art historian Boris Groys, scholar Joseph Vogl, poet Durs Grünbein, political activist Lucy Redler, comedian and musician Helge Schneider, and about twenty more. Many of the interviews are focused exclusively on the interviewee and without the usual shot, counter-shot structure. [4] Each interview uses a static frame but changes in terms of background and setting. An intriguing phenomenon is the frequent alteration of the lighting device used to illuminate the scene. This fussing with lightbulbs and lamps brings to mind Eisenstein’s notes, which discuss the writings of Joyce and which state: “Questions are asked and answers are given. The subject of the question is how to light a Bunsen burner. The answers, however, are metaphysical.” [5] With this in mind, I thought that perhaps the best way to assess News From Ideological Antiquity would be to have a conversation with Barbara Clausen and Michael Blum, who introduced the film during its Canadian premiere at the Cinémathèque Québécoise in Montreal on 27–29 April 2011. Our discussion took place the following month.

Barbara Clausen: When we spoke at the screening, Marc, you said that you envisioned our interview in terms of a casual conversation between three people who have just seen Alexander Kluge’s Nachrichten aus der ideologischen Antike. I like the idea that the experience of seeing a film together in the cinema can lead to the continuation of the infinite stream of conversations that Kluge strikes up. It keeps with the spirit. Kluge refers to the film as NadiA, its German acronym, and we will do the same here.

Marc James Léger: Right, and the film is rather elusive, like André Breton’s Nadja. Do you think the film is accessible? You know, Kluge is so concerned with the masses, the proletarian public sphere, working people, and so on.

BC: Well, for people who watch reality television shows, probably not.

MJL: Do you know the context for the reception of his television work in Germany? Have you ever seen his work on television?

BC: Oh yes. He actually produces very mundane shows, as well as cultural programs, with his production company dctp, such as his erotic TV show called Wa(h)re Liebe.

Michael Blum: It means both real love and commodity love. I would say NadiA is completely accessible to whoever wants to see it. That is its beauty. It’s theory popularized, in the best sense, expressed in very simple terms. He obviously asked his interviewees to not use specialized language.

MJL: I think Kluge might reject the idea that his work is somehow illustrating theory, though he says that his models for film language are Karl Marx and Rosa Luxemburg.

MB: The film doesn’t express theory, but is theory. I read in Kluge’s interview with Stuart Liebman that for him, film and theory are combined. [6] His film is informed by theory because he works with language.

BC: Kluge does not illustrate, but rather grants us access to theory and philosophy. It’s not an easy view. When we first watched it we would watch one hour at a time.

MJL: Was this on television?

MB: No, you can buy it on DVD. It’s published by Suhrkamp, one of the major German book publishers. This mode of distribution I find highly interesting. Kluge went from being a writer to being a lawyer and then a filmmaker. And then he moved from film to television. But he has his own logical way—a very coherent trajectory.

BC: Kluge uses the book publishing distribution system to resist the passivity of the TV format. This is a move that is somehow reminiscent of Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s call for an active TV viewer.

MB: The beauty of a DVD is that you can watch it at your own rhythm, and that’s how we “consumed” it.

MJL: The film is very fragmentary. I don’t imagine you would lose anything by watching it in parts. It’s not Wagner’s Bayreuth or Christo’s unveiling of the Reichstag.

MB: It’s really like a book. The fragmentation increases the accessibility and there are many vantage points, which become apparent when seeing it with others on the big screen. The screening at the Cinémathèque brought a lot of people together. It wasn’t just the usual five cinephiles or Marx scholars. It was a variety of people, many of them unfamiliar with Marxist debates, who were really hungry for this kind of knowledge.

MJL: What was your motivation for bringing NadiA to Montreal?

MB: On the one hand, it’s a love of mediation—specifically a German-Québécois mediation—translating a cultural object that belongs to and is deeply rooted in German culture for a Québécois audience, which we knew would be receptive. And on the other hand, there is a personal obsession I have with Eisenstein’s failure to film Das Kapital. I made a work based on this called Wandering Marxwards. It was the first work I made in Canada, in Banff in 1998, which happened to be the 150th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto.

MJL: Is it a failure or did he simply never get around to it?

MB: Maybe I shouldn’t call it a failure, but I like the idea of failure being a productive factor. There was no footage shot, but there are about twenty pages of notes that Eisenstein took during the editing of October in the winter of 1927-28. As far as I know it was less related to James Joyce than everyone says. It was the idea of representing a life in one day that likely appealed to him. Eisenstein was looking for ways to translate Das Kapital into simple film language and Ulysses provided a great model.

MJL: Joyce’s work is of course a challenge to the usual narrative form for the novel.

MB: True, and of course Eisenstein didn’t succeed. Why? On the one hand, because representing Das Kapital is a huge challenge—too great even for him. And on the other hand, there were political reasons for which the Soviet regime—at this point, it was Stalin’s decision—simply didn’t want him to carry on with it. So the project remained unrealized, and this unrealized film became an obsession of mine, I admit a slightly romantic one, but nonetheless it’s been fuelling my work.

MJL: So are Eisenstein’s notes the starting point for your work?

MB: The notes contain the possibility of making a film of Capital, but they also contain this aspect of impossibility.

MJL: Is your work then about impossibility?

MB: I was basically looking for a more human vision of Marx and Marxism.

MJL: More human than what, Stalinism or something?

MB: No, more human than the common view on Marx, which is cold. You know, political knowledge is not warm… Let’s say I was trying to emphasize the human aspects of Marx’s writings, something rather unexpected—like the tips he wrote for his friends’ wives on how to read Capital. He wrote these in the form of recipes, a form he thought would make the text more accessible to women! This gives us a completely different insight into Marx.

BC: Do you think Kluge was aware of this?

MB: Very likely, but he didn’t include it in the film, even though he is after these little stories that encapsulate history, like the Robinsons of 1942, or the real grave of Marx. You think that the film contains everything, and you become sensitive to what’s actually missing.

MJL: Does NadiA include clips that were previously presented on television?

BC: Yes, like the footage of the two GDR scouts discussing water, electricity and Soviet power.

MB: It’s an extension of existing material. He didn’t use everything because of course he had interviews with Heiner Müller shot sometime in the late 1980s and he didn’t include them. Why not? We can only speculate. Brecht aside, Müller was one of the most important German literary and theatre figures of the twentieth century. He’s at the core of all of these issues in the film and he’s not in it. So his absence is quite palpable. In any case, Kluge used a lot of material that existed beforehand but much of it was also shot for this production.

BC: There were several interviews with Oskar Negt, you might have noticed, and each one was a little different in style from the others.

MJL: It’s in one of the interviews with Negt that we see Kluge for the first time.

MB: In this scene you really become aware of the way NadiA is constructed. For example, in the interview with Durs Grünbein, Kluge is on the phone and you see him frontally. That’s the only time you see him alone in the picture, moreover in such a frontal shot.

MJL: I’ve thought about this question of the occasional presence of Kluge in the film and I can’t say that I see any obvious rationale for it except maybe as an exception to the formalism of shooting interviewees in some fairly standardized ways.

BC: I think it’s about transparency. In the Grünbein interview it’s interesting that Grünbein is perfectly lit with makeup and everything, but that Kluge is shot in his office with dim lighting.  It’s ironic that this major filmmaker from the postwar period is practically sitting in the dark whereas this other person, in the U.S., has perfect hair. Kluge has a generosity and is sovereign enough to include material others would edit out.

MJL: Perhaps he’s trying to deal with the paradox of being both the author and the work—conducting interviews and talking to the audience at the same time. It’s an interesting means for him to move away from the usual strategies of cinema, like shot/counter-shot. As much as I like his television work, I really like his film work. It’s sad that now that he’s in this television mode he’ll never make another quote-unquote film.

MB: What really seduced me in the first place is the playfulness of the film. Kluge is old enough to not care about his style and he’s completely free to just play with the form of the interview and with his interviewees. He has nothing to prove anymore. I’m always in awe of cultural producers in their seventies who still experiment with form. We live in a system that encourages us to make a formula out of everything that works, and Kluge certainly doesn’t do that. As for his films, if you think of Yesterday Girl (1966), which is minimal, beautiful, with very little dialogue and very simple camera work… It’s over now though, and Kluge is not interested in the economic machine that film is caught in. He can be supportive of people who make commercial films today, but he’s just not interested in making them himself anymore.

MJL: He’s always been critical of the sort of author’s cinema that becomes signature work with production in the interest of profits rather than audiences.

MB: Yes, and that for him simply becomes an extension of nineteenth-century bourgeois aesthetics.

MJL: Yeah, but it’s easy to see his television work as an extension of his film politics.

MB: An extension, or a receptacle for his film work. He translates the language of film within the format of television rather than vice versa.

BC: And now, with NadiA, he brings it into the book format by making the film available on DVD for an affordable price.

MB: I wonder how Kluge works with the Internet. I think he would be sympathetic to the idea because it’s open, decentralized, democratic, it reaches everyone and it’s free. Also, the Internet is global. But then there is the issue of language. For NadiA, I think he used DVD because a nine-hour film just can’t be properly presented on the Internet.

MJL: This is another criticism of the strategy of cinéma d’auteur in which signature acts as a vehicle for global distribution. The idea of production politics is instead to change the local conditions that make author’s cinema the only way to survive. For this, cinema has to collaborate with the public sphere.

BC: This brings us back to what motivated us to show the film. In hindsight it was an incredible experience to see this film with others. This gave me a completely different outlook on what was being said. The timing with the Canadian elections was incidental, but it fit with a political consciousness we found in Quebec, because of the leftist tradition.

MJL: One of the questions that the film raises is the relevance of Marx, much more so than that of Eisenstein. He uses Eisenstein as a way to talk about Capital, but of course he’s programmatically against Eisenstein’s theories of montage. You know he made Artists Under the Big Top: Perplexed (1968), which is a film about a woman who wants to start a circus but who wants to show animals in their natural state and not ridiculously alter their nature. This for him—not only in subject matter, but in film form—was a critique of Eisenstein’s idea of intellectual cinema as a cinema that elicits a specific response and a cinema which already knows what the audience response should be. So we have the relevance not only of Marxist political economy but what this has meant for the development of culture and aesthetics. What do you think of Marxist politics within the field of culture today? I would say that since the postmodern 80s there hasn’t been a great deal of acceptance of Marx until only recently, in the last five years or so.

BC: In recent years, artists such as Rainer Ganahl, Alfredo Jaar or critic David Riff have called out for people to re-read Marx. I think there have been momentary desires to go back to Marx, to read Marx, but I wonder how genuine this is and where it leads.

MB: There is a real need for reading Marx, especially after the sub-prime crisis and the recession. It’s clear that capitalism has failed and lives on only thanks to the billions that were injected by states as artificial life support. As for the cultural sphere, there has always been a liberal trend in it. If we, artists and cultural producers, want to be relevant, we have to know what is important to society at large. But beyond that, I agree with Barbara that it’s a bit too sudden for the art world to be so interested in leftist politics. This said, what is crucial about NadiA is that the film was released just before the crisis. We were interested in seeing if Kluge had written a postscript to the film subsequent to the crisis, but he hadn’t.

MJL: Wouldn’t the postscript be whatever people make of the film, or maybe even reading Capital if they haven’t attempted it yet? Shouldn’t the film’s postscript be its critical reception, or the uses people make of it?

MB: You’re right, but I still wanted to hear from Kluge on this! The daily use of the Internet has changed our minds. Now we want everything updated by the minute—a quasi-live transmission of Marx—to be always in sync with the Zeitgeist. When I re-read the Communist Manifesto in 1998, before making Wandering Marxwards, I was stunned by what Marx described in 1848. His account is so close to what we see 150 years later, namely, the deregulation of the labour market and the globalization of trade. As for Helge Schneider, he helped with an issue of translation, which is how to translate Marx into music. What images do we have for Das Kapital? What images do we need? I think that’s exactly where the relevance of the film lies for cultural producers.

MJL: I had very contradictory feelings about the ending, because obviously it functions as a sort of happy ending. It’s one of the most ludic moments in the film, and Schneider even puts on a fake Marx beard and says in a high-pitched emasculated voice: “Workers of the world, unite!” I think it acts as a moment of confession because it’s talking about the contradiction of cultural production in terms of the difference between productive and nonproductive labour. The artist, as a producer, exists within a division of labour, which brings up the entire problem of who the audience is for the work. Kluge has a very privileged position—as do we—within that division, so his film as a whole is a kind of measure of the state of capitalist production. As he’s waving goodbye he’s saying to us that his film is itself an objectification of capitalist productivity.

MB: That’s right, film and television are industries. I recently read an interview with Michel Gondry where he states that contemporary art is like the stock market, while film is an industry. I believe this is relevant since film is a big system, heavy and predictable, which is what Gondry likes about it. With contemporary art values change overnight based on what appears volatile and irrational.

BC: But as an art historian, I understand this irrationality as part of a greater structure and ontology that goes back to the creation in the nineteenth century of myths about the nature of the artist.

MJL: My critique though would not be of artists but of the social system in which they live. There’s a compulsion in the system for constant change and that’s the competitive aspect that motivates productivity.

BC: The paradox of the capitalist market is also that it has created so many different kinds of art practices. There is actually quite a lot of diversity in the art world; therefore it might be more appropriate to speak of art worlds, in the plural.

MJL: They nevertheless have to confront the facts of capitalist relations. Even the more communal versions or alternative practices, permaculture or micro-financing or whatever, have to function within a capitalist system. Small utopian communities are no different in this regard than socialist states like China or North Korea.

MB: Well, you can’t operate outside of capitalism, can you?

MJL: I would say that there is definitely a utopian streak in much of today’s activist art and this is very apropos in relation to a film that’s based on Capital, you know, which is defined as scientific socialism. What I appreciate about an art collective like Chto Delat?, for example, is that they are very knowledgeable about these kinds of issues.

BC: This historical awareness and its application to the present is part of their practice.

MJL: Yes and look at how minoritarian that discourse has become in Russia and how much censorship there is of radical politics. There’s brutal repression of any kind of protest and any critique of capitalism.

BC: Yes, which they document on their website. Their blog is like an archive of all of these human rights abuses.

MB: This is where Kluge’s strategy becomes relevant. He didn’t want to work outside the system, but completely from within. In the 1980s he decided to work within the realm of private as opposed to state television. With all the private channels that appeared in the 1980s in Germany it became evident that there would be little programming dedicated to culture and education, and this lack actually allowed a space of freedom.

BC: Kluge claimed a space for educational programming within the private TV sector and actually managed to get great time slots. [7] His story of resistance became a story of success. Kluge is not a romantic—he’s a pragmatist.

MJL: It’s romantic in the sense of the early bourgeois entrepreneurialism that Kluge talks about. This is an avant-garde idea of art, which is not a popular concept today. Most people will say that art is not a matter of class politics. With Kluge, though, you have the language of class, especially in his and Negt’s idea of the proletarian public sphere. He said somewhere, I think in the October interview with Stuart Liebman: “We are not postmodernists. I believe in the avant-garde.” [8] A good deal of art today is actually more comfortable with what he and Negt refer to as the production public spheres. It’s more of a cool counter-cultural space—relativistic and pluralist.

BC: Today, to become an artist is a lifestyle decision. The number of people who apply to art school has mushroomed. Some art programs, like the one at Columbia University in New York or the Royal College of Art in London, promise students a commercially successful career by the time they graduate.

MJL: Yes, and in that sense class analysis is replaced with lifestyle ambitions and whatever suits your personal profile. So you end up with a cultural politics of representation.

MB: Actually, art education carries a lot of these contradictions. Some level of authority is necessary to guarantee others total freedom within a given framework. But clearly, I don’t believe people who claim they work outside the system.

MJL: I agree with you and I’ve written about this question in relation to fantasy. One of the things that interests me about Negt and Kluge is the way they acknowledge fantasy as something produced by social relations and which bourgeois ideology rejects as being unrealistic. Fantasy reproduces reality but in a distorted form, as a reaction and as a defense. When you come out of school, you’re often confronted with a situation in which you have become marginalized but you have the dream of being an artist or an art theorist or whatever. You think this way while you are working on your art or your writing, but you soon discover that for various reasons you are alienated from what you make. It’s a matter of opting into a system that is going to exploit you.

There’s a Kluge film that was made in 1976 called Strongman Ferdinand, which is about a security expert who is hired by a large manufacturer on a probationary contract. He trains security staff and wants to demonstrate his competence, much like an independent, avant-garde artist who is proud of the work that they do, without compromise. So he has to prove that he can do the job and he’s very gung-ho about it, extremely professional and systematic. He gradually discovers that some of the unionized workers are planning a strike and then that some of the white-collar scientists are sharing research secrets with other companies. After he reports this, an executive tells him that he should ease off and maybe not do his job so well. He then discovers that the board and executive are actually looking into selling off company assets, undermining its viability—something like that.

BC: So it’s corruption across the board.

MB: Many Kluge films are about people crushed by the brutality and corruption of the system. Take Yesterday Girl, for example—it’s the whole country that’s corrupt. Anita G. moves from East to West Germany to seek a better life and every human she meets or institution that deals with her causes her situation to deteriorate. She’s criminalized, abused and ends up in a women’s prison. With NadiA there is a less dramatic ending—quite the opposite in fact. I wouldn’t call it a happy ending though.

MJL: But you know the feeling in the room, right? Everyone got up with a smile on their faces that had almost nothing to do with 99 per cent of the film.

MB: In Germany, Helge Schneider is a well-known comedian for intellectuals, so to speak. He’s also a musician and a filmmaker. He makes really goofy films and musical performances, like a piano duo/contest with Chilly Gonzales. He’s both high and low, goofy and smart. The concluding scenes with him as Eisenstein’s composer are great because he’s someone who really works on translating concepts.

MJL: That’s part of the Kluge language: the variety show format, or the “revue film” that Horkheimer and Adorno thought had more progressive potential than the standard Hollywood method of nailing you to the cross. This is cinema that’s not about aesthetic autonomy, like Tarkovsky or Antonioni, but that’s more designed to stimulate a response, like burlesque with its prurient material.

MB: Yes, but only there, at the end.

MJL: Well, there’s a bit of burlesque throughout, like when he’s berating Negt about the fact that little can be achieved with written theory, that images can better create situations. He pushes Negt to the point where he just can’t take it anymore and then says that’s the problem, that the images overtake you and become the situation.

BC: But I think there are also very emotional moments—like with Dietmar Dath when they talk about love and extremely personal stories, or with Sophie Rois, when she’s thinking about love and intimacy.

MJL: To me, both those interviews were such put-ons, especially the one with Dath. They’re jumping from topic to topic.

MB: Yes, and what’s great is that Kluge can be with someone for a minute or an hour and either way he creates intimacy, which we as viewers are allowed to share.

FUSE and the Goethe-Institut Toronto to co-present a screening of News from Ideological Antiquity for the launch of FUSE 35-5/Baltics on Nuit Blanche, 29 September 2012. Presenting partners: CARFAC Ontario and Mayworks Festival. Details here.


[1] Sergei Eisenstein, “Notes for a film of Capital,” October 2 (Summer 1976), 4.

[2] Ibid., 4-5.

[3] See Oskar Negt, “What Is a Revival of Marxism and Why Do We Need One Today?: Centennial Lecture Commemorating the Death of Karl Marx,” in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, eds., Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 222.

[4] For some useful essays on Kluge’s film work, see Miriam Hansen, “Cooperative Auteur Cinema and Oppositional Public Sphere: Alexander Kluge’s Germany in Autumn,” New German Critique 24/25 (Fall/Winter 1981-82): 36-56; Stuart Liebman, “Why Kluge?” October 46 (Fall 1988): 4-22; Edgar Reitz, Alexander Kluge and Wilfried Reinke, “Word and Film,” October 46 (Fall 1988): 83-95; Miriam Hansen, “Introduction (On Kluge),” New German Critique 49 (Winter 1990): 3-10.

[5] Eisenstein, “Notes,” 7.

[6] Stuart Liebman, “On New German Cinema, Art, Enlightenment, and the Public Sphere: An Interview with Alexander Kluge,” October 46 (Fall 1988): 23-59.

[7] See Liebman’s interview with Kluge in Stuart Liebman, ed., Alexander Kluge: Theoretical Writings, Stories and an Interview (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1988), 31.

[8] Liebman, “On New German Cinema,” 57.


Marc James Léger is an artist, writer and educator living in Montreal. He is editor of Culture and Contestation in the New Century and author of Brave New Avant Garde: Essays on Contemporary Art and Politics.

Barbara Clausen is a curator and art historian. She received her PhD in Art History (on the historiography of performance art and the work of Babette Mangolte) from the University of Vienna, Austria, in 2010 and is currently a guest professor in the department of art history at the Université du Québec à Montréal. Since 2004 she has curated the screening programs, exhibitions and performance series i.e. at the MUMOK Stiftung Ludwig in Vienna, TATE Modern, as well as, most recently, Down Low Up High — Performing the Vernacular, at Argos in Brussels (2011). She is currently organizing an exhibition on the work of Babette Mangolte for VOX Centre de l’image contemporaine, in Montreal (2013).

Michael Blum is an artist based in Montreal. Since the early 1990s, he has developed a body of work—videos, installations, books—that offers a critical re-reading of the production of culture and history. His work has been shown extensively at venues such as the Centre Georges Pompidou (Paris), De Appel (Amsterdam), Kunsthalle Wien, the New Museum (New York), as well as the Baltic, Istanbul and Tirana biennials. He is currently a professor at UQAM’s École des arts visuels et médiatiques.

Image caption: News from Ideological Antiquity. Marx – Eisenstein – Das Kapital (Germany, 2008, Alexander Kluge). Image courtesy of dctp Info & Archiv.

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