Arthouse Cinema - Alexander Kluge
Abschied von Gestern (Yesterday Girl): Expressing yesterday in the present
We are not separated from yesterday by an abyss but rather by the changed situation.
Alexander Kluge’s film Yesterday Girl (1966) begins with this sentence. The concept of the “past” already carries a moral burden on German post-war society, from its defeat in the First World War to the genocide committed by the National Socialists in various regions of Europe.
People also bore the burden of reparation after the Second World War: they lived under Allied military occupation, and during the Cold War they were pioneers of the forces of the West Bloc and the East Bloc. Reparations for the “past” by consolidating the system and capital deprived German society of humane attempts to understand the past and the present.
The systematization of societal elements and the reluctance to talk about history or politics restricted the space for mourning.
Kluge and his friends from the New German Film tried to reopen this space. This group of young directors sought to liberate film from the conventional order and to pave the way for dialogue with German political history. Abschied von Gestern (Yesterday Girl), one of the earliest films in New German Film, is very inspiring in this sense. Alexander Kluge’s first feature film was awarded the Silver Lion Award at the 1966 Venice Film Festival.
The story is based on Kluge’s short story Anita G., which is inspired by actual events. Anita (Alexandra Kluge), the main character, is one of the hundreds of thousands of East Germans who emigrated to West Germany between 1948 and 1982. The beginning of the film shows her being charged with theft and put into prison. When Anita is released from custody, she is determined to leave her past behind, but her resolve is not easy to implement. She is repeatedly dismissed from her jobs for trivial reasons. Economic difficulties force her to relocate several times until she finally lands in the office of a Cultural Service employee as his mistress.
Productive and well-behaved individualsAnita is a member of society who cannot regulate existing social institutions. Throughout the film, institutions are present in almost every situation: legal institutions (courts and rehabilitation centers for prisons), businesses (the cassette seller and the hotel where Anita works), educational institutions, family institutions, and state institutions. They are all part of the state system, which continues to be reproduced in order to maintain social life and render productive and well-behaved individuals. Overall, this is the body of industrial society in urban areas, regulated for economic efficiency and improvement, just as West German society grew rapidly in the period of the economic miracle after the Second World War.
Yet each individual has a unique background, different experiences, and this film shows the difficulties of the system in dealing with people who cannot be categorized. As an immigrant without relatives, friends, capital, college degree, or other social networks, Anita has limited options for surviving as a worker. When she loses her job because her boss accused her of theft, she cannot assert her rights. “Having a good life” therefore does not seem to be attainable for everyone. Her lecturers at the university answer only in academic jargon when Anita asks for advice. Pichota, the lover who shelters Anita, and from whom she later expects a child, cannot help her because he is married. Institutional “pigeonholes” become obstacles to solving real problems.
The court scene at the beginning of the film parodies this systematic logic. The judge rejects Anita’s testimony about her grandparents, who were victims of the Holocaust, and the feeling of insecurity she experienced in Leipzig. The judge considers Anita’s family history irrelevant to her current situation. Instead, he accuses her of having gone to West Germany to try her luck. In this scene, state authorities not only validate the experiences of persons deemed marginalized but also reinvent their past and determine their future. Trauma, history and other elements of human complexity the system is unable to read must be put right again. Anita is a person who is constantly trying to fix things through procedures such as exams, coaching, adjustments to the work environment, and instructions from supervisors at work. But it seems dialogue with people needs more imagination; it’s complex, and the system always returns Anita back to her initial situation.
Fragmented Visual ExperienceKluge’s indictment does not stop at the narrative. It also expresses itself aesthetically. The audience will find this film a fragmented visual experience. Conveying images and scenes does not always conform to narrative logic: different camera angles—sometimes combined with text, illustrations, or symbolic montages—sometimes occur in a single scene. We can see this when, for example, Anita sells a foreign language cassette: the camera shows close-ups of the face of Anita’s manager giving her instructions; Anita’s conversation with the customer documented from a distance; the light of the street stalls on the sidewalk shot from a first-person perspective; and the lights of the city at night resulting in increased frame rate. Sometimes the montage deviates from the narrative being constructed: clips from childhood photos of Anita and her family interrupt scenes with instructions from Anita’s manager; then again, in the scene where Anita is being interviewed by the hotel manager, we see him suddenly change the subject to talk about his experiences as a prisoner of war.
This form of cinema is reminiscent of the jump-cut technique used by Jean-Luc Godard to demonstrate the reality of cinema, which differs from real-life reality. Kluge himself mentioned Godard and the French New Wave as one of the inspirations for New German Cinema, but in his own films he shapes the technique into something new. The film becomes a playground for the search for a more humane and ignorant style of speech to criticize German institutions and society obsessed with the system. He expresses reality as a collage in which one experiences different forms and sensations simultaneously—strange, non-linear, but familiar with the human body and psyche experiencing reality. The way people perceive space and time can be very flexible and may vary from moment to moment. Certain images, objects or memories in a person’s mind can sometimes interrupt everyday perceptions. In the film these may be, for example, image interruptions and changes in the narrative thread.
Yesterday Girl does not end linearly; it ends circularly. Anita goes back to prison. Although traces of the past can be refuted for reasons of change and progress, they are still part of the present. Alexander Kluge’s Yesterday Girl presents a new way of experiencing the reality of his time. The “new way” is not always interpreted here as progressive increase, but it does open up the discussion about history and the present without denying human experience which is not contained in the categories of the system.
© Dini Adanurani Dini Adanurani is a writer and researcher living in Jakarta. She is interested in film criticism, art, and reflections in everyday life. She completed her studies in philosophy at the University of Indonesia. She writes regularly for Journal Footage and researches for Kultursinema.