The question in my mind when seeing Alexander Kluge’s The Blind Director, having not seen any of his films before, was whether it would be anything like his books. Specifically, would it deal in the neutral, “journalistic” tone adopted in Learning Processes With a Deadly Outcome and the highly effective Case Histories, which effected uncanny shifts in the depth of field via their reportorial style. By using standard journalistic techniques (interviews, summaries, lists, topic-based analysis) on dead-serious material, he called into question both existing treatments of the material and the hidden biases of the techniques he was applying. Given the crucial role that narrative tone plays in his written work, would it carry over into the less verbal medium of film?
The answer: yes, more than I expected. Partly, this is due to Kluge directly injecting narrative text into the film: there are significant amounts of voiceovers, given by Kluge himself, that provide interpretation or direction of the images on the screen. And Kluge is far less narrative than I had expected: his film technique is as compact as his novels. He gets the ideas on the screen and moves on, more or less abandoning the idea of narrative development to present situations as they are. The approach has a little in common with Resnais’s Mon Oncle d’Amerique, where behavioral scientist Henri Laborit is inserted in the film to discuss the motivations and hidden impulses of the characters. But while Resnais’s film comes off as a stiff attempt to illustrate a theory, Kluge strives for the more elusive mixture of having the narration and the story elements stand on equal, sometimes opposing footings, with the narration often not explaining what’s on the screen, but going off in another direction entirely.
The Blind Director himself is only present in the last third or so of the film, entitled “The Blind Director.” The German title of the film is Der Angriff der Gegenwart auf die ࿋rige Zeit, or, “the assault of the present on all other times.” After an opening segment of the opera Tosca, Kluge moves through some disconnected shots of “hurried people” and the like, theorizing over them, before settling down into the first of two “stories.” In “The Transfer of the Child,” a foster mother who has raised a girl since her parents were killed in a car crash is forced to give her up to rich relatives of the parents. After her detailed, obsessive instructions on how to take care of the girl and her habits are ignored, she takes the child away with her. In “The Blind Director,” we meet the director of a strange project about a medieval monk and a dead girl who isn’t quite dead. He has gone blind, and the studio is in trouble, because the insurance won’t cover the illness. There are some funny, deadpan exchanges about how assistants will be brought in to help him finish the film and describe everything to the director, but the story never goes further than that. It ends with a shot of the director blind and despondent.
There are many thematic layers in the film, but what intrigues me most about Kluge are his narrative techniques. Kluge takes a scenario that would be allegorical in a facile way (the blind artist who can no longer communicate his vision, a theme best turned inside out by Borges’s “The Secret Miracle“), and postpones it until the last third of the movie, where it is more or less presented as an static image. We hear about it through a journalist interviewing the director first, then the producer. The situation is presented and dispatched, as though we had read about it as a news item denoting a single event (“director goes blind”), rather than any sort of story (“director working on profound weird film loses his ability to do so and must excavate his inner life to find the cure” — I’m thinking of 8 1/2, but any number of other stories would fit the bill). It would seem to represent a more realistic alternative to traditional, contrived narratives, but Kluge’s result is so idiosyncratic that the film comes off as considerably more experimental than billed. Kluge has been reticent in explicating his theory of montage, saying that it is simply identical to Godard’s. But Kluge is more emotionally reflective and less explicitly dialectical.
Consider the German title, “The assault of the present on all other times,” which seems to conjure up the idea of a present moment consuming past and future, growing to satiety. This ties directly to one of Kluge’s favorite themes, the dual nature of time:
For the Greeks, Chronos stood for time that leads to death, time that consumes itself. Chronos is a gigantic god who devours his own children. His antipode in the Greek pantheon is Kairos, “the fortunate moment.” Kairos is a very small, dwarf-like god with a bald head. But on his forehead he has a tuft (of dense hair). If you catch the tuft, you’re lucky. If you are just a moment too late, your grip on his bald head will slip and you won’t be able to hold on to him. This character, Kairos, is the “happy time” that is hidden in the time of people’s lives, in their working time, in everything they might do. He is an object of aesthetic activity. With Chronos on the other hand, you can only become a watchmaker.
The narration, discontinuity, the lack of development, the emphasis on single moments: these all fall into what could be called a “moment”-based attitude towards narrative and montage: that by focusing on single incidents in isolation and drawing out from them past and future implications both tangible and abstract, a meaning can be drawn from them that is absent in traditional narrative, which only leads inevitably to death. It is somewhat complementary to Stockhausen’s idea of “moment form,” though more philosophically sophisticated. John Dack explains:
Stockhausens adoption of moment form need not discard perceptible processes with goals; they simply refuse to participate in a globally directed narrative curve, which is, naturally, not their purpose.
I think this is about right. Kluge’s depiction of “hurried people,” and his portrayal of the director as a hurried man stopped in his tracks by his blindness, suggest a desire to reverse the traditional narrative process in favor of what he sees as a more life-affirming one. (Hence the name of his production company: Kairos.)