Kluge’s Learning Processes with a Deadly Outcome is less successful than his earlier Case Histories because he decouples the human element from his reportage style. In Case Histories, the portraits of ordinary people corrupted (easily or with some difficulty) or destroyed by circumstances resonated because they so resolutely represented the ordinary in times of crisis. Here, the stars are four old Nazi war criminals who, in the near future, mastermind humanity’s expansion into space and the mass exploitation of, well, pretty much everything.
The trick is in the telling, full of vague pictures, recorded dialogues, and all sorts of obfuscatory tricks to frame the science fiction concepts in blandly “objective,” “scientific,” and “rational” phrasings. Kluge’s goal, as far as I can tell, is to produce enough distance from those mechanisms by means of the science fiction content to expose them for the manipulative forms of speech that they are. The technique is fairly effective, but Kluge overplays his hand by making the material too grand-scale and not giving enough insight into how the forms of reportage are being consumed. It’s propaganda without an audience.
Far more effective are the best moments of Peter Watkins‘s oeuvre, recently playing at Anthology. Watkins is an extremely clever filmmaker who is also extremely left-wing, sliding somewhere into the anarcho-socialist category. So Punishment Park is about a near-future extension of Vietnam where the authorities are locking up hippies and dissidents and sending them off in the desert with a bunch of trigger-happy National Guardsmen; The Gladiators shows all the generals of the world getting together quietly in a room to cheerfully direct wargames where their troops kill each other; Privilege is a MacGoohan-esque individualist tract about how a pop star is exploited by the state first to direct youth violence in harmless directions, then to persuade everyone to convert to Christianity and conform and so on. “Aren’t you using this young man to further your own agenda?” they ask the clergyman. He replies: “Well, in the middle ages the church used the inquisition to further our own agenda, and we think this is a lot less painful!” It’s farther out than Lindsay Anderson’s flicks of the same period (if…, O! Lucky Man) and about as entertaining.
But the matter at hand is a particular device that Watkins only inconsistently uses. He’s fond of voiceover narration (I believe in his own voice), often telling you the exact meaning of the scene, and the use of tropes used almost exclusively in documentaries. I have a distaste for many documentaries because, due to the need to organize messy material into a compelling storyline, the invisible hand of the editor/director is often far more apparent than if the facts could be smoothed over in fiction, and the result is all too apparently manipulative. Watkins exposes these methods and those used in news reports, often with stunning verisimilitude. In Culloden, a recreation of the battle done up in the style of a news report, complete with interviews and running commentary, the inflections and mannerisms of the commentators are not those of any other film; they’re those of the mid-60’s BBC. In Punishment Park, he doesn’t go so far, but he manages to capture some (apparently improvised) very believable conversations between older establishment types (most memorably a Phyllis Schlafly look- and sound-alike years before she appeared on the scene) and some young anti-establishment kids. They talk, they spew their dogma, and they fight, and it’s all in the trite, ideologically simplistic phrasings of received ideas that very rarely make it into novels or films. It’s incredibly depressing, but it’s also convincing because it captures some ineffables that fell out of Kluge’s work: incoherent speech corrupted by emotion, the verbal shorthand of preconceived notions, and the pompous, rehearsed tone of someone saying things that they’ve believed for years and have never questioned.