“Man Can Do Anything”: Alexander Kluge on ‘Artists Under the Big Top: Perplexed’

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“With Artists Under the Big Top: Perplexed (1968), I wanted to continue my debut feature, Yesterday Girl,” says Alexander Kluge, an important German filmmaker, video artist, television documentarian, writer, theorist, and social critic who will attend several screenings during Anthology Film Archives and Goethe-Institut New York’s small retrospective of his work this Saturday. “My sister Alexandra (Yesterday Girl’s lead actress) and I were both crazy about the circus as kids. She married and had a child, though, so I made the film with my lifelong friend, the actress Hannelore Hoger.

“The idea of the circus comes from the French Revolution. Man can do anything; Man can force nature and animals to act contrary to the laws of Nature and to the facilities of the human body. Lions don’t bite their tamers. Elephants can stand with their heavy bodies on one leg, contrary to the laws of gravity. Even before there were airplanes, people could fly in the circus dome. That is hybris (megalomania). At the same time, it is a very strong feeling inside of people.

“I made the film under the direct impression of the student revolution (against the state, against the Vietnam War) in Germany. The film treats the topics of intelligence, of art, and of ‘trying hard’ in a brutal environment. It depicts a circus owner named Leni Peickert (played by Hoger) who wants to reform her outfit, which is strongly ritualized and freighted with ‘efforts at the hazard of one’s life.’ She fails to accomplish her goal, but gains experience. Twenty years later, I followed her path in my own work when making independent television.

“The film is a film d’auteur. It is an homage to the great times of silent movies and to the beginnings of film history. At the same time, it depicts something very modern, something that is as up-to-date in 2016 as it was in 1968. High up in the dome of the circus, the artists cannot react to the inhumanity of the world, and below on the ground, the clowns and circus workers can’t even begin to get the idea to start a revolution, to put in lots of effort and to change the world. So what to do? A film like Artists can, much like an insect’s eye, be a mirror via music, plot, montage, and words for such a topic. Today we have the ‘Internet of things,’ Silicon Valley, an Africa practically without industry, bomber planes over Aleppo (like artists under the big top), and victims in the basements (like the circus workers on the ground). A new circus film would certainly be adequate.”

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