RIHA Journal 0303 | 31 May 2024

The Crystal Palace as the Parliament of Objects:
On Alexander Kluge’s Collage Film The Power of Emotion

Regine Prange

In a sequence dedicated to the London World’s Fair in his collage film The Power of Emotion (1983), Alexander Kluge talks about how the suppression of prudent proletarian emotion by the aesthetic staging and emotionalisation of exchange value corrupted the departure of industrial modernity into happiness and affluence. Correspondent to the mode of the opera, which originated concurrently with the "parliament of objects" as the "power plant of emotions", the fairytale-like beginning of the collage with the Great Exhibition in London in 1851 is followed by the Crystal Palace fire in 1937, with which the Reichstag fire of 1935 is associated. What is crucial is the portrayal of the workers Kluge’s montages feature as the 'real' builders of the Crystal Palace and of societal prosperity. The artisanal sensitivity with which bolt and nut are connected in such a way that the construction is stable represents a social utopia, which in view of its loss requires a response at the artistic level that is appropriate to the wartime destruction. The technological construction of aesthetic semblance has to be laid bare, the artistic form has to become iconoclastic.

Pilgrimage to the commodity fetish

[1.] Joseph Paxton’s gigantic glass-and-iron building for the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London was the first highly prestigious piece of architectural engineering. The name it was given, the Crystal Palace, obscures this technological quality, suggests a mystical totality. As is generally known, this building and the commentaries devoted to it served as the historical starting point for the glass utopias designed by Paul Scheerbart and Bruno Taut, on their part leading to the ideal of transparency in modern architecture.1 The crystal metaphor evokes the openness of the constructed space and the self-acting growth of the form, hence an art and nature identity. Despite the monarchial framing, the first of the "places of pilgrimage to the commodity fetish"2 created important scope for those bourgeois ideologies that Karl Marx, at the time working in exile in London, and Friedrich Engels had begun to examine. According to Marx, the bourgeoisie justifies its claim to power by professing to act in the name of an absolute beyond religious legitimation, namely as the advocate of the unity and greatness of nature.3 Marx describes a kind of naturalization of what is produced socially as the fetish character of the world of commodities: "The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an 'immense collection of commodities'; the individual commodity appears as its elementary form."4 Wealth appears in the form of a commodity; in other words, it is not recognised where it is produced, in labor, but "reflects the social characteristics of menʼs own labour as objective characteristics of the products of labour themselves, as the socio-natural properties of these things."5 Alexander Kluge translated these "religious reflections of the real world"6 into his own poetic language. "All things are bewitched people" it says in the monumental montage film News from Ideological Antiquity: Marx – Eisenstein – Capital, with express reference to the central category of the commodity fetish.7 Yet it is not only this late work, which is devoted to and falls in line with Sergei Eisensteinʼs plan to make a film of Marxʼs Kapital, that pursues the intention of an artistic critique of ideology. And it is not only here that Kluge is concerned with understanding the effect of the political economy on the subject. He inquires into how social life processes are formed or deformed by capitalist relations and their history, most of all a history of wars and a history of institutions such as that of civil law. Only against the background of this more comprehensive project of removing the 'veil' in the sense of Marx’s "utopia"8 can it become understandable why Kluge makes reference to the international exposition in London in his film The Power of Emotion (Figs. 1−18), thus to the historical beacon of the said bewitching of people into things, which, according to Kluge’s commentary at the beginning of the sixth film sequence, are "the opposite of emotions."9 Before taking a closer look at the Crystal Palace sequence, a concluding part of this sixth film sequence, more light shall first of all by shone on Klugeʼs approach and the content of the film.

[2.] Kluge’s cinematic œuvre was recently referred to as a continuation of Critical Theory with narrative means.10 Indeed, in films by Kluge we move from one narrative into the other. While his first feature film, Yesterday Girl, is still borne by a plot, albeit broken up by episodes – the protagonist, played by Alexandra Kluge, experiences the social coldness of the reality of the Federal Republic of Germany –, in later works Kluge increasingly breaks up the strands in order to string together a plethora of individual sequences – sketches and interviews as well as collages consisting of images and texts. However, the individual episodes are not isolated but are elements of a historiography interconnected through the repetition and variation of forms and motifs that, inspired by the classic Frankfurt School, pertain to the German path into industrial modernity and National Socialism as well as its aftermath. The point of departure are Klugeʼs literary texts, which he mostly speaks as a voice-over, supposedly in the style of a classic documentary. However, based on his literary methods one can more likely speak of a montage aesthetic bound to realism.11 It has a laconic, casual formal language of its own that denies any composedness and comes across as a protocoling, improvised, or even punning non-form. In contrast to Theodor W. Adorno, whose friendship and respect he enjoyed, neither does Kluge shy away from Brechtian didactics. Nonetheless, his films meet Adornoʼs demand on a work of art to be enigmatic. They are consistent with his point of view that the political content and a utopian dimension of an artwork may not be simply stated and communicated, since only the autonomous art entity can be wrenched from service to reality.12 The drastic, the grotesque, and poetic combinatorics create an audiovisual work out of images, sounds, and words whose complex content first has to be opened up through decelerated vision.

The negative and positive power of emotion

[1] With high-rise office buildings and the opera house, Frankfurt’s urban architecture provides the petrified pole of that alienation with which Marxʼs analysis of commodities deals. The film The Power of Emotion begins with the "daybreak over the Main with a view of the high-risebuildings," a "temporal close-up [Zeittotale] from 5:00 to 8:15 a.m."13 Accompanied by dramatic sounds from Richard Wagner’s Parsifal, we see how the rising sun illuminates a glass high-rise – a light symbolism that not only runs through this film. It is the light of enlightenment that has become ensnared in the objects and the structures of capital and already point to the archetype of the Crystal Palace, whose history will be gone into later. Kluge uses the time lapse to render visible the ephemeral fugitiveness of the performance of human activity compared to the majestically resting, immovable buildings that announce the allegedly eternal order of the capitalist economy, indeed, even seem to possess their own pneuma. This nature-mythical aura of Frankfurtʼs skyline heightens Wagner’s musical Gesamtkunstwerk to become the Holy Grail achieved through sacrifice.

[2] Light is also a spark of the soul; it testifies to the presence of the people bewitched into the object. Delimited from that enlightened rationality of the economic world, modernity has created a special technical vessel – the opera house as the "power plant of emotions."14 The film addresses a number of opera performances and uses them to demonstrate the objectifying canalization of emotions. The Klugian Zeittotale dominates here as well. The spectacle is often presented among the scenes or in a view from above as apparatus-determined action.15 On his own admission, Kluge shot this film in order to throw light on the background for the "obstinacy of war" in an improperly organised emotional household.16

[3] Hence the "power of emotion" is another formulation of the "dialectic of enlightenment."17 Its negative power manifests in the numerous destructive and inexplicable outbursts of which Kluge tells; he demonstrates its positive power, the view into a non-alienated relationship between the subjects, in the final sequence by means of the comedic, fairy-tale-like narrative of Betty Fahle, called "Knautsch-Betty", a prostitute whom "Schleich, a specialist in burglaries" buys "for her own sake".18 With a great deal of patience and shared effort, the two revive an allegedly murdered man and "they are closer now", as the end of the film announces.19 Here, the opposite of that clichéd operatic rhetoric that places happiness at the beginning and has the catastrophe follow is recommended as the "design of paradises".20 Klugeʼs narrative proposes placing the difficulty, out of whose mutual processing and mastering will ensue happiness, at the beginning. It becomes clear that the utopian quality of emotion does not happen to be the one that is staged in the romance as fateful coincidence. It has to do with emotion as an everyday power of distinction, as sensitivity for the situation and for what it calls for. In the final analysis, Kluge’s concept of emotion alludes to what in a socialist context has been called solidarity and class consciousness: It is first the awareness of oneʼs own social situation that dashes the natural magic of emotion in bourgeois culture. The bourgeois ideology of emotion is out to propagate the entirely different spontaneous experience not achievable through reason – as an alleged reservoir of a human essence separate from economic logic, which is meant to be experienced quintessentially in art. Kluge promotes the development of emotion in the sense of a continuation of that mandate of enlightenment that political theater and cinema gave itself in the interwar period. Slatan Dudowʼs film Kuhle Wampe (To Whom Does the World Belong, 1932), made in collaboration with Bertolt Brecht and which Kluge directly quotes elsewhere,21 continued to attach this principle of education to the reality of the Communist Party. This could no longer be an option in the period following the disappearance of the workerʼs movement and the lack of a broad-based opposition, which could not be reestablished in the wake of social democracy and student protest. Kluge’s grotesque case examples of outrageous and misguided emotion gone wild play out, like his counter-narrative, in the Western capitalist world of the postwar period. The energies of resistance are attached to fictional characters like Mrs. Pichota, Knautsch-Betty, and Schleich, who visualise the encounter with the real economic and political relations, institutions, and ideologies and subject them to reflection.

The worker, the bolt, and the soul of commodities

[4] Kluge demonstrates the specific way in which he takes up the legacy of revolutionary cinema in the image of the worker, who appears as an expert on productive emotion. According to Kluge, the exploitation and oppression of the proletariat sustains the exploitation and oppression of emotions, which are the "proletarian in us, powerful proletarians".22 Two short sequences that lead over to the history of the Crystal Palace explain this equivalence with typical Klugian humor. The socialist utopia is namely in the sensitive handling of bolt and nut, a metaphor with an explicitly sexual connotation: "Erwin screwed bolts with more care than he treated her. Still, she often wished, that he would handle her as carefully as some valuable object."23 The machinist Willi Münch now explains in detail how important it is to twist bolt and nut into one another with "a lot of feeling" – one of the film’s key lessons, which unites work and love as collective activities.

[5] Divorced from this reality of solidary emotion, Kluge presents the occurrence of the Worldʼs Fair in London, since objects themselves become the actors here. "Once in the middle of the 19th century, all the valuable objects of the world assembled in London. All commodities worldwide sent their representatives."24 Hardly noticeable right away, on the other hand, is Kluge’s poetic principle, with which he artistically develops the Marxist critique of political economy. More precisely, in the quoted phrase Kluge develops the literary fiction of the Warenseele (soul of commodities) used by Marx himself25 by paraphrasing a sentence from the chapter on fetishism in Capital: "If commodities could speak, they would say this: our use-value may interest men, but it does not belong to us as objects. What does belong to us as objects, however, is our value. Our own intercourse as commodities proves it. We relate to each other merely as exchange-values."26

[6] Firstly, Kluge’s artistic appropriation of the sentence consists in stylizing the supposed subjectification of commodities as carriers of exchange value into the reality of a fairy-tale world, just as, in 2008, he would speak of people "bewitched" into things.27 The fairy-tale-like tenor of Kluge’s voice, coupled with unpretentious sobriety, reflects the productivity of the capitalist economy, virtually experienced as a miracle and also appreciated by Marx. It is about the happy beginning of a grand opera! The relationship between the commodities result in progress, as the value form made a maximum unfolding of knowledge necessary and therefore possible. Kluge had announced the fact that a disaster is simultaneously impending in the objectification of social relationships, that the opera of industrial modernity would meet a fatal end, in the womanʼs wish to be handled like a valuable object.28 The commodity fetish absorbs emotion.

[7] Kluge marks the "happy beginning" primarily by combining the Marxist metaphor of the commodity fetish with what is evaluated as the apparently positive democratic institution of parliament. "All commodities worldwide sent their representatives."29 Not least, there are German industrial products (actually produced later) among the representatives of "commodities worldwide": "the Siemens telegraph, steel goods from Solingen […]. A Krupp cannon […]." Hence the "ancestors of all modern consumer goods" that met in London comprise communication media, luxury cutlery, and weapons – essential areas of bourgeois order. After the description of the building of Paxton’s "greenhouse" in Hyde Park, the sequence concludes with the burning of the community building reconstructed in Sydenham, which is again associated with German history. It occurred "four years after the Reichstag fire." The chapter ends with: "Since then, objects have no parliament." Thus the history of the Worldʼs Fair in London is not only interpreted as the history of capitalism, but as the history leading up to fascism and its ineluctable consequences. Kluge’s own specific diagnosis of a modern loss of the public sphere can be heard in the cited brief announcement that "objects have no parliament."30 According to the original draft of the film, the focus was to be placed on the dissolution of the public sphere and the criticism thereof. Besides the state and the opera, in this concept the Worldʼs Fair of industry is an image of public orientation still applicable to a reality that was replaced by the "modern project (based on the grand opera of the Third Reich) of pluralistically filtered emotions, divided into information and entertainment."31 This epoch of "moderate public-sector media" in turn threatens to be suspended by the project of "privately financed, new media" initiated in the 1980s in favor of even further fragmentation, against which Kluge calls for the "democracy of human senses."32 He even regards the achievements of the public sphere as the "most valuable treasures of the free West."33 From here, however, it is not quite understandable why the production of the public sphere by corporations that stem from the free West requires resistance.34 Does Kluge acknowledge the Great Exhibition in London as the medium of a classic public sphere, which since the perversion of the public sphere by the National Socialist media apparatus has been irretrievably lost?

[8] The basic order of the draft can definitely be read in the film that was ultimately produced. However, in no way can its arrangement be broken down into the quoted media-political statements and dissenting positions. While in Klugeʼs draft the historical necessity that leads from the classic to the fragmented public sphere remains unnamed, the cinematic form creates a playful, dialectic tension between the contrary "powers of emotion" that are repeatedly compared with the political economy.35 Kluge produces a critical synchronization of the Worldʼs Fair as a Gesamtkunstwerk with that of the opera, and implicitly with that of Hitlerʼs fascism. What drives historyis the culmination of emotion in sacrifice and the catastrophic collapse, caused by the separation of reason and memory.

From the Great Exhibition to catastrophe: The Crystal Palace sequence

[9] The sixth sequence begins with a table lamp that "was turned on before a holiday and then forgotten"36, and it ends with the memory of the Reichstag fire.37 Just as the lamp was forgotten and continues to burn, a bomb from the Second World War "was hidden in the ground for 38 years" with a fully intact brass fuse.38 Another episode tells of a front-line soldier who in 1918 finds his wife in bed with another man and shoots. The voice-over: "He sought clarity. He had his rifle."39 Emotion is objectified and forgotten in both the lamp as well as the weapon. The object speaks instead of the person. This shift to the grotesque already featured in a court scene in the second film sequence: A defendant, played by Hannelore Hoger, had fired a shot at her husband, and when the judge asks her about her motive and intent, all she can cite is this: "I wanted to shoot."40 Kluge concentrates delusion as well as utopian power in the phrase "All emotions believe in a happy ending."41

[10] Gentle, understanding emotion, which alludes to an active agency of consciousness and memory, is represented by the machinist Willi Münch as well as the reporter Mrs. Pichota, played by Alexandra Kluge. Sitting on a park bench before a blossoming cherry tree, she looks around briskly and secures her notes with stones – probably a rudiment of the early film script in which Alexandra Kluge plays the housewife Rosemarie Eilers – the "owner of her own broadcasting station, which competes with the new audiovisual media corporations."42 Mrs. Pichota’s spright attentiveness and her deliberate holding-on to memory contrast with forgetting and the lack of emotion, which, as Willi Münch explaines, leads to the bolt "loosen[ing]" or even falling out.43 "Then the damage is already done."44

[11] As already delineated, in Alexander Kluge’s metaphorical language the loss of bolt and nut by neglecting their correct interaction means the collapse of social relationships. Because Münchʼs explanation of the damage cuts directly to the Crystal Palace sequence, this has to be read as a historical retrospection that more closely examines the "damage" that has occurred. After all, against the background of the episodes cited, which tell of the dangerous independent existence of objects as fetishes of emotion, as fairy-tale-like as it begins, the talk of the parliament of commodities experiences a break. From the very start, the weakness and power of those "factions" of reason seem to be inscribed into the modern production of goods that "have permanently married the world of facts" and cannot "pursue enlightenment" with "power that is that emotionless and lacking a will of its own."45 As a result, emotions that do not come into their own become "contact mines."46 Not least, the various militaristic motifs articulate the consequence: "Everybody is a bomb."47

[12] In the following analysis of the Crystal Palace sequence, it will be shown how Kluge responds to the Worldʼs Fair as Gesamtkunstwerk with his own intermedia-based creative means, and how he makes the suppressed social conflict visible in the documentary photographs he uses. Particular attention will be paid to the colorization of these photographs, which separates the visual worlds into contrasting spheres, confronting the expositionʼs programmatical reconciliation of technological rationality and nature, of capital and labour.48

[13] The first photomontage shows two structures on a balustrade, behind which towers the Crystal Palace, which can scarcely be situated in terms of space (Fig. 1), and is sharply separated into a bluish part belonging to the building and a yellowish outdoor area.

1 Alexander Kluge, The Power of Emotion, 1983, screenshot (00:42:56): "Once, in the middle of the 19th century, all the valuable objects of the world assembled in London"49

The posing men wearing top hats and occupying the space between the engineering construct and nature neither develop a lively relationship to one another, nor are their gazes directed towards anything. This dissociation of alienated consciousness once again becomes the subject of the coloration in each of the ensuing shots.

[14] The "Siemens telegraph" now clearly breaks with documentary authenticity (Fig. 2). Whereas in 1846 Werner von Siemens invented the so-called Siemens pointer telegraph, with which one could easily transmit news letter-by-letter without having to use a code (the device depicted here is not comparable with the one by Siemens).

2 Alexander Kluge, The Power of Emotion, 1983, screenshot (00:43:05): "All commodities worldwide sent their representatives: the Siemens telegraph"

[15] Kluge employs a fictional pictorial document, analogous to the pseudo-documentary use of fictional characters such as Mrs. Pichota. The device, according to Kluge’s text list out of which the signals "resonate", consists primarily of a bluish monitor on which a mask-like face appears.50 The shot evidently recalls the historical beginning of mass technological communication, including that of film. Is Kluge providing us with a self-portrait of the intellectual and artist in the age of technological media, a Socratic mask that transforms into the clownesque instead of into the silenusque? Although his speech movement seems to be part of a mechanism and the glowing red light does not belong to it but to the technical energy source, this mask-like face possesses a baffling vitality. Like Jean-Luc Godard in Caméra- œ il (1967),51 Kluge poses the question of the truth potential of art that is an adjunct to big industry, the parliament of objects.

[16] The "steel goods from Solingen" are also combined with the human face, now in the plural (Fig. 3).