Alexander Kluge: Telling Both Sides of the Story
Ulrike Sprenger and Leander Gussmann

The renowned German director and writer Alexander Kluge, who has worked with, among others, Theodor Adorno and Fritz Lang, has dedicated his life to thinking about images and their place in culture. For the ‘Portfolio’ of this issue of Electra, this fundamental figure of contemporary critical thinking talks with his collaborator, writer Ulrike Sprenger and Leander Gussmann, a researcher of artistic and cultural studies, about the analytical and cooperative method that he has developed in his monumental work. He shows how the images can be read, how they are superimposed and come into being, using an iconological grammar that is surprisingly revealing of the world and the time in which we live. True to his method, he also deals with current issues, such as the War and the opposition to it, and finally, with a central metaphor in his work: the garden. This conversation between Kluge and his interlocutors is made up of words and images, in a verbal-visual composition that, due to its originality and interest, constitutes a fundamental document that must not be lost.

In the bitter time of war


Film still from ‘Das Staunen der Tiere. Trauer der Kreatur’ [‘The awe of the animals; the sorrow of the creature’], 2022


LEANDER GUSSMANN  We have a few images in front of us. Let’s start right at the beginning, with a still from a film from 2022. What kind of image is this?

ALEXANDER KLUGE  This is an example of a ‘Zeitperspektive’ (a perspective in time instead of perspective in space) integrated in the image. The animal comes from one of Walter Benjamin’s favourite books, Bertuch’s Children’s Picture Book (1807). The scene depicts ‘war in Ukraine’. As an adult, Benjamin purchased his own set of the twelve volumes of Bertuch’s picture book and always made sure that he had them to hand. The animal in this picture and the tank create an ‘impression of irreality’. Such an animal, coming from 1807, could never meet Ukrainian war. It is precisely the different origin of the two pictures that produces the ‘Zeitperspektive’.

This is the world of Caspar David Friedrich in a print. If you relocate the animal from the children’s book to this press photo, Benjamin’s perspective and that of 1807 enter the image. Such images are intended to disturb. They disrupt the assertion that the actual image shows the complete reality. In a human reality, the wish that the war did not exist belongs to the picture.

There is a core story within my tales. It is about a female teacher – a mother of two children – sitting in Germany in 1945 in an air raid shelter. Helpless in the face of the air squadrons high above bombarding the city, she thinks to herself: ‘I wasn’t actually powerless in 1929. Sixteen years ago, in that critical year, I and 50,000 other teachers would haven been able to stop Hitler at that time. He only had 4% of the vote in Saxony at that point. If we’d done that, I wouldn’t be sitting here in this cellar, completely powerless.’ If you look at that through the lens of time, with echoes of the basements in Ukraine in 2022 or subsequent wars, this story shows as a metaphor: 16 years from 2022 you realise that we can fight specifically against such dangers from above right now through our work. Wars require armour and weapons. Conversely, metaphors and images may be good weapons to prevent war, to trip it up.

We can talk to each other now, form alliances, invest in work, develop partnerships. This is what is behind the concept of the ‘Gardens of cooperation’.


Animal as a witness in front of the wreckage of a tank, 2022




’Unmöglichkeit, nicht zu weinen’ [‘The impossibility of not crying’]. From the series ‘Lichter im Hafen’ [‘Lights in the harbour’], 2022


Here you have a teardrop. Behind it shines the light from Amsterdam harbour. The ability to cry is a wonderful thing. It shows that we are descended from sea creatures: only they can transfer liquid from the inside to the outside of their bodies in this way. This ability to turn to liquid something that is petrified inside us is at the root of all music. The root form of music was the lament; upbeat songs and dancing only came later. The ability to grieve is one of the skills that you need to make peace.


This is a glass panel. In the middle is a stone by Sigmar Polke. He collected these stones, and they remained part of his estate. Kerstin Brätsch took this stone from there and incorporated it into a glass panel. I placed a section of the glass panel in front of my camera lens, with a 6,000-year-old picture from Uruk beside it. This set-up forms a constellation and it is cooperative: with a painter, the glass panels produced by an artist and my own film work.
Yet the picture also cooperates with the work of an unknown hand, created 6,000 years ago. That is what film can do. Video art is still in its infancy. It is especially good at configuring things and forging connections between opposites.


The tears of iron-hearted Bismark

The night after the Battle of Königgrätz, Otto von Bismarck wept. Later, he was referred to as the ‘Iron Chancellor’ and considered a ‘tough politician’. ‘Boys don’t cry’ was a common saying in Prussia. Yet Bismarck wept before his king, who wanted to hold a victory parade in Vienna after winning the battle. Bismarck wept because he knew that doing so would pave the way for the next war. The mind doesn’t weep, but the soul can mourn. And the antithesis of this, uncontrolled belly laughter, is a weapon against the posturing of war. Uproarious laughter can shake things up and make them come tumbling down. The way crying turns our stony insides to water is a gift of evolution. We can turn and twist Heinrich von Kleist’s story The Earthquake in Chile this way and that, wringing out a new story each time. The tragic tale could also have a happy ending, and it is possible that the child that Kleist reports as being killed in the throng actually survived.

kluge alexander katharina grosse

is a stage by Katharina Grosse and a section from it, measuring a few centimetres. The scissored crane platform was designed for the opera exhibition ‘Opera: The Temple of Seriousness’. Drapes are hung on the platform. The image is entitled ‘Die Seele ist ein Unterwasserwesen’ [‘The soul is an underwater creature’].



It is said that sea animals alone transport salty liquid from their bodies to the outside. We humans are able to sweat and cry as a result of our descent from such sea animals (a great many years ago). A puma is faster than any human at chasing a gazelle. But after 400m of such running, it must give up its attack, overheated: it is unable to sweat. Our ancestors, on the other hand, much slower on their feet than any predator, their sweat cooling them, would pursue gazelles until the animals finally sank down tired. Then their necks would be cut, and the prey dragged back to the human cubs in the cave. The LACRIMAL APPARATUS is quite different. The fact that greed, aggressiveness and hardness can be mourned, indeed, that a human being would be unable to stop their eyes from crying when things become terrible, belongs – as lamenti in their position at the core of all operas prove – to the spontaneities, the authentic characters of the human race. When the stony heart liquefies, something both inside and out changes. Metamorphosis, the ability to cry, is the root of all poetics.

ULRIKE SPRENGER  Can I ask something about this one? You can’t weep over images of the enemy, as you’ve told us. That’s something we can’t weep or laugh about; instead it gives rise to this aggressive carping. I’m in the right; I’m the stronger party. What is it that makes us cry? What stories do we need to be telling in order to attain peace or bring the war to an end? How can you even come together in that kind of situation?

AK  We have to change our perspective. I’d like to refer here to the concept of the ‘Common European Home’. I can add another insight: the German artist Loriot and Gorbachev sat next to one another at the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth. In relation to the idea of the common European home, it turns out that in 1942 Loriot was the commander of a Panzergrenadier unit in the city of Stavropol, where the 11-year-old Gorbachev was living. It could well have been Gorbachev and other boys like him stepping out in front of the German tanks. Do the tanks stop and retreat, or do they simply roll over them? I’ve seen that very image again in Ukraine: residents, some of them children, standing in front of a Russian tank. And now it is up to the two parties to ensure that things don’t end in disaster. This is a matter of identifying one’s adversary as a human being. It takes two to resolve this situation: the man – an 18-year-old tank driver, perhaps – and the people standing bravely in front of the tank. Otherwise it will lead to a massacre like the one in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. The 1991 Soviet coup d’état attempt also suggests some similarities between the situation in Stavropol and today in Ukraine. But I can only see them if I acknowledge, if I recognise that there are also 18-year-olds sitting there, reacting to the protestations of the civilians on the other side. These recruits are young people, some of them not particularly well trained. You can tell this by looking up when they were called up for military service. I’ve now done something that any good journalist should do, and what Kleist would surely have done in the Berliner Abendblätter: I told both sides of the story.

And if I continue to tell both sides, I come to the young man who has got lost in Bucha with a patrol near Kiev and is afraid. He encounters a civilian and his wife. The young solider’s superior tells him to kill the civilians so that they won’t give them away. He does it. With my lawyer’s hat on, I know that this is a crime, that it is murder, you know? But what I also take from this story is how young the man is and that a life sentence means more for him than it does for some 80-year-old Nazi who is being sentenced to life today. To go back to the 11-year-old Gorbachev – and it is always a chain of stories, not a standalone tale – this serves as the antidote to the pathological fever pitch that the imagination can reach at the outbreak of war. This is one of those little counter-weapons that we should be honing against war. It is not a pistol or a dagger. It is simply a feel for the nuance – la différence, as the French philosophers would have it.

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makes reference to the closing scene from the first part of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project: the Grandville Planetary Bridge. It becomes an element of my homage between lights from the ‘Lights in the harbour’ series.


The ability to mourn. This is where the liquid element and the stone within us – just think of the poetic metaphor of the heart of stone – rub against each other.

alexander kluge

Lights in the harbour with drawings from the age of cave paintings. 40,000 BC, ‘Time Perspective’, 2022


Different times encounter each other here. The water is from the here and now, changing minute by minute, reflecting the sky, the air, at random. Who could possibly draw something like that? And then there is the cave painting from 40,000 BC, together with a camera recording from Amsterdam harbour in 2022. All that in a single picture.

The planetary garden

LG  I’d like to pick up on that notion of la différence and cooperation, and talk a bit about the garden. The French gardener and writer Gilles Clément sees the garden as an enclosed space that protects the best of things. He talks about the use of diversity and the art of arrangement. His philosophy includes the idea of gardens of cooperation, too.

AK  The notion of the garden is something very old indeed. The Garden of Paradise is associated with the founding of early cities. An enclosure was created very abruptly in Mesopotamia, over the space of just a few hundred years; it did not happen gradually. This was called a city. It was something completely unfamiliar to hunters and nomads. They would kill each other within such a constricted space. Yet suddenly people were getting along in those circumstances, as a result of demarcation – in other words, internal boundaries. You have the castle and the Arcana, the sanctuary. As forming this kind of nucleus within the city is a delicate business, the king is always separate from the priests. You have the emperor and the pope; they are never one and the same. Around that, the people live in houses where they can shut themselves off, in spaces demarcated from one another, so that they are separate yet together, whether in the republic or in the city. Outside roam the nomads.

That is actually the basic form of the garden. The opposite of a garden is wilderness and farming. Arable land is ordered nature that fulfils a purpose; straight furrows define the terrain and the wilderness is completely destroyed. I don’t need to explain what the wilderness is. It could be a desert. Or a jungle. And now something shaped by human beings comes along: a city for plants and animals. That’s what a garden is. It is a republic founded by people and based on respect. The shortest story that Goethe ever wrote, called Märchen [Tale], is about a child who did the good deed of pulling a thorn out of a lion’s paw. To everyone’s amazement, the child then sat in front of the lion’s maw, showing the companionship between the two. It is a tale of paradise. This is integral to the concept of the garden. The fact that gardens and cooperation are now equated with one another arises from the fact that things get very complicated.

What is the opposite of collaboration? Division of labour, specialisation and detail. There is nothing bad about that. Different professions have their own domain. I’m not sure whether I would trust a poet who starts acting as a doctor. Different professions are maintained, yet at the interface of specialisation there is an outer membrane between one art and another, where the two are connected through creativity. The algorithms of the Big Five in Silicon Valley destroy all that. Although they foster a sense of participation that I admire, they also create a desert. The arts have the task of bringing that desert back to life with counter-algorithms. They are advocates for the thirteenth fairy in the tale of Sleeping Beauty. As there was only crockery enough for twelve wise women in the land, the thirteenth fairy was cast out. The castle went to sleep. This position as the advocate for the thirteenth fairy is no mere whimsy or empty stance. Much more than that, it is the underlying reason for the ‘garden of cooperation’. What is the purpose of this cooperation? It is about breaking through the boundaries of these professions once they have become established. It is not a matter of weakening them, but about adding on another floor, as it were. As Marx says, it is about rising from the abstract to the concrete. Making things concrete is clearer, more precise, specific and real, but it is important to be mindful of the abstract that underpins it at the same time. In that respect, a garden is not anti-nature, and cooperation is not anti-individuality.

US  Could you say that the garden is a place for people to experiment amid nature? The greatest engineers of the Baroque would meet up in gardens to build fountains and devote their joint expertise to this place of pleasure, without the purpose of creating something functional or adding value, but rather of showcasing mankind’s capabilities within the natural world.

LG  The garden, at least as Foucault understands it, is a heterotopia: a place that brings differences together and opens the way for other social relations. Scientific experimentation is about smoothing out the variables, bringing them under control as effectively as possible, yet retaining an erotic relationship with the other. It is about letting the other be different, standing back and observing. It is a matter of just letting it do its thing. When I think of a garden, I think of insects flying over the fence, the ever-changing weather and the variety of plants. The garden needs to have this otherness running through it, no matter how tamed and orderly it might seem. Then there are other gardens that show a somewhat aggressive logic and penchant for classification. I am thinking of colonial gardens that seek to instil order and economic benefit overseas. But the question that really preoccupies me is this: which places should we now make peace for? Which places suddenly open up the possibility of other relationships, without doing away with otherness or striving for dominance and control?


Here is a different picture. This is from Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas. The tiny picture enlarged here is a watercolour of Catherine the Great. It reads ‘Logica’. The original dates from the 13th century. A young woman contemplates an animal that resembles a snake but also a feline. It is notable that Aby Warburg connotes logic like this: as an aggressive yet highly idiosyncratic, chimeric being.


alexander kluge

‘Mann aus Babylon’ [‘Man from Babylon’]. From the film Die Artisten in der Zirkuskuppel: ratlos [The Artists in the Big Top: Perplexed]. With detail from a glass panel by Kerstin Brätsch, 1968/2018


kerstin bratsch

‘Wer auch immer siegt, stürzt ab’ [‘Whoever wins will fall’]. Film still printed on aluminium with detail from a glass panel by Kerstin Brätsch, 2018


AK  The opposite of control is generosity (Großzügigkeit). The opposite [of generosity] would be a ruler. As humans wage wars, fight amongst themselves and behave like wolves, the ruler says, ‘Protego ergo sum’ – I can protect you against conflicts, and that is why I am in charge. This is Hobbes’ theory of state. The counter-theory is Marcel Mauss’ concept of generosity, which he set out in his book The Gift. Magnanimity as a source of authority is ingrained in societies and can be seen across human evolution. And generosity makes a peace agreement a likelihood. The 80-year war between Spain and the Netherlands came to an end in 1648, following the surrender of the city of Breda. Velázquez captured the scene in his painting. This is a rare case of a Spanish general showing magnanimity: Breda would not be destroyed. That became the model, and it took another five years of negotiations to find the key to the peace agreement that marked the end of both the Dutch-Spanish War and Thirty Years’ War. This involved settling upon a ‘normal year’, in which the Protestants and the Catholics suffered their greatest defeats in Central Europe. In other words, it was not a case of the strongest party steering everyone towards peace, but rather a determined enquiry to establish when both sides had been similarly weak. That was the year 1627. That became the year according to which the new faith-based boundaries were drawn. Religious frontiers constitute the highest form of the notion of freedom. The idea that people could choose their faith themselves is full of pathos. It essentially uncovers where pride is weakest and when one has the least reason to be conceited. It is the opposite of boasting. you see, war is a demon. That’s what the Greeks and Egyptians used to say. And, as Herodotus tells us, we can recognise a demon by the fact that he chatters away endlessly, boasting all the while, and declares himself to be all-powerful. That’s why demon-summoning in Egypt involves putting a stop to this braggadocio about war. It is a matter of searching for the weakest point of both opponents. This is where a diplomat like Kissinger, or even someone of more dubious character, like Nixon, can prove to be useful in bringing about peace. Kant asserts that even devils can establish peace or found a republic, provided that they have reason. However, peace would not be the right word in that instance. When I speak of war, I understand anti-war to be its antithesis. And an anti-war mindset is something completely different from just sitting there peacefully, doing nothing and waiting until the next conflict comes along. The word ‘peace’ can be a demon, an empty phrase or a ghostly apparition by turns. It takes highly precise work, or perhaps even a mechanism or organic machine in the Leibnizian sense, to anticipate and prevent the next war while fighting the current one.

US  Now I understand the notions of house and garden better. It is something whose existence is directed inwards and is constantly diversifying. There is a nice passage in Leibniz, where he is in a garden and a lady shows him that no two leaves are the same. As such, he understands the garden to represent the perpetual formation of differences. This means that the garden is precisely the place where people can observe how distinctions are constantly being formed, how new things are always being created and how they can observe this for themselves in a garden, which is open to the sky and thus offers a perspective on something bigger, so that we can look all the way inwards and all the way out. I think that’s what stories can do. So what Mr Kluge has just indicated – what stories can do – can be multiplied and differentiated ad infinitum. They can also reveal how a dynamic develops over a long time and how we can shed light on it. Since the Middle Ages, the garden has been a space where meanings are concentrated, where people interpret nature yet also experience themselves as part of the natural order. In the Baroque garden, this is exemplified by the maze. There, I myself am an object within the garden; I can always get lost within the space. And I can express my passions – statues of the passions were placed in gardens and mazes – to make an allusion to the fact that my nature is in a constant state of change and continually a source of surprise; it is always throwing up further differences and is thus something that cannot be controlled. The Baroque garden, which is supposed to be so orderly, invariably suggests uncontrollability and raises the matter of what I can experience about myself, my passions and what drives me, all within this small space. That’s another aspect of gardens, which cannot be capitalised upon. The key thing is the garden and house. What surprised me about Gorbachev’s speech about the European home was that by ‘home’ he does not mean a closed building. You can see that he means a building that is inwardly open, and that, like a garden, it is fertile, developing and in flux. I believe that this is what’s so appealing about this image of the house and garden; that we’re not dealing with a 19th-century townhouse where everyone has their set space and defined role, but that we have communal spaces like kitchens and gardens, we address the environmental aspect. It is about a dynamic conception of the home.

AK  Then there is E.T.A. Hoffman’s story Councillor Krespel. A hard-working 18th-century councillor is rewarded by the prince. He can build whatever kind of house he wants. He starts by setting up a great big chunk of material – wood and stone. Then he punches out a door. Once he’s done that, however, his plans for the windows have to change, because one affects the other. After several attempts, he ends up with a ‘house in flux’ – the opposite of the standard mechanical approach to building. This is house design seen in political terms: a republic emerges from sheer storytelling. There is a counter-example that shows how difficult it is to bid farewell to evil and disaster, but that, in the end, and against all odds, can indeed succeed. This is the story of the house of Agamemnon. He is born into the family of Tantalus, in which generation after generation of criminals and warlords succeed one another. At the end, the head of the house, Agamemnon, returns from the Trojan War and is taken to the baths. There he is slain by his wife and her lover, whereupon his son slays his mother right then and there. Before this, his daughter Iphgenia has been killed by her father as a sacrifice to the gods for the safe passage of the thieving Greeks to Troy. This represents the culmination of a culture of aggression and war within their own home and overseas. Yet after she has been sacrificed, Iphigenia is seized by the gods and whisked off to Crimea in a cloud of fog. In Crimea, she is too scatterbrained and forgetful to remember the story of her forbears. She is no longer used to communing with evildoers, so she is able to forget them. She has the power to let strangers in and bring about peace in Crimea, of all places. Ernst Jünger describes in his diaries from Paris the house of Agamemnon. The red carpet on which the guests of state enter, he says, is the trail of blood that flows from the bathroom to the entrance to the palace.

LG  The picture that Ernst Jünger paints makes a big impression on me. Red carpets are also an abyss. They make me think of the early Persian gardens that tried to include all four elements, with the fountain in the middle. Later these became the model for the carpet, as a way of bringing the garden indoors, or the cosmos, in the case of carpets depicting stars. But such carpets were specially knotted with errors, with blemishes, so as not to succumb to the hubris of presuming that one could replicate the perfection of the cosmos in the metaphor of the carpet.



george baselitz

‘Voltaire mit einer Geste des japanischen Meisters Hokusai’ [‘Voltaire with a gesture by the Japanese master Hokusai’]. From: Georg Baselitz, Alexander Kluge: Weltverändernder Zorn [‘World-changing anger’], 2017


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‘Georg Baselitz, ‘Napoleon im Körper von Voltaire’ [‘Napoleon in the body of Voltaire’]. Right: Fortuna auf dem Glücksrad [‘Fortuna on the wheel of fortune’]. From: Alexander Kluge, Napoleon Kommentar [‘Napoleon comment’], 2021