EIBF 2014: ‘Money Rules the World’: Alexander Kluge’s Film ‘Grapes of Trust’

This is one of a number of pieces covering events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which runs from 9th–25th August 2014 at Charlotte Square Gardens, Edinburgh.
Alexander Kluge’s Film Grapes of Trust was shown on 10th August 2014.

by Lin Li

The boiled frogAs part of the Edinburgh Book Festival this year, the Edinburgh Filmhouse screened the film Grapes of Trust by Alexander Kluge who is a celebrated filmmaker, writer and intellectual in Germany. Kluge has directed dozens of films and documentaries; written novels, short stories and books on social theory.  Since 1988, he has produced numerous television programmes in the form of independent cultural magazines. As one of the signatories of the 1962 Oberhausen Manifesto which declared that the old cinema was dead and sought a new film language free from commercial interest, Kluge was a leading figure in New German Cinema (Neuer Deutscher Film), which flourished in the 1960s and 1970s.

Described by sociologist Richard Sennett as the “last living presence” of the Frankfurt School, Kluge is interested in the relationship between political economy and artistic expression.  Grapes of Trust (Früchte des Vertrauens) is a film project in response to the recent global economic crisis – the outcome is an eleven-hour long DVD. The shorter feature film shown during the Edinburgh Book Festival is an abridged version which deals with various questions relating to money, trading and its basis: trust. What role does money play in our lives?  What can money buy or not buy? And in whom/what can we trust?

LagergeldGrapes of Trust begins with the statement “Money rules the world / Who rules money?” (Geld regiert die Welt / Wer regiert das Geld?) This is then followed by a series of figures showing the continuous and drastic depreciation of the German currency from an exchange rate of 4.20 Marks to 1 US dollar in 1914 to 4,200,000,000,000 Marks to 1 US dollar by the end of 1923.  The movie is made up of many such segments of facts, texts, interviews and tales which are compiled together like a collage in Kluge’s fragmentary style, characteristic of his approach to both filmmaking and writing.

Interview with Jakob ArnoldiKluge does not believe in logic and precision of language or images.   Rather, he believes in association and by presenting the segments without any logical structure, viewers are encouraged to make their own associations.[1] Without imposing an overarching theoretical framework or thesis on the film, Kluge offers its content as “raw materials” for the spectators to formulate their own position regarding the issues concerned.  To those people in the audience who are less familiar with his movies (which are far from well known in Britain), his film may appear confusing and disjointed.  The ostensible lack of organisation, however, serves the purpose of avoiding what Kluge has referred to as “conceptual imperialism.”[2]   This democratic approach springs from a respect for the audience, who are in a way Kluge’s collaborators in making the film, which is ultimately constructed in the mind of the viewer. As such, the film is re-invented every time it is watched.

One should not burn another's skinWhile Grapes of Trust offers no singular, exclusive analysis of the economic crisis, Kluge’s choice of materials does point to a critique of the mechanism of the financial market.  The comparison of the economic crisis to the Chernobyl disaster, together with the allegory of the cooked frog and the prince who burnt the skin of his frog-princess, underlines the precarious position of the world economy and the danger of a market driven by greed.  The way in which the market operates today, with high frequency trading and complex computer modelling, renders it almost impossible to predict and control – can we trust the market, or is there another disaster in the waiting? 

Kluge’s films are characterised by the use of a mixture of images and sounds in a diversity of styles.  The soundtrack of Grapes of Trust is made up of conversations, classical music, pop music, brass band, folk singing, and sound effects.  Being interested in sound and emotion (Kluge has made a series of films on opera and singing, and the power of emotions), he deploys sound as non-verbal commentary with a specific emotional tone.   The soundtrack is accompanied by an eclectic range of images: talking heads, texts, black and white archival footage, still photographs and animated photographs, graphs, drawings and paintings, as well as clips from his earlier films.  Interviews and texts, two modes of presentation used extensively in his other films, are particularly prominent in Grapes of Trust.

A waiter who became a billionaireThe film includes interviews with different people, some real (e.g. Heiner Müller, Joseph Vogl and Jakob Arnoldi), some fictional.  Apart from conversations with intellectuals, there are interviews with a Stasi reconnaisance expert, a waiter turned billionaire, and a stock market astrologer.  It is not always easy to discern whether these people are made-up characters or real, although in one or two cases, the fictitiousness is betrayed by the almost caricature portrayal (such as the bulging spectacles worn by the astrologer, played by the actress Hannelore Hoger).  While some of the interviews are serious, focussing on abstract ideas which require intense concentration to follow, the more humorous mocked interviews provide concrete examples of what money means to us as individuals and in our relationship with others, and at the same time demonstrate the absurdity of the stock market in gambling with the future.  The interviews are always conducted by Kluge himself whose presence takes only the form of an off-screen voice, but his presence is very much felt as his contribution to the conversations is at times quite elaborate, and his voice communicates curiosity and energy.

Money gets things movingText is used throughout Grapes of Trust.  Often a whole section is presented only or largely with texts on screen (as in the trailer). Kluge’s filmic approach has been influenced by silent movies, with his strategy of using written text being similar to the intertitles in this genre.  His liberal use of text in its own right is based on the assumption that this will liberate the viewer’s imagination.  Watching his film is like reading a giant moving book, but the words are presented in such a way that they do more than communicate information or tell a story.  Texts become pictures and are enlivened by multiple colours, orientation and placement on the screen.  The effect is poster-like, with words calling for attention.  Some people may find the typography crude or excessive.  Shown one florid text-picture after another in quick succession, the spectator could easily miss the extra layer of meaning or emotional tenor, which the graphic design is supposed to convey.  This is particularly problematic to viewers who have to read the English subtitles and simply miss the pictorial details of the German words.  The demand on the non-German speaking viewers is especially high when a text-picture is accompanied by a voiceover in German talking about something else.  In these instances, the English subtitles appear on top and at the bottom of the screen – the viewer simply does not know where to look. 

In his introduction to the screening, Richard Sennett explained that Grapes of Trust was commissioned by the BBC and will be broadcast later this year.  To render the film more accessible to the British audience, might it be possible to have an English edition in which the text-pictures are in English and the conversations dubbed?  This could solve the problem of accessibility but it would remove a vital element in Kluge’s creation – his German “voice.” Born in 1932, his personal experience of living through a traumatic period of German history has been an impetus for his filmic and literary output, in which German national identity and historical consciousness is a recurrent theme.  Although Grapes of Trust deals with a topic of more global relevance, Kluge’s concern with the history of his country is evident in his selection of material such as the exchange rates of German Marks mentioned earlier.  In this respect, it is interesting that the film makes no specific reference to the monetary union in Europe and the role played by Germany, despite the fact that trust has great significance in maintaining this union.

Kluge’s films are refreshingly different from mainstream cinema. British viewers who are not familiar with his work may have to learn to appreciate his filmic style. I discovered his DVDs a few months ago in the Goethe Institute Library in Glasgow.  Once the initial hurdle of unfamiliarity is overcome, his films can captivate, make you think, puzzle and want to know more.  It is commendable that the Edinburgh Book Festival has introduced him to the British public.


Notes:

  1. Angelos Koutsourakis, ‘Brecht Today: Interview with Alexander Kluge’ in Film-Philosophy (15.1, 2011), pp.220-228
  2. Alexander Kluge, ‘On films and the public sphere’, in Alexander Kluge: Raw Materials for the Imagination, ed. T. Forrest (Amsterdam University Press, 2012),  pp.33-49.
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