Curiously opening near the end of the second act of Tosca as the heroine (Maria Slatinaru) fends off the advances of Scarpia (Günther Reich), the corrupt police commissioner, the unexpectedly abrupt, in medias res performance of the Puccini opera provides an incisive prelude to the elliptical structure of Alexander Kluge’s “anonymous city” symphony, The Assault of the Present on the Rest of Time, an organic and fractured, yet humorous, intuitive, and poetic rumination on the integral – and correlative – nature of technology and (urban) identity, the intersection of film and new media in the creation of art, and the delusive quest to manipulate time. A rearticulated theory by Professor von Gerlach (Hans-Michael Rehberg) presented during a radio interview discussing the seemingly patternistic evolution of history – remapping the twentieth century as a cumulative progression of compartmentalized, four-year plans that, when stitched together, reveal a tabula rasa, generational life cycle of social change and political reinvention – serves as an introductory paradigm for Kluge’s multi-faceted approach to the film. Observing that the year 1984 intriguingly represents exactly sixteen years since the height of the May 68 revolution, as well as sixteen years from the end of the twentieth century, the recursive, yet arbitrary reduction of human history as binary multiples of repeating intervals reflects the perpetuated myth of time as a conceptual, yet quantifiable point of convergence – a precise demarcation of an idealized, indefinable present that exists only in relation to another. It is this illusive idea of time as absolute and infinite that the narrator (Kluge) reinforces in an abstract composition that occurs midway through the film:
“Time is what you can measure with a clock. A child, a city, a love, death…these are clocks. One cannot measure that which we consider past, present, future. People, being at fate’s mercy, interpret the period of time in which they decide as ‘the present’. They want this period to be long. This is the source of illusion.”
In a chapter entitled The Superfluous Woman, Kluge dispels the argument of time as an interminable entity through the case study of a well-respected doctor (Rosel Zech) who goes away on an extended vacation to Africa and returns to find that her superior has recruited an additional physician to the medical practice (enticed, in part, by the ambitious doctor’s offer to finance the purchase of expensive diagnostic equipment for the clinic) and has demoted her to the basement office. In a subsequent chapter, The Hasty Ones, the idea of manipulating time through arbitrary parameters of (apparent) activity, preoccupation, and speed is subverted by the randomness of fate as a business executive’s “saved time” proves meaningless against the inevitability of death – an egalitarian destiny that also recalls a researcher’s (Alfred Edel) earlier conversation on the transitory nature of time as kairos, an intense, but fleeting consciousness of experience (a conversation that is wryly prefigured by the interstitial, keyhole shot of a fluffer at work in an anonymous, high-rise building). Contrasted with an earlier vignette of a young Polish woman who reluctantly entertains the romantic overtures of a German soldier during the war in the hopes that his infatuation will aid in delaying the confiscation of her parents’ film collection, Kluge illustrates the paradox of time as both malleable and inalterable – a tradable commodity and an irreplaceable endowment – an interplay between the ephemerality of kairos and the eternity of chronos (whose essential Truth resides in its enduring quality).
In The Handover of the Child, the idea of time as a surrogate for desire is illustrated through a lonely single woman, Gertrud Meinecke (Jutta Hoffmann) who decides to become a foster parent to an orphaned child (primarily out of financial incentive), only to face losing her when the girl’s wealthy relative is found years later. The theme of surrogacy similarly infuses the final chapter, The Blind Director, in which a veteran filmmaker (Armin Mueller-Stahl), struggles to complete his latest film despite his increasingly failing eyesight. Enlisting the aid of assistant directors to describe the shot footage, Kluge captures the underlying dichotomy between rote image and vision. In both episodes, time exists, not in the present, but in the acute awareness of its eroding passage – its finiteness. Moreover, Kluge’s fragmented, idiosyncratically assembled sequences of narrative vignettes, time lapse sequences, found film, and rough hewn, artisanal compositions also reinforce an integral aspect of the discourse that culminates in The Blind Director (a theme that is also broached in a segment chronicling the captive life of a computer-addicted family): the illusion of technology as a surrogate for human imprint. Juxtaposed against images of steel recycling that allude to the obsolescence of traditional production (the materials having been reclaimed from an automobile salvage yard), Kluge’s intriguingly dense exposition transcends the simple novelty of creating thematic variations on the dual nature of time, and instead becomes a stage for articulating its repercussions. Concluding with the extended shot of the blind director alone on the ledge of a fire escape as a montage of heavily matted, vintage film stills supplants the frame, Kluge presents an indelible metaphor for the enduring role of film in an age of immateriality, the relativity of images, and the isolation of creative vision.
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