The Power of Emotion, 1983

A subtly interconnecting mosaic of staged vignettes, non-fiction footage, archival prints, and found film excerpts, Alexander Kluge’s The Power of Emotion is an organic, densely layered meditation on the intangible (and often irrational) essential mechanism of human emotion. At the core of Kluge’s exposition is the interrelation between two disparate observations: 1) that objects, in their materiality, are the opposite of emotion; and 2) that emotions, by nature, search for a happy ending. The illogical nature of emotion is wryly illustrated in a chapter entitled The Shot in which a woman, Frau Bärlamm (Hannelore Hoger) testifying at an inquest over the apparent shooting of her husband, trivializes the gravity of her actions as an unmotivated compulsion, thereby frustrating the judges’ attempts to find some psychologically motivated, extenuating circumstance that could help thread together the gaping holes in her story and resolve the case. Similarly, the disconnection between logic and emotion ironically plays out in In Her Final Hour…, when the victim, still harboring wounds from a badly ended love affair, refuses to condemn her attacker and unintentional rescuer following her opportunistic violation in the midst of suicide attempt, arguing that the emotional damage she suffered from her lover’s rejection inured her from the trauma of the subsequent attack.

Motifs repeat in unexpected, yet coherent ways. The traditional construction of operatic tragedy inherent in Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto and Aida causes Kluge to observe, “In all operas dealing with redemption, a woman is sacrificed in Act V”. The tragic irrationality of human despair during a high-rise building fire evokes the confusion of languages (and consequently, the confusion of emotions) created by the Tower of Babel, and is subsequently revisited in the chapter, The Opera House Fire, where a fireman, fascinated since childhood by a stage prop, sneaks into the burning building to catch a glimpse of its contents, the Holy Grail embodying the elusive quest. A woman’s (Hannelore Hoger) eccentric, Chaplinesque appearance during an undefined interview is similarly reflected in a prostitute, Betty’s (Suzanne von Borsody) excessive makeup, each suggesting the commerce of created desire. A tradesman’s detailed explanation on proper bolting technique (itself, a crude visual metaphor to a woman’s expressed wish to be handled by her husband as if he were a “repairman”) resurfaces in the unusual weapon used during a robbery, representing both an object of fetish and an entwined fate that binds Betty and Schleich – the professional burglar who buys her freedom – to each other.

In the chapter The Power Plant of Emotions, Kluge expounds on the early images of music as the crystallization of grief (in the actual footage of a memorial service attended by Helmut Kohl), examining the role of opera in nineteenth century society as a medium for harnessing emotion: a projected scale reduced to the level of the personal (most notably, in the tragedy of the century old war between the Egyptians and the Ethiopians that is distilled to the triangular conflict of Aida). Juxtaposed against the construction of the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London as a showcase for the Great Exhibition of 1851 that will display a collection of valuable, cutting edge products from around the world, the correlation between the opera house and the Victorian-era Crystal Palace reflects their intrinsic connection between the physical and the ethereal within the mindset of colonial (and Industrial Revolution) era contemporary society – a corrupted convergence of dissimilar ideals that is embodied in the opera singer’s alchemic quest for eternal life in Leoš Janáček’s The Makropulos Case. In essence, the opera house and Crystal Palace have evolved into figurative temples that, like the Tower of Babel, reach towards the false idols of manufactured desire. Framed against the fire that destroyed the Crystal Palace and short circuit fire of the opera house, their destruction becomes a metaphor for the redemption of emotion – disconnected from the material pursuit – a dismantling of the fifth act.

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