Halberstadt after its bombing in April 1945
Halberstadt after its bombing in April 1945

In 1977, in a review for Der Spiegel of a short-story collection by Alexander Kluge, the poet and translator Hans Magnus Enzensberger wrote: “Among well-known German authors Kluge is the least well-known.” What was true then is even truer now, still more so outside his own country. Born in 1932, starting out as a lawyer working for celebrated Frankfurt School theorist Theodor Adorno in the 1950s, then as an assistant to Metropolis director Fritz Lang, Kluge is a direct link to many of the giants of 20th-century German art and ideas.

He’s also a polymath who moves between literature, philosophy and the moving image with equal facility, and has made decisive contributions to each of those fields. He was a key figure behind the Oberhausen Manifesto in 1962 that, like the similarly revolutionary Nouvelle Vague in France, championed expressive freedoms on screen, and incubated the New German Cinema associated with Fassbinder, Herzog and Wenders. He created the first German film school at Ulm, directed many important films – among them Yesterday Girl (1966), which won the Silver Lion at Venice, and developed a much-debated theory of montage cinema that, in the demands it placed on viewers, enacted his belief that “film is composed in the head of the spectator; it is not a work of art that exists on the screen by itself”.

By the 1980s, believing that television had largely superseded cinema but needed defending from the crassness that deregulation would unleash, he successfully campaigned for commercial networks to guarantee space to experimental broadcasters. He set up DCTP (Development Company for Television Programmes) and, operating as a commissioner and collaborator as much as an auteur, produced often-abstruse documentaries and interview shows. Once likened to “the experience of stumbling upon a literary bookshop in the middle of a red-light district”, these shows were designed not only to give a platform to architects, left-field artists and philosophers but to provide viewers with a refuge from what he called the “industrialisation of consciousness”.

All this while, Kluge never stopped writing. With sociologist Oskar Negt he published the influential Public Sphere and Experience (1971), which argued, among many other things, that child-rearing, factory work and watching television ought to be treated as public events alongside elections or sports spectacles.

In remarkable novels such as The Battle (1964) and hundreds of short stories, he developed combative, unclassifiable “theory-fictions” that blurred the line between storytelling and reportage, deployed medical, military and non-“literary” registers, and, as in December (2012), his collaboration with the artist Gerhard Richter, made haunting use of visual imagery.

Air Raid, published in Germany in 1977 and only now translated (by Martin Chalmers), may well prove to be Kluge’s most enduring work. It begins on the morning of April 8 1945 when American bomber squadrons attacked Halberstadt, a German town of no symbolic or strategic importance. They had other targets in mind but were stymied by cloud cover. Instead of turning back, they laid nine “carpets”: 2,500 people were killed, 10 times that number were made homeless, and 80 per cent of buildings destroyed. All this was witnessed by the 13-year-old Kluge.

Yet Air Raid is not a book of witnessing. It is not a survivor’s account or a frontline dispatch of social atrocities. In fact, it’s not a personal testimony of any kind. Rather, it’s a distinctive form of Trümmerliteratur (rubble literature), the name given to the work of a loose constellation of postwar German writers (most notably Heinrich Böll) who addressed the atomised landscapes and ideals of their homeland in laconic language. Kluge, sceptical as in his films of classical storytelling or character-led narration, assembles a series of fragments – brief vignettes of what Halberstadt residents were thinking or doing during or just after the aerial attack.

Frau Schrader, the punctilious manager of a bombed cinema, struggles to get things functioning again but “the devastation of the right-hand side of the cinema stood in no meaningful or dramatic relationship to the film shown”. Cemetery gardener Bischoff takes a nap in an open grave “so that he has something in reserve”. The staff at a newspaper office try to be constructive but are best at black humour; one of their number, noticing how little water is left for putting out smouldering fires, wisecracks: “If everyone pees again, we’ll have more, we should call in ‘passers-by’, who can be milked into a pail.”

Many of these people think or talk in ways that seem barely connected to the horror that has unfolded. They act mechanically, and go to lengths to cover up the damage inflicted on their city. Without finger-wagging them, Kluge suggests that they are as much the vessels of social and psychological conditioning as those strategists and commanders responsible for the inferno and whose voices, interspersed with photographs of aerial routes and diagrams of “incendiary merchandise”, he channels.

Perhaps the most remarkable section involves a 1952 interview with a US Air Force brigadier who likens bombing to medicine: “You see, it’s hard to get intact buildings to burn. The roofs have to be got rid of first, and explosive bombs have to create openings . . . it’s a bit like an encrusted town, grown over the centuries, the wound has first of all to be torn open again.”

Actually, the brigadier never said this. Kluge’s “documentary” passages are fictions designed to make readers question the ways in which “reality” is constructed by the media. Elsewhere, in order to encourage counterfactual, even utopian readings of history that offers alternative road maps and possibilities for the future, he invents a detail about a white flag Halberstadt residents unsuccessfully raised to discourage bombers.

Kluge has described his films as “construction sites”. That holds true for his fictions too. They abound in narrative and intellectual elements from which we can assemble startling collages. They are also workpads full of notes and sketches we must sequence, analytical tool kits we would do well to use. An extraordinary book by an extraordinary artist, Air Raid might be seen less as a reckoning with the second world war as a manual for grappling with manufactured realities and media-filtered landscapes in the age of the drone.

Air Raid, by Alexander Kluge, translated by Martin Chalmers, Seagull Books, RRP£14.50/RRP$21, 138 pages

Sukhdev Sandhu is author of ‘Night Haunts: A Journey Through the London Night’ (Verso)

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