There are many fields of cultural achievement for which Germans are renowned including philosophy, architecture, music, theater, and silent cinema, but improvisational comedy is not one of them. The 2-disc collection of Alexander Kluge's recent television projects released by Edition Filmmuseum entitled Freiheit für die Konsonanten! & Grenzfälle der Schadensregulierung does nothing to dispel the stereotype that Germans are a rather humorless lot. Freiheit für die Konsonanten! & Grenzfälle der Schadensregulierung takes its name from two of the improv comedy skits included in the set. It could be translated as Freedom for the Consonants! & Borderline Cases of Damage Control. Though this is a decidedly long and unfunny title, it's perfectly apt for the long and mirthless content on offer in this 270-minute collection.
Alexander Kluge, a prolific West German filmmaker from the early 1960s through the mid-'80s, has been working in independent German television for the past two decades. Freiheit für die Konsonanten! & Grenzfälle der Schadensregulierung includes twelve of Kluge's television productions since 1992, which fall into three categories: (1) satirical improvisational comedy sketches; (2) montage footage of German police clashing with leftist protesters set to death metal music; and (3) theater interviews and excerpts from stage productions.
Nine of the twelve programs included in Freiheit für die Konsonanten! & Grenzfälle der Schadensregulierung are arch improv comedy sketches lamely satirizing topics like German spelling reform, car racing, the former East German secret police, the Catholic Church, insurance underwriting, WW-II Polish partisans, German military adventurism abroad, anti-terrorism, and the Bush Administration. The skits which range from 11 to 45 minutes each feature an unseen interviewer and an on-camera actor in costume. The improv is performed in deadpan earnestness with efforts toward satire, but the results are abysmal. If there is anything funny about these skits it's over my head.
To convey some sense of the skits, here are two typical exchanges selected completely at random. The first sample comes from the skit Mit allem Reichtum meiner Nöte (With all the Wealth of my Needs, 1999, 24 min.) about a disgraced Catholic vicar in which the most prolonged point of discussion was the name for the space between the testicles and the anus, but which broached other subjects as well such as the ex-vicar's childhood:
Unseen Interviewer: "Describe how you grew up. The house is the body we carry around with us. The family, the ancestors: the second house."
Former Vicar Phettberg: "Yes, well . . . the situation was such that . . . It was a large farmhouse, the Brehms' house. The first husband ... There was just one daughter who inherited the house. And the woman's first husband died in World War I. And the family's two sons died in World War II. And the wife of the farmer was my mama. She already had a 4-year-old boy when her husband fell. Then she married my father and took him into the house she married into where, however, the heiress, the original Mrs. Brehm, lived. Now there was this brat, me. And a husband who was of no use and wanted to cow down. Of course, it was hell, amidst all that social tension."
The second selection, from a skit entitled Das Weichziel ist der Mensch (Man is the Soft Target, 2008, 45 min.), about German military adventurism abroad captures a sense of the repartee between the unseen interviewer and an actor playing a high-ranking German military officer:
Unseen Interviewer: "The war on two fronts, a mistake which can never be repeated, because we would have the all-round utilization of the Bundeswehr worldwide. Always within an alliance."
The Officer: "In rapid-response forces. Go in fast and get out. Although it doesn't always work. We know how to get in, but the orderly retreat ... Clausewitz: "Nothing is more difficult than an orderly retreat from an indefensible position."
Interviewer: "The backwards blitzkrieg that is, erratic encirclements. How do I move the men, if Kundus were besieged by the Taliban, unexpectedly ... They're good at unexpected operations."
The Officer: "That's right."
Interviewer: "Where do you go to? How do you reach Russian ground in time?"
The General: "Uzbekistan costs us a lot of money. If I may say so. Maintaining that airport in a politically critical situation isn't easy. It's also dangerous."
The Interviewer: "People really resent the bribery at Siemens. Since 1999 we're not allowed to bride foreign potentates and public servants by giving them money - Right."
The Officer: "It goes for the Bundeswehr, too. That's why we have the Foreign Aid Ministry, GTZ ... We have our channels for making those deals."
Does anybody find this the least bit funny or perhaps slyly witty?
I'll confess that after slogging through three hours of Kluge's dreadful improv, I had little patience for the rest of the offers which included Das Quietschen der Macht, wenn sie die Bremsen zieht (The Screeching Sound of Power as Soon as it Puts on the Brakes, 1992, 18 min.) a montage of footage of German police arresting leftist protesters, shot between 1972 and 1992, and set to music by the death metal band Goatlord; an interview with theater director Christoph Schlingensief; and, footage from a theater production of Henrk Ibsen's "Peer Gynt" performed in the Munich Volkstheater. While the footage from "Peer Gynt" was mildly interesting, I was too battered down from the three hours of mirthless improv and 18 minutes of death-metal protest montage to pay more than passing attention to the forty-five minutes of Kluge and Schlingensief droning on about "Hamlet", right-wing extremism, and American foreign policy. If they said anything interesting, I missed it.
This 2-disc set was released by Edition Filmmuseum, a label founded by six German-language national archives and the Goethe-Institut, on a single dual-layered DVD which is PAL-encoded but not region restricted.
There's some variance in picture quality, but overall the image is sharp, and contrast and colors are superb for video material shot for television.
The 2.0 German audio generally sounds good through audio levels could be more consistent across segments. Optional subtitles are provided in English, French, Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, and Chinese.
Extras consist of an 8-page, bi-lingual German-English booklet with an essay by leading Kluge scholar Rainer Stollman, and ROM features including essays by Georg Seesslen and Rainer Stollmann and a book by Alexander Kluge.
In an essay accompanying this release, Kluge scholar Rainer Stollman concludes his explanation of Kluge's improv skits made for the television series Facts & Fakes this way:
A fact is negative imagination, imagination is negative facticity - it cannot go on like this. That imagination exists is a fact; and that pure facts exist is a Imagination. Imaginations give rise to facts and facts propel imagination production away from them or towards them. It is therefore important to enlarge the interfaces between the two, to maintain communication between the two opponent forces.
It is no wonder that Professor Stollman is a leading scholar of Kluge's work; his essay is every bit as funny, witty and insightful as Kluge's skits, which is to say, it is not at all funny, witty, or insightful.