At the outset of The Patriot, the eighth installment in Camden House’s German Film Classics series, I ask the question: Why is Alexander Kluge’s The Patriot (1979) a film for the ages? A film about a West German school teacher named Gabi Teichert who grows troubled about her professional obligations in the shadow of the German Autumn, The Patriot makes no secret of how German history (reaching all the way back to the German Peasants’ War) shapes its narrative. In light of Germany’s unification and the tectonic shifts in geopolitics in the new millennium, it’s arguable that The Patriot is dated, a historical artifact whose value has diminished in the new world order. Even though convincing cases can be made for including other films from Kluge’s first chapter of filmmaking (1960-1986) into Camden House’s growing pantheon—like Yesterday Girl (1966) or The Power of Emotions (1983)—The Patriot was chosen, above all, because Kluge has returned again and again in his more recent videos and feature films to the figure of Gabi (albeit sometimes in different guises).
Consider, for example, his 2015 short “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” (made for one of his many multi-channel video installations), in which Hannelore Hoger once again plays Gabi Teichert, standing in front of a bathroom mirror and putting on her lipstick before heading outside with shovel in hand to excavate new pedagogical materials for her history courses. Whereas The Patriot was full of German history, in “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” Germany is nowhere to be found. When I asked Kluge in the summer of 2019 why he thinks The Patriot still matters, he urged me to consider his recent extraordinary collaborations with Philippine New Wave director Khavn de la Cruz. Happy Lamento (2018), Orphea (2020) and the forthcoming Cold Death Interrupts Love all revolve around what must inform patriotism in the new millennium. “We need to search,” Kluge told me, “for new loyalties in the twenty-first century.” If “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” is any indication, this search may no longer limit itself to a national history like that of the Federal Republic of Germany. As I show in the Camden House companion to The Patriot, Kluge and Khavn’s exploration of twenty-first century loyalties in Orphea assume transnational proportions. So while the substance of Gabi Teichert’s loyalties may not remain germane for spectators now, the fact that she has loyalties at all and, what’s more, the (largely unsuccessful) ways she acts on them remains for Kluge the key for why we should still watch The Patriot. When seen from this vantage point, The Patriot remains instructional to this day, for it models how obstinate work strives to contest grand historical narratives written by victors. In this respect, The Patriot is a model political film of protest.
The political appeal of The Patriot has certainly not escaped contemporary filmmakers working in Germany today. Consider Max Linz’s 2014 debut Asta Upset (Ich will mich nicht künstlich aufregen). A comical, sarcastic story about a young independent art curator, Asta Andersen, who is planning an exhibition oddly titled “Das Kino! Das Kunst!” in Berlin, Linz’s film is as much a film about the financial difficulties of cultural work in contemporary Germany as it is about what is necessary for political protest in the new millennium. Astonishing for spectators familiar with Kluge’s The Patriot is the scene in Linz’s film where Asta speaks over dinner with her motherly mentor—played by Hannelore Hoger—about how best to find funding. Just like the third black-and-white sequence in The Patriot shot in the style of cinéma verité, Hoger later inserts herself into a throng of visitors to the federal president’s annual citizen’s party [Bürgerfest] held at Bellevue Palace in an attempt to secure governmental support for Asta’s loyalty to cinema. As with Gabi’s efforts in The Patriot to win over politicians at the SPD annual party convention in 1977, big p politics proves futile in Asta Upset. No less obstinate than Gabi, Asta nevertheless forges ahead with her love for the movies at a time when museums and galleries seem to be the only place left to screen them. Cinema as protest. Protest as cinema. What Linz clearly recognizes in Kluge’s The Patriot is the historical precedent of political cinema, a bygone national model for contemporary transnational cinema engaged with making the moving image matter at a time when the global culture industry all too easily forecloses politics. What are the conditions of political filmmaking today? For Linz, preliminary answers are to be found by watching The Patriot.
This guest post was written by RICHARD LANGSTON, Professor of German at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.