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Issue 213

Alexander Kluge’s Missives from an Alternate Future

In three stories, the German filmmaker and writer bears witness to the tentativeness of history

BY Alexander Kluge in Books , Features | 07 SEP 20

An apocryphal opera by Rossini,  with libretto by Goethe

The theatre group came to Riesa in Saxony. Rossini travelled from Paris to meet them. They were in the provinces to rehearse the Julius Caesar libretto commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte. Rossini had finished the composition. They had to work fast: any day now, the emperor could be assassinated or fall from power as the result of a single battle. They wanted to premiere a series of scenes at the Leipzig Opera. The emperor assembled his army close to Dresden.

Goethe had written the libretto under a pseudonym. It was based on the premise that the assassination attempt on Caesar’s life by way of 23 daggers in 44 BCE failed and the culprits were captured. In Act II, Caesar pardons all of the conspirators except for Marcus Junius Brutus, who agrees to be sacrificed in their stead. This moves the gods, who come before Caesar during his triumphal parade in Rome to ask him to spare Brutus’s life. In Act III, it transpires that Brutus is, in fact, Caesar’s son.

Alexander Kluge, Wiesel mit Fledermaus. Zeichnung von Grandville (Weasel with a Bat. Drawing by Grandville), 2020. Courtey: the artist

Ensemble: eight castrati, a tenor, a soprano, a bass, 24 orchestral musicians.

The gala premiere was planned for the evening after the third day of the Battle of Leipzig. All officers of the Grande Armée, from the rank of regimental commander upwards, including officers of the Royal Saxon Army contingent (which by then had changed sides to support Napoleon), were ordered to attend. During the parade in Act II, prisoners taken during the battle were to be brought in and freed by the emperor before the audience. At the end of the opera, Napoleon intended to announce a peace plan.

By the time of the premiere, however, the emperor’s army was in disarray, marching on country roads towards Haynau. The fleeing theatre troupe was stopped a few miles west of the River Unstrut. A cavalry regiment of the Silesian Reserve, known as ‘Wild Men’ – rivals of the Lützow Free Corps – welcomed the castrati into their ranks as officers’ orderlies. In a skirmish with one of the retreating French divisions near Magdeburg, they were all shot. After this, Rossini never composed another opera for castrati, whose voices were the only human instruments he considered invaluable, since their lung capacity enabled them to avoid exhaling and inhaling during a note, allowing them to genuinely sustain extended arcs – rather than merely imitate them.

For a long time, Europe was given borders and partitions, but it was not re-established. Never again did anyone base an opera on Clementia Caesaris (The Clemency of Caesar). In 1940, Rossini’s score was taken from Paris to Bordeaux. On a fishing boat that was meant to transport this salvaged treasure to Britain, the manuscript was lost in the Bay of Biscay.

Alexander Kluge, Ballonfahrt (Balloon Flight), 2020. Courtesy: the artist 

He who wishes to own the future must conquer the past

In 1798, Napoleon attended a meeting of the Egyptian Scientific Institute in Cairo to determine which archaeological finds and other spoils were to be shipped to Paris. It was here that Napoleon explained for the first time his viewpoint while leading the expeditionary force. The words spoken to his soldiers at the foot of the pyramids of Giza – ‘From the heights of these pyramids, 40 centuries look down upon us’ – remained his core intuition. The conquests he was planning, with the aim of taking possession of India as far as the Ganges, formed the horizon in spatial terms. Among other tasks, this would require building roads. Where fast-growing poplar trees could no longer thrive along routes over mountain passes, fir trees would be planted. The system of roads

would reach all the way to China. But these conquests in space, Napoleon said, were linked with taking possession of history i.e. the 40 centuries that looked down upon the year 1798. But this conquest of time was not a matter of weapons and marching, he went on: it was based, instead, on the power of texts. As discussed in the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, Napoleon explained, the balance between eras is the true test of a reign’s sense of proportion: the efficacy of current laws and brilliance of artistic achievements must be weighed against the products of the past and an equivalence established. All victories in battle and combat, the productivity of factory and field, the inventions and actions of art, could not balance the weight of all the dead generations. It was, he said, a matter of restoration of all things: apokatastasis pantōn. Napoleon had heard this Greek expression the previous day from an Alexandrine scholar. The use of such language by a military general made a mighty impression on those present. In spite of his cold, the commander-in-chief spoke with fire.

Alexander Kluge, Korsika, Mon Coeur (Corsica, My Heart), 2010. Courtesy: the artist and dctp

‘From each word which, unjustly burned, awaits its arrival’

On New Year’s Eve 1799, the papyri that had perished one and a half millennia earlier during the destruction of the Library of Alexandria migrated northwards, as ghosts, at an unknown but astonishing speed, turning westwards at Hildesheim. Like money rained down on nations by central banks to stimulate commerce, the knowledge contained in the papyri sat around in the northwest of Europe for several days, absorbed by no one, before scattering itself across the wide Atlantic. But no water can extinguish what has long since burned. Just as there are water cisterns, so there exist hidden tanks to catch such rare downpours. What was disappointing was not the reports of the migration of the papyri, which sceptics claimed to be physically impossible, but the assumption that the texts had disappeared once and for all.

Having risen from the dead, did they migrate to Europe deep under the ground? Or did they fly great distances on the upper winds? In the days following New Year’s Eve 1799, a sudden burst of ideas found their way into human minds (mostly in the form of music).

Alexander Kluge, Atopic Cinema, 2019, with Katharina Grosse, Kino, 2020. Courtesy: the artist

The engrams faded fast. Nowhere were they heaped with spiritual soil and watered, as is proper when planting a garden. Did they wither away? Did they fall on barren ground? Can resurrected writings be compared to premature babies who are born in a hospital that lacks the necessary medical expertise or equipment and who fail to survive as a result? The pious scholar Friedrich Schleiermacher even claimed that ‘shepherds of souls’ (by which he meant burned letters) are  especially robust. It cannot be ruled out, then, that some of what fell from the sky on New Year’s Eve 1799 (unlike shooting stars, which vaporize) has survived to the present day and need only be gathered up, harvested. Where? Using parts of the skin, the intestines, the liver, the inside of the heart (in co-operation with selected neurons), a new head must be made among the corridors of the old brain – like a two-headed eagle – set against the conventional, rational head so that they grind each other down to a sensitive dust. If, that is, it is indeed still a matter of seeking the lost letters, the plants from Alexandria, which will survive every future fire, too, because they were always already on fire. Absorbing and incorporating something of this ancient knowledge is essential to the innate author-as-producer in all of us. For we live not on bread alone but on words that, unjustly burned centuries ago, now await our rediscovery.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

This article first appeared in frieze issue 213 with the headline 'Mighty Impressions'.

Main image: Alexander Kluge, Korsika, Mon Coeur (Corsica, My Heart), 2010, video still. Courtesy: the artist and dctp

Alexander Kluge is a filmmaker, author and leading figure of the New German Cinema. He lives in Munich, Germany.