Sunday, September 6, 2015

Alexander Kluge | Abschied von gestern (Anita G.) (Yesterday Girl)

on a binge
by Douglas Messerli 

Alexander Kluge (writer, based on his story, and director) Abschied von gestern (Anita G.) (Yesterday Girl) / 1966

Alexander Kluge’s film Yesterday Girl begins it what appears to a kind of refrigerator binge by the heroine, Anita G (played by Kluge’s sister, Alexandra); soon discerning her near complete displacement in the world in which she finds herself, one soon perceives that Anita's whole life is somewhat similar, a world in which for a few days she finds herself enveloped in West Germany’s economic miracle, only the very next day to discover herself once more on the streets without anything to eat. For this woman, who has managed to escape from East German hardships and, what she herself describes as a life of fear, she has not yet been able to find a place in the new society. 

In part, the problem is simply that the new society she has joined defines itself almost entirely upon possessions, while she has nothing but her face and figure. Since she has not tested high enough, she can no longer continue her education, and almost all of the “jobs” Anita is offered—such as a hotel cleaning woman—put her on the level of an immigrant. Is in any wonder that this intelligent, good-looking girl might wish to steal—a bag, a sweater, a coat—in order to share these Western “benefits?”

      What’s more, her beauty obviously breeds jealousy from other employees and often encourages her employers to engage her in temporary trysts, all at little benefit to her in the end. Even in her relationship with a government minister, Pichota (Günter Mack), during which she is treated to champagne, good food, and a temporary bed, she is forced to live in bombed-out buildings and to wash her few clothes nearby stream. The sex-driven minister can give her no money, since his wife controls the checking accounts!

     Throughout, the authorities—although pretending to concern themselves with figures such as Anita—is absurdly incompetent, completely unable to deal even with her straight-forward answers and questions. Even her “school” advisor (although she is not legally registered) is unable to or refuses to deal with her pleas for help in her simple daily survival.
     Had Kluge been a different kind of director, this film might have turned into a deeply disturbing sociological portrait of the post-War II German society. But, the director, influenced by Godard and other figures of the French New Wave—and positioning himself in the forefront of the New German Cinema, which would soon come to be dominated by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, and others—treats his character’s serious dilemmas as satire.
     More importantly, his remarkable actress sister, dressed nearly always stylishly despite living in hovels, seems almost impervious from endless series of rejections she daily faces. Not so very differently from Fassbinder’s tragi-comic Franz Bieberkopf, Anita G. is determined that somehow things will get better, as she hunkers down in order to try to penetrate the gobbledygook of her professor’s lectures, the lame assurances of love Pichota and others with whom she beds offer, and the attacks by those to whom she owes money.

     At times Kluge, influenced by some of the simplistic tropes of early 1960s filming—the speeding up of frames, the long circling of the camera around the oddly positioned heroine (at one point, suitcase in hand, Anita sits alone in a pasture simply too exhausted to go on), and the use of toy soldiers to represent the larger forces at work—distract from the more cleverly executed scenes of city life. But, for the most part, Kluge brings a freshness to the entire project that allows him to say everything he wants to say without sentimentalizing or strangling his central figure in sociological significance. If Anita represents any number of displaced migrants, she is also exceptional, which allows to remain engaged in her story and allows us to hope for her betterment.
      Sadly, for this young girl, there is no choice but abandon her youth to imprisonment—a place where at least she can sleep comfortably and be fed three times a day. The final scenes of this film, are played out with the rules of prison being carefully explained to her by more efficient than caring, but nonetheless nonjudgmental matrons, representing many strict mothers who may help birth the lost child into the new society in which she has chosen to live. Too bad, she has had to institutionalize herself to get the help she had asked for from those “Good Germans” she had previously encountered.

Los Angeles, September 6, 2015

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