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Conventional and Innovative Narrative Techniques in Kluge's Yesterday Girl

Viewers of conventional Hollywood films are accustomed to having certain expectations fulfilled in the course of the work: we assume the events portrayed on screen to have some causal, temporal, or spatial connection, we expect to have at least some sense of resolution at the end of a film, and we often premise our viewing on conventional styles of cinematography and mise-en-scène. In Alexander Kluge's 1966 film Yesterday Girl, however, the modern viewer is presented with a challenge. Many common cinematic assumptions are undermined by Kluge's deliberate refusal to follow Hollywood guidelines; at the same time, though, the film does not attempt a blanket refusal of all narrative conventions. Indeed, it is this very mixture of traditional and innovative narrative techniques that makes the film especially fascinating, and the sense of ambiguity that arises adds to the viewer's resulting insecurity and even confusion.

One of the most striking ways in which Kluge plays with narration in Yesterday Girl is in his presentation of the plot of the film. Anita's story is one of frustration, disappointment and fruitless searching, in certain ways similar to the viewer's efforts in trying to comprehend fully the messages and imagery in the film. The plot laid out for us by Kluge is nonetheless relatively straightforward: a young girl, seemingly unable to make her way in the new German civilization, continues her habits of theft and crime, all the while searching for acceptance in her society, and ends up in a detention center, where she awaits her trial. The story of Anita's progression, though, is far more complex, and does not always seem to correspond to the events portrayed on screen. We learn, for instance, near the beginning of the film, about Anita's past: her parents were Jews, and Anita had decided, after growing up in the East near Leipzig, to move to the West in search of better opportunities. Why, though, is this knowledge revealed? Anita herself, with some overt encouragement from the judge, states that she does not wish to blame "certain events" from her childhood for her problems as an adult, and the audience is given no reason to doubt her; nevertheless, there is an underlying sense of ambiguity about the whole issue. This insecurity arises partially from cinematographic techniques which convey the judge's manipulation of Anita, for example the low-angle shots from which the judge is filmed, as contrasted to the high-angle view of Anita; in addition, Anita's face at key moments reflects her disregard for the entire question of wrong-doing and blame. Similar types of ambiguity appear throughout the film, and even occur at significant turning points in the plot: we infer, for instance, that Anita's dismissal from her sales position is a result of an affair she has with her superior, but this affair is only implied, never openly shown or discussed. As viewers, we are left to draw our own conclusions, in a sense to create the details of the plot ourselves.

Kluge makes use of a number of other, often conflicting, narrative devices to develop the plot in Yesterday Girl. Much of our understanding of the plot, for instance, relies on traditional visual elements with fairly conventional temporal and spatial connections: we see Anita going to classes at the university, meeting Pichota, even going to such apparently mundane events as the dog show. Most of these sequences are self-contained, however, and bear little relation to other events we see in Anita's life. The university professor, for instance, who fails utterly in his attempts at communication, seemingly has nothing to do with the sped-up police chase that follows; nonetheless, the viewer makes a connection between these two images, and begins, possibly, to identify with Anita's psychological state. Anita's feeling of being trapped or confined is highlighted, as well, by several sequences in which she is seen, pensive, often curled up, in a small room, with harsh lighting and cramped high camera angles, to illustrate the restrictions she feels. Anita's inability to adapt to societal expectations is also underscored through visual portrayals in sequences which seem to occur over and over again, with only slight variations: Anita is kicked out by her landlady, and then forced to leave the hotel where she settles, and eventually we no longer even see her residing anywhere: instead, she enters one hotel, and immediately comes back out, picks up her suitcase, and moves on. Other such sequences communicate the circularity of the entire plot and Anita's vain attempts to find understanding and acceptance; all of them, though superficially adhering to conventional filmic practices, incorporate surprising twists and adaptations, emphasizing not only Anita's disregard for societal norms, but her inherent inability to conform as well.

It is not only through visual, action-oriented sequences that we come to understand the events of the plot, however. Kluge is adept at mixing together these developments with other forms of narration, most significantly with silent-screen titles and with voice-over narration. Both of these elements serve a double purpose: they clarify certain aspects of the plot, yet confuse the viewer in other, perhaps more disturbing, ways. The title "Ich weiß, es wird einmal ein Wunder geschehen," for example, could be taken as a statement about Anita's mental state, as she is seen walking across the bridge, suitcase in hand. At the same time, though, the viewer is aware that the meaning is ambiguous, and that alternate readings are possible, indeed necessary. Kluge's own narration about Anita's attempt to reach Dr. Bauer is similarly misleading: the reference to students from the SDS could be a matter-of-fact statement about the reality within Anita's world, but it can also be seen non-diegetically, as a politically motivated comment about Kluge's own Germany. Double readings of this sort are possible for nearly all the titles and narration, and though they are not mutually exclusive, the two interpretations are often contradictory and induce, yet again, a sense of insecurity and questioning in the viewer.

Another aspect of narrative structure in Yesterday Girl is Kluge's innovative use of surreal, imaginary sequences as an aid in plot development. The long set of images which show Anita running, being chased, or sitting while the camera revolves around her could be described as non-diegetic elements, but such a description does not communicate the intense effect these sequences have on the viewer's understanding of the story. By presenting an alternate reality, in sharp contrast to that of Anita's presumed everyday experiences, these images clarify, on the one hand, Anita's emotional complexity, but on the other hand call into question the very reasons for her emotional responses. The viewer, no longer able to distinguish satisfactorily between real and irreal, wonders if Anita is capable of doing so, either. The two longer sequences of surrealistic events give clear examples; in addition, the narration of the children's story shows precisely this ambiguity. We see Anita, after her courtroom appearance, lying down on a bed, most likely in a holding cell; then a voice begins to recount the nonsense poem. The origin of this episode is absolutely unclear: is Anita reading or remembering it while she rests, or is it a non-diegetic commentary, or is it something else entirely? This questioning on the part of the viewer does indeed contribute to a sense of unease, because comprehension is obstructed; at the same time, though, we begin to identify more thoroughly and to understand Anita as a character by sharing her mental processes and even her feelings.

Another connection the viewer makes to Anita's emotional state comes through Kluge's use of music, or in some cases silence, to link narrative developments. Throughout key scenes in the film, we become aware of the background music: at times a Viennese waltz, a tango, a Christmas song, the Deutschlandlied, or American popular music. Each of these pieces not only makes a covert statement about Anita's perceptions, it also forms a connection to other scenes: the Christmas song, for instance, which plays over images of a bustling Christmas market (Anita is strikingly absent from view), is resurrected as Anita sits, lonely and reminiscent, after being kicked out of her last hotel. The assumption made here is that Anita either remembers Christmastime directly, or, more likely, that she is once again feeling alone and abandoned at a time when others have found companionship. Her feelings are made apparent to the viewer by means of the music, yet a sense of ambiguity remains: the motivation for this music is never entirely clear, and can only be inferred. Other musical segments in the film serve not merely to make a connection between two scenes, but in fact to narrate an otherwise incomprehensible sequence: as Anita and her lover rest, humming the German national anthem to themselves, images of a Jewish cemetery float across the screen. The effect on the viewer is powerful: immediately, a relationship between these previously unrelated images is created, and an understanding of Anita's thought process is made possible, as well. Silence, too, functions to give insight into Anita's mind and to elaborate upon her condition: the oppressive silence which pervades the final escape sequences, for instance, in the journey along the river and through the outskirts of Wiesbaden, points to Anita's own resolute, nearly numb emotional state, as she reaches the end of her degeneration. In this and similar cases, music or silence becomes itself a narrator of Anita's story. Just like the other narrative devices, though, it is opaque, and never reveals entirely its intentions, leaving the viewer to interpolate conclusions which are not expressed.

The importance of the viewer in this film, then, cannot be ignored: continually frustrated in our attempts to impose traditional narrative suppositions, we are left to our own devices in attempting to comprehend many of the plot's finer points. The spectator is placed in an ambiguous, often contradictory position by both narrative and cinematographic devices. At times, we share Anita's perspective: ascending the stairs in the university, we are given a point-of-view shot that focuses on the steps, for instance. The narration, too, sometimes reports Anita's inner conflicts, through such diverse elements as the dream-like sequences or her frequent grooming in front of mirrors. At the same time, though, we are alienated by our inability to truly connect with Anita, to understand her motivations. The camera frames her face, expressionless and yet full of meaning, proving the impossibility of our understanding: she is indeed a foreign, unreachable creature, with whom we may sympathize and even identify, but never really connect. Even the narration is restricted, for the most part, to reporting the external events of Anita's life: her thoughts can only be revealed, as we have seen, through her own actions and through unreal images, because no mental link to her motivations can be forged.

This constant mixing of subjectivity and objectivity corresponds, then, to the mixing of traditional and unconventional narrative techniques throughout the film. The closing sequence is perhaps the most striking example of this blurred distinction: after our initial questioning about the fate of Anita's child has subsided, we are then left with the unresolved issue, not only of Anita's guilt or innocence, but indeed of the entire trial she has yet to face. The final image, a nearly motionless close-up of Anita's somber yet unreadable face, provides an appropriate ending to the film, disappointing the spectator's expectation for narrative closure, but leaving behind the puzzling mixture of understanding and confusion that gives the film both its ambiguity and its appeal.

Written and © Nancy Thuleen in 1994 for German 655 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

If needed, cite using something like the following:
Thuleen, Nancy. "Conventional and Innovative Narrative Techniques in Kluge's Yesterday Girl." Website Article. 28 November 1994. <http://www.nthuleen.com/papers/655short3.html>.