Surveillance Fantasies On Michael Klier’s Der Riese

Surveillance may thrive in secrecy, but it is no secret that forces of mass monitoring loom large over our world, facilitated by the rise of digital technology and the Internet, where we leave countless electronic traces of ourselves every day. In “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” an essay written in 1990, prior to the mass-scale adoption of the Internet, Gilles Deleuze prophetically foresaw this state of affairs, giving an account of how the “disciplinary” societies described by Michel Foucault—societies originating in the 18th century and marked by “spaces of enclosure” (“prison, hospital, factory, school, family”)—have, in the postwar, neoliberal era, begun to mutate into societies marked by “ultrarapid forms of free-floating control,” by techniques of domination whose hallmark is a robust capacity for mobile adjustment and adaptation. Hence, in societies of control, it is not unusual to find oneself subject to surveillance and its attendant influences in any place and at virtually any time: a situation that may seem distantly sciencefiction- like but is, in fact, very real. Accordingly, writes Deleuze, in words that take on an added prophetic layer if we bear in mind recent scenes from the pandemic, particularly in China but also in many places in the West: “Félix Guattari has imagined a city where one would be able to leave one’s apartment, one’s street, one’s neighbourhood, thanks to one’s (dividual) electronic card that raises a given barrier; but the card could just as easily be rejected on a given day or between certain hours; what counts is not the barrier but the computer that tracks each person’s position—licit or illicit—and effects a universal modulation.”

Stills from Michael Klier’s film Der Riese (The Giant), 1983. Photos: Jonah Corne.

Extending and updating Deleuze’s ruminations, Byung-Chul Han, in his 2017 book Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power, identifies a number of further critical distinctions between the disciplinary societies and the control societies as the latter have continued to develop into the present. For one, as the titular concept of the book alludes to, the control societies of the current moment are possessed of technologies capable of penetrating with unrivalled depth into the psychic space of individuals and populations. As Han points out, Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, which Foucault took as the literal and metaphorical model for the operation of surveillance in the disciplinary societies, and which, despite being employed in the service of moral improvement and a certain level of psychological management (viz. cultivating in the inmate a fear of constantly being watched), “was confined to a perspectival optical system. This meant that blind spots were unavoidable—here, prisoners could indulge in secret wishes and thoughts without being observed.”

By contrast, digital surveillance is “aperspectival” in nature, and thus possesses the ability to monitor “from any and every angle,” “eliminat[e] blind spots” and “peer into the human soul itself.” Indeed, the massive hoovering up and analysis of information that falls under the banner of “Big Data” offers “the means for establishing not just an individual but a collective psychogram—perhaps even the psychogram of the unconscious itself.” And what is more, in contrast to the repressive tactics of the disciplinary societies, as well as to the structural limitations imposed upon the communicative capacity of the isolated, cell-bound prisoners of Bentham’s panopticon, “the occupants of today’s digital panopticon actively communicate with each other and willingly expose themselves. That is, they collaborate in the digital panopticon’s operations.”

With the utmost efficiency for the smooth functioning of the system, Internet users freely, pleasurably collude with a “friendly Big Brother”—an entity that merges the dystopian visions of Orwell and Huxley, to borrow a line of thought from the Internet critic Evgeny Morozov—such that “data is not surrendered under duress so much as offered out of an inner need.” Aptly, the epigraph to Han’s treatise on psychopolitics is Jenny Holzer’s famous electronic billboard in Times Square: “Protect me from what I want.”

Stills from Michael Klier’s film Der Riese (The Giant), 1983. Photos: Jonah Corne.

Along with the expansion of digital technology and the Internet, the radical ramping up of the security state post-9/11, the Snowden National Security Agency leaks in 2013 and more, the cultural sphere of the first two decades of the 21st century saw a plethora of work dealing with surveillance. Hito Steyerl’s mock-instructional video How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File; Trevor Paglen’s long-range, counter-espionage photographs; and a number of projects based on images harvested from the massive cartographic surveillance venture that is Google Street View come immediately to mind as some of the most high-profile. Yet surveillance art (including film, television and literature) goes much further back, and it is fascinating as well as instructive to delve into this longer genealogy, which for me ought to carve out a glitteringly special place for the work that I will, with a resonant hyper-vigilance, reflect on in this essay: Michael Klier’s feature-length experimental video documentary Der Riese [The Giant], 1983.

Klier, who was born in 1943 in Karlsbad (now Karlovy Vary, in the Czech Republic), made the piece largely out of “found”—or more accurately, scrupulously and patiently trawled—surveillance footage taken in the early 1980s in various places in West Germany, including West Berlin, Hamburg and Dusseldorf. Right from the start, then, the piece upsets expectations, given the strong association between surveillance and the other Germany of the period, the German Democratic Republic, where the Stasi wielded enormous power and a substantial part of the population served as informants, as dramatized in films like Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others, 2006, and Christian Petzold’s Barbara, 2012. More specifically, the topography of the work encompasses many of the urban, suburban and interstitial locales where video surveillance cameras had by this time found multiple familiar, bird’s-eye perches: the airport runway, the street (with intensified presence during protests and demonstrations), the freeway, the department store, the supermarket, the bank, the subway underpass, the strip club, the grounds of a posh estate. Regarding the history of this technological situation, it is important to note the critical role played by wartime innovations. For it was during WW II that a significant early iteration of CCTV was developed in Germany by the electrical engineer Walter Bruch, so that the Nazis could live-monitor the launching of V-2 ballistic missiles from the safety of a control room. That such technology originally conceived for military purposes would eventually come to find widespread application in the realm of civilian life long after the wartime emergency had faded provides only one of countless examples of creeping, migratory trajectories in the history of technology; indeed, the pattern is one of the most constant and pervasive in the field.

In separate, respectively discerning reviews of Der Riese, Charles Hagen and J. Hoberman both take a cue from the prevalence of public spaces in the work and note affinities with the illustrious “city symphony” documentaries of the 1920s, such as Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a City and Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera. Yet, as both critics note, the visual style of Klier’s documentary embodies a contemporary, even futuristic, departure from much that is familiar in the canon of cinema. The strangeness derives heavily from the medium-specificity of early ’80s surveillance video camera footage, with its black and white, murkily low-definition image quality, and ample artifacts of automation, which jump out most conspicuously in moments when the unmanned camera moves to keep or put an object of interest in sight, the remote operator pressing a button/toggling a joystick, or through the tripping of a motion detector. Hagen describes such scanning, or, in the most literal sense of the term, “tracking,” manoeuvres as “crabbing, mechanical pans, never anything other than strictly horizontal or vertical; power zooms of blunt crudeness.”

Stills from Michael Klier’s film Der Riese (The Giant), 1983. Photos: Jonah Corne.

Governed by such an optical regime, Der Riese takes us into a composite landscape of acute coldness, indifference and distanciation (embodied literally in the rigorous battery of extreme long shots, relieved only by the “superficial” closeness of the stationary-camera zooms). At the same time, however, Klier complicates this impression of a posthuman desert of feeling through the ingenious, economical conceit of the eponymous giant, who is never shown yet whose perspective we project into, and ascribe to, the images. Again, Hagen is useful here: “By fictionalizing his subject, creating the character of the giant and following it through the day, Klier opens up its emotional ramifications, revealing the mentality behind surveillance as much as the sheer fact of its omnipresence. Klier’s use of the tools of narrative and theatrical film takes us inside his ‘character,’ even as the documentary record provided by the video camera presents the physical reality it, and we, live in.” Accordingly, along with a tyrannic dimension typically associated with panoptic figures, manifest particularly in scenes dealing with the police and the military, the giant also evinces, as Hagen puts it, a “sentimental side,” which calls on us to imagine it as a sort of “lonely, pitiable behemoth”—perhaps a kind of ghostly late 20th-century Quasimodo inhabiting surveillance systems rather than a church bell tower. Just how Klier evokes this surprising, sympathetic side of such an abstract entity is one of the great marvels of the piece, and amply rewards close attention.

Near the beginning of a sequence in a subway underpass, a busy space of enormous concrete pillars, harsh fluorescent lighting and glass storefronts, a drama of heartbreaking cruelty unfolds, doing so in silence. Der Riese does have a soundtrack, a crucial sonic layer that I’ll discuss later, but it periodically drops out. Far from the watchful eyes of teachers and the well-surveilled precincts of school, two adolescent boys are in the midst of abusing another boy their age. The first bully, on the shorter side yet projecting a tough-guy persona (leather jacket, keys dangling from his belt), delivers a round of kicks; the second, weaponizing his own school bag, swats the bullied boy’s bag to the ground, which triggers his accomplice to jump in front of the victim in a taunting show of dominance. The first bully then takes the swatted bag from the second (who in the meanwhile has scooped it up) and proceeds to do a kind of “sissy walk,” offering what is ostensibly a demeaning imitation of the bullied boy. Here, words are exchanged, but we can’t tell which ones; all that we can tell is that whatever the bullied boy says to the others has no effect in getting his bag back. However, once the bullied boy has given up all hope of regaining the bag and has turned around and begun to make a cowed escape from the scene towards the escalators, the second bully, who retakes the bag from the first, whips it around and hurls it at its proper owner. Evidently, with standard, brutal bully logic, an object is worth taking and keeping only insofar as the one from whom it will be robbed actively wishes and tries to get it back; what matters is not the object itself but the causing of hurt and distress.

Strikingly, none of the other people in the crowded underpass—all adults—seem to notice what is going on, to say nothing of trying to intervene and assist the bullied boy; in a quite literal sense, they are “passers-by.” Or maybe they do notice but don’t care to intervene, or else don’t think they ought to. After all, is bullying not eminently normal—as in commonplace—in the rough-and-tumble lifeworld of adolescent boys? In any case, the only one who does notice, though of course is structurally unable to do anything (incidentally, surveillance footage of this sort is far more about prosecuting wrongdoers after the fact than intervening in and stopping the wrong), is the giant, who pays scrupulous attention to what is going on, tracking the disregarded scene of potentially lifelong traumatic scarring for as long as it comes into, and remains in, its field of vision. Of course, nothing in the image necessarily thwarts an interpretation where the giant, despite uniquely “caring” about the scene of humiliation, identifies with the “monstrous” bullies and tracks the events out of a kind of sadistic voyeurism. Yet Klier’s careful, strategic editing militates against this possibility, taking us from the bullying to another moment in the subway underpass that feels as though it were both spatially and temporally continuous with what we have been watching. To come back to Hagen: Klier is not interested in a strictly “raw” documentary approach, even though the automated and durational nature of surveillance camera footage seems to be suited to it.

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