The world according to acclaimed German director, novelist and producer Alexander Kluge is full of veils, masks, and hidden agendas. And not always in a bad way. From facial expressions to DNA, life is illusory and coded. But masks aren’t just forms of self-preservation through misrepresentation; they also provide freedom through anonymity — or protection from radioactive exposure. In Munich, the auteur explains to Max Dax why masks are beyond good and evil and how novels are instruction manuals for deception.
Mr. Kluge, why do people wear masks?
That’s like asking why people don’t run around naked. Why do we wear clothes? Why do we have skin? Why is there external protection even at the cellular level? The answer is that life itself isn’t naked, and it’s for the same reason that you can’t transport water in the desert just by cupping your hands: you need a proper container. All forms of life need a house, a shield, a casing. It’s a basic human need to have a cave or an acre of land that belongs to you and you alone. In the end, there are only two kinds of human beings: cave-dwellers and prairie people. If the prairie person is denied mobility or the cave-dweller is denied protection, they’re badly able to survive. It’s a natural human tendency to light candles in the cave for comfort in winter, and let the sky to be your roof in summer. All poetry is about these two states of being.
You once said that the reality that human communities construct is like a second skin that makes life bearable.
And I stand by it. Our first skin serves us to hold us together physically; if our organs were exposed, we wouldn’t be able to survive. Skin is a casing that, first and foremost, protects us. But in order to survive socially, our physical skin is not enough–and that’s why people construct a second skin called “reality”, something that’s constantly changing. My grandparents had an entirely differently constructed reality than my children. We build our realities according to our personal, social and political circumstances … and we do it in order to survive. Human beings are simply unable to deal with an unadorned reality.
Is the second skin you call reality a kind of mask?
I would say the face itself is a mask. It has over two hundred different muscles that we can manipulate in order to form the most varied and illusory expressions. We’ve been able to use our facial muscles like this since our evolutionary forefathers and early man discovered language and the ability to deceive. That’s why every human being is a walking, talking mask. With the advent of language, deception and disguise became part of the game of survival. It reminds me of an interesting scene in Heinrich von Kleist’s Cathy of Heilbronn, where the princess visits a fountain at night, disrobes under the moonlight, and is revealed as a skeleton. She stands in stark contrast to the protagonist, Cathy, who is vital, rosy-cheeked, and made of flesh and blood. In theatre terms, the princess’s skeletal frame implies that she’s incapable of love–an aspect of her true identity she wants to conceal at all costs. Her clothes ad jewellery–conventional symbols of dignity and splendor–are nothing but masks for death. In Kleist’s attempt to distinguish between truth and deception, masked death becomes a woman’s false beauty.
“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”
That’s Oscar Wilde–and what a fitting aphorism. Ancient Greek actors and actresses were called “Personae” or “Masks that can be heard through” because they said things through the openings of their masks that they would otherwise never be allowed to say offstage. Even the oracle at Delphi spoke through a mask. Historically, people are better able to sort out their egotisms from behind masks. When free of the burden of their own conceits, they can speak certain truths. Man is undoubtedly a creature of illusion.
How would you say the practice of confession fits into that scheme? Is the partition in the Catholic confessional also a type of mask?
Of course! Without a partition that provides a certain degree of anonymity, there’s no way to confess so freely. As soon as people look each other in the eyes, they start measuring their words carefully, and that’s entirely natural. Whoever says that people should be totally open and honest with each other is operating under a false understanding of what it means to be human. Nietzsche said that man is a manufacturer of illusions–an illusion-making machine, so to speak. That’s why our basic human desires aren’t geared towards the discovery of truth per se. Sincerity and openness are byproducts of other more basic human needs.
But isn’t the mask-wearer potentially motivated by truth? Isn’t the mask a tool for producing knowledge?
That depends on your understanding of what constitutes knowledge. I think that lovers put on masks when they want to reassure each other of their love–something they otherwise wouldn’t be able to do in light of the reality of an unknowable future. I suppose this holds not only for lovers, but also in assuming any given role and the responsibilities that come along with it. By being “in character”, people can assess the reality they’re engaged with. But to know what these roles are, we need various forms of fictional narrative–specifically the novel, because, historically, that’s where these roles were made most explicit and played out. I don’t think there would be love without certain kinds of explorative fiction or literature, regardless of genre. Or should I say: there would be no love without roleplaying and no roleplaying without masks.
You believe that fictional narratives have such a strong effect on our behaviour?
Not our behavior, but rather our communication. Fiction allows us to communicate about our behavior. It’s similar to when people used to speak from behind fans: you could speak your mind and not be caught in the act. If you blushed, nobody would be able to tell, because, as a mask the fan is opaque. In contrast, the blush is a revealing mask. One is worn over the other.
You’ve mentioned the novel as a source of information on various roles we play. Opera is considered one of the most coded and artificial forms of the performing arts. What can it tell us about communication and disguise?
Opera has a stronger, more emotional thrust that the novel; or, for that matter, most literature. Take for example The Pretend Garden Girl, which Mozart wrote when he was still very young. It tells the story of a Count who stabs his lover, Violante, in a fit of jealous rage. Violante survives and realizes she still loves the Count. To heal her broken heart, she disguises herself as a simple gardener’s girl in an attempt to win him back. She succeeds, but only by masking her true identity. The story demonstrates the importance of masks and disguises in communicating love in circuitous fashion. Contrary to popular opinion, love doesn’t always function magnetically or on terms of a direct attraction. The masks in literature and opera tell you exactly that. In fictional narratives, the mask is a medium of communicating emotion. It’s not for nothing that the novel was popularized as an art form at the same time as garden labyrinths. In a proper labyrinth, nothing is really grown; lovers get lost only to find each other again. And this is why they epitomize love: because they have no express purpose! Love that only serves reproduction or upward social mobility is sad and lonely. Love that allows for detours and impracticalities also allows for a certain luxury we call freedom. Its artistic expression can be found in music and opera. And let’s not forget techno–an art form dominated by the power of bass and the movement of dancing masses. Techno is also a type of opera, in my opinion.
Would you say that the club is the new opera stage–a modern masked ball?
Indeed. I remember being in the old Tresor in Berlin during the nineties and thinking to myself: what’s happening here in the old basement safe of the Wertheim department store is nothing other than twenty-first century opera… all night long.
What would the opera be like without masks?
It wouldn’t exist. Don Giovanni is one long masquerade, Cosi fan tutte even more so. You see, the important thing is that the audience knows more than the actors on stage. If that’s not the case, opera becomes incredibly boring. The characters have to be ignorant of their own demise; that’s one of the main appeals in opera. It’s a labyrinthine art.
In Aristotle’s writings on the etymology of tragedy, he traces the word back to ancient springtime festivals involving goat sacrifices. “Tragos” is actually the Greek word for “goat song”. During the celebrations, men wore masks and sang songs about social issues that would otherwise result in conflict. The participants all assumed prototypical social and political roles. These festivals were a way for people to vent: instead of mass brawls, conflicts were resolved on stage. This is the original form of theater and, therefore, of opera as well.
A sort of war by proxy set on stage?
Yes, just like in the Old Testament: Isaac was supposed to sacrifice his own child, but in the end, an animal did the trick.
What about the functional masks that people use for protection? The images form Japan’s recent nuclear catastrophe are ingrained in our collective consciousness–especially people wearing white surgical masks.
First and foremost, people wear those kinds of masks to protect themselves form radiation. But I also think they wear them to mask their own fear. Fear often takes control of facial expressions; fear exposes.
The nuclear disaster in Chernobyl figures prominently in a number of your books. How have you been affected by the images form Japan?
The disaster in general has affected me strongly. Nature once again has reminded us of the scope of her power. The last eathquake and tsunami of that magnitude in Japan occurred some fourteen hundred years ago. It sometimes seems that this is how nature confers and communicates with man. But because nature resists being “understood”, we sometimes speak of “nature’s mask”–which comes off when Vesuvius blows or a huge earthquake shows its destructive power. Of course, “nature’s mask” is just an illusory invention of man. There are plenty of nuclear power plants in areas we know are potential sites for natural disasters. Clearly, planet earth doesn’t wear a mask on its own. Rather, we mask the planet because we haven’t been able to solve nature’s puzzles.
We’ve recently seen television images of “masked”uprisings in Egypt and Libya. There, protestors have been veiling themselves to protect their identity.
The circumstances in North Africa are indeed unsettling, because the masked demonstrators make it even more difficult to determine of agent provocateurs are in the mix. Here’s an instance where masks create as much confusion as they do protection. I mean, Libya is in the middle of a civil war and neither the sides nor the fronts can be easily determined. Not even during the Third Reich was there such an intense atmosphere of ignorance and insecurity. It’s extremely eerie. Libya’s former Foreign Minister defected to England and also became a kind of shapeshifter. I’m sure he brought with him dozens of masks he’s created through diplomatic experience.
Would you be surprised if, say, club-goers in London’s Fabric or Berlin’s Berghain were suddenly wearing these functional masks as a fashion statement? Crowds dancing in surgical masks or the veils and turbans North African revolutions?
Not only would that not surprise me, I think it would be a highly sensible reaction to a really disturbing series of event. You can make whatever scares you less threatening by wearing it–it’s a natural way to get over your fears. Every child puts on a ghost costume at some point and, in doing so, makes the ghost harmless.
Historically, people have worn masks to cast out demons…
And they continue to do so! Just look at Carnival, Halloween or Walpurgis Night… But there are also more everyday examples, like COSPLAY, where people dress up like their favorite Manga characters to free themselves from the shackles of the daily grind. They’re developing new, creative rituals. I recently had the chance to film two Manga girls going to a COSPLAY convention. The one girl introduced her friend with the words, “That’s my dog!”–even though the girl wasn’t dressed like a dog, but more like an vil fairy. I appreciate that the Manga movement allows for these kinds of bizarre masquerades and surreal role-playing scenarios, because each individual possesses all sorts of different identities: we’re beings of a thousand characters. The fact that we can express them with masks–by putting on different faces–is a great thing.
Can you give me an example of a “fake”mask?
The “honest” banker in the television advertisement who tells you, ”Come to our bank, your money is in good hands.” That’s the epitome of deception.
To what extent is Facebook a virtual masquerade or even a form of deception?
Playing more than one role in life isn’t something that’s exclusive to Facebook; it’s part of the essence of life itself and has been since man has been able to think. And why shouldn’t we live these roles out? In a metropolis, most people have multiple identities.
Is it a lie when somebody knowingly discloses false information on Facebook?
Not necessarily. Sometimes things become true when you invent them for yourself. What’s truth? Think about the modes of flirting popular in Europe between the 14th and 18th centuries. There was so much disguise and affectation involved in the communication between partners in order to determine whether one person loved the other. Of course, there was a big difference between the two genders. But even back then, men always promised the world when seducing a woman, just in “Don Giovanni.
How do we look past the seducer’s mask to see what he or she is really like?
Do we really want to? Do we need to know what kind of person he was in the past? How she grew up? Who his parents are? What she loves? How he lives? What she’s afraid of? Today, everything can be accessed on Facebook. Maybe after studying somebody’s profile, you can see behind the masks they wear in the physical world. Walter Benjamin once said that an actor can’t pretend to be truly terrified. If you really want to scare him, you have to fire a shot next to his ear–then you’ll really have him flinching for the close-up.~
Photos: Rick Burger
This text appeared first in Electronic Beats Magazine N° 26 (2011). Read the full issue on issuu.com: