Metamorphosis of a German Housewife

The German film poster for PART-TIME WORK OF A DOMESTIC SLAVE (German title: Gelegenheitsarbeit einer Sklavin, 1973)

When German director Alexander Kluge first burst upon the international film scene in 1966 with his debut feature Abschied von Gestern – (Anita G.) aka Yesterday Girl, he was at the forefront of the emerging New German cinema. The movie was proclaimed “Outstanding Feature Film” at the 1967 German Film Awards with Kluge also winning for “Best Direction” and it also won numerous awards at the Venice Film Festival. After such a glorious beginning, Kluge was soon overshadowed by R.W. Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders and other rising German directors as their work enjoyed wider acclaim and distribution outside Germany. That certainly didn’t discourage Kluge from moviemaking and his filmography to date includes more than 100 shorts, features and TV movies, most of which have been criminally overlooked by the same film critics who embraced his more famous peers. Yesterday Girl earned him the moniker of “The German Godard” and you can see stylistic similarities between the two directors but Kluge forged his own personal brand of cinema and one of his most important and audacious works is Gelegenheitsarbeit einer Sklavin (English title: Part-Time Work of a Domestic Slave, 1973).

Roswitha (Alexandra Kluge, second from left) with her friend Sylvia (Sylvia Gartmann) and their children in Roswitha’s cramped apartment in PART-TIME WORK OF A DOMESTIC SLAVE (1973),

Focusing on six months in the life of the Bronski family, Kluge’s movie mostly tracks the daily routines of the wife Roswitha (Alexandra Kluge, the director’s sister) as she struggles to provide for her three children and husband Franz (Franz Bronski), who has a degree in chemistry but opts to learn a new trade while his wife supports him. To make extra money, Roswitha and her friend Sylvia (Sylvia Gartmann) operate their own private abortion clinic but refer difficult cases to doctors for a referral fee. When the narrator informs us that Roswitha chooses to be an abortionist so she can “afford more children of her own,” the irony of the situation cues us to Kluge’s satirical intentions.

Roswitha (Alexandra Kluge) and her unemployed husband Franz (Franz Bronski), who criticizes everything she does in PART-TIME HELP OF A DOMESTIC SLAVE (1973).

Lots of targets are skewed and dissected such as the medical profession, marriage, the media, government bureaucracy, law enforcement and union organizers as Roswitha tries to keep her family together amid a chaotic household. When a female doctor/rival informs on Roswitha’s illegal abortion practice, the police come to investigate and husband and wife ban together briefly to escape the charges. They succeed in avoiding capture and conviction but the aftermath leaves Roswitha determined to devote more time to herself instead of pouring her energy into the family. As a result, Franz is forced to become the breadwinner and takes a job at Beauchamp and Company, a chemical plant, while Roswitha and Sylvia immerse themselves in social causes, particularly environmental issues. Eventually, Roswitha’s commitment to exposing the people and businesses behind the pollution in their town results in the closure of Beauchamp and Company and Franz getting laid off.

Sylvia (Sylvia Gartmann, left) and Roswitha (Alexandra Kluge) educate themselves on pollution, smog and the environment as their new mission in PART-TIME HELP OF A DOMESTIC SLAVE (1973).

When we last see Roswitha, she is working as a vendor at a sausage stand where she inserts a political pamphlet inside each meal that she serves. Her activism is aimed at raising awareness about the average German’s diet of too much meat and coffee but, as the narrator notes, “sausages in themselves are harmless but there’s more to it that that…but what?” The viewer is left to their own conclusions about Roswitha’s fate but clearly she has thrown off the shackles of motherhood to explore other options outside the accepted norm, regardless of her haphazard method of self-discovery.

Cinema verite-like footage of Roswitha (Alexandra Kluge) and Franz (Franz Bronski) as they go about their daily lives in PART-TIME HELP OF A DOMESTIC SLAVE (1973).

Part social mockery, part agitprop, Kluge’s film takes a freewheeling, semi-documentary like approach to his subject in an attempt to break away from conventional narrative forms and create something more organic which activates “the spectator’s own capacity to make connections between vastly disparate images,” according to Michelle Langford in her essay for Senses of Cinema. How does he accomplish this? Through jump cuts, voice over narration, utilizing film clips, illustrations and drawings from books with literary and philosophical quotes, plus mixing professional with nonprofessional actors and employing cinema verite-like improvisation. Kluge also uses diegetic music and sounds and freely samples from an eclectic range of songs that includes an aria from Bizet’s Carmen and the pop song “Taka Takata,” sung by Joe Dassin.

Roswitha (Alexandra Kluge) prepares to lie about her illegal abortion practices in the 1973 German drama, PART-TIME HELP OF A DOMESTIC SLAVE

All of these elements combine to make Part-Time Work of a Domestic Slave more than just a character study. It becomes a constantly evolving search for self-identity by a woman who appears repressed and controlled by a domineering husband but he is not the main problem. Most of the obstacles in Roswitha’s path to breaking out of the stereotypical housewife role is represented by German society itself in the early 1970s.

Roswitha (Alexandra Kluge) bargains with a neighbor for the use of his dog in her attempts to elude a police investigation in PART-TIME HELP OF A DOMESTIC SLAVE (1973).

You might think from the title and the above synopsis that Kluge’s film is a dreary, didactic affair but it is actually a fast-moving, multi-layered critique that addresses themes from the burgeoning feminist movement of its era but also pokes fun at the hypocrisy and misogyny of certain elitist German males. Franz, in particular, comes off as a foolish and insufferable chauvinist who expects his wife to mind the kids, clean house, buy the groceries, do all the cooking and not interrupt him when he is trying to study in their cramped apartment, which is all the time. Not only is Franz content to let Roswitha support him as a part-time abortionist but when she is forced to end her practice, he tries to shame her back into being the family caregiver, saying “Getting rid of kids isn’t as important as raising them.”

Franz (Franz Bronski) is given a surprise gift by his wife and this is his best response in PART-TIME HELP OF A DOMESTIC SLAVE (1973), directed by Alexander Kluge.

Kluge’s knack for imparting information about his characters or social situations in innovative ways is consistently fascinating such as a sequence where Franz and Roswitha’s courtship and marriage is covered by a montage of faded scrapbook photos. Equally effective are alarming juxtapositions as in scenes where Roswitha’s untended children start a fire in their backyard while Roswitha and Sylvia try to improve their concentration skills by memorizing a Bertolt Brecht song performed by Lotte Lenya. And almost every encounter Roswitha has with a male authority figure ends up being a wry expose of male privilege as in the scene where a newspaper editor dismisses her pitch for an investigative report on the poor state of food services for factory workers. His reasoning is that it isn’t “a hot item” like murder or a political scandal which warrants front page coverage.  

Director Alexander Kluge (center) with Rainer Werner Fassbinder (left) circa 1975.

Clearly, Part-Time Work of a Domestic Slave is the work of a true provocateur and the simulated abortion scenes in the early part of the film are not for the squeamish. Filmed in a graphic yet clinical manner, these sequences are indeed hard to watch but they establish Roswitha as an efficient and highly skilled abortionist who cares about her patients and takes steps to make sure they are cared for properly. She might be occasionally discombobulated in her home life but she also possesses a remarkable resilience and turns every failure into a learning experience. Even at the end, when she is reduced to managing a sausage stand, we know that she will survive and thrive. In fact, her restless activism could eventually lead her to more extreme methods for changing society such as joining a terrorist group like the Baader-Meinof group.

Roswitha (Alexandra Kluge) is forced to abandon her abortion service and immenses herself into self-education in PART-TIME HELP OF A DOMESTIC SLAVE (1973).

Part-Time Work of a Domestic Slave was not that well received outside Germany during its initial release nor did it garner any festival awards. The New York Times, in particular, seemed to misinterpret the entire movie and dismissed it completely, stating, “Slave” manages to be reactionary in several ways—partly because you can’t possibly like either of these one-note characters: the wife (Alexandra Kluge, the director’s sister) is presented as a dreary clod, and the husband (Franz Bronski) is just a grouch. The shallowness of the characterization, combined with the pretentious bleakness that runs throughout, results in a paralyzing pessimism that makes the lives depicted seem contemptible…. The conclusion implies that the effort for change is useless. All in all, the movie would be depressing if it weren’t so dull.”

German director Alexander Kluge and his sister Alexandra on the set of one of their films together.

Kluge’s film is much more well regarded today and is considered one of his finest achievements. Completely contradicting the New York Times review is film critic Tony Rayns of Time Out who called Part-Time Work of a Domestic Slave, “That rarest of movies: a left wing comedy which doesn’t hang itself up in questions of ‘realism’ but does involve itself very closely with the everyday flux of political and social pressures… Kluge charts her [Roswitha’s] hopeless campaign through documentary (an unblinking look at the fact of abortion) and witty fiction alike, his methods recalling both Brecht and Godard; everything is informed by a kind of wry humour that keeps the plot in perspective without tempering its immediacy. It’s hard to think of another film that’s as honest, relevant and yet not disillusioned as this.”

Roswitha (Alexandra Kluge) realizes that her role as a housewife must change if she is to survive in the real world in PART-TIME HELP OF A DOMESTIC SLAVE (1973).

In an essay on the film for Senses of Cinema, film scholar John Flaus notes that, “Thematically, Part-Time Work of a Domestic Slave is comparable to Imamura’s Nippon konchuki (The Insect Woman, 1963), in which a woman of no independent means doggedly seeks to realise Self instead of Role and hence is seen as a moral undesirable. However, Imamura’s style is stodgily realistic, whereas Kluge’s is dynamically avant-garde (he rejects the label “post-modernist”).”

The German film poster for YESTERDAY GIRL (1966), directed by Alexander Kluge

If you have never seen an Alexander Kluge film, I would recommend starting with his 1966 feature debut, Yesterday Girl, starring his sister Alexandra in the title role. If you find that to your liking, you should investigate his other key masterpieces, which are equally accessible if unconventional such as Artists Under the Big Top: Perplexed (1968), Strongman Ferdinand (1976) and, of course, Part-Time Work of a Domestic Slave. As of this writing, Kluge is still working at age 91. His last feature was Orphea (2020), a rock ‘n’ roll musical based on a Greek myth, which he co-directed with Filipino filmmaker Khavn.

Part-Time Work of a Domestic Slave was released to DVD by Facets in October 2010 and includes Kluge’s 1963 satiric short Lehrer im Wandel (English title: Teachers in Transformation). Facets has released all of Kluge’s major works along with more than 20 of his short films on DVD between the years of 2008-2010. You might be able to still purchase these from online sellers but what is really needed is a Kluge box set featuring restorations of his work on Blu-ray.

Other links of interest:

https://www.filmcomment.com/article/a-blast-from-the-past-alexander-kluge-interview/

https://www.artforum.com/print/200807/a-cinema-of-citation-the-films-of-alexander-kluge-20920

https://bombmagazine.org/articles/alexander-kluge/

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