Farocki superimposes the rapid consumption of images with a tranquillity in order to examine them. The objects and people in Farocki's films move about as if in slow motion.... Every angle has its own value and its own depth. Every angle challenges the viewer not to look at things as they appear at first glance, but to look behind them, to search for the hidden meaning.This brings me to another point of comparison with the Great Jean-Luc: Farocki's cinema is also a form of writing, and to this extent, the label 'essay-film' tries to convey a crucial aspect of his work. Yet what should also be understood in the word 'essay' (with its etymological roots in the verb 'to do') is what in film studies might be called Farocki's 'mode of production', his 'manu-facture', his hand-writing, his signature, and what Walter Benjamin described, in connection with narration and the story-teller, as “the thumb-print of the potter on the clay jug”. Indeed, in several of his films, the director's hand frames an image in the film (e.g. most famously, in Images of the World), and he has also made a film called simply Der Ausdruck der Hände/The Gesture of Hands (1997). Such a conception of manu-facture, and its historical place – at once avant-garde and obsolete – also poses itself for Farocki around the notion of work, of the kind of work filmmaking is, especially his kind of filmmaking. As I argued in discussing Farocki in a book on the New German Cinema, Farocki places himself quite deliberately in the dialectic between 'working like a machine' and 'working like an artist', qualifying both as ultimately 'too easy': “it is not a question of doing either one or the other, but of joining the two”. In this respect, Farocki's cinema is a meta-cinema also in the sense of being a permanent commentary on filmmaking in West Germany since the demise of the film-industry and the rise of this so-called New German Cinema in the 1970s and 1980s. A meta-cinema, too, insofar as most of Farocki's films have focused on the problems of 'work', 'labour', 'production' as not only categories of the economic – how a society materially produces and ideologically reproduces the means of its survival – but work as the reproduction of the 'subject'. The tone is that of wonder, the inflection is that of astonishment: in Farocki's cinema, a child's sense of surprise is never far away, but it always surges up most forcefully when he is asking himself about the status and nature of images. Farocki hesitates whether images, in their peculiar immaterial materiality are a reality in their own right, a new order of existence which we will have to add to the more familiar triad 'mineral, vegetal, animal' (something like 'pictural' or maybe even 'pixeral'!), or whether images are part of alternative worlds that have always been with us: the virtual/actual flip-sides that Gilles Deleuze has talked about so much: what Farocki calls “the lives next to our own”. As Farocki's cinema knows so well, and time and again testifies: images do not just exist as objects among other objects, nor even as manufactured objects among other manufactured objects. Images in Farocki are seen through somebody's or something's eyes, and they are always destined for somebody's eyes. These eyes, then, are fatally implicated in both the act of representation and the represented, in short, looking at a picture is the end of innocence for vision. And while film studies for the last 30 years has explored, examined and tormented itself around this paradox and its troubling implications, Farocki's films add another dimension – call it the political – where he traces and examines the many histories of embodied vision, or the dialectics of embodied and disembodied vision, of human vision and the vision machines, and the kinds of productivity they engender. Therefore, if I understand him right, what is so crucial about the Lumière's Workers Leaving the Factory (the core reference point of Arbeiter verlassen die Fabrik/Workers Leaving the Factory ) is not only the emblematic convergence of a particular technology, the cinematograph, with a particular site, the factory, but also the fact that, ever since these two made contact, collided, and combined, more and more workers have been leaving the factory. With the advent of the cinema, the very notion and place of human productivity, and the very function of human labour seems to have undergone momentous mutations, within and beyond the commodity form. What the new features of work, labour, creativity might be, we can only guess at, immobilized as our Western societies are between the ever longer queues of the unemployed outside, and the ever more numerous computer terminals – techno-mutants of the cinematograph – inside the workplace and in our homes. Since the early 1990s, television and installation art has preoccupied Farocki at least as much as the cinema. What better place than the museum to confront the cinema once more with itself and its history? A curious set of parallels has evolved between the museum as a space of contemplation, and the electronic vision machines and their role as social instruments of surveillance; the museum as a site of aesthetic distance and reflection, and scientific instruments of calculation, of mathematics as means of measuring and monitoring. Both are now the expression of a control society which has replaced dialogue and democracy with sensoring and data-mining, just as it has muted – in our parts at least – the hard power of the coercive disciplinary society by the soft power of self-policing and self-fashioning. In installations such as Schnittstelle/Interface (1995) Farocki once more examines his own method of work ('work', 'place' and 'camera') and tries to locate the crossroads at which he finds himself. For video art and the digital media now challenge a filmmaker's craft; they intersect with the prime function which the (still) photographic image used to have for Farocki's view of history, and they interface with his analysis of the politics of the image. Now that he has completed another installation, Ich glaubte, Gefangene zu sehen/ I thought I saw Prisoners (2001) it seems that Farocki has completed yet another change in his long career. Not so much a change of medium or of the technological apparatus, but of the entire dispositif of the visible. What has shifted is his way of thinking about and of being in the world. Farocki captures in devastating mini-narratives the new social deployment of images, making one sense the unimaginable quantities of their recording and storage, alerting one to their replay and circulation in opaque and unaccountable sites of power. We are forced to share the point of view of blind eyes and of machine intelligence, scanning ever more of them for information – of what? And for whom? Installation art returns us to the spatial dimension of the image: but Farocki has also noticed for us how prisons and supermarkets, video-games and theatres of war have become 'work-places' – of subjects as much as of commodities. They are spaces that are converging, once one appreciates how they all fall under the new pragmatics of the time-space logic of optimising access, flow, control. These sites a filmmaker has to take cognisance of and recognise him/herself implicated in, but so has the spectator, whose role has changed so much. As one walks through Farocki's works, which have become our worlds, one realises that he may be one of the few filmmakers today capable of understanding the logic of this convergence, contesting its inevitability and yet feeling confident enough to continue to believe in the wit, wisdom and the poetry of images. This certainly makes Harun Farocki an important filmmaker: probably Germany's best-known important filmmaker.
Introduction: Harun Farocki
About the Author
Thomas Elsaesser is Professor of Media and Culture at the University of Amsterdam.