“Who is Farocki?” was the now famous heading that Cahiers du cinéma used in what was probably the very first essay about Farocki in 1975. That is a long while ago, and it confirms that ‘Harun Farocki’ has been around for a long while: already by 1975 he had been making films for a decade. The first time I wrote about Farocki was in 1983, the first time I introduced him to a live audience was in 1993, by which time I could with some justification call him “Germany’s best-known unknown filmmaker”. A year later, Farocki had his first major retrospective in the United States, following several festival screenings of his Images of the World and Inscription of War (1988).
After becoming every student film-club’s favourite meditation on the media and modern warfare in the age of smart bombs and Operation Desert Storm, Images of the World quickly advanced to something of a classic: the reference film, the anchoring point for seminars on Paul Virilio, on the essay-film as a hybrid documentary but politically subversive film genre, on the ‘limits of representation’ after Auschwitz and Schindler’s List, as well as – this needs to be rediscovered after September 11th – the definitive film about terrorism.
As happens so often with pioneers: they go unrecognised in their own country until someone else – often far away – ‘discovers’ them, and travellers bring back the news of what an exceptional talent has all these years been living right in their midst. It is therefore no exaggeration to say that, with a dozen feature-length films, and some 60 films altogether, along with a collection of essays in German, a bi-lingual collection of his own writings, and another book on Farocki about to be published in English, Harun Farocki has advanced to being one of Germany’s best-known known filmmakers.
Rather than take the reader through Farocki’s complete filmography, I just want to mention some of his films that I like most: apart from Images of the World and Inscription of War, there is Between Two Wars, 1978; Before your Eyes, Vietnam, 1981; As You See 1986; Living in the BRD, 1990 and What is Up, 1991. These I saw when they were made (which was not always when they first came out or were first released, because that is another story). In other words, I tracked a talent while also getting to know a little the person who thought up these amazing films. But it took a specially arranged retrospective of his films organised in Berlin for me to realise just how various his work is, and how unexpected some of the titles are, ranging from the ironic and sharply sarcastic, to the whimsical, playful and totally tongue-in-cheek. Among the films I saw in Berlin in 1997, four especially struck me, giving more food for thought: Der Geschmack des Lebens/ The Taste of Life (1979), a homage to his neighbourhood in Berlin, as casual as looking out of the window on a sunny morning on to the street-life below, and letting the waking eye catch whatever the movement of working people, discarded newspapers or plastic bags puts before it. Reminiscent of Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin-film from the 1920s, it is – like its predecessor – a very sophisticated, obliquely sardonic comment, wrapped in a meticulously crafted, and yet seemingly improvised ‘city-symphony’. Then, there is Das Doppelte Gesicht/ The Dual Face (1984), an unbearably poignant film on the actor Peter Lorre, using mostly still photographs taken during his years of exile in Southern California. A real oddity is the wonderfully dead-pan pastiche of a Douglas Sirk melodrama in the spirit of the German Heimatfilm or Harlequin romances, about a woman unhappily in love with a famous concert pianist. She goes blind after an accident, and even more desperate in her love, is plagued by thoughts of suicide, until her eyesight is miraculously restored, after rescuing a young girl, drowning in a lake and crying for help. The film is called Einmal wirst auch Du mich lieben/One Day You, too, Shall Love Me (1973), co-scripted and co-directed by Hartmut Bitomsky, a regular collaborator during Farocki’s early career. Finally, improbably as it may seem, Farocki is also the writer-director of an Alfred Hitchcock-Paul Schrader-Brian De Palma-David Mamet psychological thriller about the perfect murder that goes predictably and fatally wrong, called Betrogen/Betrayed (1985).
The vagaries of his often meagre means of production – forcing him to shunt between commissioned work for television, quick one-off programmes or short TV-features for late-night cultural magazines, and projects he has had to nurse for half a decade before scraping together the finance – stand in stark contrast to the richness of his output and its consistently interesting critical focus. It makes it also difficult to give Farocki a proper place in film culture, or indeed in the film history of his country. Even though the neat categories of feature film, documentary, European avant-garde cinema, film movements like the French nouvelle vague or New German Cinema – are today beginning to blend and crossover even for the mainstream film historian, one still hesitates where to put Farocki. On the one hand, it is perfectly possible to inscribe his work into all of these histories, and some more, like the history of television, or of the children’s film (he directed several episodes for the German version of Sesame Street and made a film with his twin daughters when they were 11 years old). He could also take his place in the long line of European auteurs. It is easy to see how Farocki has been ‘influenced’ by Carl Theodore Dreyer, by Robert Bresson, by Jean-Luc Godard, by Jean Marie Straub, but also by writers like Bert Brecht, Walter Benjamin, Alfred Sohn-Rethel and Günther Anders. One could demonstrate how Farocki’s films belong to the avant-garde montage cinema around Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, or where he situates himself in the New German Cinema between Alexander Kluge, Jean-Marie Straub, Edgar Reitz, Helmuth Costard, Klaus Wildenhahn or Wim Wenders. But these are mere labels, signposts on road maps for film studies intro-classes.
More important would be to examine how his work challenges many of these divisions and classifications – and so, critics have invented for his kind of filmmaking another pigeon hole: that of the “essay film”, now so often associating Farocki with the works of Chris Marker and late Godard. It is true, his films are discursive and proceed by arguments, rather than constructing a fictional narrative or documenting processes in the world ‘out there’. He often uses voice-over commentary, and its gestus is often both educationally explanatory and ruminatingly reflexive. But the essay film, too, is only half the story. Farocki’s films are a constant dialogue with images, with image making, and with the institutions that produce and circulate these images. As he once wrote: “My films are made against the cinema and against television” – a phrase that still has the rhetoric of 1968 confrontation and opposition, but even then, I think, Farocki knew all too well that there is no space ‘outside’ images from which to speak about images. Central to his work is the insight that with the advent of the cinema, the world has become visible in a radically new way, with far-reaching consequences for all spheres of life, from the world of work and production, to politics and our conception of democracy and community, for warfare and strategic planning, for abstract thinking and philosophy, as well as for interpersonal relations and emotional bonds, for subjectivity and inter-subjectivity. In this sense, Farocki’s cinema is a meta-cinema, a cinema that sits on top of the cinema ‘as we know it’, and at the same time is underpinned by the cinema ‘as we have known it’. One of his friends put it very well:
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.