War at a Distance, 2003. Expounding on his familiar themes of production and (particularly in the depopulated, automated factory assembly line integration processes of Images of the World and the Inscription of War), War at a Distance is a brilliant, intelligently reasoned, and provocative video essay on the interrelation, not only between war and the advancement of technology, but also between technology and the depersonalization (and redefinition) of modern warfare. Assembling images from advanced military simulation training programs, remote, robotic image sensing and mapping, military-released air strike footages during the Gulf War that present technological warfare as dissociated (and non-aesthetic) visual images that are not intended for the human eye but nevertheless “see” their target, and clinical exercises in synthesized spatial and topographic pattern recognition that are increasingly devoid of human intervention (and in the case of war, human casualty), Harun Farocki creates an intelligent examination on the evolving meaning of images, cognition, and recognition, and a compelling discourse on war as an increasingly abstract, impersonal, dissociated, and alienated form of a historically conventional “human” act of populational engagement.
Inextinguishable Fire, 1969.
How can we show you napalm in action? And how can we show you the injuries caused by napalm? If we show you pictures of napalm burns, you’ll close your eyes. First you’ll close your eyes to the pictures. Then you’ll close your eyes to the memory. Then you’ll close your eyes to the facts. Then you’ll close your eyes to the entire context.
The interrelation between production and warfare has been a familiar, recurring theme within Harun Farocki’s body of work. Nevertheless, despite the innate radicalization of all of his films, few come closer to the explicit statement of this theme – and exposition of its underlying sociopolitical theory – than Inextinguishable Fire, a film that represents (and physically marks, as embodied by Farocki’s real-life act of self-scarring by burning his arm with a cigarette) a philosophical and artistic evolution for the filmmaker. This symbolic act of author implication in the presentation of the images and in the contextual reinforcement of the residual afterimages would propel, not only Farocki’s subsequent, deliberate acts of self-erasure from his films, but also his systematic detachment from the intrinsically subjective act of image production, increasingly relying instead in the process of observation, artifacting, editing, and hypothetical analysis of found film.
From the filmmaker’s introductory reading of the transcripted testimony by Vietnamese napalm victim, Thai Bihn Dahn before the Vietnam War Crimes Tribunal in Stockholm for crimes committed by the U.S. government against his village in 1966, followed by his act of self-mutilation in order to reinforce the idea of the degree of severity of inflicted napalm burns, Farocki explores this interrelation between industrial advancement through science production and technological warfare. Exploring the manufacturer of Napalm-B, Dow Chemical’s complex role as innovators of complex chemicals that have led to the development of advanced manufacturing materials (and beneficial consumer goods and agricultural products), the film explores the innate dissociation – often through intellectual specialization and what Farocki describes as the “intensified division of labor” – between the scientific products developed by these innovators and the application of the new technology (specifically, the development of Napalm-B from a polystyrene-based adhesive used on shoes that results in improved skin adhesion so that the chemical cannot be washed away after contact, ensuring that the victim will burn to death): the idea of weapons of mass destruction as industrial byproducts of consumer goods. What emerges is a provocative industrial paradigm in which the accountability for the production of these inhumane weapons becomes abstract and diluted to the point where the sense of ownership and personal responsibility for their development (and proliferation) no longer exist: a sanitization and dehumanization of warfare in which the method of engagement is defined, not on the battlefield, but within the impersonal, sterile walls of consumer-driven, public industry, manufacturing laboratories.
Between Two Wars, 1978.
When you have no money for cars, for shoot-outs, for smart clothes; when you have no money for images which themselves could paper the cracks of film-time, film-life, then you must invest your strength in the intelligence to connect the separate elements – the montage of ideas.
In the opening sequence of Between Two Wars, filmmaker Harun Farocki sits at a drafting table examining a collection of photographs of partially nude women in provocative poses as he recounts in voice-over of his decision to undertake a series of odd jobs (in this case, advertisement captioning) in order to finance the proceeding film. The seemingly mundane, introductory image of an artist at work illustrates the inherent dichotomy of the production of images, as the fashion photographs of idyllic exoticism and fantasy represented by his economic indulgence in the commercial enterprise are replaced with the recreated film sequence (and therefore, also represents a manufactured image) of wartime Germany as a nurse (Ingemo Engström) – linked by the transitional shot (between reality and fiction) of Farocki’s journal – articulates her memory of conversations with wounded soldiers in an unidentified 1917 battlefront. Struggling to come to terms with the human cost of the war and its collateral, national toll, she offers the hypothesis that war is a self-perpetuating economy that is integrally linked to production: both in the use of artillery and armaments (thereby supporting the industries that manufacture the technology), and in the military engagement of countries in order to obtain the raw materials – most notably, the protracted Franco-Prussian over the provinces of Alsace and, in particular, Lorraine for its iron ore-rich fields – to support its (implicitly warfare-related) free market industries. After the loss of the territories, the film then shifts focus to the intersecting stories of two idealistic engineering students: one who envisions science as the tool for the optimization of production, and the other, as vehicle for the social elevation of the working class through improved industrial conditions. Tracing the fates of the colleagues, as the former proposes an ambitious plan to interlink the energy supplies and byproducts of several disparate manufacturing plants through modifications in commercial infrastructure in order to minimize waste and fuel cost, and the latter seeks to consolidate ownership of industries through social revolution, what emerges is a mosaic of interconnected, fractured tales of an ideologically divided people unable to reconcile with personal failures and uncertainties over the direction of the nation’s collective destiny.
Part artist manifesto on the occasional necessity for compromised integrity and professional sacrifice in the creation of a personal film, and part narrative critique on German society during the early half of the twentieth century, Between Two Wars reflects the ambivalence of economic vision and ideology that pervaded postwar German sentiment as the country sought to rebuild a tarnished image and international reputation through modernization, industrial efficiency, and innovation. Recalling the pervasive alienation, visual economy, and fractured narrative of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s Not Reconciled, the film similarly explores the consequence of a wounded and uncertain national psyche struggling to move forward (and consequently abandon its past) through its championing (and ready acceptance) of automation and technology as a means of achieving, not only industrial progress, but more implicitly, the depersonalization and conscientious disengagement (and cultural amnesia) of personal action from consequence afforded by these instruments of productivity. Using highly distilled, narrative ellipses to span three decades, symbolic images (a woman dressed in mourning clothes descending a staircase as the news of the loss of Alsace-Lorraine is announced (and subsequently, the advent of the Great Depression); the children’s game of Ring around the Rosey that visually mirrors a demonstration of Kékulé’s formulation of the organic structure of benzene; the photographing of factory walls that occlude the industrialists’ view of the social conditions outside the factories), and overtly political discourses on the limitations of capitalism (and deceptive lure of fascism), Farocki establishes an intrinsic correlation between industrial production with social revolution. Through repeated episodes of the primacy of industry over the interests of society, Farocki illustrates the subversion of technology – and consequently, the subservience of humanity – as a self-generated consumer and integral driver for the specification and development of innovation (note the precursor for the construction of the Autobahn in the need for smooth, uninterrupted stretches of road as a means of optimizing automobile performance, thus ensuring that the vehicle will behave according to its predicted life cycle and generate a future repeat purchase at the end of its prescribed, expected lifetime). Inevitably, it is in these unreconciled images of human obsolescence that Farocki seeks “to unify the contradictions”, a defiance against the systematic erasure of the imprint of human identity from the inexorable, man-made elements of war, class division, and automated technology.
Images of the World and the Inscription of War, 1989. In 1944, an Allied aircraft took topographic photographs of Auschwitz during a routine surveillance operation for power plants, munitions factories, chemical plants, and any other industrial complexes that could potentially serve as bombing targets that, in the military’s myopic search for these high collateral targets that would cripple the German war machine, failed to recognize that they had actually taken an aerial survey of the layout of the Auschwitz concentration camp – an explicitly detailed, but mentally unregistered discovery for which the implicit meaning would not be realized until decades later, long after the tragic reality of the Nazi death camps had been exposed. It is this assignment of significance to the act of visual observation that underlies Harun Farocki’s thoughtful, understated, and engaging exposition on the interconnection – and at times, disjunction – between cognition and recognition.
Prefaced by a humorous anecdote on 19th century architect, Albrecht Meydenbauer whose near death experience while making physical measurements for a cathedral project, combined with an interest in the visual reproduction capability of a still camera, led to the development of photogrammetry (which provided for the accurate, graphically scalable, two-dimensional, measurable image of the studied object), the film illustrates, not only the inherent correlation between production and technology, but also the conceptual introduction of quantifying images measured from a distance into discrete elements that can be uniquely identified or accurately reproduced remotely into scale models and detailed simulations.
From this logical trajectory, Farocki cites another point of reference in a French government campaign during the 1960s to dispatch conscripted soldiers to Algeria in order to photograph native women for the issuance of identity cards in the occupied colony – a process that required the women to remove their veil in public, contrary to traditional custom. Having spent much of their public lives obscured behind a veil, the question then arises if an identity card that captures these women in full, unobstructed gaze can accurately reflect their distinctive characteristics to the point of recognition? Would an officer tasked to verify identity find semblance between these unveiled photographs and the women physically presented before him? Unable to find specific, isolated features within the human face that remains unaltered through the years, these photographic images can only serve as a referential document of physical attributes, and not a record of truth – of the actual reality.
Farocki illustrates this recursive cycle of distanced, “safe” action and estranged surveillance operating under the vacuum of social (and cultural) responsibility (a familiar preoccupation in the filmmaker’s oeuvre that is also evident in the equally provocative essay, War at a Distance) through repeated references of the Auschwitz, Algeria, and Meydenbauer paradigms, as well as the film’s thematic use of the German word aufklärung – a term that alternately means enlightenment and flight reconnaissance – that reflect the technological quest to define empirical, universally identifiable data that can remotely identify (or characterize the essence of) an image. It is this passive, alienated act of seeing that is ultimately rejected in a publication’s symbolic call to action, “The reality must begin”, in reaction to Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler’s revelation of the concentration camps – an active resistance that is punctuated by the October 7, 1944 uprising by Sonderkommandos (prisoners who were tasked to operate the gas chambers and crematoria) at Auschwitz that succeeded in the disabling of a death apparatus – a heroic act of conscious and formidable human engagement.
Workers Leaving the Factory, 1995. The projection of the 1895 Auguste and Louis Lumière short film, Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory is accompanied by a third person narrator who observes the unfolding, animated images of a group of men, women, and even dogs making their way out of the entrance gates and comments on their apparent haste in exiting the premises of the photographic plate factory. A subsequent succession of film footage from assorted decades and transcontinental geographies (including an early twentieth century footage of the Ford Motor plant in Detroit, Michigan) reinforce this seeming universal phenomenon of instinctual flight, planting the associative idea of the factory as a place from which to escape – a representational, subconscious frontier that demarcates the individual from the collective masses and represents an invisible juncture at which, once crossed, serves to restore one’s personal identity from the uniformity of a faceless, genderless, and anonymous workforce. However, the assembled sequences of film footage that illustrate juxtapositions of institution and population do not simply capture the intrinsic dynamics of the apparent (and economically expedient) temporary amnesia caused by the behavioral demands of production. Far from the conformist, automatonic vision of the working class in Fritz Lang’s dystopian Metropolis, the workers in the Lumière film re-assert their individualism outside the sphere of work, revealing the intrinsic reality of an underlying social mutualism – or, in its most imbalanced manifestation, a commensalism – at its core: a manifestation of the natural laws of survival and self-preservation that is succinctly (and expressively) articulated by the Soviet film, Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Deserter, a dramatization of the emotionally and psychologically complex struggle between a group of longshoremen on strike, the replacement workers brought in to assume their responsibilities, and a ragtag assembly of unemployed laborers waiting outside the gates for an opportunity to, in turn, take their place. The shot of desperate and marginalized outcasts against the forbidding bars of a locked gate – an ironic correlation between a person’s social identity and his productivity – illustrates an underlying human desolation that is curiously paralleled with the haunting images of concentration camp prisoners (a pointed reference to Germany’s history that is repeated in the earlier archival shot of Siemens workers leaving the factory to attend a Nazi rally) and serves as an initial point of departure from a mere anecdotal (albeit scholarly) appreciation of the Lumière film towards a densely philosophical, socio-political examination of the role of the worker and industry in twentieth century history, their representation on film, the contemporaneity of that historically documented moment, and the cultural ramifications of the brothers’ innovative technology.
Composed entirely of film excerpts that not only include the aforementioned Lumière, Pudovkin, and Lang films, but also Lang’s They Clash By Night, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Accatone, Robert Siodmak’s The Killers, and Charles Chaplin’s Modern Times, as well as archival newsreel and publicity footage (creating a dense, visual and thematic collage that Thom Andersen similarly implements in the subsequent film essay, Los Angeles Plays Itself), Workers Leaving the Factory is a fiercely intelligent, uncompromising, and engagingly philosophical film essay of observation, logical association, and implication on the legacy, not only of the portable, 16 frames per second Lumière camera, but more importantly, the brothers’ formative, aesthetic principles of cinematic realism. Working exclusively through a precisely assembled montage of found film, Harun Farocki expounds on his recurring themes of production and warfare (in the Siemens factory footage), the advent (and mundane pervasiveness) of surveillance, the unexpected, accidental discoveries innate in the repurposing and re-examination of found film (a theme that is powerfully distilled in the tragic Allied oversight of the location of the Auschwitz concentration camp during aerial reconnaissance in Images of the World and the Inscription of War), and the inherent behavioral affectation resulting from the (self) conscious awareness of being filmed (in the anecdotal image of a woman who tugs at a fellow co-worker’s dress who, in turn, does not dare to retaliate in front of her off-camera employers in the Lumière film) through visual repetition, variation, and correlation – Farocki’s systematic process of assigning complex and multi-faceted contextual significance to the presentation of images. It is this process of cognitive assimilation through modulations of conceptually repeated images that is reflected in the bookended presentation of the seminal Lumière film in its entirety: a return to the purity of the first gaze, and an unreconciled search to find transcendent, enduring meaning behind the transitory, quotidian images.
Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet at Work on a Film Based on Franz Kafka’s Unfinished Novel ‘America’, 1983.
The French word répétition – rather than the English word rehearsal – more closely captures the implicit connotation behind Straub and Huillet’s rigorous and exacting method of preparation for the shooting of Class Relations. A seated Straub asks the actor Christian Heinisch (who plays Rossmann) to deliver his lines over and over, each time, subtly modulated from the last – muting intonation, eliminating traces of colloquialism, and controlling the pace of enunciation – to better reflect the transcription of the written text.
The attempt to elicit a certain decontextualization and particularity to the actor’s manner of speech is coincidentally similar to the black screen rehearsal opening sequence of Chantal Akerman’s contemporary film, The Eighties. On one occasion, Straub makes a meticulous observation that the duration of Heinisch’s pause was equivalent to that of a period rather than a comma as defined by the manuscript. The reference to meter and speech also introduces the idea of rhythm and musicality in their methodology, and is reinforced in the repeated image of Huillet replicating the sound of a clapboard at each simulated take. In another occasion, Heinisch is given instructions to flatten the delivery of his lines when approaching another off-screen actor who is directed to collapse on cue, explaining that his character is motivated by curiosity and not concern.
In another sequence, Harun Farocki (in the supporting role of Delamarche) is directed to straighten his bent leg when responding to Rossman’s inquiry over a missing photograph, an action that Farocki performs with the inertial awkwardness of discontinuous motion, and repeatedly rehearses to the point of fluidity.
Huillet: The final question is, does Harun sit or stand?
Straub: If Harun stands, he will look in a different direction. You leave him seated.
The final sequence of the actual location shoot underscores this methodical rigor, filming the same scenario beyond the realization of his acknowledged “best take”:
It’s improving all the time so you don’t need to worry…Thank you. That was very good. A final one. We still have 20 meters left, continue in this way…
Acquarello 2004-2005 [reprinted]