Elsaesser, Thomas. “Filmmaker, Artist, Media Theorist.” In Harun Farocki: Working on the Sight Lines, edited by Thomas Elsaesser, 11–40. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2004.

Harun Farocki: Filmmaker, Artist, Media Theorist

Thomas Elsaesser

from Harun Farocki: Working on the Sight Lines by Thomas Elsaesser

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More than anything else, electronic control technology has a deterritorialising effect. Locations become less specific. An airport contains a shopping centre, a shopping centre contains a school, a school offers leisure and recreation facilities. What are the consequences for prisons, themselves mirrors of society as well as its counter-image and projection surface? Harun Farocki1

Documenting Change: Questions of Agency, Visibility, and Territory

If I am interested in how the technological, and subsequently electronic media have transformed civil society, I can find no better chronicler of their histories, no more intelligent observer of their unexpected connections, no more incisive critic and yet interested party to their epoch-making significance than Harun Farocki. The fact that Farocki is both a writer and a filmmaker is therefore as much a sign of the times as a choice of vocation. Having early on decided to be, in the spirit of Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire, ‘resolutely modern’, Farocki availed himself of the most resolutely contemporary medium. But a filmmaker, by making images, not only adds images to their store in the world; he comments on the world made by these images, and does so with+ images. Aware that the medium chose him as much as he had chosen it for documenting public life under the rule of the image, he treats cinema with the utmost respect. So central are the technologies of picturing and vision to the twentieth century that there is little Farocki cares about which is not also a reflection on cinema itself. In this perspective, however, its role as our culture’s prime storytelling medium is almost secondary. Instead, cinema is understood as a machine of the visible that is itself largely invisible. This is why talking about airports, schools, or prisons is as much a part of the post-history of the cinema, as a fork in the road leading to the foundation of cities, the Jacquard loom with its programmable sequence of coloured threads, or the deployment of the Maxim machine gun at the battle of Omdurman are part of the pre-history of cinema.2 Certainly since the early 20th century, and probably since the invention of the camera obscura, the most pervasive – material and mental – model by which to picture ourselves in this world and acting upon it, has been the ‘cinematic apparatus’. It is present as an arrangement of parts, as a logic of visual processes, and as a geometry of actions even when (especially when) camera and projector are absent. It existed as a philosopher’s dream in Plato’s parable of the cave, and it has a technical-prosthetic afterlife in surveillance videos and body scans, so that its noble golden age as the* art form of the second industrial age represents a relatively brief lease on its overall life. Or to put it differently: the cinema has many histories, only some of which belong to the movies. It takes an artist-archaeologist, rather than a mere historian, to detect, document and reconstruct them. Today, perhaps the cinema’s most illustrious artist-archaeologist – and as we shall see, allegorist-archivist – is Harun Farocki.

‘Detect, document, reconstruct’: the terms are deliberately ambiguous. They highlight, along with the contested meaning of the word documentary in cinema history and the somewhat noirish connotations of detection, a particular challenge of agency when talking about an artist who also considers himself an activist. If the word had not paled into a cliché, ‘intervene’ might be the (Brechtian) term that applies to Farocki’s early work and to its radical ambitions when he began making films in the 1960s. But over the years, he has also demonstrated forms of action with his films that are normally more associated with a social scientist, laboratory technician, or media theorist than with a political activist. To put it in more metaphoric terms: the descriptive distance of the writer has alternated with the constructive patience of the model-builder, and the careful probing of the test lab scientist has competed with the reconstructive skill of the plastic surgeon. Farocki has been an exceptional witness of the second half of the last century, literally keeping his wits about him, especially as he noticed how the visible and the intelligible were drifting ever further apart. For an eyewitness is not at his best when only using his eyes: ‘It is not a matter of what is in a picture, but rather, of what lies behind. Nonetheless, one shows a picture as proof of something which cannot be proven by a picture.’3 Events, accidents, and disasters can be turned over to see what lies behind them and to inspect the recto of the verso: except that even this ‘image’ belongs to a previous age, when a picture was something you could touch with your fingers and pass from hand to hand. Now it is a matter of recognising the invisible within the visible, or of detecting the code by which the visible is programmed. Farocki once commented on the editing of the evening television news after the air show disaster at the Ramstein airbase in January 1989, noting a cutaway, just before the planes collided, from the fatal manoeuvre to the subsequent official press conference:

The cut of January 16 had the direct effect of compelling the viewer to contemplate the interrupted scene in his imagination. [...] By sequencing the images so that the press conference provided a mere background for the afterimages of the air show, it demoted the Bonn government’s image-politics, secretly and decisively. [The cut] is the television-makers’ revenge against the business of politics which forces them to use their recording and editing equipment to deal with nameplates, office corridors, official cars, porters’ lodges, or staged pseudo-events like press conferences.4

What Farocki here spots in the ‘afterimage’ effected by the cut is the power of cinema, visible in an absence (the missing image) and as its absence (the cinema negatively figured in the use of its basic apparatus, the ‘recording and editing equipment’ for derisory ends). Around a real-life spectacular disaster, which, like so many in recent years, imitated the movies, Farocki emblematically confirms the ‘end of cinema’. But by the same token, he also asserts that if cinema is dead, long live its afterlife (as our best media theory).

The practice of filmmaking has thus obliged Farocki to be a theorist, making him a special kind of witness, a close reader of images, and an exegete-exorcist of their ghostly ‘afterimages’. But nearly forty years of directing films, with a list of some eighty titles to his credit, have also established him as one of the great artist-survivors of his generation: of the bohemian-anarchist scene in Hamburg during the early 1960s, of the student protests in West-Berlin from 1968 to the mid-1970s, with their revolutionary dogmatism and activist aspirations. Building up such an oeuvre against the considerable odds of ‘independent’ film financing and contract work for television, he must also be considered a survivor of the New German Cinema of the 1980s (to which he, properly speaking, never particularly wished to belong). Ironically, it is he who in the 1990s became an international auteur, at a time when the term – in Germany at least, as Autorenfilmer – had turned from a distinction into an insult (for a filmmaker with mainstream ambitions). As author and artist, Farocki has now made the transition to a new art form and different exhibition venues (his multi-screen installations are being commissioned by museums and media arts festivals), where his work, including his earlier films, reaches audiences beyond the German-speaking countries, in France, Belgium, Latin America, Australia, and the United States, for instance.

An Uncanny Timeliness

With Farocki, then, the gesture of ‘documenting’ the world of the media and bearing witness to their vanguard role in contemporary life is complicated by the respective kinds of autonomy, authorship and agency involved, which extend to his published texts, sometimes written to accompany his films, sometimes to prepare them and sometimes to finance them. But his particular authorship can also be located in the director’s performed presence within the films. Farocki speaks in his own voice and person in NICHT LÖSCHBARES FEUER/INEXTINGUISHABLE FIRE (1969), ZWISCHEN ZWEI KRIEGEN/ BETWEEN TWO WARS (1978), SCHNITTSTELLE/SECTION INTERFACE (1995); at other times, a multi-layered dialogical situation is set up between the characters and the filmmaker (ETWAS WIRD SICHTBAR/ BEFORE YOUR EYES – VIETNAM, 1982), or a carefully scripted commentary directs attention and instructs the mind’s eye (WIE MAN SIEHT/AS YOU SEE, 1986), occasionally intoned by an off-screen female presenter (WIE MAN SIEHT, BILDER DER WELT UND INSCHRIFT DES KRIEGES/ IMAGES OF THE WORLD AND THE INSCRIPTION OF WAR, 1988). At other times, the camera is a distant and cool observer, with no voice-over telling the viewer what connections to make, other than to attend to the cuts and connections that the images make (LEBEN – BRD/HOWTO LIVE IN THE FRG, 1990, DIE SCHULUNG/ INDOCTRINATION, 1987). One could take the implied distance, the unhurried didacticism and the underplayed irony for the filmmaker’s manner of marking his intellectual involvement, while keeping his critical detachment and thus keeping his mastery over the material intact. After all, these are some of the expected positions in the repertoire of documentary filmmakers, well-established since the late 1920s, especially when they come politically from the left. Their films testify to social injustices or the abuse of power, they show the world as it is, give glimpses of how it might be or once was, and they hold a mirror up to mankind in order to shame it into change. But key impulses of Farocki’s work seem altogether differently motivated, and they make him finally an unlikely documentarist, cast neither in the heroic-constructivist mould of the 1920s and ’30s, nor situated on the side of ‘direct cinema’ of the 1960s and ’70s. With respect to the latter, he has probably remained too much of an agitator-activist to create the openness that usually gives the viewer the illusion of entering into the ongoing events as a participant or co-conspirator; and with respect to the former, he is too much of an artist-artisan to presume that he is doing anything other than to work on realities already constituted: replaying them for the sake of the small differences, the small deferrals, so that something (else) may become visible (‘etwas wird sichtbar‘) in the repetition, in the gaps and through the duplication. For Farocki – to use a variation on Sigmund Freud – finding an image is to refind it.5 It also makes him a close reader of ‘found’ images.

This last point is important: just as the image and its imagined afterimage belong together in the Ramstein television news broadcast, so each image – visual as well as verbal – is already shadowed. The reason is the degree of ‘interference’ provided by the medium of cinema itself, with its vast store of images already present before any event occurs, but also always slipping away from any single event. Farocki once found a wonderfully apt image for it, all the more apt because it was probably unwitting: ‘[In Basel] we were living in a furnished apartment house. It was five-thirty on Saturday, and we stopped reading or listening to music and went to see a girl and to watch the sports show on TV. She made donuts, but the reception was so bad that the ball disappeared between the lines and the players were covered man-to-man by their own shadows. We had to keep adjusting the antennas so we could at least hear the game we were missing.’6 We too have to keep adjusting our antennas when we view Farocki’s films. Their themes at first glance seem to directly ‘cover’ the turbulent half-century he has been part of: agit-prop films and essays against theWar in Vietnam (NICHT LÖSCHBARES FEUER, ETWAS WIRD SICHTBAR); an examination of the collusion of heavy industries with Nazism, and its consequences for labour relations and working class organisations (ZWISCHEN ZWEI KRIEGEN); oblique reflections on the placement of U.S. nuclear weapons on German soil, and more evidently, a history of the increasing – or persistent – interdependence of cinema and warfare (BILDER DER WELT UND INSCHRIFT DES KRIEGES); several ironic diagnostic tests that chart the rise of self-help and service industries in the security-conscious consumer society of West Germany, before (LEBEN – BRD, WAS IST LOS?/ WHAT’S UP? (1991), DIE SCHULUNG, EIN TAG IM LEBEN DER ENDVERBRAUCHER/ A DAY IN THE LIFE OF THE END-USER, (1993), during (DIE FÜHRENDE ROLLE/ THE LEADING ROLE, 1994) and after German re-unification (DIE UMSCHULUNG, 1994). VIDEOGRAMME EINER REVOLUTION/ VIDEOGRAMS OF A REVOLUTION (1992), a (tele)visual analysis of the end of Communism in Central Europe (the fall of Ceauçescu in Romania), was followed by films/installations tracking the changing function and administrative logics of key social institutions, such as factories, prisons, shopping centres (ARBEITER VERLASSEN DIE FABRIK/WORKERS LEAVING THE FACTORY, 1995, ICH GLAUBTE GEFANGENE ZU SEHEN/ I THOUGHT I WAS SEEING CONVICTS, 2000, DIE SCHÖPFER DER EINKAUFSWELTEN/ THE CREATORS OF THE SHOPPING WORLDS, 2001) (see ill. 81). A tenacious curiosity for ‘what goes on’ (was ist los) and how things work focuses Farocki’s attention on how life is organised at the micro-levels of power, language and social relations. His encyclopaedic knowledge feeds this close observation of the day-to-day in offices, schools, or military training camps, while an elegant economy of language and terse visual style find words for images, and images for concepts that light up in the sudden spark of an unexpectedly illuminating comparison, or become the slow-burn fuse of a gradually developing and finally exploding insight.

This symptomatic topicality of Farocki’s subjects – their uncanny ‘timeliness’ – is one of his self-confessed concerns: ‘to constantly assure oneself of the present’, as a sort of information feedback loop of the kind he often depicts in his films. But the impression that he has a journalist’s eye for issues that are ‘in’ is as deceptive as his detached, didactic, or deadpan manner of treating them. He is extremely selective, single-minded even, in his choice of themes, while his engagement is total, to the point of requiring careful self-protection and even decoy camouflage.7 In fact, Farocki takes up a topic only when it fulfils at least three minimal requirements: he must be able to picture the phenomenon in its details as well as show how it partakes of a larger process; he must be able to establish, however obliquely, a level of reflexive self-reference; and finally, he must be able to hint at a hidden centre, an Archimedean point, more often sensed than seen. The principle is illustrated by his early feature-length film, ZWISCHEN ZWEI KRIEGEN. Based on an essay he had read in a political journal, Farocki tries to explain Hitler’s rise to power and his ability to wage a world war, by pinpointing a crisis in the German steel industry, itself the consequence of a ‘successful’ piece of modernisation in its production process, by which a new kind of feedback loop is created between the coal, coke, and steel industries.8 The idea of this feedback loop (Verbund) then serves as a model for a much larger historical process, namely the peculiar interconnectedness of industrialisation and warfare, and of the different man-machine symbioses typical of modern industrial and media societies. The reflexive self-reference sets in when the same Verbund principle becomes the very condition of possibility of ZWISCHEN ZWEI KRIEGEN itself: ‘taking my cue from the steel industry, where every waste product flows back into the process of production and as little energy as possible gets lost, I try to organise a Verbund for my own work. The basic research for a project I finance with a radio broadcast, some of the books I use I review for the book programme, and many of the things I notice during this kind of preparatory work end up in my television features.’9 However, the film’s Archimedean point is more difficult to pin down: it most likely has to do with a ‘feedback loop’ between accident and design, and the role of contingency and unintended consequences in the life of technological systems.

Farocki seizes a situation in flux, preferably when poised for a (dialectical) reversal. Even the most literal event may turn – before our eyes and in real time – into a metaphor that expands into a concept. By suddenly revealing in miniature a social or political totality, each recorded moment unfolds in several dimensions at once, with one dimension invariably referring back to his own position as filmmaker and writer. How this locates the physical as well as moral space from which he speaks is most graphically illustrated in one of his first surviving films NICHT LÖSCHBARES FEUER from 1968-69. The camera, head on, frames Farocki in a static medium close-up, sitting by an empty table in an apparently equally bare room; it could be a teacher’s desk, a witness stand before an investigating magistrate, or the police taking a statement from a suspect. In a monotone, he reads from the eyewitness report by a Vietnamese man describing the methods used by the Americans in their bombing raids. The Vietnamese man is a survivor of a napalm attack on his village, napalm being the ‘inextinguishable fire’ of the title. Upon finishing the report, Farocki faces the camera to say: ‘how can we show you the deployment of napalm and the nature of the burns it causes? If we show you pictures of the injuries inflicted by napalm, you will just close your eyes. At first you will close your eyes before the pictures, then you will close your eyes before the memory of the pictures, and then you will close your eyes before the realities the pictures represent.’ Farocki then takes a cigarette from the ashtray, draws on it to make it glow. As the camera slowly tracks into a close-up, he takes the cigarette from his mouth and extinguishes it on the back of his hand. A voice-off in the meantime explains that a cigarette burns at roughly 500 degrees Celsius, while napalm burns at approximately 3000 degrees Celsius.

The scene, in retrospect, includes all of Farocki, and prefigures the fundamental preoccupations of his filmmaking. One recognises the absence of the key image, as in the Ramstein news report twenty years later, but instead of this being the revenge of the television crew for the humiliations inflicted on their craft by the pseudo-events of politicians, this is the revenge of the filmmaker on the politicians who perpetrate such horrific, obscene real-life events as ordering a napalm raid on civilians populations, executed from the distance and safety of a US Air Force B-52 bomber. The scene shows the filmmaker taking the side of the Vietnamese in this war. But his gesture of self-inflicted solidarity derives its moral power (and distinguishes itself from the false pathos of so much self-proclaimed solidarity with the victims, on the part of politicised students at the time) from the implied inadequacy and radical incommensurability of the act. On the other hand, the inadequacy is justified on other grounds: it demonstrates the fundamental need for metaphor – one thing standing for another, the cigarette for the bomb, the back of the hand for the villager’s body, the familiar for the horrific – when depicting the realities of this world and when trying to bring the unimaginable ‘into the picture’. Metaphor makes something visible, but it also makes it ‘uncanny’ (unfamiliar), allowing Farocki to re-claim a legitimate place for art and aesthetic practice. And this at a time when many artists – not only Berlin filmmakers at the DFFB, the film and television academy from which Farocki was relegated – no longer saw a justification for art, and instead devoted themselves to ‘direct action’, or at the very least, felt obliged to make instructional films, thereby rehearsing future direct actions.10 As Tilmann Baumgärtel has argued, the film is a kind of poetological-political manifesto: ‘This radical, auto-destructive gesture [of stubbing out the cigarette on his own hand] marks the endpoint of a [...] period, in which Farocki as a student of the DFFB between 1966 and 1968 had participated [...]. Several of his fellow students did, in the years that followed, opt for active militant resistance: Holger Meins joined the Red Army Fraction, Philip Sauber became a member of the “June 2nd Movement”. Farocki for his part decided in favour of filmmaking. His self-mutilation in NICHT LÖSCHBARES FEUER [...] must be read as an act of self-initiation to being an artist (renouncing direct political activism), [...] a sort of aesthetic-political partisan, whose films are acts of resistance against conventional mainstream cinema, produced with “guerrilla tactics”’11 (see ill. 1).

The Poetics of the Cut: Montage and Metaphor, Mirror and Mise-en-Abime

That Farocki himself regards NICHT LÖSCHBARES FEUER as a key work is clear from the attention he gives it in SCHNITTSTELLE, the installation piece he produced to reflect upon but also to cut himself loose (Schnitt meaning a cut) from his early work. In the new context, as Christa Blümlinger notes, the surviving scar of the cigarette burn draws attention to another metaphoric feature of the scene, which refers back to the cinema: it is as if Farocki’s own hand becomes the bodily equivalent of the indexical trace once thought unique to the cinema.12 The photographic index is, of course, increasingly absent from all images, now that these images – still or moving – have as their material support the electronic video signal or digital-numerical algorithms, instead of (light- and heat-sensitive) celluloid. In a historical reversal that makes the non-organic stand for the organic, celluloid is now an ironically apt metaphor for human skin (‘the skin of film’ is a phrase often used by Alexander Kluge, a fellow filmmaker whom Farocki has great respect for). The scene, which perhaps will become known as a turning point in film aesthetics as strategically placed as was Luis Buñuel’s slitting of a woman’s eye in UN CHIEN ANDALOU, illustrates the second condition needed for Farocki to take an interest in a topic, and for him to find it absorbing enough to make it the subject of a film. This condition is that the topic invites and even morally obliges him to take sides against himself. In other words, it must develop a dynamic of self and other that allows him to interrogate his own practice and jeopardise his own intellectual self-assurance, in the meticulous (or sometimes merciless) depiction of the other (enemy, antagonist, secret alter ego). In ETWAS WIRD SICHTBAR it is literally a mirror into which the protagonists – and through them, the filmmaker – are forced to look, in order to realise their collusive kinship with the point of view of the aggressor in the Vietnam War (see ill. 23). In other films, the commentary does not relent until it has found such a moment of self-reference as self-exposure, verbal or visual, often disguised as a witty metaphor, a provocative comparison or a particularly bold simile. Consider, for instance, his realisation in the 1980s that some of his Maoist ideas might have been naive, or that his pro-Vietnamese stance from the mid-1970s could not survive the historical moment:

Ever since revolutions have existed, there has been enthusiasm, followed by disappointment. ‘How could I have been so blind as to believe that the Vietcong would create a better regime?’ One says ‘blind’ because love is blind. But to be faithful to an idea means not to exchange it right away for another, more opportune one. Perhaps one has to be prepared even to endure the death of an idea, without running away. To be faithful means to be present even in the hour of death.13

So prominent is the habit of thought to express one thing through another, and to ‘see’ the self in the other that it must be considered the founding gesture of Farocki’s body of work and the signature of his mind at work. Whether it is the point of departure or finishing line, the moment of metaphoric ‘conversion’ marks the pull of gravity of his imagination. Juxtaposing apparent opposites and if necessary, torturing them until they yield a hidden identity or an unsuspected similarity, provide the (temporary) moments of closure for his trains of thought. In this sense, metaphoric equivalence and (almost as often) metaphoric discrepancy (catachresis) establish Farocki’s poetics as well as his politics.14 But metaphor also defines what an image can be and what are its limits, and metaphor passes the responsibility for taking care of the image back to language, where it holds it accountable.

Farocki himself discusses his poetics under a different heading, not metaphor but montage. His montage takes two forms. One is as a sort of meta-commentary, traversing especially the early films like a steady murmur, repeating the need to ‘separate and join’. The other type of montage is embedded in the movement of the thought, as its structuring dynamic, but verbalised, if at all, only as the cut, the gap and what becomes visible ‘in-between’. Where film theorists speak of segmentation, Farocki (or his characters) discuss the difficulty of thinking things together at one level, while at another, making distinctions and keeping things apart. Only when the two levels are aligned, are the preconditions of new knowledge present: making connections on the basis of having taken something apart is thus where the rhetoric of metaphor meets the technique of filmic montage. In ETWAS WIRD SICHTBAR, separating/joining defines the entire movement of the plot, as if its macrostructure had to be repeated at the microlevel, a sort of fractal relationship between the big themes (how to link a political struggle for liberation to a personal act of emancipation, how to separate as a couple while maintaining a friendship) and the small formal concerns (the relations from shot to shot, keeping shots static and nonetheless creating an inner movement linking these self-contained units of meaning). In trying to find new building blocks for film narrative, and a new grammar for film language, Farocki works towards creating the formal basis for his metaphoric thinking, by for instance, ‘reinventing’ the tableau shot of early cinema, and by devising several kinds of frame-within-a-frame compositions. In many cases, the voice-over commentary or the scripted dialogue between the characters verbalises both tenor and vehicle, while the visuals repeat the metaphoric figure by literalising it: in ZWISCHEN ZWEI KRIEGEN, one finds sentences like: ‘the chemist Kékulé was looking for the molecular structure of benzol [...] one night, he dreamt of serpents swallowing their own tail.’ In a hand mirror, held up to an imagined window, we see a group of children down in the street, dancing in a row and slowly forming a circle (see ill. 13). ‘So Kékulé proposed the form of a circle for the benzol molecules’ – ‘It’s like a bird that eats its own eggs, in order to feed itself while it is hatching them.’ The scene with its metaphoric relays and its visual mise-en-abime introduces the key concept of the film, that of the Verbund, i.e. the creation of a connection between steel production and the coking plant, in order to maximise the energy use of the industrial processes involved, so that the waste products of one can become an energy source for another. As the engineer puts it: ‘our task today is to direct whatever energy is generated in a production process to wherever it can be optimally utilised. We have to create links between mines, coking plants, steelworks, and blast furnaces.’ To which the industrialist replies: ‘I started off as a farmer. A sow gives birth to a litter of twenty, of which two or three will be too weak to survive, and the sow will eat them. Pigs can eat piglets. But piglets are much too valuable to just make them into pig-feed as a matter of principle. Yet that is exactly what we are doing when we feed the gas from the coke plant back into the firing up of the coking ovens. No farmer would ever fatten his pigs with piglets, with the idea that this lowers his feed costs.’

If in his early films, the metaphoric principle is verbalised, and applied somewhat externally, by way of political slogans (‘mass battles are like factory work, the trenches are the assembly lines’), the later ones integrate their metaphors, by providing the implicit structure for an entire film. Thus, LEBEN – BRD consists of a series of such tableau vignettes, each showing a different group of people or locations, where an exercise, a rehearsal, a training programme or a demonstration takes place: schoolchildren are taught to safely cross the road, pensioners are rehearsing an amateur theatrical performance, trainee midwives are shown how to deliver babies, soldiers are taken through their paces with tanks on open terrain, police rehearse the arrest of a resisting suspect, and so on (see ill. 57). Each vignette is itself cut into different segments, so that the film can return to them several times, even to the point where the second appearance retrospectively explains the first. But intercut into the intercut segments are also scenes of mechanical tests: a metal weight falls rhythmically onto an armchair, to test the durability of the internal springs; car doors are mechanically opened and slammed shut; robots insert car keys into locks, give them half a turn and pull them out again, toilet seats are raised and lowered, washing machines are rumbled and tilted until they crash into corners. Machines impersonate the human users who brutalise the object world. The metaphor is evident, and if understood as an exact equivalence, is highly polemical: today, people are nothing but objects, commodities that, in order to remain in the market place as tradable goods, have to be regularly and mechanically tested as to their utility, durability and stress resistance.15 But precisely because no commentary is offered, and no verbal paraphrase links the one sequence to the other, or compares the animate with the inanimate, the viewers are given ample room for their own reflections. The sequences may elicit a troubling image of parallels, but also one that focuses on the differences between the groups, or they may pass through a whole gamut of recognition- and estrangement-effects, as daily life before our eyes takes on the contours of a permanent fire drill, a coaching lesson, a therapy session, a job interview, or awareness training. Are these dress rehearsals a sensible behavioural insurance policy against a risky, uncertain future, or do they confirm just the opposite: the foolishness of believing that life is a script that can be learnt by heart or by rote? Thus, if as viewers we come to the key metaphor (that human beings are like commodities and the social system is like a stress-testing machine) from the other side, from its verso – the patchy analogies, the ironic asymmetry, and the painful rather than cynical equivalences – we see the film more as a series of Chinese boxes. A sort of mental mise-en-abime begins to connect the segments, potentially undercutting and even inverting the paratactic (but pointedly non-chronological) succession of segments produced by Farocki’s mimicry of the observational, direct-cinema editing style.16

In his most recent works, notably the installation pieces, the metaphors become strikingly bold and revealing in other respects: linking prisons to shopping malls, for instance, seems provocative in quite a different way than his earlier comparisons of First World War trenches with Fordist assembly lines. It is precisely because some of the visual analogies no longer fully support the wide-ranging argument – such as the juxtaposition of a surveillance video of a prison visiting hour, and one of shoppers pushing carts through supermarket aisles – that the comparisons between the architecture of prisons, modern theatres of war, and the design of shopping malls remain conceptually sound. The Bentham Panopticon prison that he shows in the opening scenes of ICH GLAUBTE GEFANGENE ZU SEHEN, with its tight alignment of camera eye and gun sight is, as he himself remarks, already obsolete in light of the new tagging, tracking, and deterritorialising surveillance technologies. Farocki’s very point is to indicate the limits of the visible itself in the new commercially high-profit but politically low-profile Verbund systems emerging with the ‘synergies’ between computer software firms, security specialists, and consumer service industries. They also pose a new challenge to film history, as Farocki argues in ‘Controlling Observation’:

We have already mentioned the fact that the prison visitation scene [so central to the prison film genre] will soon no longer correspond with reality. The introduction of electronic cash will make bank robbery practically impossible as well, and if it turns out that in the future all weapons will be electronically tagged, [...] the end of the screen shoot-out will also be just around the corner. [...] With the increase in electronic control devices, everyday life will become just as difficult to portray and to dramatise as everyday work already is.

In a sense, Farocki’s cinema has consistently anticipated this state of affairs: what is decisive in our society and what shapes much of our everyday lives, has almost totally withdrawn itself from the visual plane and escapes traditional representation techniques, including those of cinematic montage. Hence the importance of the cut or gap that one not only finds in his editing of filmic segments, but also in the conceptual montage of his argument, which always leaves a space between the missing shot or missing link for the viewer to either notice or not, but in any case, to figure out for himself. As with all metaphors, there is also a tertium comparationis in Farocki’s work that is not always entirely spelled out, and which at times becomes the hidden Archimedean point around which the comparison finally turns. In the case of prisons and shopping malls, the missing link might be ‘(enforced) (leisure)’, with, in each case, a significant shift of emphasis from one institution to the other.17 If the more overt link is, of course, the presence of surveillance cameras in both prisons and shopping centres, then the intended goal of this close circuit visibility, namely to make all contact routine, that is to say: predictable and programmable – ‘safe’ – is the more pertinent and thought-provoking connection. In Farocki’s accompanying text, on the other hand, the factory principle, the assembly line and the kinds of discipline associated with mechanised labour returns as the focal point. There, he brings together prisons and shopping malls, military training camps and factories, as examples of artificial environments carefully designed to permit the friction-free sequencing of production processes: be they the processing of model prisoners and model shoppers, or the production of combat soldiers and of quality-controlled consumer goods (see ill. 42).

The Man with the Writing Desk, at the Editing Table

Farocki’s poetics, I want to argue, has developed from a montage cinema to one encompassing installation art. But is this a natural progression, in line with the times, a shift of conceptual plane and register, or an advance that simultaneously implies a step back? From the point of view of the centrality of metaphor in his cinema, the question is particularly acute. But as I have tried to indicate, the problem of the semantic versus the spatial relation between images posed itself right from the start. When a filmmaker edits a sequence of images, either consecutively or in contiguous opposition, it is almost too difficult to create metaphors that are not purely rhetorical gestures or pre-structured linguistically (as in Eisenstein’s, or Chaplin’s actualised ‘inner speech’ metaphors). By contrast, in a twin screen installation work, where there are two images side by side, it is almost too easy to create metaphors: the installation itself becomes a sort of metaphor machine, which may have to be constrained, synchronised by voice, sound and a new kind of syntax, in order to also produce contiguous-metonymic relations and, by extension, an argument or a sense of progression. The task is to distil (con)sequentiality out of pure succession, to trace a trajectory out of random access, and to effect the sort of spacing that can generate meaningful syntactic relationships between images. Cinema and installation art illustrate two principles that potentially conflict with one another: the sequence and simultaneity, ‘one thing after another’ and ‘two things at the same time’. Given the contending claims of these two principles throughout his work, it is possible to argue that Farocki’s cinema has always aspired to the condition of installation art, while his installations are especially creative ways of tackling the problem how to keep the movement of thought going, even when two image-tracks are running side by side. Already in ZWISCHEN ZWEI KRIEGEN (1977) one finds the following sentence as a sort of manifesto for the logic of his installation pieces: ‘I have started to take photographs. One image, incidentally, is too few; you need to take two images of everything [that matters]. Things are in flux so much that it requires two images at the very least to properly register the direction of the movement.’ A few years later (1981) he published an article that argued the pros and cons of shot-countershot as the (all too convenient but nonetheless apparently indispensable) base-line of cinematic thought and its temporal articulations:

It is authors, author-authors, who are against the shot-countershot technique. The shot-countershot technique is a method of montage which in advance has an effect on the shooting, and thus also upon the invention, choice, and the way one deals with types of filmic images and prototypes. In the end, shot-countershot is the first rule, the law of value. [...] Shot-countershot is such an important technique in the language of film because it offers the possibility of placing very different images in a series. Continuity, discontinuity: the series is interrupted, yet still progresses. [...] Shot-countershot offers the best opportunities for manipulating narrative time. Attention is diverted by the back and forth, so that real time can disappear between the cuts [...]. I am trying to comment on this shot-countershot by taking shots from both sides. Placed side by side, they are meant to yield another image and that which exists between the images should become visible. Klaus Wyborny gave a sharp illustration of this shot-countershot from one side. His work demonstrates that there can be no commerciality without shot-countershot. In the same way, everything looks amateurish in the absence of shot-countershot. [...] The clumsiness exposed by the omission of shot-countershot arises from film’s paucity of the stylistics of play. Unlike the performing arts, cinema has few meaning-condensing gestures which could serve to reduce time.18

With his installations, Farocki seems to have approximated – and perhaps even appropriated – this potential of the performing arts for ‘meaning-condensing’ gestures that also ‘reduce time’, which is itself not a bad definition of the function of metaphor. His genius has always been to separate and sub-divide what appear to be self-sufficient and self-contained units of (often, ideological) thought, and to show them as internally split and contradictory: ‘the beginning of an investigation is to link ideas. But in the end, they have to become distinct again.’ Yet he has also linked things that do not seem to belong together but, once they are perceived as connected, can shock, provoke reflection, enlighten. Metaphor and montage in his work are spatial as well as poetological acts, which extend the function of metaphor as a gleichsetzen, a ‘putting into relations of equivalence’ as he once described it, in order to achieve a mode of simultaneous multi-dimensional thinking. His installation work finally allows his films to become the kind of architectural-philosophical objects he had always wanted them to be.

But the installation pieces are also the conceptual realisations of Farocki’s cinema in another respect. The challenge he evidently set for himself throughout his career has been to think about photography, the cinema, television, and, more recently, digital images in these media’s own terms, which is to say, in the only terms that make their historical practice (as feature films, television programmes, found footage, surveillance video, press agency photographs) comprehensible as political realities. In other words, Farocki freezes and seizes images in their textural and textual materiality, before they once more return to being mere retinal stimuli, undifferentiated flow, transparent carriers of sights, sounds, and an overload of data, or ‘noise’. The meaning-making gesture is one of interruption, interception – the raised hand of someone who parts, imparts as well as polices, but also of someone who touches, caresses and has tactile contact with the image, and even more so, can feel the contours and motions of thought inherent in the moving image down into his very fingertips. A double movement then, and usually staged in the same space, that of the frame. With the installation pieces, this frame becomes a three-dimensional frame, a physical environment experienced by the body. But it is also a conceptual environment, experienced by the mind: installation art becomes a theorist’s tool that, happily, does not require a meta-language and yet makes all the demands of a coherent discourse. In fact, the shift from cinema to installation art enacts a set of transformations on an already pre-defined terrain in Farocki’s work: it is this work’s mise-en-abime. If the Verbund is now no longer the industrial one of pre-Nazi Germany, but comprised of the synergies between the US-led, world-wide communication and control industries, then Farocki’s own Verbund has also changed. No longer serving as a freelance partisan, engaging the culture industries in guerrilla raids, he has become more of an architect-designer-displayer. If this combination of skills is present in his installations, it in turn mirrors the architect-designer-displayers of prisons, theme parks, shopping malls... and museums.19 Here, too, the reflexive self-referentiality is pointed, and as an artist, Farocki is prepared to take full responsibility for his complicity.

For what better place than the museum to once more have the cinema confront itself and its history? A curious set of parallels has evolved between the museum as a space of aesthetic contemplation, and the electronic vision machines with their role as social instruments of surveillance. The museum is a site of distance and reflection, but also a storage space of obsolete media technologies. Meanwhile, the vision machines become mere concessions to the human sensory interface, for they are powered less by sight and optics than by electricity and mathematics. Visuality in all its forms is now the face and visage that a control society gives itself when it has replaced dialogue and democracy with sensoring and data-mining, just as vision and the mirror have been the instruments that mute and mutate the hard power of the coercive disciplinary society into the soft power of self-policing and self-fashioning. Farocki’s installations thus not only return us to the politics of representation in the image; they also point out how prisons and supermarkets, video games and theatres of war have become ‘workplaces’ – essential for the reproduction of our societies. As hitherto distinct domains, they are now spaces on the point of convergence, once one appreciates how they all fall under the new pragmatics of the time-space logic of optimising access, flow, control. These are the kinds of sites a filmmaker needs to identify and recognise himself as part of, but so does the spectator, whose role has changed correspondingly: even the most detached or distracted observer leaves his footprints and tracks in electronic space.

Farocki’s self-implication is first of all present in the prominence given (in his films as well as in his published texts) to the writing desk and the editing table, two apparently anachronistic sites for a filmmaker in this age of laptops, word-processing, and electronic editing suites. But for Farocki they also serve as highly ironic, valedictory signifiers of the Autorenfilmer, the filmmaker-as-author. Hence such deliberate paradoxes as ‘I edit at my writing desk and I write at my editing table’. His writing desk is featured IN ZWISCHEN ZWEI KRIEGEN (with one particularly evocative image of his face reflected in the glass-plate surface (see ill. 14), the camera framing his hand holding a pencil), while his editing table is the subject of the essay ‘What is an Editing Table?’, and is central to the installation SCHNITTSTELLE, as mentioned earlier, his most intimate ars poetica to date. Here Farocki once again examines his own site/situation (literally, ‘workplace’) and tries to locate the crossroads (‘Schnittstelle‘) where he finds himself. Not only do video art and digital media challenge a filmmaker’s craft (by making many of his skills obsolete); they also ‘intersect’ with the (still) photographic image (whose function, in Farocki’s view of history, it was to serve as an allegorical picture puzzle). Finally, digital video ‘interfaces’ with his analysis of the politics of the image (by jeopardizing its role as witness and forensic exhibit or Indiz [index]).

Across the several layers of meaning of the word ‘Schnittstelle’, which the links and crossovers, established between writing desk and editing table, begin to unpack, Farocki thus literalises the genre he is now most frequently associated with – that of the ‘essay film’.Without going into this category in any great detail – see the essays by Christa Blümlinger and Nora Alter in this volume – the label conveniently highlights the fact that his films are discursive and proceed via argumentation, rather than by constructing a fictional narrative or practising any of the current modes of interactive, personal or observational documentary. Insofar as Farocki’s cinema has always been a form of writing, the label ‘essay film’ conveys a crucial aspect of his work. In addition, when he uses voice-over commentary, his spoken texts are often both educationally explanatory and ruminating in their reflexivity.

Yet such a definition of the essay film is only half the story. True, Farocki’s films are a constant dialogue with images, with image making, and with the institutions that produce and circulate these images. But present in the word ‘essay’ (with its etymological roots in the verb ‘to do’) is also Farocki’s mode of production, his manufacture, his handwriting, his signature: what Walter Benjamin described, in connection with narration and the storyteller, as ‘the thumbprint of the potter on the clay vessel’. Indeed, in several of his films, the director’s hand frames the image (e.g., most famously, in BILDER DER WELT), and just to emphasise the importance of hands, he made (together with Jörg Becker) a film called simply DER AUSDRUCK DER HÄNDE/ THE EXPRESSION OF HANDS (1997) – for which he has also written an illuminatingly candid text20(see ill. 36).

Allegory, or The Poetics of the Archive

Much of Farocki’s material consists of ‘found footage’, images or films made for a different purpose and originating from another context. Faced with these sources, the filmmaker is first and foremost an archivist. He collects references, cites quotations, reads passages from books, and researches (or has others research for him) a sizeable stock of images of very diverse provenance. It is his modesty as an archivist that forbids him from doing what every television programme does with still images, namely pretend that they can be set in motion, by elaborately manipulating them with a rostrum camera, zooming in and out, creating close-ups and isolating detail. This simulation of a mechanics of movement, Farocki once described as the ketchup method, as if the filmmaker was vigorously shaking the camera like a bottle, in order to splash the image with the sticky ooze of motion and the gaudy sauce of sense. Instead, Farocki’s static set-ups emphasise the frame, or as mentioned earlier, his own hands provide the frame within the frame. But often this store of images in their necessary arbitrariness and ultimate incoherence, laid out flat on a table or the floor (as in DAS DOPPELTE GESICHT/ THE DOUBLE FACE, 1984) (see ill. 37) can be a very deceptive conceptual ‘non-space’ (Marc Augé, interviewed by Farocki in KINOSTADT PARIS/ CINE CITY PARIS, 1988). Scarred, striated, and marked by the intervention of several hands, such found or researched images demarcate their own landscape and demand their own territory. In WIE MAN SIEHT, for instance, many of the images were literally taken on battlefields, strewn with animal carcasses or mechanical corpses, but all of them, irrespective of their provenance, at least initially show a world that has fallen silent and still. That is what the static camera conveys, orchestrated by distant sound effects that are more like echoes, and by the formal commentary delivered in monotone (as it is in WIE MAN SIEHT). To that extent, Farocki the archivist is also an archaeologist, but an archaeologist who executes his reconstructive work not in the triumphalist gestures of a Heinrich Schliemann, rediscovering Troy, but in the spirit of sorrowful contemplation and melancholy reflection, mindful of the historical breaks that especially separate his German homeland from its own past. He has been quite explicit about this conjunction of archival research, archaeological reconstruction, and allegorical reading in, for instance, his description of how he found the subject of ZWISCHEN ZWEI KRIEGEN. After coming across the Kursbuch essay by Alfred Sohn-Rethel, he was seized by a shock, tinged with elation, which was followed by a spell of dejection:

It was as if I had found the missing fragment of an entire picture. That’s when the long story of this film began. I was able to assemble the total picture from the fragmented pieces, but this did not undo the act of destruction. The reconstituted picture was an image of destruction.21

The last phrase becomes especially poignant, in its deliberate echo of Walter Benjamin and his ‘Theses on History’: ‘the reconstituted picture was an image of destruction’. The link between image and destruction reverberates throughout Farocki’s films, in fact the recto/verso sense of ‘shooting’ (recording versus destroying) is a conjunction to which he has devoted, apart from ZWISCHEN ZWEI KRIEGEN, at least two of his feature-length films: ETWAS WIRD SICHTBAR and BILDER DER WELT. The latter is explicitly constructed around this very paradox: taking an image is a gesture of preservation. But this gesture is also one that prepares the object for its destruction. Farocki demonstrates this with the example of the bombing raids flown by British and American planes over Germany during World War II, and by commenting on the mindset of German SS and Nazi bureaucrats, who seemed to take such pleasure in their cameras that they thought nothing of documenting and visually registering even their most appalling crimes. In the case of the Allied reconnaissance flights, he notes that only in the 1970s, after the genocide of the Jews had fully entered Western consciousness and media culture as ‘The Holocaust’, did the Americans fully realise that they had photographically documented the camps at the very time when extermination was at its most intense:

The first image taken by the Allies of the concentration camp at Auschwitz was shot on April 4, 1944. American planes had taken off from Foggia, Italy, heading towards targets in Silesia [...]. The analysts identified the industrial complexes pictured [...], they did not mention the existence of the camps. Again and again, even in 1945, after the Nazis had cleared out the Auschwitz camps, [...] Allied airplanes flew over Auschwitz and captured the camps in photographs. They were never mentioned in a report. The analysts had no orders to look for the camps, and therefore did not find them (see ill. 43).

The second image, juxtaposed to the ones taken from the air, was taken at ground level, face to face with the victim, by an SS officer for his private album:

An image from this album: a woman has arrived in Auschwitz, and the camera captures her looking over her shoulder as she walks by. To her left, an SS man holds an old man, another recent arrival in Auschwitz, by the lapels of his jacket with his right hand as a sorting gesture. In the centre of the image is the woman: the photographers are always pointing their cameras at the beautiful woman. Or, after they have set up their camera somewhere, they take a picture when a woman who in their eyes is beautiful passes by. Here, on the ‘platform’ at Auschwitz, they photograph a woman the way they would cast a glance at her in the street. The woman knows how to take in this photographic gaze with the expression on her face, and how to look ever so slightly past the viewer. In just this way, on a boulevard she would look past a gentleman casting a glance at her, into a store window (see ill. 44).

Here, too, something in the image was not being ‘seen’ by the camera, in order for something else to survive: the woman’s dignity and humanity, in the most inhuman of circumstances imaginable. The photograph stands for the terrible contract that preserves a certain ‘reality’ or ‘normality’ under extreme conditions. But so devastating is the a-symmetry between ‘he who looks’ and ‘she who is being looked at’ in this instance that as spectators we lose all ground from under us, plunged as we are into an ethical void. It is as if all of Farocki’s earlier investigations into the various uses of the cinematic apparatus, understood as the technologies of perception and imaging, as well as the mental constructs, moral stances, and bodily sensations associated with the camera itself, had been brought into sharp focus around these two historical instances, each of which has left traces, to which Farocki can give an emblematic significance. Such a reading of contingent detail, in the knowledge of a ‘reconstituted picture’ requires the disposition of an allegorist, someone who, according to Benjamin, is able to contemplate a world of fragments and a life in ruins, while still reading it as a totality: in this case the totality of a nation’s destruction of a people and its own self-destruction as a moral entity. The instance is once again part of a larger process, affecting in extremis the entire history of Western Enlightenment. As modern warfare increasingly relies on aerial reconnaissance (Aufklärung), its vision machines become increasingly blind to what they are not programmed to see. In a countermove of enlightenment (Aufklärung), Farocki’s essay films increasingly read the camera’s revelatory role and its gift of resurrection as the reverse side of its destructive and predatory impact,22 while projecting into each picture the ‘reflexive self-reference’ noted earlier. The filmmaker knows that he has been implicated, collusive, and is part of the very process he is documenting – nowhere more so than in the ‘found image’ of the woman at the Auschwitz sorting ramp, but also in the ‘re-found’ images of the Allied planes flying over the camps, recording the smoke rising from the chimneys, so to speak, but not seeing its significance.23

War and Cinema

‘You need to take two images of everything’, the photographer observes in ZWISCHEN ZWEI KRIEGEN. Besides announcing Farocki’s video installation, the phrase also returns us to chronophotography, the first condition of possibility of cinema. Its meaning is now even more Janus-faced: looking back to a precinematic way of conceiving motion and succession, it also looks forward to a post-cinematic ‘stilling of images’, whether in the form of inserting black leader (Farocki, in ZWISCHEN ZWEI KRIEGEN, Jean Luc Godard in HISTOIRE(S) DU CINÉMA) and the re-materialisation of the ‘originary’ intermittence, or in the use of found footage and photographs. These still images – stilled even when they are moving in a film like BILDER DER WELT, but not just there – Farocki’s work reads like maps or secret drawings, bringing to the fore a third definition of the two-image idea. For it is clear that a new image-concept is forming in our culture around satellite images and surveillance cameras which also require two images in order to detect change and thus to measure an event that might require action. This new concept of the image regards it not as a picture or representation, but as the bearer of data and information. What such images record is time itself, creating a new kind of intermittence: now you need two images not so much in order to indicate the direction of movement, as Farocki once asserted, but to track the interval of time as the index of change, and thus of information.24

In his commentary on the cinematic apparatus, Farocki goes back to the pre-history of cinema, not unlike those film scholars who in recent decades have reinvestigated the ‘origins’ of cinema (among other things, in order to speculate on its ‘futures’). It transpires that Ottmar Anschütz, Eadweard Muybridge and Jules Etienne Marey had no idea – or for that matter, no intention even – of providing the world with a new entertainment medium. They were scientists, entrepreneur-bricoleurs, or, at best, they thought of themselves as philanthropists, benefactors of mankind. In fact, Farocki goes back even further, to 1858, to a relatively obscure German stereometrist by the name of Albrecht Meydenbauer, who stumbled upon – quite literally – the so-called Messbildverfahren (scale measurement photography), a way of using the fixed camera and glass-plate photography in order to calculate the height of a building.

By telling the story of this cartographer and building inspector who was nearly killed trying to measure the height of a church in need of repairs, Farocki makes Meydenbauer the founding father of (his) cinematography. Scale measurement opens up a perspective that changes the way we come to understand the history lesson given in BILDER DER WELT. Drawing from Meydenbauer’s experience the conclusion that in this world, ‘it is dangerous to be present, much more secure to take a picture’, Farocki views the shock of mortal danger as the mother of invention, which undercuts the usual story of greed and cupidity as the driving force of cinematic progress and innovation. In addition, with Meydenbauer, the visible becomes the measurable, which is the beginning of what we now call the ‘digital’. But as the measurable replaces the visible, a new kind of metaphor signifies the gap. Substituting for the visuality no longer emerging from similarity and difference the measurable is symbolized by juxtaposition and the interval. At the same time, Farocki ties the photographic – and by extension – the cinematic image to a proximity with death that all great theorists of film and photography (such as André Bazin or Roland Barthes) have recognised and reflected upon.

But unlike them, and in line with a historical experience we no longer can escape, Farocki thinks of death in terms of violent death, of man-made death and sex-and-death, or by contrasting the tactical, one-off warfare of the guerrilla with the strategic, systematic warfare of capitalism, of empires and world powers. Thus, one of his great themes is indeed ‘war and cinema’. Yet what is so striking about his reflections on this topic, no doubt because he himself feels so deeply implicated, is that embedded in his metaphorical thinking is the related rhetorical figure of metonymy. Contiguity-thinking is a mental habit that cannot look at an object without observing what lies next to it, what nestles inside it. To look also means to look past an object, to turn it over, to discover the obverse and reverse side. Farocki apprehends the world as natural picture puzzles. To put it in the more philosophical idiom: he alerts us to the discrepancy between perception and cognition. Almost all the images he studies closely resemble Ludwig Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit representation, where an image, depending on one’s cognitive frame, visually resembles one or the other, but never both at once. Except that for Farocki, there can be contamination between the two alternative readings, they are communicating vessels rather than conceptual deadlocks, notably the communicating vessels that link warfare and military production to civilian usage and image production. We can look at the image of one of the first tanks, for instance, in which we recognise the agricultural vehicle that either served as the tank’s model or that looks like a practical joker has mischievously misappropriated and ‘re-tooled’ it. Similar things can be said of a picture of a dead horse, a bomb-shattered house, and soldiers in front of a tank grinding up the road: they signify by their juxtaposition, but they become uncanny by sharing the same pictorial space and frame. Or the equally surreal image that opens WIE MAN SIEHT of the plough that turns into a cannon (see ill. 40). Surreal, that is, until we see a soldier who looks like a farmer (who probably was a farmer) gripping just such a gunplough, with a horse dragging it across rough terrain. These rebus-pictures are reminiscent of Une Semaine de bonté, Max Ernst’s collages of pictures, cut out of the science journal La Nature, but they also confirm what Klaus Kreimeier meant when he called Farocki, referring to his early student films, Germany’s only ‘Maoist-Dadaist’25 (see ill. 18-21).

Archimedean Points or Vanishing Points: Between Abstract Work and Abstract Existence

Farocki’s cinema as well as his video work, then, is a meta-cinema without a meta-language. It discusses cinema’s origins, its life, death and afterlife, but in cinema’s own terms. What becomes visible, even in the short half-century since Farocki began making films, are the many alternative lives of the cinema, reaching from the early agit-prop films, made in the streets as much as for the streets, via his instructional films, his film essays and author films (all of them, in his words, ‘made against the cinema and against television’) to his installations. It seems as if Farocki has never been comfortable with the black box that is traditional cinema. Yet from what has been said thus far, it is unlikely that he would be any more comfortable with the white cubes of the museum or art gallery, the exhibition spaces where his more recent work has been presented. One indication of this philosophical, but also strategic hesitation between the black box and white cube is that each of Farocki’s films mimics a certain ensemble, a certain dispositive. In this sense, too, his films are allegories of cinema, even when the apparatus they mimic is not necessarily identical with that of cinema.

ZWISCHEN ZWEI KRIEGEN, as we have already noted, is built around the model of the Verbund, and it becomes an allegory of cinema primarily because it shows, as its photo negative, the portrait of the director as freelance author, television sub-contractor and ‘independent’ filmmaker working under the conditions of the German subsidy system of the 1970s. LEBEN – BRD and WAS IST LOS? mimic the instructional training films that also constitute their subject matter, giving a hint that these generally despised or often ignored genres of film history have something to offer even the most serious cineaste26 (see ill. 41). WIE MAN SIEHT, on the other hand, takes the logic of the computer (with its yes/no, fork-in-the-road switching and branching structure) as its mental model, and expands it in several different directions, which reminds us that Farocki was already then of the opinion that the binary yes/no of modern technology and digitisation needed to be complemented by a more ‘organic’ model, which follows the natural contours of a given terrain, rather than the straight line of the ruler. And his own work pleads for a both/and model: his praxis of keeping two images in mind simultaneously is best illustrated by the sequence in WIE MAN SIEHT that compares the Jacquard loom with Konrad Zuse’s drawings after watching Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS and claims them as the imaginary twin screens of a conceptual installation that lets us understand the ‘invention’ of the computer as if it had been a dada ready-made.

BILDER DER WELT mimics the dispositive that today links military and medicine, police work and portrait photography, by investigating several privileged moments of their historical conjuncture. VIDEOGRAMME EINER REVOLUTION, on the other hand, mimics the apparatus of democracy at the status nascendi: a power vacuum as the paradoxical moment of legitimating democratic power, and the double-edged sword that the media represent in both democracies and dictatorships. All these configurations are important to the filmmaker: they confirm that there is no outside to the inside of the image-media world, which obliges him to nail his colours to the mast. They also provide his work with a ‘place’ from where it becomes operational, even if this place is nothing but the cut, the vertiginous opening, the negative lever I have called the Archimedean point. His recto/verso thinking, his poetic sense of metamorphosis, and his baroque eye for the conceptual tromp l’oeil have not only saved Farocki from being locked into fixed positions, whether Cartesian, structuralist or deconstructivist, they have also given him a kind of optimism or confidence in the power of reversals. So much so that his melancholy, paired with an ironic self-reflexivity, is clearly distinguished from the disappointed idealism and at times hysterical fundamentalism of a Jean Baudrillard or Paul Virilio, with whom his ideas about modern warfare, prosthetic perception, and the cinematic apparatus as a simulacrum of social life have sometimes been compared.

Finally, can one be more specific about this Archimedean point, around which, I claim, his work turns? Yes and no: its very nature is to remain hidden, its causes lie in its effects, its mode of action is self-reference, it is the serpent swallowing its own tail. But one can identify some moments and motifs: an Archimedean point (or as Nora Alter in her essay calls it, ‘the im/perceptible point’) of BILDER DER WELT, for instance, would be the gap that opens up only in retrospect, when one takes the images in the beginning (which are repeated at the end) of ebb and tide wave simulations in a research lab water tank, and connects them to a slogan, also twice visible: ‘Block the access routes’. The film turns, as Farocki confirms in the interview about the film, on an oblique analogy between the Allied bombing of the Auschwitz gas chambers (which did not take place), and the blocking of the access routes to NATO’s nuclear bunkers (which should take place).27 What connects them is the possibility of mobilising both resistance and an alternative strategy, in a political or ethical situation where what is known is not what is seen, and what is seen is not all there is to be known. Wave energy might replace nuclear energy, and we might learn from a history that is counterfactual and hypothetical. But as Farocki has noted, BILDER DER WELT had unintended consequences, in that its international success ‘returned’ the film to him with a different title (‘Images’ instead of ‘Pictures’), as well as with a different meaning.28 What had intervened between the making and its reception, and had changed the relation between cause and effect, was the year 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the cold war. The ‘message’ about nuclear energy had all but got lost in the historic upheavals and the transatlantic crossing, while several other discourses: of the Holocaust, war and cinema, feminist issues of representation, body and voice did return. Considered now more urgent, they therefore became more visible also in the film.29

Perhaps a similar tension or hidden reference point exists in his later work. Farocki is in the vanguard of those artists and thinkers willing to name the forces that hollow out democracy from within, for instance, by commodifying public space and simulating citizenship in gated communities or enclosed experience worlds. But as a filmmaker he knows that the zones of exclusion that emerge on either side are policed in equal measure by fantasy and violence. If this analysis is inspired neither by a nostalgia for bourgeois individualism (‘humanism’), nor by the ideals of socialism that used to be its obverse, a core concern does link him to one aspect of this tradition, and to the key theme of one of its dissident thinkers, Intellectual and Manual Labour, the lifelong preoccupation of Alfred Sohn-Rethel.30 I have already mentioned the idea of manufacture as it traverses Farocki’s films, and how its combination of hand and eye is at once avant-garde and obsolete. Filmmaking – Farocki’s kind of filmmaking – might be the last kind of work to deserve that name, and for him it serves as an allegory for so many other kinds of work no longer needed nor valued. When Farocki had placed himself, in ETWAS WIRD SICHTBAR, between ‘working like a machine’ and ‘working like an artist’, he qualified both as ultimately ‘too easy’: ‘it is not a question of doing either one or the other, but of joining the two’. And although, at that point in 1981 his cinema was a meta-cinema, mainly because of his critical commentary on filmmaking in West Germany, it has since become a meta-cinema in a somewhat different sense. Farocki’s films focus on the problems of ‘work’ as not only a category of the economic – how a society materially produces and ideologically reproduces the means of its survival – but work as the very condition of what it means to remain human. Now he notes the fatal role that the cinema may have played in abstracting human beings from this, their basic condition:

In order to organise the Fordist factory, experiments were carried out [in the form of time and motion studies]. These tests [of actual workers at their machines] present a picture of abstract work while the pictures from the surveillance cameras yield a picture of abstract existence.31

From abstract work to abstract existence: if Farocki’s installations give the impression of recording how mankind is becoming obsolete among its own creations, it is also worth pondering the place from which he himself speaks. For that, we have to remember his remark about love, and how it is sometimes necessary to remain faithful to an idea one has loved, even as one realises that this idea is dying. Might the idea, at whose deathbed Farocki’s films hold their long vigil and keep a sorrowful wake, be that it is work which defines and dignifies human existence, and protects it finally, from both fantasy and violence? What is so prophetic about the Lumières’ Workers Leaving the Factory (central reference point of Farocki’s ARBEITER VERLASSEN DIE FABRIK) is the convergence of a particular technology, the cinematograph, with a particular site, the factory. It stands as the emblem for the fact that, ever since these two made contact, collided and combined, more and more workers have been ‘leaving’ the factory – not always of their own volition or at the end of the day. With the advent of cinema, and paradoxically, in no small measure because of it, the value of human productivity, along with the function of work, labour, and creativity have all undergone decisive mutations. What their future may be can only be surmised, especially considering how immobilized Western societies seem to be between the ever longer unemployment queues outside and the ever increasing numbers of computer ‘terminals’ – techno-mutants of the cinematograph – in our workplaces and our homes. Could WORKERS LEAVING THE FACTORY, the title of the first moving images made for the cinema, be Farocki’s secret codeword, identifying him as one of the last ‘workers’ of the moving image (see ill. 70)?

The present collection approaches Farocki by locating a variety of motifs. At times the angle is necessarily oblique, for instance, when identifying in-between spaces and rebus-image emblems, each of which contains the whole and yet none gives away more than it must. As Farocki puts it himself, at the end of SCHNITTSTELLE, his ars poetica as well as his self-portrait as picture puzzle: ‘my workplace is either an enigma machine or a decoder. Is it a matter of uncovering a secret or, on the contrary, of keeping it hidden?’ Correspondingly, the terms of analysis are never just opposite pairs, such as man/machine, hand/ eye, writing/editing (‘my texts emerge from the editing table [as much as, if not more] than my image montages come from my typewriter’) (see ill. 38). As befits metaphors, they usually contain an excluded middle, which they might dialectically imply: hand/eye implies mind, for instance. Or they produce something through the fusion of two terms (as when surveillance photography connotes both preservation and destruction). It might be a matter of a single term that forms a chain or a semantic cluster (the Verbund – network and feedback loop – in ZWISCHEN ZWEI KRIEGEN, or the term Aufklärung – enlightenment and reconnaissance – in BILDER DER WELT). A picture might meta-morph and suddenly merge two unlikely realms (i.e. ploughshare/ cannon, combine harvester/tank, or the trope of the cut, which in WIE MAN SIEHT suggests analogies between the way a butcher cuts a side of beef, and the way a civil engineer ‘cuts’ a motorway through the natural terrain). Concepts or topics occupy a multidimensional space (as when camera, voice, and monitor all comment on one another in an installation piece, or the several dimensions of a cinematographic archive, searchable in a lateral fashion, map unexpected connections across time). Certain image-emblems reveal a hidden history (‘weaving’ takes us from the Jacquard loom to the television screen, the grid from Hollerith cards to digital images), just as the implicit third term of a metaphor may provide its real motor (‘enforced leisure’ linking prison yard to shopping mall). The excluded middle of a binary opposition may suggest an ironic twist to a conflict (in ETWAS WIRD SICHTBAR the production methods of the big ‘USA’ – large machines that only work the centre of a wheat field – are opposed to those of small ‘Vietnam’ – manual work that harvests the margins – until along comes small ‘Japan’, which has devised machines that also harvest the margins).32

While these similes and tropes capture something of the logic of movement and metaphor in Farocki’s work, as well as his habitus of self-contestation and self-reference, they do not fully convey the always implied incommensurability between image and reality. This constitutive gap in the ‘world of images’ is addressed by the contributors to the volume in a wide variety of contexts – political, philosophical and poetological. The essays have been chosen with this perspective in mind: to consider his films and installations as a set of themes and variations, informed by an urgent, topical, but nonetheless wholly coherent agenda. But the selection also follows another (chrono)logic, which documents the different stages not so much of Farocki’s career as of his reception in the English-speaking world (i.e., the chapters by Elsaesser [1985], Rosenbaum [1992], Keenan [1992] and Alter [1994] for instance). Each registers the impact his work has had at a particular place and point in time, but also indexes the effort, and sometimes the difficulties encountered, when trying to place him within the then prevailing filmic discourses and theoretical debates. In fact, Farocki has been ‘introduced’ to an international audience on numerous occasions during the 1980s and 1990s, and this was often done by choosing different emphases or vantage points (Elsaesser in Britain [1983], Becker in Spain and the USA [1992], Blümlinger in France [1995]). Important analytical texts by Farocki himself that were written in tandem with the films and that provide some biographical-autobiographical pith are also included, in the form of his own essays (dating respectively from 1977, 1982, 1988, 1995, 1998, 1999) and by two interviews (Elsaesser, 1993, Hüser, 2000). They indicate the different intellectual as well as cinéphile traditions Farocki draws on in his work, as do the essays taken from a German publication on Farocki, which pay attention to his immediate circle of friends as well as the role he played in the journal Filmkritik (Siebel, Möller, Knepperges). Three essays were written more recently, one of which provides a close reading of VIDEOGRAMME EINER REVOLUTION in the light of political theory and media politics (Young), the second pinpoints some of the major thematic preoccupations up to and including his installation work (Blümlinger) and the third by Wolfgang Ernst (and co-authored by Farocki) outlines an ambitious project which aims to take our cinematic heritage and audio-visual memory into the digital realm, at least conceptually, by asking how, and in the name of what criteria given the vast capacity to store images one can sort, archive, and make accessible this ‘grammar’ of our culture, this software programme of our memory, where moving images form units both above and below the lexical and the semantic dimensions. Ernst and Farocki seem to want to continue the work of film semioticians, of folklorists and narratalogists, but now within the image and through the image itself. It not so much concludes his film work as it opens even his installations to a new dimension.

As these hints at layers and strata indicate, this book has itself had an almost geological genesis. When I first wrote about Farocki in 1983, I was still under the strong impression of a chance encounter from 1975. The many times we have met since have always included an element of surprise, of displacement and detour, of a moment that should be fixed but probably was better remembered as being transitory. The first time I introduced one of his films was at a conference in Vancouver, having smuggled a 16mm print of ZWISCHEN ZWEI KRIEGEN past Canadian customs. Nearly ten years later, I introduced Farocki and WIE MAN SIEHT in Berkeley, California, in January 1992. But what was more memorable was the dinner afterwards, with Laura Mulvey, Carol Clover and Kaja Silverman. In London, in February 1993, I interviewed him on BILDER DER WELT for a retrospective I had curated at the NFT, where it was his stage presence that kept the audience spellbound. No less a spell was cast by him in Amsterdam, a year later, when he showed VIDEOGRAMME EINER REVOLUTION to my students. A born performer as much as a born pedagogue, I saw him discuss his films with Paul Virilio at the Jeu de Paume in Paris, and invited him again to Amsterdam for a workshop on ARBEITER VERLASSEN DIE FABRIK. When I visited him in a remote part of the former East Berlin, it was a wall of peculiarly enigmatic graffiti that seemed to lead me to his home, and in New York, at the MoMA’s retrospective of his films, I saw him patiently sit every evening by the auditorium door like K. waiting ‘Before the Law’ in Kafka’s The Castle. Each of these encounters left me with a particular gesture, sharp remark, witty pun, or vivid image; and, finally, with the desire to do this book. In realizing it, I was helped by many: Christa Blümlinger, Tom Keenan, Ulrich Kriest and Rolf Aurich, Kay Hoffmann, the Goethe Institute Melbourne, Fiona Villella of Senses of Cinema, Wolfgang Ernst, Tamara de Rijk and above all by Harun Farocki himself. Thanks also go to the other authors, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Nora Alter, and Benjamin Young who graciously permitted me to reprint or publish their essays. Initially I had wanted to include the filmography, carefully compiled by Christa Blümlinger for a French publication, but in the end opted for the annotated filmography, as listed on the official website: Biographical notes about Farocki are included in the List of Authors, and bibliographical details concerning the original publication of essays here reprinted and of their translators can be found at the end of the volume.



Harun Farocki, ‘Controlling Observation’, originally in Jungle World no. 37 (8 September 1999); in this volume.


These examples are all taken from WIE MAN SIEHT.


Dialogue passage by ‘Robert’ from BEFORE YOUR EYES – VIETNAM.


Harun Farocki, ‘Ein Schnitt, oder die Rache der Fernsehleute’, Die Tageszeitung (Berlin), 2 February 1989.


See also Blaise Pascal: ‘you would not be looking for me if you had not already found me’.


Harun Farocki, ‘Ein Zigarettenende’, Filmkritik no. 1, 1977.


‘... a typical German misunderstanding. People do not realise that an author like Farocki seeks [...] to disguise his own labour and himself as a person. It is part of this hide-and-seek – and it is worth insisting on this – that what appears as a throwaway joke or casual remark is in fact the expression of persistent work and the fruit of reflected experience.’ D. Lederer, ‘Begegnungen in Duisburg und anderswo’, in: Rolf Aurich/Ulrich Kriest (eds.) Der Ärger mit den Bildern Die Filme von Harun Farocki, Konstanz: UVK Medien 1998, p. 61.


Alfred Sohn-Rethel, ‘Ökonomie und Klassenstruktur des deutschen Faschismus’, Kursbuch 21, October 1970, originally published in Deutsche Führerbriefe, nr. 72, 73, then reprinted in: Der Rote Aufbau, vol. V, no. 20, Berlin, 15 October 1932, p. 934.


Harun Farocki, ‘Notwendige Abwechslung und Vielfalt’, Filmkritik 224, August 1975, pp. 360-369.


Among the most notorious of these instructional shorts were THEIR NEWSPAPERS (which ends with a stone being thrown through the window of the Springer Press Headquarters), HOW TO SEPARATE A POLICEMAN FROM HIS HELMET and the (apocryphal) HOW TO MAKE A MOLOTOV COCKTAIL – all of which were at least co-authored by Farocki.


Tilmann Baumgärtel, ‘Bildnis des Künstlers als junger Mann’, in Der Ärger mit den Bildern, p. 156.


See also Christa Blümlinger, SCHNITTSTELLE, in this volume.


‘Gespräch mit Harun Farocki’, Information sheet no.13, Internationale Forum des Jungen Films, Berlin 1982.


For a passage which shows the formation of this kind of equivalence, and its ultimate rejection as too improbable, see the following: ‘After we visited the Two Rivers prison in Oregon and shot some footage, I had a coffee with the cameraman Ingo Kratisch, on the terrace of the neighbouring golf club. It was impossible not to be struck by the triteness of this particular editing trick in our experience: from high-tech prison (sub-proletariat) to the golf club (idle landed class), with its sprinkler system. The golfers drove around in electric carts. This kind of antithetical situation begs for deeper connections to be made. But what kind? One thing is for certain: the golfers’ stock market profits don’t have much to do with the prisoners’ sweatshop work.’ (‘An Image Thesaurus’, in this volume).


The film was refused a certificate that would have made it eligible for financial subsidy on the grounds that ‘it tries to prove the thesis that all of the Federal Republic’s citizens are conformist and remote-controlled’ in their personal lives and social activities.


Farocki: ‘We tried to be like waiters, in whose presence the masters of the manor felt free to converse without reserve.’ Quoted in Der Ärger mit den Bildern, p.16.


‘In the Netherlands of the seventeenth century, there were prison cells in which water kept rising and whose inmates had to bale it out so as not to drown; this demonstrated that man must work to live. In eighteenth century England, many prisoners had to work the treadmill – today many prisoners can again be found on treadmills, keeping themselves physically fit.’ ‘Controlling Observation’, in this volume.


Harun Farocki, ‘Schuss-Gegenschuss: Der wichtigste Ausdruck im Wertgesetz Film’, Filmkritik no. 11, 1981.


In the interview with Rembert Hüser, Farocki cites Rem Koolhaas’s book The Harvard Guide to Shopping as having alerted him to the fact that ‘high-tech companies once involved in the production of weapons are now producing high-tech applications for the retail industry.’ Koolhaas himself, of course, is one of the leading architect- designer-displayers, at the forefront of blurring the distinctions between physical buildings and display screens (i.e., his unrealised project for the ZKM in Karlsruhe), and between retail outlets and museums (his realised conversion of the former Guggenheim building in downtown Manhattan into a flagship Prada shop).


See the relevant passage in ‘Towards an Archive of Visual Concepts’, in this volume.


Filmkritik no. 263, November 1978, pp. 569-606.


Paul Virilio: ‘the searchlight [...] illuminated a future where observation and destruction would develop at the same pace [...] the deadly harmony that always establishes itself between the functions of eye and weapon.’ War and Cinema (London: Verso, 1986), pp. 68-69.


See the interview I conducted with Farocki about Images of the World where he mentioned that cameras are circling, in order to make the world ‘superfluous’, and that he felt he was part of these cameras circling around the world: ‘It’s not my idea, but yes, in a way I am part of it. I am also part of the business, even though I am not literally in the space industry’ (in this volume).


On this mode of reading images, see Farocki’s ‘Reality would have to begin’: ‘Nuclear weapons [...] arrive by ship in Bremerhaven, where they are put on trains, whose departure time and destination are kept secret. About a week before departure, army aircraft fly the entire length of the route and photograph it. This status report is repeated half an hour before the train is to pass, and the most recent set of images is compared with the first set. Through their juxtaposition one can discern whether any significant changes have occurred in the interim’ (in this volume).


Klaus Kreimeier, ‘Papier – Schere – Stein’, in Der Ärger mit den Bildern, p. 37.


‘In the 1950s, I too was shown instructional films at school. Silent, black and white, screened with a noisy projector. Films about fallow deer and glassblowing. We high school kids with tastes formed by the photo journal Magnum [...] didn’t like these films, and even today in discussions many say “like a school instruction film”, it is clear that they mean these films are the very dregs. But to me that is not clear at all.’ Filmkritik, no. 274, October 1979, p. 429.


‘Making the World Superfluous’, in this volume.




See Kaja Silverman, ‘What Is a Camera? Or: History in the Field of Vision’, Discourse 15 (Spring 1993), pp. 3-56.


Alfred Sohn-Rethel, Intellectual and Manual Labour: A Critique of Epistemology (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1978). 31. ‘Controlling Observation’, in this volume. 32. For a full quotation of this scene, see ‘Film as a Form of Intelligence’, in this volume.