Harun Farocki: 1944-2014
Harun Farocki, who died on July 30th, was the master of the conceptually precise essay film. An insightful and prescient documentarian with a light touch, he was no editorialist or propagandist, but rather a critical thinker with a deep political commitment. Unlike many other artists born of May ’68, Farocki avoided both Bertolt Brecht’s proscriptive didacticism and Jean-Luc Godard’s love/hate of conventional narrative. Farocki observed, and observed well. Simply by placing a camera where something interesting was occurring — a worker being trained, a TV advertisement being filmed — Farocki was able to give capitalism just enough rope to hang itself. There’s a mirroring of form and content in his work: the films examine freedom and labor, and are constructed in a way that grants the audience an unusual degree of freedom in their construction of meaning. Farocki’s method is the cinematic manifestation of Hemingway’s advice, “Show, don’t tell.” To enjoy a Farocki film is to be the loser in a jiu-jitsu match: it’s not the filmmaker’s efforts, but rather the workings of the viewer’s own intelligence, that lead one to arrive at the filmmaker’s conclusions.
A crucial moment in Farocki’s oeuvre is the opening sequence of his Inextinguishable Fire (1969), an anti-Vietnam War salvo created when he was only 25 years old, having recently been ejected from film academy for his radicalism. The filmmaker is seated at a desk, in the manner of a TV news anchor. He reads to the camera:
“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. If we show you someone with napalm burns, we will hurt your feelings. If we hurt your feelings, you will feel like we’d tried napalm on you. We can give you only a hint of how napalm works.”
Then, he stops speaking. How does napalm work? In close-up, we see Farocki press a lit cigarette into the skin of his forearm, without flinching.
Farocki’s Inextinguishable Fire (1969)
It’s a visceral demonstration of the uncompromising political commitment that would animate a career spanning over 120 films and installations. (Unlike those who consider clicking a Facebook like-button to be political activism, Farocki clearly “had some skin in the game.”) It’s many other things as well: a declaration of solidarity with victims of the Vietnam War; a critique of the pretense to neutrality of TV news; a work of transcendently masochistic performance art pre-dating both Chris Burden and Marina Abramovic.
The “hint of napalm” can be seen as a metaphor for the artist’s entire project. The art arises from the necessity of finding a “hint,” a soft alternative to a reality too harsh to express directly. The artist doesn’t want to hurt the viewer’s feelings, doesn’t want her to close her eyes — thus a new strategy is needed. Jacques Ranciere proposed that political art often fails because the politicized artist presumes he has specialized knowledge that his audience lacks; its tone can’t help but be patronizing. Farocki usually side-stepped this kind of didactic or pedagogical stance: his work is concerned with making its point, but is equally concerned with affirming the audience’s ability to figure things out for themselves. And this occasion for respectful affirmation becomes, in itself, a political act.
One strategy for “hinting” is to focus on the mundane as entry point to the profound. The subject of Zum Vergleich (“In Comparison,” 2009) is, at first glance, “How are bricks manufactured in different parts of the world?” One would assume this is a spectacularly boring topic, but in fact, the film presents nothing less than a feat of time-travel. In Africa, bricks are individually shaped by hand; in India, by plopping handfuls of mud into molds; in Morocco, by simple assembly lines; and in Germany, by massively efficient automated production facilities. Each location represents a distinct moment in the history of capitalist production, from pre- to post-industrial. Besides demonstrating technologies from primitive to complex, the film lets us examine how different the experience of work is for the laborers in each location. Long takes, beautifully composed, give the viewer time to feel the worker’s daily experience. In comparison with the community of joyful women of Burkina Faso, infants strapped to their backs, who sing in unison as they rhythmically mold the raw earth, the lone German factory worker paces aimlessly, at a loss for what to do, as he helplessly oversees the huge machines in their mighty and flawless production. In Farocki’s hands, this lonely figure becomes the tangible embodiment of alienated labor. It is no small feat to make such an abstract and slippery concept so plainly visible.
An excerpt from How to Life in the German Federal Republic (1990), by Harun Farocki
Another of Farocki’s preferred indirect methods is to examine moments of simulation: the play-acting that naturally occurs whenever anyone tries to teach something. When Farocki films, for example, a group of children made to practice crossing an imaginary street, the activity becomes denaturalized; the training appears as the process of the construction of subjectivity. In the absence of the actual, the ideology around what the actual might be becomes foregrounded. While Brecht believed that the conditions of life were revealed when the theater made its mechanisms obvious, Farocki sought the same reveal in the impromptu moments of theater that occur within real life. With a title that jokingly implies the film will explain capitalism to residents of former East Germany, How To Live in the Federal Republic of Germany (1990) is a compilation of a great many of these bizarre scenarios of dress rehearsal, suggesting a world in constant preparation for a reality that never arrives. Two policemen practice making an arrest, with one assuming the role of the bad guy. As a form of therapy, anorexic women pretend to eat imaginary meals. In one particularly odd sequence, a man coaches a woman on how to perform a strip-tease, his obvious male chauvinism complicated by the way he demonstrates stripper moves. Indoctrination (1987) documents a five-day workshop in which corporate middle-management executives are drilled in the art of self-presentation. These aspiring ladder-climbers rehearse performing a degree of competency they don’t actually possess, so that they may better “sell themselves.” We can tangibly observe ideology spreading contagiously, and that the effect of absorbing an ideology is a variety of contortions within a person’s mode of being.
A trailer for Farocki’s Videograms of a Revolution (1992), compiled by Spectacle Theater
Whereas Brecht was a firebrand true-believer Communist, and poet-auteur Godard a son of Marx and Coca-Cola, Harun Farocki was simply a deeply intelligent and humble man of the left, whose hopes and fears for our world were born not of dogma, but of a timeless humanitarianism. His profoundly committed artistic and political vision will remain forever inextinguishable.
5 Recommended Films by Harun Farocki:
Videograms of a Revolution (1992) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0108489/
Zum Vergleich http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1380817/
Serious Games 1-4 http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2793502/
How to Live in the Federal Republic of Germany http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0277794/
An Image http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0360426/
A 2012 interview with Farocki by the Goethe Institute http://vimeo.com/40929381