Harun Farocki: Working on the Sight Lines

Thomas Elsaesser, Harun Farocki: Working on the Sightlines (Amsterdam University Press, 2004) 379 pp.

book coverAnyone interested in how the technological, and now the electronic media have transformed civil society, could find no better chronicler of their histories, no more intelligent observer of their unexpected connections, no more incisive critic and yet interested party to the media’s epoch-making significance than the German filmmaker, installation artist and media theorist Harun Farocki. As a filmmaker, Farocki not only adds images to their stock in the world; he comments on the world made by these images, and he does so with and through images.

But documenting and commenting public life under the rule of the image is also a political act. 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 the cinema itself. In this perspective, its role as our culture's prime story-telling medium is almost secondary. Instead, what comes to the fore is a ‘machine of the visible’ that is itself largely invisible. This is why Farocki can talk about airports, schools or prisons as part of the post-history of cinema, just as a fork in the road leading to the foundation of cities, the Jacquard loom with its programmable sequence of coloured threads, and the Maxim machine gun at the battle of Omdurman are part of the pre-history of cinema.

Since the beginning of the 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 has been, in one form or another, 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 such as Farocki, rather than a mere historian, to detect, document and reconstruct them.

It is no exaggeration, then, to say that Farocki is the contemporary cinema's most important allegorist. Add to that Farocki the installation artist and archivist, and you can see that it is the very ubiquity of images forever failing to amount to a totality, but acting instead as fragments of cultural memory that have obliged Farocki to become also a media theorist. The different histories hidden in the images he picks preserve the fading traces of the human eye within the technologies of vision. They have made of him a special kind of witness, a close reader of images and an exegete-exorcist of their ghostly ‘afterimages’. Nearly forty years of making films, with a list of some eighty titles to his credit, confirm that he is also 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.

The 1990s saw Farocki successfully make the transition to a new art-form and new venues, such as the museums, galleries and media arts festivals that now show his multi-screen installations. His work, including his earlier films, increasingly reach audiences all over the world: Europe (France, Austria, Italy, Belgium), Latin America, Australia and the United States. For these audiences, Harun Farocki- Working on the Sight-Lines can serve as an introduction. But hopefully, it can also turn a first encounter with his work into a pursuit lasting a lifetime - the lifetime of the cinema.



In the introductory chapter, Harun Farocki: Filmmaker, Artist, Media Theorist, Thomas Elsaesser underscores the idea that the singularity of Farocki's cinema resides, not in the power (or juxtaposition) of images, but in the residual impact of the afterimages that is revealed through a careful editing design, noting that for the filmmaker, the power of cinema is "visible in an absence (the missing image)". In essence, Farocki derives his distinctive vision from the meticulous, observational study of images: a visually critical process that Elsaesser explains transforms Farocki's role of filmmaker to that of "a theorist, making him a special kind of witness, a close-reader of 'images', and an exegete-exorcist of their ghostly 'afterimages'". In this respect, Farocki's role can be seen, not as that of documentarian (this is especially true in his latter work where he has exclusively worked with existing, found footage), but rather, as that of an archeologist who sets out to discover a range of information and causal interconnections from a single artifact, a creative philosophy that is reflected in Farocki's comment, "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". As Elsaesser further expounds, "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 recognizing the invisible within the visible, or of detecting the code by which the visible is programmed." It is this systematic methodology of characterizing the history behind the image that is reflected in Farocki's comment, "You don't have to look for new images that have never been seen, but you have to work on existing images in a way that makes them new. There are various paths. Mine is to look for the buried sense, and to clear away the rubble lying on top of the images", and is embodied in the identification of Auschwitz some 40 years later in the archived Allied reconnaissance photographs of adjacent high collateral targets in Images of the World and the Inscription of War, as well as the playful "discovery" of a factory worker tugging her colleague's skirt in Workers Leaving the Factory.

Elsaesser further notes that former film critic and scholar Farocki belongs to the May 68 counterculture generation of artists and intellectuals who sought to effect political change through social revolution and who, rather than suppress or radically alter his vision after the collapse of revolution, instead transformed his disappointment and redirected his energies towards the creation of a more critical and intrinsically political modernist cinema. The resulting symbiosis of avant-garde aesthetics and socio-political activism is also broached in a subsequent introductory essay on Farocki's films by Jonathan Rosenbaum, “The Road Not Taken: Films by Harun Farocki” in which he ruminates on Farocki's relative obscurity (and delayed appreciation) in the US: "I would venture that this is because they belong to an intellectual and artistic tradition in Europe that has never taken hold on these shores - an approach to filmmaking that regards formal and political concerns as intimately intertwined and interdependent."

This manifestation of a kind of subsumed radicalism is especially evident in the film Before Your Eyes - Vietnam in which a fictional doomed love story is set against the turbulent conflict of the Vietnam War (a love and war scenario that recalls Alain Resnais' Hiroshima mon amour but proves to be a much more overtly political film than its predecessor). In the film, not only does Farocki explore the issue of terrorism and domestic resistance (as Gillo Pontecorvo's seminal docufiction film, The Battle of Algiers, similarly captures), but also directly examines the media (or image) politics (and war) that is concurrently fought by all sides of the armed conflict as part of the overall strategy of modern warfare. Elsaesser provides a thoughtful encapsulation of this distinction between terrorism and insurgency in Before Your Eyes - Vietnam:

"As a media war, as well as a liberation struggle, it challenged the meaning of territory, by creating the 'terrorist' alongside the 'guerilla': where the latter hides in the bush, vanishes in the undergrowth, camouflages himself into invisibility, the former has to make a pact with the visibility and the spectacle. In order to be effective, the terrorist has to be visible, but in order to be 'visible' among so many images, his actions have to exceed the order of representations, while nonetheless engaging 'the enemy' on the territory of representation. Political actions attain credibility and the 'truth of the image' it seems, by passing through the process of intense specularization, with the contradictory effect that in order to become recognizable as political, events have to be staged as spectacle."

As the protagonist, Anna, appropriately comments in the film (and is cited in Christa Blümlinger's essay, “Slowly Forming a Thought While Working on Images”), the manipulation of the media for public sentiment is akin to "competing for the greater atrocity" as anti-war protesters parading images of Vietnamese soldiers brutalized by the American military are alternated with images of civilians brutalized by communist partisans. However, with the media saturation of graphic images that inevitably lead to public desensitization, Farocki's task is then to convey the idea of the images without presenting the grotesqueness of the images, a separation that is exemplified in the filmmaker's notorious (but effective) act of stubbing out a cigarette on his forearm in order to illustrate the relative effects of napalm on humans in Inextinguishable Fire, a strategy of distancing - but not Brechtian alienation - that, as Blümlinger notes, seeks "to reveal the disjunction between the camera and the eye, between the subject and apparatus."

In the Thomas Elsaesser interview, “Making the World Superfluous: An Interview with Harun Farocki”, Elsaesser comments that as a writer for Filmkritik, Farocki had written appreciations for filmmakers as diverse as Jean-Luc Godard and Robert Bresson that stylistically, seem to be irreconcible, to which he responds, "But Bert[old] Brecht and Thomas Mann were also antagonists, and nonetheless, one can be an admirer of both as happens to be the case with me. Bresson, to put it briefly, makes his images rhyme, of which I am a great admirer, even though this is not at all my own project".

In a subsequent exchange, Elsaesser brings up the inevitable limitation of foreign translation in the multiplicity and specificity of meaning in the German word 'Aufklärung'. Farocki cites the Hans Jonas book, Phenomenon of Life which proposes that, "everything in philosophy has a metaphor related to the eyes, to vision and so forth, and that in religion, things always relate to the ear. In many languages, at least in many European languages, God is audible and philosophy is visible...So in this sense, it's very essential that the German word 'Aufklärung' is a bit different from the English word 'enlightenment', and such things are essential for a film, but they were not the starting point of the film." (Strictly Filmschool 05-08-05)