Elsaesser, Thomas. “Harun Farocki. Filmmaker, Artist, Media Theorist?” Afterall 11 (2005): 54–63.

Harun Farocki: Filmmaker, Artist, Media Theorist?

Thomas Elsaesser

from Afterall 11

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?1

If I ask myself how the technical and, subsequently, the electronic media have transformed civil society, labour and work, politics and the arts in the past half-century, I could find no better chronicler of their histories, and no more intelligent observer of their unexpected connections than Harun Farocki. The fact that, besides being a writer, he is also a filmmaker is as much a sign of the times as a vocation. By making images a filmmaker not only adds images to their stock in the world, but also comments on the world made by these images with the images that he makes. Aware that the medium chose him, as much as he chose it, for documenting public life under the rule of the image, Farocki treats the cinema with the utmost respect. So central are the technologies of imaging and vision to the twentieth century that there is little Farocki talks about that is not, appearances to the contrary, also a reflection of the cinema itself. In this perspective, however, its role as our culture's prime story-telling medium is almost secondary. Instead, the 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 part of the post-history of the cinema as a bend in the river and 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 Ondurman are each part of the pre-history of the cinema.2 As perhaps the most pervasive – material and mental – model by which to picture ourselves both in this world and acting upon it, this cinematic apparatus is present even when camera or projector are absent. Signifying an arrangement of parts, a logic of self-presence and a geometry of actions, cinema is the reality mortals are condemned to 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 only a relatively brief lease on its 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 historian to detect, document and reconstruct them.

'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 film noir-ish connotations of detection, a particular form of agency when talking about an artist who also understands himself as an activist. If the word had not paled into such a cliche, 'intervene' might be the (Brechtian) term that applies to Farocki's early work and to its radical ambitions when he started in the 1960s. Since then, he has tested forms of action with his films that are normally associated more with a social scientist, laboratory technician or media theorist than with a political activist. But he has also been an exceptional witness to his age, especially when he patiently and persistently records how, in the second half of the twentieth century, the visible and the intelligible have drifted ever further apart, just as did the eye and the hand in the first half. An eye-witness 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 it cannot prove.'3 Events, accidents and disasters, Farocki seems to say, must be turned over to see what lies behind, 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 hands and fingers. Now it is a matter of spotting the invisible within the visible, or of detecting the code by which the visible is programmed.

With Farocki, then, the act of 'documenting' the contemporary world is guided also by different kinds of authorship, different strategies of probing and testing, and an agency that is at once forensic and pedagogic. This extends to his published texts, sometimes written to accompany his films and some times to prepare them. The same stance of patient self-interrogation concealed as matter-of-fact description also informs the director's verbal and visual presence within the films. Farocki speaks in his own voice and person in Nicht löschbares Feuer (Inextinguishable Fire), Zwischen zwei Kriegen (Between two wars) and Schnittstelle (Interface); at other times, a multi-layered dialogical situation is set up between the characters and the filmmaker (Etwas wird sichtbar [Before your eyes. Vietnam]), or a carefully scripted commentary directs attention and instructs the mind's eye (Wie man sieht; [As you see]), 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]). At other times, the camera is a distant and cool observer, and no voice over tells the viewer what connections to make, other than to attend to the cuts and connections that the images make (Leben BRD, Die Schulung [How to live in the FRG; The training]). 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 a critical detachment – thus maintaining his mastery over the material. After all, these are expected positions in the repertoire of documentary filmmakers since the late 1920s, especially when they are politically on the left. Their films testify to social injustices or the abuse of power, they show the world as it is and give glimpses of how it might be or once was; they hold up a mirror to it in order to shame it into change. But the key impulses of Farocki's work seem altogether differently motivated. At the limit, they make him 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. In respect of 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 in respect of the former, he is too much of an artist artisan to presume to be doing anything other than work on a reality already constituted: replaying it for the sake of the small differences, small deferrals, so that something might become visible (‘etwas wird sichtbar’ ['something becomes visible']) in the repetition and through the duplication. For Farocki – unlike Freud – to find an image is to re-find it.

The symptomatic topicality of Farocki's subjects – Vietnam in the 70s, Auschwitz in the 80s, surveillance technologies and smart bombs in the 90s, prison regimes, malls and supermarkets today – is as deceptive as is his detached, didactic or deadpan manner of treating them. He is extremely selective, monomanic even, in the choice of themes, while his engagement is total, to the point of requiring careful self-protection, even decoy and camouflage. In fact, it would appear that Farocki takes up a topic only when it fulfils at least two minimal requirements: it must allow him to picture it as a process; and it must allow him to establish a mirror relation with himself. What he chooses are situations in flux or movement, liable to (sudden, dialectical) reversals, and taking place in several dimensions at once. One dimension invariably refers back to his own position as filmmaker, artist and writer, and locates the physical as well as moral space from which he speaks. Take, for example, his first (surviving) film Nicht löschbares Feuer (Inextinguishable Fire) from 1968/69. The camera, head on, frames Farocki himself 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 table at which a statement could be taken from a suspect. In a monotone voice, Farocki reads a Vietnamese man's eye-witness report of the methods used by the Americans in their bombing raids. The man is a survivor of a Napalm attack on his village, Napalm being the 'inextinguishable fire' of the title. Finishing the report, Farocki now speaks to the camera: 'How can we show you the deployment of Napalm, and how the burns that it causes? If we show you pictures of the injuries caused by Napalm, you will 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.' Then, Farocki 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 and extinguishes it on the back of his hand. A voice-over explains that a cigarette burns at roughly 500°C, while Napalm burns at around 4000°C.

The scene, in retrospect, contains all of Farocki, and prefigures the funda mental preoccupations of his film-making. It shows the director taking sides with the Vietnamese, in a gesture of what one might call self-inflicted solidarity. Its moral power derives from the implied inadequacy and radical incommensurability. Farocki distances himself from the false pathos of so much self-proclaimed solidarity with the victims amongst the student radicals at the time, without giving hostage to their critics. At the same time, the inadequacy in scale and consequence of comparing a cigarette with a Napalm bomb, and the back of a hand with a burnt village is itself the point: 'we' will never know how 'they' suffer. And because of this incommensurability, the act makes the case for a poetic: the poetics of metaphor. You need to make one thing stand for another when bringing the unimaginable 'into the picture' and making it visible. Farocki's self-mutilation in Nicht löschbares Feuer (Inextinguishable Fire) is an act of self-initiation with regards to being an artist. Renouncing direct political activism, he stages a symbolic 'action' that must be read as the very definition of the political in the language that is art, whose ultimate metaphor is the artist's own body. Farocki, in other words, sketches a self portrait that in modified form also characterises his author's films of the 1970s and early 1980s. He shows us the film director as partisan, learning from the enemy, whose films are acts of resistance against conventional media and mainstream cinema, produced with 'guerrilla tactics'.4 Yet they reach their audience only on condition that they are also directed against the director himself.


Ever since revolutions exist, there is 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.5 So prominent is the habit of thought to express one thing through another and to see the self in the other, it must be considered the founding gesture of Farocki's body of work and the signature of his mind at work. Whether point of departure or finishing line, the moment of metaphoric 'conversion' marks the pull of gravity on his imagination. Juxtaposing apparent opposites and, if necessary, torturing them until they yield a hidden identity or an unsuspected similarity, provide the (invariably 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. But metaphor also defines what can be an image as well as its limits, and metaphor passes back to language the responsibility for taking care of the image, as well as for making it accountable.

[Bild 1+2: Between two wars, 83min, b/w, 16mm, 1978 (filmstills)]

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 (How to live in the FRG) consists of a series of 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 a busy road; pensioners rehearse 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. 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 segments are also scenes of mechanical tests: a metal weight falls rhythmically on 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, it is highly polemic: today, people are nothing but objects, commodities that, in order to stay in the market place as consumer goods, have to be regularly and mechanically tested as to their utility, durability and stress resistance.6 Precisely because no commentary is offered, and no verbal paraphrase links either the sequences to each other, or compares the animate with the inanimate, viewers are given ample room for their own reflection. They may build up a troubling image of parallels as well as differences between the groups, or they may go through a whole gamut of recognition- and estrangement-effects, as daily life takes on the contours of a permanent fire-drill, a coaching lesson, a therapy session, a job interview and awareness training. Are these dress-rehearsals, sensibly taking out behavioural insurance-cover against a risky and 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, approaching the central 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 – one sees 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.7

[Bild 3: Images of the world and the inscription of war, 75min, colour and b/w, 16mm, 1988 (filmstills)]

In his most recent works, notably the installation pieces, the metaphors become strikingly bold and revealing in other respects: bringing together prisons and shopping malls, for instance, provokes in quite a different way than does the comparison of First World War trenches with Fordist assembly lines. 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 with one of shoppers pushing carts through supermarket aisles – the comparisons between the architecture of prisons, modern theatres of war and the design of shopping malls remain conceptually sound. The Benthamite panopticon prison that he shows in the opening scenes of Ich gaubte Gefangene zu sehen (I Thought I was Seeing Convicts), with its tight alignment of camera eye and gun-sight, as he himself remarks, is already obsolete in light of 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, economies of-scale or synergy industries emerging from the alliances struck between computer software firms, security specialists and consumer service industries.

Farocki's cinema, as well as his video work, amount to an impressive meta-cinema without meta-language. As such, each of his works mimics a certain ensemble, a certain apparatus – even when this dispositif is not necessarily identical with the cinema. For instance, an early film of Farocki's, Zwischen zwei Kriegen (Between Two Wars), was built around the model of a Verbund (an apparatus generating 'synergy'): that between steel production and the coking plants of the Ruhr valley in order to recycle otherwise wasted energy. This Verbund (as apparatus) serves in the film as a metaphor for the alliance between German heavy industry and the Nazi bureaucracy of death. But such is Farocki's thinking that the same Verbund also serves as an allegory of the cinema, or rather of the film-author in the culture-industries. For it shows, as its negative imprint, the portrait of the director as freelancer, television sub-contractor and 'independent' filmmaker under conditions of the German subsidy system as it was in the 1970s. By contrast, Leben BRD (How to live in the FRG) and Was ist los (What's up?) mimic the instructional training films that form their subject, giving a hint that these generally despised or even ignored genres of film history have something to offer even to the serious film artist.8 Wie man sieht (As you see) 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, not forgetting that Farocki already then regarded the binary yes/no of modern technology and digitisation as in need of being complemented by a more 'organic' model following the natural contours of a given terrain rather than the straight line of the ruler. Pleading for the both/and of his own praxis of keeping two images in mind simultaneously, he uses the Jacquard loom and Konrad Zuse's drawings after watching Metropolis as the imaginary twin screens of a conceptual installation piece, in order to figure the origins of the computer.

Bilder der Welt und Inschrift des Krieges (Images of the World and Inscription of War) mimics the dispositif that today ties military and medicine, police work and portrait photography together by investigating several privileged moments of its historical conjuncture. Videogramme einer Revolution (Videograms of a Revolution) mimics the apparatus of democracy at the status nascendi: the power vacuum as the paradoxical moment of legitimating
democratic power, and the double-edged sword that the media represents in democracies as well as dictatorships. These and other such configurations are important to Farocki in locating the filmmaker in the life of his society: besides confirming that there is no outside to the inside of the image-media world, they also give his vocation, his work 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 trompe l’oeil have not only protected Farocki from keeping to 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 a highly ironic self-reflexivity, is clearly distinguished from the disappointed idealism and slightly hysterical fundamentalism of 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.

[Bild 4+5]

Can I be more specific about this Archimedean point around which, I claim, his work turns? Yes and no: its very point is to remain hidden, its causes lie in its effects, its mode of action is self-reference. It is the serpent swallowing its tail – to pick up an image from Between Two Wars. But one can identify some moments and motifs: an Archimedean point of Images of the World, 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 with a slogan, also twice visible: 'Block the access routes'. The film turns, it would seem, on an oblique analogy between the bombing by the Allies of the gas chambers in Auschwitz (which did not take place), and the blocking of the access routes to the nuclear bunkers of NATO (which should take place). 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, hypothetical. But, as Farocki remarked, Images of the World itself 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. 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 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 come back, now felt to be more urgent and therefore suddenly visible.9

Perhaps a similar 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 liberal democracy from within, for instance, by commodifying public space and simulating good citizenship in gated communities. But as a filmmaker he knows that the zones of exclusion created 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, one of Farocki's acknowledged authors.10 Film-making – Farocki's kind of film-making – might be the last kind of work deserving that name, serving as an allegory of so many other kinds of work no longer needed nor valued. When Farocki had placed himself, in Before your Eyes ~ Vietnam, 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.' However, while at that point in 1981 his cinema still provided a critical commentary on film-making in West Germany, it has since become a meta-cinema about the end of cinema – and of cinema's beginning. Farocki's films and installations now focus on the problems of 'work' as not only catego-ries of the economic – how a society materially produces and ideologically reproduces the means of its survival – but as the very condition of what it means to remain human. Now he notes the fatal role that the cinema might have played in abstracting human beings from their basic condition. For the organisation of the Fordist factory, experiments were carried out [in the form of time and motion studies]. These tests present a picture of abstract work while the pictures from the surveillance cameras yield a picture of abstract existence.

From abstract work to abstract existence: if Farocki's installations seem to record how mankind is becoming obsolete among its own creations, it is worth locating the (non-) place from which he 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 if one knows this idea to be dying. Might the idea, at whose deathbed Farocki's films hold their long vigil and keep a sorrowful wake, be that it is work that defines and dignifies human existence, and protects it from both fantasy and violence? For instance, what is so crucial about the Lumieres' Workers leaving the Factory (the central reference point of Farocki's Arbeiter verlassen die Fabrik [Workers leaving the factory]) 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. 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 undergone decisive mutations. What their futures might be can only be guessed at, immobilised as Western societies seem caught between the ever-longer queues of the unemployed outside, and the ever more numerous computer terminals – techno-mutants of the cinematograph – inside the workplace and in our homes. Might Workers leaving the Factory – the title of the first moving images made for the cinema – be the secret motto of Farocki's work, because in it he sees himself allegorised amongst the last of the 'makers' of moving images?

[Bild 6: Workers leaving the factory, 36min, colour and b/w, video-Beta SP, 1996]



Harun Farocki, 'Controlling Observation', originally published in Jungle World, no.37, 8 Sept 1999.


These examples are all taken from Farocki's Wie man sieht [As you see].


Passage of dialogue by 'Robert' from Before Your Eyes – Vietnam.


Tilman Baumgärtel, 'Bildnis des Künstlers als junger Mann', in R. Aurich and U. Kriest (eds.), Der Ärger mit den Bildern, Konstanz: UKV Medien, 1998, p.156.


'Conversation with Harun Farocki', Information sheet no.15: Internationales Forum des jungen Films, Berlin, 1982.


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 the citizens of the Federal Republic 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 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 it is meant to be the very dregs. But to me that is not clear at all.' Harun Farocki, Filmkritik, no.274, October 1979, p.429.


See Kaja Silverman, 'What Is a Camera? Or: History in the Field of Vision5, Discourse, vol.15, Spring 1993, pp.3-56.


Alfred Sohn-Rethel, Intellectual and Manual Labour: A Critique of Epistemology, New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1978.