“How can we show you napalm in action? And how can we show you the injuries caused by napalm? If we show you pictures of napalm burns, you’ll close your eyes. First you’ll close your eyes to the pictures. Then you’ll close your eyes to the memory. Then you’ll close your eyes to the facts. Then you’ll close your eyes to the entire context.”
The interrelation between production and warfare has been a familiar, recurring theme within Harun Farocki’s body of work. Nevertheless, despite the innate radicalization of all of his films, few come closer to the explicit statement of this theme – and exposition of its underlying sociopolitical theory – than Inextinguishable Fire, a film that represents (and physically marks, as embodied by Farocki’s real-life act of self-scarring by burning his arm with a cigarette) a philosophical and artistic evolution for the filmmaker. This symbolic act of author implication in the presentation of the images and in the contextual reinforcement of the residual afterimages would propel, not only Farocki’s subsequent, deliberate acts of self-erasure from his films, but also his systematic detachment from the intrinsically subjective act of image production, increasingly relying instead in the process of observation, artifacting, editing, and hypothetical analysis of found film.
From the filmmaker’s introductory reading of the transcripted testimony by Vietnamese napalm victim, Thai Bihn Dahn before the Vietnam War Crimes Tribunal in Stockholm for crimes committed by the U.S. government against his village in 1966, followed by his act of self-mutilation in order to reinforce the idea of the degree of severity of inflicted napalm burns, Farocki explores this interrelation between industrial advancement through science production and technological warfare. Exploring the manufacturer of Napalm-B, Dow Chemical’s complex role as innovators of complex chemicals that have led to the development of advanced manufacturing materials (and beneficial consumer goods and agricultural products), the film explores the innate dissociation – often through intellectual specialization and what Farocki describes as the “intensified division of labor” – between the scientific products developed by these innovators and the application of the new technology (specifically, the development of Napalm-B from a polystyrene-based adhesive used on shoes that results in improved skin adhesion so that the chemical cannot be washed away after contact, ensuring that the victim will burn to death): the idea of weapons of mass destruction as industrial byproducts of consumer goods. What emerges is a provocative industrial paradigm in which the accountability for the production of these inhumane weapons becomes abstract and diluted to the point where the sense of ownership and personal responsibility for their development (and proliferation) no longer exist: a sanitization and dehumanization of warfare in which the method of engagement is defined, not on the battlefield, but within the impersonal, sterile walls of consumer-driven, public industry, manufacturing laboratories.
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