“When you have no money for cars, for shoot-outs, for smart clothes; when you have no money for images which themselves could paper the cracks of film-time, film-life, then you must invest your strength in the intelligence to connect the separate elements – the montage of ideas.”
In the opening sequence of Between Two Wars, filmmaker Harun Farocki sits at a drafting table examining a collection of photographs of partially nude women in provocative poses as he recounts in voice-over of his decision to undertake a series of odd jobs (in this case, advertisement captioning) in order to finance the proceeding film. The seemingly mundane, introductory image of an artist at work illustrates the inherent dichotomy of the production of images, as the fashion photographs of idyllic exoticism and fantasy represented by his economic indulgence in the commercial enterprise are replaced with the recreated film sequence (and therefore, also represents a manufactured image) of wartime Germany as a nurse (Ingemo Engström) – linked by the transitional shot (between reality and fiction) of Farocki’s journal – articulates her memory of conversations with wounded soldiers in an unidentified 1917 battlefront. Struggling to come to terms with the human cost of the war and its collateral, national toll, she offers the hypothesis that war is a self-perpetuating economy that is integrally linked to production: both in the use of artillery and armaments (thereby supporting the industries that manufacture the technology), and in the military engagement of countries in order to obtain the raw materials – most notably, the protracted Franco-Prussian over the provinces of Alsace and, in particular, Lorraine for its iron ore-rich fields – to support its (implicitly warfare-related) free market industries. After the loss of the territories, the film then shifts focus to the intersecting stories of two idealistic engineering students: one who envisions science as the tool for the optimization of production, and the other, as vehicle for the social elevation of the working class through improved industrial conditions. Tracing the fates of the colleagues, as the former proposes an ambitious plan to interlink the energy supplies and byproducts of several disparate manufacturing plants through modifications in commercial infrastructure in order to minimize waste and fuel cost, and the latter seeks to consolidate ownership of industries through social revolution, what emerges is a mosaic of interconnected, fractured tales of an ideologically divided people unable to reconcile with personal failures and uncertainties over the direction of the nation’s collective destiny.
Part artist manifesto on the occasional necessity for compromised integrity and professional sacrifice in the creation of a personal film, and part narrative critique on German society during the early half of the twentieth century, Between Two Wars reflects the ambivalence of economic vision and ideology that pervaded postwar German sentiment as the country sought to rebuild a tarnished image and international reputation through modernization, industrial efficiency, and innovation. Recalling the pervasive alienation, visual economy, and fractured narrative of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s Not Reconciled, the film similarly explores the consequence of a wounded and uncertain national psyche struggling to move forward (and consequently abandon its past) through its championing (and ready acceptance) of automation and technology as a means of achieving, not only industrial progress, but more implicitly, the depersonalization and conscientious disengagement (and cultural amnesia) of personal action from consequence afforded by these instruments of productivity. Using highly distilled, narrative ellipses to span three decades, symbolic images (a woman dressed in mourning clothes descending a staircase as the news of the loss of Alsace-Lorraine is announced (and subsequently, the advent of the Great Depression); the children’s game of Ring around the Rosey that visually mirrors a demonstration of Kékulé’s formulation of the organic structure of benzene; the photographing of factory walls that occlude the industrialists’ view of the social conditions outside the factories), and overtly political discourses on the limitations of capitalism (and deceptive lure of fascism), Farocki establishes an intrinsic correlation between industrial production with social revolution. Through repeated episodes of the primacy of industry over the interests of society, Farocki illustrates the subversion of technology – and consequently, the subservience of humanity – as a self-generated consumer and integral driver for the specification and development of innovation (note the precursor for the construction of the Autobahn in the need for smooth, uninterrupted stretches of road as a means of optimizing automobile performance, thus ensuring that the vehicle will behave according to its predicted life cycle and generate a future repeat purchase at the end of its prescribed, expected lifetime). Inevitably, it is in these unreconciled images of human obsolescence that Farocki seeks “to unify the contradictions”, a defiance against the systematic erasure of the imprint of human identity from the inexorable, man-made elements of war, class division, and automated technology.
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