Images of the World and the Inscription of War, 1989

In 1944, an Allied aircraft took topographic photographs of Auschwitz during a routine surveillance operation for power plants, munitions factories, chemical plants, and any other industrial complexes that could potentially serve as bombing targets that, in the military’s myopic search for these high collateral targets that would cripple the German war machine, failed to recognize that they had actually taken an aerial survey of the layout of the Auschwitz concentration camp – an explicitly detailed, but mentally unregistered discovery for which the implicit meaning would not be realized until decades later, long after the tragic reality of the Nazi death camps had been exposed. It is this assignment of significance to the act of visual observation that underlies Harun Farocki’s thoughtful, understated, and engaging exposition on the interconnection – and at times, disjunction – between cognition and recognition in Images of the World and the Inscription of War.

Prefaced by a humorous anecdote on 19th century architect, Albrecht Meydenbauer whose near death experience while making physical measurements for a cathedral project, combined with an interest in the visual reproduction capability of a still camera, led to the development of photogrammetry (which provided for the accurate, graphically scalable, two-dimensional, measurable image of the studied object), the film illustrates, not only the inherent correlation between production and technology, but also the conceptual introduction of quantifying images measured from a distance into discrete elements that can be uniquely identified or accurately reproduced remotely into scale models and detailed simulations.

From this logical trajectory, Farocki cites another point of reference in a French government campaign during the 1960s to dispatch conscripted soldiers to Algeria in order to photograph native women for the issuance of identity cards in the occupied colony – a process that required the women to remove their veil in public, contrary to traditional custom. Having spent much of their public lives obscured behind a veil, the question then arises if an identity card that captures these women in full, unobstructed gaze can accurately reflect their distinctive characteristics to the point of recognition? Would an officer tasked to verify identity find semblance between these unveiled photographs and the women physically presented before him? Unable to find specific, isolated features within the human face that remains unaltered through the years, these photographic images can only serve as a referential document of physical attributes, and not a record of truth – of the actual reality.

Farocki illustrates this recursive cycle of distanced, “safe” action and estranged surveillance operating under the vacuum of social (and cultural) responsibility (a familiar preoccupation in the filmmaker’s oeuvre that is also evident in the equally provocative essay, War at a Distance) through repeated references of the Auschwitz, Algeria, and Meydenbauer paradigms, as well as the film’s thematic use of the German word aufklärung – a term that alternately means enlightenment and flight reconnaissance – that reflect the technological quest to define empirical, universally identifiable data that can remotely identify (or characterize the essence of) an image. It is this passive, alienated act of seeing that is ultimately rejected in a publication’s symbolic call to action, “The reality must begin”, in reaction to Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler’s revelation of the concentration camps – an active resistance that is punctuated by the October 7, 1944 uprising by Sonderkommandos (prisoners who were tasked to operate the gas chambers and crematoria) at Auschwitz that succeeded in the disabling of a death apparatus – a heroic act of conscious and formidable human engagement.

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