The projection of the 1895 Auguste and Louis Lumière short film, Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory is accompanied by a third person narrator who observes the unfolding, animated images of a group of men, women, and even dogs making their way out of the entrance gates and comments on their apparent haste in exiting the premises of the photographic plate factory. A subsequent succession of film footage from assorted decades and transcontinental geographies (including an early twentieth century footage of the Ford Motor plant in Detroit, Michigan) reinforce this seeming universal phenomenon of instinctual flight, planting the associative idea of the factory as a place from which to escape – a representational, subconscious frontier that demarcates the individual from the collective masses and represents an invisible juncture at which, once crossed, serves to restore one’s personal identity from the uniformity of a faceless, genderless, and anonymous workforce. However, the assembled sequences of film footage that illustrate juxtapositions of institution and population do not simply capture the intrinsic dynamics of the apparent (and economically expedient) temporary amnesia caused by the behavioral demands of production. Far from the conformist, automatonic vision of the working class in Fritz Lang’s dystopian Metropolis, the workers in the Lumière film re-assert their individualism outside the sphere of work, revealing the intrinsic reality of an underlying social mutualism – or, in its most imbalanced manifestation, a commensalism – at its core: a manifestation of the natural laws of survival and self-preservation that is succinctly (and expressively) articulated by the Soviet film, Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Deserter, a dramatization of the emotionally and psychologically complex struggle between a group of longshoremen on strike, the replacement workers brought in to assume their responsibilities, and a ragtag assembly of unemployed laborers waiting outside the gates for an opportunity to, in turn, take their place. The shot of desperate and marginalized outcasts against the forbidding bars of a locked gate – an ironic correlation between a person’s social identity and his productivity – illustrates an underlying human desolation that is curiously paralleled with the haunting images of concentration camp prisoners (a pointed reference to Germany’s history that is repeated in the earlier archival shot of Siemens workers leaving the factory to attend a Nazi rally) and serves as an initial point of departure from a mere anecdotal (albeit scholarly) appreciation of the Lumière film towards a densely philosophical, socio-political examination of the role of the worker and industry in twentieth century history, their representation on film, the contemporaneity of that historically documented moment, and the cultural ramifications of the brothers’ innovative technology.
Composed entirely of film excerpts that not only include the aforementioned Lumière, Pudovkin, and Lang films, but also Lang’s They Clash By Night, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Accatone, Robert Siodmak’s The Killers, and Charles Chaplin’s Modern Times, as well as archival newsreel and publicity footage (creating a dense, visual and thematic collage that Thom Andersen similarly implements in the subsequent film essay, Los Angeles Plays Itself), Workers Leaving the Factory is a fiercely intelligent, uncompromising, and engagingly philosophical film essay of observation, logical association, and implication on the legacy, not only of the portable, 16 frames per second Lumière camera, but more importantly, the brothers’ formative, aesthetic principles of cinematic realism. Working exclusively through a precisely assembled montage of found film, Harun Farocki expounds on his recurring themes of production and warfare (in the Siemens factory footage), the advent (and mundane pervasiveness) of surveillance, the unexpected, accidental discoveries innate in the repurposing and re-examination of found film (a theme that is powerfully distilled in the tragic Allied oversight of the location of the Auschwitz concentration camp during aerial reconnaissance in Images of the World and the Inscription of War), and the inherent behavioral affectation resulting from the (self) conscious awareness of being filmed (in the anecdotal image of a woman who tugs at a fellow co-worker’s dress who, in turn, does not dare to retaliate in front of her off-camera employers in the Lumière film) through visual repetition, variation, and correlation – Farocki’s systematic process of assigning complex and multi-faceted contextual significance to the presentation of images. It is this process of cognitive assimilation through modulations of conceptually repeated images that is reflected in the bookended presentation of the seminal Lumière film in its entirety: a return to the purity of the first gaze, and an unreconciled search to find transcendent, enduring meaning behind the transitory, quotidian images.
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