Harun Farocki: Working on the Sight-Lines, edited by Thomas Elsaesser

In the introductory chapter, Harun Farocki: Filmmaker, Artist, Media Theorist, Thomas Elsaesser underscores the idea that the singularity of Farocki’s cinema resides, not in the power (or juxtaposition) of images, but in the residual impact of the afterimages that is revealed through a careful editing design, noting that for the filmmaker, the power of cinema is “visible in an absence (the missing image)”. In essence, Farocki derives his distinctive vision from the meticulous, observational study of images: a visually critical process that Elsaesser explains transforms Farocki’s role of filmmaker to that of “a theorist, making him a special kind of witness, a close-reader of ‘images’, and an exegete-exorcist of their ghostly ‘afterimages'”. In this respect, Farocki’s role can be seen, not as that of documentarian (this is especially true in his latter work where he has exclusively worked with existing, found footage), but rather, as that of an archeologist who sets out to discover a range of information and causal interconnections from a single artifact, a creative philosophy that is reflected in Farocki’s comment, “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 cannot be proven by a picture”. As Elsaesser further expounds, “events, accidents, and disasters can be turned over to see what lies behind them 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 fingers and pass from hand to hand. Now it is a matter of recognizing the invisible within the visible, or of detecting the code by which the visible is programmed.” It is this systematic methodology of characterizing the history behind the image that is reflected in Farocki’s comment, “You don’t have to look for new images that have never been seen, but you have to work on existing images in a way that makes them new. There are various paths. Mine is to look for the buried sense, and to clear away the rubble lying on top of the images”, and is embodied in the identification of Auschwitz some 40 years later in the archived Allied reconnaissance photographs of adjacent high collateral targets in Images of the World and the Inscription of War, as well as the playful “discovery” of a factory worker tugging her colleague’s skirt in Workers Leaving the Factory.

Elsaesser further notes that former film critic and scholar Farocki belongs to the May 68 counterculture generation of artists and intellectuals who sought to effect political change through social revolution and who, rather than suppress or radically alter his vision after the collapse of revolution, instead transformed his disappointment and redirected his energies towards the creation of a more critical and intrinsically political modernist cinema. The resulting symbiosis of avant-garde aesthetics and socio-political activism is also broached in a subsequent introductory essay on Farocki’s films by Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Road Not Taken: Films by Harun Farocki in which he ruminates on Farocki’s relative obscurity (and delayed appreciation) in the US: “I would venture that this is because they belong to an intellectual and artistic tradition in Europe that has never taken hold on these shores – an approach to filmmaking that regards formal and political concerns as intimately intertwined and interdependent.”

This manifestation of a kind of subsumed radicalism is especially evident in the film Before Your Eyes – Vietnam in which a fictional doomed love story is set against the turbulent conflict of the Vietnam War (a love and war scenario that recalls Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour but proves to be a much more overtly political film than its predecessor). In the film, not only does Farocki explore the issue of terrorism and domestic resistance (as Gillo Pontecorvo’s seminal docufiction film, The Battle of Algiers, similarly captures), but also directly examines the media (or image) politics (and war) that is concurrently fought by all sides of the armed conflict as part of the overall strategy of modern warfare. Elsaesser provides a thoughtful encapsulation of this distinction between terrorism and insurgency in Before Your Eyes – Vietnam:

As a media war, as well as a liberation struggle, it challenged the meaning of territory, by creating the ‘terrorist’ alongside the ‘guerilla’: where the latter hides in the bush, vanishes in the undergrowth, camouflages himself into invisibility, the former has to make a pact with the visibility and the spectacle. In order to be effective, the terrorist has to be visible, but in order to be ‘visible’ among so many images, his actions have to exceed the order of representations, while nonetheless engaging ‘the enemy’ on the territory of representation. Political actions attain credibility and the ‘truth of the image’ it seems, by passing through the process of intense specularization, with the contradictory effect that in order to become recognizable as political, events have to be staged as spectacle.

As the protagonist, Anna, appropriately comments in the film (and is cited in Christa Blümlinger’s essay, Slowly Forming a Thought While Working on Images), the manipulation of the media for public sentiment is akin to “competing for the greater atrocity” as anti-war protesters parading images of Vietnamese soldiers brutalized by the American military are alternated with images of civilians brutalized by communist partisans. However, with the media saturation of graphic images that inevitably lead to public desensitization, Farocki’s task is then to convey the idea of the images without presenting the grotesqueness of the images, a separation that is exemplified in the filmmaker’s notorious (but effective) act of stubbing out a cigarette on his forearm in order to illustrate the relative effects of napalm on humans in Inextinguishable Fire, a strategy of distancing – but not Brechtian alienation – that, as Blümlinger notes, seeks “to reveal the disjunction between the camera and the eye, between the subject and apparatus.”

In the Thomas Elsaesser interview, Making the World Superfluous: An Interview with Harun Farocki, Elsaesser comments that as a writer for Filmkritik, Farocki had written appreciations for filmmakers as diverse as Jean-Luc Godard and Robert Bresson that stylistically, seem to be irreconcible, to which he responds, “But Bert[old] Brecht and Thomas Mann were also antagonists, and nonetheless, one can be an admirer of both as happens to be the case with me. Bresson, to put it briefly, makes his images rhyme, of which I am a great admirer, even though this is not at all my own project”.

In a subsequent exchange, Elsaesser brings up the inevitable limitation of foreign translation in the multiplicity and specificity of meaning in the German word ‘Aufklärung’. Farocki cites the Hans Jonas book, Phenomenon of Life which proposes that, “everything in philosophy has a metaphor related to the eyes, to vision and so forth, and that in religion, things always relate to the ear. In many languages, at least in many European languages, God is audible and philosophy is visible…So in this sense, it’s very essential that the German word ‘Aufklärung’ is a bit different from the English word ‘enlightenment’, and such things are essential for a film, but they were not the starting point of the film.”

In the Rembert Hüser interview, A Conversation with Harun Farocki, Hüser notes that Farocki’s film, I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts, composed of surveillance footage from the high security prison in Corcoran, California was a line taken from the Roberto Rossellini film, Europa 51, during a scene in which Ingrid Bergman works in a factory for a day and finds the experience akin to being confined in a prison. Hüser suggests that the title is perhaps an expression of humanization for the prisoners as “real people” instead of depersonalized images captured in the surveillance videos in a constant state of strict regimentation and conformity, unable to act freely according to their nature without severe – if not fatal – consequences. Farocki expounds on this overarching humanism with the comment:

In Rossellini’s film, a comprehensive world view comes into being. This world view may not hold, but the film has great meaning for me because it emphasizes an attitude of not wanting to acquiesce to a system of injustice.

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