Suspended Lives, Revenant Images. On Harun Farocki’s Film Respite by Sylvie Lindeperg

Note: Suspended Lives, Revenant Images. On Harun Farocki’s Film Respite was first published in Trafic, no. 70/2009 and is reprinted in Harun Farocki: Against What? Against Whom?, edited by Antje Ehmann and Kodwo Eshun.

Harun Farocki’s Respite is something of a ghost film, revisiting his exposition on the intersection between productivity and violence (as captured by the unseen reconnaissance photographs of Auschwitz) in Images of the World and the Inscription of War, and dissecting the nature of image production and its role in inscribing – and intrinsically, codifying – history. It is an attempt to connect the visible and the invisible that is also suggested in Sylvie Lindeperg’s essay, Suspended Lives, Revenant Images. On Harun Farocki’s Film Respite. To this end, Lindeperg describes Farocki’s use of found footage and archival photographs as an “exhumation”, suggesting the dual nature of these companion films (Respite consists of footage from the Westerbork transit camp) as a critique of history and filmmaking, both converging on the implication of images. Moreover, since the Westerbork footage exists as a set of unedited rushes rather than a completed work, Lindeperg reinforces this analogy by referring to Farocki’s deconstruction in Respite as the figurative reassembly of a “phantom film”.

Images of the World and the Inscription of War underlines the troubling proximity between acts of conservation and acts of destruction, the relationship between the violence of war and the technologies of recording and reconnaissance, the instability of meaning at work in the image …[The film] therefore forcefully underlines the necessary “collusion of image and text in the writing of history.” The knowledge constituted by eyewitness accounts permits us to decode elements hidden in the image, to recognize what was inscribed there, but neither interpreted nor even seen at the time it was recorded. The conjunction of seeing and knowing thus allows us to recover the unthought of the photograph at the moment of its making. This reading appears as the product of an encounter between historical knowledge, the regime of memory, the symbolic and social demands that condition the exhumation of photographs, the questions addressed to them, the ways of decoding them.

In introducing this parallel image of a ghost film that can be reconfigured to reveal malleable layers of reality and meaning, Lindeperg broaches on the idea of filmmaking as archaeology and an act of conjuring. However, rather than a treatise on the ambiguity of truth and fiction in the vein of José Luis Guerín’s Tren de sombras, Lindeperg illustrates the intrinsic paradox of the wartime footage intended to capture (and preserve for history) the way of life of a people who were targeted for extermination:

Fritz Hippler recalls the instructions given to him by Goebbels while filming in Lodz in 1940: ‘Film everything you see: the life and the crowds in the streets; the commerce and trade, the rituals in the synagogue, crime, none of this should be forgotten. It has to be captured in its original state.’

…These remarks attributed to Goebbels reveal, above all, the conjunction between the act of archiving and disappearance that prefigures the tragic encounter between putting-in-an-image and putting-to-death. From 1942, in fact, filming was continued and increased in the Polish ghettos. The Nazis filmed those that they were going to kill, documenting them because they were going to kill them.

It is this dichotomy that underscores the idea of cinema and image-making as the process of preservation and destruction, where memory is formed by the sequencing of images, each one supplanted by the next.

In Images of the World and the Inscription of War, Farocki juxtaposes photographs from diverse sources in order to decode the traces of the event inscribed in the pictures while simultaneously taking the measure of what is not immediately represented. In Respite, however, he starts with a single source in order to evoke memory-images. The sequences of Westerbork thus become palimpsest images, which summon to the surface other image-strata, which recall the memory and history of cinema. Accordingly, the black intertitle cards play the role of crystallizers of memory and facilitators of vision, while simultaneously providing a space for absent images.

In this respect, Respite not only proposes to refigure history, but also to resurrect the dead through reconstituted images, to form a more durable image-memory in their absence.

There is another meaning of the title Respite that refers to the notion of latency, to the passing and the work of time, the time that mirrors the forgotten scenes of life in the camp and that extends to the present. In this sense, the force of Farocki’s film depends on the contextualization of these shots within the mechanisms of propaganda as well as the confidence he places in their autonomous power. Detached from the intentions of the film, the luminous faces of the persecuted appear before us as revenant images. This spectral effect allows an emotion to surge forth that assures the posthumous victory of these captive men, women and children placed in front of the camera at the whim of their jailor, since time can foil the designs of the conquerors, and the image, as Chris Marker observed, has the power to transform the dead into something eternal.

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