Influential filmmaker Harun Farocki died on Wednesday, at the age of seventy.
Born in the German-annexed Czechoslovakia in 1944, Farocki is often lauded as one of Germany’s most important, yet under-known filmmakers, recognized for essay-films which examine the filtering and distancing of war through photographs and media. This is most basically evident in the opening sequence of “Inextinguishable Fire” (1969), in which Farocki contemplates how to communicate, through images, the full horror of a Vietnam civilian’s full-body napalm burns:
If we show you pictures of napalm burns, you’ll close your eyes. First you’ll close your eyes to the pictures. Then you’ll close your eyes to the memory. Then you’ll close your eyes to the facts. Then you’ll close your eyes to the entire context. If we show you a person with napalm burns, we will hurt your feelings. If we hurt your feelings, you’ll feel as though we’ve tried napalm out on you, at your expense. We can give you only a hint of an idea.
This kind of Brechtian breakdown of images characterizes much of his life’s work, a total of nearly 90 films. Phoenix, which Farocki co-wrote with Christian Petzold, will be released later this year at the Toronto Film Festival.
The political fervor of the late sixties student protests made a catalyzing mark on Farocki. At the time, German students were protesting for better living conditions and against a perceived authoritarian government embedded with ex-Nazis; in 1968, Farocki and fellow filmmaker Hartmut Bitomsky, and four other students, were expelled from the German Film and Television Academy in Berlin for occupying the school in protest, renaming it the “Dziga Vertov Academy”. Farocki and Bitomsky later helped form the “Projektgruppe Schülerfilm,” a group of Berlin students “building on the leftist intellectual legacy by combining militant cinema and Brechtian didacticism.” The two collaborated often throughout the following decade.
In his his 1988 essay film Images of the World and the Inscription of War—which Light Industry has described as “unquestionably one of the most influential, quoted and urgent essay films of the past twenty years”—Farocki mined archives for photographs of concentration camp prisoners, taken by both Germans and Americans. (You can watch a trailer on Video Data Bank and YouTube.) In Videograms of a Revolution, 1992, Farocki and collaborator Andrei Ujica mined over a hundred hours of footage from the 1989 Romanian Revolution to unravel the experience of a revolution between television and amateur footage.
Farocki emerged from a school of French and German documentarians like Chris Marker and Alexander Kluge, though, as Thomas Elsaesser has noted, Farocki and Bitomsky intentionally distanced themselves from the prevailing “documentary tendencies”. They worked to avoid the academy-sanctioned, commentary-less style of Fred Wiseman, which influenced figures like Peter Nestler, Klaus Wildenhahn and Gisela Tuchtenhagen. But they also steered clear of the “insistent editorialising” or Alexander Kluge, which was “regarded by many as school-masterly and patronising.”
Jean-Marie Straub was a particular “role model and former teacher”; Farocki had even said of his 1978 film Between Two Wars: “Perhaps I only made this film to earn Straub’s recognition.” He later made an homage to his mentor, Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet at Work on Franz Kafka’s “Amerika.“
Later in life, Farocki migrated from theaters to the museum and gallery world, notably with his 2011 MoMA installation Serious Games I-IV, a study of video games used to train U.S. military and then those which are used to help treat PTSD. MoMA has since acquired 42 of his works.
“You see a huge difference between the work I did in the Vietnam War in ‘69 and what I did in the last years about the so-called ‘New Wars’”, Farocki has said of Serious Games. “They’re very much media-based. Could it be that computer animation becomes the standard nowadays, that people believe that computer animation is somehow representing more “the truth”, an adequate representation than a cinemagraphic images?”
The question still rings urgently for a generation of artists who currently focus on technology and surveillance. It’s hard to imagine, for example, Hito Steyerl’s meditations on documentation (in military surveillance and historical archives), Benjamin Tiven’s poetic studies of drone warfare (in Synthetic Spectra, now at the ICA), and Andrew Norman Wilson’s knowingly-detatched personal essay films without him. Wilson’s well-circulated “Workers Leaving the Googleplex”– one of the most pointed class critiques in recent memory– even makes explicit reference to Farocki’s “Workers Leaving the Factory.” I asked those artists and a few curators for their thoughts on Farocki’s lasting impact.
Andrew Norman Wilson, artist:
Harun Farocki’s relentless inquiry into the ways in which the images we see and things we encounter come into existence offers a singular upheaval of conventional habits of making, viewing, and thinking about media. While rigorous, dry, and non-acrobatic, his work creates new patterns for knowledge to flow in ways that leave me more stimulated and engaged than any TV newsmagazine or action-filled war epic ever could. Discovering that work can be that way has had a great impact on how I view and make.
Benjamin Tiven, artist:
The automated plotter that shakily draws out architectural facades in Images of the World and the Inscription of War (1989) is an elder cousin to the robotic arm that renders a digital wave form, one brick per pixel, in In Comparison (2009). Genealogy not as strategy, but as inevitable form. In Farocki’s films, we learn that image is just the name for a category of tools, whose various uses need urgently to be unraveled. I was always moved by his dispassionate approach to such an impassioned, and endless, problem. To even try and describe Farocki’s influence is to already be outrun by the question. As a friend once put it: “We can never tell where his influence stops.”
Rachael Rakes, co-editor of the Brooklyn Rail’s film section, and an independent film, video, and installation curator and critic:
My first contact with the work of Harun Farocki was seeing I Thought I was Seeing Convicts a dozen years ago at Artists Television Access in San Francisco. It was my first glimpse of what the point of view of surveillance can reveal, and how access to it might be a useful counter-weapon against quotidian social control. It led me to seek out other artists engaging with the form, and even taking it further, like Wafaa Bilal’s self-tracking piece, 3rdi, and the super-serveillance of the Institute for Applied Autonomy. It remains a primary interest in my programming and criticism.
To me, the major legacy he leaves for artists and filmmakers his the simultaneous militancy and artistry in his work. These are not “issue films,” they are live, revolutionary, strident, and at the same time utterly complex, layered, and dramatic.
LJ Frezza, who programmed a series of Farocki’s films earlier this year at Spectacle Theater:
For myself, and I know for many of us here at Spectacle, Farocki’s work has been incredibly influential. I think a common myth regarding media (and particularly Hollywood cinema) is that works of fiction can exist autonomously, outside of the material conditions of the world. Farocki was one of the first filmmakers I’ve come in contact with to refute this myth and present media as a complex that has the power to order the material conditions of existence. Obviously, this idea has implications for both programmers and viewers of cinema – and many of us at Spectacle are also filmmakers who re-edit works of commercial media (myself included).
His loss will definitely be felt, and I feel that the best way we can honor him is to continue his mission in our own work.
Hito Steyerl, artist:
Harun was the most important filmmaker and intellectual in post-war Germany. One of the many unique things about him: his last works about animation were among his most relevant. His work continued to get more exciting by the day. I can’t even start describing the loss and words are failing me.
Please write a beautiful obituary.