“I try to let the film think.”
German filmmaker Harun Farocki began making films in the late 1960s amid a highly politicized cultural milieu. Citing the influence of such Marxist cultural practitioners as theater director Bertolt Brecht, philosopher Theodor Adorno, and film director Jean-Luc Godard, Farocki consistently addressed two principal subjects: the practices of labor and the production of images.
Farocki is particularly known for his explicitly political essay films, through which he examined these subjects while also openly confronting the inherently persuasive, manipulative properties of the cinematic medium. His 1969 essay film Inextinguishable Fire begins with Farocki facing the camera, recounting the testimony of a victim of napalm bombing during the Vietnam War. Using the medium of film to produce a visceral experience in the viewer, he puts out a cigarette on his wrist as a voiceover drily intones, “A cigarette burns at 400 degrees, napalm at 3,000.” The film then shifts to The Dow Chemical Company, a mundane workplace in the United States, where napalm’s compounds are created. In Videograms of a Revolution (1992; codirected with Andrei Ujica), Farocki focuses on the 1989 uprisings in Romania, where the toppling of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu resulted in an almost immediate change in the ways events were represented in the media; a one-sided, choreographed broadcast of the dictator gives way to a multiplicity of viewpoints unfolding in real time.
In sharp contrast to the explicit nature and strong authorial voice of the essay film, Farocki also used the genre of direct cinema, a kind of “fly-on-the-wall” filmmaking, in which the filmmaker’s point of view is rarely revealed. Many of his direct-cinema works unobtrusively observe media productions, training sessions, and product demonstrations. The Interview (1996–97) follows job application training courses for school dropouts, the long-term unemployed, and recovering drug addicts, who practice how to present and market themselves. Like other of his direct cinema productions, the film addresses how people in contemporary culture tend to self-consciously present themselves for observation, even when the camera is not present.
In his later works, Farocki explored what he termed “operative images”—technical images created for military and surveillance purposes that were not necessarily intended for public consumption. As he phrased it, “[T]hese are images that do not represent an object, but rather are part of an operation.” Serious Games (2009–10) shows how video games based on actual wars are used for the contradictory purposes of military training and post-traumatic stress disorder therapy. With this work, Farocki prompts viewers to think about the powerful role of visual media in shaping our understanding of ourselves and others, as well as about the social and political systems that send images into the world.
Note: Opening quote is from Elsaesser, Thomas, and Harun Farocki, “Making the World Superfluous: An Interview with Harun Farocki.” In Harun Farocki: Working on the Sight-Lines, edited by Thomas Elsaesser, 177–90. Amsterdam University Press, 2004, 188. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt46mzvn.15.
Sarah Lookofsky, Assistant Director, International Program, 2016