BY Arne Schmitt in Profiles | 09 OCT 17
Featured in
Issue 190

Hammer and Popsicle

On the Marxist-inspired children's films of Hartmut Bitomsky and Harun Farocki, screened for the first time in more than 40 years 

BY Arne Schmitt in Profiles | 09 OCT 17

In May 1968, the West German filmmakers Hartmut Bitomsky and Harun Farocki were expelled from the newly founded German Film and Television Academy in Berlin for their involvement in the occupation of the director’s office. It was an intense period of politicization in everyday life and its social institutions: their classmate, Holger Meins, for example, would join the Red Army Faction. Bitomsky and Farocki, who met in 1966 as some of the academy’s first students, viewed film as a means to protest against, analyze and change society. Admirers of Farocki, whose first comprehensive retrospective is on view in Berlin this autumn at Neuer Berliner Kunstverein and Arsenal Cinema, may be unaware of the films he made with Bitomsky for Sesamstrasse (1973–ongoing), the German version of the American children’s television show Sesame Street (1969–ongoing). These works shed light not only on Farocki’s practice as a whole but also on the links between Marxism, film and children’s play.

Armed with the writings of Bertolt Brecht and Karl Marx, as well as their interest in the self-organized workers’ programmes of the interwar years, Bitomsky and Farocki developed three educational films on issues of political economy. Die Teilung aller Tage (The Division of All Days, 1970) was designed as a training film: three, ten-minute segments, consisting of model scenes and quotes from Marx, were discussed in seminar-like groups to promote conceptual understanding of capitalism’s structural exploitation. Farocki played the teacher, asking architecture students to repeat and consider what they had seen: this was filmed and broadcast together with Die Teilung aller Tage as an hour-long version on WDR television.

Around this time, the Hamburg-based NDR, another public radio and television broadcaster, secured the rights for a German version of Sesame Street. Commercial-free and pedagogically ambitious, when first aired it featured specially produced two- to three-minute clips for educational purposes about everyday life within the framework of the puppet-based show. Bitomsky and Farocki made ten short films for the series, choosing their subjects from the fields of transportation and logistics, manual labour, automation, and small- and large-scale economics: themes which dovetailed not only with children’s interests – tools, big machines, ships – but also with the Marxist context of the filmmakers’ other work.

Hartmut Bitomsky and Harun Farocki, Container I, 1974. All images courtesy: Harun Farocki GbR

Transport, first broadcast on 23 January 1973, opens with an image of a small girl on a vacant lot in Berlin, moving a pile of stones. A voice-over explains: ‘Tanja carries a stone ten paces. The stone is heavy – and she needs to move many more.’ This is followed by a brief piano piece. A group of children do the same: ‘The stones are very heavy – this time it goes much quicker.’ The third introduces a new technique: ‘The children form a chain. The stone passes from hand to hand and the children no longer need to walk. The stones now arrive faster.’ The setting then switches to a building site, where workers boldly throw bricks from hand to hand. A worker at the end of the chain smokes a cigarette, hanging casually at the corner of his mouth. The film ends with a single white building block on a conveyor belt, not yet in motion: ‘A conveyor belt replaces legs that walk, hands that carry and hands that throw. A conveyor belt is a path that can walk on its own.’ The belt starts up, the blocks shoot past and a slow pan shows a man at the end catching and stacking them: Farocki himself.

Like so much in these films – from the portrayal of skilled manual labour to the vacant lot as a playground – there is something programmatic about Farocki’s presence. Bitomsky and Farocki turn the urban wasteland into a space where children learn to act communally and methodically. The film Container I (12 November 1974) also deals with a practical difficulty: a worker in white overalls struggles to hold several coloured balls that keep slipping from his grasp. He is joined by a second worker – played by Bitomsky – and, together, they carry the shapeless pile to place into cardboard boxes.

‘These balls have a long journey ahead of them. They’re being shipped overseas.’ The boxes are loaded onto a truck, then into a railway wagon and, finally, onto a ship that leaves the port with a loud horn blast. ‘The ship has docked with cargo from overseas. [...] Cement, cocoa, flour, meat and – balls.’ With mechanical noises, a crane slowly lowers a container onto a truck that drives it away.

This film was made during a period that experienced rapid growth and standardization of supply-chain logistics – significant factors in making world trade faster and cheaper. Yet, such developments also meant that the docks as a place of chaotic cargo-handling – with their bustle, noise and smells – would give way to the characterless monotony of standardized shipping. Through a voice-over listing what might be in the containers and a long shot showing only the metal box that seems to be moving automatically, Bitomsky and Farocki render visible, in the simplest form, the abstraction of global trade. The camera lingers on the desolate peripheral landscape while the container is driven away: no explanation is offered.

Capital’s effect on social relations is driven home by Der Weg des Geldes (Money’s Path, 27 September 1973). On a rainy day, little Dieter pays 50 pfennigs for a lemonade at an outdoor kiosk. The kiosk owner buys the lemonade in bulk from a supplier (12.50 deutschmarks), who in turn buys from a factory (312.50 deutschmarks). At this point, the basic trade chain is interrupted: ‘Buying things is not the only thing you can do with money. You can also use it to pay people.’ Next, a manager in business attire counts some of the supplier’s money, goes into the factory and hands an envelope to a worker. He takes the money with a contemptuous mien, barely looking up from the bottled beverages running past him on a conveyor belt. Next, we see the worker at home as Dieter’s dad, who gives his son 50 pfennigs from his wages – the same coin from the beginning. ‘What will Dieter do with the money?’ asks the voice-over, as he leaps up from the table – hinting at the film’s loop-like structure. His mother comes in with a cup of coffee, sits down on the chair vacated by Dieter, sees the wages and shoots the husband an ambiguous glance. There is no explicit reference to the factory owner skimming-off added value. Instead, there is the implicit question of the parents’ problems: what is left of the wages? And the issue of what happens to the unspent share of the supplier’s money is suggested – in anticipation, perhaps, that the child viewers may return to this question in adulthood.

Bitomsky and Farocki turn the urban wasteland into a space where children learn to act communally.

In 1993, Bitomsky recalled how difficult editors and meagre budgets meant that his work with Farocki in the field of children’s television was short-lived.1 Farocki, whose first volume of collected writings is being published this autumn, wrote critically about their early educational experiments, comparing them to example sentences written by language instructors ‘that are good for nothing but illustrating certain rules of grammar’.2 But, in fact, these simple films – determined by the highly specific context of children’s television – escape this charge, providing, as they do, a glimpse into the contingencies of adulthood. 

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

‘Harun Farocki Retrospective’ is on view at Neuer Berliner Kunstverein and Arsenal Cinema, Berlin, Germany, until 28 January 2018. The first volume of the artist’s collected writings, Harun Farocki. Zehn, zwanzig, dreißig, vierzig (Harun Farocki: Ten, Twenty, Thirty, Forty), will published by Walther König, Cologne, in autumn 2017.

1 See: Tom Holert and Marion von Osten (eds.), Das Erziehungsbild. Zur visuellen Kultur des Pädagogischen (An Educational Picture: The Visual Culture of Pedagogy), 2010, Schlebrügge Editor, Vienna, p. 312

Arne Schmitt is an artist and writer based in Cologne, Germany.