BY Thomas Elsaesser in Profiles | 26 AUG 14
Featured in
Issue 16

Harun Farocki

9 January 1944 – 30 July 2014

BY Thomas Elsaesser in Profiles | 26 AUG 14

Harun Farocki, 2007

Writing about Harun Farocki is nothing unusual for me. I’ve been doing it since 1980. But doing it now that he is no longer alive is very difficult, unthinkable. Writing about him was always a dialogue, at times a bid to attract his attention. At the beginning it was also an attempt to introduce his then little-known films to an Anglo-American audience. ‘Germany’s best-known unknown filmmaker’ was the slogan I invented to describe him, following a suggestion he himself once jokingly made.

Eventually – it took quite some time – he found the way I wrote about his films useful. When someone was needed to present his work to an international audience that had, in the meantime, started to take more notice, he would propose me. In recent years, I ‘represented’ him in São Paulo and in Łódź, at MoMA in New York and at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. There were also countless university lectures, and appearances as a conversation partner at his own events: at the National Film Theatre in London, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, in Berkeley or in Pittsburgh.

I first met him while researching my book on New German Cinema. He was dismayed to learn that I was more interested in Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Werner Herzog than in Jean-Marie Straub. We agreed on Jean-Luc Godard and Chris Marker and our shared love, discovered by chance, for the educational films of our schooldays (made by FWU, the German Institute for Film and Images in Research and Teaching). Although our educational backgrounds were different, and although I had left West Germany aged 19, this shared affinity showed once again how strongly a generation is shaped by its early schooling.

Farocki first captivated me with his essays in Filmkritik. I had been a subscriber to the magazine since its founding in 1957 and continued to receive it in my English ‘exile’. After the sociological approach of Wilfried Berghahn, the cinephilia of Frieda Grafe and the asceticism of Helmut Färber, here was a voice that grabbed the reader from the first sentence: that drew bold comparisons, committing unconditionally to an idea or a cause, while remaining detached and self-ironic. It took me a while to get used to Farocki’s films, which appeared to me as by-products of this wonderfully gifted (and well-read) writer who must have realized that the medium of film offered an entirely different audience for his verbal talent, his timing and his dry humour than literature, academia or journalism.

His themes developed enormously over the years while remaining constant at their core: social models and test set-ups, the conscious and unconscious rules of social interaction and role play. More and more clearly, Farocki saw that the utopian counter-models of the political avant-garde and consumer society’s technologies of simula­tion and market research possibly amounted to two sides of the same coin. He was surprised by the thoughtlessness by which humanity made itself into a guinea pig, happily internalizing capitalism’s relentless drive to extract use from mind and body – as self-knowledge and self-optimization. The degree to which civil society and the human sciences were becoming militarized in this process was the grand theme of his last installations.

Most obituaries have honoured him as the installation artist that he had been since the mid-1990s. By this view, however, his film and television works become mere preliminary stages, sometimes conveniently forgiven for being ‘politically naïve’ or ‘overly didactic’. A central position in his work was always occupied by the gaze as ethical orientation (Etwas wird sichtbar, Before Your Eyes – Vietnam, 1982) and the image as a political point of reference (Ein Bild, An Image, 1983), while his aesthetic approach was based from the outset on the models of montage and interface (Schnitt­stelle, Interface, 1995) – separating what is unquestioningly experienced as belonging together (e.g. work as wage labour) and connecting what had better not be associated at all (e.g. prisons and shopping malls). Das große Verbindungsrohr (The Big Connecting Tube) was the title of a radio play that he wrote in 1975 based on Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s analysis of the formation of monopolies in German heavy industry in the 1930s. This was also the starting point of his first feature-length film Zwischen zwei Kriegen (Between Two Wars, 1978), and the theme of ‘Verbund’ (connection, synergy) which runs through his entire oeuvre. Separating and connecting also fed his unique humour: his intelligence was associative rather than analytical, his wit came from unexpected parallels but his wisdom lay in the leaps of thought that intermittently and subversively interrupted these deeper connections.

His transition from filmmaker to installation artist was also an act of separating and connecting. He distributed the linear flow of film across the monitors of his installations, creating new connections, as in Deep Play and Vergleich über ein Drittes (Comparison via a Third, both 2007). Applying the principle of montage to space, he challenged visitors to experience this separating and connecting in their own bodies’ peripatetic trajectory. But the move from cinema to gallery (quite apart from the economic factors) was also a logical step as cinema lost its status as a socially relevant public sphere, surrendering this role to the art world.

Farocki also remained true to himself in political terms as an auteur whose aim (like Bertold Brecht’s) was always to use and supply the socially sensitized media of the moment, which reinstates his early television works’ strategic raison d’être. He was also unparalleled in his ability to harness the medium of ‘theory’ without appropriating the names and slogans that accompanied his works – Michel Foucault’s ‘panoptic gaze’, Paul Virilio’s War and Cinema (1986), Gilles Deleuze’s ‘societies of control’ – via handy quotations. But the fact that his works also fit perfectly into the landscape of academic theory is proof of his sense of timing and his feeling for the issues that concern a generation that grew up with the Internet and that is now seeking a place for itself in a globalized world.

What remains of this life’s work, comprising almost 100 films and installations as well as essays, videos and interviews? It is far too early to want to take stock. For the time being, his death confronts us with the unfinished as a fait accompli.

What I most valued about him as a human being and as a filmmaker, and what makes his loss most painful, was his ability to put himself on the line with each of his topics, and thus run an ethical risk with every film. Even when working with the dry material he sometimes chose to make his own, he managed to do justice to the documentary filmmaker’s foremost responsibility: to neither denounce nor co-opt the people and situations portrayed. How seriously he took this commitment to put himself on the line was already clear when he stubbed out a cigarette on the back of his own hand in Nicht löschbares Feuer (Inextinguishable Fire, 1969) to demonstrate the effect of Napalm on human skin. And it is still palpable in Aufschub (Respite, 2007) when, providing a commentary on the famous 1944 Westerbork concentration camp footage, he put himself metaphorically in the place of Rudolf Breslauer, the cameraman who tried to save himself and his fellow prisoners from death by filming life in the WWII camp as a respite and a reprieve.

Perhaps this respite and reprieve is what cinema is finally for – it is a possibility that Farocki has left us with.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Thomas Elsaesser is a film historian and theorist living in Amsterdam. He has held professorships at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, and the University of Amsterdam. He is a visiting professor at Columbia University, New York. His books include ‘Harun Farocki – Working on the Sight-Lines’ (2005) and ‘German Cinema – Terror and Trauma: Cultural Memory since 1945’ (2013).