– Spring/Summer 2005

Harun Farocki: Film-maker, Artist, Media Theorist

Thomas Elsaesser

Harun Farocki, Between Two Wars, 1978, 16mm film, black-and-white, 83min, still. Courtesy the artist

Harun Farocki, Between Two Wars, 1978, 16mm film, black-and-white, 83min, still. Courtesy the artist

More than anything else, electronic control technology has a deterritorialising effect. Locations become less specific. An airport contains a shopping centre, a shopping centre contains a school, a school offers leisure and recreation facilities. What are the consequences for prisons, themselves mirrors of society as well as its counter-image and projection surface?1

If I ask myself how the technical and, subsequently, the electronic media have transformed civil society, labour and work, politics and the arts in the past half-century, I could find no better chronicler of their histories, and no more intelligent observer of their unexpected connections than Harun Farocki. The fact that, besides being a writer, he is also a filmmaker is as much a sign of the times as a vocation. By making images a filmmaker not only adds images to their stock in the world, but also comments on the world made by these images with the images that he makes. Aware that the medium chose him, as much as he chose it, for documenting public life under the rule of the image, Farocki treats the cinema with the utmost respect. So central are the technologies of imaging and vision to the twentieth century that there is little Farocki talks about that is not, appearances to the contrary, also a reflection of the cinema itself. In this perspective, however, its role as our culture's prime story-telling medium is almost secondary. Instead, the cinema is understood as a

  1. Harun Farocki, 'Controlling Observation', originally published in Jungle World, no.37, 8 Sept 1999

  2. These examples are all taken from Farocki's Wie man sieht (As you see).

  3. Passage of dialogue by 'Robert' from Before Your Eyes - Vietnam.

  4. Tilman Baumgärtel, 'Bildnis des Künstlers als junger Mann', in R. Aurich and U.Kriest (eds.), Der Ärger mit den Bildern, Konstanz: UKV Medien, 1998, p.156

  5. 'Conversation with Harun Farocki', Information sheet no.13: Internationales Forum des jungen Films, Berlin, 1982

  6. The film was refused a certificate that would have made it eligible for financial subsidy on the grounds that 'it tries to prove the thesis that all the citizens of the Federal Republic are conformist and remote-controlled' in their personal lives and social activities.

  7. H. Farocki: 'We tried to be like waiters, in whose presence the masters of the manor felt free to converse without reserve.' Quoted in Der Ärger mit den Bildern, op. cit., p.16

  8. 'In the 1950s, I too, was shown instructional films at school. Silent, black and white, screened with a noisy projector. Films about fallow deer and glassblowing. We high-school kids with tastes formed by the photo journal Magnum ... didn't like these films, and even today in discussions many say "like a school instruction film". It is clear that it is meant to be the very dregs. But to me that is not clear at all.' Harun Farocki, Filmkritik, no.274, October 1979, p.429

  9. See Kaja Silverman, 'What Is a Camera? Or: History in the Field of Vision', Discourse, vol.15, Spring 1993, pp.3-56

  10. Alfred Sohn-Rethel, Intellectual and Manual Labour: A Critique of Epistemology, New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1978