Bilder der Welt und Inschrift des Krieges (Images of the World and the Inscription of War, 1988 W. Germany 75mins)

Source: ACMI/NLA Prod, Dir, Scr: Harun Farocki Phot: Ingo Kratisch

With: Cynthia Beatt

Most discussion of documentary film tends to be organised around the concept of indexicality; that the image has a direct, physical connection to the reality it represents, in the same way a footprint in the sand is a trace of the physicality of the foot that imprints itself upon that sand. The documentary image is thus theorised as a doubling of the thing itself, a doubling of reality. As a result, the questions that are then asked of the documentary image tend to focus on how that reality is represented, how it is told, shown, examined. Even in those documentaries that reflexively interrogate their own representation of reality, the issue tends to remain how and to what extent our relationship to that originary reality is mediated by that image. For Harun Farocki, however, this relationship demands to be re-read entirely.

This necessity of reading the image lies at the core of Bilder der Welt und Inschrift des Krieges. Here, the image is not the visible trace of an originary reality so much as it is something legible, something which must be read as much as it is seen, or even in order that it be seen. Moreover, the legibility of this image is intimately linked to the erasure, forgetting or destruction of ‘its’ object: it is intimately and necessarily a form of violence upon the world, its destruction as much as its doubling. The translated title of Farocki’s film gives this to us explicitly; ‘Images of the World and the Inscription of War’.

There is a clear resonance between Bilder der Welt and the writing of Paul Virilio, in particular War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception. (1) Virilio draws out the links between cinema as an organisation of perception and the role of changing technologies of perception in the organisation of war. Put simply, you can only kill what you can see: “For men at war, the function of the weapon is the function of the eye.” (2) Etienne-Jules Marey’s chronophotographic rifle (which featured a revolving unit that could take a series of photographs, designed to enable the photographer to follow and capture objects moving through space) is in this context both a precursor of the cinema and a direct descendent of the multi-chambered Colt revolver. The technology of the image and the technology of death operate under the same principles; the light which exposes the photographic image is equally the light which exposes the target: the visibility of the image is a precondition of war.

However, the image is not simply a precondition of violence; it is, Farocki suggests, a violence in and of itself. “A photographic image is a cut, a section through the bundle of light rays reflected off objects in a circumscribed space.” (3) The violence of this cut is the image’s extraction of the thing as data, a series of points of dark and light to be read, to be analysed, thus producing the thing as an object, a function, a tool. Bilder der Welt returns repeatedly to the role of the image in transforming phenomena into data; the analysis of the movement of water in an artificial wave tank, photographic scale measurement, image processing, military aerial reconnaissance, police identikit portraits, architectural modelling. The data thus extracted replaces the thing, the phenomena itself with something more malleable, more productive, more comprehensible. And yet this comprehension of the object is tied directly to its destruction, even where it is conceived as a protective measure (Farocki’s privileged example is the use of photographic scale measurement to document heritage buildings, but the archiving of the DNA of endangered species is an equally appropriate example – possessing the species as data, as DNA, facilitates its destruction since it can theoretically be resurrected at any time, thus removing the imperative to prevent its extinction in the first place).

Farocki’s film work (which began in West Germany in 1966, and continues today) is often aligned with the essay-film tradition exemplified by the work of Chris Marker. Certainly, Bilder der Welt and San Soleil/Sunless (1982) have their similarities; the deployment of diverse and apparently fragmentary images, a narration which interrogates as much as it explains or describes those images, a constant circling back and repetition, re-reading or re-writing of the image. The idea of the ‘essay’ film has a specific resonance for Farocki’s work, however, inasmuch as it explicitly points to the notion of the filmic image as a form of writing or inscription, and thus of violence. At one point in Bilder der Welt he shows us an image from the train platform at Auschwitz, taken as a transport of Jewish victims are being unloaded by SS men by the light of many spotlights, and asks “First thought: why all these spotlights? Is a film being shot?” What is preserved, inscribed, in this image is destruction itself, a destruction more vast than any image can show. It cannot be seen in the image, and thus it must be read in it, and nevertheless in this reading it is destroyed, thematised, produced as an object of knowledge. What is essayed in Farocki’s work, in his images, then is this: that the image is disastrous, in Blanchot’s sense it “…ruins everything, all the while leaving everything intact”; preservation as destruction, preservation of destruction, erasing itself in its own writing. (4)


  1. Paul Virilio, War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception, trans. Patrick Camille (London & New York: Verso, 1989).
  2. Virilio 20.
  3. Harun Farocki, “Reality Would Have to Begin,” trans. Marek Wieczorek, with Thomas Keenan and Thomas Y. Levin, Human Rights Project, http://www.bard.edu/hrp/keenan/farocki.htm. Accessed 2nd March 2002. First published as “Die Wirklichkeit hätte zu beginnen,” in Bernd Busch, Udo Liebelt, and Werner Oeder, eds., Fotovision: Projekt Fotografie nach 150 Jahren (Hannover: Sprengel Museum, 1988) 119-125.
  4. Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln & London: U of Nebraska P, 1995) 1.

About The Author

Allan James Thomas teaches Documentary Film Theory and Digital Media at RMIT University, and is currently completing a PhD at La Trobe University on the non-significational content of film, focusing mainly on the writing of Gilles Delueze.

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