Etwas wird sichtbar

Translation by Roger Hillman

This essay was originally published in German in Der Ärger mit den Bildern – Die Filme von Harun Farocki (Konstanz: UVK Medien, 1998), edited by Rolf Aurich and Ulrich Kriest. The English translation is published here with the kind permission of the book’s editors, publishers and the author.

A popular species of the copyist is the pavement painter, still visible today within the pedestrian zones of our cities. As a young man, Harun Farocki started out as a pavement painter. Along with a friend, he copied in chalk famous and recognisable works of art onto German pavements. Street painting is sustained in equal measure by the public adoration of icons and artistic self-denial. For while street painters have to keep to a limited canon of motifs (they may only copy images which are widely known so that their ability as skilful copyists can be appreciated by the crowd), they are condemned to reproduce what is forever familiar in view of the infinite possibilities of conceivable images. Nonetheless, Farocki and his companion unwittingly showed disregard towards this tradition. The more frequently they reproduced a set piece, which on some occasion or other was done from memory, the less did this resemble the original. The reproductions finished up taking on a character of their own. This act of presenting an individual style made them suspect both in the eyes of their peers and their public. The suspicion was that they were not in control of their trade (where such a trade is defined by the ability to imitate or even duplicate the work of others).

Many years later the same man is still making copies of pictures. In the meantime, admittedly, he has changed his medium. His trade is now filmmaking. Quite apart from the fact that no one considers copying film images to be a skill, he can’t manage to satisfy visual conventions in this way either. Is he an eternal dilettante, doomed to remain so, or has he made progress after all, in some shape or form?

Knocked to the canvas

In Etwas wird sichtbar (Before Your Eyes, 1980-1982), the image on the street pavement emerges again but this time as a motif of the film: the image is one that is washed away by the rain, a precise metaphor for the transience of images. Pavement painting and cinema celebrate in equal measure their death even as they live. The transience of the pavement picture is obvious – it is only painted “for the moment”. In the case of cinema, the image is not only (mechanically) always in the process of escaping the eye and the film material itself in a perpetual state of chemical disintegration, what is much worse is that the viewer’s insatiable hunger for images relies on the destruction of each image by a new one. And the speedier the process, the greater the hunger: images as victims.

Today the metaphor of water is mostly used in the opposite sense: images as agents, insofar as, when images are at stake, it is the images which wash away everything. They are ‘agents’ in the sense that they perform a function on the subject, actively washing away preconceptions and other images. Seldom is a speech given about the present day situation of the visual media without the metaphor of the “flood of images” being dragged out. What is meant is either that images wash away something (e.g. writing) or everything (e.g. reality), or “flood” is simply used as a metaphor for something monstrous. The metaphor becomes dubious when what’s at stake are images supposedly annihilating each other: can a flood flood waters?

This film, the essence of Farocki’s work in non-documentary mode to that point, above all deals with the impotence of images. When the American soldier recites the following text, his head and hands lying passively on the table, he proclaims here Farocki’s credo, which I should like to call the “critique of the enlightened eye”: Philosophy asks: What is a human being? I ask: What is a picture? In our culture, images are not sufficiently endowed with meaning. Images are enlisted. Images are quizzed to get information. And only for information that can be expressed in words or numbers. It is clear from his posture that the soldier is one of the losers of the war (of images). He is defeated. Knowledge was unable to help him to victory. Farocki is an heir to German enlightenment philosophy, but the term “Aufklärung” (2) (enlightenment) is used here in a more Brehtian sense. In the same way as, throughout the centuries, the painted picture turned from giving information to representing deformation, the film image turned from informing the viewer to deforming the viewer (mentally, of course). That was not done by a change of quality (e.g. the introduction of colour and sound) but by a gigantic increase of quantity, since the technological/filmic image (and TV is included here) is still meant to give an image of pre-filmic reality. The “critique of the enlightened eye” hence proposes that the initial aim of enlightenment by technological images (to spread information in order to make the receiver gain a deeper knowledge) is no longer possible.

Etwas wird sichtbar marks a distinct break in Farocki’s work. Firstly, because after it he no longer aimed for a photographically clever translation of his ideas, that is, he no longer sought a style and composition that visually expressed his aesthetic optimally. Secondly, because it completed his phase of experimental feature filmmaking – a phase marked by the ’68ers’ pathos of agitation, which drew on Brecht’s theory of estrangement and which in some cases had led to dubious results. I have in mind Farocki’s short films which originated at the DFFB (Deutsche Film und Fernsehakademie Berlin) (1), the didactic films he made at the beginning of the ’70s with Hartmut Bitomsky and Zwischen zwei Kriegen (Between Two Wars, 1977/78). Etwas wird sichtbar continues some of the ideas and the formalism of the ’70s but shows no formal unity. Nonetheless, at least the mise en scène testifies to its author’s radical desire for style. This style would have been quite capable of further development but Farocki then turned to the documentary genre (understood in the broadest sense), with one exception, the film Betrogen (Betrayed, 1985). He too acknowledged a kind of defeat, at least in terms of the possibility of enlightenment through the means of fiction. His scepticism toward the relevance of feature films to achieve enlightenment was confirmed by the failure of Betrogen, even if his later ironic allusion to this film cites economic reasons: “Six years ago I made a film where around 50 people were paid for watching me at work. I called out ‘run it, cut it’ and pondered where to place the camera for a minute and a half. Since then I’ve only had ideas for films where I don’t have to get involved in what’s going on in front of the camera.” (3)

This and other similar utterances by Farocki testify to his constant discomfort at appropriating images, which for this writer is not an assumed attitude but an existential dilemma. For as Farocki puts it in Schnittstelle (1995), his intention was never replication but rather, to lend preliminary shape – modelling. But a model needs to be presented, and this presentation relies on imagination, and hence on images.

Counter Attack


Betrogen was the film where Farocki tried again through the use of fictional content in 1985 to launch a counter attack – this time using the enemy’s weapons. It is his only film where you can tell it has been made with a much larger budget than usual. Betrogen can easily be regarded as a “deviation”, since on the surface the film is photographed and directed like a conventional TV piece. There’s no longer any question of a stylistic signature such as in Etwas wird sichtbar. Farocki directed the story along the lines of a real event. Located in a convincing social environment, the main roles are brilliantly cast. Nonetheless, this film too is a model with a clear experimental set-up. Thematically Betrogen fits in perfectly with Farocki’s “critique of the enlightened eye” and is just as self-referential as his earlier documentary essays.

In the first part of the film, the theme of “seeing”, in an enlightened sense of the word, is treated via the phenomenon of voyeurism as a symptom of neurosis in the individual. The protagonist Jens Baumann visits the same pub each evening to look at the prostitute Anna who works there, until finally he speaks to her. Here fate takes its course. The beautiful Anna enters Jens’ life as an angel of disaster and almost ruins his existence. The story ends provisionally with him running over Anna in his car. Since there were no witnesses to the accident, Baumann gets rid of the corpse. Anna is not officially missed and so to begin with he manages to keep her death a secret. He persuades Anna’s sister Edith to play the part of Anna, although both in her personality and her appearance Edith bears little similarity to Anna (except for her long blond hair). Edith enters into the ruse not just because she likes Baumann, but because it also improves her social status.

Just as the voyeur is inclined to stare, to fixate and finally to hallucinate, that is, to see more than is actually there, thereby representing one extreme of perverted seeing (the excess), Jens and Edith exploit the other, pervasive form of perverted seeing for their game of deception in the second part of the film: seeing at surface level – the eye, that no longer looks properly (the deficiency). For both forms of perverted seeing the film has explanations to hand: in the first case, it is the structuring of industrial society in accordance with the requirements of the rhythm of production, which consequently leads to the isolation of its members and of necessity provokes neurotic behaviour in them. In the second case, it is the impersonal and stereotypical administrative processes of bureaucracy, as well as the fact that people (like the woman next door to Baumann) no longer approach each other sufficiently to perceive more than the surface of a person.

Hitherto “to form a picture of something” implied picturing accurately. In Betrogen, Farocki gathers evidence that this is no longer so straightforward in our age, or maybe even impossible. The ruse of the double is found out in the end by the “vision” of a madman (and this is where the film’s modelling characteristic clearly emerges). The truth comes to light only through the visionary image that Eddi has of the death of Anna. Throughout human history, madmen have long been considered to be holy, because they alone possessed the gift of second sight. On this occasion, the madman is representative of the filmmaker, Farocki. He is mad as a result of the distance he has created between himself and reality so as to be able to really see this reality. Distance is not only the prerequisite for seeing, but also for thinking.

“When I write, I at least have words between me and those who are not myself. They come into my proximity during commuter train travel. When you write you can maintain the dignity of the pedestrian. Filming and commuting on the tube means joining in, and you can’t hold anyone at bay with a camera and a microphone.” (4)

To keep your distance means losing touch with reality so as to gain reality. In order to see the truth, the filmmaker is no longer required to be merely an eyewitness. On the contrary, in our society, the presence of the camera is more inclined to hinder truthfulness.

The irritation of television

Farocki’s films can be read as an ongoing analysis of his distrust of the technological image. They always have born a tendency to use and reinterpret visual materials belonging to others. Farocki began “still-quoting” other films by weaving them into his own line of argument as evidence. What he had in mind was to teach the audience to look and listen closely. He still had faith in the enlightening effect of his own work. It was not until Etwas wird sichtbar that he reached the point where he began to distrust even his own images (and thereby the potency of the visual media altogether). In the first instance, he traced his distrust to the abuse of images by others – above all, television journalism. The aim was to expose their machinations. The WDR (West German Radio) offered him a platform for this. In 1973, Farocki made the enlightenment film Der Aerger mit den Bildern (The Irritation of Images) for the series Telekritik (tele criticism), in which he gave short shrift to the television feature by taking on the pointless overuse of meaningless images. Farocki created a film composed entirely out of material he had not shot himself. (In Die Sprache der Revolution [The Language of Revolution], which was made earlier and is a collage of film excerpts from various sources, Farocki still inserted into his argument a couple of short sequences, directed by himself, which were acted out.) Der Aerger mit den Bildern was conceived in strictly didactic terms, and for that reason was very wordy. But because he had more spoken text than visual material that could serve to clinch his argument (and because it was the text which had to propel the analysis), Farocki had the following problem: how could he visually underpin a spoken text without practising precisely what he had been preaching against, i.e. levelling out a commentary with arbitrary imagery? Here he decided on the consistent denial of images. Between the paragraphs that constituted the line of his argument, he employed a blank screen. You can tell how Farocki had lost his way when borrowing from experimental film – an indication of his own impotence before the superior power of the images churned out unconsciously each day by the machine of television.

In the ’70s there followed further productions for the WDR, like Moderatoren im Fernsehen (TV anchormen) or Die Arbeit mit den Bildern (Work with Images), both made in 1974, which were critical of the media. But however easy it was for Farocki to expose the mechanisms which led to a thoughtless treatment of images in television, it was hard going approaching his own. In Zwischen zwei Kriegen, completed in 1978 after working on it for years as producer and being constantly interrupted, the poverty of images is carried to the limit of what is bearable. The sparseness of this film was undoubtedly also a result of finances, but Farocki seemed to be elevating this sparseness to an aesthetic program. As such it was rather an instinctive reaction to the overabundance of images around him than a properly thought through concept. But it wasn’t long before there was further development. In Etwas wird sichtbar, Farocki explicitly reflects the way he sees himself as filmmaker, even though photography stands in for the role of filmmaking. As in Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966), a photo sequence forms the core of the film: intense scrutiny of the photos from the Vietnam War yield the insight for Farocki’s protagonist Robert: it’s not a matter of what’s in an image, but rather what lies behind it. But still you show an image as a proof of something that it cannot prove.

What lies behind the images of Etwas wird sichtbar is ideology, and concepts. Since we’re already engaged in the dubious enterprise of trying to find a linear development in Farocki’s works, I’d like to propose the argument here that Farocki’s work on Etwas wird sichtbar was what led him to realise that a productive critique of images presupposes a critique of (verbal) language, since our perception proceeds from the conceptual. We stop watching an image intensely as soon as we have understood what is represented. In that moment when an image is registered as a concept, its existence as an image is over. In his films of the ’80s, Farocki engaged with language as the precondition for perception (in a general sense, but also specifically as a basis for filmic perception). Because images can only refer back to their elementary meaning as signs for abstract concepts with verbal support (commentary, writing), Farocki had to turn to forms that were documentary and essayistic. These forms permitted him to a greater degree to reflect on his own work within the medium – that is, to make the images both the object and also the method of his critique.

The irritation of everyday language

But Farocki’s work has not developed in linear fashion, but rather cyclically – a fact nicely demonstrated with the example of his critique of verbal language. As early as Der Aerger mit den Bildern, Farocki comes to grips with the German language by staging the changes in everyday language when interviewees are given the opportunity to “express” themselves in front of a camera: Office language prevails, the language of joy, desire, passion, sex and power was driven off. In the background lurks terror. Indirectly, he points to how the administration of everyday language (for example, by the media) disintegrates any self-determination in life. The intimidating jargon of bureaucrats and the marketplace became subsequent targets of his critique. Farocki’s fine ear for the German language, for the etymology of words and the meanings that resonate with them, but above all for the abuse to which language is subject means that he is able to identify the virulence with which false consciousness can permeate language. Language critique is, first and foremost, for him a critique of capitalism. It’s impossible to look past the fact that the traces of the abuse of language, just like those of images, point back to Germany’s past – although Farocki seldom makes this explicit.

Make Up

His own language takes on a significance impossible to calculate. Through the commentaries of so many of his films, this language forces its way into one’s consciousness as the filmmaker’s personal signature; indeed it often forms the very framework of his films. It is not elegant. But it stimulates the viewer to think because it is unpolished and avoids rhetorical flourishes. Farocki was always at pains to find a visual language matching the precision with which his texts encompass reality. And you can tell from his films how long he’s had the major problem that language was there first, and the images only served to transmit it. The first attempts at liberation from the ballast of language and of conceptual thought were Make Up (1973) and Der Geschmack des Lebens (The Taste of Life, 1979), where dialogues or commentaries are reduced to the bare essentials. But even in Zwischen zwei Kriegen, Etwas wird sichtbar and Wie man sieht (As you can see, 1986), dialogues or commentaries seem to have been cut out from an exercise book, because Farocki’s critique of ideology here is likewise based on ideology as a system of concepts, which is simply underpinned by images. The images cannot speak for themselves. In the optimal case (for instance in several passages from Bilder der Welt und Inschrift des Krieges, 1988), Farocki managed to treat writing, language and image as filmic elements of equal value. Commentary was correctly located when he applied it in contrapuntal fashion and thereby created a space for thinking between image and language. Nonetheless it has always been Farocki’s ideal for the images alone to speak for him – an ideal which he clings to in order to counter his distrust of the effectiveness of images. But this is precisely the contradiction which makes his development as a filmmaker so interesting and multidimensional. For where he abandoned the essayistic style, he managed at about the time of his essay films to liberate himself from wordiness in Ein Bild (1983) and Die Schulung (The Schooling, 1987), the former still with the authoritarian gesture of the camera, the latter without any didactic aspect in the style of Direct Cinema, but both without commentary.

Becoming interchangeable

The tendency to treat your own shots like “found” images, which already characterized Farocki’s essay films Wie man sieht and Bilder der Welt und Inschrift des Krieges was logically extended in Leben – BRD (How to Live in the FRG, 1989). This film gives an early indication that Farocki would soon sever ties altogether with his own footage so as to work solely with prefabricated visual material. Shots that are seemingly author-less but were in fact looked for and found, prove that Farocki’s research assistant, Michael Trabitzsch, deserves acknowledgement for increased input to the final filmic product. Farocki’s filmic style is clearly moving even further away from photography here, even though Ingo Kratisch was once again operating the camera. “Operating” in this case is to be understood literally. It is a kind of photography which no longer places great claims on the cameraman. Every photographic charm (which by no means has to be confined to fiction films) is intentionally avoided; except for a few pans, the shots remain static and give rise to the suspicion that the cameraman has left his position between setting them up. The photographic reduction of this film does indeed evoke something claustrophobic, in the manner of images from surveillance cameras – many shots could have been made in photo booths. This is how Leben – BRD gives rise to an impression of a film without an author, reinforced by the lack of commentary. The serial principle of the film, evident in its montage and mosaic aspects, make it far superior in its expressivity to films like Die Schulung, because what is portrayed here is no longer an esoteric circle but the condition of a whole nation. This is what allows every (German) viewer to draw a connection to his or her own life. What we see is, on the surface, nothing “special”: daily life, that’s it in a nutshell (the film’s ironic title couldn’t possibly be any better). The film suggests that everyone who can set up a camera could make a film like this. On the one hand this is correct, but on the other, it is a false assumption. For not everyone has the distance from things which is necessary to risk the concept of such a film. Farocki’s method here partakes in a wholly traditional artistic realism: whoever wishes to learn something about a society has to turn to what is self-evident. But what is exhibited and illuminated doesn’t prove a thing. It’s what is “insignificantly” self-evident, blown up on the big screen in the cinema, out of all human proportion, that truly expresses the grotesque aspects of what is being acted out. The fact that reality has been derailed into a game could hardly be more aptly formulated than in Leben – BRD, which for me is Farocki’s most important and most radical film to date. Der Geschmack des Lebens, made ten years earlier, gave a foretaste of Leben – BRD (here the cyclical principle bobs up again in Farocki’s work), but where the former was still dominated by the charm of the amateur film, the latter is pure concept. The similarly styled sequel Was ist los? (What’s Up?, 1991) again attempted to assist the viewer with words and in doing so was not nearly as good. Leben – BRD is probably the film which most clearly lends transparency to Farocki’s critique of language (which here, as already in Die Schulung and Image und Umsatz [Image and Turnover, 1989], is of course a critique of the system) even though – or precisely the reason why – Farocki renounces all commentary. The manner in which the language of administration collides with dialect and colloquial speech, as happens here at every level between the esoteric and the army, is funny and revealing at the same time.

Becoming invisible

In the ’90s, Farocki made films which consisted entirely of pre-produced images: Videogramme einer Revolution (in collaboration with Andrej Ujica, 1991/92); the advertising clip collage Ein Tag im Leben der Endverbraucher (A Day in the Life of the ultimate consumers, 1993); Arbeiter verlassen die Fabrik (Workers leaving the factory, 1995, the one that’s most reminiscent of his earlier works with foreign material); through to the video installation Schnittstelle, in which he mainly works with his own old films. That completes a further circle: Farocki has again become a copyist, in the vein of Flaubert’s lovable bumblers, Bouvard and Pécuchet.

Just as the most advanced musical streams in contemporary pop music – sampling techniques and re-mixes, dub and hip hop – respond to the daily increase in acoustic detritus with formal minimalism, Farocki behaves similarly with these works in the area of film: “You don’t have to look for new images that have never been seen, but you have to work on existing images in such a fashion that they become new. There are various paths. My path is to seek sense under the rubble, and to clear away the rubble lying on the images” (5).

The musician’s sampler is the filmmaker’s editing room. The author working with found material tends to become invisible as the originator of the work, because he hides behind something laying claim to being a piece of “reality” that’s become history. The creative process of artistry displaces itself from production to reproduction. The artistic material is loaded with a significance which was not intended by the original producers. Techniques like sampling, dub, assemblage, collage, compilation film, essay film and found footage film are made possible by an immense wealth of what is prefabricated from cultural history. They are made necessary by the increasing arbitrariness of every artefact which is freshly added to the pile. The abundance of what has been produced, no longer to be contained, at some stage or other renders everything of equal value, and the chances of the audience being informed by what has been newly created verge on zero. The more encyclopaedic the knowledge of an author/artist, the greater will be his distrust of his own work being ‘home-grown’ and also of its innovative character. So it makes sense for the filmmaker, who has to become an archaeologist to stay on top of his age, to secure those images already fabricated so as to project what is his own into them. Didn’t Farocki already involuntarily do something similar as a street painter? His tendency to iconoclasm, which he could be accused of on account of his last films, is not a negation of the image, when you look at it more closely, but a progressive step back to the essential quality of an image. Through recycling, he underlines the facticity of images. And from this emerges the significance that images could possess – if, living in a world of images, we had ever submitted to an initiation into seeing. It’s questionable, it has to be conceded, whether this method of work is capable of building up a functional opposition to mainstream aesthetics. What in music has come to open up not only a worldwide body of listeners, but also a market, remains too marginal in the visual realm on account of its aesthetic indifference. Moreover TV and advertising film have been quicker off the mark again.

The double author

Farocki’s instrument is no longer the camera but the editing room. In one of his ironic insights he apostrophised himself as a “(sales) representative” for what has been pre-filmed. In his double-image video installation, Schnittstelle, he ends up representing himself. The idea of a double projection is not new (many artists and avant-garde filmmakers have been employing it for ages), you have to wonder why Farocki didn’t do something of the sort earlier. For he always wanted to commentate on the use of images by using images. And although yet again he makes an image of himself and his own workplace, this time too he keeps a distance from his object: himself. Yes, he shows how he becomes his own encyclopaedist and analyst. But it is not an honest attempt, at most a winking, roguish intermezzo. Farocki is by no means what Schnittstelle might suggest, an oddball fiddling alone in his studio, remote from the real world. If not earlier, the end credits with the crew involved in the production highlights this collaboration. The impression is that someone here is chatting a bit about his work – in actuality he is trying to coach us again in how to see. Reading between the lines, however, Farocki here articulates his failure. His biggest problem is that writing has reached its historical endpoint.

Despite his work on films across the decades, writing is the medium where his real roots lie. He recognized this early on, and along with many of his colleagues who had emerged from the ’68 movement as filmmakers, he believed that the visual media could take over the political function of writing, because their scope for distribution seemed broader and their comprehensibility greater. At some stage he noticed that illiteracy was far greater amongst the seeing than the reading public. Although all educational programs of the auteur filmmakers came up against a dead end, he didn’t give up hope. In a society dominated by images, political engagement, for Farocki, can only be found in making images. His program was and still is (and Schnittstelle makes this explicit): making images against images. Wrenching images from the speeding up process. Slowing images down. Bringing images to a halt. Blowing up images. Marking excerpts. Not really making images till turning to images. And now, finally, making images about images. Repeating images – fetching images back. Now, Schnittstelle is at the very least testimony to a productive failure. It is conceivable that the key to truth lies in tautology and redundancy. With their motto of “copying out the way it used to be”, Bouvard and Pécuchet were also ultimately redeemed. That was over 100 years ago, when the time arrived to invent the cinema so as to liberate the traditional arts from the ballast of redundancy.


  1. The Deutsche Film und Fernsehakademie Berlin (DFFB) is the first film school in West Germany, founded in 1967. Farocki had been a student in its first year.
  2. “Aufklärung” translates as something of a mixture between education and illumination: the German word for education, “Bildung”, contains “Bild”, meaning ‘image’, which is untranslatable in English.
  3. Farocki, 1991a, Duisburger Filmwoche (Annual Festival of German Documentary Film) Catalogue 1991, Duisburg, Accompanying text to Farocki’s film Was Ist Los? p. 14
  4. Farocki, ibid. p. 13
  5. Voester, Conny, Interview with Harun Farocki in Nordkurier, Neubrandenburg, January 9 1993

About The Author

Volker Siebel, born 1963, lives in Hanover, Germany, where he participates in the cinema Kino im Sprengel.

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