Film as Theory book review“With Godard, and with Brecht, it seems to me as if they had only proclaimed a method, without having begun to work with it. In fact, even Godard issues empty proclamations, namely: this is how film could express something, or discover something, or even reflect something. But until now he has just described this abstract, empty possibility, and the real work has not yet begun. Do you think that Godard has something in common with Brecht?” – Harun Farocki to Heiner Müller (1)

The elective affinity between Godard and Farocki first became concretely legible and visible in 1997, when Catherine David invited both filmmakers to documenta X in Kassel. (2) In the Bali-Cinema, Farocki’s Stilleben (Still Lives, 1997), one of seven commissioned pieces for documenta, screened alongside Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998). A year later, his conversations with Kaja Silverman on Godard’s work were published. (3) For his part, Godard had very early on experimented with short-films and video formats departing from that of the feature-length work. He was received in the art world long before Farocki, even if the movie-theatre initially remained the privileged location for his films to be screened, with his visual works only later exhibited in a museum-context. From the very beginning, with its introductory recollection of Kassel in 1997, Volker Pantenburg’s Film as Theory deftly avoids the senseless division between film history and the history of art. Rather, he sheds light on the manner in which Godard and Farocki both succeeded, with their critical work on the image, in developing comparable practices and artefacts which transcend classical generic boundaries. Making methodical, at times exclusive, reference to William J.T. Mitchell’s concept of “metapictures” and Gottfried Boehm’s Bildkritik, Pantenburg also sketches out a brilliant critique of the essay film, which also led him onto discussions of James Benning, Pedro Costa and Frederick Wiseman. Film as Theory’s argument can be summarised as follows: theory is the explicatory, discursive side of the essay-film, which does not so much provide commentary on its practice, but rather permeates the practical dispositif, deconstructing it and opening it up. Opened up in this way, practice becomes, in Pantenburg’s words, reflexive theory in the medium of film. As with Raymond Bellour and other post-structuralist film critics, Pantenburg positions the deconstructive paradigm of this self-reflexive film practice within the framework of early Romanticist literature (p. 258). (4) His repeatedly enunciated thesis states that an experiential form of reading leads directly from Novalis and Schlegel to the critical grammatologies of cinema dating from the 1960s. Accordingly, practice without theory would be unconscious or uncritical towards itself, while every theory bereft of practical experience similarly neglects the conditions of its perpetual state of textual inscription. This is a general concern of writing – in the Derridean or Kittlerian sense – as well as filmmaking, and particularly the manual labour of the editing table. Longer discussions and inquiries into this matter are undoubtedly necessary, but in my view a genealogy originating in the experience of the early Romantic period – which for Pantenburg becomes acute in its attendant crisis in and of language (most commonly associated with Hofmannsthal’s Lord Chandos Letter and the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche) – tends to be much more pertinent and apt for Godard than it appears to be for Farocki, who preferred a pragmatic political pedagogy in the tradition of Schiller and Brecht to Schlegel’s Transcendental Poetry.

Film as Theory book review

Jean-Luc Godard in Blind Love (Kluge, 2001).

Godard, by contrast, freely admits to seeing himself as a descendant of the Romantics, not least through his unfettered practice of quotation, which may have led critics such as Bellour to be a little too rashly convinced. In Blinde Liebe (Blind Love, 2001), a French-German conversation from Alexander Kluge’s Marianne und Germania, Godard thus stressed how important early German Romanticism was for him. This was also discernible in his films – such as the moment in La Chinoise (1967) when a poster of Novalis is hung on the wall of the Parisian Maoist commune’s apartment, causing a break in the film when it later appears in a close-up shot. Pantenburg’s commentary of this scene is particularly instructive, as well as being rhetorically deft by allowing, in the author’s own “soft montage”, for a transition to Farocki’s own reading of Godard to take place:

Together with the reference to Novalis, the choice of name can be interpreted as a superimposition of two time levels – albeit historically inexact and intentionally so. The student politicization of the mid-1960s, which Godard seismographically linked to violence and terror even in 1967, a year before the outbreak of open protest, is related back to the time “around 1800” and the epoch-making events of the French Revolution. Here, too, there is a convergence of the two poles of reflection and politics that Harun Farocki has underlined in relation to Le Gai Savoir (p. 66)

As well-founded and convincing as the genealogy from Schlegel and Novalis to Godard may appear, for the later work of Farocki it ultimately appears to be of only partial utility; perhaps it even obstructs our view, making us lose sight of the boundaries of a not unimportant “Godard after Farocki”. Moreover, even if we recognise the validity of Godard’s debt to Romanticism, it is nonetheless surprising that Pantenburg refrains from discussing the thoroughly critical concluding chapter in Walter Benjamin’s Begriff der Kunstkritik in der deutschen Romantik (which had first appeared in his 1920 Bern dissertation) and his discussion of Schlegel, Novalis and Goethe. Richard Neer’s recent work on Godard is also recalled here, particularly his impressive demonstration of the manner in which Kant’s legacy, to which Goethe (in Benjamin’s view) also belongs, seems to percolate into Romantic infinity and the tendency towards reflexivity. (5) Here, we must remain on the level of allusion and intimation, because, as is invariably the case, the question raised by Pantenburg of a potential influence of Romanticism is left open. Besides this concern for the history of theoretical ideas, one of the strongest arguments in the chapters Pantenburg dedicates to Godard is the idea that the analysis of every genuine montage can already begin with the individual image – either within the image itself (as a critique of the image), or in the combination of the image with music and sounds and in its juxtaposition with text and colours. In an illuminating critique of Louis Aragon’s early Godard-related criticism and Marjorie Perloff’s theory of collage, Pantenburg expatiates on the specific temporality of a montage that would be capable of critically addressing the image (p. 101). In a way, both Godard and Farocki are searching for an “extreme” potential of images, which through citation can be brought into a constellation with one another, thereby becoming legible per se as a politically powerful critical idea. Hence the material they cite, as component parts of the constellation, is not tied to the specific media of the texts and images utilised. Rather, Godard’s and Farocki’s “readings” of the history of film, art and literature (including “philosophy” as a branch of literature), are singularly marked by the exigency to pour the found material into a form, which then – and only then – allows for political and poetic edification. The many scenes of reading in the work of Godard and Farocki are, in this sense, allegories of their common activity in the archives of history, which also incorporate material from film history (and from war-footage, television and advertising). Kaja Silverman’s opportune formulation of the “author as receiver” is applicable here, and Pantenburg makes repeated reference to the term. But when, in the 1990s, the “author-receiver” Farocki also shows the technical receiver at the editing table, and proceeds to conjecture that Godard hit upon the idea of double-projection after working with video, it becomes clear, in the film, not only that the author is transformed into a receiver, but also that the appliance, too, participates in the writing of the film. This was a hypothesis that Farocki arrived at through his own work, but it can also be confirmed in texts by and interviews with Kittler or Flusser. In this sense, the allegories still remain “realistic”, because they do not neglect to show the conditions of their technical formation. By contrast, they become speculative when, as allegories for the individual work stages of their formation, they simultaneously keep a semantic distance and, in the best cases, can represent a novel constellation in the total image. In an excursus focussing on the editing table, Pantenburg shows that Godard nonetheless tends to believe in the need to adhere to the historical dispositif of the film-camera, while Farocki increasingly subjects the architecture of photo-studios in advertising firms, or the arenas of TV-shows, to his fulminating critique of television (Telekritik). The editing tables and software of the 1990s, the digital image labs and computer worlds of the present, the surveillance cameras of prisons and courthouses also generate unintentional image-material and curious narratives beyond the scope of film storylines. The political has been shifted away from the aesthetic and towards the epistemological and the forensic, and thence back towards a different form of political aesthetics. In retrospect, film history, as Godard tells it in Histoire(s) du cinéma, is thus rather one-sided. It is only one possible montage of history, one possible window onto the world. The decisive onto-theological/aesthetic difference between Godard and Farocki should be broached at precisely this point, but unfortunately this is not to be found in Pantenburg’s study (even with its new preface). (7) Is Godard primarily concerned with an ontological history of the cinema or, rather, as Neer sees it, is his idea of “history as montage” a mingling of “fantasy” and “criteria”? (8) What, in fact, does it mean to conceive of history as montage, and montage as an effort at historical consciousness? His immersion in Godard’s reading of German Romanticism up to Heidegger (and perhaps even up to Agamben and Schürmann) leads to the idea that Godard is simply trapped in his own century, whereas Farocki only rarely ventures onto the terrain of a theology of the cinematic image. Godard’s onto-theological phase, with films such as Je vous salue, Marie (Hail Mary, 1985), exhibited an affinity with Pasolini, who was important for both filmmakers, but its links with Farocki were subdued, as he tended to be tacitly received at this point.

Film as Theory book review

Histoire(s) du cinéma (Godard, 1988-1998)

In fact, in Farocki’s work the sacred – as well as its profanation – is instead staged with allegorical objects, interiors and cultural techniques which all merge into a documentary on painting. In a wonderful chapter on “Arranging Things”, Pantenburg identifies, in Farocki’s Still Lives, the dialectic between popular culture and counter-culture in the 16th and 17th centuries first noted by Bakhtin. In the “so-called ‘inverted still life’ in which the portrayal of a Christian scene is combined with the depiction of inanimate objects” (p. 110), the relationship of objects to both sacraments and fetishes is elucidated. Pasolini’s La ricotta (1963) springs to mind. Unfortunately, however, Pantenburg does not differentiate between Weber’s secularisation of the life-world and the profane order, oriented towards the notion of happiness, of what only then truly becomes a happy-profane life. (9) This has the consequence that Pantenburg remains tied to a rather simplistic Marxist framework, which may indeed have corresponded without any major contradiction to Farocki’s intentions, but which does not exhaust the full potential of his filmic constellation:

In the still life, Farocki discovers the germ of an aesthetic of commodities that doesn’t negate the religious pictorial space but rather displaces and recodes it. Where the religious motif moves into the background, the religious and symbolic charge is transferred to the goods in the foreground. This evokes a kind of misdirected and epidemic transubstantiation that affects every commodity, not only bread and wine. At this point, the film looks at the consequences that could arise from this recoding of the relationship between the sacred and the profane. (p. 112)

Film as Theory book review

An Image (Farocki, 1983)

However, Pantenburg indisputably provides an illuminating introduction to and navigation of the work of Godard and Farocki, with numerous lucid observations, but with a tendency towards an overly magnanimous presentation of the apparent intentions of the two filmmakers. In analogy to their respective corpuses, the study is convincing as an introduction – but is less so when it comes to scrutinising or problematising two œuvres which, considered from the standpoint of their concluding phases, increasingly exhibit decisive differences. In his “Observations on the Long Take” (1967), Pasolini articulated his idea, alongside other audacious theses, that the history of a life can only be represented and understood at the moment of the individual’s death, in a kind of final, fulminant montage. Today, we increasingly recognise that the material cited in Godard’s history-as-montage could only be derived from the 19th and 20th centuries, and it could well be anticipated that this will remain the verdict on Godard’s work even well after his death. Godard’s history-as-montage thus overlaps, in a certain fashion, with the institutional and technological history of the museum and the cinema – an imbrication which is encapsulated in the race through the Louvre shown in Bande à part (1964). The sequence-shots of this scene still come within the ambit of Godard’s intentionality – as opposed to Francis Alÿs’ loving parody The Nightwatch (2004), in which a fox (a pre- or post-modern animal), runs through the National Portrait Gallery in London, pursued by the museum’s surveillance cameras. If the three protagonists in Bande à part do not pay any attention to the paintings hanging on the walls around them, then the fox, of course, is even more blithe, such that it can be said of the surveillance cameras that their primary concern is with the value of the art-works, rather than the works themselves. When, on May 25, 1994, Farocki discussed Videogramme einer Revolution (Videograms of a Revolution, 1992, co-directed with Andrei Ujica) with Heiner Müller and Friedrich Kittler, the latter vehemently sided with the technological determinism of television and surveillance imagery, whereas Müller – in line with Godard, whom the playwright holds in such high regard – recalled the resistance of human destinies and biographical trajectories marked by the experience of history. Farocki, by contrast, held his verdict in abeyance, and this is also the case with his last works, among the greatest merits of which, in my eyes, is that they never seem to weep at the departure of the 20th century, but rather seek an enlightening, critical consciousness with a unique image of humanity, which does not recognise the separation of technology, intellect and labour (see, for instance Georg K. Glaser, Schriftsteller und Schmied, 1988), but which sees the conceptualisation of labour – in the sense of Godard’s ethical implications of the monteur – as being one of the conditions of a new biopolitics and its resistant exigencies towards a visual pedagogy for the 21st century. Farocki’s thematic turn towards surveillance technologies, operational art and the medical imaging of forensic architecture, does not sentimentally say “Adieu au langage”, but instead greets the advent of a new language. This language is no longer cinematic, but learning it is an obligatory part of contemporary life. Indeed, every language – and this seems to me to be one of Farocki’s most important insights – is capable of profanation.

Volker Pantenburg, Farocki/Godard: Film as Theory (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2015).


1. Harun Farocki and Heiner Müller, “Mich interessiert die Verarbeitung von Realität: Ein Gespräch mit Harun Farocki über Kulturgrenzen und Film, über Godard und Walt Disney”, in Gesammelte Irrtümer: Interviews und Gespräche, vol. 1 (Frankfurt am Main: Verlag der Autoren, 1986), pp. 61-68, p. 64.
2. Cf. Catherine David and Jean-François Chevrier (ed.), Politics-Poetics (Ostfildern-Ruit: Cantz, 1997).
3. Kaja Silverman and Harun Farocki, Speaking about Godard (New York: New York University Press, 1998).
4. Bellour sees Godard as “the last Romantic” and “the final incarnation of the Jena School of Romanticism”. Cf. Raymond Bellour, “For Ever Divided”, in Michael Temple, James S. Williams and Michael Witt (eds.), For Ever Godard (London: Black Dog Publishing, 2004), p. 11.
5. Cf. Richard Neer, “Godard Counts”, Critical Inquiry 31:1 (2007), pp. 135-173.
6. Kaja Silverman, “The Author as Receiver”, October 96 (2001), pp. 17-34.
7. Pantenburg remarks in the preface that a reflection on Godard’s concept of history and Farocki’s ambitious project of a “cinematographic thesaurus” was missing from the original 2006 German edition, which in this new translated edition has only had the preface added to it (p. 9).
8. Neer, “Godard Counts”.
9. Cf. Walter Benjamin, “Capitalism as Religion”, in Eduardo Mendieta (ed.), The Frankfurt School on Religion: Key Writings by the Major Thinkers (New York: Routledge, 2005), pp. 259-262. It may have also been fruitful to relate Ein Bild (An Image, 1983), Farocki’s documentation of a shoot for a Playboy photo-spread, with Agamben’s thoughts on pornography. Cf. Giorgio Agamben, Profanations, trans. Jeff Fort (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2007).

Translated by Daniel Fairfax