Harun Farocki died suddenly in July 2014, but his formidable intellect lives on in a remarkable body of work, as acute and prescient now as ever before. In a ninety-film corpus as prolific as it is heterogeneous, Farocki continually evades classification: here is a major figure in post-war documentary an experimental film (yet belonging neatly into the histories of neither) and a contemporary of New German Cinema (of which he was never fully a part). As Thomas Elsaesser eloquently described it, Farocki’s is a meta-cinema “that sits on top of the cinema ‘as we know it’, and at the same time is underpinned by the cinema ‘as we have known it’.”1 Across a fifty-year career, Farocki persistently interrogated the contemporary status of images and image production – be it art-historical, military, surveillance or something else entirely – all the while maintaining a deep investment in the histories, technologies, and institutions of cinema.

“I am a lover of dictionaries. I get great pleasure out of looking up words and their etymological sources in specialised and obscure lexica,” writes Farocki.2 And yet, he continued, “it occurred to me that there is nothing comparable to a dictionary in the realm of cinema. How might one even name such a thing?”3 Farocki offers an answer to his own question with Der Ausdruck der Hände (The Expression of Hands, 1997), a thirty-minute essay film on the manifold gestures, roles, and appearances performed by the human hand in one hundred years of cinema history. Expression functions, in Farocki’s words, as something of a “visual encyclopaedia” or a “cinematographic thesaurus”, one founded not so much on keywords and linguistics than on images and iconography.4

We watch as excerpts from films play on two black-and-white monitors; yet no titles are presented, and Farocki rarely mentions directors’ names. A different kind of classification is at stake. A scene from Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street (1953) is followed by a close-up from D. W. Griffith’s The Stolen Jewels (1908), itself later succeeded by Hitchcock, Wiene, and Bresson, alongside Nazi kulturfilme and American wartime propaganda. Little distinction is made between fiction and documentary; chronological order is all but abandoned. “Doing this,” as Farocki ruminates, “one can learn a lot about ‘filmic expression’”: surveying the many and varied expressions of a singular motif across a wide spectrum of cinematic production, Farocki is able to offer insights both historical (“The first close-ups in the history of film were of the face; the next featured human hands”) and at other times systemic (“Film loves to show the pianist’s hand as much as a hand holding a gun”).5

But why the hand? What attracts Farocki to this particular part of the body? For one thing, the hand is not simply a vehicle of gestural expression, but also – and perhaps more importantly – an instrument of industrial labour, a matter which Farocki’s body of work has repeatedly explored. A remnant of manual modes of production, the hand “moves between artistic expression and industry, aesthetic surplus and efficient working processes,” as Volker Pantenburg has put it.6 It “‘speaks,’ can be read,” yet it also works, and can be employed.7 Produced on the occasion of cinema’s centennial and later extended into a 12-channel installation, Arbeiter verlassen die Fabrik (Workers Leaving the Factory, 1995) sees Farocki move closer to the very epicentre of industrial production as such: the factory. How, he asks, have the manufacturing plant and its blue collar workers figured over the history of the moving image? How are they represented and what roles does each portray?

Much of what has been said about Expression can equally well be applied to Workers: both works constitute something of a cinematic dictionary or thesaurus, directing their attention towards one specific motif and charting its depiction across a broad array of moving image history. Here, the filmmaker compiles footage from Pasolini, Antonioni, Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night (1952), silent newsreels, corporate videos, and an East German documentary, taking as his starting point – what Farocki has referred to as the “primal scene” – the Lumière Brothers’ iconic and eponymous footage of employees leaving their photographic goods factory in Lyon.8 Just as Farocki aims his gaze at the headquarters of industrial labour, so too does he centre on the origins of its filmic representation: the Lumières’ camera was the first of its kind to be aimed at a factory, and, at the turn of the 19th century, one of the first to be aimed at anything at all.

And yet, as Farocki’s narrator warns, much has changed since: “Where the first camera once stood, there are now hundreds of thousands of surveillance cameras.” If Farocki’s Workers is about tracing the trope of factory labour across film and moving image history, it is also about something else: what one finds in the film are not just punch clocks and assembly lines, but roadblocks, gates, ramps, and fences; spaces not simply of work but of surveillance; spaces saturated with CCTV, observed from a multitude of angles and apparatuses. The filmmaker remains wary of the factory floor – a place of labour at the same as a place of governance and control.9

Faced with the alarming overlaps between technologies of surveillance, labour, and the moving image, Farocki stands lucid and alert. Speaking in 2014 about image and facial recognition, his assessment is clear: “So, we have all this stuff now, with Google and so on, but it still doesn’t work in the way we want. It doesn’t really help you as a tool, it helps you to find faces (for the police also!) …”10 The cinematographic thesaurus Farocki imagined in 1993 has since come true, but not in the form of a cinephilic archive of gestures and motifs. Rather, it is an instrument of discipline and state authority – collecting faces, bodies, and their visible expressions into a database not of cinema history, but of biometric control. Whether leaving the factory or expressing something with hands, our actions are documented with a precision and intensity one could only dream of in decades past. To be sure, a visual encyclopaedia has come into existence, but one very different from that envisioned by Farocki.


Arbeiter verlassen die Fabrik (Workers Leaving the Factory 1995 Germany 36 mins)

Prod. Co: Harun Farocki Filmproduktion, Berlin; WDR, Köln; ORF, Wien, Dr. Heinrich Mis; LAPSUS, Paris, Christian Baute; DRIFT, New York, Chris Hoover Prod: Harun Farocki, Werner Dütsch Dir: Harun Farocki Asst: Jörg Becker Scr: Harun Farocki Ed: Max Reimann

Cast: Harun Farocki (narrator)


Der Ausdruck der Hände (The Expression of Hands 1997 Germany 30 mins)

Prod. Co: Harun Farocki Filmproduktion, Berlin, for WDR, Köln Prod: Werner Dütsch Dir: Harun Farocki Scr: Harun Farocki, Jörg Becker Phot: Ingo Kratisch Snd: Klaus Klinger Ed: Max Reimann

Cast: Harun Farocki (narrator)



  1. Thomas Elsaesser, “Introduction: Harun Farocki,Senses of Cinema 21 (July 2002).
  2. Wolfgang Ernst and Harun Farocki, “Towards and Archive of Visual Concepts” in Harun Farocki: Working on the Sightlines, Thomas Elsaesser, ed. (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2004), p. 273.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Rembert Hüser, “Nine Minutes in the Yard: A Conversation with Harun Farocki” in Harun Farocki: Working on the Sightlines, p. 308.
  6. Volker Pantenburg, Farocki/Godard: Film as Theory (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2015), p. 253.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ernst and Farocki, p. 280.
  9. Farocki will further probe the mechanisms of discipline and domination in Prison Images (2000), his third contribution to the “archive of visual concepts” envisioned by him and Wolfgang Ernst.
  10. Ednei de Genaro and Hermano Callou, “‘Keep the horizon open’: An Interview with Harun Farocki,” Senses of Cinema 79 (July 2016).

About The Author

Nace Zavrl is a doctoral candidate at Harvard University, writing a dissertation on nonfiction filmmaking after Yugoslavia. Previously, he studied at King’s College London and at Goldsmiths, University of London. Nace has written on film and experimental media for Afterimage, Senses of Cinema, the Moving Image Review and Art Journal, and NECSUS, as well as for Radio Študent, KINO!, and Ekran. He is the editor of The Resistance-Image: Militant Documentary on the Battlefields of May ’68, published by the Slovenian Cinematheque.

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