The mirror endows an object with new proportions, studies objects through other objects which are not quite the same. The mirror extends the world: but it also seizes, inflates and tears that world. In the mirror, the object is both completed and broken: disjecta membra. If the mirror constructs, it is in an inversion of the movement of genesis: rather than spreading, it breaks. The images emerge from this laceration. Elucidated by these images, the world and its powers appear and disappear, disfigured at the very moment when they begin to take shape. Hence the childish fear of the mirror which is the fear of seeing something else, when it is always the same thing.
– Pierre Macherey, A Theory of Literary Production (1966).

This has, however, also been a historical lesson: it is because culture has become material that we are now in a position to understand that it always was material, or materialistic, in its structures and functions. We postcontemporary people have a word for that discovery – a word that has tended to displace the older language of genres and forms – and this is, of course, the word medium, and in particular its plural, media, a word which now conjoins three relatively distinct signals: that of an artistic mode or specific form of aesthetic production, that of a specific technology, generally organised around a central apparatus or machine; and that, finally, of a social institution. […] It is because we have had to learn that culture today is a matter of media that we have finally begun to get it through our heads that culture was always that, and that the older forms or genres, or indeed the older spiritual exercises and meditations, thoughts and expressions, were also in their very different ways media products.
– Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991).

Fredric Jameson writes that, “the dominant art form of the twentieth century was not literature at all – nor even painting or theatre or the symphony – but rather the one new and historically unique art invented in the contemporary period, namely film; that is to say, the first distinctively mediatic art form.” (1) But he then goes on to stress that what was strange about this prognosis was that “it should have had so little practical effect,” that is, how little film art has opened up to experimentation and innovation, as opposed to literature (numerous authors took note of the existence and predominance of the cinema in their literary work). Experimental cinema – and a fortiori militant, political and critical experimental cinema – was and remains a marginalised, clandestine practice.

If critical media theory has allowed us to clarify fundamental elements of analysis from an emancipatory perspective, a prevailing tendency for political resignation has made this activity the principal aspect of social and political struggle; thereby reducing domination, oppression and exploitation to a simple ideological question. Ideology is “primarily a question of perspective, that is, the construction of a representation from the point of view of a subject who, far from being the passive spectator of whatever is deployed before his eyes, is an agent in its elaboration.” (2) Ideology is a “social production of representations which seem themselves as more true than nature itself, and which, on the condition of assigning the spectator to a fixed position, strive to shape the future and frame action.” (3)

The critique of the functioning of the dominant media has become the principal aspect of a certain form of social and political criticism. By denouncing the media’s ideological hyperpower, the exclusive critique of the media paradoxically confers upon it a certain invincibility. The representation of the immateriality of its power (as it functions in the field of ideal representations) is shifted towards the representation of state power: political power itself is shown as a subterranean machination, which we are incapable of opposing. This representation has no difficulty in accommodating the circulation of conspiracy theories. (4)

To carry out a reflection on the emancipatory possibilities of art necessitates a repoliticisation of ideological and aesthetic questions by rooting them “on the side of the question of the development of human capacities and the constant mutilation that capitalist relations of production subject it to, including among those who most believe they have escaped from them.” (5)

The German filmmaker Harun Farocki (1944-2014) was one of those who were able to ally a radical critique of the power of fascination exerted by the image with a certain goodwill, an “amicalité” (6), accorded to the spectator. The silence accompanying his death on July 30, 2014, both in film circles and among activist networks, is an indication of the work that remains to be accomplished, not only to discover his oeuvre, but also to derive useful lessons for a political reflection on the image, culture and the social and political situation.

Harun Farocki studied film at the Deutsche Film und Fernsehakademie during the 1960s. In the small circle of documentary, militant and experimental film initiates, he rapidly became an imposing figure. In succession, he went on to make agit-prop films (Die Worte des Vorsitzenden [The Words of the Chairman, 1967]), didactic films against the Vietnam War (Nicht löschbares Feuer [Inextinguishable Fire, 1969]), and, with Hartmut Bitomsky (another important documentary filmmaker), an attempted staging of Marx’s Capital, from which two films will result: Die Teilung aller Tage (The Division of All Days, 1970) and Eine Sache, die sich versteht (A Thing That Is Evident, 1971).

From 1974 to 1984, he was a writer and then editor-in-chief for Filmkritik, a film journal theoretically close to Cahiers du cinéma and Tel Quel, and which, in its own fashion, followed the former’s passage from the politique des auteurs to Maoism.

As was the case for numerous militant filmmakers, the sombre years of the 1980s and 1990s constrained him to a certain form of clandestinity. His films would be released in the ghetto of “arthouse” cinemas before disappearing from screens entirely (his last film to be projected in a regular movie-theatre was Videogramme einer Revolution [Videograms of a Revolution], co-directed with the Romanian Andrei Ujica, in 1993). From 1996 onwards, his work is rediscovered by galleries, which for Farocki became a way to encounter more spectators than he could in movie-theatres, but also a way of further marginalising his work by associating it with the artistic “aura” of museum institutions. He made more than a hundred films for television, cinema and a variety of exhibitions, including documentaries, historical films, essay films and a handful of fiction films.

In parallel to his work as a “critical” filmmaker, Harun Farocki taught at UC Berkeley from 1993 to 1999 and at the Akademie der Schönen Künste in Vienna from 2004 to 2011.

The singularity of Farocki’s work resides in his “anti-pedagogical” attitude. He created a cinematic dispositif which, as opposed to a large number of documentary and militant films, does not presuppose an ignorant spectator in need of being educated, edified and informed in order to turn to revolt, but which, on the contrary, fashions a space-time in which the spectator is free to circulate within and between its images in order to be a (co-)producer of – and not merely be a receptacle for – knowledge.

In the contemporary media age, with its proliferation of imagery, Farocki kept himself at a distance both from those who defended the image as a form of irrefutable proof (7), and those who ferociously critiqued images as playing an essential role in the process of the alienation of the masses by maintaining them in a state of passivity and fascination. Over the years, he patiently traced a method of producing films and image-analyses that invites us to serenely muse about them and envisage possibilities of making new uses out of them in order to accompany and enrich the production of a critical theory of images and society at large.

I propose, in this text, by investigating some of his films, to locate what is, in my view, Farocki’s dialectical and materialist method, and to draw out some theoretical tools useful not only for positioning ourselves in relation to images, but also for inventing possible new usages of these images. This is in no way an exhaustive and “objective” analysis of these films, but one from the standpoint of a unique spectature (8), that is, a mode of circulation in the space-times of Farocki’s films which is specific to myself, even while recognising my debt to a cinematic dispositif that has incited me to trace this path. More so than savoir (knowledge), Farocki’s films teach us that co-habiting with images necessitates the development of savoir-faire.

Elaboration of a Method

Farocki’s work method was possibly born out of disappointment – which is confessed in the form of a question addressed to the playwright Heiner Müller during an interview: “I feel that both Godard and Brecht seem to have only proclaimed a method, but never began working with it.” (9) Godard and Brecht are the two figures between whom the first cinematic essays by Farocki – then, at the end of the 1960s, a young film student at the recently established Deutsche Film und Fernsehakademie – will navigate: between Brechtian didacticism and the humour (or irony, the “witticism”, the Witz (10)) of Godard’s Groupe Dziga Vertov period.

Die Worte des Vorsitzenden (Farocki, 1967)

Die Worte des Vorsitzenden (Farocki, 1967)

In the short film Die Worte des Vorsitzenden, made in 1967 (the year Farocki is expelled from film school for his political and militant activities, before being re-admitted under probation by the administration), he films a man who, after reading The Little Red Book by Mao Zedong, tears out the pages so as to make a paper plane that he throws in the direction of two characters wearing the masks of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, and his wife Farah Pahlavi.

The projectile that landed in the soup they were eating, splashing their faces.

The projectile that landed in the soup they were eating, splashing their faces.

Die Worte des Vorsitzenden (1967)

Die Worte des Vorsitzenden (1967)

Their visit to Berlin had provoked numerous student demonstrations. Police repression will lead to the murder of the young protestor Benno Ohnesorg. It is in the wake of this event that Farocki, assisted by Helke Sander (a future filmmaker and militant filmmaker, co-author with Farocki of a remarkable mid-length film Brecht die Macht der Manipulateure [Break the Power of the Manipulators, 1967]) and Holger Meins (director of a lone short-film, Oskar Langenfeld. 12 Mal [1966], and future Rote Armee Fraktion member) attempts to symbolise the contradiction between the idea that words are weapons, and the material fact that, at most, they are merely paper weapons.

Die Worte des Vorsitzenden (1967)

Die Worte des Vorsitzenden (1967)

Farocki’s artistic influences are multiple: beyond Godard, he recognises the influence of the films of Robert Bresson and Jean-Marie Straub/Danièle Huillet, as well as the critical theatre of Bertolt Brecht and Heiner Müller, and the “documentary theatre” of Peter Weiss. He progressively fashions his working methods by taking into consideration both the new period and the new conditions in which he is working, as well as the subject of his films. This period begins in 1986 with Wie man sieht (As You See), and is marked by his refusal to continue working with actors: “No actors, no images made by myself. It’s better to cite something that already exists and create a new documentary quality. Abandon interviews with documentary subjects: leave all awkwardness to the idiots you want to keep away from.” (11) Farocki will then make his films on the basis of heterogeneous filmic material accumulated by him over the years, vestiges of earlier works or gleaned by chance from his research activities. The images of archival documents, institutional films, advertisements, military operations or surveillance cameras, whether broadcast on television or not, are manipulated by the filmmaker so as to reveal a buried meaning which can only appear when we view an image independently of the others with which it is associated. “It is just as necessary to be wary about images as it is about words. Images and words are woven into discourses and networks of signification. […] My path is to be in search of a buried meaning, to clear away the debris obstructing the images.” (12) It is this Brechtian credo that determines the ethics and aesthetics of his work, namely: the articulation of a “patient insistence on duration, an anti-nihilist attitude and a materialist impulse.” (13)

Absconded Images

From 1969 onwards, Harun Farocki carries out a reflection on the use of documentary images in the media sphere. In Nicht löschbares Feuer, clearing away the debris obstructing the documentary image implies a refusal to show the spectator the photograph of a Vietnamese peasant who has survived the burns caused by napalm. Farocki’s work has the goal of deactivating the horrifying, terrifying and intimidating power of documentary images. Their violence would incite the spectator to avert their gaze and close their eyes before the events portrayed and the context to these events. By showing himself burning his own forearm with a cigarette, Farocki criticises and confirms the persuasive power of these images. It is on the basis of this benevolence – refusing to show certain images – and this belief in the persuasive power of images that the film is deployed.

“If the spectators wish to know nothing about the effects of napalm, their responsibility for the reasons behind the recourse to napalm must be interrogated.” (14) This phrase, pronounced in a voiceover that closes the first scene, links together the responsibility of the filmmaker and that of the spectator. If the filmmaker refuses to show an image that he thinks is unbearable for the spectators, he nonetheless warns that a spectator who refuses to know more about the effects of napalm must lead us to inquire into the responsibility of this spectator as to the use of napalm.

Nicht löschbares Feuer (1969)

Nicht löschbares Feuer (1969)

Nicht löschbares Feuer (1969)

Nicht löschbares Feuer (1969)

Harun Farocki will then choose to film, in a didactic manner and with actors, the production process of napalm in the capitalist system. He thus exposes not only the responsibility of workers in the production of weaponry, but also, and just as much, the alienation of workers who, in the capitalist division and repartition of production, fail to recognise the endpoint of their work, or even the usage made of the object produced.

The author only exposes documents filmed in Vietnam (using the medium of television news footage) when he wishes to underscore that the legibility of an image is linked to the social position of the spectator: scientists, chemists, department heads and labourers are terrified when faced with images of war broadcast on television but do not recognize the use of a weapon that they, in each of their positions, have contributed to producing. As Marx wrote, appearance is not to be confused with its essence: documentary images taken in isolation tell us nothing about the conditions permitting the production of what they represent. They do not take into account the processes at work. The commentaries of journalists associated with these images direct our reflection towards what is important for those who have produced these images: establishing the number of victims, providing proof of the effectiveness of napalm. Serge Daney uses the term the visual to designate the images produced and broadcast by television “because it is the visual verification that a technical dispositif functions.” (15) If, for imperialists, these images are the visual verification of the effectiveness of napalm, Harun Farocki demonstrates in his film that for the engineers and workers these images appear as totally foreign to their own activities.

By refusing to show us an image considered as a document (the photograph of the Vietnamese villager burnt by napalm), Farocki yields a film on the production of napalm in the capitalist system, at the same time as showing us that the dominant use of documentary images serves the interests of the capitalists and plays a role in the reproduction of existing social relations.

A Historical Materialism of Images

Since making Nicht löschbares Feuer, Farocki has entwined, in the same cinematic fabric, industrial history, military history and the history of images (whether handmade, photographic, cinematic, or digitally animated). However, Farocki’s work consists in no way of revealing the secret of images or the secret of commodities in these images, but rather of manipulating images in order to give rise to significations, and to incite the spectator to once more connect these images with each other, in order to give rise to new significations.

He works, therefore, not at producing images of the world – or a certain type of image of the world – that would not exist or appear in the situation, but rather at extracting meaning by untying the knot of significations present in (or associated with) an image. Hence the recourse, in Wie man sieht, to images of weaving: “A piece of fabric is a form of interlacing, a grid of recurring knots.” (16) These images invite the spectator to think about the interlacing of significations contained in an image, by meticulously untangling the threads, deconstructing the “armour” of the image (“We shall call the mode of disposition of the threads the ‘weave’; a fabric is defined by its ‘weave’. This particular ‘weave’ is called a twill” (17)), and by connecting these images to other images.

Thus, from weaving, from fabric, Farocki leads us towards the factory, industry, the capitalist mode of production, the mechanisation of thought, logic, calculation. Let us cite some fragments from the voiceover commentary so as to understand the movement undertaken:

Capitalism and heavy industry took off with weaving. Fabric is simple, regular and endless. The regularity of the fabric puts the ill-assured hand of the worker to shame: the worker must be replaced. […] Weaving is not too remote from calculation. “Incontestably, the fabric of thought is like the weaver’s craft, where a movement of the foot agitates thousands of threads which make the shuttle bob up and down, the threads glide imperceptibly, a thousand knots are formed in a single stroke.” Mephistopheles, disguised as a professor, addresses himself thus to a student. He speaks of the mechanisation of thought by logic. […] An observation warrants that we insist on it: the calculating machine is born from weaving at the moment that it was felt necessary to weave an image. Nothing has pushed the images back into the margins more than calculation. The image and the written word confronted each other for thousands of years, without noticing that a third force had developed, which would not delay in undermining both of them. Let us call this third force calculation. […] That, long ago, workers could skilfully use their feet affects them more than any other loss since then. In 1800, the English inventor Henry Maudslay constructed the first screw-cutting lathe that permitted the interchanging of parts. Marx wrote at the time: “this mechanical appliance replaces, not some particular tool, but the hand of man.” (18)

Due to Farocki’s montage, we perceive the multiple histories to be told: the history of capitalism, logic, of the craft of weaving, of calculating machines, etc. But more than an exposition of all these possible histories, the montage of Wie man sieht, invites us to think not only of the coexistence of these histories, but also, and just as much, of the connections between these histories and their reciprocal influence on each other.

Figures, fictions

These histories are only possible due to the intervention of a person who acts by connecting images with each other, by producing a discourse (a history) thanks to these connections. Such a discourse does not pre-exist the act of relating these images to each other, nor does it pre-exist the gaze that subject holds over these images. The images do not in themselves contain a discourse – at the very most they are rhetorical figures. “An image, like a concept, which can lend itself to so many types of messages, […] is often used so much that we can understand it with our eyes closed, without even having to look at it,” as Farocki tells us in the commentary for Arbeiter verlassen die Fabrik (Workers Leaving the Factory), made in 1995 on the occasion of the centennial anniversary of the first film made by the Lumière brothers.

The first camera was aimed at the factory in order to record workers leaving their shift. If the cinema has very often been kept at a distance from factories, a number of cameras have remained to continue filming workers leaving the factory or working there. La Sortie de l’usine Lumière à Lyon by the Lumière brothers showed a documentary vision of workers leaving a factory in 1895, but is silent on the fact that it is a fiction: a representation, a figuration by the bosses of what workers of both sexes must do when leaving a factory: dressed properly, without any external trace of labour, without any “borrowed” tools in their pockets, and in a regular flux without interruption. Like every figuration, this image is also an exclusion: of those who do not correspond to the model, to the figure of the worker, and those who are not workers: on the one hand, strikers, unemployed or underemployed workers, the ill-disciplined, saboteurs, recalcitrants; on the other hand, the chronically unemployed, those living on the margins, housewives, the disabled, etc.

This figuration has no time to be seen, analysed, or critiqued: as soon as the doors of the factory are opened, the entity that is “the working class”, “the exploited”, “the industrial proletariat” are atomised: “the personnel take leave of each other, the life of the individual can commence. The majority of fiction films begin after working hours have ended.” (19) Cinematic fiction begins with La Sortie de l’usine Lumière à Lyon, film fictions begin once the characters leave the factory. Workers are liberated (for a time) from the factory – much as meanings must be liberated from the images and images liberated from the meanings and discourses assigned to them.

Arbeiter verlassen die Fabrik (1995)

Arbeiter verlassen die Fabrik (1995)

Arbeiter verlassen die Fabrik (1995)

Arbeiter verlassen die Fabrik (1995)

By tearing images from the contexts in which they are produced and disseminated, Farocki gives them a new life, thanks to a new assemblage, to new relations between images. This new life is the possibility that a new discourse can be produced – by the filmmaker and/or by the spectator – on, or on the basis of, these images.

Dialectical Operations

According to Deleuze – commenting, incidentally, on the work of Jean-Luc Godard – this method “is not an operation of association but differentiation, as mathematicians say, or disappearance, as physicists say.” (20) Farocki’s montage works on the disappearance of the dominant signification, of the discourse spontaneously associated with it. He does not proceed by the addition of meaning, but by the association of different significations: images succeed each other, repeat each other, but do not add up with each other. They assume a different meaning as a function of their positions within a montage sequence, as a function of the moment in which they (re)appear. What opens up before the spectator is not an accumulation of significations that outline a meaning unique to the film, but a disappearance of significations and a transformation of the gaze that is held over these images and the discourse that is produced on them.

The aim of this differentiation operation is the willed failure of the psychic remembrance operations of the significations bestowed on these images, but also a shattering of the foundations of the dominant film language. Harun Farocki explains that, in his view: 

The structure is created by words and not by images. In narrative films, the narration creates a structure, we know how to read a film, the matrix of narration pre-exists. With documentaries, it is the logic of the discourse that dominates in the majority of cases, and this is not sufficient, because commentary is a major problem. How can we avoid the reign of words? In certain cases, for example in my films Wie man sieht and Bilder der Welt und Einschrift des Krieges, I used a lot of language, but a language where the texts function a little like images. With regards to words, I am trying to make use of the same cinematic methods of repetition employed for images. Perhaps this is a solution for the continued existence of commentary. (21)

This method of the repetition of shot, images and fragments of commentary allows Farocki to disturb the logic of the film structured like a language. He also disturbs the idea that images are assembled like a discourse, by letting us imagine that the commentary may be a montage of scattered fragments, thoughts born in the moment when the gaze hits upon this montage, and not a discourse unfurling before us. The repetition and recurrence of shots and ideas have the goal of undoing the impression that his films obey a narrative structure that organise the exposition of images. They are procedures at the service of a de-suturing of commentary and image, in order for the commentary to be a supplement, and appear as such in the eyes and ears of the spectator.

Farocki begins by subtracting the discourses that accompanied a certain type of media imagery. In Erkennen und verfolgen (War at a Distance, 2003), he places, at the heart of his film, three video extracts recorded during the Gulf War in 1991 by cameras situated on board aerial military vehicles, as well as two videos taken from cameras fixed directly on the missile heads.

Erkennen und verfolgen (Farocki, 2003)

Erkennen und verfolgen (Farocki, 2003)

Erkennen und verfolgen (Farocki, 2003)

Erkennen und verfolgen (Farocki, 2003)

In the case of the former images, we see buildings – supposedly military sites – being smashed to bits after being hit by what seem to be missiles. In the latter images, we see the target get closer and closer until the collision happens: “cameras launching themselves on the target.”

These images occupied television screens around the world, and are still shown by news broadcasts. In a voiceover, a journalist tells us that the target, an Iraqi army barracks or a presidential palace, was struck by the American armed forces. We will no doubt later learn that among the targets of these “surgical strikes” are schools, hospitals or residential neighbourhoods, thus invalidating any belief in the effectiveness of these “clean war” operations. This matters little; these images produced by “smart weapons” – which show war “like a video game” (22) – are not really destined to be watched. They are the product of a “vision without a look.” (23) They are documents of power, the visual sign of military power.

In the televisual dispositif, the voiceover is there to explain to the viewer what he must (or should) be seeing, what the image is supposed to tell: the invasion of Iraq by the American army and the commencement of aerial bombing operations.

Erkennen und verfolgen begins with the presentation to the viewer of these five shots without commentaries explaining what we are supposed to see, or providing complementary explanations (Where do these images come from? Who produced them? Who is shooting? What is the target?). Here, the voiceover of Farocki’s commentary does not have the function of explaining to the spectators what they should understand. The filmmaker is not concerned with making a counter-information film furnishing alternative information in order to correct the dominant version. The commentary, here, has two functions: providing a legend for the images we watch, and communicating the reflections of the filmmaker.

Farocki methodically confronts images of the Gulf War with other images, whether they be familiar or a priori totally foreign to this war. The first shot that succeeds these images is that of a man working, seated at an industrial punching machine from the mechanical era. After this, there is a short sequence extracted from a promotional film for the long-range guided missile “Taurus”. These two shots are then brought together in opposite corners of the screen, while a voiceover tells us: “There must be a connection between production and destruction.” It is through the montage of shots showing opposed activities (production and destruction) that Farocki intends to perturb the spectator’s gaze.

Erkennen und Verfolgen (Farocki, 2003)

Erkennen und Verfolgen (Farocki, 2003)

Erkennen und Verfolgen (Farocki, 2003)

Erkennen und Verfolgen (Farocki, 2003)

If these shots are contradictory, they are no less indissociable: the tools of destruction are the result of industrial production; destruction is the “production of a new space,” or of new conditions (which is at one and the same time social, mental, imaginary, absolute, abstract and contradictory (24)); production is the destruction of a prior situation, a primary material, of the land and of the worker. (25) However, Harun Farocki does not commit the abject error – which is made by Heidegger – of confusing production and destruction or, more precisely, of turning the essence of technology per se into the essence of destruction and extermination. In his commentary to Wie man sieht, Farocki remarks: “Henry Ford introduced the assembly line [Montagelinie], inspired, it is said, by abattoirs. This does not mean that mass production finds its origins in the blood of beasts – the abattoir slices up, while the factory assembles.” (26) Only the visual satisfaction of the spectacle and visual verification of the orderly development of operations count for the dominant form of audiovisual production. Was it not George W. Bush himself who declared that what was needed were “dramatic strikes visible on TV and covert operations, secret even in success”? (27) The broadcasting of images of war does not so much involve the presentation of analysable proof for the attentive TV viewer, as it does a spectacularisation of war coupled with “a procedure of dissimulation and disinformation.” (28)

That “the images are missing” does not mean that the images necessary for a decent comprehension of the challenges of the US invasion of Iraq are missing, let alone that those necessary for the mobilisation of masses of people against the war are missing (no militant anti-war film is the source for the protests that broke out in several countries), but that it is the points of view which would lead to a crisis in the dominant representations of conflict that are missing. Whether these latter are partisans of or opponents to the war matters little because “what artists offer us is not a rectification of information but modes of sensual presentation that break the same frames of representation.” (29) Nor does “the images are missing” signify that the images which would present a possible counter-space do not exist, but rather that they do not appear in the commodity-circulation of information, that there is still an image that imposes itself rather than another image: the image of Stevie Wonder, for example, singing a song for children dying of hunger in Africa rather than an image of the “state of the world”; the commodity-image of “charity” is substituted for the images of “compassion”. In this the image of “charity”, the Other no longer appears, and the possibility of being positioned as “the Other of the Other” becomes impossible. (30)

An Estrangement

It is through the relation of heterogeneous filmic materials that Harun Farocki creates the conditions allowing for the birth of critical reflection. This dialectical montage is the cinematic transposition of the disassembling-reassembling [démontage-remontage] effects of Brechtian theatre and an application of the procedure of estrangement. While certain forms of montage present a logic, and even diegetic, continuity (such as the enchainment of shots presenting a mechanical simulator of a bomber in the German army in 1943, composed out of model ships placed on a conveyor belt and a digital military simulator of a contemporary tank recreating a virtual landscape), other forms of montage are destined to produce estrangement.

It is in this way that the montage of a sequence in which a soldier in a flight simulator is being trained to escape a missile pursuing him accompanied by a shot from a commercial clip of the “Taurus” missile (and its heady electronic music) invites the spectator to watch these images differently. Similarly, the “images of military control” of the bombings in Iraq succeeding the shots presenting virtual simulation exercises modify our relationship to these images. Recorded in Iraq in 1991, these images at the heart of Erkennen und Verfolgen become progressively charged, during the viewing of the film, with different visual and audio elements selected and accumulated by the spectator. The repetition of these shots and their re-assemblage throughout the film invite us to reflect on the modification, not of these images, but of the gaze that we hold over them, as if they were no longer the same images, as if they told us of something else, or as if we made them tell us of something else.

For the film does indeed tell a story, or stories, in the plural: those conjoined histories of industrial and military technological development, the transformation of industrial production, and the modification of our gaze, our capacity as observers. Those images of control produced by surveillance cameras which are still destined to be watched by a human eye are sufficiently treated by software tools to more rapidly and precisely reveal the information that is judged to be worthy of interest for industry or the armed forces. The estrangement reaches paroxysmic levels when we slowly become aware that certain images that are presented to us are no longer even destined to be watched – and are already no longer watched – by a human being.

The story told is also that of the double disappearance of the hand that manipulates and the eye that gazes – it is not only the eye as an organ, or the gaze by itself, but the conjunction of the two that guarantees human presence. In Schnittstelle (Interface, 1995), Farocki explains that “a modern conception of scientific labour would prefer that the hand does not intervene in process. As long as the experiment lasts, the scientist is a ‘pure spirit’,” (31) a body and an eye absent from the space of experimentation. This is the history of the double disappearance of workers from factories (even if these factories still need workers “not for their skills, but due to the lack of space for a supplementary robot”) and of humans from images of war (“Human beings seem to have disappeared from the battleground, much as they have disappeared from automated factories”). (32)

In effect, Harun Farocki remarks that the images produced by industry “are not aimed at showing the process of production, they are part of this process,” in the same way that images taken from bomber jets are part of the process of war. By being broadcast on television news reports, they assume their role as a verification of the orderly development of military operations, while purging them of horrifying views of the corpses that they produce.

The work of the filmmaker does not reside in the decryption of images, in the revelation of what might be buried or hidden in them; it resides in the invention of a cinematic dispositif that beckons spectators to learn for themselves to watch images and create their own history. This has the goal not of discovering what they dissimulate, but of seeing precisely how little they show, seeing their function(s) in the contexts in which they are produced and broadcast (or not). Harun Farocki is concerned with making us sensitive to the fact that images of war tell us nothing about war. Only human beings are in a position to produce a discourse based on the images they observe. It is thus important to grasp the political orientations that subtend these discourses. Bu this is not what interests Harun Farocki. Images here are indices that can (and must) manipulate in order to give rise to thought, both among the author and among the spectators. Erkennen und verfolgen equally recounts the history of the production of the conditions that make this thought possible. To produce the conditions allowing for a spectator to be emancipated from discourses and images implies deactivating the dominant functions of images and sounds.

It is the present that should be intolerable and not its images

Serge Daney described the “film image” as having been:

Hollowed out by the power that has permitted it, that has wanted it. It is also something that some people have enjoyed making, while others have enjoyed watching it. And it is this pleasure that remains: the image is a grave for the eye. Watching a film means being confronted with déjà-vu – the déjà-vu of others: the camera, the author, the audience(s), sometimes even politicians. […] And déjà-vu is also the already-enjoyed [déjà-joui]. (33)

Images already-seen by others: images which, in addition to being the result of an act of framing, of a certain type of look, have thus already been controlled, verified and validated before being imposed on screens or in newspapers. Daney highlights, in this film, the importance of “its order of exposition”, of the “time that it grants itself in order for us to restore these images to what they were, images taken from the standpoint of US power, taken from the other side.” (34) Farocki’s objective thus consists of: “washing the images from all sense of déjà-vu. This involves “bringing out” (showing up, but also chasing away, extirpating) from these images the power which called them forth, and which would like them to surprise us even more. From this point on, the horror is no longer an eternal return of the Same with the features of the Same (the retro mode), but the intolerable present.” (35) At issue is the defamiliarisation of the spectators when faced with these images which only present “facts”, “that which was, without its possibility, without its power. [The media] thus gives us a fact in relation to which we are impotent.” In order to “bring out” the power that called forth these images, in order to bring out their function in the broader media process of the circulation of information and commodity-images, Farocki accords a major importance not only to the “order of exposition” (which image before/after which other image?) but also to the “time” he is given to restore these images: in order to present the spectator with what was lost in their original process of exposition, what was unjustly captured or possessed: a time of the gaze, the possibility in time and space of connecting this image to other images, of producing a discourse.

The possibility of watching an image passes through the time of its exposition, through its reappearance (repetition) within montage and through the deactivation of its initial function. What the repetition of shots and phrases in the films of Farocki permits is the constant modification or transformation of the signification of images, the possibility, as a spectator, to always have to re-associate these images or textual fragments to others. In this sense: “repetition is not the return of the identical, the reoccurrence of the same in and of itself. The force and the grace of repetition is the novelty it brings, it is the renewed possibility of that which was. Repetition restores the possibility of that which was, and makes it possible once more.” (37) 

The Functions of Images

A photograph is not an anodine image, one image among others whose essential function – that which results from the intention of the individual who has produced it – would be inscribed in its form. The photograph of the dead Communards in their coffin can not but evoke what Roland Barthes recalls in Camera Lucida: “certain Communards paid with their lives for their willingness or even their eagerness to pose on the barricades: defeated, they were recognised by Thiers’ policemen shot, almost every one.” (38) The use of images depends on those who utilise them and manipulate them. In the hands of some, they are souvenirs, symbols, historic documents; in the hands of others they are tools used for repressive purposes. The inverse also applies: the photographs of (forcibly) unveiled Algerian women taken by “a soldier from the battalion: Marc Garanger” will be used to establish identity cards. These portraits are today considered as artistic photographs and are reproduced in a book that Farocki leafs through in the 1989 film Bilder der Welt und Inschrift des Krieges. We will establish an identity card for them. Faces that until now have worn the veil.” These two phrases a repeated on two occasions, as if to insist on the presence in these portraits of “the terror of being photographed for the first time” (39), of the violence of colonial, patriarchal unveiling, and of the violence of administrative census taking and bodily control. Such a presence is invisible, because “the photographs captures an instant, and thus divides the past from the future” (40) – namely: wearing the veil and identity cards. This, once again, is what a photograph neither tells nor shows: its function is not inscribed (or imprinted) on it.

Bilder der Welt und Inschrift des Krieges (Farocki, 1989)

Bilder der Welt und Inschrift des Krieges (Farocki, 1989)

Like advertising imagery and war footage, these photographs assure a certain function in the situation where they are presented. Video images of the verification of military operations are:

functional images with a purely technical finality, which are utilised for a precise operation, and for the most part are subsequently effaced of their material support. They are images with a single use. That the US command showed such footage from the Gulf War, images which sought neither to edify nor instruct, but only to function once – this too is an unbelievable displacement, this too is conceptual art. My images also only wish to attain art as, at the very most, an accessory. (41)

But these images do not only have, in their essence, a single possible usage, a single function. Transposed into the space of the media, they transform military operations into facts, they visually validate warmongering speeches, the power of military technology which permits, at the same time as it destroys, the production of an image of this destruction. Displacing these images and manipulating them (by re-editing them, re-framing them) creates the ability to offer them to a different type of gaze and to open up the possibility of learning something of these images, even if only to learn to make one’s gaze circulate among these images, to locate what might interest us as a spectator. To (be able to) do what the photo-interpreters did not do in 1944 when they received an aerial view of Silesia: seeing that there is something important – the concentration camp at Auschwitz. Why did they not see it? Because this image did not have the function of showing a view of Auschwitz, but enabling us to identify the positions of the factories surrounding it: “They were not charged with searching out the Auschwitz camp, so they did not find it.” (42) The image was assigned a precise function, and so this function instituted a gaze and determined a way of seeing the image. The order and the time of the exposition of images that Farocki proposes in his films allow for the liberation of the spectator’s gaze from this assignation by offering the possibility of focussing on aspects of the image that are not entailed in their projects. “How close these two things are: industry – the camps.” (43)

In Aufschub (Respite, 2007), Farocki presents the rushes of a film shot in 1944 at the Westerbork camp. (44) The commentaries are not in voiceover, but inscribed on title cards. The structure of the film, the freeze-frames, the repetitions of shots, the interruptions made by the title-cards commentaries, the digital modifications (a circle surrounds the face of a camp Kommandant), open the space for a détournement of these images away from their prior functions, thereby “inviting the spectator to a personal reading.” (45) Farocki initially refuses the dominant montage practice in compilation-films using archival footage: the use of voiceover commentary and the use of musical accompaniment. The spectator feels the absence of sound.

The material that Farocki reworks derives from an aborted film project, shot with two 16mm cameras by Rudolf Breslauer, a photographer who, having fled the Netherlands, was interned at the “police transit camps for Jews in Westerbork”. By presenting the raw material in the initial section (without cuts or additions), Aufschub progressively presents what would have been the function of these images: to show the extent to which “the camp was productive. […] The images were supposed to say: don’t close the camp, don’t deport the prisoners” (46) to Auschwitz. This camp film is inscribed “in the genre of the company film. As such, its aim was to have been the championing of the economic efficacy of the camp at the precise moment when its existence seemed under threat.” (47) We can thus see in Breslauer’s film shots in which Jewish prisoners replace horses in the fields, and machines in the workshops.

With his commentary and his montage, Farocki shows that these images can be interpreted differently, that they can be associated with other images (which he refrains from showing here) and that they can consequently have a different purpose to that for which they were made. The images of Jewish prisoners labouring in the field “can be interpreted differently. The labour of the detainees may lead us to think that they are cultivating virgin soil. […] As if they were constructing something that was their own, their own society perhaps.” As if the gaze that Breslauer held had not been totally at one with the gaze of his patron-executioner SS Gemmeker.

But in Farocki’s view these images summon other images – images with which we are familiar. The image of the bodies of workers stretched out under the sun during the lunch break has us think of the image of the corpses that were strewn on the ground in the death camps; the white shirts of the people working in the laboratories resemble those worn by the butchers of Auschwitz and Dachau, who carried out experiments on human beings; the dentist’s office recalls the extraction of gold teeth in other camps, the work of dismantling Westerbork “recalls that, at Auschwitz, profits were made from the bodies of detainees.”


To emancipate the spectators from images – from their significations and the functions that are assigned to them, or that we spontaneously assign to them – involves: “offering […] these images in us that offer the possibility of re-editing them ourselves, imaginatively, according to multiple trajectories that it [Farocki’s montage] proposes to us beyond his own solutions (hence the interest in looping, repetition and freeze-frames).” (48) Even if we retain this possible characterisation of the emancipatory process that Farocki’s films activate or permit – that “offering, in this sense, means opening the meaning (signification) to the honed senses (sensations) of the spectator” (49) – we may also argue that this process does not stop there. The emancipation of the spectator is not confined to this opening of meaning and honing of the senses; rather, these are the necessary conditions for pursuing the process of emancipation.

The political and aesthetic orientation of Harun Farocki’s works is inscribed in a struggle against “the essence of media violence […] which has become widespread on both surveillance monitors and television sets” and whose objective is “to transform the spectator – just like in times of war – either as an abettor or as a potential victim.” (50)

Farocki’s films therefore occupy a singular position in the field of cinematic and audiovisual production: they do not presuppose the ignorance and incapacity of these potential spectators who would be mired in passivity. It is against such a logic – which places the respective silences of the abettor or of the victim back to back – that Harun Farocki constructs, in his work, a cinematic dispositif open to an encounter with other spectator-authors, other historians (“May everyone be their own historian,” wrote Brecht) with which he can share his thoughts and his savoir-faire, in order to live “more carefully and more exactingly.” (51)


  1. Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 1991), p. 68.
  2. Isabelle Garo, L’idéologie ou la pensée embarquée (Paris: La Fabrique, 2009), p. 7.
  3. Ibid., p. 14.
  4. See Fredric Jameson, “Totality as Conspiracy”, in The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System (Bloomington: Indiana Unviersity Press, 1992), pp. 9-86.
  5. Isabelle Garo, op. cit., p. 107.
  6. Amicalité is a French neologism adopted by Philippe Ivernel as a translation for Brecht’s Freundlichkeit (friendliness).
  7. See, on this subject, the controversy between Jean-Luc Godard and Claude Lanzmann on the subject of the lost or non-existent images of the extermination of European Jews. Libby Saxton, “Anamnesis and Bearing Witness: Godard/Lanzmann”, in Michael Temple, James S. Williams and Michael Witt, For Ever Godard (London: Black Dog Publishing, 2004), pp. 364-379.
  8. I use the term spectature to designate the singular mode of investment of images and sounds of films made by the spectator and to distinguish this investment from that of reading [lecture] which even today is the term widely used to refer to film analysis. Too often, the reading of films induces them to be reduced to little more than a discourse to be “deciphered” or “decrypted”, as if only images and/or their montage produced a message that only the expert would be capable of grasping and communicating to the ignorant and incapable crowd.
  9. Harun Farocki, in Heiner Müller, “Intelligence without experience: Interview with Harun Farocki”, in Germania, trans. B. Schütze and C. Schütze New York: Semiotext(e), 1990), p. 163.
  10. See Nicole Brenez, “Jean-Luc Godard, Witz et invention formelle (notes préperatoires sur les rapports entre critique et pouvoir symbolique)”, Cinémas: revue d’études cinématographiques, vol. 15 no. 2-3 (2005), pp. 15-43.
  11. “No actors, no images made by myself, better to quote something already existing and create a new documentary quality. Avoid interviews with documentary subjects; leave all the awkwardness to the idiots you distance yourself from.” Antje Ehmann, Kodwo Eshun, “A to Z of HF or: 26 Introductions to HF”, Harun Farocki: Against What? Against Whom? (London: Koenig Books, 2009), p. 208.
  12. Cited in Christa Blümlinger, “Harun Farocki ou l’art de traiter les entre-deux”, in Harun Farocki, Reconnaître & Poursuivre, texts collected and introduced by Christa Blümlinger (Courbevoie: Théâtre Typographique, 2002), p. 11.
  13. Hanns Zischler, “Travailler avec Harun”, trans. into French by P. Rusch, Trafic, no. 43 (Autumn 2002), p. 27.
  14. Harun Farocki, “Feu Inextinguible”, in Harun Farocki, Films: Feu Inextinguible, Tel qu’on le voit, Images du monde et inscription de la guerre, Sorties d’usines, Section, Images de prisons. Suivi de: Journal de guerre (Courbevoie: Théâtre Typographique, 2006), p. 16.
  15. Serge Daney, “La guerre, le visuel, l’image”, Trafic, no. 50 (Summer 2004), p. 440.
  16. Harun Farocki, “Tel qu’on le voit”, in Harun Farocki, Films, op. cit., p. 40.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid., p. 43-47.
  19. Harun Farocki, “Sortie d’usine”, in Harun Farocki, Reconnaître & Poursuivre, op. cit., p. 91.
  20. Gilles Deleuze, Cinéma 2: l’image-temps (Paris: Minuit, 1985), p. 234.
  21. Harun Farocki, in Alice Malinge, “Questions à Harun Farocki”, Revue 2.0.1, no. 1 (November 2008), p. 67.
  22. Harun Farocki, “La guerre trouve toujours un moyen”, trans. into French by P. Rusch, in Chantal Pontbriand (ed.), HF/RG: Harun Farocki/Rodney Graham (Paris: Jeu de Paume/Blackjack, 2009), p. 91.
  23. Paul Virilio, L’Écran du désert: Chroniques de guerre (Paris: Galilée, 1991), p. 102.
  24. See Henri Lefebvre, La Production de l’espace (Paris: Anthropos, 2000 [1974]).
  25. “Moreover, all progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is a progress towards ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility. The more a country proceeds from large-scale industry as the background of its development as in the case of the United States, the more rapid is this process of destruction. Capitalist production, therefore, only develops the techniques and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth – the soil and the worker.” Karl Marx, Capital, vol. I, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin, 1976), p. 638.
  26. Harun Farocki, “Tel qu’on le voit”, Films, op. cit., p. 42.
  27. Georges W. Bush, “Speech on September 20, 2001”, cited by Daniel Bensaïd, Éloge de la politique profane (Paris: Albin Michel, 2008), p. 55. Emphasis added.
  28. Paul Virilio, op. cit., p. 181-182. “The war of images and sounds tends to supplant that of the projectiles of the military arsenal. If the Latin root of the word secret means put aside, putting aside comprehension, this “putting aside” is currently less that of the classical “spatial distance” than that of “temporal distance”. Deceiving the adversary about duration, making secret images of weaponry trajectories, becoming more useful than the destructive performances of the machine. Deceiving the enemy about the virtuality of the projectile’s passage, about the very credibility of its presence here or there, has become more necessary than luring him as to the reality of his existence. Whence this generation of furtive machines, discreet, almost undetectable vehicles, whose use in the Gulf War was supposedly decisive.” (p. 183).
  29. Jacques Rancière, La Méthode de l’égalité (Paris: Bayard, 2012), p. 288. Emphasis added.
  30. “One could, provisionally, call “visual” the sum of images of replacements for very precise reasons. Not replacements because we would have the choice and the game – for ludic reasons it would be formidable if one could know about a given situation that one can make a given image, but also this one – this is not what happens. On all the events which take place in the world, there is an image that comes very quickly to cover all the others and prevent them.” Serge Daney in Pierre-André Boutang and Dominique Rabourdin, Serge Daney: Itinéraire d’un ciné-fils (France, 1992, 188 minutes). Emphasis added.
  31. Harun Farocki, “Section”, Films, op. cit., p. 101.
  32. Voiceover commentary from Erkennen und verfolgen.
  33. Serge Daney, “Un tombeau pour l’œil”, op. cit., p. 33.
  34. Ibid., p. 35. Emphasis added.
  35. Ibid.
  36. “The media loves the indignant but impotent citizen. This is even the goal of television news. This is a form of bad memory, which produces the man of ressentiment.” Giorgio Agamben, “Le cinéma de Guy Debord”, Image et mémoire (Paris: Éditions Hoëbeke, 1998), pp. 70-71.
  37. Ibid., pp. 69-70.
  38. Roland Barthes, Camera lucida, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), p. 11.
  39. Ibid.
  40. Ibid.
  41. Harun Farocki, “Influences transversales”, trans. into French by P. Rusch, Trafic, no. 43 (Autumn 2002), p. 24.
  42. Harun Farocki, “Images du monde et inscription de la guerre”, Films, op. cit., p. 60.
  43. Ibid.
  44. “Westerbork was an atypical camp, where the SS played a withdrawn role. The administration was confided to the inmates; Jewish inmates recorded the new arrivals, assigning them a barrack and overseeing forced labour. Jewish inmates also formed the camp police – and established the deportation lists. The camp Kommandant made decisions as a last resort. At Westerbork, there were no beatings, no killing. Food was scarce, but nobody died of hunger. The inmates did not have their heads shaved and they could wear civilian clothing. There were newspapers to read, a school, a large hospital, sporting events, and a cultural evening took place once a week.” Harun Farocki, “Comment montrer des victimes?”, trans. into French by P. Rusch, Trafic, no. 70 (Summer 2009), p. 23.
  45. Ibid., p. 24.
  46. Ibid.
  47. Sylvie Lindeperg, “Vies en sursis, images revenantes”, Trafic, no. 70 (Summer 2009), p. 28.
  48. Georges Didi-Huberman, Remontages du temps subi: L’œil de l’histoire, vol. II (Paris: Minuit, 2010), p. 120.
  49. Ibid., pp. 120-121.
  50. Christa Blümlinger, “De la lente élaboration des pensées dans le travail des images”, Trafic, no. 14 (Spring 1995), p. 31-32.
  51. Bertolt Brecht, Me-Ti: Buch der Wendungen (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlga, 1965), p. 112.
Translated by Daniel Fairfax.
This article first appeared on the French website Revue Période.

About The Author

Thomas Voltzenlogel teaches theory and dramartugy at the Haute École des Arts du Rhin and in the Department of Cinema at the University of Strasbourg. He published the monograph Cinéma profanes: Straub-Huillet, Harun Farocki, Pedro Costa: une constellation in 2018.

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