In February 2014, Harun Farocki invited us to interview him at his apartment in a former communist neighbourhood in Berlinaus. He had just turned seventy, and was still very active: aside from having just released his final film Sauerbruch Hutton Architects (2013), he was also preparing three new installations for his long-term project Parallel that he began in 2012. We spoke in English for just under an hour in what we now realise was one of his final interviews, as he passed away on 30 July 2014.
Farocki was irreplaceable, and had a unique ability to bring images alive on screen. In our conversation, we were particularly interested in his ideas about the relationship between the cinematic apparatus and artistic production, as well as the aesthetic-political strategies that he either used or that were of interest to him. In response, he revealed details about his intimate relationship with images, where the technological, political, artistic and poetic dimensions of cinema intertwined in sometimes surprising ways.
Nowadays, it is very common to describe your work with archive images as a kind of archaeology, as argued by critics like Georges Didi-Huberman and Christa Blümlinger.
I find the word ‘archaeology’ to be a little bit dramatic. For me archaeology means, essentially, finding cultures present through elements that witness their existence – like in Greece for example – in which we didn’t have any prior knowledge at all. That, for me, is archaeology. I don’t think that any sort of history of cinema can be archaeology, especially now with the Internet, with nearly all archives online accessible on sites like YouTube.
Is there, then, a kind of ‘archaeology’ possible through the practice of montage?
In the Netherlands, some fifteen to twenty years ago, it was a smart idea to say that archives not only mean that you have to store stuff, but that someone should deal with it, such as filmmakers making films out of old footage. I find that a very smart idea: to make use of the treasures of archives. That is somehow what I am trying to do. If you look at images that are stored for fifty or a hundred years, you can perhaps find different readings now than the ones previously intended. You know the text by Rancière where he describes Chris Marker’s film1 ? (As Rancière noted in that essay), the camera just wants to record and does not distinguish between the intentions of the maker. That is somehow a great advantage, because there is a documentary surplus in these images made by this ‘cold’ apparatus. Montage – in the broader sense – can make this meaning accessible.
We are fascinated by the idea of the ‘machine gaze’ that we find in your work. There was of course a strong belief at the beginnings of cinema with people like Dziga Vertov who suggested that the camera’s gaze was not reducible to the human gaze. We feel your work is very faithful to that idea.
One aspect of this machine facet that I just alluded to is that a machine records whatever is in the frame and not just what you intended and highlighted. After fifty years or whatever, you can read a different meaning that was not intended at all. That becomes quite obvious. That can also be (the same) in painting, of course. Probably the people who asked famous painters to paint their favourite daughter, fiancée, or mistress also had struggles with the results, because there could have been different meanings than the intended one.
Think about what is known as subjective camera: nowadays in videogames, you also have a camera behind the person, the evil shooter or whatever, who is moving through the streets in an image scenario. You see what a strange construction of subjectivity this is! You can say it should be subjective, it should be from a certain perspective, but it is, of course, not the same as what the human gaze or look means. Of course this is also because we are not machines: we are looking at parts and comparing them, we are doing millions of mental operations when we are looking at images and having visual impressions of film. It is not just that you see colours and dark and light… It is much more; it is a huge construction, like James Joyce’s stream of consciousness.
Issues surrounding the supposed ‘delegation’ of human actions to machines is a real contemporary issue, and since at least the 1980s we’ve identified this as a site of fascination in your films. How do you feel about this today?
The important question (here) is: what does the word ‘delegation’ mean? That a machine works for us doesn’t simply mean that we are delegating our work to the machine. Delegation is a complex process, you cannot just do it. Therefore, for me the word ‘delegation’ doesn’t mean so much, because when you try to delegate, you can’t really, since the machine always wants something from you.
At the simplest level, the first thing we thought when we first got a computer was that we wouldn’t have to work anymore, it would do it all for us. Now, industries have a huge interest in producing software and we are spending ten hours a day on the computer. We have more work than before.
In my film Images of the World and the Inscription of War (Bilder der Welt und Inschrift des Krieges, 1989), I was partially dealing with some aspects of, on one hand, the beginning of automatic recording of history by photographic machines. Today, of course, there are other media, but in the Second World War it was just aerial photography. We already had machines recording historical data. But, on the other hand, we had (in the film) these old-fashioned people like in an odyssey: two men from Auschwitz that have witnessed what was happening there and have escaped and are now telling the world what they have seen. This is the old historiographic method, which is somehow the basis of our idea of history. There is a lot of controversy about machines recording historical data. This data is difficult to read, we still need the mind to decipher it.
We understand that you worked with German media archaeologist Wolfgang Ernst. What was your main objective on that project?
There is a little book about it.2 More than twelve years back we had a congress3 in Berlin where we tried to ask people to comment on these questions: how can images comment on images? How could you address images in the archive without using language? If you have an archive, you have to make little notes saying, “this is from Köln”, “this is from 1910”, or whatever. To have a different resource to access you would have software that asks, “which images are about factories?” or “here you have one factory and let’s see which other factories we have.” 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!), but it doesn’t work in the way that builds up an order of its own. That was the theme of this conference.
In works such as Interface (Schnittstelle, 1995) you execute and analyse different kinds of montage, and you’ve noted elsewhere that shifting to video fundamentally changed the way you work with images. We’re curious to hear your thoughts more generally about the technological changes in filmmaking, and how this has changed the way you make movies.
More or less, I find technological development advantageous. So I don’t think it is a bad thing. Image quality and sound quality in the past was far worse than what you can do with a simple computer nowadays. My ambition in the old days was to make no distinction between production and post-production: to start editing from the first day. This has become far easier now with computer editing. When travelling back from a shoot in Frankfurt on the train you can start editing the footage, to reflect upon it, to run some tests with it. All of that means for me is that it has become more concrete, more about the ‘real quality’ of images and less about the intentions, because you have something, and you ask: “Yes, but is it really good enough? What can you fit into it? What could be the next one?” You can really compare images or comment on images with images, which is something I love to do.
Could you expand on this determination to not differentiate between production and post-production?
It started in the 1980s, mainly, when I worked on films like Images of World or As You See (Wie Man Sieht, 1986), or even earlier, when I tried to escape from this silly model where you have first the script, the intentions, and then you have to translate it to the real, to the concrete film, or whatever. That is not totally new – many filmmakers improvise. Godard always improvised a little bit. Cassavetes always improvised, also.
You technically say “OK, I start shooting,” and then … edit a little bit, and from that experiment arrives the next idea for the next shoot. It is somehow a different step, which is quite common when you are painting or when you are writing a book, when you don’t have the general concept first and then you execute it, but go step by step.
In Interface you said that you couldn’t write any more without two images in front of you. What is the interplay between images and words during your creative process?
Mostly my work has had money from television or some funds from agencies where you had to submit a project for evaluation. In those days, of course, I had to make something up, let’s say, five or ten pages, and in some cases, I had no idea what shape the film would take. I pretended to know, but I wanted to be open-minded and to keep the horizon open. And now, since I mainly get my means from art spaces, I can’t really say “I need this” or “give something to me.” I have to wait for opportunities. So, I’ve learned to keep the thoughts open in my mind, without knowing what will happen. As soon as I see money, they’ll pop up (laugh). Sometimes it works; sometimes it does not work so well; sometimes it is predictable and sometimes not. It is really difficult to tell.
I find it quite good that I don’t have this idealistic impulse, “Here is my project and how can I get financed?”, but I try to find something which fits the means – which many people have done, like painters who have waited for jobs to paint. In this sense, it’s not important if you write in front of two images or under the table or whatever. It is only important that the shape the film takes is based more on the footage you really have and on your own judgment of it.
You have once said that you want to produce work that is “a form of intelligence”. How would this work in relation to montage in particular?
In all modesty, I’ve tried to find means in which not only additional words shape the idea of cinematography’s discourse, but somehow the shape, the montage, the form of a film contributes to it. It can sound a little bit poetic to say “having images that think” and “having films that think,” but it’s in this sense one of my ambitions: to find some autonomy in the cinematographic form, in which you don’t just repeat things which already exist on paper and try to translate them to film form, but you try to give some autonomy to the cinematic medium. That is one of my aims.
The Expression of the Hands (Der Ausdruck der Hände, 1997) explored the grammar of gestures in early cinema. In your observational documentaries, gestures are also significant, particularly in regard to how they can express new dimensions of labour in capitalism. What do human gestures have the capacity to tell you?
There are several things. For some reason the grammar and the syntax of cinematography is focused on looking at the facial identity of people. Why the face? This is somehow strange; I could say a ‘bourgeois’ enterprise. When I take off my glasses, I recognise every person I know from the way he or she walks. Those aspects are interesting, and of course cinematography also includes them; it includes other gestures, not only facial expressions. However, the camera is not generally focused on others aspects of bodily movement. The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013) is very much about faces, faces, and faces.
In films like Indoctrination (Die Schulung, 1987), The Creators of the Shopping Worlds (Die Schöpfer der Einkaufswelten, 2001) or, recently, A New Product (Ein Neues Produkt, 2012), you develop a strategy of observing gestures and discourses in many loci of capitalism. You have talked previously about your surprise as to how easy it was to getting permission to film in these environments.
(Regarding The Creators of the Shopping Worlds), it was not so hard to get permission for filming because the planners, architects, consultants and others who work in shopping centre development had nothing to hide. They don’t have the unbelievable scientific background knowledge they pretended to have. In the world of shopping industries, perhaps we do not need two hands for counting what they know. Therefore, they build a huge decorum, pretending to be very scientific and so on. In this sense they have nothing to hide, because they don’t know so much. I did research, and I also thought it would be difficult filming them, I thought that they had secrets, but in reality they have no secrets and that is the true secret they want to keep (laugh).
You have also said that your films from the 1960s and 1970s had become politically obsolete in a way.4 How, for example, does this apply to a film like Between Two Wars (Zwischen Zwei Kriegen, 1978)?
In the ideological sense, to tell the history of the Weimar Republic from the technological point of view symptomatically is interesting, but, of course, if you are interested in history, you can’t reduce it to the technological constraints, to the ‘production forces,’ as I tried to do. All the particularities that inform history, especially history in the last century, are somehow missing. I did want expressly to have them missing. I find that obsolete in a sense, because of this strange hidden dogmatism (laugh), which doesn’t have such strong value any more, luckily. One German author, who wrote good books about the political movements of the 1960s and 1970s, said: “In the 1970s, 5000 or 10000 of the smartest young people in Germany wrote and talked day and night about politics and not a single word still has any value” (laugh). I agree, more or less.
Your installation work since the mid-1990s appears to have altered your approach to commentary forms, such as voice-overs. This to us feels to have brought a more laconic feeling to your work, a sense that you are expecting more from images themselves…
You are right, but there are some exceptions. War at Distance (Erkennen und Verfolgen) from 2003 had a lot of commentary, but in general, you are right. The Serious Games (2009-2010) series is more or less based on one little paradox: you have the same images to prepare for the war and to cure the trauma that this war has caused. This is a very simple idea and I like to have a structural commentary and not so much a spoken one. Simplicity without simplification is a strong goal. This has to do with the demarcated meaning of art spaces, where I show these works. Things must be shorter there. I also find it an advantage because in art spaces, for instance, you can show works, as I did with Parallel (2012-2014), divided in chapters I, II, III, and IV. They are all separated. This is a kind of structure in which you have autonomous little chapters that have an interrelationship. You do not moderate all the time as you do in conventional films. I find it quite interesting.
Do you think this change of environment has contributed to the change in the style of commentary?
It could be so. It is somehow a kind of spacial montage. It is a different approach.
In terms of these different spaces, Raymond Bellour wrote in La Querelle des Dispositifs (2012) about how the moment of ‘crisis’ of the movie theatre represents an opening up to new ways of moving image exhibition, particularly in dialogue with contemporary art. Amongst other critics, Bellour looks to your work as a contemporary case study. What are your feelings on these changes?
Bellour said that despite the state of the film industry and television being terrible right now, many good films are still being made worldwide. This is almost for the same reason, because the industry is in such a bad state. Crisis can be also liberating. Crisis can mean that totally new forms of cinematography or perception can emerge, a little bit like how our communication has become more complex with the Internet. You can read long texts in a very small screen. Fifteen years ago on television, everything was like a statement from government or industry. So, in this sense, there is a crisis for sure, but a crisis is something positive, it creates a different ‘species.’
Do you think the idea of “soft montage,” which you have written about5 ought to make this treatment of images more visible?
This idea of not saying “A or B,” but “A and B” is somehow important to my own conception of soft montage. When Deleuze read Godard, he had this idea that images in his films are not excluding each other, but just building up a relationship between them during a specific film. This is of course a different approach to images beyond iconoclasm. On one hand, there is a soft montage, because there is the presence of several images in the same film that relate to each other in a soft way. On the other hand, you have one film in the space and a different film next to it and they are interrelating. It is not a soft montage, but more like a battle, it is cacophonic. I don’t know if there is an equivalent for images – like “caco-images” (laugh). In this sense, montage can also be hard between certain parts of the work.
To us, your work suspends both iconoclastic and iconophilic gestures, in search of a third way: we think that you try to find these other ways. How does montage help you to ‘think’ images of the world?
I’m very, very particular, and sometimes phobic of words. I just hate certain expressions – not because of bad construction, but because the field of meaning is somehow connected with other bad fields of meaning. That is very similar to me with images. So, very often I find something or film something which would really help with the making of a film, could really make a good point with it, and I just can’t use it because of this lack of intensity, which I can’t describe exactly. I want to keep some intuitive aspects to it. I just watch images, then they have to be strong enough, otherwise they have to leave the movie. It is a little bit like life. You have people you know and you don’t decide, you’ll just find out, if you want to see them often, if you’ll become friends, or if you’ll share their lives in a certain way, or if they will stay marginalised and just leave your horizon. I’m also dealing with images in the same way. They don’t have to be beautiful and don’t have to be unique. Sometimes it can be nearly vulgar, but they must have tensions, interesting aspects, or some contradictory meanings. That is somehow important to me.
Text Revision: Renan Felipe Correia.
- Farocki is referring to the essay, “Documentary Fiction: Marker and the Fiction of Memory,” in Jacques Rancière, Film Fables, trans. Emiliano Battista (Oxford and New York: Berg Publishers, 2006), in which Rancière discusses Chris Marker’s Le Tombeau d’Alexandre (The Last Bolshevik, 1993). ↩
- Farocki is referring to the book Suchbilder, by Stefan Heidenreich, Wolfgang Ernst and Harun Farocki (Berlin: Kulturverlag Kadmos, 2003). ↩
- Farocki is referring to the congress Suchbilder, that took place in Berlin in 2001. ↩
- This is cited from an interview by Thomas Köster with Farocki in 2012 at the Goethe Institut website. ↩
- See Farocki, Cross Influence/ Soft Montage, Harun Farocki Against What? Against Whom?, ed. Antje Ehmann and Kodwo Eshun, London: Koenig Books, 2010. ↩