Remembering Harun Farocki I See Something You Don’t See

Harun Farocki
Harun Farocki | © Hertha Hurnaus

Harun Farocki – the director whose perspicacious cinematic essays analysed the new media world – died in July 2014. With his radical way of looking at things he strove to endow images with their own form of self-will, to expose their political and cultural coding.

A shot is a shot – for over four decades the filmmaker, essayist, media theorist and media artist embraced this maxim in his films, thereby bestowing a monolithic body of work on the German film scene. His minimalistic and realistic film style made him one of the most distinctive documentary film maker of his generation. He really does in fact use the frame of a shot, the camera position, to infer a political stance or an attitude to the world. As this world, for Farocki, turned more and more into a medial world, a world that uses imagery, a world that constructs and deconstructs power, it was actually the way things are viewed itself that became his main focus. To quote the image researcher and phenomenologist himself, “You don’t have to look for new images, you just have to do some work on the ones you already have and turn them into new ones.”

Alienation strategies and new, visual territories

So what did Harun Farocki see that we did not? And how did he manage to show us what we had overlooked or simply not seen at all? If we take a look at his documentary film Der Aufritt (The Appearance), made in 1996, the first thing you are confronted with are concepts that cannot be classified. The plot at first seems to be a real hotchpotch. For example, what does the young man on whom the camera has zoomed in on mean when he speaks of soft factors, of negative scenarios or of multi–issue campaigns? Without any lead-in, without any commentary and without the person speaking being introduced the viewer is helplessly exposed to this technical jargon. It is only when, after a while, designs for the “Eyedentity” logo are faded onto the screen and the word “optician” is heard that the context becomes clear. Der Auftritt is all about the development of an advertising campaign.
Interview with Harun Farocki, created as part of a project at the Goethe-Institut Boston 2013 (

Confuse, deconstruct, focus, throw into chaos, disconcert – these are the strategies Harun Farocki uses to alienate. In the final analysis, when it came to alienation, the filmmaker was simply continuing the work of Bertolt Brecht on the screen. His critical way of viewing capitalist society and his scepticism towards established image conventions took him into ever new worlds and visual territories. Farocki attended management training seminars and took a look at the control centres of the new capitalism of that time; he listened to sales talk and negotiating strategies among bankers (Die Schulung / Indoctrination, 1987) and then in 2003 he went on to dissect the new imagery politics of the first Gulf War in Erkennen und Verfolgen (War at a Distance).

The human eye as a historical witness

The bombastic music that blares out every now and then in Erkennen und Verfolgen could well be from a sensationalist war film and emphasises the propagandist subtext of the images being shown on the news all over the world at the beginning of the 1990s. It was for the first time that cameras were mounted on missiles in order to document the moment the bomb detonated live. By using archive material, repetitions, slow–motion clips of the air raids and interviews with the staff of modern armaments companies Farocki depicts a new electronic kind of warfare that does not use new weapons, but one that creates a new aesthetic approach to war. How can the eye of the beholder bear historical witness when the bomb and the reporter become one? – this was the question posed by Farocki.

From Brecht to Godard

Harun Farocki was born as the son of a German mother and an Indian doctor in the Sudeten German town of Neutitschein (now Nový Jičín in the Czech Republic) in 1944. He grew up in India and Indonesia and eventually moved with his family to Hamburg in 1958. In 1962 he moved to West Berlin. It was there that his artistic career started, at a time when art was becoming politicised and Jean-Luc Godard made his legendary statement – one should not make political films, but film should be made political. In 1966 Farocki was among the first intake of students at the Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie/dffb (the German Film and Television Academy). Social upheaval was in the air, the images from the Vietnam War shocked the world. In Berlin the film students adopted the ideas of the extra–parliamentary opposition. They became so radical that Farocki, along with the later member of the German RAF terror group, Holger Meins, Hartmut Bitomsky and Wolfgang Petersen were expelled from the academy for participating in undesirable political activities.

It was the time in which Harun Farocki used his own body as illustrative material for one of his first projects. In Nicht löschbares Feuer (The Inextinguishable Fire) we see him dressed in a suit sitting at a desk like a newsreader, talking about the effects of napalm. “We can really only give a very slight idea of just how powerful napalm is,” says Farocki. He then takes a cigarette and stubs it out on his left arm. “A cigarette burns at a temperature of about 400 degrees”, he moves his hand to show the burn on his skin. “Napalm burns at a temperature of about 3,000 degrees.” From seeing to feeling – this is how the tenor of this early Farocki film might be described. The viewer of course suddenly sees the victims of napalm attacks in Vietnam through different eyes. And of course a visit to a napalm factory and the scientific details provided by the staff there evoke associations with Zyklon B – the gas used to exterminate people in the concentration camps of the Nazis, especially in Auschwitz.

Images, model images, images of history

Harun Farocki made over 90 films, he was an author and editor at Filmkritik magazine that closed down in 1984, he was a dramaturg, theatre director and film school lecturer. In the last years he worked quite a lot for museums and galleries, he created media and video installations – mainly because German film and television could not offer him any real scope for his essayist projects. Nevertheless his theoretical discourses met with a response on a fictional level in the feature films of director, Christian Petzold. They would take long walks through the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, on which they would develop the screenplays for the films. Nicht ohne Risiko (Nothing Ventured, 2004), Farocki’s documentary reflection on “locust” capitalism was the model image for Petzold’s drama Yella (2007). In Barbara (2012) the two of them provide a surprisingly different glimpse of the GDR with the help of the eponymous heroine played by German actress, Nina Hoss. The post-war drama Phoenix (2014) deals in a most astounding way with such things as remembering, identity, self–perception and the way we perceive others – and once again makes clear just how strongly the cinema needs Farocki’s alienation, in order to find new ways of viewing history. This was the last time Farocki worked on a project with Christian Petzold. Harun Farocki died near Berlin at the age of seventy on 30th july 2014.