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Why Harun Farocki Was a Major Filmmaker

Why Harun Farocki Was a Major Filmmaker

This week, Art Basel Miami Beach — in what it calls “a tribute to the late Harun Farocki” — screened “Parallel II” (2012), one chapter in a bare-boned four-part inquiry into digital gaming by the seminal filmmaker, who died in July at 70.
  
An art shopping destination for the 1%, sponsored by the Swiss bank UBS, might seem an odd fit for Farocki. He was a pioneer of New German cinema whose 1969 film, “Inextinguishable Fire,” was a dead-pan satire of executives at The Dow Chemical Company, the manufacturer of napalm for use in Vietnam by the US military.
 
Yet in recent years, Farocki moved closer to the world of art, as his films – shot on high definition video rather than on his once-preferred 16 mm – were exhibited in galleries as much as they were on cinema screens or in museums. MoMA gave him a retrospective in 2011. His work is shown in New York at Greene Naftali Gallery. Farocki died before ever producing a critique of the art market of which he had become a part. Given his notorious honesty, it’s a lost opportunity. Art Basel Miami Beach, now showing Parallel II, would have been the biggest and most obvious target.

Mourning a Legacy

 
In Farocki’s 1979 feature-length debut “Between Two Wars,” the director offered practical advice for filmmakers who chose to work independently: “When one doesn’t have money for cars, shooting, nice clothes, when one doesn’t have money to make images in which film time and film life flow uninterruptedly, then one has to put one’s effort into intelligently putting together separate elements: a montage of ideas.”  
 
Farocki has been mourned over the last four months. The most extensive memorial so far was in Vienna, an adopted city for the Berlin native, where he taught at the Academy of Fine Arts and where the annual Viennale was a loyal exhibitor of his many films. A salute to the filmmaker at this year’s Viennale (Oct. 23-Nov. 5), “The Inscription of the World: In Memory of Filmmaker Harun Farocki,” was a journey through the work of a close friend who had a many-sided influence on cinema.  
 
The subjects of his films ranged widely, but politics was always at the core. “I don’t want to badmouth ’68, but I’m still quite hung over from it,” he once said.
 
As the critic Nora Alter pointed out in an anthology on Farocki, “For him, a film is political only to the extent that it has a political effect on the audience, and that effect is mobilized when one can watch it more than once.”
 
The public that saw one of Farocki’s films in Miami experienced a broader tribute in Vienna. Nine of his 120 films were on the program — as much an introduction to a new audience as it was a farewell to a longstanding colleague. The unsentimental Farocki would have approved.
 
Vienna also screened the world premiere of “Farocki,” a contemplative feature-length elegy by James Benning, who had known the filmmaker for decades.
 
In “Farocki,” Benning’s camera watches a huge cloud against a blue sky for 77 minutes, as the cloud changes shape at an imperceptibly slow speed, without a soundtrack, rendering the ever-transforming form seemingly motionless. Eagles and other birds soar through the frame. A small mysterious shape comes and goes (triggering queries after the screening about unidentified flying objects).
 
In the constant color of its background and its ostensibly unchanging image, Farocki calls to mind Derek Jarman’s “Blue,” a grim testimony to the HIV disease that was taking the filmmaker’s life.
 
Benning’s tribute was shot before Harun Farocki’s unexpected death in July, Benning told the audience at the premiere, and was dedicated to Farocki’s daughter, Anna, after Farocki died.
 
“I thought it would be a nice displacement of this work,” Benning explained, struggling with his emotions. “It was being made for him and was only supposed to be seen as a private piece.”
 
He added that  “Harun was a real investigator of things, and he was always looking for a truth in things. This was my attempt to look closely and find some truth in something that’s both tangible and intangible.”

Personal Connections

 
Benning cited two of Farocki’s films that meant most to him personally: One was “Inextinguishable Fire,” a title that conjured up a divine apparition or a biblical plague. The clear reference, far more topical, was to napalm, and the film begins with testimony by a Vietnamese victim of a US napalm attack from the air, reported in a deadpan voice by Farocki, who sits calmly behind a desk.
 
The dramatic technique of reading testimony from the victims of war crimes seemed borrowed from 1965’s “The Investigation,” a widely performed play by Peter Weiss inspired by the trials of Auschwitz camp personnel in 1963-65. Farocki’s description of the deadly effects of napalm called to mind the deadliness of the gas Zyklon-B used in the Nazi death camps.
 
But from that poker-faced reading of testimony, “Inextinguishable Fire” shifted into a bare-boned black-and-white Brechtian dramatization of conversations with the an actor stepping unconvincingly into the role of Dow Chemical’s CEO, intercut with billboards of information about the killing powers of Dow products. Farocki’s influences here were unmistakable: Bertolt Brecht and Jean-Luc Godard.  (The film was remade, frame by frame, in an American version, “What Farocki Taught,” by Jill Godmilow in 1996.)
 
The other Farocki film that Benning cited as a personal favorite was 2007’s “Respite,” a look at the Nazi transit camp of Westerbork in the Netherlands, which presented a chilling paradox. The camp originally sheltered Jews and others who fled the Nazis. After the Nazi invasion,  prisoners, mostly Dutch Jews, were housed and fed dutifully, unusual by Nazi standards, and filmed in 1944 by order of the camp commander. Yet most, including the photographer who made the 1944 film, were eventually shipped to Auschwitz and other death camps. Westerbork was a model of efficiency. A greater percentage of Jews were deported from Holland than from any other country.    
 
“This hybrid style of fiction and documentary was something that nobody else had done,” said Hans Hurch, director of the Viennale. “Sometimes they called him the little Godard, or the German Dziga Vertov, but Harun was always Harun.”  
 
Hurch said that the Farocki film which meant most to him was 1979’s “Between Two Wars,” a Brechtian inquiry into wars and why soldiers consented to fight them, which examined a blast furnace and the demands of German industry as an underlying source of aggression. There may be no more fitting subject for a man born in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia and displaced at the age of one.
 

Rare Gems

 
The Viennale program included rarely screened films that showed Farocki’s attention to craft, not just the craft of filmmaking but the process of making anything by hand. In the silent “Zum Vergleich” (“By Comparison”) of 2009, Farocki observed mud bricks being made one at a time in Burkina Faso and rural India, and placed in building frames, also by hand, by means of a human chain.  Those scenes were intercut with building construction in Germany and other European countries, where automation shaped every step of the process.
 
Ever the teacher, Farocki edited By Comparison with more elegance than one finds in educational films. Still, the documentary taught a fundamental lesson, that the most basic conditions of work differentiated societies from one another.   
 
Craft was a theme that led him in many directions. This is the same man who constructed a film of surveillance camera images in California prisons, who compiled  existing movie footage of workers leaving their jobs at the end of the day, and who tracked the “construction” process of a centerfold for an issue of German Playboy.
 
At the Viennale, work was also the subject of Georg K Glaser – Schriftsteller und Schmied (Georg K Glaser – Writer and Blacksmith), Farocki’s portrait of a German writer, on the wrong side of the Nazis, who fled to Paris. The filmmaker joined him there in 1988. Glaser, in his 70s, would write in the mornings and then spend his days as a metalworker in a studio in the Marais (where boutiques had not yet supplanted ateliers). Besides the close observation of a craft—which, like 16mm film, seemed on its way to extinction—there was a tenderness in Farocki’s admiration for a man who rebuilt his life, as an artisan working with his bare hands, after surviving Nazism.

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