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Translation by Sabine Czylwik
European cinema is in transformation. The geopolitical changes of the European map as well as the new transnational economy have altered the politics of film. To provide reflections on these transformations the German director Harun Farocki proves an excellent source. A filmmaker, critic, theorist, academic, and writer very familiar with the United States as well as Europe, Farocki's work has appeared here in the pages of Camera Obscura, among other places. He is thus especially well situated to articulate an analysis that can bring some clarity to US perspectives on the European film scene.
Farocki has been a truly independent filmmaker. His films, from agitprop to essayist, have developed along a unique path. Yet the theme that connects his films and his written work is the constant exploration of the possibilities and influences of the cinematic apparatus. His extensive exploration of the potential of film has required Farocki to remain critically aware of transnational developments in film. In the interview below, Farocki reflects on how the medium of film is defined by distribution, funding, and technology, among other topics. Here his comments are marked by a certain dialectical realism that recognizes both limitations and possibilities in the current conditions. For example, the transformation and, to a great extent, privatization of European television has brought a great need for programming, filling airtime mainly with reruns of Baywatch, Knightrider, and anything else starring David Hasselhoff. Nevertheless, these transformations have also resulted in increased opportunity for Farocki's work.
Such analysis coming from one of Germany's most important independent filmmakers is perhaps especially significant as a document for a US audience waxing nostalgic for the "Golden Age of Foreign Film," the title a recent film retrospective in New York gave to the roughly forty years of film production that followed the end of World War II. There is no dismissing the fact that popular commercial film production is up in Europe and that such production has changed the parameters of high culture. For various reasons, many of them having to do with the film policy of the European Union (EU), the European share of the film market is up as Europeans choose to view European productions with greater frequency,(1) However, the noise that surrounds the production of predictable and generically conventional films does not mean that avant-garde, experimental, critical, and/or political film production has been drowned out. Prompted to compare the relationship of his production to contemporary popular films, Farocki humorously expresses the hope that the number of people who go to see his films would be higher than that of the number who leave during a contemporary German comedy. However, it would be a mistake to assume that those who see a Detlev Buck film do not also see a film by Lars von Trier, Jean-Luc Godard, or Farocki, for that matter.
The terms of political engagement and the system of cultural production are dynamic. They have not remained stagnant over the last fifty years, neither in the US nor in Europe. Farocki certainly gives insight into that dynamic process. Yet in the US, where it is possible to generate the designation "Golden Age of Foreign Film," it seems that there is a desire among cinephiles to freeze European production in time and dismiss current production as not living up to past glories. Such nostalgia is itself a longing for forms that appeal according to static aesthetic criteria--the visual pleasure of viewing what one knows. I would suggest that when we hear such nostalgia, it is not really for a film "as good as" Wild Strawberries (dir. Ingmar Bergman, Sweden, 1957), but actually, perhaps paradoxically, nostalgia for a moment in which people were viewing things they did not know, when people were open to engagement with new aesthetic forms. The desire to view according to static aesthetic criteria, however, reveals that an element of entertainment value has always adhered to high cultural production, that element that allows for a distance from the political and sociohistorical conditions with which each film struggles.
Such an analysis as that provided by Farocki is perhaps also significant for viewers seeking to engage precisely with a film's political and sociohistorical content. Particularly in the US such viewers must exercise a certain amount of care. Here political life and debates are often significantly framed by terms like multiculturalism, inclusion, special interest groups, entitlement, and so on. Such terms may have no resonance or a very different weight outside of the US. Without an understanding of the terms of cultural productions from abroad, we tend to subject those productions to the same form of analysis as US productions. If we apply the same criteria, critics, academics, and all spectators run the risk of misappropriation, misidentification, or perhaps worse for foreign filmmakers, nonrecognition. Transnational film distribution and the abundance of images from abroad invite us to engage with a broader world. The following interview explores and exhibits many of the difficulties of urgently necessary transcultural dialogues.
Indeed, as Farocki remarks below, his work has remained relatively unknown to US audiences.(2) The interview itself actually begins with Farocki providing reflections on his own background. Beyond those reflections I hope a brief overview of some of the developments in his film production might give greater depth to the reader unfamiliar with his work.
Born in 1944, he emerged as a filmmaker in the late 1960s in Germany, highly influenced by the revolutionary activity of the period. German critical theory and French Nouvelle Vague provided early defining inspirations that have remained constant throughout his career; the names Bertolt Brecht, Theodor Adorno, and Godard could offer embodiment of these directions. His own works, however, quickly came to exceed these influences, becoming distinct and timely interventions of their own. Farocki entered the newly established German Film and Television Academy Berlin in 1966, an institution whose very existence resulted from the agitation of the young German filmmakers. He stayed only two years, at which point he and a number of colleagues were barred from the institution for their political activity. (He would eventually return to the academy as an instructor.) In 1971 he took up a position as editor, writer, and critic for the influential German film journal Filmkritik, where he was active until 1983.
Farocki's films have remained outside the trends of German film; he does not count as a part of New German Cinema (NGC) and certainly not as part of the latest move to popular film. His earliest films belong to an agitprop, even commando style, typified by Break the Power of the Manipulators (1969), co-directed with Helke Sander and Ulrich Knaudt. A scene central to this film occurs when Sander and Farocki are chased out of a German Press Club function that they had stealthily entered in order to verbally confront Axel Springer, the leader of the German boulevard press. However, already in Inextinguishable Fire (1969), the assertion of cool distanced rationality--Brechtian distanciation over emotional engagement--became central to the structure of all his subsequent films. This film, Farocki's first significant achievement, was both an indictment of Dow Chemical's production of Napalm B for the Vietnam War as well as of German involvement in this multinational corporation's activities. It was also an attempt to document the horrors of Napalm B while avoiding the lurid shock of images so characteristic of the documentarists of the era.
Subsequent work has explored the interconnection between war, industry, and media, accomplishing in film the type of analysis that recently Armand Mattelart has produced in writing.(3) These explorations of the technology of film take on a different form--essay films in which Farocki examines various images often found or produced by other filmmakers for quite different purposes. In these films a narrator's voice provides reflections, guiding the viewer through the diverse and highly disparate scenes. Images of the World and Inscription of War (1988) is perhaps his most well-known film. It begins with aerial images of Auschwitz taken in an allied reconnaissance flight during the war, yet at the time military intelligence did not recognize what they were. It was only recognized decades later after the machinery of the Holocaust was understood; ignorance of Nazi activities prevented recognition of the image. This lack of recognition in a surveillance flight serves as the initial point for a series of wide-ranging reflections on various aspects of imaging technology, surveillance, and discipline.
Overall, the political energy and analysis that fill Farocki's films do not inflate the possibilities of the film itself. Farocki has always been careful to recognize the limitations of his work, often with a surprising sense of humility coming from such an accomplished filmmaker. For Farocki, film does serve to awaken political consciousness, but he tempers this with an awareness that only mass political …