The New York Times reported this morning that Harun Farocki died near Berlin on Wednesday. The news took me back to an encounter I had with the filmmaker:
20 May 1989, Tübingen
Bilder der Welt und Inschrift des Krieges
(Images of the World and Inscription of the War).
By Harun Farocki. Tübingen Premier.
Harun Farocki will be present for a discussion!
I found this advertisement on the Mensa table where I had lunch. Sure that there would be crowds I arrived early. There were no crowds. When the film began there were only ten people in the theater.
1858. Regierungsbauführer Meydenbauer hangs from a rope in a frail basket as he measures the cathedral in Wetzlar. The task is dangerous, and a near fatal accident stimulates his thinking about alternate ways to measure the high building. The result is the first photographically mediated measurement of a building. “It is dangerous,” the film’s narrator states, “to be physically present in the workplace.”
The film is a series of variations and repetitions on mediation vs. direct confrontation.
Computer imaging. A machine for studying wave motion. A drawing class with a nude model: “Think, draw, think.” SS photos documenting the division of Jews into those who could work and those who would be gassed immediately. Allied photographs of factories that accidently revealed and yet didn’t reveal concentration camps. Photography used for “Aufklärung.” Enlightenment, the film demonstrates, is an ambiguous concept. The film is difficult, confusing, exhilarating, and enlightening. The plot is intellectual. Ideas are the characters.
As the lights went up half of the audience scuttled out. Five of us remained to discuss the film with the director. Together we trailed into an adjoining bar and found a table. Everyone ordered something and then waited nervously for the drinks to come. Farocki too seemed nervous. He must have been disappointed by the tiny audience. Loud music inhibits our conversation. An attempt to have it turned down fails. Farocki laughs uneasily. “If you don’t have any questions,” he says, “I can read some from an interview in Zelluloid.” He opens a package of the film magazine. “They asked me to bring some of these along,” he tells us, apologizing. “They are DM 6, if anyone is interested.”
Finally someone has a question about the soundtrack. “I did that by placing scissors across the tape to break up the sound. I tried to destroy the structure. The film is carefully ordered, so the sound track was meant to introduce chance, chaos.”
Farocki, born in Java, is now a Berliner. His dark hair is pulled back and tied behind his head. Even in the bar he wears dark glasses. A black, armless T-shirt. His jacket is draped over a chair. His Levis are worn. The zipper is half down. Dark socks and worn sandals.
Someone asks about the repetition in the film. “It is the same subject, but in new contexts it becomes new material.” A question about water: “Water is an old substance, little understood. Dikes built in 1961 with the best scientific methods are now ruined. The studies couldn’t take into account the complexity of the ocean. The ocean must still be confronted one on one. The models just don’t work.
The film was shown in San Francisco, in Minneapolis, and in Houston at film festivals. It showed for three weeks in Berlin and on TV. In a year it has earned DM 600 in fees.
I ask about the hands in the film, hands at work reading photos with a lens or flipping through a photo album. Was that you? It was.
“Aufklärung.” Enlightenment. A word with several meanings, including one related to police work. I ask if his use of the term was related to the Poirier’s work with “Spurensicherung.” “Ah, the married couple,” he answers. “Yes, of course.” When I ask about philosophical influences, Derrida perhaps, he claims he’s not interested in Derrida. Vilém Flusser, he says, is a strong influence. I wonder if I am being pedantic and I wonder who Flusser is.
As the discussion turns to other recent films Farocki sees a little girl, maybe eight years old, sitting in the open door leading to a fire escape next to him. She has long black hair and brown skin. She sits and watches us for a long time. Suddenly she is gone.
Someone mentions Wings of Desire, and Farocki explodes: “films like that are like prepared, frozen, conserved, fast food. They have lots of additives, sweeping music, touching plot, awful camera angles, and no substance. What did Wenders think he was doing when he made that film? He though he was making money, that’s what.” The invective “Hollywood” falls repeatedly.
21 May 1989
In a bookstore I find a German Filmalmanach for 1989. I’m not sure how the book can foretell this year, but that’s what it says on the cover. I look up “Harun Farocki” in the index of the thick book. There it is, with a single page number. Excited to read about the man I met last night, I flip through the book to find page 576. I am surprised when it seems that it will be part of the index. In fact it is the very page of the index where I found the name “Farocki.” I read through the page and discover that the index is correct. On page 576 one can indeed find the name “Harun Farocki” — immediately preceding the number 576.
Stimulated by my little adventure I plan a book, an index of an index, a book that is wholly and only an index, with each entry the singular self-referential occurence of the word. Perhaps I will create the words as well. And then, at the end, like a normal index, a number index: the number 1 to be found on page one and on the page of the number index, the number 2 on page two and in the number index, and so on. I will title my book Index “Harun Farocki” in honor of the occasion of my adventure.
I leave the bookstore with Vilém Flusser’s Für eine Philosophie der Fotografie and Michel Leiris’ Das Band am Hals der Olympia.