News Column

Work best left unfinished: Filmmaker and theorist Harun Farocki dies, age 70

August 2, 2014

The Daily Star, Beirut, Lebanon

Aug. 02--BEIRUT -- "There is this beautiful conversation between [Marguerite] Duras and [Jean-Luc] Godard," Harun Farocki once recalled. "She says that, in making a film, she has to make an effort to make it unfinished. Godard answers: 'If I finish a film, it is already taken apart!'"

The anecdote fell in the midst of the German filmmaker and theorist's 2009 interview with journalists Lina Maria Stahl and Alexander Waszynski. He was discussing how the material a filmmaker works with -- be it film or video formats -- is less important than what the filmmaker brings to it.

"Whether I work with my own material or with found footage," he said, "I need to become acquainted with it ... I can either accept the material or not. But that is not so much about the material of the picture carrier [media] but, more importantly, that the sequences and elements of the film themselves are to be considered as 'material,' and not as something finished."

Farocki passed away Wednesday at the age of 70, his work unfinished.

In a salute to his colleague Thursday, Kodwo Eshun, co-founder of London-based artists' group Otolith Group, wrote: "Farocki directed more than 120 films and installations that analyzed the powers of the image with an originality, a prescience and a gravitas that renewed itself, year after year, project after project.

"In his teaching and his essays, in journals and books and exhibitions conceived and produced with [his life partner] Antje Ehmann, Farocki was a powerful critic, editor, theorist and curator in his own right."

Farocki was born in German-occupied Czechoslovakia in 1944 to an Indian father and a German mother. He enrolled at the Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin, West Germany's first film school, in 1966.

He made his first film that year and over the ensuing decades developed a documentary style deeply critical of the media and the ways in which images have shaped contemporary life and ideology.

Farocki's best-known early work, "The Inextinguishable Fire" (1969), takes up the U.S. military's use of napalm in the Vietnam War. As the filmmaker finishes reciting from a report on the effects of napalm on its victims, the camera finds him just as he puts out a cigarette on his arm -- explaining, as he does, that napalm burns at seven times this temperature.

Farocki served as editor of Munich-based film journal "Filmkritik" from 1974 to 1984. He migrated to California during the 1990s where he taught at UC Berkeley. More recently, he taught at Vienna'sAcademy of Fine Arts.

By the mid-1980s Farocki was developing the essayistic film language that was to prove so influential to younger generations of politically and critically minded filmmakers in Europe and North America.

One influential work, "How to Live in the Federal Republic of Germany" (1990), is composed of scenes from dozens of instructional workshops and training exercises, on topics ranging from driving to striptease.

Farocki was a fixture at the Berlin International Film Festival, which staged retrospectives, and occasionally premieres, of his works.

" Harun Farocki was one of Germany's most versatile and productive filmmakers," festival director Dieter Kosslick said in the Berinale's salute to Farocki Thursday. "His range of expression in the medium of film knew no bounds. We have lost a great artist and thinker."

Farocki's critical interests drew him toward contemporary art circles after 2000 and he has mounted solo shows at a number of international institutions, including Berlin's Hamburger Bahnhof, New York'sMuseum of Modern Art, and London's Tate Modern.

As an installation artist, he was fond of deploying multiple screens to suggest something of the complex and intricate relationships between rhetoric and visual footage.

During Documenta 12, in 2007 -- the twice-a-decade art extravaganza held in the German town of Kassel -- he unveiled "Deep Play," an installation which broke down footage from the German-hosted FIFA 2006 World Cup across 12 monitors.

His "Serious Games" (2009) takes up the subject of the U.S. military's use of videogame-style imaging in combat-training simulators.

One of Farocki's final film credits was his work on the screenplay of "Barbara" (2012) -- a drama set in 1980s East Germany, about an East Berlin doctor banished to a rural medical clinic after applying for an exit visa -- directed by his onetime student Christian Petzold.

Yet his thoughts on contemporary culture's preoccupation with the image foraged far beyond cinema.

"During the last 10 years," he told Stahl and Waszynski in 2009, "and through the digitization process, and the fact that you can feed your computer with images ... new types of images have appeared.

"Like thermomechanical images of a certain region -- in which you can find certain hints that can lead you to certain assumptions ... These new types of images are something visual, but they're entirely different from our general visual culture.

"Our visual culture is based on the production of images for education or entertainment. These new types of images are not meant to be looked at but are rather technical tools ...

"All of a sudden science and technology are interested in these new types of images that we deal with, something that was completely separated during the last hundred years.

"In the early era of photography and film this was different, of course. Back then, photography and film still had a part in scientific research. But soon they became illustrative material and entertainment material.

"So I think that we can speak of a 'rematerialization' nowadays. I think that the image has reclaimed a serious working day. It's not just a weekend pleasure," he laughed, "rather like a drayman's horse."


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Source: Daily Star, The (Beirut, Lebanon)

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