The German art magazine Monopol is reporting that Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac has confirmed that artist and filmmaker Harun Farocki has died at the age of 70. Born in 1944 in what was then German-annexed Czechoslovakia, Farocki lived, worked, taught and wrote in Berlin for over 40 years, at times taking teaching posts in Düsseldorf, Hamburg, Manila, Munich, Stuttgart and Berkeley. He made nearly 90 films, once staged plays by Heiner Müller in collaboration with Hanns Zischler, edited the journal Filmkritik from 1974 to 1984, and worked with Christian Petzold on most of Petzold’s screenplays. Even now, his exhibition Serious Games is on view at Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin through January 18, 2015.
In 2009, Catherine Grant put together a guide to writing on Farocki, an invaluable index highlighting in particular the dossier that Thomas Elsaesser oversaw for Senses of Cinema in 2002. There, he wrote, “Central to his work is the insight that with the advent of the cinema, the world has become visible in a radically new way, with far-reaching consequences for all spheres of life, from the world of work and production, to politics and our conception of democracy and community, for warfare and strategic planning, for abstract thinking and philosophy, as well as for interpersonal relations and emotional bonds, for subjectivity and inter-subjectivity. In this sense, Farocki’s cinema is a meta-cinema, a cinema that sits on top of the cinema ‘as we know it,’ and at the same time is underpinned by the cinema ‘as we have known it.'”
Another piece Catherine points to is Jonathan Rosenbaum‘s from 1992: “Farocki’s best films might seem to be academic and even pedantic Marxist tracts. But in fact, much of this content is directly about form and the films’ formal properties are much subtler than they first appear.”
A Cine-Fils interview in 2010
And indeed, as Jesse Cataldo wrote in the Notebook in 2011, a “sense of beyond, a restless contemplation lurking beneath a veneer of apparent flatness, is present in all Farocki’s films, with their fundamentally basic depictions of mundane practices and events. They seem, at first glance, to take in… events with complete objectivity, the camera hanging back deferentially, absorbing the action without direct comment. Yet like Frederick Wiseman’s similarly low-key documents, these observations ultimately prove to be sneaky inquisitions on a variety of issues, fundamentally questions of authorship, control and authority, and how these concepts relate to the creation of images.”
Updates, 8/1: Farocki “was one of the boldest and most influential film theorists of the last 40 years,” writes Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the AV Club. “It was in the mid-1980s that Farocki truly came into his own as a filmmaker, shaking off the influences of his early work (namely, Jean-Luc Godard’s political films and the work of Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub) in order to develop a more personal style. Farocki’s later films work like essays, where footage functions as direct quotation; the approach became a model for politics- and theory-minded documentary filmmakers in Europe and the US.”
“With Videograms of a Revolution (1991, co-directed with Andrei Ujica) Farocki made arguably one of the definitive films (a description he may have questioned) about the 1989 overthrow of the Ceaucescu regime in Romania and the role television and ‘grassroots’ video activism played,” notes realeyz. “In over 100 films and installations, Farocki investigated the interplay between image politics and society. An Image went behind the scenes of a Playboy centerfold photo shoot; Workers Leaving the Factory analyzed the depiction of laborers in documentaries, industrial films and features throughout the history of cinema; Life – BRD showed how simulations and role playing figure in everyday life. Farocki was a versatile media artist who was equally adept with narrative and immersive forms.”
“Farocki explored the power relationship between the observer and the observed, drawing parallels between the role of surveillance in the lives of prisoners and those of everyday citizens,” adds Phaidon.
Jill Godmillow’s What Farocki Taught (1998)
For an issue of Frames Cinema Journal, Kevin B. Lee created Interface 2.0, a video essay that’s “not intended as a finished work, but an initial engagement with Farocki and his work,” specifically Schnitstelle (Interface, 1995), “originally a two-screen installation made for the Lille Museum of Modern Art, and later adapted into a single channel video combining the two screens. In Schnitstelle, Farocki depicts his editing practices and reflects on the differences between working with film and video, as well as found footage and newly filmed material.”
Updates, 8/7: RogerEbert.com is running a remembrance from Michael Sicinski: “Although Farocki’s training and aesthetic interests were deeply bound with German history—the New German Cinema’s commitment to excavating and exorcizing the Nazi past, as well as retrieving the humanistic values of Weimar cinema—his political interests inevitably made him as much a global filmmaker as a specifically German one…. 1969’s Inextinguishable Fire is one of several early films Farocki made in protest of the Vietnam War…. 1989’s Images of the World and the Inscription of War is a very different film, one that contains no performance segments but is sprawling in its essayistic reach. Containing scenes of robotic architectural etching, fluid wave analysis, photographs from Auschwitz, and theories of perspective from the Renaissance onward, Images is Farocki’s grand statement on human culpability with respect to knowledge and ignorance. There is no neutrality in how we perceive the visual world, the film argues.”
Margalit Fox: “Writing in The New York Times, Ken Johnson reviewed Serious Games, the centerpiece of MoMA’s 2011 retrospective Harun Farocki: Images of War (at a Distance): ‘Harun Farocki’s film and video work is almost too interesting to be art,’ Mr. Johnson wrote, adding, ‘Mr. Farocki’s focus on techniques of simulation invites skepticism about the representation of reality in general.'”
Update, 8/8: The New Inquiry points us to Randall Halle‘s 2001 interview with Farocki.
Updates, 9/2: “Over more than four decades, Farocki produced an extraordinary body of work that, for someone who continuously compared things, situations, and images to one another, is paradoxically incomparable,” writes Hito Steyerl in a remembrance for e-flux journal. “In all he did, he kept it simple, clear, and grounded. In cinematic terms: at eye level. His legacy spans generations, genres, and geographies. And the abundance of ideas and perspectives in his work does not cease to inspire. It trickles, disseminates, perseveres.”
Ben Sachs (Chicago Reader) and Jillian Steinhauer (Hyperallergic) each offer brief introductions to Farocki’s work; for those who read German, let me recommend Diedrich Diederichsen‘s remembrance in Texte zur Kunst. And Sight & Sound has posted Kevin B. Lee‘s open letter to the late artist: “Your work is frequently categorized as ‘essay filmmaking.’ Among the ranks of the great ‘essay’ filmmakers, your films may not be as formally audacious as Godard’s, or as seductively subjective as Chris Marker’s. But you mean the most to me because you are not just an ‘essay’ filmmaker, but a ‘sober’ filmmaker. You helped me sober up from the dead-end love known as cinephilia and discover a new way to love movies and images, one that can reach beyond them towards something more essential: the world itself.”
Update, 9/4: “Farocki first captivated me with his essays in Filmkritik,” writes Thomas Elsaesser for frieze d/e. “After the sociological approach of Wilfried Berghahn, the cinephilia of Frieda Grafe and the asceticism of Helmut Färber, here was a voice that grabbed the reader from the first sentence: that drew bold comparisons, committing unconditionally to an idea or a cause, while remaining detached and self-ironic. It took me a while to get used to Farocki’s films, which appeared to me as by-products of this wonderfully gifted (and well-read) writer who must have realized that the medium of film offered an entirely different audience for his verbal talent, his timing and his dry humor than literature, academia or journalism…. What I most valued about him as a human being and as a filmmaker, and what makes his loss most painful, was his ability to put himself on the line with each of his topics, and thus run an ethical risk with every film.”