an inextinguishable fire must go out on its own: harun farocki, in memoriam


When I heard that Harun Farocki had died, I got on my bike and rode from my apartment to the Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin’s most important museum of contemporary art, which is holding an exhibition of his work until the 18th of January, 2015. The quickest way to get there from where I live is to cut across the Tempelhofer Freiheit, which was an airport until 2010 and has now become one of Berlin’s most beloved public parks. Riding through it, when the sun is shining and the wind is in your face and it’s 72 degrees outside it’s easy to think: This is what progress looks like. While the Nazis were in power there were forced labor camps here, now there is a leisure culture; you can sit in a beer garden or go for a run on the very spot where the so-called Rosinenbombers (Raisin Bombers) of the Air Bridge delivered vital supplies to a city whose very existence seemed tenuous.




Even the simplest statements about Harun Farocki are problematic. Let’s start with this: Harun Farocki was a German. Harun Farocki was a German filmmaker who was born in Czechoslovakia. Harun Farocki was born to an Indian father and a German mother in 1944, during the Nazi occupation of what is now the Czech Republci. On the census rolls, Harun Farocki would have been called, “German, with a migration background.” On the streets, Harun Farocki was probably called Ahmed or Mohammed; was probably called a dirty immigrant; was probably called on to go home to a native country he never had.


Though others might have seen his parentage and his place of birth of a mitigating factor in his Germanness, Farocki himself was never particularly interested in any other identity, never wanted to excuse himself from the sense of historical guilt that came with being German. And to be German, in the aftermath of the Second World War, was to wake up each morning with a moral hangover of the first order. This added a special dimension, not found in the United States or France or Great Britain, to the political activism of the ’68 generation. They reckoned, here, not just with an unjust world, but with the fact that their parents had been complicit in the most horrific series of crimes against humanity that had ever been seen. And the culture they’d been raised with? All of the Goethe and Schiller they’d read in school? Well, the officer’s quarters at the extermination camps had libraries well stocked with the German classics, and phonographs so that the soldiers could enjoy a little Mozart after a hard day’s work. Add to this the fact that faith in the liberating powers, especially in the USSR and in the United States, became increasingly difficult the further the memory of their triumphant arrival in Berlin grew. Even the most hardened communists found it difficult to maintain their faith when former brothers in arms sent tanks to quell a peaceful demonstration against increased work hours and decreased pay on the 17th of June, 1953; even the most ardent supporters of the American experiment grew disillusioned by reports of atrocities in Vietnam.



I have been asked more than once not to refer to the Tempelhofer Feld as the Tempelhofer Freiheit; I have protested that the “Tempelhofer Freedom” is, in fact, the proper name for the park, bureaucratically speaking. “Even so,” I have been told, “it sounds like the Nazi times.”




For the generation of German filmmakers that immediately preceeded Farocki– for people like Alexander Kluge, Edgar Reitz, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, and Haro Senft– the war was a matter of lived experience, as well as of cultural memory. Kluge, probably Farocki’s most important influence among the older generation, was born in 1932 and came of age in a county shaped by and dedicated to its apparatus of war.

For the younger generation, though, the kind of experimental, explicitly political, but still mass-cultural filmic production that motivated their predecessors was never really possible; their more experimental work never enjoyed the kind of audience that Kluge, with his long-running broadcast television shows Primetime: Spätausgabe (Prime Time: Late Edition) and 10 vor 11 (10 before 11) commanded. Some of Farocki’s contemporaries, people like Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog, ended up making a much more conventional kind of film than had been espoused by the New German Cinema movement Kluge helped to found and which was instrumental in both of their developments. For others the conflict was simply too much: Fassbinder, another of Farocki’s contemporaries, died of an overdose at 37, after a long period of drug-induced madness. And then there was the third path, taken by the cinematographer Holger Meins, who, like Farocki, was part of the inaugural class of the Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin (dffb, German Film and Television Academy Berlin). For Meins, cultural production could never address the world’s injustices directly enough. Only armed struggle was possible. He died while on a hunger strike, after being imprisoned for his work with Germany’s far more tenacious answer to the Weathermen, the Rote Armee Faktion (RAF, Red Army Faction).



German film production essentially stopped during the World War I: Precious film stock was dedicated to making aerial reconnaissance films, as was the technical expertise of cinematic pioneers like Oskar Messter. Though few films were produced, the period saw a number of significant technological developments designed to adapt still fragile cameras to the demands of aerial reconnaissance. These technical developments were instrumental to the flowering of the German cinema during the Weimar Republic.




The most iconic image from Farocki’s work comes early in his career, in the film NICHT löschbares Feuer [An Inextinguishable Fire] (1969), a short film made when he was twenty-five years old. The film opens with Farocki sitting at a table, the set shot and designed to be reminiscent of interrogation rooms, of the kind of tribunal from which the text he is about to read, a statement from a Vietnamese victim of napalm bombing is derived. After he has read the piece, Farocki lifts his gaze from the text and speaks directly to the camera: “How can we show you napalm in action?” Farocki asks. He continues: “If we show you pictures of napalm burns, you’ll close your eyes. First you’ll close your eyes to the pictures. Then you’ll close your eyes to the memory. Then you’ll close your eyes to the facts. Then you’ll close your eyes to the entire context. If we show you a person with napalm burns, we will hurt your feelings. If we hurt your feelings, you’ll feel as if we’d tried napalm out on you, at your own expense. We can only give you a faint idea of how napalm works.”


Farocki then reaches off screen and grabs a lit cigarette, which he proceeds to extinguish on his forearm. Another voice then says: “A cigarette burns at approximately 400 degrees Celsius. Napalm burns at approximately 3,000 degrees Celsius.” Call it a trigger-warning trigger-warning, one that claims that the only danger of shocking images is, in fact, that they can never be shocking enough. Farocki’s film is clear: The cigarette-burn presents only a “schwache Vorstellung,” a weak imaginary, of the violence inflicted by actual napalm.




In 1884 the balloon detachment of the Prussian Army was trained and stationed in Schöneberg, on the Tempelhofer Freiheit.



The work now on display at the Hamburger Bahnhof, “Serious Games/Ernsthafte Spiele,” premiered in São Paolo in 2010. It consists of a series of four installations. All except the second consist of two screens, one of which shows a computerized simulation of the war in the Middle East, while the other shows the operators of the simulation.


When it was exhibited at MoMa in 2011, Ken Johnson began his review in the New York Times with this claim: “Harun Farocki’s film and video work is almost too interesting to be art.” As if their were some natural horizon of interest beyond which art could no longer be art! This claim, however, is unique only in the pithiness of its stupidity. Other reviews cast the project as an impassioned protest against American Imperialism or against the apparatus of war more generally. But surely it is an impoverished kind of activism that takes place behind the walls of a museum, protected by an eight Euro entry fee and a set of dour security guards. Let us not conclude that Farocki was so limited that this was the only kind of political action against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that he could imagine.


Scholarly writing about Farocki rarely does any better. Examples of the kind of complex misreadings of his work that come from professors of film theory abound, but space does not, so we’ll take one. Here’s Christa Blümlinger, who teaches about film at the Sorbonne, writing about a scene in Schnittstelle (Interface, 1995), a video installation also on display at the Hamburger Bahnhof. Farocki is reflecting on the iconic burn scene from An Inextinguishable Fire and holds the spot on his arm where he put the cigarette out up to the camera. Blümlinger writes: “Even where Farocki breaks through his pose of rereading his work, to show a close-up of his burn scar, as evidence of his self-mutilation during the making of the pamphlet-film [Inextinguishable Fire], it is not so much the actual referent which is at stake in this rather actionist performance scene (‘it really happened’), but the temporal referentiality of the photographic index, which is to say, the filmic image as ‘it once happened.’” The problem with this reading, aside from its impenetrable, jargon-laden language, is that you can’t see the scar on Farocki’s forearm in the installation. The reading here should be obvious to anyone not over-eager to use phrases like “temporal referentiality” and “actionist performance scene”: even such a dramatic attempt to represent violence leaves no visible trace. Interface simply confirms the failure that An Inextinguishable Fire predicted. Representations of violence are doomed to failure.




In German, the word Aufklärung refers both to the Enlightenment and to aerial reconnaissance.




Even an Inextinguishable Fire is more a film about work than about war. Immediately after the burn scene, the film shows the immolation of a laboratory animal, presumably using napalm, which constitutes a transition between the mediated experience of violence available to us as consumers of culture and the spaces of production that generate both napalm and new culture. After that, the film switches gears, and shows a number of prosaic, if politically laden, interactions among German actors who are representing employees of the Dow Chemical Corporation. The end of the film shows us yet another site of production: The restroom of a factory that makes vacuum cleaners. An actor faces the camera and explains that he is a worker at a factory and he assembles vacuum cleaners for a living. He can’t afford to buy a vacuum cleaner for his wife though, and so he steals one part a day from the factory. The only problem? When he tries to assemble the vacuum at home, it always ends up being a submachine gun. The same actor appears again, dressed differently, but shot in exactly the same manner. He is a student, he explains, and works at the factory for extra money. He is suspicious that the factory is actually manufacturing weapons, though, and so he steals one part a day in an attempt to assemble a gun using parts from the factory, proving their malfeasance. The only problem? When he tries to assemble the weapon, he always ends up with a vacuum cleaner instead. The same actor appears a third time, wearing a suit. He is an engineer at the factory. “The workers think we are making vacuum cleaners,” he says. “The students think we are making submachine guns,” he says. He picks up a vacuum cleaner. “This vacuum cleaner can become a useful weapon,” he says. He picks up a gun. “This submachine gun can become a useful household gadget. What we manufacture,” he says, “depends on the workers, the students, and the engineers.”



In the 13th-century, the Tempelhofer Feld was an exercise and training ground for the Knights Templar, a site, in other words, where knights could engage in serious games– in the simulated warfare of a tournament.




Perhaps the most interesting thing about Serious Games is the title of the third part, Immersion. We experience the installation in an environment designed to enable the production of an immersive experience– the thick walls of the museum block sound from the outside; we are trained to receive these works in hushed tones; the lights are darkened so as to allow for the best viewing experience– but Farocki prevents us from immersing ourselves even in the two screens that constitute Serious Games III. Both the sound and the image of Serious Games IV impede our concentration on the third part of the installation, preventing us from being fully immersed in the immersion of the piece’s title. These interruptions reveal the fragility of the spaces of immersive cultural consumption to us, and the danger of our faith in them.


It is only in this context that the revelation that comes at the end of the third part of Serious Games can be interesting. Unlike the first two parts, which show soldiers being trained for war, the third part depicts soldiers reliving traumatic experiences of war with the help of virtual reality technology. Guided by therapists, the soldiers are supposed to use this immersive space to confront the cause of their trauma. And then comes the ostensibly startling reveal: The figures on the screen were never soldiers, it turns out. They were actors, hired to market the technology to the Department of Defense. This shouldn’t be surprising, even if it is. That we can be fooled by the naturalism of actors is hardly new information; that actors are engaged in marketing efforts, including efforts to market military technology, should hardly be a shock. In this context, what Serious Games should tell us is not that the DOD or technologies of simulation are reprehensible in ways that we did not anticipate. Instead, what it should reveal to us is the danger of thinking that we have escaped the mechanisms of capitalist cultural production.

We, too, are performing a kind of labor when we sit in the museum; we are consuming culture, and we think that the culture we are consuming is about war. What the installation shows us is a series of simulations of the simulation of the enactment or of the reenactment of a traumatic event. The images we are seeing aren’t images of war, they’re images of labor, or the simulation of labor and simultaneously the labor of simulation. More exactly, in the third part, they are images of the work of marketing, and more exactly yet they are images of marketing as a kind of faux catharsis. The fact that this is hard to see– that even when it is revealed to us we have difficulty conceiving of the piece as about work, rather than about war, should only reveal to us that the work is even more insidious than war because it is work that produces war, and not the other way around. The walls of the museum, at the end of the piece, should begin to feel like the walls of a labor camp, where the product being produced, the product being marketed, is our own self-satisfaction at having engaged with some kind of “culture,” some kind of “critique,” as though we might become intellectually-engaged dissidents merely by setting foot into a museum.



I passed Checkpoint Charlie and the Topography of Terror on my way home from the Farocki exhibition. They’re just two of the many sites dedicated to the memory of a century of violence here, and one grows used to ignoring them quickly when one lives here. After spending the afternoon engaged with Serious Games though, their obscenity struck me with particular force. The faces of the tourists were appropriately grave, but I thought I spotted something else on some of them, too. A certain relief. A certain self-satisfaction. A certain certainty about progress, remembrance, and about the new, enlightened Germany. The world, after all, is filled with praise for Germany at the moment– they’re the strongest voice against the excesses of the NSA; they are single-handedly keeping the European economy afloat; they’re really, really good at soccer. And the Tempelhofer Freiheit is exactly the kind of thing that can make Berliners so arrogant about their city, and people elsewhere so jealous of the ostensibly progressive politics here. When the city government proposed a mixed-use development on a part of the site, citizens banded together and passed, with an overwhelming majority, a referendum making all but the most superficial changes to the park nearly impossible. This could never happen in New York, in Paris, in London!


Unfortunately the park is, as a park, something of a failure– the massive open space provides a beautiful view of the city, true, but also means that the wind here is colder and harder in the Winter than anywhere else in the city, and when it is hot outside the runways and access roads reflect the heat and only the hardy or the foolish come to the Tempelhofer Freiheit. There’s next to nothing in terms of an apparatus of historical memory here– a C-54 sits next to the terminal with a small plaque explaining the air bridge, but that’s just about it. Still, the site makes Berlin’s relationship to its own past clearer than anywhere else in the city. Where once there was war and, along with it, industry and commerce, there is now leisure. And it’s easy to forget, when you go there to jog or to grill or to fly a kite or just to get drunk or stoned and lay out in the sun, that they keep the lights on here with Russian gas, piped through the Ukraine; easy to forget that a leisure culture, like any other culture, is the product of someone’s labor. The bombers that enable the exploitation of the great majority of the world take off from elsewhere now, it is true, and the soldiers that guarantee the ability of German industry to extract surplus value from less progressive countries no longer have Swastikas on their uniforms. But Farocki teaches us that all labor– even the labor of leisure; even the labor of aesthetic contemplation– can produce a submachine gun just as easily as a vacuum cleaner. That may be why, when he was asked to take part in an exhibition organized on the Tempelhofer Freiheit in 2012, he presented a work in progress called “Vorbild/Nachbild.” The title resists translation. “Bild” means image, “vor” means before, “nach” means after. So you might translate the title as “the image before/the image after.” But Vorbild means something else in German– it means exemplarity, and specifically moral exemplarity; if you get drunk and shout obscenities around children, a German might accuse you of being a “schlechtes Vorbild,” a bad example. Nachbild, meanwhile, means an afterimage, but draws nachbilden– to emulate, to copy, to reproduce– to mind. In this sense, then, the title can also be read as “Moral Example/Copy.” A fitting title, certainly, for a work exhibited on a site that is itself a pale reproduction of an exemplary world.


I missed that exhibition, as I will continue to miss Farocki’s ability to remake the ways in which we see the world. I can only hope that he is resting in a kind of peace that none of us still living have ever found, even if we do sometimes let ourselves believe that we are inhabiting it.

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