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Farocki’s Cinematic Historiography: Reconstructing the Visible


Farocki’s work consists in pointing towards the visible. His art consists in opposing the visible and the obvious. Farocki’s political claim is to demonstrate that in reality nothing is veiled, sealed, or concealed. Meticulous perception is his strategy for emerging from self-imposed nonage. His images do not deal with ideological mist or the ontological mysteries of an image, but with the inertia of our perceiving eyes, with laziness or a lack of mental audacity. His voice-over commentaries prove that the visible differs from the evident. Vision is stratified by implicit historical structures. These organize the gaze and sometimes blind our sight. Based on historical investigation, seeing with one’s own eyes is a matter of political resistance. Observing against the grain of the habitual, against all evidence and blind spots, is the responsibility that remains in a world of machines that have appropriated human sight—or rather, as the installation Eye/Machine and the film War at a Distance (2003) show, machines that have soldered eyes, optical instruments, and industrial weaponry. It is not a matter of pearls, specks, or splinters in our eyes, but of Pershings and Patriots.

Extremely well acquainted with historical and contemporary systems of thought, Farocki has written on historical materialism, semiotics, and structuralism, but has defied all of them in filmic discourse. Cinema’s pledge of truth lies in a certain resilience in resisting elements in pictures or in sounds or voices that escape the intentions and strategies of single authors and single recipients. Cinema’s truth-claim is topological, developing between iconic elements and nodes of montage. It develops between people that discuss films “after the screening … nach dem film,” as a Berlin-based online journal of film criticism is called. Cinema’s truth-claim is uncanny, as it turns against the familiar, the accustomed, against what seemed to be clear and certain before the film. Cinematic truth, kino pravda, is manifest in the traces of the past that cinema bears, in spite of individual intentions.

Farocki’s films deal with history as a matter of mémoire involontaire—involuntary and even unwanted memories. His films argue, for instance, that the fascist past is not hidden in postwar German society or cinema, is not veiled by evil powers, as the phrase hätten wir gewusst(had we known) suggests. There is no lack of evidence. On the contrary, Farocki’s films show how the past keeps disturbing and haunting the present in visible, perceivable, describable symptoms. The historian-filmmaker fraternizes with specters, as in his recent film Respite (2007), where Farocki analyzes footage shot in Westerbork, the Dutch transit and labor camp for Jewish refugees—editing, commenting, and amplifying the impact of the images against the intentions of their photographer.

Cinema is the appropriate medium for storing and transmitting history’s truth-claim, since the camera records more than any mind can remember. To appropriate history then is to appropriate the medium by studying its proper logics of recording, storing, transforming, and ordering sensory events. Cinema’s deferments avert the closures of history.

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