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R.I.P. Harun Farocki, German filmmaker and theorist

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“No film which only translates into film what is known already … is worth anything. A film has to find an expression in its own language.”


Though hardly a household name, Harun Farocki was one of the boldest and most influential film theorists of the last 40 years—a prolific writer and documentary filmmaker whose work focused on creating and deconstructing complex, clear-eyed arguments about society, work, media, and war. From the mid-1980s on, his main focus was on how simulations affect a person’s sense of place in the real world, a topic he explored in projects that ranged from How To Live In The Federal Republic Of Germany—a brilliant documentary composed of scenes from dozens of instructional workshops and training exercises, on topics ranging from driving to striptease—to the recent installation Serious Games, which tackled combat training simulators.

Der Spiegel is reporting that Farocki passed away yesterday near Berlin. He was 70.

Farocki was born in 1944 in German-occupied Czechoslovakia to an Indian father and a German mother. In 1966, he enrolled in West Germany’s first dedicated film school, the Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin (DFFB), where he would later become a teacher. That year he made his debut; working mostly in short films, he would remain incredibly prolific over the coming decades. (IMDb only lists 79 titles, though the number is closer to 100.) A year after leaving the DFFB, Farocki made what would become his best-known early work, The Inextinguishable Fire (1969), about the use of napalm in the Vietnam War. In the film’s most famous moment, the camera dollies in on Farocki—who has just finished reading a napalm victim’s report out loud—as he puts out his cigarette on his arm, explaining that napalm burns at seven times the temperature.

By the mid-1970s, Farocki’s work began to attract attention from critics and academics, and for many years, his work was known chiefly by reputation. (The first major article about him, published in 1975 in Cahiers Du Cinéma, began with the question: “Who is Farocki?”) From 1974 to 1984, he served as the editor of the German magazine Filmkritik.

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. (The title of Jill Godmilow’s 1998 short What Farocki Taught—an homage to The Inextinguishable Fire—hints at his influence.)

Farocki was also an installation artist, using multiple screens to create even more complex arguments and more intricate relationships between rhetoric and footage. And he was a tireless teacher, with stints at Berkeley and, more recently, the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. One of his final credits was for working on the screenplay for Barbara, directed by his onetime student Christian Petzold.