When we show you pictures of napalm victims, you’ll shut your eyes. You’ll close your eyes to the pictures. Then you’ll close them to the memory. And then you’ll close your eyes to the facts.
These words mark the beginning of Inextinguishable Fire (1969), among the earliest of over one hundred short experimental and documentary films within the oeuvre of German filmmaker Harun Farocki, who passed away on July 30, 2014.
The lines were read on camera by Farocki himself, and were from a statement given by Thai Bihn Dahn, a Vietnamese man who lived through the horrors of the Vietnam War. The film went on to examine the properties of napalm, the American company that manufactured it during the war, and the varying political views of weapons production among student activists, fabrication workers, engineers, and exeutives. The twenty-two minute film exemplifies the sort of genre-breaking political and cultural activism and meta-media critique (often produced through the recombination of both original and repurposed film segments) that became hallmarks of Farocki’s nearly fifty-year career.
Born in 1944 in a German-speaking region of Czechoslovakia, Farocki spent his formative years studying filmmaking at the German Film and Television Academy Berlin in West Berlin during the late 1960s. It was a time characterized by the Ger Movement, a wave of student protests conducted in opposition to what was seen as a growing trend of authoritarian attitudes and right-wing propaganda within West Germany’s political system. There’s little reason to doubt that this environment served as a fertile breeding ground for the political, cultural, and theoretical interests that fueled Farocki’s work throughout the rest of his life.
Often referred to as a filmmaker dealing with the politics of imagery, Farocki forged unique intersections between critical cultural commentary and analyses of how visual images and systems of imagemaking are used to shape thought, opinion, and behavior. Much of his work was devoted to pulling back the curtain of contemporary media mechanisms in order to discover the power and influence that the visual image holds over its viewers, aptly decoding found media messages such as surveillance footage or television broadcasts, and incorporating them into his own critiques.
A common thread woven throughout Farocki’s work was an examination of the ways in which electronic media have influenced all facets of contemporary life—from general themes of consumerism, war, and politics to more specific societal structures such as schools, airports, and prisons. Farocki explored how the proliferating applications of military, surveillance, and gaming technologies as well as other emergent digital media have had profound and complicating effects on our understanding and negotiation of everyday life, from global events and community challenges to our most intimate personal experiences.
Gregory Eddi Jones is an artist, writer, and publisher based in Rochester, NY.