This essay film revolves around various forms of representation, ranging from 19th-century perspective to computer simulations of landscapes and the film’s actual heart: a misleadingly simple archival image that later reveals a staggering blind spot. In 1944, during the Second World War, the Allies took an aerial photograph of a factory of strategic importance to the Nazis, with the intention of bombing it later. Decades later, CIA analysts discovered that the exact same photograph depicted the Auschwitz concentration camp. During the war, nobody was looking for extermination camps, so the barracks and rows of prisoners in the photograph went unnoticed. This shows that evidence requires representation, but that representation without analysis has no value. Images both contribute to preservation and function as instruments of destruction. The film explores how the technology of the image and the technology of war run analogously, how the same developments serve both the military, the industry and the police. Science and technology may have given us unprecedented ways to study the physical world, but they haven’t led to enlightenment. The opposite may even be true.
“As Farocki’s cinema knows so well, and time and again testifies: images do not just exist as objects among other objects, nor even as manufactured objects among other manufactured objects. Images in Farocki are seen through somebody’s or something’s eyes, and they are always destined for somebody’s eyes. These eyes, then, are fatally implicated in both the act of representation and the represented, in short, looking at a picture is the end of innocence for vision. And while film studies for the last 30 years has explored, examined and tormented itself around this paradox and its troubling implications, Farocki’s films add another dimension – call it the political – where he traces and examines the many histories of embodied vision, or the dialectics of embodied and disembodied vision, of human vision and the vision machines, and the kinds of productivity they engender”
“There is a clear resonance between Bilder der Welt and the writing of Paul Virilio, in particular War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception. Virilio draws out the links between cinema as an organisation of perception and the role of changing technologies of perception in the organisation of war. Put simply, you can only kill what you can see: ‘For men at war, the function of the weapon is the function of the eye.’ Etienne-Jules Marey’s chronophotographic rifle (which featured a revolving unit that could take a series of photographs, designed to enable the photographer to follow and capture objects moving through space) is in this context both a precursor of the cinema and a direct descendent of the multi-chambered Colt revolver. The technology of the image and the technology of death operate under the same principles; the light which exposes the photographic image is equally the light which exposes the target: the visibility of the image is a precondition of war.”
Allan James Thomas2
“Harun Farocki’s Bilder der Welt und Inschrift des Krieges [Images of the World and the Inscription of War] (1988-89) is an essay film that articulates, as its genre tends to do, the formal and aesthetic with the historical and political, in this case in the context of modern – increasingly postmodern – mass media, technoculture, and technowarfare. On the one hand Bilder is a specifically West German leftist response to events and trends of the 1980s; on the other it projects us both back to the perennial problem of the relation between ‘vision and visuality’ and forward into an uncertain future dominated by technical developments – developments such as the digital image manipulation and synthesis recently dubbed ‘Scitex’ and ‘the reconfigured eye’ – that render age-old questions about the nature of representation and truth as philosophically relevant as ever and as increasingly obsolete technologically. Located on shifting boundaries between the modern and the postmodern, Bilder thus addresses aesthetic and formal issues that are transhistorical (which is not to say ahistorical) in that its critique moves across time and changing historical conjunctures.”
Nora M. Alter3
“Certainly, there exists no image that does not simultaneously implicate gazes, gestures and thoughts. Depending on the situation, the gazes may be blind or piercing, the gestures brutal or delicate, the thoughts inept or sublime. But there is no such thing as an image that is pure vision, absolute thought or simple manipulation. It is especially absurd to try to disqualify certain images on the grounds that they have supposedly been ‘manipulated’. All images of the world are the result of a manipulation, of a concerted effort in which the hand of man intervenes - even if it is a mechanical device. Only theologians dream of images which were not made by the hand of man (the acheiropoietic images from the Byzantine tradition, Meister Eckhardt’s ymagine denudari etc.). The question is rather how to ascertain, each and every time – in each image – what exactly the hand has done, in which way and to which purpose the manipulation took place. We use our hands for better or for worse, we strike or stroke, build or break, give or take. We should, in front of each image, ask ourselves the question of how it gazes (at us), how it thinks (us) and how it touches (us) at the same time.”
“Now, while working on this film I became aware that in all these strange experimental installations where I did my shoot, ‘optical sensoring‘ or ‘imaging’ was only a sub-category of other kinds of measuring, that light is only a wave of a certain frequency. Most measuring has little use for images anymore, certainly not in order to harvest figures, as at the time of Meydenbauer [19th century, ed.]. The figures are now the primary material. They calculate the statistics and the numbers, and occasionally they press a button, and there is an image you can see, just to make it a bit more vivid. In the film, I argue that appliances and instruments that have become historically obsolete undergo a brief deification, before they disappear. You can observe it in today’s body culture: directly proportional to the decline of physical labour, everyone now dons these sport shoes and trainers, as if they were athletes. And I suddenly realised that the human eye, too, is no longer essential to the production process. Film and television images have a simple function: to keep our eyes alert and moving, similar to having to exercise horses, when they’re not out working. If you compare this to the field of manual labour, it is the same: more and more automation, also in the field of vision. Suddenly I realised that this branch of working with images that I am in is about as modern as Muybridge’s experiments with recording a galloping horse’s movement.”
Harun Farocki in an interview with Thomas Elsaesser5
- 1Thomas Elsaesser, “Introduction: Harun Farocki”, Senses of Cinema, 12 (2012).
- 2Allan James Thomas, “Bilder der Welt und Inschrift des Krieges”, Senses of Cinema, 19 (2002).
- 3Nora M. Alter, “The Political Imperceptible in the Essay Film: Farocki’s Images of the World and the Inscription of War”, New German Critique, No. 68, Special Issue on Literature. (Spring - Summer, 1996), 165-192.
- 4Georges Didi-Huberman, “How to Open Your Eyes” in: Antje Ehman, Kodwo Eshun (Eds.), Harun Farocki Against What? Against Whom? (Köln: Koenig Books, 2010), 39.
- 5Thomas Elsaesser, “Making the World Superfluous: An Interview with Harun Farocki”, in: Thomas Elsaesser, Harun Farocki. Working on the Sightlines (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2004), 184.