As You See
(Wie man sieht) Director: Harun Farocki, D, 1986, German / English subtitles, 72 min
The film is a story of civil and military production. The tank is a logical outgrowth of agricultural machinery, while machine guns are based on a principle similar to that of the internal combustion engine. Farocki gives us the history of technology as a succession of automation phases, in which the human hand is replaced by the computer’s calculations.
The jumping off point for the two intellectual movements of “As We Can See Here” are two pictures from a book; one of a plow, the other of a cannon. A women’s off-camera voice, which will accompany us through the entire film, tells us “this is a plow like a cannon. Or a cannon that looks like a plow”. In the similarities in shape between the machine and the weapon, two cultural practices cross paths. One is productive agricultural work, the other is destructive military onslaughts. “The plowshare’s only purpose is to provide a solid foundation for the cannon. War is justified by the labor of making bread”.
In this film, Harun Farocki gives us numerous constellations of things that seem similar, but are actually two diametrically opposed versions, making the juxtaposition both provocative and the source of far-reaching social consequences. Farocki examines general issues in the history of technology and culture. He himself described the subject this way: “It’s about crossroads and creating cityscapes, machine guns with with hand cranks and machine guns with a recoil, about plotting highways in Nazi Germany and in West Germany, about building roads and dissecting animals, about images of slaughter from above and below, about the birth of the adding machine from the textile mills”.
The film offers a rich abundance of material. But it’s possible to pick out two historical threads referred to repeatedly in “As We Can See Here”. One is the invention of the machine gun. The automatic weapon has been constantly improved upon since its invention in the late 19th century. First used in the American Civil War, then in various colonial wars and ultimately in World War I. The other development is the genesis of the computer, which traces its basic function – the binary system – to the Jacquard Loom and the punch card system developed for its use.
Both developments are “successful models”; they are technical inventions that incorporate the principle of efficiency into modern equipment. They survived and extended their reach because automation became increasingly widespread, machines increasingly replaced the process of making things by hand. In “As We Can See Here”, Farocki is following the tracks of that hand work, and in search of moments at which developments might have gone in a different direction. He does this without nostalgia, which may be why the film itself is spare and unadorned. It’s a handmade product of intellectual rigor. Long stretches of the film are composed of filmed drawings or photographs. Only occasionally does the director combine the largely historical stills with moving pictures. A young disabled man operates a loom, a British engineer reports on a rail bus system developed by the staff of a large company to stave off layoffs.
“Farocki abandons industrial filmmaking and goes back to the intellectual and handmade roots of filmmaking. He has made a simple film, but its very simplicity is disturbing, for it turns each moment into a moment of truth.” That evaluation of “As We Can See Here” was written by documentarian Hartmut Bitomsky, who directed the film “Reichsautobahn” about the Nazi construction of Germany’s famed highways. Farocki made his film about the same time as Bitomsky. Farocki addresses the routes laid out for the highways and various bridge constructions, giving the two films a close kinship in some respects. Bitomsky goes on to say, “hundreds of years separate the loom and the computer, but between the decimal system and a digital calculator is nothing more than a leap of imagination. That’s what the film is about: distances and connections. And it’s how the film is made. Looking at one image leads to an idea, and that idea leads to another image. And so it goes on, with constant free association opening up new connections”.
Thus the principle of free association, which structured two of Farocki’s earlier films “Between Two Wars” and “Something Appears”, here becomes the protagonist. In that respect, “As We Can See Here” is testimony to the emancipation of thought in and with images.
The screening is in partnership with Goethe-Institut Prag.