Image Discourse

Volker Pantenburg, Farocki/Godard: Film as Theory

Amsterdam University Press, 348pp, £80.00, ISBN 9789089648914

reviewed by Alex Fletcher

Choosing to talk about ‘two men at once,’ Anne Carson reasons in Economy of the Unlost, means to ‘keep attention strong,’ to ‘keep it from settling.’ In Farocki/Godard: Film as Theory, Volker Pantenburg deploys this strategy as a means to put in dialogue two of the most prolific European filmmakers/artists of the late 20th and early 21st century: Harun Farocki (1944-2014) and Jean-Luc Godard (1930-). Originally published in German in 2006, Pantenburg’s study remains a significant contribution to the recent literature on Farocki and Godard, which has been steadily increasing over the past decade. That this is more the case for Farocki scholarship is understandable, being far outnumbered by monographs and collected essays on his French comrade (such as Michael Witt’s excellent Jean-Luc Godard, Cinema Historian). Indeed, in 1998 film theorist Thomas Elsaesser could still refer to Farocki as ‘Germany’s best known unknown filmmaker.’ Latterly there has been a belated engagement with Farocki’s work in the Anglophone world, principally spurred by his migration in the late ‘90s from cinema and television into museum and gallery spaces.

Links between Farocki and Godard have occasionally been observed within art-related projects. For instance, Farocki’s film Still Life (1997), was shown alongside chapters from Godard’s video series Histoire(s) du Cinéma (1988-98), at Documenta X. Yet the ‘elective affinity’ between the two filmmakers far exceeds such curatorial juxtapositions, making the fact that there are ‘no detailed studies relating the oeuvres to one another until now,’ quite surprising. The correspondences between Farocki and Godard, as Pantenburg details, are numerous, going beyond their work as film, television and installation makers. Both wrote film criticism and theory: Godard, chiefly in the late 1950s for the film journal Cahiers du cinema; Farocki, increasingly between 1974 and 1984 as an author and editor of the periodical Filmkritik. Furthermore, as Pantenburg stresses, for both, the Vietnam War and the year 1968 strongly shaped their political conceptions of filmmaking. Most significantly for the book’s central task – to argue for ‘film as theory’ – is how both figures reflect on the history of cinema and the conditions of filmmaking (its economic and other constraints), as well as the changing states and stakes of image production and circulation in culture more generally, within the medium of film and video itself. As Pantenburg contends,

Both directors had made the question of the image in its manifold guises their central concern. Both navigated in unmarked territory between fiction and documentary, using cinema and its tools as a genuine mode of research. Both took moving images seriously as agents of theory, and used film history as a treasure trove of material for thinking visually.

Pantenburg interestingly does not pursue whether the two filmmakers were ever in actual dialogue together; he is satisfied with a second hand remark about Farocki once commenting that ‘he avoids this.’ Yet the immense influence of Godard on Farocki is easily discernible in, for example, a 1993 conversation with Elsaesser when Farocki proclaimed:

For me, Godard has been way out in front for the past thirty years … I always found out that I do what he did fifteen years earlier. Luckily for me, not quite in the same way… So many ideas are hidden in his work that although you are a different director, you can nonetheless always refer back to him.

In 1998 Farocki and Kaja Silverman published a set of conversations on Godard’s films. Titled Speaking about Godard, the form of the book exemplifies the importance of the dialogical in and for ‘cinematic thinking.’ Dialogue, so to speak, is a form of ‘montage’ (the bringing together of two elements to create a third), the principle way that Pantenburg attempts to think what ‘film as theory’ might look like, asking: ‘to what extent has the medium of film introduced a new form of thought, above all through the possibilities of montage?’ Pantenburg traces the ways that film and image becomes a ‘theorizing subject’ in cinema and theory, from Eisenstein’s reflections on ‘intellectual montage,’ to WJT Mitchell’s concept of the ‘metapicture,’ arguing that in Farocki’s and Godard’s ‘attempt to observe the medium as much as what is conveyed “through” it, they are sensitive to the materiality of both reflecting tool and reflected object.’

The search for the idea of theorizing ‘not only with images but from the images themselves’ takes Pantenburg back to early German Romanticism, particularly Friedrich Schlegel, who famously declared that ‘a theory of the novel would itself have to be a novel.’ Although an observation that has been made previously (often in relation to literature on the ‘essay film’), none have, I think, translated this literary problem into a filmic one as compellingly as Pantenburg does. The failure to perceive how theory can be performed through ‘cinematic language’, for Pantenburg, is largely a result of the narrowing of theory (or the discursive) to language (or logos) and text. As he points out in a critically incisive chapter examining literature on the ‘essay film’ (a category both Farocki’s and Godard’s films have been labelled with), the ‘question is displaced from the level of visual relationships to that of a specific film genre,’ often generating fuzzy equivalences, such as general remarks about the individual style of a literary essayist and a cinematic auteur. As Farocki himself argued, the ‘term “essay” has devolved into … vagueness.’ Importantly, for Pantenburg, Farocki follows this statement with the following: ‘narration and argumentation are closely linked. I strongly hold that discourses are a form of narration.’

Discourse as narration or montage takes Pantenburg into the dark and often invisible space of the editing room. Farocki’s and Godard’s ruminations on editing (in both writing and film), where intellectual linkage is performed through the physical and technical combination of images, allows Pantenburg to develop an idea of a conjoined filmic and discursive praxis; what Farocki, in his essay ‘What an Editing Room Is,’ describes as ‘gestural thinking.’ As in Russian constructivists, such as Dziga Vertov, the film editor and editing equipment is often made visible in their works: for instance, Farocki’s 1995 film installation Interface; or the constant presence of film being wound back and forth in Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinéma. Three additional chapters in the book take a more thematic approach, with comparative studies of ‘Film and Painting,’ ‘Photography and Film,’ and the presence of hands in both figures works (mostly focusing on Godard’s films from the 1960s). The latter chapter, titled ‘Two or Three Ways of Speaking with the Hands,’ is the most intriguing, yet also most speculative. Here Pantenburg expounds on the idea of the hand as a practical/theoretical tool that thinks through editing; a bodily organ which is then further investigated as an expressive and symbolic cinematic trope – Farocki’s 1997 metafilm The Expression of Hands being the most self-evident example. In Godard, the motif of the hand is traced through his Maoist phase, where ‘criticism no longer means differentiation and investigation … but the abolition of differentiation in favour of the act,’ to it’s more tentative and symbolic appearance in Nouvelle Vague (1990) where the hand ‘is now closely linked to the phenomenon of mercy and gains moral qualities connected to its implicit ethic of offering.’

Like his two subjects, Pantenburg’s comparative study, through it’s montage-like juxtapositions, manifests multiple and thought-provoking results. Most significantly, for film theorists and practitioners – as well debates around ‘artistic research’ – is his detailed examination of Farocki’s and Godard’s ‘attempt to think about images with images’. What they hand down to us, Pantenburg demonstrates, is ‘a model that proceeds from the power of images themselves and argues from and within them.’
Alex Fletcher is a PhD researcher at the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy at Kingston University.