An Archaeology of the Filmic Essay: Untangling Harun Farocki's Still Life
Published online on Senses of Cinema (October 2016)
From the opening moments of Harun Farocki’s Stilleben (Still Life, 1997), the viewer is charged with not merely unconsciously accepting what is placed in their line of vision, but actively interrogating each image. As the viewer regards two separate paintings by 16th century Dutch painter Pieter Aertsen, titled The Vegetable Seller (1576) and A Meat Stall with the Holy Family Giving Alms (1551) respectively, each cut to a different fragment of the paintings’ surfaces raises questions: what do the artworks depict; what is placed in their foregrounds; what is relegated to the background; and, ultimately, what meanings can be excavated from the artworks’ layers and represented objects?
As both art historical documents and the first artefacts of Farocki’s filmic exploration of the still life, Aertsen’s painterly works reveal the beginning of the displacement of people and animals in favour of an obsession with the textures and details of inanimate objects. As the camera’s eye zooms in on Aertsen’s A Meat Stall, Farocki’s thesis is clearly articulated by the narrator Kaja Silverman, who states, “If we read this image the way we read advertising today we are given to understand that commodities obstruct our view of the religious scene.” What remains unsaid yet implied in the subsequent sequence of a contemporary photoshoot featuring a still life of a stack of American dollar bills is that the obstruction of the religious scene by commodities has now been superseded by the conflation of religion and capitalism. As the film moves between images of the still life paintings of the 17th century Dutch Golden Age (to which Aertsen served as a forbearer) and behind-the-scenes footage of advertising shoots for a cheese board, beer glasses and a Cartier watch, what initially could be interpreted as a documentary on art history gives way to a critique of the manner in which visual codes from 17th century still life painting are employed in contemporary advertising.
With a career spanning over 50 years as a filmmaker, installation artist, theorist and writer, Farocki’s oeuvre has been noted for his sustained interest in the form of the cinematic essay, mobilised by the found object. Eloquently described by Christa Blümlinger as “audiovisual writing”, Farocki’s role as a visual essayist has turned on the major theme of “disciplinary institutions as precursors of control societies […] the way the latter take over and administer people’s lives by managing and supervising them in a variety of ways. As a cinematic essay that delves into art history, allegory and consumerism – as well as the very notion of seeing – the parallels drawn in Still Life between 17th century painting and 20th century advertising images gesture towards an economy of desire within capitalistic systems concerned with displays of wealth and material acquisition. Whereas the upper classes of the 17th century would display artworks in their homes to signify abundance and affluence, contemporary advertising is predicated on the emphasis of fulfilment through consumerism.
As Farocki juxtaposes the excruciatingly slow and methodical process of placement, framing, lighting and construction in the advertising sequences, following photographers, art directors and stylists as they agonise over the correct angle of a slice of cheese, he constantly returns the viewer to the works of the Dutch Golden Age. While the camera lingers on the realistically rendered shaved contours of a wedge of cheese in Hans van Essen’s Still Life with Cheese, Fish, and Onions (1615), it is clear that for Farocki it is not enough for the viewer to take a panoramic view of the artworks within his film. Rather, each composition must be dissected and fragmented to the point of fetishisation. As the narrator remarks, “The word fetish has returned and can now haunt any object.” One need only view the ritualistic placement of objects in the advertisement scenes to see an enactment of the obsessive devotion to an object. However, Farocki does not succumb to the allure of the fetish object. Instead, the poetics of vision encapsulated in Farocki’s close-ups of artworks bespeak a politics of consumer desire that asks the viewer to interrogate their own relationship with the objects they consume.
In defining Farocki’s overarching approach to the filmic essay, Thomas Elsaesser writes that, “With Farocki […] the act of 'documenting' the contemporary world is guided also by different kinds of authorship, different strategies of probing and testing, and an agency that is at once forensic and pedagogic." Despite the pedagogical thrust that Elsaesser attributes to Farocki’s films, Still Life is not a lesson in art history and aesthetics, nor is there the presence of the moral didacticism of Bertolt Brecht, who Faroki credits as an influence. The power of the message underlying Still Life – as in many of Farocki’s films – is the role of the spectator.
This is particularly clear in the advertising sequences, which are afforded an ironically silent reverence by Silverman, who never intrudes into the action. With each advertising scene laying bare the apparatus employed to construct images designed to seduce the consumer, the temporality of the 17th century still life is transposed to the photographic medium in sharp contrast with the expediency of consumerism inspired by the objects captured. Although almost 20 years old, Still Life resonates with the current desire economy and serves as a part of Farocki’s legacy as a filmic archaeologist or “objet-trouvé artist” who, in his own words, “expresses that you cannot create meaning systematically, as the big production companies, cinema, and TV stations try to do. One needs chances and the luck of a finder.” One must excavate the remains and look beyond the surface to unveil new modes of seeing.
 Christa Blümlinger, “Harun Farocki: Critical Strategies,” Parachute 111 (2003): 115.
 Thomas Elsaesser, “Harun Farocki: Filmmaker, Artist, Media Theorist,” Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry 11 (2005): 56.
 Randall Halle and Sabine Czylwik, “History is not a Matter of Generations: Interview with Harun Farocki,” Camera Obscura 46 (2000): 58.]
 Ibid., p. 56.