Our television networks have shown us documentaries that inform the public about technological inventions. What is less common is the art documentary that assumes we internalize clichés about technology and tries to expose them. Like most modern art, these movies and videos often use shock techniques to interrupt our old thought patterns. Irony in the narrative, bizarre visual imagery, and startling juxtapositions in the realm of sight and sound are hallmarks of this style.
Two West Berlin filmmakers in their forties, Hartmut Bitomsky and Harun Farocki, are good examples of this genre. The fact that they studied together at the German Film and Television Academy in West Berlin from 1966 to 1968, collaborated on films in the early 1970s, and were members of Filmkritik's editorial board from 1974 until the magazine's demise in 1984 helps to explain their similarities. . . His cameras linger on images, diagrams or photos not to illustrate a story but to find attitudes towards technology, and his aphoristic, often ironic comments provide a counterpoint to the images. Because Bitomsky and Farocki deliberately avoid a fluid, authoritative, and easy-to-follow narrative, their work defies most Americans' expectations of what a documentary is.
de BitomskyThey descend into the Reich(1986) is not a conventional chronology of the construction of the Autobahn, the German highway system that began under the Third Reich. Although the documentary opens with Adolph Hitler's maiden shovel in September 1933, the mechanics of road building are not the filmmaker's primary interest. What worries him are the Nazis' methods of human engineering, their ways of influencing people.
"We are always faced with the same emblematic images of the cruelty the Germans committed," Bitomsky told me in West Berlin. "People avoid these images, both because they are afraid of them and because they have become used to them. I tried to find another approach, avoiding overused images and focusing on the Nazi method of government." The German Highway demonstrates how a massive public works project was sold to a nation through an intense propaganda campaign. And insofar as hard selling techniques are not a Nazi monopoly, this film deals with more than one specific chapter in German history.
By presenting fairly long clips that retain the flavor of Nazi-era films, Bitomsky hints at just how seductive good advertising can be. "I implicitly ask the viewer: did you like it? Are you persuaded? How strong is your resistance?" If you find the images attractive, then you have discovered in yourself the vulnerability of an older generation of Germans. This is a powerful and indirect answer to an important postwar question: how could the Holocaust have happened?
Bitomsky takes us back to a time when the advantages of a divided highway were conveyed to Germans through simple films. “Today we would have to think about the Autobahn, we are so used to it”, reads his comment. "At that time, it was so unknown that you had to think about how to get in."They descend into the Reichshows that what was taught in the Nazi era was not just how to use the new roads, but how to see them. Under the Nazis, people had to call them "Adolf Hitler roads" and apparently, to this day, some Germans believe that the Autobahn was one of their former leader's few good ideas. However, as Bitomsky points out, the plan to build highways that would circle cities and avoid intersections predates Hitler. The Nazis also convinced many Germans that the Autobahn provided jobs on a large scale, but Bitomsky (on the basis of recent studies) estimates that the highway and its ancillary industries contributed only a small percentage, around 5%, of the unemployment lines.
So why was the Autobahn built? No, as another cliché goes, mainly for military use. As a retired engineer tells Bitomsky on film, the concrete used turned out to be too thin for the heavy trucks that traveled the highways from 1937 onwards. (The tanks, of course, traveled long distances by train.) The importance of the Autobahn , suggests Bitomsky, was largely symbolic. By uniting various parts of Germany, he created the impression of national unity. Bridges, notes Bitomsky with quotes from the period, were celebrated as signs of German engineering skill. The road system functioned as a gigantic monument to the will and power of the Third Reich. And because the Nazis considered the Autobahn a source of pride, they exploited the road's scenic line to take pictures of Hitler and his troops in attitudes of mutual devotion.
Some early photos of the Autobahn fit the popular notion of Nazi propaganda, with soldiers saluting with arms raised and outstretched. But as the Nazis declared war on modern art, they were willing to make use of the dramatic compositions of photographers and cinematographers who had been influenced by the Weimar-era avant-garde and Soviet silent films. The resulting images were insidious because they were compelling and allowed for especially effective media manipulation. In short, not all Autobahn imagery was old-fashioned kitsch: a surprising number reflect the constructivist aesthetic that is still in vogue today.
From the archives, Bitomsky unearths Autobahn magazine, Autobahn poetry and Autobahn novels, oratorios, radio plays, paintings, films, and coffee table books. "Finding out that all these forgotten Autobahn mementos existed was amazing, like opening Pandora's box," Bitomsky told me. The same amount of praise for the Autobahn's beauty and usefulness suggests that there was a psychological resistance to these roads that divided the landscape, and indeed it is slowly becoming apparent that photographs of peaceful roadside picnics and peasants eating hay in the new roads were intended to present the fiction of a society where traditional families and traditional agriculture harmonized with modernity. A little cheesecake—young men sunbathing on the Autobahn—calmed the disturbance caused by the new element in the countryside.
However, like most advertisements, the eye-catching images tended to hide disturbing facts. "One painting responds to another" is the poetic and elliptical phrase used by Bitomsky inThey descend into the Reichto refer to this phenomenon. The road system could only symbolize the united will of the German people if class tensions were glossed over. "In a Nazi film, under every image of a man proud of his work, there is an image of him forbidden to strike or organize a union," Bitomsky observed in our conversation. In his film, he points out that foremen rarely appear in Autobahn films and that there are no contractors. "The social hierarchy ends abruptly," Bitomsky told me. “There is a purpose behind it: not to contradict the idea of a community where people are one.”
When the rumors began to circulate: in Nazi Germany, work on the Autobahn was difficult and dangerous, the films downplayed the problems. Robbery at work -§ appeared in a semi-documentary only in a parallel plot. "They admitted that such things happen, but they tried to downplay it," Bitomsky explained to me. A technical glitch was depicted in the fictional feature film.One Man for Another (Mannfuer Mann), but the Nazi Minister of Popular Culture and Propaganda, Josef Goebbels, ordered the film to be reshot so that a natural disaster, a landslide, would replace the mechanical breakdown. Germany can admit that acts of God can slow down the progress of its monumental road system, but not human error.
"One image responds to another" also suggests that the Autobahn films do not contain spaces where a critical question can arise. Says Bitomsky: "This was achieved, in part, by cutting very quickly. You have to be quick to keep up with the films, to keep up with them. These films may be reminiscent of Soviet silent films, but they are not the same." When the Soviets wanted to be cryptic, they were much more complicated than German filmmakers dared to be, and when the Soviets wanted to get a point across, they gave more time and space and used many more angles and shots. The Autobahn movies don't go into depth at all. They just reinforce what's in the viewer's head and don't risk boring anyone with lengthy explanations."
like a figure of Janus,They descend into the Reichlook in two directions, to the past and to our present. Scattered throughout the narrative are ironic lines that suggest the filmmaker sees the construction of the Autobahn as a formative experience for West Germany. "Here begins the attempt to base the national economy on the automobile industry," he says in his commentary. A news clip from 1938 shows Hitler presenting an award to Ferdinand Porsche. The Volkswagen, comments Bitomsky, was supposed to be a car for everyone, part of the Nazis' "economic miracle". Today, few know that this phrase, which became famous in the post-war period, was used by the Nazis in the 1930s. And the fact that Bitomsky points out the coincidence in his film has a provocative tone.
The last bridge on the Autobahn "leads into the American era," says the voiceover, another loaded statement. What Bitomsky is implying is a matter of interpretation - many good artists leave too much up to the audience rather than hitting the nail on the head - but the message is clearly anything but simplistic, as West Germans and Americans today are the same. Like the Nazis Instead, the filmmaker seems to be urging today's audiences to consider what they share of Nazi-era values.They descend into the ReichIt shows that the ideal projected by the Nazis was a rich society, with resources and hours to spend in automobile tourism. It was a dream they failed to realize, but it didn't die with defeat.
In advanced industrialized nations, the road romance was sold with advertising techniques that can be considered a form of advertising. Without Luddism, Bitomsky is not criticizing the automobile itself, which he sees as a useful means of transportation. (“I don't want to look like a biker,” he teased me.) He targets cultures that fill their free time with elaborate car obsessions. His film raises questions like: Is this the goal we should set for human beings? Or: if the Autobahn cult seems grotesque now, what will future historians say about our road culture?
"The aim of modern industry is to get as many people into their cars as possible. It's strange that a third of the economy, or even more, is based on building cars," Bitomsky said when I spoke to him in West Berlin.They descend into the Reichsuggests that the prevalence of car and travel fantasies may be a response to lack of job satisfaction. “What people don't get in their professional life, they get in their private life and in their free time. The idea is: let them watch movies, let them stay in their cars,” Bitomsky theorized.
Harun Farocki is also critical of modern car culture, but unlike Bitomsky, he tends to hit the nail on the head. In his 1986 documentary about alternative technologieshow do you seeFarocki states much more explicitly that we have a cult of the road: "Workers today spend a third of their working hours and money on cars and roads. Likewise, in the Middle Ages people spent a third of their time and resources on cathedrals. ". Like Bitomsky, Farocki focuses his camera on old Autobahn photos, noting that the bridges sometimes resemble the arches of a church nave. From there he draws the conclusion: “Above all, it is the bridges that invite devotion along the way”. In the avant-garde tradition, this filmmaker plays the flamboyant provocateur whose role is to awaken audiences to different values.
The images of the road, and especially of the intersections, have an important metaphorical role to play in Farocki's poetic documentary. "The choice between two paths, the fork in the road" is his symbol of past decisions that could have led us to a different present. “The history of technology likes to describe the path developments took from A to B. It should describe what alternatives existed and who rejected them,” says its narrator.how do you seeShe is primarily concerned with two technological paths that Farocki believes could be followed: the manufacture of socially useful products and the development of processes that exercise workers' physical and intellectual capacities.
In West Berlin, Farocki told me that his vision inhow do you seewas shaped by anarchist historian and social theorist Max Nettlau, who argued that workers were degraded and hardened by producing goods that are harmful to other human beings. Rather than simply blaming their employers, Nettlau argued, workers should take responsibility for the results of their work and rejectquiteto manufacture such goods. At thehow do you see, Farocki spends considerable time as employees of the British company Lucas Aerospace try to shift production from military items to socially useful items, including an unusual "bus/train" that can run on roads or rails. As this vehicle can climb very steep slopes, it can protect the environment in regions where conventional road construction would require extensive digging and tunneling in the mountains. "Lucas's experiment had little practical success in terms of the number of road/rail vehicles sold," Farocki admitted to me. "But an idea, like a book, can live on and be picked up and realized in different ways. I wanted to show an interesting way of thinking. The idea of putting a train and a bus together is simple, but many important ideas are needed." It's not very spectacular. The computer, for example, is essentially a faster version of the calculating machine.
In Farocki's cinematic art, Lucas' plants remind us that swords can be turned into plowshares. The alternative is represented by photos of old tanks, made from agricultural vehicles, and by a diagram of a strange cannon anchored to, yes, a plow. "I found this diagram in a book called something like 'Grotesque Weapons,'" Farocki told me. "I did a lot of research for this film and most of the stills I used were unpublished." As taking pictures costs little, it stays within a low budget.
By contrasting sequences about the bus/train with the image of the cannon/plow,how do you seecreates a rhythm of fear and hope. “Like music and literature, cinema works with recurrence, playing with oblivion and memory”, observed Farocki in our conversation. The Hope Course is also symbolized by mechanical hands that mimic an operator's hand-brain coordination. With this image, he makes it clear that the physical and intellectual capacities of workers do not need to die, although, according to him, this has happened frequently.
Farocki's protest against the Industrial Revolution is clearly made in the name of the human body. He is concerned about the loss of manual skills that occurred when weaving and other crafts became mechanized. And manual labor was not the only casualty of industrialization.how do you seeincludes a beautiful foot lament. Early drawings and diagrams made by Farocki remind viewers of a time when the foot controlled the tools. Later, points out the filmmaker, the brute work was given to the foot: he would push a wheel or step on a pedal or simply walk. A 1934 photo of glass workers swinging in an Opel factory makes him nostalgic as the trade soon faded from the auto industry. “For the last time, the work comes from a rhythm that can be danced”, says the narrator. And then comes Farocki's trademark associative leap: "I imagine industrial workers admired football players for their deft footwork. Football players perform foot skills that are normally done with just the hands." Which leads to his hyperbolic conclusion: "This deeply moves workers who were once so skilled on their feet, more than any current loss." Now, I doubt this is why working-class people watch the games, but it makes an amazing coda to their dirge.
There may be little information onhow do you seethis will be new to those familiar with the history of technology. But much of modern art works with found material, structuring it in original ways. Through his unexpected juxtapositions of images and ideas, this filmmaker makes the familiar strange again and therefore interesting to reexamine. The film's fast pace will also keep viewers on their toes. Farocki avoids dwelling on anything, probably because he doesn't want to pursue his startling comparisons any further. They must be suggestive, just suggestive, but very suggestive. "It's like a discussion where participants try out ideas. I wanted to replicate the oral productivity of the conversation," Farocki told me.
The practice of combining the poetic with the intellectual, which can be seen in Bitomsky and Farocki's documentaries, does not come out of nowhere. Both filmmakers absorbed the ideas of Roland Barthes, the French critic whose short poetic essays (almost prose poems) investigate what he calls the "mythologies" of contemporary culture: the highly arbitrary patterns of viewing the world that people generally accept as normal. rational and even sacred. "You reach a point where you have assimilated Barthes' thought to such an extent that you can't tell if an idea is his or his, it seems so close and natural to you," Bitomsky told me.
Furthermore, in adolescence, both Bitomsky and Farocki were influenced by the dense epigrammatic writings of Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, which dealt with the power of modern mass media. Adorno was frightened by the "culture industry"'s ability to lull its audience into uncritical thinking, while Benjamin was more hopeful about the progressive potential of cinema, and both views can be detected in Bitomsky and Farocki, as they use cinema to reveal implicit ideological messages in the popular imagination.
They were also attracted by French director Jean-Luc Godard, whose films deal with the relationship between politics and image. (Carta de Godard a Jane, for example, analyzes a single photograph of Jane Fonda taken in Hanoi, discussing what its framing reveals about the relationship of American radicals to Third World revolutions). What kind of style arises from imitations of such models? As historian Martin Jay once wrote, "Reading a play by Adorno or Benjamin brings to mind a comment filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard would have made when asked if his films had a beginning, middle, and end." he replied, 'but not necessarily in that order.'
Barthes, Adorno, Benjamin and Godard are so central to postwar European culture that educated German audiences can be expected to place the works of Bitomsky and Farocki in a recognizable context. But in the United States the same intellectual tradition is less familiar to film audiences, presenting an obstacle to the reception of poetic documentaries. Furthermore, our technical intelligentsia and modern art aficionados remain, for the most part, distinct and disparate communities. The two cultures divide and poetic documentaries about technology fall into the gap.
This doesn't have to be the case, of course. Farocki told me that, as a filmmaker, he considers himself a member of the technical intelligentsia. This is not a widely held concept among American or West German filmmakers, but anyone familiar with the history of Soviet cinema (as Bitomsky and Farocki do) will find it familiar: documentarian Dziga Vertov and many of his film contemporaries. 1920s, they often discussed their studies. as "film factories" and emphasized that the camera is a machine, the film material goes through various technological processes and, as in industry, the work is done collectively. "The Dziga Vertov Academy" is what Bitomsky and Farocki called the German Film and Television Academy when they occupied it in the heat of 1968. Twenty years later, Vertov's tradition of uniting technology and art lives on in his film work.
de Hartmut BitomskyThey descend into the Reich(35 mm, 92 minutes) in German with English subtitles is available for rent or purchase from Big Sky Film Production, Hauptstrasse 18, Gartenhaus 1 St., D-1000 West Berlin 62, phone 30-782-8234.
by Harun Farockihow do you see(16 mm, 72 minutes) with narration in English is available from Basis-Film Verleih GmbH, Guntzelstrasse 60, 0-1000 West Berlin 31, telephone 30-853-3035.
Karen Rosenberg is a film and literary critic whose articles have appeared in magazines in the United States, Western Europe, and Japan. She is also a contributing editor to thethe independent, a monthly publication of films and videos. An earlier version of this article appeared in the February/March 1989 issue oftechnology review.