You are on page 1of 11

Playing in Threes

Montage and memory in the films of Harun Farocki and Alexander Kluge Elan Gamaker

“When the Portuguese came, they christened it Cabo da Boa Esperança. When the

Dutch came, everything became Dutch. When the British came, we were suddenly

called the Cape Colony. And today, as they change road names into isiXhosa for

the first time, we still edit films in our own visual language. It seems only editors

have anything in common with our leaders: we share the dominion of memory.” 1

For the artist whose tool is the moving image, his or her impulse is one of the reimagining of memory. Whether it is a memento mori, after Barthes 2 , or the reanimation (and recapitulation) of the mind to the material, the film as art object is an act of seizure: recollection reframed and mummified. And the chief tool of this reframing comes in the edit. Whether the mental gathering of ideas and images beforehand – a ‘pre-image’ that rests in the thematic bent of the filmmaker – or the shaping of the image assembly on the editing table, it is in montage that true style (and meaning) emerges.

As a filmmaker myself I refer here to montage not as it is understood in the theoretical sense (the historical aspects of montage theory itself), but in the professional one:

montage as the edit and the concomitant processes of gathering, selection, de- selection, assembly, reordering, reworking and output. In the filmic medium, the edit is the purest version of the form, and this purity can be posited in the political role montage plays in filmmaking (or at the very least the structural and aesthetic role it plays in political filmmaking). I would argue that the very notion of subjective assembly – a creator of text selecting images and placing them in an order – is sui generis a political act of recognition and omission, and that this act has, through form, the ability to bind the theme or subtext of disparate oeuvres. So, while the nature of the filmmaker may differ, a common understanding of the power of the edit – with its commensurate tropes of commonality, adjacency, transposition, contrast, juxtaposition, rhythm and irony – can achieve similarity.

1 Quote by Neal Markage, prominent South African film and documentary editor, during Items Rediscovered, a conference on film editing and its influence on archival history in South Africa, delivered in Cape Town, 27 July 2008. 2 Barthes (1982), p. 77. See Bibliography.

While the filmmakers Alexander Kluge and Harun Farocki both seek to reinterpret seemingly heterogeneous images to provide and provoke a homogenous assembly of continuous and repetitive meaning, they differ in approach. Here I would like to focus on how their use of montage unifies their approaches, and how this can serve their common aim: to temper the hegemonic prerogative to destroy memory, and therein to find its preservation.

Specifically, I wish to explore how, in spite of their different backgrounds, approaches, methodologies and styles, Farocki and Kluge employ a similar politic. This is expressed not merely by shared experience or outlook but via the act (and action) of montage, an aspect of their films that is as conscious and political as their content. For me, this notion of montage is a predominant factor in characterising their works, and as such this view is apt because it ties in with what is in many ways a postmodernist approach to film theory, one that eschews chronology in favour of formal links between works.

Unnatural Selection Both Farocki and Kluge are political filmmakers by design. While Kluge was born shortly before the collapse of the Weimar Republic and Farocki during the last days of the Third Reich, both are inheritors of the chief German ills of the 20 th century. They experienced first-hand the political stasis of early postwar Germany, where many Nazis retained high-power positions even in the aftermath of the Nuremberg trials and the burgeoning West German democracy, particularly in the media. Both can therefore be seen as filmmakers of the Baader-Meinhof consciousness, an energetic and predominantly Marxist response to this poisonous hegemonic intransience.

But beyond the political context of their birth and upbringing, their aesthetic origins differ as do, consequently, their stylistic approaches. While Kluge emerged as a filmmaker in (and as a consequence of) his creation of the New German Cinema and its seminal manifesto presented at the Oberhausen Film Festival in 1962, Farocki’s formal impulse emerges within the context of the culture of video art and appropriation that began in the late 1960s. Where Kluge’s motive is one of drama and mystery, the seduction of narrative and the objectivity of the implicit, Farocki is too much a product of the polemic of post-structuralism to remain opaque or dramaturgical.

Within the appropriation context Farocki is the collector, the rummager, the basement- dweller scouring the archives for remnants of his and his country’s past, a past written in a visual memory whose nature emerges, for him, through repetition and adjacency. His memory implies a past and not vice versa.

Kluge is, similarly, a documentarist, revisionist historian and collector of archive. But he is also by nature a director of narrative fiction. He is the manipulator, the watcher, the craftsman, simultaneously gathering and creating footage to produce a similarly cogent attack on the skewed visual representation of collective memory.

Kluge determinedly points out that his is a world not of content but of context, and that it is within and through this context that narrative – whether applied or implied – emerges. He likens his approach to that of the parent reading a children’s story at night. Rather than producing a simple narration built around a diegesis, Kluge is more interested in what he calls the ‘three autonomies’: the delicate preservation of discrete units of author, text and recipient. In this way, he allows each to be influenced by the other, meta-narratives constructed and reconstructed by independent meaning and subjectivity:

The idea that artists work to personal ends, that they and their work are

autonomous, is true only when the viewer is also treated as an autonomous

subject. These three autonomies intermingle both in montage and narration. If you

can maintain these autonomies, assure each its own space and expression, then

your narrative is good. (Drößler, 2006)

Kluge’s style may be more ‘filmic’ given his classical training, and while he shares Farocki’s devotion to found material, appropriating video footage like Duchampian readymades, his methods are more seductive. From his tracks and zooms up the steps and through the halls of Speer’s decrepit monuments to fascism in Brutalität im Stein (Fig 1.1), to the long, tense takes of former SS officer Hanns-Martin Schleyer’s funeral in Deutschland im Herbst (Fig 1.2), a film whose trailer describes the work as ‘Spielfilm und Dokumentation’ (Feature Film and Documentary) 3 , and finally to the imposed and nonsensical sound-disruption of Frans Josef Strauss’s neo-fascist demagoguery in Der Kandidat (1980), Kluge’s works introduce point-of-view and characterisation. Even

3 From the voice-over narration of the trailer for Deutschland in Herbst. The narration goes on to describe the film as ‘Ein Film gegen das Vergessen’ (A film about the forgotten).

within the context of documentary they possess the seductive shape of drama, lulling us into the sleep-state of deep-structure narrative, forcing identification, expectation and release. Where Farocki’s political will (and political irony) emerges in juxtaposition and the self-evident, Kluge’s derives from stylised presentation, a dramaturgical structure built around visuals and sounds whose hidden stories must be revealed through the language of film rather than the coding of images.

The legacy of their experiences comes to dominate Farocki and Kluge’s work in its own way, specifically in whether material was found, manufactured or constructed. But this is where distinctions, at least formally, begin to fall away. And it is here that montage – and its role in the restoration of the independence of image-memory – begins to bind the ethos of the filmmakers.

Montage as tract Montage as political tract has its origins in the turbulent milieu of Revolution-era Russia. In many ways the invention of montage by filmmakers such as Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein could be seen as more a chance reinterpretation of camera angles for dogmatic ends than as a case of aesthetic or formal montage avant la lettre. As camera engineer and inventor Jean-Pierre Beauviala writes of Eisenstein and Vertov:

They were not inventing montage and editing by chance. They invented those

things because they were related to something, which was social turmoil, which

was the Russian revolution. (Godard & Sterritt, 1995, p. 66)

In his seminal essay In the Blink of an Eye, Walter Murch 4 describes the edit as being collusive and analogous with the blink of the human eye, our straight cuts and dissolves a structural manifestation of the philosophical act of dreams, themselves harbingers of memory and experience. 5 He applies this analogy to film editing, arguing that our ‘readiness’ to understand cinematic language is innate and bespoke: our dream language plays out as film language, and montage as a subconscious processing and reprocessing of experience, desire and fear.

4 Walter Murch is the award-winning editor and sound mixer of several films including Apocalypse Now (Coppola 1979), for which he won an Academy Award. 5 Murch writes: ‘(I) believe “filmic” juxtapositions are taking place in the real world not only when we dream but when we are awake (…) these juxtapositions are not accidental mental artifacts but part of the method we use to make sense of the world.’ (2001, p. 63)

If we expand this hypothesis to the filmmaker who works with found footage and archive, we implant a historical – and therefore inescapably political – dimension. Ultimately, with montage, form replaces or stands in for content, and imposes both from within and without a ‘structure’ based on the illogic of dreams (themselves our greatest repository of memory) rather than the mythological structure of classical narrative.

Whether through the linearity, non-linearity, repetition or discontinuity of montage (or, indeed, its equal and opposite, Kluge’s ‘insistence on one moment’), Kluge describes the act of montage as the means to ‘structure attentiveness’:

I can use variation to create context. I stay with one theme and vary it. I can now pursue differences very well. I can pursue many differences over a longer period. I can also do something else, namely, create continuity. I have a subtext and I recount endlessly. (Drößler, 2006)

Kluge’s montage is one of contrast rather than one of the classical mode: continuity of form to produce intrinsic meaning. For him, the edit emerges from within, and it is through mirroring (a reflection based on perception rather than passive reception) that meaning is derived. It is here that contrast ‘functions as a non-verbal commentary.’ (Drößler, 2006)

Farocki exercises a similar disposition regarding the edit. In Schnittstelle (Interface), a video piece derived from an installation commissioned by the Lille Museum of Modern Art, he describes his editing table as a place for the ‘reworking of images and sounds’ (Farocki, 1995) and depicts not only images in contrast (both in edit and in split-screen) but features himself (Fig 1.3), after Vertov, as the self-conscious (and necessarily manipulative) captor and controller of the image.

For if Farocki’s works are found-footage assemblages stuck together with the ‘glue’ of the assembly edit, his images exist independently until his ‘ownership’ of them (if we extend the appropriation argument) comes into being. The images he has collected become inter-dependent and his own authorship comes to the fore when he creates a chain of meaning, a meaning determined not merely by his selection (and deselection) but by his ordering. Likewise, even though much of Kluge’s footage begins life as inter-

dependent, it is similarly through his chain of meaning (and his surrender to the in-built visual logic of the viewer) that it appears as ‘steered’ as Farocki’s.

Farocki and Kluge’s impulse is a sort of reverse censorship, a bringing together of the unseen and the revealed to reshape visual experience and, as a result, memory. As Malin Wahlberg writes:

Farocki’s work of film and video exemplify the social and intersubjective mechanisms that cling to any contextualization of photographs and sequences as image-memories. (Wahlberg, 2004, p. 19)

For example, in Eye/Machine I-III (2001-3), Farocki assembles found footage from military archives, high-tech weaponry and production facilities to reshape our view of the mediated nature of surveillance and its link to modern warfare (Fig 1.4). Through repetition and displacement (reconfiguring the image beyond its traditionally propagandistic context), Farocki uses montage to stress what he describes as the ‘constant denial provoking opposition’. (Williams, 2002, p. 34) And in Schnittstelle, he includes footage of a disturbance at the final Nicolae Ceasescu rally, held in the death throes of the Romanian Communist regime. Footage originally edited from the live broadcast of the event now re-emerges alongside its original site of omission; this is in line with Kluge’s selective inclusion of images previously edited or banned by the right- wing press in Der Kandidat, a film described as being ‘Mit bilder die in Fernsehen und in den Zeitungen nicht zu sehen waren’ (With images not seen on TV or in newspapers). 6

Farocki and Kluge’s expression is instinctively political and premeditated, but this provocation emerges fully only in post-production: their oppositions are a result of construction and not vice versa. Farocki continues:

As early as the Eighties, cruise missiles used a stored image of a real landscape, then took an actual image during flight; the software compared the two images, resulting in a comparison between idea and reality, a confrontation between pure war and the impurity of the actual. This confrontation is also a montage and montage is always about similarity and difference. (Williams, 2002, p. 34)

6 From the trailer for Der Kandidat (1980). See bibliography.

For Farocki, the rhythm of his edit is a staccato, it’s about dissociation and disruption, the hum of a sensory overload, where video and audio are contrapuntal: unmatched and mesmerising. For Kluge, the rhythm of his edit is a symphony, it’s about association and collusion, the whirr of sensory manipulation, where video and audio are harmonious: matched and mesmerising. Their techniques are opposite and parallel:

Farocki’s images produce meaning that may be more didactic than Kluge’s, but over a passage of footage the viewer in either case is still allowed to generate his or her own structure.

Through the work of both directors it can then be argued that the edit becomes a process of unnatural selection, a game where the fittest elements that survive are determined not by a Darwinian process where what in the work remains apposite or qualitative (as might be the case with, say, journalism or curation), but rather where meanings are derived and philosophy expressed through the architecture of omission.

Preservation of the trace So, if film can act as a mental picture, the act of montage enables the director to reshape the past the way memory does and to preserve it the way the craftsman preserves fading pieces of celluloid: fragments of personal recollection intermingling with information picked up elsewhere, linearity disturbed, objectivity erased and significance (and signification) ruptured. Here the ‘trace’, the objectivity implicit in the photograph (moving or otherwise), is not merely revived but repositioned.

Even where style and theme differ, montage acts as the mitigating factor, the control to the experiment, and can exist as a constant among variables that must always take in the dyad of author and viewer. Farocki and Kluge seems to be saying that any footage, whether created or (re)discovered, can be literally re-imagined; image-memory earns its true subjectivity only when the traces of meaning contained in them, as well as in their context, are destroyed (as they were by those who originally disseminated them) by displacement, and, finally, preserved through a new transposition.

For ultimately Farocki and Kluge, whether willing or not, are postmodernists: they work in appropriation, reimagining and disseminating footage, reworking it and creating their own political pastiche. By placing images together whose meaning and indeed content is not inherent but rather emerge only through contiguity, Farocki and Kluge express

the postmodern take on the significance of appropriation, that to impose a superstructure on art history, visual literacy or indeed political events (and how they are depicted) is inherently artificial. The unified political message of their work represents the corollary of this argument: embracing the artificial construct as a crucial component of this distant and yet personalised revisionism.

Both are auteurs in the sense that they are both editors and directors, both construct narrative because if montage is a dream their assemblies are reshaped mythologies both influencing and relying upon expectation, the universal dream-experience played out as a fragmentary representation of memory and the subconscious. Their Germany has a disordered imprint on their memory and emerges through a subconscious (yet deliberate) rendering and reordering of the implied narrative (and, for Farocki, the filmic ontology) of the image.

The work of the directors, both ‘imagists’, argues that it is naïve and even dangerous to view images as discrete pieces, and equally problematic to view them in the context of a hermetic author and a passive spectator. Their images work in threes: the third image 7 of the Eisensteinian array coupled with Kluge’s three autonomies; a three-way mirror of image, counter-image and their double vision; and the ‘tertiary memory of media archive’. (Wahlberg, 2004, p. 19)

Through this duplication the filmmakers insist that images are always part of an assembly: a continuum of social context, of thought, and of identity. This is not a polemic or a protocol but a like-for-like response to a tried and tested methodology, one for whom this assembly, haunted by the ghost of Marx, remains hidden from view. For the chief political act of the fascist (and his colonialist and imperialist bedfellows) is precisely the application of this discretion: the totalitarian motive of the rewiring of


7 The ‘third image’ is director Jean-Luc Godard’s reference to the incipient meaning of the third image, a meaning derived from the relationship between the two opposing, interrelated images that preceded it. He writes:

Eisenstein was not working with editing, he was just putting an angle after an angle. At the same time Vertov was really dealing with editing – let’s not call it parallel, but perpendicular editing, crossroads, pieces of reality that come across each other. Two images are made to cross each other not to be followed by, but to build a third image. (Godard & Sterritt, 1998, p. 67)


FIGURES Fig 1.1 Kluge uses classical film language in the documentary format for dramatic effect. Fig
FIGURES Fig 1.1 Kluge uses classical film language in the documentary format for dramatic effect. Fig

Fig 1.1 Kluge uses classical film language in the documentary format for dramatic effect.

film language in the documentary format for dramatic effect. Fig 1.2 Stylised documentary footage of Hanns-Martin

Fig 1.2 Stylised documentary footage of Hanns-Martin Shleyer’s funeral in Deutschland in Herbst.

Fig 1.3 Harun Farocki at his editing table: ‘The control desk; the player; the recorder’

Fig 1.3 Harun Farocki at his editing table: ‘The control desk; the player; the recorder’ (Farocki, 1995)

control desk; the player; the recorder’ (Farocki, 1995) Fig 1.4 Opposition and denial in Farocki’s reframing

Fig 1.4 Opposition and denial in Farocki’s reframing of found footage in Eye/Machine I-III (2001-3)



Barthes, R. (1982) Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Hill & Wang, New York.

Godard, J-L & Sterritt, D. (1998) Jean-Luc Godard Interviews. University Press of Mississippi.

Mast, C., Cohen, M., Braudy, L. (eds.) (1992) Film Theory and Criticism, Fourth Edition. Oxford University Press, New York.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (2002 [1948]) The World of Perception. Routledge, London & New York

Murch, W. (2001) In the Blink of an Eye (2 nd Edition). Silman-James Press, Beverly Hills.

Journal Articles

Wahlberg, M. (2004) Inscription and Re-framing: At the editing table of Harun Farocki. In: Konsthistorisk Tidskr 73, No. 1., The HW Wilson Company, New York.

Williams, G. (2002) Harun Farocki. In: ArtForum, Summer 2002, p. 174-175.


Farocki, H. (director), Eye/Machine I-III, Auge/Maschine, 2001-3.

Farocki, H. (director), Gefängnisbilder, Auge/Maschine, 2003.

Kluge, A. (director), Brutalität in Stein, Alexander Kluge Filmproduktion, 1961.

Kluge, A. (director), Der Kandidat, Filmverlag der Autoren, ABS Filmproduktion, et al.,


Kluge, A. et al. (directors), Deutschland im Herbst, Filmverlag der Autoren, ABS Filmproduktion, et al., 1978.


Drößler, S. (2006) Schnitte in Raum und Zeit, Editing Interview with Alexander Kluge, video excerpt online at

Farocki, H. (1995) Schnittstelle (Interface), Lille Museum of Modern Art, video excerpt online at

Kluge, A. (et al.) (1978) Deutschland In Herbst (Trailer), video excerpt online at