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Seeing and Believing: Poetic Documentaries About Technology and Ideology

By Karen Rosenberg

A silhouette stands under a brick archway of the Bridge piers at the Saale river, 1937.

Our television networks have made us familiar with documentaries that inform the public about techno­logical inventions. What is less common is the artistic documentary that assumes we have assimilated cliches about technology and tries to expose them. Like most modern art, such films and videos often use shock techniques to disrupt our old patterns of thought. Irony in the narration, strange visual images, and startling juxtapositions in the realm of both sight and sound are the hallmarks of this style.

Two West Berlin filmmakers in their mid-forties, Hartmut Bitomsky and Harun Farocki, provide 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 1970's, and were members of the editorial board of Filmkritik from 1974 until the journal's demise in 1984 helps explain their similarities. Their cameras linger on archival footage, diagrams or still photographs not to illustrate a story but to find attitudes toward technology, and their aphoristic, often ironic commentaries provide a counterpoint to the images. Because Bitomsky and Farocki deliberately eschew smooth, authoritative, easy-to-follow narrative, their works defy most Americans' expectations of what a documentary is.

Bitomsky's Reichsautobahn (1986) is not a conventional chronol­ogy of the building of the Autobahn, the German highway system that was begun under the Third Reich. Though the documentary starts with Adolph Hitler's inaugural shoveling in September 1933, the mechanics of road construction are not in this filmmakers primary interest. What concerns him are the Nazi's methods of human engineering—their ways of influencing people.

"We are always confronted with the same emblematic images of the cruelty which the Germans committed," Bitomsky told me in West Berlin. "People turn away from these images, both because they are frightened and because they have become used to them. I tried to find another approach, avoiding overused images and concentrating on the Nazi's method of governing." The German Autobahn demonstrates how a gigantic public ­works project was sold to a nation through an intensive propaganda campaign. And to the extent that hard ­sell techniques are not a Nazi monopoly, this film is about more than a particular chapter of German history.

By presenting longish clips that retain the flavor of the Nazi-era films, Bitomsky suggests how seductive well-made propaganda is. "I implicitly ask the viewer: Do you like it? Are you persuaded? How strong is your resistance?" If you find the images attractive, then you have found in yourself the vulnerability of an older generation of Germans. This is a powerful, indirect response to a major question of the post-war era: How could the Holocaust have happened?

Bitomsky transports us to a time when the advantages of a divided highway were conveyed to Germans through simpleminded movies. "Today one would have to think away the Autobahn, we're so used to it," his commentary runs. "Back then it was so unfamiliar that one had to think one's way into it." Reichsautobahn shows that what was taught in the Nazi era was not just how to use the new highways but how to see them. Under the Nazis, people had to call them "Adolph Hitler's roads," and apparently even today some Germans believe the Autobahn was one of their former leader's few good ideas. However, as Bitomsky notes, the plan to build roads that would skirt cities and avoid intersections predated Hitler. The Nazis also convinced many Germans that the Autobahn provided employment on a vast scale, yet Bitomsky (drawing on recent scholarship) estimates that the highway and its ancillary industries brought only a small percentage—some 5 percent—off German unemployment lines.

Why was the Autobahn built, then? Not, as another cliche has it, primarily for military use. As a retired engineer tells Bitomsky on film, the concrete used proved too thin for the heavy trucks that traveled on the roads as of 1937. (Tanks, of course, moved long distances by rail.) The importance of the Autobahn, Bitomsky suggests, was largely symbolic. By joining various parts of Germany, it created the impression of national unity. Bridges—Bitomsky indicates with quotations from the time—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 since the Nazis considered the Autobahn a source of pride, they exploited the scenic line of the roadway for photo opportunities starring Hitler and his troops in attitudes of mutual devotion.

Some of the early shots of the Autobahn conform to the popular notion of Nazi propaganda, featuring soldiers who salute with raised and outstretched arms. But although the Nazis declared war on modern art, they were willing to make use of the dramatic compositions of still photographers and cinematographers who had been influenced by the Weimar­ era avant-garde and by Soviet silent cinema. The images that resulted were insidious because attractive, and they made for an especially effective manipulation of the media. In short, not all pictures of the Autobahn were old­ fashioned kitsch: a surprising number reflect Constructivist aesthetics that are still fashionable today.

Out of the archives Bitomsky brings forth the Autobahn magazine, Autobahn poetry, and Autobahn novels, oratorios, radio plays, paintings, movies, and coffee-table books. "Discovering that all this forgotten Auto­bahn memorabilia existed was astonishing—like opening a Pandora's box," Bitomsky told me. The very quantity of paeans to the beauty and usefulness of the Autobahn suggests there was a psychological resistance to these roads that carved up the landscape, and indeed i t gradually becomes evident that the photographs of peaceful roadside picnics and of peasants haying by the new highways were intended to present the fiction of a society where traditional families and traditional agriculture harmonized with modernity. A little cheesecake—young women sunning themselves by the Autobahn—soothed the disruption caused by the new element in the countryside.

However, like most propaganda, the attractive images tended to conceal facts that were disquieting. "One picture answers another" is the poetic, elliptical phrase that Bitomsky employs in Reichsautobahn to allude to this phenomenon. The highway system could symbolize the united will of the German people only if class tensions were covered up. "In a Nazi film, under every image of a man proud of his work lies an image of him not allowed to strike or to organize into a union," Bitomsky noted in our conversation. In his film, he points out that foremen rarely appear in Autobahn movies and that contractors don't exist there. "The social hierarchy ends it abruptly," Bitomsky told me. "There's a purpose behind this: not to contra- diet the idea of a community where the people are one."

When rumors began to circulate: in Nazi Germany that Autobahn work was hard and dangerous, films minimized the problems. On-the- job theft -§ appeared in one semi-documentary only in a side plot. "They conceded that such things do happen, but they tried to make light of it," Bitomsky explained to me. A technical failure was depicted in the fiction feature One Man for Another (Mannfuer Mann), but the Nazi minister of popular of enlightenment and propaganda, Josef Goebbels, ordered the film reshot so that a natural disaster—a landslide—substituted for the mechanical break­ down. Germany could admit that acts of God might slow progress on its monumental highway system, but not human error.

"One picture answers another" also suggests that Autobahn movies contain no gaps where a critical question might arise. Says Bitomsky, "This was accomplished, in part, by very fast cutting. You have to hurry to follow the films, to keep up with their pace. These movies may be reminiscent of Soviet silent cinema, but they aren't the same. When the Soviets wanted to be enigmatic, they were much more complicated than the German filmmakers dared to be. And when the Soviets wanted to get a point across, they'd give it more time and space, and use far more angles and shots. The Autobahn films don't go into anything deeply. They merely reinforce what's in the viewer's head and don't risk boring anyone with long explanations. "

Like a Janus figure, Reichsautobahn looks in two directions, back to the past and toward our present. Scattered in the narration are ironic lines suggesting that the filmmaker views the building of the Autobahn as a formative experience for West Germany. "Here begins the attempt to base the national economy on the car industry, " he says in his commentary. A news clip from 1938 shows Hitler bestowing an award on Ferdinand Porsche. The Volkswagen, Bitomsky remarks, was to be a car for everyone, part of the Nazi 's "economic miracle. " Today few people are aware that this phrase, made famous in the post-war years, was used by the Nazis in 1930's and Bitomsky's pointing out the coincidence in his film has a provocative edge.

The last Autobahn bridge "leads into the American era," says the narration—another charged statement. What Bitomsky is hinting at is a matter of interpretation—many a good artist leaves a great deal to the audience instead of hitting each nail on the head—but the message is clearly nothing simplistic, such as that West Germans and Americans today are the same as the Nazis. Rather, the filmmaker seems to be urging present-day audiences to consider what they share with Nazi­ era values. Reichsautobahn demonstrates that the ideal the Nazis pro­ jected was an affluent society with resources and hours to burn on automobile tourism. It was a dream they couldn't realize, but one that did not die with their defeat.

In the advanced industrial nations, the romance of the road has been sold with advertising techniques that can be considered a form of propaganda. No Luddite, Bitomsky isn't criticizing the automobile per se, which he considers a useful form of transportation. ("I don't want to come across as a bicyclist," he quipped to me.) His target is cultures that fill up leisure time with elaborate car-related obsessions. His film spawns questions like: Is that the goal we should be setting for human beings? Or: If the cult of the Autobahn appears grotesque now, what will historians of the future say about our road culture?

"It's the aim of modem industry to put as many people as possible in their cars. It's strange to have one­ third of the economy—or even more—based on automobile construction," Bitomsky said when I talked to him in West Berlin. Reichsautobahn suggests that the prevalence of fantasies about cars and travel may be one response to a lack of fulfillment on the job. "What people do not get in their work life they are given in their private life and spare time. The idea is: let them see movies, let them stay in their cars," Bitomsky theorized.

Harun Farocki also criticizes modern car culture, but in contrast to Bitomsky, he tends to hit nails on their heads. In his 1986 documentary about alternative technologies As You See (Wie Man Sieht) Farocki states much more explicitly that we have a cult of the road : "Whoever works today spends a third of his working hours and money on cars and roads. Likewise in the Middle Ages people spent a third of their time and means on cathedrals." Like Bitomsky, Farocki trains his camera on old photographs of the Autobahn and points out that bridges sometimes resemble the arches of a church nave. From this, he draws the conclusion: "Above all, it is the bridges which invite devotion to the road. " In the avant-garde tradition, this filmmaker plays the flamboyant provocateur whose role it is to wake up audiences to different values.

Images of the road—and especially of intersections—have an important metaphorical role to play in Farocki's poetic documentary. "The choice between two roads, the forking of the ways" is his symbol for past decisions that might have brought us to a differ­ent present. "The history of technology is fond of describing the route that developments have taken from A to B. It should describe which alternatives there were and who rejected them," says his narrator. As You See is primarily concerned with two technological paths that Farocki believes could be followed: the manufacturing of socially useful products and the development of processes that exercise worker's physical and intellectual abilities.

In West Berlin, Farocki told me that his vision in As You See was shaped by the anarchist historian and social theorist Max Nettlau, who maintained 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 consider themselves responsible for the results of their labor and refuse en masse to manufacture such goods. In As You See, Farocki allots a considerable amount of time to the attempt of employees at the British firm Lucas Aerospace to shift production from military goods to socially useful items, including an unusual "bus/train" that can be driven on roads or rails. Because this vehicle can climb very steep grades, it can spare the environment in regions where building conventional roads would require extensive cutting into and tunneling through mountains. "The Lucas 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 taken up and realized in different ways. I wanted to show an interesting way of thinking. The notion of bringing a train and a bus together is simple, but many important ideas aren't very spectacular. The computer, for instance, is essentially a faster version of the calculating machine."

In Farocki's film art, shots of the Lucas plant remind us that swords can be turned into ploughshares. The alternative is represented by still photos of the first tanks, made from farm vehicles, and by a diagram of a bizarre cannon anchored on—yes—a ploughshare. "I found that 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 photographs I used have not been published." Since it costs little to shoot photographs, he keeps within a low budget.

By opposing sequences about the bus/train with the picture of the cannon/plough, As You See creates a rhythm of fear and hope. "Like music and literature, film works with recurrence, playing with forgetting and remembering, " Farocki observed in our conversation. The course of hope is also symbolized by mechanical hands which mimic an operator's hand-brain coordination. With this image, he makes it clear that workers' physical and intellectual abilities do not have to become moribund—although, he argues, this has often occurred.

Farocki's protest against the Industrial Revolution is clearly made in the & name of the human body. He is disturbed about the loss of manual skills that came about as weaving and other crafts became mechanized. And handwork was not the only casualty of industrialization. As You See includes a nice lament for the foot. Old drawings and diagrams shot by Farocki remind viewers of a time when the foot controlled tools. Later, the filmmaker notes, the foot was given the crude work: it propelled a wheel or pressed a pedal or was limited to walking. A 1934 photo of swaying glassworkers in a Opel plant provokes his nostalgia, for this craft soon disappeared from the auto industry. "For the last time work comes from a rhythm to which one can dance," says the narrator. And then comes Farocki's characteristic associative leap: "I imagine that industrial workers admired football players for their skilled footwork Football players perform skills with their feet which are normally done only with the hands." Which leads to his hyperbolic conclusion : "It moves the workers deeply that they were once so skilled with their feet, more than any present­ day loss." Now, I doubt that that's the reason why working class people watch the games, but it's a striking coda to his dirge.

There may be little information in As You See that will be new to those familiar with the history of technology. But much modern art works with found material, structuring it in an original manner. 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 push his startling comparisons any further. They are meant to be suggestive—merely suggestive, but very suggestive. "It's like a discussion in which the participants try out ideas. I wanted to reproduce the oral productivity of conversation," Farocki told me.

The practice of combining the poetic with the intellectual, which can be seen in the documentaries of Bitomsky and Farocki, does not come out of nowhere. The two filmmakers have 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 seeing the world that people generally accept as normal, rational, and even sacred. "There comes a point where you have assimilated Barthes's thinking to such an extent that you can't tell if an idea is his or your own, it seems so near and natural to you," Bitomsky told me.

Moreover, as teenagers, both Bitomsky and Farocki were influenced by the dense, epigrammatic writings of Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, which concern the power of the modern mass media. Adorno was frightened by the ability of the "culture industry" to lull its audiences into uncritical thought, while Benjamin was more hopeful about the progressive potential of film—and both points of view can be detected in Bitomsky and Farocki, for they use filmmaking to reveal the ideological messages implicit in popular imagery.

The French director Jean-Luc Godard attracted them as well, for his films address the relationship between politics and image. (Godard's Letter to 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 emerges from the imitations of such models? As historian Martin Jay once wrote, "Reading a piece by Adorno or Benjamin brings to mind a comment the filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard is once said to have made when asked if his films had a beginning, a middle, and an end. 'Yes,' 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, which presents an obstacle to the reception of poetic documentaries. Also, our technical intelligentsia and our aficionados of modern art remain, for the most part, distinct and disparate communities. The two cultures are split, and poetic documentaries about technology fall into the crack.

This need not 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 widespread self­ conception among West German or American filmmakers, but anyone who knows Soviet cinema history (as Bitomsky and Farocki do) would find it familiar: Documentary filmmaker Dziga Vertov and many of his contemporaries in the 1920's often spoke of their studios as "film factories" and emphasized that the camera is a machine, the film material undergoes various technological processes, and—as in industry—the work is done collectively. "The Dziga Vertov Academy'' is what Bitomsky and Farocki dubbed the German Film and Television Academy when they occupied it in the heat of 1968. Twenty years later, the Vertov tradition of a link of technology and art lives on in their filmmaking work.

Hartmut Bitomsky's Reichsautobahn (35mm, 92 minutes) in German with English subtitles can be rented or purchased from Big Sky Film Production, Hauptstrasse 18, Gartenhaus 1 St., D-1000 West Berlin 62, telephone 30-782-8234.

Harun Farocki 's As You See (16mm, 72 minutes) with English narration can be obtained 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 on journals in the U.S., Western Europe and Japan. She is also a contributing editor of The Independent, a film and video monthly. An earlier version of this article appeared in the February/March 1989 issue of Technology Review.