You Have to See… is a regular feature here at 4:3, where one staff writer picks a film they love and makes a group of other writers watch it for the first time. Whilst not explicitly spoiling the film, the article is detailed. We would recommend seeking out and watching the film each week, then joining in the debate in the comments section.
For some months I had been planning on writing about this film by one of my cinematic idols, Harun Farocki, before hearing the sad news of his untimely passing at age 70. For a while I was unsure whether I should proceed with it, the weight of the event bearing down on me somewhat. Now some time has passed. Others have come forth with detailed, personal tributes,1 film festivals have programmed retrospectives,2 so that enough justice to his memory has been served for other conversations to now take place. I can now go forth and shout my love for How to Live in the German Federal Republic (Leben – BRD) from the rooftops, and even better force others to see it, as my own form of tribute.
This is the kind of film I think this column is best suited to. A rare favourite deserving of more attention that you’ve always wanted to share with others but never had the opportunity to. It is also rarely discussed in significant detail, with more attention usually being directed at his 1989 film Images of the World and the Inscription of War (Bilder der Welt und Inschrift des Krieges), regarded as a classic of the essay film form. How to Live in the German Federal Republic is possibly an even greater formal feat, a testament to how an economy of form can convey a wealth of ideas. (And it’s incredibly funny.)
Shot in the early months of 1989 in West Berlin just before the wall came so gloriously crashing down, and released in 1990 prior to reunification, Farocki’s How to Live in the German Federal Republic fortuitously strides a pivotal transitional period in Germany’s history. It exists now as a document of life in former West Germany, but what makes it interesting is that the life depicted is not real ‘life,’ but a training ground for it, its subjects appearing as “actors playing themselves” in a mosaic montage of over thirty simulatory situations.3 Life as presented here has become something that must be rehearsed, staged, performed.
The fundamentals of life – birth, food, sex, death – are shown perverted, abstracted through simulation. Expectant parents practice birthing techniques, learn how best to wash their infant children without drowning them, midwives pull baby dolls through dummy vaginas. A weight watchers group eat a meal of meat and vegetables they’d previously held a meeting to plan for, a group of women are lectured on the fundamental importance of the temperature of dinner party dishes, a therapy group for anorexics hosts an imaginary dinner party with empty plates. Sex is simulated in the form of a joystick-controlled computer game, an exhausted stripper is forced to perfect her seduction routine down to the smallest unconscious movements of her fingers. Death must also be prepared for, with life insurance salespeople learning to make small talk with prospective customers, complaining about the weather before confronting them with their mortality, asking “What if you hadn’t made it home last night?” Somewhere along the line this society has lost the ability to function unaided. Farocki offered a possible WWII-related rationale for this phenomenon in an interview with Randall Halle in Camera Obscura:
“Since reunification, one talks neoliberal in Germany. However, today (just as before) this discourse sounds like that of a model student: “We Germans made a big mistake, but from now on we will do everything right.” Practice and practice and never make mistakes—if I practice enough I will be fine.”4
However, as he shows in the film, mistakes are unavoidable parts of life. Practice can’t always make perfect. Mercedes crash, too – which we see take place in a 2D driving simulator. Farocki combines these role-plays with shots of objects undergoing product-testing, sometimes shown in direct relation (for example, following the shot of the sex game is one of a mattress undergoing a load test). Years of hypothetical strain by human usage is mimicked with car doors repeatedly slammed, armchairs pummelled with weights, washing machines thrust into walls. These shots act as both a darkly humorous counterpart and a bleak ideological comparison to the human situations. They are analogous in that both experience a kind of impoverished reproduction of life, rather than real engagement with it. However, the purpose is not to suggest criticism of the people taking part. The target here is the society, not the individual. No commentary is given, with the film primarily composed of a series of static shots (with the exception of a few pans), the authorship coming through in editing, the film building its argument with the collective weight of the scenarios presented. We are examining a process, a phenomenon, rather than its results, with the audience tasked to think about the implications for themselves.
In a just world, How to Live in the German Federal Republic would hold as prominent a place in German film history as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Its glimpses into the heart of German society are as accurate and astute as ever committed to film. Its unique combination of playful humour, incisive social observation and disciplined formal vision make it both one of Farocki’s finest achievements as well as one of my favourite films of all time.
Brad Mariano: “Hmm.” I’ve got mixed feelings on this one, which probably hits at my aversion to ‘essay films’ more generally, even the best of which (and this probably is one of those) I tend to find to end up being far more interesting to think, write and talk about than to actually sit through. I think also it doesn’t quite justifies its length – with no real overarching narrative or other trajectory it feels a bit arbitrary in its construction. This is surely the point, but I think that style of filmmaking would be more effective at around the 30-40 minute range. It’s an intellectual exercise that has one idea – albeit a very strong one, which Jess has done a really fascinating job of unpacking – which I don’t feel is developed much over the back half of the film any more than the first; though some of the best scenes, like the dancer perfecting her robotic strip-tease routine, do come later. The film aims for cumulative effect over its vignettes rather than sequential development of ideas, and I suppose I thought it might have been even stronger if it was trimmed a bit – long stretches in the middle feel particularly bloated.
It ends up being extremely similar to Michael Haneke’s The Seventh Continent, one of my favourite films, that also very much concerned people fulfilling their social roles, with scenes chilling in their banality. Not that Farocki was copying or even inspired by that film – released almost simultaneously, the timelines suggest if anything, Haneke may have been inspired by Farocki’s earlier work. But my take is more a reflection on myself, I generally respond more to themes like this – of conformity, paranoia, social order – through narrative films. But this is a really fascinating, clever idea that I imagine would have worked for me even more with a better understanding of the socio-political climate of West Germany of the time. It’s particularly interesting in light of the point about the “big mistake” that Farocki mentions and looms in the collective memory of the people he’s depicting. There’s a brilliant, chilling irony in that on the one hand, people here are trying to be model, perfect citizens as a response to these historical atrocities, but the fact that so many people were model, obeying citizens “following orders” was crucial to the horror of Nazism. So really impressed with the films ideas, slightly less so with its execution.
Conor Bateman: I seem to have liked this one more than Brad but less than Jess, for me it is a mostly engaging intellectual exercise that marries a fairly clear sociological message and clever editing. I disagree that it doesn’t justify its length, though, I think it manages to craft these smaller narratives in the vignettes – at the start the juxtaposition between the young girl playing and her mother hearing about her daughter’s actions from a child psychologist– as well as playing with some interesting themes with regards to documentary cinema and re-enactments, most notably in the police training sequence (the bank teller and insurance scenes felt like weaker versions of the actual physicality in the police vignettes), where we open on a shot of an arguing couple and two policemen that feels real, as if we have jumped from the calm and constructed training scenes into a chance moment of actual anger, only to have the camera move to reveal an audience. Later when we see a scene we have just witnessed playing on a nearby television in an assessment of the drill, we get this ironic sense of Farocki willing the same sort of analysis of his work. One of the smaller moments in the film that jumped out at me were the two instances in which someone looks at Farocki’s camera dead on, as if to questions the validity of his observational analysis – the first of these is the best, a young boy doing an exercise with shapes gets tired of the game’s repetition and his eyes drift across to the camera lens.
I think a stronger knowledge of the context in which the film was released would have been important to my engagement with it further. I can certainly see the way in which he comments on life in West Germany and the way he uses mistakes throughout (the sex video game stopping in the first few scenes is a very early indicator of the inability to attain anything close to perfection) to indicate a flawed vision for recovery. Brad cites Haneke’s The Seventh Continent, stealing my thunder because that was the very comparison that came to mind for me as well. Though Farocki seems to use humour throughout to create a paradoxical sense of intimacy between audience and subject whilst placing them at a distance through the analytical lens, Haneke was much more committed to bleakness, his social commentary slightly more affecting. That said, I do think Leben BRD is a worthwhile watch, its intelligence clear on initial viewing but also upon reflection – the Nazism point Brad makes didn’t occur to me in that vein and it is pretty compelling to consider.
Next week on You Have to See… we look at Jean-Luc Godard’s Éloge de l’amour (2001)