By Lauren Bliss
Workers Leaving the Factory, named after the film by the Lumiere brothers “the first to be brought to the screen”, inter-splices sequences from across the twentieth century of workers leaving en masse at the regulated hour.
Farocki’s technical genius is in his ability to combine the specificity of the cinematic apparatus, the mechanically produced representation of the body, with the modern regimentation of the body to effect an imaging of the process of subjectification. As an invocation of the factory production line, with its repetition, regulation, and homogenization, the use of different films showing the same thing figures how the body is shaped, condensed, and squeezed to fit to the mechanical mould. Put simply, with Farocki one is reminded that a pair of shoes is not worn in, rather it is the foot that is forced to alter its shape to fit the uncompromising shoe; in this case, the 9-5 world, when workers really would leave the factory en masse. Workers provides escape by breaking the image from the body through montage and voice over commentary. Over images of the Lumiere brothers original, a voice announces “these people seem moved as if by an invisible force, no-one remains behind”; over images from 1975 of German workers leaving a Volkswagen factory: “the workers are running as if something were drawing them away”; from 1926 in Detroit “the workers are running as if they had already lost too much time”. The voice over disturbs the mass movement of bodies, as though Farocki wants to wake us up from a deep sleep and allow the viewer to see again.
The problem with such an approach is summarised by Ken Jacobs in his introductory address to Space/Time and Worries (2007, also reviewed in this issue of Desistfilm). For Jacobs, in their use of images to demonstrate modern effects of alienation and subjection, too many filmmakers of the left have disregarded the knowledge of the viewer. Jacobs suggests “they are offensive in how they address the mind, how they approach the other person on the other side of the making of the work, who comes to see the work. I feel as if it’s ultimately disrespectful of the viewer […] How do you address the viewer as […] someone who is your equal?” Jacobs is explicitly referring to parochial documentaries like those of Michael Moore and while Farocki is technically brilliant and formally inventive, and nothing like Moore whose work undermines the power of the conservative through ridicule, it nonetheless seems that Farocki’s viewer is positioned as unknowing in the face of the knowing director, a position mopped over by the sentimentality for the worker’s struggle. The epistemological problem is that, as I would argue, Farocki has erased the factory worker from taking up the position of viewing themselves in their process of subjection. In that sense, what comes to mind is the work of Abbas Kiarostami, whose films like Close Up (1990) or Shirin (2008), or installations, such as the one where gallery attendants are filmed looking at themselves being filmed, brings to bear the activity and agency of the viewer; however entangled with extraneous forces that may be.