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    Harun Farocki, filmmaker of modern life; at 70

    Mr. Farocki with his 12-screen installation, “Workers Leaving the Factory in Eleven Decades.”
    CARMEN JASPERSEN/European Pressphoto Agency/file 2014
    Mr. Farocki with his 12-screen installation, “Workers Leaving the Factory in Eleven Decades.”

    Harun Farocki, an avant-garde German filmmaker and video artist whose work examined the ways images are used to inform, instruct, persuade, and propagandize, died July 30 near Berlin. He was 70.

    His death, from unspecified causes, was confirmed by the Greene Naftali Gallery in New York, which represents him.

    Mr. Farocki made more than 100 films, many of them short experimental documentaries that explored contemporary life and what he saw as its myriad depredations — war, imprisonment, surveillance, capitalism — through the visual stimuli that attend them.


    Ruminative, but with an undercurrent of urgency born of his longstanding social engagement, Mr. Farocki’s films sought to illuminate the ways the technology of image-making is used to shape public ideology.

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    His work, shown on European television, has also been the subject of major exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Tate Modern in London, and elsewhere.

    Writing about Mr. Farocki in 1992, The Los Angeles Times called him “surely one of the most challenging, speculative, and distinctive filmmakers ever to confront an audience.”

    Mr. Farocki’s films were conspicuous assemblages, comprising found and archival footage including surveillance tapes, home movies, and corporate training films. By juxtaposing such images, he sought both to highlight their curious commonalities and to put his finger on the political imperatives that lay beneath their flickering surfaces.

    For Mr. Farocki, the welter of images to which modern viewers are exposed constituted the accumulated patina of history. As a result, he was concerned in particular with images born of social institutions: footage from the workplace, the factory, the prison, the military arena, the shopping center.


    His best-known early film, “Inextinguishable Fire” (1969), is a meditation on the United States’ use of napalm in Vietnam. Little actual combat footage was employed; instead, Farocki presented images suggesting the sterile offices of Dow Chemical Co., which manufactured napalm. In the course of the film, Mr. Farocki, on camera, stubs a cigarette out on his arm. While a cigarette burns the skin at 400 degrees Celsius, he tells the viewer, napalm does so at 3,000 degrees.

    A 1988 film by Mr. Farocki, “Images of the World and the Inscription of War,” explores the idea of the fatal blind spot. In that film, described in 2003 by The Globe and Mail of Canada as the director’s masterpiece, the viewer sees what turn out to be aerial pictures of Auschwitz. Taken by US fliers in 1944, the obscure, blurry images were not recognized for what they were until long afterward.

    In “I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts” (2000), Mr. Farocki juxtaposes surveillance tapes of inmates at the California State Prison in Corcoran with footage monitoring the ebb and flow of consumers in a shopping mall.

    The son of an Indian father and a German mother, Harun El Usman Faroqhi was born in 1944, in Neutitschein (now Novy Jicin), in what was then German-annexed Czechoslovakia; he simplified the spelling of his surname as a young man. After the war, he and his family lived in India and Indonesia before resettling in West Germany.

    Mr. Farocki, who was deeply influenced by Bertolt Brecht and Jean-Luc Godard, studied at the German Film and Television Academy in West Berlin. He began making films in the mid-1960s.


    Although Farocki’s early films were suitable for viewing on television or at the cinema, his later works were often multiscreen installations best experienced in museums or galleries. Among them was “Serious Games” (2009-10), a four-part series documenting the use of computer games and other forms of simulated reality in the training of US military recruits.

    Mr. Farocki’s first wife, Ursula Lefkes, whom he married in 1966, died in 1996. He leaves his second wife, Antje Ehmann, whom he married in 2001; twin daughters from his first marriage, Annabel Lee and Larissa Lu; and eight grandchildren.