Still Life (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Darragh O’Donoghue

Still Life  analyzes the proliferation of Dutch still-life paintings in the 17th century and contrasts them with modern ad photos

Still Life analyzes the proliferation of Dutch still-life paintings in the 17th century and contrasts them with modern ad photos

Produced, written and directed by Harun Farocki; cinematography by Ingo Kratisch; edited by Irina Hoppe, Rosa Mercedes and Jan Ralski. DVD, color, 56 min., dubbed English (sequences in German and French with nonoptional English subtitles), 1997. A Facets release. 

Near the end of Still Life [Stille leben], a film that analyzes images—and the production of images—of inanimate objects, a moment of violence occurs. A white screen is suddenly cut from behind with a knife. A commercial photographer is creating an aperture through which to snap a Cartier wristwatch. But after many shots of sedate, sumptuous seventeenth-century still lifes, with close-ups of exquisitely rendered, illusionist details, this breach is jarring, as if director Harun Farocki had decided to vandalize the Old Master canvases.

Which, in a sense, he has. The Dutch still life was virtually mass produced in the seventeenth century for an emerging and newly prosperous middle class, as one of the specialist genres that came to prominence when Calvinist Protestantism effectively outlawed the public dissemination of religious imagery (the Church being until the Reformation the primary patron of art). Subsequent art historians, presumably embarrassed by such mercantile origins, tended to focus on their painterly qualities, or subject matter, decoding the allegorical meanings of these still lifes (what the narrator calls “ciphers of a secret writing”), their warnings about the perishability of goods, the inadequacy of human knowledge, and life’s transience (vanitas), or their intimations of Christian redemption.

The narrator of Still Life follows John Berger’s landmark 1972 TV series and book Ways of Seeing, and summarily dismisses such readings. Just as Berger couldn’t look at Gainsborough’s bucolic Mr. & Mrs. Andrews (ca. 1750, National Gallery London) without seeing the endorsement of property rights, the public whipping of potato thieves and the deportation of poachers, so this narrator emphasizes the origin of the still-life painting in trade, scientific progress, colonial exploitation, and the bourgeois desire to mark status through the display of objects (one variant of the genre was even called the pronkstilleven, meaning the still life of ostentation). In order to make these claims, s/he must do (art) historical violence by collapsing the still life into a homogenous genre, reading it through “the language of [twentieth-century] advertising,” and ignoring variations in subject matter, regional emphasis, chronological development, or patronage; the fact that features such as the minimizing of religious narrative to the background of the display of produce had analogues in contemporary genres such as the landscape; the still life’s relegation to the bottom of the academic hierarchy of genres; its origin in Egyptian funerary images; the alternative Spanish still-life traditions derived from lower-class inns or monasteries; or the case of still life being appropriated by avant-garde artists in the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries to destroy the image and value systems on which traditional painting was based (before, of course, being themselves absorbed by the art market). Mention of any of these would distract from the film’s neat thesis. Farocki has, however, acknowledged in interviews the formative influence of Pop Art, and it is that movement’s reification of commercial products in still lifes (most famously former advertising artist Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup series) that tacitly informs his approach here.

Five aphoristic essays on seventeenth-century Dutch still-life painting, of about three minutes each, bracket four documentary sequences of photographers creating modern still lifes for magazine advertisements. These two levels, though defined by opposites—stasis/motion, tell/show—are linked by visual motifs and rhymes, just as the modern products echo the subjects of the paintings. The documentary sequences have no commentary, mostly last ten to fifteen minutes, and take their cue from Farocki’s earlier An Image (Ein bild, 1983). In that short, he recorded the shooting of a German Playboy centerfold spread, from the building of sets and the arrangement of props (including the model herself), to the taking, analysis, and retaking of photographs, and the staff finally leaving the studio. If the nude model in An Image was manipulated as a piece of fruit to be arranged, lit, and presented to the viewer as desirably as possible, so the continued focus in Still Life on cheese, beer, and wristwatches, placed on pedestals, endlessly discussed by shadowy craftsmen, embraced by repetitive, slow, semicircular tracking shots, and brightly lit as if illuminated from within, contrive to give the objects a real spiritual presence, that of the (commodity) fetish, removed from their mode of production or original use value. This relationship is anticipated by one of the earliest still lifes, in which a mountain of food leads the eye to a stolen embrace in the background; desire + consumption = sexual satiation.

One photographer in Still Life suggests: “Let’s see what the Polaroid says.” The process of creating images; the analysis of their meaning, manipulation, use, and reuse; the reinstatement of their hidden producer and wider socio-economic relations (one detail of a painting shows the artist reflected in a glass, an emblem of the author-director of this film, acknowledging his own implication in this process): these are recurrent themes in Farocki’s work. The (re)use in Still Life of paintings connects to the found footage from which many of his works are edited, such as How to Live in the German Federal Republic (Leben – BRD, 1990) and Videograms of a Revolution (Videogramme einer revolution,1992). Farocki is often called a documentary maker, but he generally documents images rather than any a priori reality; Randall Halle calls him “a metacritic of both the image and the society that produces these images.” His career, which began in the student unrest of the late 1960s (Farocki was expelled from film school for political activity) and matured in the 1970s when he edited and wrote for Filmkritik (“the German Cahiers”), is contemporary with the rediscovery of Walter Benjamin and postmodern concerns with the loss of aura of artworks, and the replacement of human identity, activity, and society with simulacra. It is easy, therefore, to see the appeal of these paintings for the didactic Farocki; one art historian summarized the still life as “a training ground for seeing.” The genre offers serial repetition, a close-up view of a narrow range of motifs, while reflecting contemporary Netherlandish interest in optics and color theory. Individual paintings play with reflecting surfaces, frequently include frames-within-frames and images-within-images, and, in the trompe l’oeil variant especially, demonstrate strategies for deceiving the viewer.

Within the next decade, Farocki’s two cinematic mentors—Jean-Luc Godard and Straub-Huillet—produced films based on major public collections of European art. Godard’s The Old Place (2000, codirected with long-term partner Anne-Marie Miéville) continues in the style and thematics of his magnum opus, Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998), discussing the commission from MoMA, and analyzing the utility and ethics of art or visual representation in the face of twentieth century atrocity and its media-tion. Godard’s intuitive, wide-ranging, associational montage-as-palimpsest is less obviously respectful of its visual sources than Farocki. Closer to Still Life is Straub-Huillet’s A Visit to the Louvre (Une visite au Louvre, 2004). What seems a fairly pedestrian art documentary begins to jar as an increasingly dogmatic narrator platitudinizes about “realism” in art. It turns out that the “monologue” is based on published conversations between Cézanne and his friend, poet Joachim Gasquet. This subtle undermining of the narrator-as-museum-guide is echoed inStill Life. Halle has noted Farocki’s use of narrators as reflective guides (the American dubs favor female monotones, in this case delivered by regular Farocki collaborator Kaja Silverman); but these should not be treated as neutral, “objective,” or as overriding the other systems of meaning presented in his films.

Still Life is not the first Farocki work to engage with the history of art—What’s Up (Was ist los?, 1991), for example, used an eye-mark recorder to track viewers’ opthalmic responses to a postcard reproduction of Titian. Still Life was produced for the documenta X exhibition in Kassel, marking Farocki’s engagement with art gallery spaces since 1995, when he was commissioned by the Musée d’art modern de Villeneuve-d’Ascq in Lille to install the autobiographical/self-reflecting Interface (Schnittstelle). This is increasingly the path followed by other independent filmmakers finding it difficult to secure cinematic distribution, festival exposure. or public-television commissions; Jean-Marie Straub controversially screened A Trip to the Louvre without subtitles in London’s Tate Modern in 2008.

Still Life is the sixth of Farocki’s films released by Facets Video in the United States (after An ImageIndoctrination [Die schulung, 1987], How to Live in the German Federal RepublicVideograms, and The Interview [Die bewerbung, 1996]; Images of the World and the Inscription of War [Bilder der welt und inschrift des krieges, 1989] is apparently forthcoming). None of these DVD releases come with contextualizing extras; as many of the works are under an hour in length, this represents poor value for money, especially in comparison with Absolut Medien’s comprehensive 2009 box set which features twenty films over five discs (unfortunately without English subtitles). On their sleeves, Facets laughably refer to their “film preservation agenda.” Farocki deliberately uses low film gauges and video to match the varying quality of his source materials, so image quality here is not the problem it usually is with this label. Nevertheless, the only audio track available is the American dub, while the subtitles are not removable.

Darragh O’Donoghue works as an archivist in Dublin and has published in The Irish Journal of French Studies and Senses of Cinema.

To buy Still Life, click here.

Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXVI, No. 3