Life according to a manual. Life according to instruction. In this documentary about West Germany circa 1988, Harun Farocki unravels a dystopic lay of the land, where every human step proceeds in accordance with prescribed and inculcated behavior. He examines how modern Germany might be overdoing it, how its culture of thought and intellectualism might be permeating aspects of life that it never should.
Farocki’s primary material, seemingly innocuous enough, are sequences from training courses. Without any apparent order or logic, they are intercut and observed devoid of comment. How policemen are trained in the handling of crime; how medical students are taught the mechanics of childbirth; how waitresses must comport themselves among clientele: these passages form an amalgam that appears nothing out of ordinary until Farocki intersperses contrapuntal images that create meaning for his juxtapositions. Hence, we cringe at how a striptease dancer is schooled to the last gesture, to the point of disgust. We wince at how children are repeatedly and heavily psychoanalyzed and tested. We are appalled by the way elderly citizens, counter-intuitively, receive instruction on social behavior.
Welcome to the German Federal Republic, where everything proceeds by the numbers. Where everyone is socially appropriated and micromanaged. Where nature and innocence are denaturalized and unlearned. What should be articles of personality and individuality are summarily expunged by the vaunted German obsession for perfection and polish. This is the panorama of his country that Farocki has decided to show us: artificial, antiseptic, automatic.
In this way, Farocki’s visual motif – of mattresses, car doors, key locks made to undergo stress tests, and wear and tear – begins to make sense like Eisenstein’s non-diegetic inserts: these much abused objects are a metaphor for the German mind and psyche. Farocki’s documentary is a social parable that warns of collective psychical and psychological exhaustion and enforced conformity.
There is an afterimage from this film that haunts the viewer: the look of a striptease dancer that questions the rigid cooption of how she must act, that lays out, ad nauseam, the almost robotic proramming of each of her living, pulsing gestures. It’s a moment that invites paradoxes: The quest for perfection can be demoralizing; the insistence on instruction can create angry ciphers. Deep enough, the soul may be objectified, but it will revolt.
Such suggestions Farocki elicits while eliding all manner of commentary. No telling voice-over cues us in, as in his best-known work, Images of the World and the Inscription of War (1989). Everything is there, and Farocki leaves us to piece together a meaning. To take his film as a kind of rigid and didactic statement after all is the least of his intentions. He is one German who still believes in self-determination and independent thought.