Shots From the Canon #8: ‘How to Live in the German Federal Republic’ (Harun Farocki, 1990)


Every week or so, filmmaker and writer Robert Greene will attempt to push for a new canon of cinematic nonfiction.

That the explicit target of Harun Farocki’s critique in How To Live in the German Federal Republic (aka West Germany) no longer really exists only heightens the film’s unique effect. Cut loose from the particular late-1980s political climate it was born in, Farocki’s masterful film transforms almost a quarter century later into a metaphorical examination of everyday social performance and a subversive report about the fascism embedded into the pumping heart of capitalistic democracy.

Farocki is one of our greatest filmmakers, a radical experimentalist who marries a potent political sensibility with a searching, rigorous aesthetic. He is on par with film essayists like Chris Marker and philosopher critics like John Berger. One of his greatest films certainly belongs in our new canon of cinematic nonfiction.

How To Live in the German Federal Republic is perhaps Farocki’s most studiously observational film. Beginning with a close up of proto-internet porn, the film then irreverently cuts between brief scenes of a bed-testing device, classes about giving birth, infant care instructions, a child psychology session and lessons for children on how to cross a street. Sex, birth and the beginning of life are thus revealed to be carefully maintained and kept tidy by instruction manuals and bureaucratic management.

Brief intercut fragments from adult education classes make up the rest of the film. Unlike the radical essay masterpieces that sandwich it in Farocki’s filmography (the haunting Images of the World and the Inscription of War and the experimentally visceral Videograms of a Revolution), How to Live builds from seeing first, without voiceover or contextualizing techniques. Job interview trainings, tutorials on proper customer service, CPR instruction, step-by-step deliberations on how to escape an overturned car and even lessons on the correct way to take off your clothes in a strip club are all captured in a lucid Frederick Wiseman-meets-industrial filmmaking aesthetic.

The editing is stark and disruptive. Hilarious scenes of domestic-product testing bring the physical comedy and vigorous note-taking by these “students” gives the sense of everyday desperation. The fragility of performance is probed, the anxiety of modern living is absurdly illuminated and the hyper-managed, anti-freedom monster buried within so-called open societies is exposed to Farocki’s searching camera. When phobias are graphed out, they multiply.

This is a funny, stark, inquisitive and profoundly intelligent film that effortlessly achieves art film status through uniquely used, but essentially straightforward documentary techniques. This current generation of hybrid and nonfiction filmmakers should study its rigor and learn from its shrewdness.

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Past Nominees For the New Canon of Nonfiction Cinema:

#1 News From Home (Chantal Akerman, 1977)

#2 The Store (Frederick Wiseman, 1983)

#3 Below Sea Level (Gianfranco Rosi, 2008)

#4 Tokyo Olympiad (Kon Ichikawa, 1965)

#5 The Century of the Self (Adam Curtis, 2005)

#6 Edvard Munch (Peter Watkins, 1974)

#7 The Battle of Chile (Patricio Guzmán, 1973–1979)