© The Inextinguishable Fire—Harun Farocki
1969, 25 minutes
In The Inextinguishable Fire, Harun Farocki’s analysis of Dow Chemical’s ambiguous bureaucratic development of Napalm B, the German filmmaker is clearly working from the skeptical assumption that a display of the horrendous effects of chemical warfare in Vietnam would be a sufficient instigator of change. Suspicious of the image and its modes of production, Farocki—in a constant search for truth— deconstructs, fictionalizes and reconstructs archives of film history to examine our role as part of a society that needs revising. Refusing to submit himself to the ‘compassionate voyeurism’ often found in contemporary representations of war on television and in films, Farocki tackles in this piece one of the most controversial political questions—the production of terror—and simmers it down to synthetic, rationale substance.
Produced in 1969 during the height of the protests against the war in Vietnam, the film is divided into three parts. In Part One, Farocki, donning a suit and tie, sits at a bare desk and reads a text. Cast as a grim television news anchor, he recites the poignant testimony of That Binh Danh, a Vietnamese man who experienced firsthand the horrid effects of Napalm: “Napalm burned my face, both arms and legs. […] For thirteen days, I was unconscious.” Farocki then turns away from the text, looks into the camera for the first time, and asks, “How can we show you the damage caused by Napalm?” Evidently worried about the way images can deplete space for critical thinking, Farocki is deeply committed to offering knowledge to the audience in a clear and engaging form, ‘incorporating a Brechtian desire for a synthetical approach to the language of cinema’ (“in order for it to persist”). Talking directly to the audience, he concludes:
“When we show you pictures of napalm victims, you’ll shut your eyes. You’ll close your eyes to the pictures. Then you’ll close them to the memory. And then you’ll close your eyes to the facts. Then you’ll close your eyes to the entire context. If we show you a person with napalm burns, we will hurt your feelings. If we hurt your feelings, you’ll feel as if we’ve tried napalm out on you, at your expense. We can give you only a hint of an idea of how napalm works.”
Clearly aware that relying on the power of images to create an emotional response—whether an excess or lack of—is too narrow a view, the filmmaker refrains from making any sort of emotional appeal to reach the viewer. From Farocki’s monotone voice, to the thorough scientific description of napalm and its effects (temperature, chemical composition, consequences of gas emanations, etc.), no emotion seems to transpire in the documentary essay. Yet, while the film appears on the surface quite didactic—especially as Farocki, sitting across the table like an anchorman, addresses the viewer in a mechanical way—a sense of urgency never disappears. This is particularly visible when Farocki, definitively more punk than what his preppy schoolboy attitude may at first have indicated, promptly puts out a burning cigarette butt on his forearm, ingeniously forcing the viewer to connect a very palpable sensation with the unimaginable reality and pain of victims of napalm.
“If viewers want nothing to do with the effects of napalm, then it is important to determine what they already have to do with the reasons for its use.”
Part Two, the longest of the three parts, is staged in a Dow Chemical plant in Michigan. It includes philosophical—and often even rhetorical—conversations between workers, scientists, engineers, plant managers and government officials about Napalm’s relations with the military-industrial complex. Through the seemingly disinterested actors playing the role of Dow Chemical employees, the spectators are taken through the chain of events in the creation and production of Napalm B. In addition to the actors’ impersonal performances and highly stylized dialogues, Farocki includes actual documentary footage of U.S. nightly news television reports on Vietnam. As the camera zooms in on a television screen, images of the Vietnam War start filling the space. Much like Marx’s distinction between essence and appearance, Farocki argues here that this documentary footage does not necessarily indicate what should truly matter for the viewers—namely, the conditions and context that led to the production of such images. On the contrary, the profusion of these documentary images often only serves the interests of the capitalist forces in place, and contributes to the reproduction and reinforcement of pre-existing social conditions.
The commentary provided by the journalists narrating the footage—from the number of casualties to the effectiveness of Napalm—further reinforces Farocki’s critique over the framing and manipulation of images by the media. Chemists, scientists, plant managers, and workers are either terrified (“Nothing but blood, hunger, misery, violence”) or desensitized by the images of war they see (“Darling, I’m so terribly cold”), but they refuse to acknowledge their culpability in the mass- production of these atrocities until it is “too late.”
Part Three of The Inextinguishable Fire changes locales; the action is now set in the washroom of a vacuum cleaner factory. The first character, portraying a worker, explains that since his wife wants to purchase a vacuum cleaner, he has been stealing one component everyday at the factory in the goal of reassembling at home the domestic object. Yet no matter what he does, the product of the reassembly “always turns into a submachine gun.“ The second character, a student, is convinced that the vacuum cleaner factory where he works is actually “making submachine guns for the Portuguese.” In an attempt to expose the treacherous vacuum company, he steals parts everyday to recreate the weapon at home. Yet, no matter what he does, the product always turns into a vacuum cleaner. The third character, an engineer, reveals that the “vacuum cleaner can become a useful weapon”, and the submachine gun “a useful household gadget.” Through the repetition of sequences, the rhythmic reiteration of linguistic elements, and the use of three characters—a worker, a student, and an engineer—played by the same actor, Farocki demonstrates that all are implicated, intentionally or not, in the global military-industrial complex.
Rather than explicitly demonstrating the atrocities of napalm in action, the film reveals a larger system of capitalist complicity within which the viewer unconsciously takes part, and provokes a deeper reflection on the ethics and uses of labor. Viewers quickly realize the evident connections between the atrocities of war committed in Vietnam and regular individual citizens. As a result of the “increasing global division of labor,” the people have become less aware of the part they play in producing mass terror throughout the world. Yet Napalm B, like many other weapons of mass destruction in our society, is in the end—as the film states—“the product of the workers, students and engineers.”