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 on Wednesday 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 that the technology of image-making is used to shape public ideology.
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.
“Because so many images already exist, I am discouraged to make new ones; I prefer to make a different use of pre-existing images,” he said in a 2008 interview with The South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. “But not every image can be recycled; a hidden value must pre-exist.”
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, Mr. Farocki presented images suggesting the sterile offices of the Dow Chemical Company, 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 American 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 on Jan. 9, 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 — from the very beginning, they were non-narrative essays on the politics of imagery — in the mid-1960s.
While Mr. 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 American military recruits.
Writing in The New York Times, Ken Johnson reviewed “Serious Games,” the centerpiece of MoMA’s 2011 retrospective “Harun Farocki: Images of War (at a Distance)”: “Harun Farocki’s film and video work is almost too interesting to be art,” Mr. Johnson wrote, adding, “Mr. Farocki’s focus on techniques of simulation invites skepticism about the representation of reality in general.”
Mr. Farocki’s first wife, Ursula Lefkes, whom he married in 1966, died in 1996. His survivors included his second wife, Antje Ehmann, whom he married in 2001; twin daughters from his first marriage, Annabel Lee and Larissa Lu; and eight grandchildren.
A resident of Berlin, Mr. Farocki was most recently a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. From 1993 to 1999, he taught at the University of California, Berkeley.
Though many of Mr. Farocki’s films addressed deeply serious subjects, his work was not without humor. This is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in his 1990 documentary, “How to Live in the German Federal Republic.”
An 83-minute montage of scenes from actual training films made in the western half of a divided Germany, it explores the idea of instruction as a means of social control.
The footage Mr. Farocki assembled ranges over seemingly every contingency in many walks of life. Pregnant women are readied for childbirth, children are taught how to cross the street, bank tellers learn how to calm irate customers, and strippers are instructed in proper disrobing technique.
He interspersed these clips with industrial footage of inanimate objects being “trained” — chairs, washing machines, cars and toilet seats taking a beating in quality-control tests.
On the whole, Mr. Farocki’s film seemed to say, under the strains of modern life, the objects bear up better than the people do.