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A FUNERAL IN BERLIN

- A peaceful corner on this war-torn planet

The cemetery is on Chausee Strasse, in the Mitte area, not far from the centre of Berlin. From the street all you can see is a plain rust-coloured wall interrupted by a couple of wrought iron gates which are closed. There is repair work going on within, so the entrance is through a path on the side. Entering, you find yourself in a quiet maze of gravestones, plaques and a few old family mausoleums. The trees and flowers around the graves are full with summer. The sun has come out and the light slices through the foliage. The thought occurs that if one has no choice but to die then, in this part of the world, this is probably the best time to go; the longer mourning can be eased in with the autumn, but the actual departure should be at the brightest, most cheerful time of the year.

The ceremony is simple, sparse as a Bauhaus design and totally devoid of any bombast or pretence. The cremation has been done earlier, without any ritual, and the ashes are now in a simple blue urn that stands on a table covered with a white tablecloth. The urnentraeger, the ‘urn-taker’, in his formal suit, stands to one side and the immediate family line up next to the table. The others stand facing them, bunches of flowers or single blooms in hand. There is a moment of reflection, after which the urn-taker leads the silent procession down the main avenue of the cemetery and then through the narrow pathways between the graves. A neat hole has been dug in the plot allotted and the urn-taker lowers the urn into it. One by one, family members and friends stop before the small square of earth, drop some flowers on the urn, blow a kiss, or light a small candle, and move on. When my turn comes, I too drop some flowers and add a small pranam. I find it impossible to relate the small blue urn to my gangly, craggy friend who has died.

The cemetery is called the Dorotheen Friedhof, and it’s very difficult to get a burial spot here. When my friend’s wife requested the funeral officials that this is where she would like him to be buried, they hesitated till they understood his importance. “He will be happy with this,” says my friend, the wife. “If he’s watching from somewhere, he will be pleased he is in the same cemetery as Hegel, and also with his great hero, Bertolt Brecht.” As cemeteries go, Dorotheen Friedhof is not a large one, but it has in it the graves of many of Germany’s greatest artists and thinkers. As mentioned, Hegel is here and so also Brecht. Walking around I see the markers for Heinrich Mann, brother of the great Thomas, and the writer Christa Wolf. Kurt Weill too is not far from Brecht, his old partner in crime, and this is also where Herbert Marcuse and the musician Hanns Eisler are laid to rest.

I first heard of Harun Farocki only in 1995 and it took another 13 years before I met him and his wife Antje in Calcutta. Fortuitously, there was a full bandh when they were visiting and I could take them on a mini-tour on that winter evening, the three of us availing the typical but increasingly rare Kolkataiya luxury of walking in the middle of un-polluted, traffic-less roads. Not having anything like the cemeteries and memorials for artists that other societies manage to construct and maintain, our walk consisted of going around the National Library and the Presidency Jail, then walking to the gates of Satyajit Ray’s apartment building and then making our way to Jagubajar and walking up the darkened steps to look at the shut doors of Tripti Bar, one of Ritwik Ghatak’s favourite watering holes.

Harun, very much a German intellectual and film-maker, nevertheless had a strong Indian connection: his father was from Maharashtra, a doctor who had settled in Germany in the 1920s. When Subhas Bose was in exile in the 1940s, he was treated by Dr Farocki. The family came to India in the 1950s, where Harun’s father had a post with the Bhopal royals, but they returned to Germany soon after. By the mid-1960s, Harun was a film-school graduate, one of the first batch to graduate from the film institute in West Berlin. The leftist contrarian in him was established quickly while the rigorous, ground-breaking, non-fiction film-maker had begun to develop. “Many of my film graduate friends were writing fiction scripts, all waiting for their big break, the feature film that would establish them as the German Godard or Truffaut, as the next Resnais or something. But at twenty-four I suddenly found myself the father of a pair of twin girls and I had to earn a living.” For Harun, earning a living meant constant negotiations with the still developing German television channels to get small projects where he could nevertheless express himself and deepen his political arguments through his work. When he died on July 30, 2014, Harun Farocki had worked without stop for nearly 50 years, with a ferocious work ethic, leaving behind a body of over one hundred films and video works, some of them now recognized as classics of essay film-making. Along with his own non-fiction films and installations, Farocki also worked on Christian Petzold’s feature films, writing and teaching all the while.

Harun’s politics were passionate but nuanced as well and his positions put him at odds not only with right-wingers and neo-liberals and such but also with multiple generations of what one could call crass, hack leftists. A few years ago, when I was visiting Berlin, someone mentioned Baader-Meinhof and the Red Army Faction. “Ah, that idiot Baader!” Harun snorted. “He would constantly come up to me in bars and get into arguments with me. Then he would try and hit me. I would smack him and he would go away. One day I look at the news and all the police are searching for him, everyone is terrified of this man. What a joke!”

Unlike many others of the Left, Harun was never hypnotized by guns or the revolutionary cults of blood, perhaps because he minutely examined the different modes and machineries of violence, this interrogation remaining a constant theme in his work. The weapons Harun used were deep research and deep empathy, the cine-camera, the tape-recorder and the editing table, and later, the video equivalents of this hardware.

Nowadays, people tend to use the words ‘great’ and ‘eminent’ quite carelessly. In Calcutta every second person is a ‘dada’ and gurus are given guruship all too easily. As I walked away from the plot containing Harun Farocki’s ashes I knew that the world had lost a truly eminent film-maker, a truly great man. I myself had all too short a time with him, but I was nevertheless hugely lucky to have had this. Looking around, I realized how little I knew about German culture and all the people who have contributed to it. There was one German whose work I do know a bit and I decided to go find his grave. Bertolt Brecht and Helene Weigel are buried next to each other right against the wall of the cemetery, their graves marked by pagan looking stones coming out of a bed of flowers. Standing there, I found myself mulling over the fact that the word friedhof means ‘peace courtyard’. It was, indeed, peaceful here in this little corner of our war-torn planet, and it was good to absorb a bit of the quiet but I didn’t stay at that samadhi for too long. As either man, Brecht or Farocki, would have said, “Don’t tarry too long. Get back to work.”