Harun Farocki’s Zum Vergleich (By Comparison) is a cross-country, cross-industry look at the production of bricks. It’s a pithy collection of process, material, labor, and industry in various construction sites and factories in Africa, India, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland—each location separated by a simple titlecard featuring a small graphic of the shape and amount of bricks being produced on a scale that ranges from the standard single rectangle to elaborately geometric factory productions.
There is no direct documentary lesson drawn from the survey of techniques, but we draw comparisons anyway, and without pressure from Farocki, who shoots simply, with minimal coverage, and mostly static frames with the occasional camera pan. We see, of course, the human presence in the labor fade away as the production process increases in scale and industrial technology. The impressive, exact movements of routine of the most hands-on brick layers in Africa and India (a woman in the latter able to grab exactly the amount of clay from a huge pile needed to fit in her mold every-single-time) lose their grace in the midst of early 20th century factory production, but eerily regain it as computer controlled robotic arms take over in the 21st century. (These leave humans nothing more to do than wait around, walk past the machines indifferently, or discard the rare faulty brick.) Connection between the bricklayers and the earth gradually fades away as well, with the film starting with bricks literally made out of just dirt and water, until we eventually see an industrial product manufactured so far away from its source that we have no idea what actually composes the final creation.
That being said, the film impressively remains non-judgmental—the gasps and laughs from the audience at a worksite routine in Africa of a man filling a shovel full of dirt and then tossing it, dirt intact, to a man standing on a scaffolding one story above him is similar to the reaction we had to the comically precise movement of the robotic arm in a new factory. We do see things become easier—factories that produce entire walls full of bricks, pre-assembled—but never get a hint what this ease means in terms of the earthly impact, human labor, or even constructive process. A punch line in this regard comes from the awe-inspiring creation of a wall of bricks artistically stuttered to give a curling, wave-like effect on the exterior of a building. This effect is paradoxically created by the seemingly pixel-perfect imprecision of the computer bricklaying arm, its ability to make sure the bricks do not line-up just so. Zum Vergleich has an inviting energy to it, one of the curious and the impressed, far away from the Berlinale’s other documentary of labor, the beautiful but troublesome Araya, whose attitude towards its subject were ambiguous to say the least. Farocki, on the other hand, modestly, pointedly collects, observes, and offers for thought, creating an open-ended treatise on work around the world.