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In this book, Peter Brunette analyzes the theatrical releases of Austrian film director Michael Haneke, including The White Ribbon, winner of the 2009 Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Perhaps best known to U.S. audiences for Caché, The Piano Teacher, and his remake of his own disturbing Funny Games, Haneke has consistently challenged critics and film viewers to consider their own responsibility for what they watch when they seek to be "merely" entertained by such studio-produced Hollywood thrillers.
Brunette highlights Haneke's brilliant use of uncompromising visual and aural techniques to express complex themes. His most recent films contain what has become his hallmark: a moment of violence or shock that is not intended to be exploitative, but that nevertheless goes beyond the conventional boundaries of most art cinema. Lauded for graphically revealing the powerful influence of contemporary media on social behavior, his films offer a chilling critique of contemporary consumer society. Brunette discusses Haneke's major releases in English, French, and German, including the film that first brought him to international attention, Benny's Video. The first full-length study of Haneke's work in any language, this book also includes an interview with the director that explores his motivations and methods.
You never show reality; you only show its manipulated image. Michael Haneke
Michael Haneke burst out of the festival ghetto onto the international art-house scene in 2005 with his challenging and (to some) distressingly open-ended French-language film Caché (Hidden), and he solidified his position as a major contemporary auteur by winning the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009. He is a provocative figure who likes to disturb people, most notably his audiences.
The overarching themes that unite Haneke's films are not especially novel: the alienation from self and others that contemporary society routinely produces, the attendant loss of our common humanity (what he has called "our social and psychological wound"), the grinding attenuation of human emotion, the increasingly elaborate systems of communication that manage to communicate less and less, and the relationship between reality and its representation. These are themes that have been around at least since the 1960s, in the films of the Italian master Michelangelo Antonioni, among others, but they have been brilliantly updated through the application of fresh and even iconoclastic cinematic techniques by this surprisingly old-school art-film director.
Partly because these general themes are so familiar, one aspect of Haneke's films that has garnered a great deal of attention throughout the latter part of his career has been the "subtheme" of the specific role of contemporary media in producing such social alienation. Most important of all, however, has been his complex and multifaceted exploration of violence. At his press conference at Cannes in May 2009, Haneke baldly stated, "All my films are about violence." Though it takes a different form each time, probably the most controversial aspect of this ongoing investigation has concerned what Haneke considers the "consumable" way in which violence is represented in Hollywood movies. In this arena, he has consistently challenged critics and film viewers, in the name of art, to consider their own responsibility for what they watch and to ask themselves just what it is they are really doing when they seek to be "merely" entertained by a studio-produced Hollywood thriller.
This has placed Haneke in a somewhat anomalous position, for many of his films are too intellectual and self-consciously avant-garde to attract his presumed target audience (those viewers who actually watch violent thrillers), yet simultaneously too graphic and upsetting to please the majority of the art-film crowd-those looking for something "life-affirming," preferably in a foreign language with English words on the bottom of the screen. And then there is the radicality of his formal means, including a purposely fragmented and confusing narrative and a liberal use of the long-take in which "nothing happens," as the proverbial criticism of this powerful, if demanding, aesthetic would have it.
Haneke, now approaching seventy, is an extremely well-read European intellectual who originally came from the theater and who has also been trained in and profoundly influenced by classical music. Many critics have taken up this latter aspect of his films in some detail (see especially Frey, "Cinema," "Supermodernity"; Vicari; Grundmann); however, owing to space constraints and the lack of the requisite expertise on the part of the present writer, this study will largely pass over the fascinating musical connections that obtain in his films. Rather, it will concern itself with an elaboration of the director's recurring themes in light of his formal cinematic techniques, primarily those that are visual or (nonmusically) aural.
Michael Haneke was born in 1942. His career is something of an anomaly, since he had worked in Austrian and German television for nearly two decades before making his first feature film, The Seventh Continent (Der siebente Kontinent, 1989), for theatrical release. He has since made eight or nine (depending on how you count them) highly distinctive theatrical films that long ago captured the attention of festival-going critics around the world but have only relatively recently come to the attention of the larger art-film public, especially the most recent French-language productions starring Isabelle Huppert and Juliette Binoche. It is these films that this book will focus upon.
The earlier, quite fascinating, and only recently unearthed television films-which, alas, are too numerous and too scarce to examine closely here-often present themselves, surprisingly, in the guise of somewhat old-fashioned modernist experimentation. In their formal rigor, frank themes, and general harshness of tone, they are the polar opposite of what in the United States would generally be considered a "television film." The full frontal female nudity and the self-consciously, resolutely downbeat Weltanschauung unashamedly expressed in these nearly thirty-year-old television productions underscore the vast gulf that has always separated much European television from its unrecognizable American cousin. In terms of Haneke's career, what is important to keep in mind, as he told the American critic Scott Foundas, was that for him working in television "was not a matter of not having the opportunity to make a real film. But rather, I wanted to find my own language."
The other noteworthy element in these early films (which have never been commercially released in any country or format) is a bitter, ongoing sociopolitical critique of the middle class, a beloved target of most German-speaking artists but especially, it sometimes seems, those from Austria. His masterpiece of this period, the two-part Lemmings (Lemminge, 1979), is a brilliant, full-scale assault on bourgeois pieties, yet its critique is also historically specific and attempts to account for the spiritual emptiness of the generation-Haneke's own-whose parents' lives were defined by the exigencies of World War II and Nazism. (He has returned to this generational, sociohistorical vein in The White Ribbon [Das Weisse Band, 2009], which takes place just before the outbreak of World War I.) Unfortunately, what is also occasionally on display in this film, which is set in 1959 (part I) and 1979 (part II), is the less palatable side of the director's work and personality that occasionally comes into view: the hectoring scold and unassailable moral arbiter.
It is probably a mistake to try to analyze Haneke's work of any period solely in terms of the aesthetic protocols of international art-film production. Rather, the profound, never fully explained unhappiness that engulfs many of his characters-in the television work and the later films-is best understood in relation to the irrational violence and profound malaise infecting the fictional characters of his countrywoman, the Nobel Prize-winning writer Elfriede Jelinek, and other cinematic figures, like the younger filmmaker Ulrich Seidl (Dog Days, 2001; Import/Export, 2007), both of whom also concentrate on horribly lost souls who seem to have no overt rationale for the ultra-intensity of their frustration, violence, and inhumanity.
At least some of this bitterness may be traced to Austria's particular relationship to the events before, during, and after World War II, especially regarding the never-resolved, little-examined dalliance with the Nazi party and Adolf Hitler, who was born in Austria. Other countries, like France and Italy, have had their own postwar devils to wrestle with, in terms of the elaborate discourses of "victimhood" that have had to be generated, retrospectively, by each society, but Austria has had particular difficulty justifying its warm embrace of the Nazi Anschluss of 1938 while also claiming bragging rights as Hitler's "first victims." As Haneke himself has said, "In Austria today you still hear people proclaim that 'None of us were Nazis.' No one will admit to being a Nazi; they were all victims of the Nazis" (Porton 50).
In addition, the Austrian population and military suffered much more immediately and severely than the French, who in effect dropped out of the war within a few months. We see the psychological scars of this suffering, and of the refusal to confront the compromised past, in the work of Haneke and Jelinek and, at a further remove, Seidl and other younger figures. (The autobiographical element has also to be taken into account in trying to understand a film like Lemmings, given the fact that the characters who populate the film are the same age and live in the same town as the director who created them.)
With his theatrical films, beginning with The Seventh Continent (1989), Haneke switches gears. His general social critique about the inhumanity of modern life is still paramount, but what now comes more fully into view is a particular feature of that critique, his ongoing exploration of the cinematic and televisual representation of violence-a critique that is itself sometimes expressed in a violent fashion. A family destroys all their possessions and then themselves, graphically, in The Seventh Continent. In Benny's Video, a teenager from a cosseted bourgeois family kills a young girl he's recently met with a bolt gun used to slaughter hogs, while capturing the action on video. The psychological pressures that lead a military cadet to kill four people in a bank are explored in 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, while Funny Games presents two young men who torture and eventually murder a father, mother, and their young son. In the later French-language films, Haneke moves away from this focus on violence and its representation in the media toward a more generalized critique of contemporary, especially urban, life. The White Ribbon applies the same critique, but this time to an historical period a century in the past.
The films that focus on the representation of violence, however, raise a perhaps unintended moral question: To what extent do these films also participate in the "pleasures" of the violence they ostensibly critique? An earlier model would be Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971), which, intentionally antiviolence, has been thought by many critics to revel in its very graphic depictions of violence.
It is perhaps appropriate here to cite some of the things that Haneke and others have said on this subject, though the question will also be considered on a film-by-film basis throughout this book. One camp wants to absolve Haneke of any responsibility. Christopher Sharrett has said that one of Haneke's most notorious films, Funny Games (1997), does not "participate, for all its relentlessness, in the excesses it criticizes," though such an arbitrary boundary is difficult to establish. The critic Scott Foundas says that movies like Funny Games and Benny's Video "are graphic and intense, but Haneke doesn't (as his detractors would claim) profit from their violence. Rather, he reclaims sensitivity to violence (and to human suffering) from the exploitative wastelands of Jerrys, Bruckheimer and Springer." Others, however, like the New York Times critic A. O. Scott, speaking of the failed 2007 American remake of Funny Games, has called Haneke a "fraud" who tortures not only his characters but his audience as well.
By way of self-explanation, Haneke has said that "the society we live in is drenched in violence. I represent it on the screen because I am afraid of it, and I think it is important that we should reflect on it. ... I think that the things that are going well in society are difficult to present dramatically. In my 20 years of working in the theater, I only staged one comedy, and that was my single failure" (Badt).
Haneke's focus, in other words, is on the ubiquitous presence of violence in the real world and the representation of such violence in the media. For obvious reasons, the latter is more sharply foregrounded in his films, since they are inevitably part of that media. Representation is always about "showing," and thus the question that inevitably arises is what can and cannot legitimately be shown, or "re-presented." Asked by Foundas how he is able to treat sensational subjects in what Foundas describes as "a non-sensational manner," the director's surprisingly moralistic reply is that while he respects the gravity of these events, a lot of Hollywood films simply exploit them. "For example, if you take Schindler's List and you have that shower scene, I think it's absolutely disgusting to show that. One must not show such things."
Instead, Haneke chooses to keep most violence offscreen: "I use your fantasy. I think it's one of the most important things for a filmmaker.... The audience has to make their pictures, and whatever I show means diminishing the fantasy of the viewer" (Foundas). The fact that most of the brutality in the director's films is offscreen is also used by his devotees to exonerate Haneke of any moral failing in this regard. But just because violence is not actually pictured, it is nevertheless always heard, and its aftermath is seen, and thus it is always directly represented in his films in some complex way that goes beyond the visual.
Haneke also knows that the question is more complex than merely showing or not showing violence onscreen.
I'm trying as best I can to describe a situation as I see it without bullshitting or disingenuousness, but by so doing I subscribe to the notion that communication is still possible, otherwise I wouldn't be doing this. I cannot make comedies about these subjects, so it is true the films are bleak. The new technologies, of both media representation and the political world, allow greater damage with ever-increasing speed. The media contribute to a confused consciousness through this illusion that we know all things at all times, and always with this great sense of immediacy. We live in this environment where we think we know more things faster, when in fact we know nothing at all. This propels us into terrible internal conflicts, which then creates angst, which in turn causes aggression, and this creates violence. This is a vicious cycle. (Sharrett)
And whence comes Haneke's obsession with violence and its representation, when so many other directors are content to exploit it ruthlessly? "I think that I am someone who is creative, and sensitive to every form of suffering," the director says, in an interview translated for this volume. "That makes me think of Wim Wenders's film The End of Violence, which begins by trying to define violence. I myself have asked that question, and the answer that I found is that violence is the ultimate recourse of power against the will of others who must then be subjected to it." This definition of violence is especially applicable to The White Ribbon.
Presiding over Haneke's aesthetics is the notion that films can be art and that true art requires a contract with the audience. Mainstream cinema, on the contrary, emphasizes "the commercial aspects of the medium.... I think what I'm proposing is a very old contractual agreement-that both the producer and receiver of a work of art take each other seriously. On the other hand, today's conventional cinema, or mass cinema ... sees the audience member as a bank machine, whose only function is to spit out money. It pretends to satisfy viewers' needs, but refuses to do so" (Porton 51). Above all, Haneke feels that audience members must be persuaded-or forced, if necessary-to contribute to a film's meaning themselves and to recognize their complicity in its psychological dynamics. It is here that the director's aesthetic mission sometimes comes perilously close to aesthetic coercion.
The director's formal techniques, especially in the earliest films of the "theatrical" period, are complex and invigorating but simultaneously difficult and off-putting to those with little experience with art films. Interestingly, his use of techniques that might in another context be called postmodernist is anything but, for much of the motivation for his transgressive subject matter and his distancing techniques is modernist to the core. This modernism is linked tightly to a now rather hoary concept of art, which, like the word "truth," is never far from his lips. Both mark him as something of a throwback to an earlier generation, or perhaps a younger member of the modernist group of directors that includes canonical figures like Antonioni, Resnais, Godard, Bergman, and Tarkovsky.
Excerpted from Michael Haneke by Peter Brunette Copyright © 2010 by Peter Brunette. Excerpted by permission.
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