michael HANEKE - Auteur, Iconoclast, Provocateur
by John Mulligan
“Austria's film-makers have recently warned that their country, despite its beauty and material prosperity, has a horrific, unacknowledged malaise, a moral stagnancy, a festering, unhealed wound in its unconscious mind”. (Peter Bradshaw, the guardian)
Michael Haneke, as if he needed an introduction, is an Austrian film director, who as a child, like many of course, wrote poetry, later he went on to review films and literature, he, as a youngster, would watch three films in a week; in his youth he also wrote a novel and short stories but it is not as a literary writer he is known for. He directed his first film aged 46. His overriding theme, so he insists, is guilt.
Michael Haneke does not believe any film can be truthful; he believes taking photographs whilst on holiday, and elsewhere is “perverse”, this idea of the camera, which draws the line between fantasy and reality are the main themes running through his first three films which he refers to as a trilogy. What is striking about this man is the interest he draws when he speaks. He is not merely an artist who makes important and polemical films, revolutionary even, he is even more than that. What drives us, he seems to ask, what is the role of the artist in this world around us? He states he would never make a film about Hitler because that would be just “entertainment”.
His first film, released in 1989, is The Seventh Continent. The action is centred around the Schober family. Georg is an engineer and his wife, Anna, is an optician, they have a young daughter, Eva. This middle class family lead a dull and uninspiring life; there is something eerie about them, macabre even. During the first half hour of the film or thereabouts we are not permitted to see any of the characters’ faces, when we do, there appears to be something lurking, something terrible. We see the family in a car wash, they behave as it was a ritual, seeing the mother grasp the daughter’s hand in pain and anguish. It is as if they are locked in, never to escape, not literally of course. Haneke is a cryptic artist who makes his audience think about the events unfolding, there are always unanswered questions. Eva tells her teacher she is blind, when she is not; for no apparent reason, in another scene, at the dinner table, a scene so disturbing and so masterfully created, we see and hear the family munching on their food, meaningless words are uttered, we see close-ups of the expressionless faces, reminiscent of Bresson, we are filled with terror. Something will happen, something has to happen but we are given no clues. Something does happen, it is not only terrifying, it is unfathomable.
The adults in the family make a decision to kill themselves, as well as their daughter. That sounds horrifying enough, the real terror of course is not just in the devastating genius Haneke uses to carve his art with, it is the process, the tension, the climax which leads to the suicide. It is not just a matter of them killing themselves, no, there is something more than that which makes it, as times, uncomfortable to watch. Georg and Anna, with great calm and ease destroy their home bit by bit. They smash the wardrobe, chest of drawers, they even rip up their daughter's paintings and drawings piece-by-piece. The clothes they possess are ripped up one-by-one. They destroy everything. Well, almost everything. There is one thing that is not destroyed, which is highly significant, we learn how significant it is by watching Haneke’s later films. This, of course, is the television. That evening, we see the three lethargic, expressionless faces watching pop music on the television. We see the dead child, then the mother, finally the father dies before his very life flashes before him.
Michael Haneke’s idea for the film was based on a story he saw in the media. So Haneke puts a middle class family on the screen for 104 minutes, and after we have watched it, digested and consumed it, we can think about nothing else. Why did it happen, we ask ourselves, why, before killing themselves and their little girl, did they destroy all their money, kill the fish and sledge-hammer everything in sight? Well, the director of the film said people care more about money than killing their own children. There are few artists in the modern world as bold and brave as this, and as his first film, few can disagree that the film is a masterpiece. It would not be the only one. Peter Bradshaw, in his excellent review of the film, summed it up perfectly with these words:
Finally, it becomes clear that the family are coming to a terrifying decision about the banality and futility of their lives, which is finally anatomised in the most spectacular way. Haneke allows us to suspect, little by little, what's coming and the experience is genuinely horrifying: and it is also deeply troubling to retrace the film once it is over, trying to pinpoint what was really happening in the adults' heads, and when.
Three years later Haneke made Benny’s Video, a devastating attack on the media, in all its forms. In the very beginning of the film we witness a grotesque video of a pig being slaughtered, the video then is manipulated to please the viewer. The person watching this disturbing footage is fourteen-year-old Benny. Later, in the film, while his parents are away he invites a girl to watch this video before he murders her with the same weapon which was used to execute the squealing pig. Later, his parents cover the crime up by hiding the evidence but throughout the film Benny shows no signs of human emotion, regret or guilt in having committed this ghastly act. The motives for Haneke making his last film, for many, are ambiguous but in this film it is less so.
Mark Kermode, the popular film critic, refers to this film as a “psycho drama”, that what we see is the “alienated effect of the recorded image”, it is, he explains “a satire on the bourgeoisie” and its “harshness has a purpose”. And again, like his previous film he discovered a story in the media, and he spotted others. There were three news stories, Haneke says, where the child was asked “why did you do that?” the child responds by saying “because I wanted to know what it’s like”. “Those are the words”, said Haneke, “of somebody who is not in contact with reality”. Benny is desensitised towards violence. His whole life has become a nightmare Hollywood movie where suffering, pain and anguish will always be an act played out in the jungle of pornographic sadism. Death and torture on the TV screen that he and others are prone to are nothing more than a fantasy, a pure fiction. It is, one must conclude, a critique on Hollywood gratuity and violent films for entertainment and mental masturbation only. Perhaps if Benny was acquainted with the films of Ingmar Bergman or Kieslowski…if only.
In an interview Michael Haneke said “We see the world through the media..we are in danger of believing that only through the media is there a reality. But it’s the exact opposite.” The manipulation of the pig being slaughtered by Benny is exactly that: manipulation. It is uncertain how many images we are subject to everyday on the internet, newspaper, the side of a bus, our knowledge of the world, most of our experiences of human suffering, abuse, hate, feelings, emotions, come from the manipulated image. A single set of images can send an entire race to the gas chambers, a single set of images can turn an entire nation into fervent and vitriolic fascists, a single set of images can destroy people’s minds completely. In an interview with Paris Review, Haneke, with a certain amount of vigour, said the following:
I despise films that have a political agenda. Their intent is always to manipulate, to convince the viewer of their respective ideologies. Ideologies, however, are artistically uninteresting. I always say that if something can be reduced to one clear concept, it is artistically dead.
They will talk about Afghanistan, about children in Africa, but in the end they only know what they’ve seen on TV or read in the newspaper. And yet they pretend—even to themselves—that they know what they’re saying. But that’s bullshit. I’m quite convinced that I don’t know anything except for what is going on around me, what I can see and perceive every day, and what I have experienced in my life so far. These are the only things I can rely on. Anything else is merely the pretense of knowledge with no depth. Of course, I don’t just write about things precisely as they have happened to me—some have and some haven’t. But at least I try to invent stories with which I can personally identify.
In Haneke’s final film in the trilogy, aptly named 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, he is not content with suicide, seen in his seen first film and murder in his second; no, here he combines the two. A nineteen-year-old student, Max, in an Austrian bank, randomly shoots people before shooting himself in the head. Throughout the film we see sets of characters living their lives in their own odd fashion; these characters bear no relation to the other characters we are introduced to. All of these people are in the bank at the time of the shooting.
These three films are known as the “glaciation trilogy”, they are all set in Austria and raise serious questions but they are not exclusive to Austria; far from it. It is interesting to note when he emigrated to France and began making films there, his films were of a different nature. “How we live and why”, Haneke insists is a central theme these films explore. They are a critique of society, a decaying one could argue.
'It's the duty of art to ask questions, not to provide answers”, Haneke insists. Serious questions arise in the trilogy and it seems impossible and improbable to give answers. He insists his films are not didactic, people disagree. Who is to blame when an entire family, for no apparent reason murder themselves and their child; who is to blame when a teenage boy, due to viewing excessive violent movies murders; who is to blame when a student shoots strangers in a public place? The answer appears to be obvious. It is a blame culture but nobody blames themselves. When, in an interview, asked if he has ever seen Salò, by the controversial neo realist film director, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Haneke gave the following reply:
No—thank God. Funny Games was already well beyond what I can take…
Now Salò isn’t much like Funny Games at all. Funny Games is unbearable for its relentless cynicism—I don’t actually depict much physical violence. But in Salò, there are people tied up naked on dog leashes, they are force-fed bread stuffed with thumbtacks, blood runs from their mouths while their tormentors are boiling up shit in massive pots to be served up, eaten, and of course they all end up puking. It is unbearable, and Pasolini shows everything. After watching that film I was devastated and unresponsive for several days. Yet Salò was how I realized what you can do in cinema—what the true possibilities of the medium are. That, to me, is still the only film that has managed to show violence for what it is. All these “action movies” are merely spectacular. They make violence a consumable good. They may be scary, but they’re still a turn-on. Salò won’t turn you on at all—it will turn your stomach. Funny Games was meant as a counterpart to Salò, except that I tried to treat violence in a different way—in the context of a self-reflexive thriller that doesn’t depict physical violence but works through psychological cruelty alone.'
Funny Games, the film Michael Haneke referred to, was his next project after 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance. It was released in Austria in 1997, ten years after that an English-speaking American version was released. Michael Haneke says his films are not didactic, well this one certainly feels like it. It is not too dissimilar from his previous three films where themes are concerned. There is an interesting development here which takes us back five years to Benny’s Video. Benny, in the 1992 film is played by actor, Arno Frisch, who makes his appearance in Funny Games, in fact the word “appearance”, should be emphasized a little more. His character, Paul, along with his accomplice Peter, are the film’s anti heroes. They take a family hostage, terrorise them, subjecting its audience - us the consumer - to a very uncomfortable and disturbing sadistic malaise for 111 minutes. There is blood gore and murder. The motives of the pathological young men for doing this? None is given of course. Is Haneke asking us is this what Benny would be doing in five years time when we leave him as the title credits end in Benny’s Video?
What is interesting about this film is the role of the audience watching it. Haneke sets us a challenge. He does not implicitly say it of course but the subtext of the film can tell us much more. Are you going to watch this episode of this meaningless gore feast of gratuitous violence? I challenge you to walk out of this cinema now; you cannot do it, can you? In a way he is condemning the audience for watching this. It feels like, as one watches it, is a condemnation of all of us, for what purpose are we watching it, to what end? We can watch Citizen Kane, talk about its importance relevance, even today and the themes associated with it, we can do this with the films of Renoir, Satyajit Ray, Mohsen Makhmalbaf. The film is ultimately an attack on the Hollywood movie machine, their viewers, their audience, left mindless, uncritical, inattentive, unresponsive, unemotional even, like a ritual, they watch movie after movie, just like Benny, with little forethought. There is a scene in the film where Peter is shot dead by one of his victims, only for Paul to get the remote control and rewind the film back. There is a more important sequence when the tormentors leave, only to return; when they do return, we know perfectly well what Haneke's game is. Michael Haneke gives the reason why he decided to make the film:
'The film was the direct result of my rage against viewers who will swallow anything as long as it’s marketed well. I wanted to show them just how readily manipulable they are. Make no mistake, though-Funny Games is just a small part of my oeuvre, even if it is the most provocative part. I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t derive great pleasure from this provocation, but it is not what I’m after in general. In any case, nothing infuriates me more than hypocrisy. There were many people who stayed in the cinema to the end and then complained that it was such a scandal and whatnot. I would say to them, Then why did you stay? Why didn’t you leave? No, be honest, you get off on violence, and that’s why you stayed. If someone genuinely thought the film was shit and left the cinema, I would shake his hand and say, Congratulations, well done, you are completely right. I would’ve walked out, too, you know'
The White Ribbon, arguably Haneke’s best film to date, made in 2009, is terrifying for other reasons. It is narrated by the a local teacher, now an old man, as it is some thirty years since these events, why narrate this, for what purpose? It is set preceding world war one and the action of the film ends in 1914. The entire film is in black and white, in this local village in north Germany we see lots of eerie-looking blond-haired children, a series of incidents happen: a father sexually abuses his fourteen-year-old daughter, parents physically assault their children, there are deaths: a woman falls to her death, there are disappearances, who is responsible for these gruesome things?
Again, Haneke gives no answers, he only asks questions. It is up to us, the viewer, to come up with our own answers from the very difficult questions posed in his films. With this film in particular, it is more unsettling in particular, and this is for two reasons: the time the film is set and the place. We must think, when we watch this film, what will become of these blond-haired children, more pertinently, while the teacher narrates to us, many years after these events have taken place, what are these children doing now? They will be adults, it will be the late 1930s, early 1940s, what significant events were happening in Germany and the world, we ask. We pause for moment, think for some time, it is too terrifying to contemplate. When the English novelist, Anthony Burgess, wrote his most infamous book, A Clockwork Orange, he gave his reasons for writing it. He believed his country was witnessing the undercurrents of fascism. Another argument, no doubt, could be made today.
But Michael Haneke is not a political director, that much is clear. It is the people, the societies, he is interested in. He never puts his views across in his films either, they are always left open to interpretation, in fact, as has been acknowledged more than once, he gives no answers, it is unclear whether he knows them or even contemplates them. One thing he does, one must acknowledge, he, like the great directors and novelists alike pose problems in the modern world; Balzac posed the questions about the corruption, degradation and immorality of French society; Böll lays bear the painful truth and asks questions any society ought to ask of its people, whether it be Germany or otherwise; Melville, does this in a different way, a different style of course. Haneke is an important artist in the contemporary world because he makes films to provoke thought and not to answer questions but to ask them.