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Understanding Michael Haneke

Published on February 11, 2012 by: in: Culture

‘My films are meant to be a polemical statement against the American “barrel down” cinema and its dis-empowerment of the spectator. They are an appeal for the cinema of insistent questions instead of false (because too quick) answers, for clarifying distance instead of violating closeness, for provocation and dialogue instead of consumption and consensus’ – Michael Haneke wrote in “Film as Catharsis”(1).

source: M4D GROUP

source: M4D GROUP

Without doubt, this Austrian is one of the most original, intriguing as well as the most controversial film makers of the Old Continent. Critics often describe him as an instigator, stressing that Haneke, like no other contemporary film maker, can touch upon the core of the problems in a blunt and straightforward way by immersing into social, political and cultural context. It is impossible to be indifferent to the Austrian’s cinema, his films provoke reflection and serious deliberations. However, Michael Haneke’s stories are not to be found among the simplest and easily assimilable ones. The director himself is a greatly educated person, acquainted with philosophy, psychology, with a perfect knowledge of history and rules of the visual arts, including mainly theatre and cinema. Haneke gained this knowledge during studies at the University of Vienna, which he decided to use in practice quickly .

The White Ribbon“, one of the Austrian artist’s most recent productions awarded the Palme D’or at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, appeared on the screens of Polish cinemas in November 2009. On one hand, it constitutes the essence of Michael Haneke’s style; on the other hand, it brings in a completely new quality.

Born in 1942, the director started his adventure with the cinema quite late, as, in fact, his first strictly speaking film production, „The Seventh Continent”, was created around 1989. Since mid-seventies, Haneke had created various kinds of productions for television, like many young directors in Austria at the time, but first of all, before he was engrossed in the cinema, he had been a man of the theatre. He directed several dozen performances for stages in Berlin, Munich and Vienna. Nevertheless, none of the theatre plays was able to convey exactly what Haneke had to say about the world which he closely observed and phenomena that preoccupied him. For that reason, at the end of the 1980s, he definitively turned to cinema.
An expert on German-speaking cinema, Mattias Frey divided the Austrian’s artistic work into two stages (1). In his opinion, the first one is a period between the years 1988–1997. At the time, Michael Haneke was particularly interested in Austrian society, working mainly in his homeland, criticizing and stigmatizing phenomena that disturbed him. It is possible to include “The Piano Teacher” from 2001 to this period on account of the subject matter of the film. The second stage of the Austrian director’s artistic work is marked by his latest films, financed by French subjects. Highly regarded actors from France appear in these stories, and they touch upon more universal problems. Michael Haneke appeared in the awareness of a Polish viewer after „Funny Games”, although, in fact,  it was only “The Piano Teacher” that brought the Austrian international publicity and encouraged a closer acquaintance with his cinematography .

„Benny’s Video” (1992) and „Funny Games” (1997)

Between the years 1989–1994 Michael Haneke made three films, which he described as Vergletscherungs-Trilogie (“The Emotional Glaciation” Trilogy). It includes “The seventh continent”, „Benny’s Video” and „71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance ”. The first part of this trilogy may seem a bizarre experiment, although it is “only” enough to acquaint oneself with sociological theories of Marca Augé to understand the whole production. The last story of the cycle, „71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance”, constitutes a continuation of the issues from the trilogy’s second film, and „Benny’s Video” is one of the more important productions as far as the Austrian’s perception of films is concerned.

In „Benny’s Video”, Haneke portraits a boy from a wealthy family who shuns contacts with the outside world. The teenager does not feel the need to communicate with his surroundings as he believes that his audiovisual equipment, which fills the room in which Benny lives day after day, will help him in this. During one of the visits to a video shop, the boy meets a girl, invites her to his house and shoots her because he sees a picture of a slaughtered animal in his head, which he watched on television (“murder for fun, to see what it’s like”). The boy has no remorse. In addition, he cynically persuades his parents to cover up the murder skillfully .

Mattias Frey, already mentioned above, devoted a whole article to „Benny’s Video” (2), analyzing the film from the angle of narcissistic inclinations of the main character, negative outcomes of capitalist reality (the parents had no time to look after their son, but they were able to buy him audiovisual gadgets), and the treacherous role of the mass media in today’s world. The last issue particularly deserves special attention in the context of Michael Haneke’s artistic work.

On the occasion of the premiere of „Funny Games”, the director warned against a distorted image of the world presented by the media. He blamed them for creating rather than describing reality, creating simplifications, generalizations, and relativizing. It seemed especially dangerous to him in the context of the issues connected with violence which became a topic for entertainment thanks to television and simply grew stale. The Austrian’s films devoted to violence are deliberately anti-Hollywood, because American productions in a great degree propagate a light-hearted, sensational, light image of acts of violence. Haneke wanted „Funny Games” to be in opposition to such stories as Olivier Stone’s “Natural Born Killers”, which, in the opinion of the European artist, show violence in a positive light. I try to depict violence as it really is: pain, harm done to other people – said the director (1).

The Austrian, unlike American film makers, burdens the viewer with the necessity to observe an act of violence and draw conclusions, while he presents everything in the most distanced and austere way (here, he refers this way to the precursor of this kind of narration style Robert Bresson). Haneke counts on the intelligence of the viewer who watches his films.

The plot of „Funny Games” revolves around the appearance of two guests at a weekend estate of rich city dwellers – young, innocently-looking boys who turn out to be aggressors towards a three-person family. Their violence directed towards the hosts will not be of a particularly stunning character, it will be dominated by a discourse between the torturers and their victims, as well as between each other. Suffering in „Funny Games” is reflected in the reactions, gestures or facial expressions of individual participants of the events, not in specific scenes full of dramatic effect, as these are simply not present in this film. As the story progresses, Haneke eliminates the possibility of a happy or just ending, the victims are totally helpless in the face of their torturers, whereas the murderers are calm, balanced and ruthless. An act of crime is for them great and natural entertainment. This is how the two protagonists of „Funny Games” should be perceived, as people – creations of the media, from whom the ability to distinguish between right and wrong was taken away by the relativization of violence in mass media. Haneke would wish that this parody of a thriller ( as he believes „Funny Games” to be) provoked the viewer, evoked anxiety, forced to react. In 2007, the director agreed to do an English-speaking remake of the old film, thinking that it is the only way to reach a definitely wider public than previously with the message of „Funny Games”, because the film’s message has lost none of its relevance with time. (3).

“Code Unknown” (2000)

Before Alejandro González Iñárritu analysed interpersonal communication in “Babel” and recognized essential mankind conditions associated with it, one man had already done it, and in a much sensible and intriguing way. It was Michael Haneke. “Code Unknown” is the first film created outside Austria by this director. Haneke explained the collaboration with French filmmakers by a lack of sufficient funds for the production in his homeland. He believed that in order to develop his own art, he had to consider other alternatives, as Austrian market simply began to limit him at some point. Besides, the subject matter of Haneke’s films was supposed to become more international, and thus changing the working environment seemed only natural.

“Code Unknown” is not driven by a typical plot. The film consists of multiple scenes that occasionally interweave with each other, but generally seem to be presented in a random order. However, this is not an issue at all. By means of those scenes Haneke illustrates, in an evocative manner, the failure of communication between people on interpersonal, social, political and family level. Moreover, the director questions the belief that each picture is meaningful (according to the saying “appearances can be deceptive”) and asks: can we really always correctly interpret the reality? Haneke seeks the point of communication processes, their disturbances, human behaviours that distort the message and successfully presents these in a wide spectrum. Why did he become interested in this issue at all? 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. – explains Haneke (4).

“The Piano Player” (2001)

You could joke that the English translation of “La Pianiste” is a great example of a communication error. The German title of Elfriede Jelinek’s novel, “Die Klavierspielerin” (“The Piano Player” in English), is supposed to indicate that the person is lower in the social hierarchy. Klavierspielerin is not equal to Pianistin, which refers to a person who makes a living by playing an instrument, who is genuinely talented, someone more than just an artisan. Haneke decided to change the title of the film, so that he could, as he puts it, treat the heroine with greater respect.

The Piano Player” seems exceptional in his filmography, as it is riddled with paradoxes. In 2001 Haneke gained his popularity thanks to this film. The Grand Prix at Cannes Festival made him famous and renowned. It also helped the author of the book. The famous adaptation of her novel, allowed Elfriede Jelinek’s fascinating literature to go beyond Austria. However, it was not until 2004, that she reached the peak of her career, when she was honoured with  Nobel Prize for Literature. Nevertheless, in comparison with the novel, Haneke’s “The Piano Player” comes out rather poorly. The director emphasized the love theme and the character of a young man connected with it, whereas in the novel it is only of secondary importance. Erika’s relationship with her student was integrated with destructive mother-daughter relations – the key theme of the novel. The readers are presented with a complex, sublime and cynical study of a woman, who desperately wants to become independent in a conservative society, both as a human and as an artist. She does not succeed in it, though, and that is why she becomes a mentally unstable neurotic. Haneke put the emphasis on what is responsible for the situation of the main heroine – conservative customs of Austrian society that repress individuals, and a family as its primary cell that generates all possible interpersonal conflicts.  The director did not avoid obscenity and presented Erika’s sadomasochistic tendencies in order to shock the audience. Haneke himself stressed that he tried to find a balanced way of showing those bold scenes, so that they would not be pornographic. Since “The Piano Player” is often viewed and assessed from the angle of its obscenity, it is difficult to say whether he succeeded or not. The Austrian filmmaker apparently did not fully understand Jelinek’s perception of woman’s sexuality – which in her case was heavily marked with personal experience. So perhaps it was easier to show it from the angle of the relations between the teacher and her pupil (who, contrary to the book, was presented positively) or of sadomasochistic activities. For people not acquainted with the original book “The Piano Player” may seem a powerful, insightful masterpiece (mainly due to a perfect perfomance of Isabelle Huppert), however when contrasted with the novel, it seems to be a failure – perhaps not a complete, but still a failure.

The Piano Player” was praised not for artistic values of its plot, but rather for the subject matter, its boldness or Huppert’s performance. The problem with this film, just like with Elfriede Jelinek’s work, lies in its local nature. The writer naturally deals with other subjects, which may relate to broader issues, but focuses mainly on mentality of Austrian society. The local context seems to be very meaningful in “The Piano Player”. The film was controversial in Austria not because of its nearly pornographic scenes, but because of a negative social diagnosis presented both by the film and the book. Being her compatriot, Michael Haneke naturally understands various notions from Jelinek’s book. It is rather unlikely that audiences outside Austria view these works of art in a similar fashion. But Haneke returned to a different, more universal subject matter in his next movies.

“Hidden” (2005)

Portraying a family is Haneke’s one of the most favourite subject matters. What is so remarkable in his work, is that he is mostly interested in the dysfunctional aspect of a family. He likes to present the collapse of this social entity, which happens due to previously unknown internal or external factors. A perfect example of this aspect of Michael Haneke’s work is “Hidden”.

The Austrian director once more addresses the issue of violence in his 2005 film, however he does not directly present violence on screen. The starting point for the film’s plot is the French occupation of Algeria. The director applied the characteristics of a thriller genre and thus creates suspense and the feeling of anxiety in the film. However the viewers, unlike in other thrillers, will never know if the situation of the family eventually resolves, who exactly harasses those people and for what purpose. “Hidden” works on two levels: an individual and political. The former analyses the feeling of guilt, which is attributed to the main hero. He tries to wipe the guilt from his memory until someone reminds him of it. The man is forced to reflect on past events, but his motivation does not come from remorse or guilt that disturbs his existence, but rather from the uncertain consequences of his past, shameful actions. Dilemmas of an individual are Haneke’s starting point for finding the culprits when we do not deal with a definite subject (e.g. a society), when the guilt has a collective nature. Is it possible to administer justice in such cases? The director also points out the danger of unsettled past crimes and silently accepted despicable deeds becoming a burden for the next generation. This political aspect is quietly present in “Hidden”, but Haneke takes this issue further in “The White Ribbon”.

“The White Ribbon” (2009)

The newest film by the Austrian filmmaker takes us to a little town in Germany, just before the outbreak of the First World War. Life goes on in a tranquil and tolerable manner, people earn their living thanks to a wealthy landowner who lives with his family in the area. The peace of the village community is disturbed by a series of dangerous acts of violence, which makes the inhabitants look for culprits among themselves. Haneke once again presents a family from a dysfunctional angle, however unlike his other films, this unrecognized dysfunction leads to disastrous consequences, which were only implied in “Hidden”. The director abandons the concept of innocent children, who this time inherit a whole range of experiences and problems left unnoticed, unrecognized and unsolved by their parents. “The White Ribbon” shows a burden of the past and present that leads to tragic actions of an entire generation.
In his newest film Haneke reveals hypocrisy of a conservative mentality, exaggerated restrictions and strict moral rules. “The White Ribbon” is extraordinary in the way that the director implies a lot in the film, but the final answer for all questions is left for the viewers, who may on their own come to a conclusion that the film is meant to be interpreted as a study of the origins of fascism. Haneke creates only formal foundations that constitute a starting point for various reflections: black and white image, straightforward plot, believable and unbiased narrator, indirect presentation of violence. Seemingly the film lacks any literality, but frightening conclusions arise automatically.

So far, the origins of European totalitarian regimes have only been discussed in serious literature. But Michael Haneke with “The White Ribbon” proves that a film can contribute to such deliberations as well. The cinematic analysis can be thorough and accurate, which can be seen in an interview with the director from couple of weeks ago in the German magazine “Spiegel”. Two interviewers seem not to realize what the film is actually about or its significance. They seem to consider the entertainment value of the cinema as superior and thus focus on formal elements of the plot (7). Speaking of the interview, its title is “Every film rapes the viewer”, which could be a perfect punchline for the article dedicated to Haneke’s work.

Bibliography (also referenced in the text):

(1) Mattias Frey: Michael Haneke (http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/03/haneke.html)
(2) Mattias Frey: Supermodernity, Capital, and Narcissus: The french connection to Michael Haneke’s Benny’s Video (http://cinetext.philo.at/magazine/frey/bennys_video.pdf)
(3) Michael Haneke Interview by Martin Brady (http://www.littlewhitelies.co.uk/interviews/michael-haneke-interview/)
(4) The world that is known – Michael Haneke interviewed by Christopher Sharrett (http://www.kinoeye.org/04/01/interview01.php)
(5) Nina Hutchison: Between action and repression: The piano teacher (http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/03/26/piano_teacher.html)
(6) Helen Macallan, Andrew Plain: Hidden’s disinherited children (http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/07/42/hidden.html)
(7) Philipp Oehmke, Lars-Olav Beier: SPIEGEL Interview with Director Michael Haneke (http://www.spiegel.de/international/spiegel/0,1518,656419-2,00.html)

Translation: Monika Mokrosz, Maciej Rogoza

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