by Mattias Frey
Senses of Cinema
Michael Haneke is arguably Europe’s most esteemed and most controversial filmmaker. After twenty years of directing for the cinema, he has earned a place in the pantheon of the most acclaimed active auteurs. His feature Benny’s Video (1992) shocked crowds with its restrained, antipsychological portrait of a teenager who kills a young girl “to see how it is”. Funny Games (1997) inspired a fierce debate on how one can interrogate violence in film. On the whole, Haneke’s polemical programme attempts to lay bare the coldness of Western society and challenge Hollywood’s blithe treatment of violence. With acknowledged influences including Andrei Tarkovsky, Jean-Marie Straub, Michelangelo Antonioni, Jon Jost, Abbas Kiarostami and above all Robert Bresson, his recent work has garnered a host of accolades and arthouse success. Caché (Hidden, 2005) won the Palme d’or and was voted by The Times as the “film of the decade”. Das weiße Band (The White Ribbon, 2009) earned Academy Award nominations for Best Cinematography and Best Foreign-Language Film.
Born in 1942 in Munich, Michael Haneke grew up in the Lower Austrian city of Wiener Neustadt. He studied psychology, philosophy and theatre at the University of Vienna and wrote film and literature reviews on the side. From 1967 to 1970 he worked as editor and dramaturge at the southern German television station Südwestfunk. It was in 1970 that Haneke began writing and directing films and (similar to most Austrian directors of his generation) his initial experiences behind the camera were projects for television. Haneke has also directed a number of stage productions (including Strindberg, Goethe, Bruckner, and Kleist) in Berlin, Munich, Vienna and Paris. His first film intended for cinematic release, Der siebente Kontinent (The Seventh Continent), premiered in 1989.
Writers retrospectively plot a director’s career as a teleological historical narrative with a familiar literary pattern, in this way circumscribing his or her works for the sake of a neat (if contrived) principle of organisation. Examining a living, very much active filmmaker is problematic and, I would argue, assessing Haneke is particularly challenging. No sooner has a commentator made a “definitive” pronouncement on what does or does not characterise Haneke’s oeuvre, than the director defies all expectations. After being initially positioned in the context of Austria’s television and film (cottage) industries and cultural politics, for example, he moved his operations to Paris and began making French-language “European” films with high-profile arthouse stars and multinational funding. Over the years, Haneke has regularly issued devastating squibs denouncing the manipulative American cinema (see the epigraph to this essay)—and then proceeded to make a picture with Hollywood money. After years of nostalgic recuperations of celluloid materiality and cinematic spectatorship, he began to make films that depend on digital technology and demand DVD viewing.
In spite of my own admonition against trying to pin down a moving target, I will attempt to work out a few characteristics of Haneke’s cinema and the experience of watching it. Although these principles do not apply equally to each individual film, they provide a framework to begin to approach the director.
Stories chronicle the failings of emotionally cold individuals and the implosion of bourgeois social structures when placed under a complicating duress.
Culturally, these narratives concern and comment on the identity politics of European class systems, gender roles and ethnic hierarchies, as well as the individual and collective guilt that these structures engineer.
Narrative forms tend toward the episodic and elliptical. Befitting art cinema practices, characters’ motivations remain obscure and their goals ambiguous; clear narrative resolutions are foreclosed or made impossible to determine. Haneke’s cinema provokes, demands but ultimately frustrates interpretation.
Stylistically, Haneke’s work favours the long take over montage and static shots over camera movement. Specific patterns of editing, framing, sound design and performance produce an uncomfortable viewing experience that, at best, invites a critical attitude towards media, images and the representation of violence and, at worst, uses these elements as titillation or authorial signature.
More so than the works of other filmmakers, watching Haneke is coloured by his media performances, theoretical observations and self-analyses. On the festival circuit and in provocative interviews, an ensemble of Hanekean provocations and buzzwords (e.g., “Every film rapes”; “I want to rape the viewer into independence”) competes with the viewer’s experience and invites critical attacks.
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