In case you are the bizarre person keeping up with the numbering of these posts, then you will notice that number 12 never appeared on the class’s blog page. The twelfth post which concerned the origins and development of slasher and serial killer cinema was almost complete when it was lost due to a virus on my computer. Now Windows is happily reinstalled and virus-free without any data loss other than said blog post. Not to worry—in case you actually care—said blog post will be recreated from memory, but it will take a little while. For now, I will be posting this shorter analysis and history of Michael Haneke, one of the greatest contemporary filmmakers. Without hesitation, Michael Haneke ranks in my personal top ten filmmakers producing films today—in case you’re interested, my others include Lars von Trier, Wong Kar-Wai, Takashi Miike, Darren Aronofsky, Terrence Mallick, Park Chan-Wook, and others I’m probably forgetting.
Born in Munich, Germany in 1942, Haneke attended the University of Vienna where he studied philosophy, psychology, and drama. He failed to achieve success in acting or music, and ultimately landed a job as an editor at a German television station. While he had done some work as a television director, Haneke did not make his first theatrical film until 1989 at the age of forty-seven. In 1989, Haneke released The Seventh Continent, the first part of his “Emotional Glaciation Trilogy,” a series of films that explore the alienation and isolation of individuals in the postmodern world. Based on a true story, The Seventh Continent follows the final years of a family that committed suicide together. Although his first film, The Seventh Continent already announced the style and subject matter that would come to define Haneke’s controversial career: a stark, almost clinical aesthetic that outlines the affectless, alienated lifestyles of its subjects that are punctuated by moments of extreme violence or sexuality. In many ways, Haneke’s aesthetic is about the media—his minimalistic, cinema verite style captures the rare moments of violence and sexuality alongside the quiet hours and days that build towards them. Hence, The Seven Continent follows a seemingly normal and sane middle class family who suddenly cut themselves off from existence, destroy their house and possessions, and then kill themselves. As with the bulk of his films, Haneke’s camera eye never judges the characters—it merely presents their story for our reflection and perhaps even implicates us in their deaths. Ultimately, The Seventh Continent already announces Haneke’s basic thesis that postmodern society has itself become pathological and certifiable.
Haneke continued his “Emotional Glaciation Trilogy” with Benny’s Video (1992), a film about a teenage boy who lives his life through video images: the ones he perceives on a constant basis as well as the ones he records himself. In particular, Benny becomes obsessed with images of death, particularly a video of a pig being slaughtered with a bolt gun to the head. One day, Benny invites a female friend of his over and shows her the video as well as his bolt gun. He dares her to fire a bolt into his chest, but she refuses, so he nonchalantly fires one into her and kills her. Benny shows no remorse for his action nor does he display emotion while committing the murder. The film proceeds to document his and his mother’s response to the crime, but the film’s point is already clear—the real death he causes seems no different in Benny’s eyes than the ones he see in the news or in films. His entire world is built of simulacra—copies without originals—and hence he can no longer tell the actual from the virtual, the real from the false. Benny’s Video is about the power of video image to mediate and control our experiences of existence. In essence, we no longer believe in anything unless we can watch a video of it. To quote Alex from Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971): “the colors of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen.” Of course, Clockwork Orange is also a film about the controlling power of the image.
Haneke rounded out his “Emotional Glaciation Trilogy” with 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994), a film that unfolds as a series of moving tableaux from different storylines that ultimately converge by chance at the film’s climax. The premise of featuring numerous parallel storylines and then bringing them into relation with one another is nothing new. The great Robert Altman pioneered this technique with his classic flim Nashville (1975), which incidentally featured Ronnee Blakely—Nancy’s drunk mother from A Nightmare on Elm Street. Altman would use a similar aesthetic in Short Cuts (1993), which was based on several Raymond Carver short stories. Other directors have subsequently adopted similar plot architectures: Lawrence Casden’s Grand Canyon (1991), Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999), Paul Haggis’s Crash (2004), and most of the films of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Amores Perros , 21 Grams , and Babel ). Haneke’s 71 Fragments concerns a multiple murder that occurs at an Austrian bank, an event announced at the opening of the film. The various fragments of the film ultimately unite in this horrendous act of violence. Haneke cuts to black between each “fragment” and intercuts images from real news footage from Bosnia, Somalia, Lebanon, and other war-torn regions. Again, 71 Fragments examines the violence that permeates ours lives through the media and that can abrupt in random, meaningless ways at any point.
After completing his trilogy, Haneke proceeded to release his most brutal and disturbing film to date: Funny Games (1997), a home invasion narrative that will leave you feeling exhausted from the tension that mounts from the film’s beginning to its very end. Funny Games participates in a long tradition of exploitation films while simultaneously deconstructing them. In my mind, the film recalls Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (1972), Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971), Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave (1978), Ruggero Deodato’s House on the Edge of the Park (1980), and many of the other Last House rip-offs. The film also resonates with horror movies that have been released since 1997: David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s Ils (2006; Them) or Bryan Bortino’s The Strangers (2008), which feels like an American remake of the French film but is not stated as such. Haneke’s Funny Games concerns an upper middle-class family who have arrived at their summer house for vacation. Shortly after their arrival, a pair of young men come over ostensibly from their neighbor’s house and ask to borrow some eggs. But the young duo stay and begin torturing the family of three or playing games with them as the young men term it—we never receive the duo’s real names: they alternately call each other Peter and Paul, Tom and Jerry, and Beavis and Butthead. Featuring no non-diegetic sounds or music except during the opening and closing credits, Funny Games is an unrelentingly realistic serial killer film that almost never depicts acts of violence or depravity but instead builds its almost unbearable tension through the emotions of the characters, the camerawork, the silence of its soundtrack, and extreme long takes that force the viewer to endure the horror and sorrow of the victims in real time. Funny Games continues to develop Haneke’s distinctively objective and clinical style of filmmaking, but it adds a new twist by having the characters break the fourth wall repeatedly by winking at and even talking to the audience. Ultimately, such moments make us the viewer complicit in the horrors we watch unfold, horror spectacles that Haneke actually denies us by having them occur off-screen in complete defiance of what most horror fans expect. The film ultimately poses a series of questions to us the viewers: “Why the FUCK are you watching this? What is wrong with you and our media society that such a film would be produced and be watched by you? Why do you want to see others suffer? Have you no empathy? Have you no emotions?” And the killers actually pose an equally provocative question at one point in the film: who do root for in the film? The killers or the victims? Funny Games is an absolutely brilliant exploration of our obsession with violence and tragedy and the media’s portrayal of it. And none of us are innocent—we help create the crimes and tragedies that unfold upon our television. Haneke so loved Funny Games that he directed an almost shot-for-shot, English language remake of the film that was released in 2007—the tenth anniversary of the original. In many ways, Funny Games can’t help but remind me of Tool’s song “Vicarious,” which concerns our need to experience violence and death through the media—see below for the video.
Haneke achieved true notoriety with The Piano Teacher (2001), a Freudian nightmare of repression, fixation, and neurosis. The film follows a middle-aged, Viennese piano teacher who still lives with her overbearing mother. Her controlling mother and her consequent sexual repression have caused her to develop a variety of paraphilias or fetishes: voyeurism, sado-masochism, self-mutilation, etc. A young seventeen-year-old student arrives at the conservatory, and sexual tension begins to mount between the two. Featuring Haneke’s trademark clinical, unsympathetic style, The Piano Teacher includes clips from hardcore pornography and pushes the boundaries of cinematic depictions of fetishism. A powerful film about the forces that control us and the obsessions that drive us, The Piano Teacher may not be as traumatic as some of Haneke’s previous films, but it still slowly sculpts a growing sense of unease and despair in the viewer as we glimpse the truly fractured nature of the human psyche.
Haneke followed up The Piano Teacher with The Time of the Wolf (2003), a post-apocalyptic tale concerning a family trying to survive in a steadily decaying and dangerous world. Like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), Time of the Wolf never reveals the cause of the world’s devastation but instead focuses upon the human need to survive in the absence of society—it is powerful film about the ties that bind us together and help us cope with reality. Reminiscent of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, the film ultimately questions whether humanity can exist in the absence of social order or whether we will slowly devolve back into nothing more than overly complicated beasts. Haneke returned to realistic cinema with contemporary settings in his acclaimed thriller Cache (2005; Hidden). Cache starts off like David Lynch’s Lost Highway, which we watched earlier this semester: a couple begins receiving mysterious tapes of themselves. The tapes ultimately lead the couple into a thrilling series of investigations that may open up forgotten or repressed aspects of their pasts. Haneke’s penchant for long takes and static camerawork reaches its apex in Cache with its frequent inclusion of supposed surveillance camera footage.
Haneke’s most recent film, The White Ribbon (2009), was his first black and white film and his first to win the Palm d’Or at The Cannes Film Festival. A hauntingly beautiful and disturbing depiction of a German village on the cusp of World War I, the film concerns the puritanical education of the village’s children and their often inhumane punishment. On a more general level, it concerns the disturbing and violent events that are occurring beneath the seemingly placid, perfect exterior of the town. A powerful, absurdist, existential parable about that darkness underlying the shiny veneer of society and the social ills that lead to war, Haneke’s The White Ribbon is an absolutely unforgettable example of historical cinema that blends its realistic aesthetic together with a healthy dose of Kafkaesque absurdism.
The same year as The White Ribbon also saw the release of an absurdist Greek drama that participates in a similar style to Haneke. Yorgos Lanthimos’s Kynodontas (2009; Dogtooth) concerns a family that has kept its three, now adult children from the outside world—they are not allowed to travel beyond their house’s gates until they have lost their dogteeth. The parents have taught their children that words means different things than they do in reality, and the father pays a young woman from work to come into the house and have sex with the son. A powerful examination of the human need for communal engagement and perhaps an indictment of home schooling, Dogtooth examines the way in which society structures our identity and understanding of reality. A brutal and unforgettable film, Dogtooth will make you reconsider even the most basic things that you have been taught—it is a excoriating deconstruction of education and family that will leave you unsettled by the time the credits roll.