Several months ago, I began writing what's shaping up to be a series of articles about my reintroduction to the film world through the pleasures of home video technology and the ever-burgeoning field of cinema books. The re-evaluation process started six months ago, when I came to realize that my disillusionment with Hollywood action films and dim-witted comedies had caused me to dismiss out of hand much fine work done in America and Europe since the late 1980s.
Thus far, I've written about the Dardenne brother, a Belgian duo who have managed to make a string of powerful movies together, and Chantal Akerman, also a Belgian, it so happens, who is a true pioneer on many levels and a dedicated artistic maverick.
This time around my subject is Michael Haneke, an Austrian filmmaker who, I would argue, is one of the most important European artists, in any field, to appear in the last 25 years. His "apprenticeship" was spent doing, by all accounts, some fine films for television, none of which is available to viewers outside of Europe. But starting in 1989, with the chilling Seventh Continent, he turned to making feature films; his most recent, The White Ribbon, appeared in 2009.
Several years ago, Kino Video put together a seven-disk DVD set, titled The Michael Haneke Collection, which is well worth whatever price you pay for it. The only problem is that this grouping doesn't include two of his finest films, the above-mentioned White Ribbon and Caché, which is not only his masterpiece but one of the most skillful and resonant films of recent years. (They are, of course, available separately on DVD.)
But it matters little what works are included where. Anyone who gets hooked on Haneke's films will want to have all of them handy.
In addition, the University of Illinois Press film series, known collectively as "Contemporary Film Directors," recently issued Michael Haneke, written by Peter Brunette, who died tragically this past summer. An expert on Italian film, Brunette was the Reynolds Professor of Film studies and director of the film studies program at Wake Forest University. His last book is an insightful study of the great Austrian.
I've chosen to write about Haneke even though he's not Jewish. Neither, for that matter, are the Dardennes, but they took as inspiration one of the most influential modern philosophers, Emmanuel Levinas, whose understanding of Judaism permeates his thinking. Chantal Akerman is Jewish, the child of a Holocaust survivor, who has made Jewish themes part of her work.
Haneke's connection to Judaism is a bit more tenuous but it's by no means inconsequential. The filmmaker is an Austrian artist down to his toes, and he knows it. Because of this inescapable fact, he should be of interest to Jewish viewers since he is always saying something about his homeland; in a film like The White Ribbon, he is trying to get at the very source of Nazism, though his manner on this point does have its subtleties.
And his themes are those of the major modernists of 20th century art — alienation, soullessness, brutality, indifference. Not for nothing has he made a fairly exact film transcription of the great Czech Jewish writer Franz Kafka's The Castle, perhaps the supreme statement on alienation in modern literature.
Haneke's films also deal with the pervasiveness of the media in contemporary culture — and, as a filmmaker, he does not let himself off the hook in this regard. But he is always asking his audiences to question what they're watching and why it is that they need to seek out — with such frequency — depictions of violence.
His first feature The Seventh Continent was based on a true story he'd stumbled across in the newspaper. For no apparent reason, a decent middle class family, with everything to live for, starts unraveling till the parents destroy all of their furniture, tape up their doors and windows, and commit slow suicide, assisting their child in the act. One facet of this first film will become standard operating procedure in Haneke's later works: The director, who writes his screenplays, refuses to give us answers for why these people did what they did.
If one can conceive of it, his next film, Benny's Video, is even more unflinching. The title character is the video-obsessed child of another well-off family, who spends most of his time in his bedroom watching and rewatching depictions of "reality" on his plethora of high-tech gear, all of it obviously done with the consent of his parents, who've furnished him with this mass of paraphernalia. The video of the title, which Benny obviously made and clearly enjoys viewing, shows the shocking slaughter of a pig on a farm by a stun gun.
Benny has snuck the weapon home from what must be the family's country house and eventually uses it on a real live human being, one weekend when his parents are gone. Not surprisingly, Benny tapes the scene and "confesses" to his parents by letting them "see" it when they return home. And these are the least terrifying elements in this meditation on media pervasiveness.
Haneke's fourth feature Funny Games is probably his most notorious because of its unrelenting violent nature. The movie opens with the scene of a family driving out to their country home. These are well-off people, yet again, who vacation in an idyllic leafy spot. But as they begin settling in for their stay, their paradise is invaded by two psychopathic young men who methodically beat and torture father, mother and son.
Though the film is often unbearable to watch, none of the violence is shown — another signature Haneke element; it's all done just beyond the camera's vision, though we do see its aftermath.
Funny Games is filled with what Brunette calls "self-reflexive, quasi-Brechtian moments." Take one of its most emblematic scenes. As the late afternoon and evening of horror wears on, the mother gets the opportunity to grab one of her tormentors' weapons and turns it on the chubbier of the two, killing him in a blast of gunfire. His accomplice, lean and hard and very psychopathic — he's played by the same actor, Arno Frisch, who embodied video-mad Benny — starts hollering, demanding to have the video controller. When he finds it, he presses a button, and we watch as the scene rewinds. This time when the mother reaches for the rifle, the evil henchman gets to it first and beats her for her efforts.
"Unlike most directors who have employed such a technique," observes Brunette, "Haneke seems intent on using it to implicate the audience, emotionally and psychologically, in what is going on rather than to reveal, for aesthetic or political reasons (as with Brecht), the make-believe, manufactured nature of the ultra-realist proceedings."
But if you can tolerate only one emotionally wrenching film, don't miss Caché (also known as Hidden), which stars Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche. They play Georges and Anne Laurent, another comfortable couple, this time living in Paris. They reside in a beautiful house on a beautiful block, but their little idyll starts coming apart when they begin finding video tapes left at their front door, which indicate that someone is watching them. The tapes are accompanied by threatening notes, drawn in a childlike hand.
As the movie progresses, Georges begins to believe that the tapes are connected to something he did in his past. The film works out this plot with astonishing twists, though once again the director offers no explanations. This open-endedness has driven some viewers batty. But as the director has pointed out repeatedly, since life doesn't often provide us with pat answers, why should art?