Haneke’s 1997 Funny Games remains his most controversial film, its combination of the bleakness of his darkest works and the caustic indictment of its own medium’s violent voyeurism earning it a key place in the annals of film history. Ten years later, the intermittent arrival of the widespread fetishisation of violence and the proliferation of the so-called “torture porn” in mainstream cinema in some ways proved Haneke justified in his concerns, prompting him to remake the film shot for shot, but this time in English with an American cast. The idea of Funny Games had always been to critique the way in which the majority of audiences engaged vicariously with violence in cinema, particularly those in the United States (the very fact that the original, despite being in German, was officially entitled Funny Games is a telling remnant of this original intention). With the benefit of a critically acclaimed body of work behind him, Haneke was at last at a point after the success of Hidden where he could finally find the financing to make the film according to his original vision.
Browsing: Michael Haneke
It was Benny’s Video which first brought Haneke’s name to widespread critical attention, the manner in which he indicted the dangers of cinema and its inherent voyeurism singling him out as a director of promise and potential. With Funny…
There is a great homogeneity to Haneke’s filmmaking, a consistency of style and substance that makes each of his works distinctly recognisable as “un film de Michael Haneke” however far they might stray from each other. Arguably, none does so more than Time of the Wolf, setting itself in some indiscriminate future where French society appears to have collapsed in the wake of an unexplained apocalyptic event. A director firmly committed to highlighting and critiquing issues of our society and of our species in the here and now, it may have seemed initially strange for Haneke to turn his attention to what might be classed a genre film rather than his typical intimate personal drama.
Passion, like the burning fire to which it is inevitably compared, can both light our lives and destroy them. The hollow existence that is humanity finds fulfilment in the things which drive us most; those which we find ourselves inexplicably consumed with. Life would be cold, dark, and a great deal more difficult without the things about which we are passionate. For some, these are the banal pleasures of stimulating conversation or fine art. For others, life is made worth living by the presence of friends and family. Those that lean more toward the combustible side of the aforementioned metaphor find their fulfilment in passions altogether more dark, primal, and inevitably corrosive.
It is perhaps strange to think that sign language can have dialects. A system of communication designed for those unable to understand the spoken word, it seems even this can be limited by the national and cultural boundaries we have designed to separate ourselves from one another. Even something designed to unite those left behind by other means of contact is steeped in divides and differences that make it all but impossible for those of different backgrounds to effectively understand each other. Opening and closing with importantly metaphorical scenes of deaf children playing charades, Haneke’s fifth feature film, and his first in French, was Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys.
The act of breaking the fourth wall in film is one which has been utilized endlessly in comedy. A direct link to the protagonist’s thoughts, it offers an added layer of comic potential as we experience in real time the character’s reaction to the narrative events. Speaking directly to the audience fosters a sense of camaraderie, functioning often as a shortcut to emotional attachment. In horror cinema, it plays an entirely different role. Few things can be more frightening to an audience as to be pulled into a horror narrative; the ability to remember that we are experiencing a fiction is one of the great escapes from horror (as the tagline for Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left famously advised, “It’s only a movie, only a movie, only a movie…”).
Haneke’s decision to begin 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance with this simple title card before cutting to a scene labelled October 12th is the perfect reflection of his storytelling style. In describing immediately the events of the climactic penultimate scene toward which such a film would normally build, he discards the typical focus on the what and instead invites us to consider from the very beginning the why; this cinematic crescendo with which 71 Fragments will end is not so much the film’s subject as a means by which to explore it.
It is difficult to decide which is more disquieting: the sharp sound of a bolt gun being fired, or the dying squeals of the pig struck by it as it collapses lifeless to the floor. The opening images and sounds of Benny’s Video demand instant attention from the viewer, doubly so when they are rewound and replayed in slow motion, lending an added sinister echo to the audible death throes of the animal. The grainy footage is being watched not just by us, but also by the titular character. When we actually see him as he re-watches the tape later in the film, we find his reaction to be considerably less horrified. He watches over the scene again and again, his face a picture of fascination, even admiration and pride.
Framed in darkness, seated in silence, a middle-class family proceeds slowly through a carwash. They are Georg, an engineer rising in his firm; Anna, co-owner with her brother of the opticians where she works; and Eva, the couple’s young daughter. The scene plays out beneath the film’s opening credits, but it is so much more than simply a convenient juncture at which to list the filmmakers. Each passing second makes ever more apparent the family’s collective silence, and the concomitant gulf between them. Why do they seem so remote? What is it about these people’s lives that seems to have made them so distant?
1989 was the year a fresh new talent stepped upon the stage of international cinema. His craft carefully honed over some 15 years of television film direction, Michael Haneke made his feature debut with The Seventh Continent, the first shocking introduction of his vivid and striking style to a wide audience. 20 years and 10 films later, Haneke’s winning of the Palme d’Or for his 2009 The White Ribbon sealed his reputation as one of the great artists of our time. This retrospective will trace his evolution from little-known Austrian filmmaker to one of Europe’s—indeed the world’s—most critically acclaimed and admired cinematic geniuses.