Friday 30 September 2011

5 Fillmmakers (iv): Michael Haneke

Three key films: Funny Games (1997) Code Unknown (2000), Hidden (2005)

Underrated film: 71 Fragments of A Chronology of Chance (1994)
The final part of Haneke’s Austria-set “emotional glaciation trilogy” has never gained the amount of attention given to its predecessors, The Seventh Continent (1989) and Benny’s Video (1992). But this subtle and provocative film is among Haneke’s most resonant works. As its title suggests, the film is an elliptical account of numerous events involving disparate characters (a homeless Romanian boy; a student; a bank security guard and his wife) who are finally connected by a random and apparently motiveless act of violence. A precursor, in both content and structure, to Code Unknown, the movie’s withering critique of the mediatisation of experience is encapsulated by the ending, in which we see a complex and multi-faceted event diminished and packaged as it takes its place in the endless parade of TV news images.

Unforgettable moment: The film ‘rewind’ in Funny Games. In a rare moment of one-up-(wo)man-ship against the family’s two captors, Anna (Susanne Lothar) shoots Peter (Frank Giering), only for his accomplice Paul (Arno Frisch) to grab a remote- control and rewind the film’s action from within the diegesis, subsequently “replaying” the scene to prevent Peter’s murder. Functioning as a self-reflexive disavowal of the ‘catharsis’ of the retaliatory violence expected from a suspense thriller, the scene is one of the most startling moments not only in Haneke’s oeuvre but in all of contemporary cinema.

The Legend (1942-)

“Cold,” “detached,” “theoretical,” “didactic” and “sadistic” are some of the words that invariably appear in discussions of Michael Haneke’s work. While a superficial engagement with Haneke’s cinema might make all of these terms seem apt at various points, none of these reductive descriptions truly does justice to the power of Haneke’s work and the density of its inquiry into the complexities of living and interacting in the contemporary world. Calculated to provoke and disturb, it’s certainly true that Haneke’s films can be gruelling experiences, but they seldom fail to reward one’s patience and commitment. Watching Haneke’s movies, the viewer always feels in the grip of a controlled, discerning intelligence, that of a filmmaker who is intensely preoccupied by some of the most pressing social and ethical questions facing us today.

A German-born Austrian, Haneke studied psychology, philosophy and drama at the University of Vienna. He worked as a film and literary critic before beginning his directing career in the German theatre and in television. His first cinematic feature, The Seventh Continent, appeared in 1989; the story of an Austrian family going through their daily lives in a series of ritualised routines before calmly undertaking an irrevocable decision, the film established some of the key aspects of the director’s spare, measured, understated and elliptical style. It was followed by two more films, Benny’s Video and 71 Fragments of A Chronology of Chance, that also explored what Haneke would call the “emotional glaciation” of Austria. The trilogy was followed by a made-for television adaptation of Kafka’s The Castle (1997), and then by Funny Games, still perhaps Haneke’s most notorious film, a Brechtian deconstruction of the “home invasion” thriller that critiques the concept of violence-as-entertainment but was accused by some critics of employing precisely the kind of shock tactics that it sought to attack. Since then, Haneke has gone on to make more ambitiously-scaled films, often employing European star actors: Juliette Binoche in Code Unknown and Hidden; Isabelle Huppert in The Piano Teacher [2001] and Time of the Wolf [2003]. He has also continued to engage in a subversive manner with genre conventions: melodrama in The Piano Teacher, disaster film in Time of the Wolf, suspense thriller in Hidden. His most recent film, the Palme d’or-winning The White Ribbon, was a foray into period drama, a chilling account of mysterious, violent happenings in a north German village just before World War I.

Deeply concerned with the ethics of spectatorship, Haneke’s work frequently explores the ways in which the proliferation of images in contemporary culture may serve to reduce rather than intensify the viewer’s sense of reality. As Catherine Wheatley has argued, Haneke believes we are living in a time in which “people have become inured to the experience of real life through the medium of television (and film), which divides brute reality into neat segments and packages it between commercials, insinuating it into the daily routines of consumer life.” Screens-within-the-screen, frames-within-the-frame, thus form a recurrent motif in his cinema, which attempts to forge an alternative relationship to the spectator, engaging him or her as a discriminating, thoughtful participant rather than a voracious, unthinking consumer.

Indeed, watching a Haneke film the viewer often feels drawn into an intense, all-too-rare state of alertness, challenged to puzzle out the significances that seem “hidden” in his often static and painstakingly-composed frames. Clearly, there's an element of didacticism in Haneke’s project to make us “see better,” but ultimately his cinema is one of open-ended questions rather than fixed, final answers. Wider allegorical resonances in his work emerge subtly, almost subliminally, and despite his engagement with a range of contemporary panics and paranoias - around race, immigration, sexuality, power - his work never feels issue-led. Finally, an unsentimental compassion and concern underpins the invigorating moral seriousness of Haneke’s film-making, with its urgent inquiry into what we watch, how we live, and the relationship between the two.

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