Note: The first in a regular series, aiming to offer succinct but informative profiles of some of the greatest directors working in world cinema today, and who emerged in the last 25 years. Essentially in a bid to re-appraise the auteur cinema of today against the supposed heyday of yesteryear, and hopefully provide a useful resource for those wanting to discover, or know more about, such filmmakers. The profiles will include a chronological retrospective of the director’s career and filmography, as well as analysing any overall characteristics, styles, themes and influences in their work.
To begin with, I’ve gone for arguably the foremost European arthouse auteur of today, whose name has now become synonymous with austere clinical films that are tough to watch, so much so that a parody twitter account was created in his honour! Haneke’s films are often misunderstood and as I hope to make clear, for all his pessimism about communication in the modern world, he still demonstrates faith in the medium of film to impart some empowering sense of independence to his audience.
Despite having become a director for the cinema relatively late in life, Michael Haneke has today established himself as the leading Austrian and European auteur, generating a plethora of critical and scholarly discussion and with 2 Palme d’Ors and even an Oscar to his name. His consistently challenging work as a writer/director has given him a reputation as a polemical artist, unafraid of provoking and confronting his audience. More recently however his films have indicated a slight change of mood, proving him to be able to regularly reinvent himself, while not diminishing the intelligence of his films nor their desire to make viewers think.
Stylistically, he generally prefers long takes, subdued colour tones and static shots over ostentatious editing and imagery, and his subject matter tends to focus on the shortcomings of bourgeois social structures, but over the course of his career he has often surprised those trying to pigeonhole him.
The early days:
After studying psychology and philosophy at the University of Vienna, Michael Haneke made a living as a film and literary critic. In the 1960s he staged several theatre plays, before getting his break making films for TV. Not until 1989, at age 47, did he finally make the move into cinema with The Seventh Continent.
One of the most assured feature film debuts of the last 25 years, it introduced many of the traits which would recur in his later work. Loosely based on a news-story about the collective suicide of a family, the film begins with an assembly of shots of everyday objects and actions – tellingly we do not see a human face until 9 minutes in. Haneke thus announces the climate of the film as the cold oppression of routine, behind the façade of a seemingly happy middle-class life. No reason is ever given for the family’s actions but the existential malaise is constantly palpable.
This refusal to explain things, seen here not just in the family’s final way out, but also in other small events occurring without apparent reason (the wife’s brother inexplicably bursting into tears over dinner, the daughter simulating blindness to her schoolteacher) also began Haneke’s characteristic subversion of conventional cause-and-effect narratives. Reluctant to provide easy explanations, Haneke leaves each viewer to interpret what the characters’ motivations might be, and thereby reach their own conclusions.
His follow-up, Benny’s Video, dealt with similar territory, once more exploring the dark underpinnings at the heart of a middle-class Austrian family. This cautionary tale disguised as a horror, was an investigation into the effect image-producing media have on our sense of reality. In focussing on the teenage son Benny, an avid watcher of TV, videos and home films whose perception is so distorted that he unemotionally kills a classmate, Haneke presents a vision of the subliminal impact of media saturation. The film also made use of a technique which would often reappear in his work, namely switching between different levels of screen reality, from Benny’s TV to the live feed on his CCTV monitor and back to “unmediated” reality, an effect which makes the viewer ceaselessly question just what they are seeing.
Haneke’s third film would take the concerns of the previous two to an extreme, and has the most radical structure of all his films. 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, as the name might suggest, consists of 71 scenes, more aptly labelled fragments as they show seemingly unconnected people and events across an Austrian city. The anti-causality is hence pushed to its limits, as the way these disparate pieces are linked, and how they lead to the violent finale, is left entirely for us to decide. In patching such a tapestry of a major city and its disconnected citizens, 71 Fragments was a clear preview of what Haneke would explore in Code Unknown, with which it shares many similarities.
The controversial breakthrough:
But before that film, Haneke directed Funny Games in 1997. It remains his most controversial work and the one that truly put him on the map as a provocative filmmaker. Almost more Brechtian experiment than conventional film, it directly challenges a specific type of cinema which Haneke sees as distributing images of violence as consumer product and numbing them of emotional value. Funny Games was thus an attempt to make us feel violence as what it really is, something brutally disturbing.
At its Cannes premiere, Funny Games marketed itself as a tense, bloody thriller/horror, branding its tickets with warning stickers – a precaution only previously employed for Reservoir Dogs. The public thus awaited a traditional ‘family under attack’ horror, an expectancy Haneke initially does everything to uphold in the first half hour, using signposts of the thriller-horror genre. Yet these are then undermined by the psychotic killer’s occasional nods and winks straight to camera, already breaking the fourth wall to speak directly to the spectator. The game becomes completely evident in the scene where he rewinds the wife’s killing of his partner-in-crime, depriving us of catharsis and making it clear that any hopes of seeing the family escape will not materialise.
In this sense Haneke is essentially like a magician revealing the tricks, showing audiences the conventions behind the unwritten contract they enter when watching the type of horror film which he was both parodying and criticising. The viewer is not only made aware of the film as construct, but is made explicitly conscious of their relationship to the film and their role in perpetuating onscreen violence. Understandably many saw this approach as patronising, not to mention doomed to fail, as very few gore aficionados were likely to watch an Austrian arthouse film, so Haneke was left preaching to the converted. That does not however take away from Funny Games’ status as a shocking and provocative piece of conceptual cinema.
The move to France:
A major shift then followed, as he moved from the Austrian film industry to work in French-language cinema with reputed arthouse actors, from whom he would elicit impressive performances, starting with Juliette Binoche in Code Unknown. The consequences of a confrontation between a music teacher of African origin and a frustrated teenage boy, caused by the latter throwing a wrapper in the lap of a Romanian beggar, are explored in surprising ways. Issues of communication breakdown, of immigration, of action versus inaction, and of the role of the artist in society, through the character of photo-journalist George (very reminiscent of James Stewart’s character in Rear Window and a sign of Haneke’s admiration for Hitchcock), all make Code Unknown Haneke’s densest film in terms of sheer thematic depth.
Never lacking in formal ambition, Haneke once again fits appropriate techniques to his subject matter, for example the abrupt fades to black in between all individual scenes, so that these remain as disconnected and disjointed as the characters in his vision of modern Paris. The film also displays his ability to direct scenes of taut dramatic intensity with an outstanding uninterrupted 10-minute tracking shot providing the core of the film.
Despite being another French-language film, and his breakthrough Cannes hit, The Piano Teacher is arguably Haneke’s most Austrian film. Based on a novel by Vienna-based Nobel prize winner Elfriede Jelinek, it depicts modern Austria as a breeding ground both for neuroses and highbrow culture, and the two clash in shocking ways within Erika (Isabelle Huppert). Haneke casts his rigorous analytical eye on Erika, a teacher at a music academy by day who hangs around sex shops and self-mutilates by night, and whose life is turned upside down when a student becomes sexually interested in her. The result is a disturbing attack on gender roles, bourgeois values, individual repression and social power-hierarchies.
Time of the Wolf, again starring Isabelle Huppert, got far more restrained reactions and remains slightly underrated. It was a project Haneke had in the pipelines for over a decade and was finally in a suitable position to turn into a film. A mirror of Western society, it follows various characters stuck in a post-apocalyptic landscape, in some unspecified place and time, each having their own idea on the best course of action. The different groups formed represent different possible societies, (socialism, capitalism) on their most basic level, with none of them quite functioning without compromise. The atmospheric nocturnal photography and naturalistic performances added to what is a quietly unsettling dystopian film.
The Hitchcockian intensity seen in Code Unknown made an effective resurgence in Haneke’s next film Caché (Hidden), a deft intelligent pseudo-thriller, which whilst marketed as a mystery film with 2 major French stars (Binoche and Daniel Auteuil) played with audience expectations and ended up being something far less conventional. Caché once again heralded a new stylistic avenue for Haneke, previously a nostalgic champion of celluloid, here making a digital-dependent film which requires multiple viewings on DVD to fully appreciate it and find hidden clues.
A bourgeois Parisian couple are receiving anonymous tapes of themselves being filmed, and the search for who might be responsible leads the husband to face extremely unpleasant memories, suppressed in the recesses of his mind. Haneke manages to tie into this plot issues of post-colonial France, since the exploration of the past leads to an Algerian youth whose parents were murdered by racist French police. A veritable Russian doll of a film, Caché can be read on many levels, equally about personal repressed guilt as the collective guilt of a nation, as it is about (once more) different levels of mediated reality or the relation between viewer and viewed.
Following the success of Caché, Haneke took another unexpected turn with his foray into Hollywood to remake Funny Games, despite his obvious status as staunch critic of the Hollywood studio system. An almost shot-for-shot English-language copy of the 1997 original, starring Naomi Watts and Tim Roth, Funny Games US came about because Haneke felt that his intended target, American cinema and audiences, had not had a wide enough chance to see the film first-time-round. Overall it was an ill-advised exercise, adding very little to the original, nor matching its notoriety.
The later period:
Haneke came back to Europe, and more familiar territory by working on his first German-language film in 10 years. That is not to say that he returned to a comfort zone, for The White Ribbon was another turning point for Haneke in many ways. It was his first film set in the past, his first in black and white and the most beautifully photographed of his films yet. Backing up what Haneke recently said about his style changing from Brechtian to Chekhovian, it is very much a mood piece following the lives of a small German community in 1913, as mysterious, sinister events begin to overshadow the tranquillity of village life. An analysis of the subtle mechanics that lead to fundamentalism and oppression, it has one of the most creepily disconcerting depictions of children in modern cinema, as well as being a remarkable portrait of the generation of Germans who would go on to be seduced by a rhetoric of evil.
Most recently, his latest film Amour, like The White Ribbon before it, picked up the Palme d’Or, placing Haneke in a select group of 2-time Cannes winners. But Amour too surprised more than a few, widely regarded as being the most humane and compassionate of all his films yet, this philosophical endeavour of love (a real love between two people who have shared 50 years of life together) shows a vast departure from the director of Funny Games 15 years prior. Once again Haneke showed unquestionable ability to draw fantastic performances from his actors, with Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant both exemplary.
Finally, Haneke’s great skill is in updating the breed of arthouse cinema to 21st century relevance, tackling key societal topics, and even questioning the very medium he uses and its relationship with us, his audience. He manages to retain a signature style common to all his films, while also giving each a form specific to its subject and themes. That these forms often consist of original innovations, added to Haneke’s undoubted qualities as a thought-provoking filmmaker who respects the interactivity and intelligence of his spectators, make of him one of the most important present-day directors.
Despite admitting a greater love for music (classical and opera primarily) over film, Haneke’s influences are clearly the likes of Antonioni, Bresson or Tarkovsky. But more surprisingly, Hitchcock is also a major influence, as can be seen in his loose use of the thriller genre conventions and his themes of viewing/voyeurism.
As an intellectual and philosophy graduate, the discourse of philosophers of the modern condition such as Guy Debord and Jean Baudrillard are also a visible influence on his earlier work (and Caché) and their criticism of the media. In his later work, particularly his last two films, a greater debt is owed to the style of Anton Chekhov.
As for the influence his style has exerted over others, it is perhaps too early to fully gauge but it nonetheless seems extremely noticeable, with many arthouse films now trying to imitate his style it is inevitable his influence will be deeply felt in the work of many directors with auteurist ambitions around the world. Fellow Austrian directors Jessica Hausner and Markus Schleinzer are just some examples of filmmakers directly and personally influenced by him.
For newcomers to Haneke, Amour, The White Ribbon and Caché would seem like the best places to start, while Code Unknown can rival Caché in terms of multi-layeredness as a film. His first 3 Austrian films are necessary for understanding his concerns with modern society, alienation, communication and media, while Funny Games (the original) retains a notoriety that anyone with a strong stomach should watch to find Haneke at his most polemical and Brechtian. Overall however, intelligence and ambition runs throughout his work.