How Do you Think it Feels

By Lee Hill

funny-games-michael-haneke-1.jpgFunny Games, 1997

Austrian director Michael Haneke is a genial sort in interviews, but his films, especially Funny Games (1997), Benny’s Video (1992) and The Piano Teacher (2001) are notorious for their icy, austere look at characters who have gone beyond being simply feeling alienated from the sterility of middle class life to morphing into living emblems of that same hollowness. Many of Haneke’s characters have lost their sense of connection not just with their fellow human beings, but with themselves. To the extent that they can feel it is only through acts of violence against others or themselves.

Hidden, Haneke’s 2005 mainstream hit, broke through this pattern by focusing (to the relief of those who felt Haneke was becoming a little Johnny-one-note in his obsessions) with a bourgeois Parisian couple, who may have had their secrets, but still looked like they were sane enough to file their taxes, bring the mail in for vacationing neighbours or not machine gun their fellow diners next time they ate at Deux Magots. Like Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) or Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours trilogy (1992-1993), Hidden was the kind of art house success that helped to bring a seemingly difficult artist into a wider realm of discussion without the corruption of the themes and methods that make the work so vital and timely. Amidst this climate of commercial success and critical acceptance, the French Institute’s Michael Haneke: A Retrospective in Context, curated by Fritz Urschitz, programmed with similarly provocative films by directors as varied as Andrei Tarkovsky, Robert Altman and Gus Van Sant not only confirms Haneke’s status as an auteur with brand name awareness, but more importantly, heighten the degree to which his work not simply disturbs the viewer, but refreshes the way films are watched and consumed.

International success has not diminished Haneke’s ability to confound critics and audiences. The recent shot-by-shot English language remake of Funny Games, restaged in the Hamptons with Naomi Watts (who also helped developed the remake as a co-producer), Tim Roth and Michael Pitt in the cast, has little chance of being a break out hit like Hidden, but its depiction of two charming young psychopaths tormenting and finally killing a young middle class couple and their son has lost little of its power to shake up notions of what constitutes entertainment, the hyper naturalism of “staged violence” versus actual violence, and art as a vehicle for social change.

seventh-continent-michael-haneke.jpgThe Seventh Continent, 1989

Because the two versions of Funny Games and Benny’s Video, The Seventh Continent and 71 Fragments of A Chronology of Chance have achieved near legendary status for their formal ability to simultaneously suck the viewer in and then spit the viewer out through various kinds of anti-narrative provocation and outrage, it is easy to forget that Haneke, no matter how transgressive his images seem to some, is part of that long art house tradition – epater le bourgeosie. Pairing these films with Robert Bresson’s L’Argent, Luis Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of The Bourgeoisie and Gus van Sant’s Elephant makes perfect sense. Like these directors, Haneke is essentially a moralist on the sly, whose aesthetic is based on the premise that the less one states one’s ethical position in explicit terms, the more likely an ethical position will resonate as the viewer leaves the cinema.

Two of the most effective juxtapositions of Haneke’s work with other directors are the pairing of Time of The Wolf (2003) with Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) and The Piano Teacher (2001) with Joseph Losey’s The Servant (1963). Wolf’s look at a middle class family plunged into a brutal post-apocalyptic Europe hit by an unnamed social collapse is told in a blunt, matter-of-fact fashion. The film’s visual design references news and documentary footage from the internecine meltdown of Serbia, Croatia and Kosovo. Stalker, by contrast, is in spite of its bleak setting charged with myth and poetry. God has not entirely left the building; to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, he is in that crack where the light gets in.

piano-teacher-michael-haneke.jpgThe Piano Teacher, 2001

The Piano Teacher, arguably Haneke’s masterpiece thanks in large part to a near-aria like performance by Isabelle Huppert, shares The Servant’s claustrophobic mix of class-consciousness and psychosexual meltdown. In The Servant, the shifting power dynamics between James Fox as a young upper class businessman and Dirk Bogarde as his louche butler reflected the rapid erosion of old class distinctions in the 60s (to of course to be replaced by a whole new set of more discrete, but no less oppressive distinctions in the present). In The Piano Teacher, class is only a tiny part of the problem. Huppert’s character is a walking mosaic of dysfunction – an attractive, seemingly intelligent and independent woman who is also trapped in a masochistic parody of domesticity with her mother, addicted to pornography and rough sex in a way that even shocks the few men in her life, and so cut off from her humanity that the most ordinary social interactions are tinged with the possibility of violence. What is going on in this person’s head, The Piano Teacher asks? And more to the point, what is going on in our society that this person can walk through it largely unnoticed.

The original version of Funny Games (1997) has been paired with Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom (1975) and Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971). From all accounts, Haneke has none of the personal demons that make looking at the work of Pasolini or Peckinpah an exercise in psycho-biography at times. Both Salo and Straw Dogs are problematic works because of what we know about their makers, but that confusion makes them more complex than Funny Games. Funny Games is fairly clear about what it is trying to saying about viewer identification, voyeurism and the ease with which film goers accept on-screen violence. In Salo, the critique of fascism is complicated by the highly publicised accounts of Pasolini’s own self-destructive tastes for mixing anonymous sex with violence (the director was killed in 1975 in circumstances as ambiguous as one of his films). Similarly Straw Dogs is either a sympathetic portrayal of an intellectual defending his home against a philistine mob, an allegory of the Vietnam War or a thinking man’s revenge fantasy.

bennys-video-michael-haneke.jpgBenny’s Video, 1992

Haneke’s work implicitly questions the dominance of the male gaze that complicates the work of many of the great directors featured in this retrospective. Thus the presence of Jessica Hausner’s Lovely Rita (2001) as a counterpoint to Haneke’s Benny’s Video sets off ripples of thematic density. Lovely Rita views the troubled adolescence of its title character through the filter of a wider look at suburban Austria. As in Ulrich Seidel’s Dog Days (2001), the increasing uniformity of these suburbs and their emphasis on consumerism (for its own sake works against a deep sense of community. Relationships are transitory and disappointing. In the case of Lovely Rita, that disappointment accelerates to a state of anomie that can only be transcended through violence.

code-unknown-michael-haneke.jpgCode Unknown, 2000

Urschitz’s ‘compare and contrast’ approach to Haneke’s oeuvre is a timely way in which to ask the question: is Michael Haneke a great director or someone who will eventually lose relevance or fall out of critical fashion? It only takes one film to take a director beyond the hermetic biases of academia, the festival circuit or cinematheque. Haneke has made two crossover films, The Piano Teacher and Hidden that, in my mind, demonstrate his power as an artist with something to say to audiences of all backgrounds. Even his disappointing TV adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Castle by being screened with Orson Welles’ far more energetic version of The Trial does at the very least demonstrate that Haneke is a man of diverse interests. Until recently there have been those critics and viewers accustomed to thinking of Haneke as someone merely trying to push our buttons through scenes of physical or emotional violence, but he is at heart, a very traditional, almost old fashioned moralist. Welles once described himself as a “moralist against morality”. And if we think of morality as being an active and dynamic engagement with the problems around us rather than a lazy and passive reliance on heart-warming clichés, truisms and received ideas promoted by organised religions, states, corporations or entertainment conglomerates, then Haneke is also that kind of rare and badly needed moralist. He asks the viewer not only how it feels, but what are you going to do to make it stop?

Michael Haneke – A Retrospective in Context was commissioned by the Institut Francais and the Austrian Cultural Forum in association with cine parallel

Lee Hill is the author of A Grand Guy: The Art and Life of Terry Southern.