Red White Red: The films of Michael Haneke (2009)

“…seriously working upon the past, that is, through a lucid consciousness breaking its power to fascinate…” - Theodor Adorno - The Meaning of Working Through the Past

“I want to rape my spectators into autonomy.” – Michael Haneke

According to legend, the Austrian flag was invented during the Third Crusade by the Babenberg duke Leopold V. After a particularly gory battle outside the city of Acre, the duke found his tunic was completely drenched in blood. When he removed his belt, the cloth underneath was still white. So taken was he by this colour combination that he adopted it as his banner. In 1946, the provisional Austrian government, recognised by the Allies after the previous year’s surrender, published the Red-White-Red Book, an attempt to show that Austria was culturally completely separate from ‘Prussian’ Germany, and should be treated as “the first victim” of Nazism, “left in the lurch by the whole world”, rather than as a perpetrator of atrocities. The book was an early step in a deliberate national policy of obscuring Austria’s Nazi history, and the flag, with its connotations of violence, religious faith, purity and innocence, has played a role both in cementing the Austrian Second Republic as a cohesive Nation State, and in burying many things the country’s elite would rather forget about the Anschluss, the war and the subsequent decade of Allied occupation.

After the war the Allies largely bought into Austria’s mythology of victimhood, and the spectre of Soviet expansion dominated Western policy-making, so the denazification of Austrian society was at best half-hearted. By 1948, of the estimated half a million party members (out of a population of around seven million) only forty thousand were subject to any kind of sanctions, and most of those were pardoned by blanket amnesties at the end of the occupation in 1955. This meant that in all areas of public life there was continuity with the Nazi period. The official narrative had little to say about the country’s sixty-five thousand dead Jews, prefering a story in which Austrians of all religions and political persuasions had passively undergone a cataclysm in which all had suffered, whether in Mauthausen or at Stalingrad.

The generation of Austrian artists who grew up in the postwar years were forced either to adapt to their toxic national climate, or confront it head-on. The Viennese Actionists staged violent and sexual provocations. Feminist film-maker Valie Export imagined the capital as a city taken over by alien bodysnatchers. Writers such as Thomas Bernhard and the Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek pushed their prose to extreme levels of brutality and bitterness, railing against a cultural establishment which was busy retailing a chocolate-box Alpine idyll to the outside world, while retaining a tight grip on dissent. Austrian PEN, the writers’ organisation, was dominated by ex Nazis and ultra-orthodox Catholics who controlled prizes and state subsidy for publication well into the nineteen seventies. Bernhard’s disgust grew so powerful that he specified in his will that none of his work was to be published or performed in his native country. Until the late nineteen-eighties, the process of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, “working through the past”, the national accounting which was central to the transformation of postwar Germany, had barely begun.

It was against this background that the director Michael Haneke, who had produced a large body of theatre and television work, started to make feature films. His first, The Seventh Continent (1989), is probably the most succinct and unsparing condemnation of bourgeois consumer culture ever committed to celluloid. The plot is simple. We see a middle-class Viennese family, husband, wife and young daughter, going about their daily routines; they work, go to school, shop at the supermarket. Their life is materially comfortable, yet seems affectless and empty. Cracks appear round the edges. One day at school, the little girl pretends to be blind, for reasons her teacher finds hard to fathom. The wife’s brother bursts into uncontrollable tears at the dinner table. This stifling world is contrasted to a tourist poster of Australia, an image of a beautiful, desolate coastline. One day the parents announce they intend to emigrate to this remote utopia. We see the father quit his job and go to the hardware store to buy tools. The mother hoards prescription sleeping pills. Then they lock the door to their apartment and proceed, systematically and laboriously, to destroy all their possessions, cutting up clothes and family photos, smashing furniture, flushing currency down the toilet. Finally, they sit in the wreckage, watching Celine Dion perform on the last functioning thing in their home, a tv. One by one they swallow a lethal dose of pills. The father scrawls his wife and child’s time of death on the wall, then lies down and waits to travel to the seventh continent himself.

Haneke shows us this domestic tragedy with a lack of passion that edges far out into coldness, using long static shots to undermine drama, lingering on the material possessions that have come to define and dominate the lives of his protagonists. Most shockingly, for an audience accustomed to the conventions of mainstream cinema, he is entirely uninterested in providing a psychological explanation for their actions. Often the camera just frames body parts, metonmyic hands performing their work of destruction, consuming mouths and tv-watching eyes that seem less than fully alive. The absolute nihilism of the family’s suicide is also a desperate bid for freedom, for escape from the tyranny of kitsch – the ersatz relationships with objects that have subsituted for full human community in their lives. The sheer pitch of the anger that drives this grim story makes it difficult to watch, even as the film’s austere style damps down all sensationalism.

The Seventh Continent is the first in what has become known as Haneke’s ‘glaciation trilogy’, after the director’s claim that the films were intended as a reflection on the “progressive emotional glaciation of Austria.” His second feature, Benny’s Video (1992), presents the pampered teenage son of another wealthy Viennese family, an avid consumer of violent films and an equally-avid film-maker, who tapes his life on high-end equipment bought by his doting parents. One day he brings home a young girl, impressing her by showing footage of the slaughter of a pig he witnessed on a country holiday. She’s even more impressed when he produces a bolt gun. The two play a desultory game, and Benny shoots her. She falls out of frame, and we watch the rest of the protracted, horrific scene on a monitor that Benny has set up to relay a live feed of his bedroom. Benny pleads with the girl to stop screaming, then fires twice more to silence her. We see very little of the ‘action’, which mostly takes place out of shot. Afterwards Benny cleans up and calmly goes downstairs to raid the fridge. When his parents return, he shows them the tape. There is little discussion, no ethical debate, just a reflexive decision to cover up the crime . Benny’s mother takes him on a luxury holiday to Egypt. When they return his father has disposed of the corpse.

Similarly, 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994) centres on violence and emotional alienation. Told in the disconnected ‘fragments’ of the title, the narrative is based on a real life incident in which a nineteen year old student opened fire on customers at a bank. Haneke expands this into a portrait of Vienna as an environment of suppressed menace, its modernist architecture framing lives of anomie and desolation. A bitter old widower rails against his daughter. A withdrawn little girl is rejected by prospective foster parents. When a husband tells his wife he loves her, she is so shocked that she sneers at him. Mortified, he slaps her face. In one extraordinary three-minute shot, the future killer plays table-tennis against a service machine. The spectator is forced to pass from an intellectual reaction to the scene (discipline, mechanisation, the player’s repressed anger), through boredom and irritation at its duration, into a peculiar state of heightened awareness in which its very relentlessness becomes profoundly emotional.

The period of the glaciation films was bookended by two events which shattered Austria’s postwar silence. In 1986 the country elected the former UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim to the presidency. During the campaign, difficult questions were asked in the media about Waldheim’s wartime service in the Balkans, during which he was alleged to have been complicit in deportations and mass executions. The story received international attention, and Waldheim was banned from entering the US. The German media, in particular, mounted vicious attacks on Austria’s conspiracy of forgetfulness, and the country began a period of intense self-examination, much to the resentment of many conservatives, who felt that the nation should be allowed to move on. In 1989 the far-right leader of the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), Jörg Haider, was elected governor of Carinthia, causing widespread outrage because of his xenophobia and open admiration for the Third Reich. During the nineties the Balkan Wars brought an influx of refugees, and Austria, which had little experience of mass immigration, became increasingly polarised. Haider’s power and influence grew, until in 1999 the FPÖ was invited to become part of a coalition government. Immediately all fourteen of Austria’s EU partners withdrew their cooperation. The following year Haider was forced to step down.

Political neutrality and economic growth had been central to the postwar rebranding of Austria. As in Germany, the Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) had created a new prosperous urban bourgeoisie. Seen against the background of the culture wars of the nineties, Haneke’s vicious attacks on this class are more pointed than mere critiques of consumer society, an artistic staple throughout the Western world; they are an attempt to violate the state of amnesiac comfort that had given rise to the ski-tanned neofascism of Haider and his supporters – Vergangenheitsbewältigung by force. Haneke wasn’t even the most vocal proponent of artistic confrontation. Invited to write a play to celebrate the centenary of Vienna’s Burgtheater in 1988, Thomas Bernhard responded with Heldenplatz (Heroes Square), a blistering attack on Austria’s self-image that caused a national scandal, provoking accusations from the right that the playwright was nothing but a Nestbeschmutzer, a dirtier of the social nest. Elfriede Jelinek, who in her 2004 Nobel acceptance speech would refer to her country as a ‘criminal nation’ spent much of the nineties conducting a public war of words with Haider and the FPÖ. In the same period there were mass demonstrations at the Vienna Natural History Museum, which in the mid-nineties still had a ‘Race Gallery’ displaying waxworks of ‘higher and lower races’, and retained the skulls of murdered Jews and Polish partisans, collected as ‘scientific’ artefacts during the Nazi period.

Haneke followed the glaciation films with Funny Games (1997), which remains his most controversial and disturbing work. The usual wealthy Viennese family are on vacation at their luxurious lakeside villa. The mother opens the door to a pair of well-spoken, preppy young men in tennis whites. They turn out to be psychopaths, who imprison and torture them. The film offers no respite from the horror of the situation, which it follows to the bleakest possible conclusion. Along the way, it becomes clear that this isn’t merely a depiction of sadistic violence - as ever, Haneke’s camera avoids lingering on violent acts – but a film about the depiction of violence in movies. Not that this makes Funny Games any less traumatising, but then that seems to be Haneke’s point. In interview, the director described it as “a kind of counterprogram to Natural Born Killers” claiming that Oliver Stone’s cartoonish, sexy serial murderers exemplify Hollywood’s wish to make violence ‘consumable’, allowing the audience to take pleasure in it and avoid experiencing its real consequences for the victims. Like the work of Quentin Tarantino (and all the dross that’s followed in its wake, from Guy Ritchie to Eli Roth), there’s a knowingness to Stone’s gore, a postmodern referentiality, that explicitly invites a ‘cool’ distance from the other’s pain. Haneke, on the other hand, wants to implicate us in what we’re watching. Why, he wants to know, would any sane person buy a ticket to see this stuff?

Funny Games plays, with a certain dry relish, on our sympathies and expectations, offering gestures at genre plotlines (the last ditch-escape, the reversal of fortune), then unceremoniously squashing them. The killers aren’t even really characters. They refer to each other by a series of nicknames – Peter and Paul, Tom and Jerry, Beavis and Butthead. They’ve climbed out of the screen, mere functions, media effects. At intervals, the film breaks the illusion of naturalism. One of the pair makes asides to the audience, asking at one point whether we’ve had enough. In the film’s most infamous scene, the mother successfully grabs a shotgun and kills one of her tormentors. The survivor angrily hunts for the tv remote control. When he finds it, he ‘rewinds’ the scene, which plays again, coming out in his favour. As ever, the tortured burghers are not entirely innocent. Their attempts to flee are foiled by their own security systems – lighting and high gates – and there’s a clear implication that their smugness about their possessions and social status is in some way connected to the eruption of nihilistic horror, the return of the history they’ve had to repress to achieve their position.

Foreign critics, many of whom were repelled by Haneke’s film, claimed to detect in Funny Games traces of the very politics the director has opposed throughout his career. Reviewing it for The Village Voice, J. Hoberman wrote that "symptomatic of the fascist mind-set is the self-righteous application of a strict code of civility from which the ruler himself is naturally exempt … The most honest aspect of Haneke's movies is the evident satisfaction the director derives from the authoritarian aspects of his position.” Haneke’s fondness for didactic coercion and his lofty Adornian views on the debased nature of popular culture do seem to point to a certain arrogance. His notorious comment, repeated to more than one interviewer, that he wishes to ‘rape the spectator into autonomy’ has only strengthened the view of him as a Teutonic sadist, taking a perverse pleasure in his power over spectator and characters alike.

An Anglo-American audience, seeing merely a critique of video violence, could be forgiven for seeing Haneke’s provocations as tasteless and heavy-handed. However, the achievement of ‘autonomy’ (a key word in German anti-authoritarian politics) is precisely the goal of Vergangenheitsbewältigung. It’s worth returning to Adorno, evidently a hero of Haneke’s, who writes of the great difficulties in the work of dealing with the Nazi past: “Undoubtedly there is much that is neurotic … defensive postures when one is not attacked, intense affects when they are hardly warranted by the situation, an absence of affect in the face of the gravest matters, not seldom simply a repression of what is known or half-known.” All of this could be a description of the peculiar tone of Haneke’s films and suggests that a simplistic reading of him as a ‘humorless pedant’ (another verdict of The Village Voice) is wide of the mark.

Where Anglo –American critics detect a culpable lack of sympathy, Germans have acclaimed Haneke as an inheritor of Brecht, skilfully alienating the spectator from the material in order to provoke a critical, intellectual response. Indeed some have praised him for finding a way to continue Brecht’s project into the new century. Now that postmodernism’s stylistic free-for-all has inured audiences to the formal ‘alienation effects’ used in Brechtian Epic Theatre, Haneke has found other ways to wrong-foot the spectator, a peculiar combination of shock and deadening that blocks off most easy ways to ‘consume’ his bleak stories. However, Adorno’s powerful description of the neurosis that comes with working through the past suggests that there may be something less controlled than either of these versions of the director – the cold sadist or the cold Neo-Brechtian – allow. There is, in his films, an inability to deal with the pain of the world, a psychic wound whose display is not purely voluntary.

The Piano Teacher (2001) made few converts among those already hostile to Haneke’s project. Adapted from Elfriede Jelinek’s semi-autobiographical novel, it describes Erika, a woman trapped in various ways – by her domineering mother, with whom she lives, despite being in her forties, by her life as a tutor at the Vienna conservatory, and by her own profoundly-thwarted sexuality, which can only find expression in the enactment of extreme masochistic fantasies. By portraying, in Erika, the frozen heart of Vienna’s classical music establishment, Haneke was picking at another aspect of Austria’s carefully-constructed ‘brand’. His own love for musical high culture is central to his film-making, and he frequently presents classical music as an emotional vehicle for self-knowledge, contrasting it to what he sees as the debased aural kitsch of rock and pop. However he’s uncomfortably aware that his prefered route to authentic emotion is also a status signifier. The luckless family in Funny Games are first shown playing a ‘name that tune’ game in the car. In Benny’s Video, a choir of ‘innocent’ boy sopranos (among them the murderous Benny) sing a Bach motet (Trotz dem alten Drachen), while passing notes about a pyramid scheme. Hypocrisy is everywhere, and being a music-lover does not innoculate you against it. Erika has a special relationship with one of the key works of the Austrian canon, Schubert’s Winterreise song cycle. Haneke has described song seventeen, Im Dorf (In the Village) in which the traveller exhorts barking dogs to drive him away from the sleeping hamlet, because he doesn’t deserve rest, and is “zu Ende mit allen Träumen” (through with all dreams) as Erika’s “motto”. Her isolation is thus also a kind of disabused clarity. Her inability to feel ‘normally’ is also what sets her apart from the amnesiac ‘sleepers’ around her.

As Haneke’s reputation in Europe grew, he received invitations to collaborate with major stars of French cinema. Isabelle Huppert, Erika in The Piano Teacher, also plays the lead in Time of the Wolf (2003). Code Unknown (2000) is built around Juliette Binoche, and in Hidden (2005), Binoche is joined by Daniel Auteuil. With Haneke’s move to France, his work became less focused on anatomising Austrian society than in presenting a kind of pan-European moral landscape. These films seem less confrontational than Funny Games, less concerned with consumerism than the glaciation trilogy. The desire to shock the audience appears to have ebbed, to be replaced by a pervasive sense of tragedy, a more muted response to the concerns which have informed Haneke’s work since the beginning – the link between the personal and the political, the influence of the media, video surveillance, social control and the possibility of authentic human community.

Time of the Wolf, an underrated contribution to the post-holocaust science fiction genre (recently undergoing revival of serious cinematic interest with adaptations of Saramago’s Blindness and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road), shows Huppert attempting to shepherd her children through the blasted landscape of a near-future France, which has undergone an unspecified catastrophe. Society has broken down, and the brutal realities of power and heirarchy dominate the lives of the terrorised survivors. In Haneke’s Hobbesian nightmare there is (surprise!) no redemption. The director, so concerned in his earlier career with tearing down the social order, now appears to be weighing the positive value of civilisation. What remains beyond simple human acts of kindness and cruelty when all the apparatus of our sophisticated, mediated society is taken away?

Code Unknown uses the episodic style of story-telling that Haneke first deployed in 71 Fragments … Anne (Binoche), an actress, is in a stormy relationship with Jean, a war photographer. A chance event - Jean’s younger brother throwing a piece of trash into the lap of a Romanian beggar - opens up a constellation of interconnected stories, which show how macro-scale political concerns – war, immigration, policing – play out in individual lives. Built up from long, unedited takes, the film reads like a response to the mawkish and fundamentally dishonest multi-stranded narrative films recently popular in Hollywood, a genre particularly associated with the Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel, 21 Grams), but also including work such as Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia and Paul Haggis’s Crash. In these films, chance, coincidence and small personal epiphanies are woven into quasi-religious parables about providence and fate. This cheap transcendentalism offers a kind of fake consolation, an apolitical quietism which Code Unknown rejects out of hand. Sometimes communication fails, actions are meaningless, and redemption is out of stock at the supermarket. Questions about our ethical duties to one another cannot, for Haneke, be resolved by the application of a little aesthetic glitter. Instead they must be wrestled with, fought for, and the viewer must actively participate, instead of passively consuming the awe-inspiring spectacle of networked existence. In this, Haneke’s technique seems to relate to Roberto Bolaño’s vast (and equally bleak) novel 2666, which asks the reader to work at connecting disjointed narratives, much of the meaning residing in the ‘silences’ between its various sections.

Haneke has frequently quipped that he has ‘adapted’ Godard’s famous observation about cinema to read ‘film is a lie at 24 frames a second in the service of truth’. Hidden is an application of this thesis - that one may use the lying image to go beyond its lies - to a story about media ethics, visual representation and repressed memory. Georges (Daniel Auteuil) is a television intellectual (that most debased of Haneken types) who receives an anonymous video showing surveillance footage of his house. More videos soon arrive, and whoever is watching him seems to be implying that he has a secret to hide. Indeed he does, and his personal guilt is linked to one of the most shameful episodes in postwar French history – the murder of up to two hundred Algerian demonstrators by Parisian police in 1961. Under the direction of police chief Maurice Papon (later convicted of crimes against humanity for his actions under the Vichy regime during the second world war), gendarmes beat unarmed men and women, throwing some from bridges into the river Seine. Essentially Haneke is reprising his scolding of Austrian political amnesia for a French audience - Georges’s bad faith is a microcosm of his country’s.

Hidden perfects one of the director’s primary Neo-Brechtian techniques, also used to great effect in Code Unknown, in which we watch long sections of narrative, only to discover that they are ‘re-presentations’ – that what we’ve taken as immediate and genuine, as ‘first hand’ is in fact recorded or even being acted for a film crew. Haneke’s visual style, with its minimal use of montage, its absence of fast-cutting, its deliberate long slow takes, is a rejection of a duplicitous aesthetic he associates with television – in which, it must not be forgotten, he had a long career before turning to cinema. He seems to see the very power of his chosen medium as a problem, which must be broken before one can speak honestly, before cinema can present the world, as Heidegger wrote of Trakl, with “the austerity of letting be”.

Formal trickery is largely absent from The White Ribbon, Haneke’s latest film and in many ways his most traditional in feel. It won him the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and is due a widespread cinema release in the UK. Set in a North German village just before the outbreak of World War One, it presents a feudal society, dominated by the Junker baron, whose tenant farmers labour on his land, their moral welfare overseen by the unbendingly-rigorous pastor. Beneath the surface of this picturesque rural idyll is an atmosphere of simmering class resentment, directed both against the Baron and the Polish guest-workers brought in to complete the harvest. This suppressed malice soon erupts into horrific violence. The Baron’s young son is assaulted. Another child is blinded. In the absence of an obvious culprit, everyone becomes a suspect.

Told from the perspective of the village school teacher, a mild and ineffectual young man, the film’s closest cinematic ancestor is perhaps Le Corbeau, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1943 film about poison pen letters in a French village. Clouzot’s film (made by a German-run production company) was banned after the liberation for its perceived vilification of French rural communities, the preferred story being of a countryside united against a foreign invader, rather than the uncomfortable complexities of collaboration and resistance. Haneke’s aim seems to be to undermine a similarly-simplistic narrative of rural life in Imperial Germany, which in recent years has been the object of nostalgia, much in the way the mythical “endless summer” of Edwardian England has obscured the social divisions in the years prior to the Great War.

Shot in ravishing black and white, The White Ribbon makes references to the photographs of August Sander, particularly the famous image of three farmers on their way to a dance, which seems to be the film’s visual point of origin. Sander’s portraits of a cross-section of German society were uncongenial to the Nazis, and Haneke’s Sanderian borrowings, along with his beautifully composed landscape shots, particularly of fields of ripe wheat, are also pointed references to the visual aesthetic of fascism, and to the Heimat (homeland) films popular in postwar Germany and Austria, sentimental rural tales for nations undergoing the trauma of defeat. Though fascism is never directly addressed, we are made aware that the utopian agrarian idyll which formed the basis of so much Nazi fantasy was always a lie. The smiling blond school children will grow up to be the adults of the Third Reich. The ‘weisse Band’ of the title is an ironic symbol of innocence, tied by the pastor to his son’s arm as a pledge of purity- and used to strap his arms to the bed at night to prevent masturbation. It is also, perhaps, a nod to the moral and political problem of red-white-red, the tangled relationship between the profession of guiltlessness and the reality of violence that has dominated his film career from the start.

This essay was published in The Guardian