The first time I saw a Micheal Haneke film I was fourteen. Late at night I stumbled across a story, whose title I had missed, about a somewhat reclusive young boy obsessed with violent images, including his own home made video of a pig being killed on a relatives’ farm. A deconstruction of the media, it’s violent draw and the moral reactions of those who rely on it’s power unfolds as Benny plots and kills a friend on camera. The coldness of the picture unsettled me and I would remember it’s images for years to come, never able to find the film again, or its name.
I wouldn’t see Benny’s Video again until 12 years later, though, when I did, it’s power had not diminished. I had remembered the murder and it’s lead up, the more obviously off putting aspects of the film, but perhaps the most horrifying part was forgotten about. It was the reaction Benny’s Mother and Father and the depiction of our own willingness to literally sweep horror and its affect (in life and in cinema) under the rug; Or in the case of Benny’s Video, down the sink.
With that in mind it has usually taken me several watches of most of Haneke’s work to unravel not his plots but his methods and their meaning with regard to each specific “mystery”. This theme in Haneke’s work is his hook. In playing with the audience’s preconceptions of violence and horror, of expectation and patience, he has methodically built a cannon of films which are confounding, frustrating and genuinely affecting. His playfulness (if you can call it that) often divides, his framing leaves some people frustrated but his purpose and his fearlessness can not be ignored.
Haneke’s latest offering (and perhaps his most accomplished) is no exception. In beautiful searing monochrome The White Ribbon sets us down in turn of the century Germany and plays out a series of mysteries; Some gentle and some terrible. It airs it’s anxieties out through the characters who inhabitant a small rural village and it’s subtle dread, though often not immediately identified, helps the film to grow into an almost unfathomable puzzle. With the pre-emptive darkness of the first World War looming we watch the hypocrisy and the fears of the town’s people through the unflinching eye’s of its young children.
It’s a truely affecting and masterly made film and, to quote Lars Von Trier, it does what all mysteries should, it remains “a pebble in your shoe”. But, with much already written about The White Ribbon (including a great review by www.t5m.com’s very own Nick Clarke) I feel I can add no more except in saying: See it now.
Haneke’s treatment of his audience through his films has taken a fair amount of flack from critics. In particular his dissection of violence in the twice made Funny Games (1997 & 2008) and his insistence in creating an audience who are forced to become self aware accomplices to the villains in film. The techniques Haneke uses to achieve this are often written about as ‘raping’ the audience but in fact succeeds in turning societies complacency with regards to screen violence on it’s head more than any film of recent memory.
But, does the director actually ‘cheat’ his audience?
It’s a vicious accusation which, in typical Haneke fashion, the man himself will certainly not dispute. His intent is often blunt (The Seventh Continent and Benny’s Video) but it’s his intelligent, well placed volley back to Jean-Luc Goddard stating that “Cinema is in fact 24 lies per second” that subtly underpins his penchant for manipulation and has seasoned his entire career as one of our most important film makers.
Starting relatively late in his life Haneke made his first film at the age of 47. The blisteringly confident and all together harrowing The Seventh Continent puts us within a family who, bored with their mundane existence, decide to methodically destroy all of their worldly possessions and themselves. The film was a well received, slow burning primal scream but despite its greatness, and later, the controversy surrounding Benny’s Video and the audacity of 71 fragments, it wasn’t until Funny Games that the rest of world would take notice of the Austrian Auteur.
His output since has remained consistently affecting. Disassembling the rules of cinema became paramount in the masterful Code Unknown (2000) which entwines a handful of characters and plots, escalating due to one heated argument on a Parisian street. Haneke, this time purposely messes with our expectation of a reliance on conclusion and our safety in it so much so that each scene is often cut mid sentence. The tension of the film becomes about waiting for something that, due to our ‘learned notions’ of cinema, is impossible to pre-empt.
What many regard as Haneke’s most immediately confronting film and perhaps his only real misfire thus far respectively, The Piano Teacher (2001) and Time of the Wolf (2003) somehow seem like departures from his taught static and probing form of story telling; Especially after the testing mysteries and disregard for mainstream rules that would return in 2005’s hit, Hidden. In The Piano Teacher Isabelle Huppert gives one of the greatest performances of the decade as a sexually frustrated and complex woman who begins an masochistic affair with her 17 year old student. She stars again as a mother trying to protect her family in the post cataclysmic Time of the Wolf but although the film has some trademark visual elements of his best work, as a whole film it feels without purpose alongside such a strong filmography.
Fan’s of the director’s work would scream the same when the U.S transposed remake of Funny Games was announced in 2006. He would defy his critics, saying later: “I did the first film for an American audience, for an audience consuming violence. And it only didn’t reach that audience because it was in German… I wanted to give myself a certain challenge, I wanted to make it a little bit more demanding for myself…” And so in remaking his own film shot for shot he became a director obsessively testing his own patience for the rules of cinema as much as his audiences.
So, with The White Ribbon making a play for my favorite film of the year I’ve felt drawn to revisit some of the Haneke’s earlier work and in doing so have, again, unconcovered no real answers, just more and more layers of mystery, horror and genius.
…and that in itself is my reason to implore you to do the same.