In my recent review for Michael Haneke’s film, Amour, I made mention of the fact that Michael Haneke is many things, chiefly the master of tension. (Not a, the.) All of his films depict real people in real situations, but they depict them in such a way that it forces the viewer to reflect unpleasantly.
The characters in his films are plagued by What Ifs and How Do You Knows. The result for many (but certainly not all) is a slim filmography of essential works of cinematic art. Point in fact, I could make a strong argument that Michael Haneke has a more deliberate style of filmmaking than anyone currently making movies. Tediously paced and uncomfortably numb, Haneke’s films dare you to ask and force you to listen.
It’s not in my nature to be mysterious, at least as it relates to films I love. It is, however, in my nature to intrigue.
That disclaimer has been issued for one simple reason: I cannot in good conscience reveal anything about Haneke’s startling debut. It is so purposeful and aware – so in tuned to precisely what it hopes to achieve, that divulging any details whatsoever would be criminal. I will say that The Seventh Continent is about a family living their lives in the same exact mundane ways as most people do. Now, however mundane their lives may be, this film certainly is not. Ten superb movies are to follow in this post, but I have no problem hailing The Seventh Continent as Haneke’s best. It’ll floor you. A+
Benny’s Video (1992)
All of Haneke’s films contain sudden moments of realistic violence (physical, emotional, or otherwise), that are often impossible to predict. If I talk about them here, then the mystery is shattered. But if I’m too vague, then perhaps you won’t give enough of a shit to bother with the movie at all. For the case of Benny’s Video, I’ll tread lightly by giving just enough before fleeing.
Benny is…odd. A quiet teenager who keeps to himself and his many videos, there’s a threat of violence that’s always eminent with him. We never feel safe, and soon into the picture, we certainly know why. While his parents are out of town, Benny invites a friend over, kills her and then simply goes about his day. A few scenes later, his parents return and everything is fine. What did Benny do with the body? What is he going to do with the video that captured the crime? All questions you’ll ask, along with the other, far more important one: Why, Benny? Why? A-
71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994)
The title pretty much sums it all up here. Throughout this 96 minute long film, Haneke gives us 71 seemingly random scenes that at first have nothing whatsoever to do with one another. That is, until they do.
After a while, the kid we saw hitching a ride on the back of a giant truck is now eating out of a dumpster. The guy who stole a shitload of guns from a store is now selling them to various people. And so it is and so it goes.
Perhaps the most telling scene in the film involves a man and woman silently eating dinner. After a brief moment, he quietly says “I love you,” which angers her. She explains that the only reason he said it was because he must wants something. He abruptly slaps her. Pause. (They don’t know what to do.) After a few moments, they continue eating. This level of random flatness may seem maddening to some viewers, but we’re in the world of Haneke, here. Maddening is his game. B+
Funny Games (1997)
The most well known film of Haneke’s career (at least as it relates to American audiences at the time of the film’s release) is his American remake of his own Funny Games. That was the first Haneke film I saw, and immediately after I watched it, I knew I had to track the original version down as soon as possible.
Let me back up. The set-up of Funny Games is simple, the execution is horrendous. Two apparently kind teenagers dressed in all white appear at the summer home of a wealthy German family. Husband Georg, wife Anna, and their young son Georgie offer a warm welcome to the boys, before things get very ugly very fast. Within minutes, each member of the family is rendered helpless as the teens explain that they want to make a bet. They want the family to bet that they’ll be alive by the morning, and the teens bet that they won’t. What develops is 90 some odd minutes of emotional torture that is utterly unbearable.
Haneke said the reason he made this movie was to call out the American film industry specifically, for its frequent depiction of gratuitous violence in movies. Although the family in Funny Games is subjected to physical violence, the film never shows any of it. We hear, and discover after. That’s the exercise. That’s the brilliance. A-
Code Unknown (2000)
Perhaps Haneke’s most interesting film, Code Unknown is the slow examination of how the slightest act can alter lives forever.
Its first scene takes place in one shot over several minutes, following famous actress Anne (Juliette Binoche) as she meets her boyfriend’s younger brother, Jean on the street. They talk briefly before Anne walks away. Shortly after, Jean, who we sense is as brash as most teenagers are, pointlessly and crudely throws a piece of garbage on a homeless woman. A young, Malian man witnesses this, and a fight breaks out between he and Jean. Anne runs back to break it up, the cops don’t know who to trust, and from this point on, the lives of the four main people involved are forever altered.
And that’s just the first 10 minutes. There is much more to discover here, including an infamous scene on a subway, in which innocent heckling quickly turns into as haunting a moment as I’ve ever seen filmed, but, like the best of Haneke’s work, Code Unknown is far better off being discovered for yourself. A+
The Piano Teacher (2001)
If there’s one thing Michael Haneke loves, it is slowly revealing to his audience what makes one of his depraved characters so damaged. And for my money, the most depraved character of Haneke’s career is Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert), the titular teacher in this unrelenting film.
Under her confident, if not cold demeanor, Erika is a woman on the verge. Emotionally wounded from her live-in overbearing mother, Erika elects to combat her sexual repression by physically mutilating herself and frequenting sex shops to privately indulge in the smell of used tissues. When she acquires a well-to-do male teenage student, an attraction instantly forms, one that excites him, and terrifies her.
Isabelle Huppert is as fine an actress working in films. The fearlessness she exudes in every frame of The Piano Teacher is something that deserved to be recognized by every major awards outlet. It was not, but don’t let that deter you. I’m not saying The Piano Teacher is easy viewing (far from it), but necessary for those interested in character studies of the macabre. A
Time of the Wolf (2003)
In the first scene of Time of the Wolf, a family arrives at their summer home and is frightened to find another family occupying it. Moreover, the squatters appear to be more upset by the intrusion than the homeowners, only adding to the confusion of the moment. An argument occurs, tragedy quickly takes hold, and we’re left in the mindset of the homeowners: What the hell is going on here?
Time of the Wolf takes place in a world in which unmentioned calamity has occurred, which has every character we meet fighting for their lives. Why isn’t really the question here, but rather What. As in, let’s move past why this happened and focus on what the fuck we’re going to do now. Although Time of the Wolf is Haneke’s least probing effort, it’s a grueling analysis of what we do when pushed to the edge. B
You receive an unmarked video at your doorstep. You watch the video and discover that it’s a two-hour shot of your front door. The video captures your wife leaving that morning, and you leaving shortly after. No note, no demands, just the video.
And so I ask, what would you do?
That’s the nagging question that slowly eats at already troubled married couple Georges and Anne (Haneke loves those names, by the way). They receive another video, and another, each increasing in sentimentality. For instance, one video is an extended tracking shot from the driver’s seat of a moving car. The car stops and the camera quickly pans left to reveal Georges’ childhood home. Forget blood and guts and ghosts and demons, THAT is the shit that scares me. Watching Caché, Haneke forces us, as always, to see it from the perspective of his characters. I’m not entirely sure how I’d react if I received those tapes, but Georges and Anne’s slow crumble (first of their marriage, then of themselves) proves to be as accurate and painful as anything I could imagine.
Why is certainly a big question here, but the more obvious one is Who. Who indeed. A+
Funny Games US (2007)
What a ballsy move this was. Not many Americans saw Haneke’s original Funny Games; there simply wasn’t an outlet for it. Knowing this, and growing increasingly appalled by America’s fascination with torture porn films like Saw and Hostel, Haneke elected to remake his controversial film using identical sets, the same shot list, different actors, and the English language.
And really, with the exception of the actors and the language they’re speaking, damn near everything is the same here. The story, the dialogue, the terror – it all resonates in this shot-for-shot remake. Why then do I find this version immensely more terrifying? Easy, because there are no subtitles to read. There’s nothing distracting me from staring directly at the images on screen. Naomi Watts’ bold, gut-wrenching work helps as well, but with Funny Games US, Haneke slammed his point home. He made something terrifying without showing us anything blatantly terrifying. For better or worse, Funny Games US is American voyeurism at its most ruthless. A
The White Ribbon (2009)
Shortly before the dawn of World War I, random acts of violence are plaguing a small, Protestant German village. As the acts become more frequent, their randomness becomes less of a mystery. There’s a reason this small town is being so devilishly deceived, and if you think Haneke is the kind of man to spell out why, then you’d be better suited elsewhere.
Shot in gorgeously stark black and white, The White Ribbon collects Haneke’s most diverse ensemble and shows their differing reactions to crimes of such senselessness. There’s the strict pastor who demands continual discipline (and is as terrifying as the Bishop from Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander), the doctor who is kind to his patients, but ungodly ruthless to those who care for him, the innocent schoolteacher who narrates the ordeal decades later, and, of course, the children who may or may not be behind it all.
Haneke always casts his films flawlessly, but specific mention needs to be made for the kids who appear in this film. Their tired faces, their stoic eyes – they all look so… exacting and spiteful. But why?
Much has been made of the fact that, if you do the math, the children in this film represent the generation of people who would become Nazis. That’s interesting, and while Haneke asserts that was intentional, he says that isn’t what the film is about. No, of course not. A
Many are calling Amour the best film of Haneke’s career. It is currently netting plenty of critics awards, and is sure to earn Haneke a place at the Academy Awards ceremony in February. But for every person who hails it as great, there are just as many who call it too real. Too painful and accurate. Claims that are hard to disagree with.
The film tells the story of an old married couple, Georges and Anne (again), and how Georges reacts in the months after his wife falls suddenly and irreversibly ill. Flawless actors Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva make the film flourish as well as it does, but there’s certainly no escaping this film’s anguish.
I’d dare say that the majority of movie-going audiences to go movie theaters to be entertained (as box offices numbers usually suggest). Many enjoy independent film, and foreign ones at that. But a film like Amour is understandably too much for some to bear. In terms of physical violence, Amour is Haneke’s tamest effort by far. But emotionally, you’ll be hard pressed to force Georges and Anne out of your mind even if you try. Once you’ve seen a Haneke film, you’ve seen it forever. A
The Seventh Continent
The Piano Teacher
Funny Games US
The White Ribbon
71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance
Time of the Wolf
Just Plain Bad
Previous Director Profiles include:
Paul Thomas Anderson
the Coen Brothers
David O. Russell
Paul Thomas Anderson
the Coen Brothers
David O. Russell