Monday, December 10, 2012

the Directors: Michael Haneke


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.

The Seventh Continent (1989)
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

Caché (2005)
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

Amour (2012)
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

In Summation
Masterful
The Seventh Continent
Code Unknown
Caché

Great
Benny’s Video
Funny Games
The Piano Teacher
Funny Games US
The White Ribbon
Amour

Good
71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance
Time of the Wolf

Eh
None

Just Plain Bad
None

Previous Director Profiles include:

42 comments:

  1. I've only seen a handful of his movies but I really loved Piano Teacher and Cache had an absolutely brilliant ending.

    I'm not a big fan of his, but he definitely has distinctive style and beautifully realistic characters in his movies.

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    1. Glad you liked those two, definitely two of my favorites ever. Cache is just so goddamn brilliant and The Piano Teacher is so unrelenting. Haneke loves making us squirm.

      Thanks for reading!

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  2. "Once you've seen a Haneke film, you've seen it forever."
    That is a quote I agree with utterly wholeheartedly, particularly in the case of the slow, masterful and haunting 'Seventh Continent'. I just haven't been able to get the final act out of my head since I saw it over the summer.
    Wonderful analysis that reminds I need to try and watch more of the Haneke DVDs I have over Christmas

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    1. Thanks man, I honestly think that quote sums his work up. They get in and stay.

      I love that you're going to spend part of your Christmas watching Haneke films. That's my kind of holiday.

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  3. Love this post. It's awesome that you give Funny Games US an A. That's definitely an interesting film.

    I'll have to see The Seventh Continent soon. Otherwise, I agree on your "masterful" picks.

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    1. Thanks man! Funny Games (both of them) really rocked me, but the US version was my first Haneke, and I'll simply never forget it. When that heavy metal kicked on in the beginning... I knew I was in for something I'd never seen.

      Cannot recommend The Seventh Continent highly enough. It is marvelous.

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  4. From what I've seen. Here's how I rank Haneke's films so far.

    1. Cache
    2. The White Ribbon
    3. The Piano Teacher.

    I did see bits of the U.S. version of Funny Games but the reason I'm avoiding it is because I want to see the original version first and then see the U.S. version. Then I want to go for everything else after I see Amour. I also want to check out Haneke's other works on TV. If there's anything that I do in my Auteurs series, I'm a goddamn completist.

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    1. Ha, a completist you are, my friend! I used to see EVERYTHING a director had ever done for this series, but then I realized it was becoming more of a chore, so I only stick to theatrical, feature length films. I'll occasionally throw in a short or made-for-TV flick for good measure, but features is a good place to stay. For me.

      Very interested to hear your thoughts on Amour. It's tough.

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  5. Your excellent post has convinced me I need to watch more of his films.

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    1. Wow, thanks man! I really hope you enjoy discovering his work. There's simply nothing like it.

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  6. I have to watch Cache. I have seen 5 of these, and The Piano Teacher has gone on to become one of my favourites. The White Ribbon however joined the elite group of films that went completely over my head.

    As much as I appreciate his films, I don't think I can ever rewatch any of them, except maybe The Piano Teacher.

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    1. Okay, your final sentence is fascinating to me. All of Haneke's films are tough, but none are more grueling to me than The Piano Teacher. So the fact that you'd pick THAT one to watch again is very very intriguing. Hey, we like what we like!

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  7. Awesome post, Alex! It's so fun to relive the Haneke films I've seen through your flawless writing.

    I can't wait to see the Seventh Continent and Code Unknown. I'm scared to see either version of Funny Games but I loved reading your comparison of the two. How often are movies remade so closely like this with the same set and everything? Could be an interesting topic for another post. ;-)

    I love the powerful use of dreams in Haneke's films. He really blurs of the boundaries btw dreams and reality and leaves us questioning not only the "why" of reality, but also the "why" of dreams.

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    1. Aw thanks so much! Really glad you've been enjoying his films.

      Both The Seventh Continent and Code Unknown are remarkable... you'll honestly never forget them. Funny Games... we've talked about them, I really don't think they're for you. Funny Games US is by far the best shot-for-shot remake I've ever seen. (And a post on that is coming soon!)

      Very interesting thoughts about Haneke's depiction of dreams. He loves meshing the two together and presenting varied points of view. So unique.

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    2. The last paragraph in your comment, on the use of dreams, REALLY intrigues me. And I love the way you expressed that. I need to come check out your blog. ;-)

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    3. Ha, thanks! His dreams arte never obvious, and a lot of times, you don't really know if you're watching a dream or not. Very very interesting. Cache does this quite well.

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  8. Hmmm ... I'm still mulling over your response to my comment on your last post -- you said these films are something that I of all people would appreciate. Or something to that effect. Curious what you meant by that. :-) Maybe after I see a few of his movies, it'll make sense.

    Even though I can see that you've been careful to avoid spoilers, I decided just to skim most of this post for now. I'd like to start forming my own impressions before reading any more about Haneke's work. I'll be back.

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    1. How about I use one of your recent posts as case in point :)

      Cinematic realism, morally ambiguous characters, philosophical perspectives, raw emotion, thrillers (and, to a lesser degree, surrealism and dysfunctional families), these are all things that define Haneke's films. They are raw, honest, devastating, but, perhaps most importantly, real. And I get the impression that you enjoy real cinema. So, that's all I meant!

      Can't wait to hear what you think of some of these!

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    2. Hah! Got it! ;-) I figured that was probably what you meant, but not having watched any of Haneke's movies, and having decided to wait to read this post in detail, I wasn't sure.

      Cinematic realism, morally ambiguous characters, philosophical perspectives, raw emotion, thrillers (and, to a lesser degree, surrealism and dysfunctional families.

      Did you remember all that off the top of your head? Impressive! I had a sharp memory up through my mid-20s. Then I started having kids ...

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    3. Ha! Wow, that was hilarious. I typed them all out from memory, then went back to make sure I had them all right (also had forgotten raw emotion, which is the most important one concerning Haneke).

      Hope you get a chance to watch a few soon!

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    4. Thanks! I will. I think I'm most interested in Cache.

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  9. For me:

    Seventh Continent A-
    Benny's Video B
    Funny Games A
    Code Unknown A-
    The Piano Teacher B+
    Time of the Wolf B
    Cache A+
    Funny Games (US) B-
    The White Ribbon A-
    Amour A-

    Top 5

    Cache
    Funny Games
    Code Unknown
    The White Ribbon
    Amour

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    1. Nice. So we're kinda in the same ball park here. I mean, you certainly don't seem to hate any of them or anything. Funny Games US is where we differ most, but shit, no argument from me on that one.

      Thanks for sharing man, always love your insight.

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  10. Haneke is an amazing filmmaker. I have woken up feeling distressed after The Seventh Continent, Funny Games, Code Unknown, Cache and Amour. They get under my skin and don't leave quickly.

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    1. No sir, they certainly do not. Dude knows how to craft a film that digs in deep and doesn't pretend to leave. Love all of his films.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

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  11. I've been meaning to see The Piano Teacher and Funny Games for a long time, I should try to get hold of the DVDs- I didn't knew Haneke directed both versions of Funny Games, but I think I will watch the American one, just for the language and actors.

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    1. I do prefer the American version, but just barely. Either way, it is a very very tough film. Make sure you let me know what you think!

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  12. I've only seen Cache and White Ribbon, but my God are they fantastic. It took me a while to warm up to Cache, but White Ribbon struck a chord with me right away. It is already in my top 10 films of all time. I need to see Amour and more of his past works ASAP.
    Also love that you mentioned his love of the names Georges and Anna (sort of like Bergman with Karin and Vogler).

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    1. I LOVE that The White Ribbon hit you right off - that is precisely what happened to me too. As soon as it was done, I thought: Wow, that is something right there.

      I really do love all of his films. Be really curious to hear your thoughts on his other works.

      Georges and Anna rock (all of them)!

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  13. Absolutely fantastic post. Haneke is my favourite living and working filmmaker and my second favourite director of all time after Bergman. I love all of Haneke's films, and Code Unknown is my favourite. Utterly fascinating film, I am definitely going to do a shot-by-shot study sometime soon. Also, I cannot wait to see Amour, it is killing me having to wait so long for it. Awesome work Alex.

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    1. Thanks man, glad you like it. Can't even lie, I was hoping you'd read this one. I know how much you love Haneke, so I was curious to hear your input here.

      I'd love to read your shot-by-shot breakdown of Code Unknown. Movie is remarkable.

      Amour is so different from anything he's done, but oh so... Haneke.

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  14. I have just come across the post in preparement to watch Amour next week, I have seen Cache both version of Funny Games, The Piano Teacher, Benny's Video and The White Ribbon. I gave my copy of Funny Games (US Version) to my folks thinking they will hate me and they loved it more then my friends. Great Job

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    1. Ha shit, that is brilliant. I seriously love that your parents loved it. You just never know who's going to connect with Haneke.

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting! Glad you're a Haneke fan.

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  15. Just watched The Seventh Continent, and you're right, floored me :)
    Definitely prefer it to Amour-which I think is overrated.

    I'll probably go with the US version of Funny Games, since you say they are almost shot-for-shot the same. The clips I've viewed remind me of Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange.
    Also going to try and catch Caché (2005) soon, another Haneke I've missed.

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    1. Nice man. That movie just knocks the wind out of you, doesn't it? I honestly don't know if I could bring myself to watch it again. Just so intense.

      Definitely can't go wrong with Funny Games US and especially Caché. Essential Haneke right there.

      Thanks for coming back and letting me know what you thought!

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  16. Nice article, I've slowly been making my way through Haneke's filmography but while I have found the ideas and characterizations in his movies always interesting, I can't say that I have the same level of adoration for what I've seen as you seem to. While I agree with Amour (which I apparently don't seem to like as much as everyone else "shrugs") and for the most part for The Seventh Continent, I actually found the extended Egypt sequence in Benny's Video to almost ruin the entire film for me because it was so extended and dull (imo). I plan on watching his other work as well - I'm actually finishing up the original Funny Games as I type this, but it's nice to read a thoughtful perspective on his work.

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    1. Thanks so much for your comment. I do agree that the Egypt sequence in Benny's Video slows things down a tad too much, but, in the end, I was still utterly blown away by that film.

      I am glad to hear that you're a fan of Haneke's work, and believe me, his films were not ones that I loved right away. They grew on me with time. You've still have some excellent ones to see yet. Hope you like them.

      Again, thanks so much for stopping by and leaving such an insightful comment. I really do appreciate it.

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  17. is there any reason why the castle isn't on here?

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    1. Couldn't get a hold of it when I wrote this post. Have seen it since and loved it.

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  18. The Seventh Continent made me feel physically sick. When it was over I genuinely considered snapping my disk, trashing it as far away as possible and never thinking about it again. Such is the power of a truly special film.

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    1. Yep, it's fucking brutal, that one. Still the Haneke film I value most. I had no idea where it was going... and then it went.

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