Auteur Theory: Volume 2
Austria breeds weird filmmakers. They are a country lacking a large film industry, but one that encourages experimental filmmaking; they even put it on TV. If that happened in America, just flipping on the television to find some out of control flashing colors with droning voices on hand-processed super 8, I think there would be total screaming panic – so as one can imagine, the narrative filmmakers who come out of this country are a little bit warped.
Meet Michael Haneke! I think warped is an understatement. Born in Munich, an Austrian filmmaker, directing films in French, German, and English, Haneke has become a very worldly filmmaker, especially since his films often deal with family issues and human nature in universal ways. The absolute opposite of “feel good” movies, it is sometimes hard to derive any pleasure at all from a Haneke film, other than that of being intellectually stimulated. Violence, moral confrontation of the audience, somewhat sadomasochistic suggestions at times, as well as implied accusations of voyeurism hurled at the viewer, all act as a barrier to easy enjoyment of Haneke’s work.
He began making films in the late 80s, but the film that really got him noticed was Benny’s Video in 1992. And this is where the troubling theme all begins: Haneke seems to dislike people who watch movies. Benny’s Video is about a young kid who the audience is introduced to by witnessing him selling drugs in a church choir and watching The Toxic Avenger. He’s a well-off kid who is obsessed with a video he shot of a pig being slaughtered. The truly chilling thing about this film is that he is not portrayed as openly disturbed, but rather as extremely stoic, even when on a whim he murders a young girl. The murder is simplistic, viewed by the audience on a camera he keeps running in his room, on a screen within the screen, a motif which dominates Benny’s Video. One static shot depicts the entire murder and it is remarkably brutal. The film is equally about his parents as it is about Benny, and it is more of a family drama than a conventional horror film, despite how horrific it may be. The film is not made to entertain, but to present itself in Haneke’s slow, draining, and slightly meta style. Like all his films, it is a moral challenge.
The film that critically was probably his most successful, and also my first experience with Haneke, was Caché. Caché, or Hidden in English, deals with voyeurism in a much more forceful way than Benny’s Video, but here the audience becomes much more passively involved as they are able to displace their feelings in consideration of the unseen voyeur who is harassing the family the film is centered around. Violent drawings and videotapes of someone spying on their home begin to appear on their doorstep, and the father/husband character suspects it is linked to him. The film is about the uncovering of a man’s past mistakes, and it is both frightening and sad, as again we are confronted with the decay of a seemingly average family. Caché feels like a mystery or thriller, and it becomes increasingly fascinating as things are revealed. Haneke’s use of lengthy shots, both wide and static or fluid and rhythmic, make Cache quite beautiful to view. It is also his first feature shot digitally, which also lends itself to the theme of presentation being an important element, as anyone can pick up a DV camera and film another person. It is one of his easiest films to watch, and I do recommend it as a starting point.
And then there is Funny Games. His most popular film, or films, as in 2007 he did a shot-for-shot remake of the 1997 Austrian feature in America. I tend to view the later version as superior, with higher production values and just slightly better performances. That, and I feel Haneke really wanted a Hollywood-loving American audience for this one. Funny Games has a tendency to make people furious, probably because the title is a complete lie and it’s not funny at all. Manu critics berated him for making it, feeling the film was brutal and unnecessarily cruel to the viewer. The films are about two deranged young men, Peter and Paul, who come into the vacation home of a regular family, a mother, father, and son, and terrorize them, as a game. The game is a bet, the family is forced to bet they will live through the night, and Peter and Paul bet they won’t make. The concept is twisted, and what sounds like will be a fun thriller, is anything but fun, unless one is as deranged as the characters. Haneke draws you in with the promise of thrills and then dangles you around by your conscience. Paul breaks the fourth wall and questions the viewer directly, accusing you of wanting terrible things to happen.
A lot of people find this style insulting, as if after getting absorbed in the story Haneke is slapping you in the face, and condescendingly reminding you it’s nothing but a movie, and your participation is reprehensible. I feel it is more of a challenge to the audience to overcome the emotional connection one would normally make to characters. I view this because I want to, I am a thinking, analyzing, living being, you cannot scold me because I am committing no crime. Haneke assaults the audience and it is up to them whether they want to fight back, considering themselves and their own intentions in the viewing, and his films become a battle of wits between the maker and viewer. It is a fascinating experience, and I can think of no other director whose work can invoke similar feelings.
When I saw the American Funny Games in theaters, some guy answered a phone call during one of the lengthier shots and had a loud conversation. The theater was near empty, and I was so angry that I uncharacteristically stood up, turned around, and told him to shut up. Maybe that guy is the type of audience member that Haneke is targeting. Oblivious audience members, who enter a theater and shut their brains off. That ‘s the guy I like to think Haneke really wants to attack, and he’s waving his arms around, pompously hoping his words and images make a difference.
Or maybe he just hates everyone.