Towards the end of Michael Haneke’s Caché (Hidden, 2005), there is a calamitous event, a moment so terrible and unexpected that it elicits a collective gasp from the audience. (1) Earlier in the film, a dinner-party scene has served as an opportunity for Haneke to demonstrate the mechanics of the shock moment. A guest tells a shaggy-dog story based on the principle of coincidence, a device that, despite its obvious absurdity, builds a sense of the uncanny before the punch-line is delivered. It is a lovely example of playful “schlock” versus the deadly seriousness of “real” shock (the moment that is to come later in the film), and of the way in which the act of storytelling produces a particular relationship between narrator and listener.
Hidden is a film that has generated heated debate and polarised audiences as no other film has done for some time. (2) So it is interesting to consider whether its mode of storytelling – one that solicits a different form of audience interaction from most contemporary films – has played a part in the intense “love” or “hate” response.
The title sequence opens with a view across a street to a house. It is daytime and there is an initial impression of silence, although, in fact, there is distant, echoey birdsong and the low continuous drone of distant traffic that functions as a strange, almost subliminal, unidentifiable undertone.
Then, as the credits begin to roll, certain sounds are foregrounded: what seems to be bird wings flapping; a car passing, but not in view; and we see and hear a schoolboy walking past the house and out of sight. As the title Caché comes up, the uneasy tone persists, along with the occasional cheerful chirp of a bird. There are muffled noises as the credits fade. Then, there is a gurgling sound, perhaps that of a pigeon; a door slams, followed quickly by the metallic sound of another (grille) door shutting, as a woman emerges and turns right, walking out of sight. The pigeon-like noise is heard again as a cyclist appears, and we hear the sound of his tyres on the road as he wheels around in front of us and out of frame.
Little has happened. We continue to look across at the house, but now an unseen man and woman are heard discussing the content of a plastic bag that has been left on their front porch, a conversation intermittently interspersed with the sounds of cars passing. In contrast to the preceding sounds, the voices are clear, close, intimate and devoid of the echo or reverb that has washed over the soundtrack until now. They “hover over” the static scene rather than fit within it as the birds, footsteps and bike have done. Then there’s a rustling sound associated with the bag and a door slams again. The woman’s raised voice asks, “What’s wrong?”, and, as she speaks, a woman appears and we see her from behind as she crosses the street towards the house. Descending footsteps are heard and there is the sound of a door slamming again.
Suddenly, day has become night-time and there is a changed perspective of the house. We have relocated from the vantage point across the street to a closer view of it, as a man emerges and walks across the street. While previously the house was viewed from the one fixed perspective, now we take the point of view of the man as he looks down the lane and comments: “He must have been there, no?” The woman’s voice calls, “Come inside!”, and he crosses the street back to the house. As he does so, the undertone becomes overtone and previously muffled sounds, the birds and the traffic, become clear and sharp, a match for the disembodied voices we have been hearing. It may be that, as we have moved in towards the house, we are hearing the rustle of the wind in the front hedge, the leaves of which appear to ripple, but we can’t be certain of the source of the sound and the rustling becomes a “musical” shimmer, an aural equivalent of the unnerving visual shift.
Then, as the door clicks shut, suddenly it is daytime and we have resumed our position opposite the house, as we hear the man and woman continue their discussion about the parcel they have received. A short time later, our view of the house and street becomes distorted as the image begins to break up, and we become aware that we have been watching a videotape (rather than film reality) and that it is playing in the house of Anne (Juliette Binoche) and Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil) – the house that has been under surveillance from a hidden camera.
The protracted and static take that opens the film gives us an elongated sense of time that approximates real time and this, along with the minimal action within the frame, allows us to enter the space of the film and pay attention to sound and image in a manner not possible in an action-dominated thriller. Our apprehension of the slowness of the opening sequence in relation to most contemporary films is also related to the absence of a score to modify our sense of the passage of time. And, in the absence of music, the disquieting tone provides a sense of cohesion while, at the same time, functioning to disturb the daytime normality of the suburban street. The opening sets up the way atmospheres are to be used throughout the film. Thus, natural tones – the hum of traffic, the buzz of country insects and the airy silence of rooms – often take the place of the traditional film score, creating unsettling ambiences, tension and anxiety. (In many ways, these “natural” tones function as do the electronically synthesized tones in David Lynch films, such as Lost Highway, 1997, and Mulholland Dr., 2001. (3))
Because the film begins with an extended shot that seems to be showing unmediated “real” life (it continues uninterrupted under the credits, stressing the normality, the unstoppability of the everyday), the viewer is unprepared for, and confused by, the disrupted image as the tape rewinds. Retrospectively, the sense of immediacy that the close-sound perspective of the skid of the cyclist’s tyres give us is a clue to the nearby presence of the hidden camera, but other possible indicators of the surveillance activity – the use of the stationary camera and uncut footage – are to be shown to be unreliable guides by later, shorter tracking shots.
Much of our confusion derives from the smooth transitions between “video” and film formats. (4) While seamless editing is part of the illusionism of conventional movies, in Hidden it functions as a defamiliarising device. The move from the day into night and its subsequent reversal has a trompe-l’œil effect, although paradoxically there is no real cheating of the eye, and, if close attention is paid to the sound, it will be seen that there is a narrative explanation for these uncanny visual shifts located in the slams and clicks of the door opening and shutting as Georges emerges, crosses the street and then goes back inside the house. But because we are conditioned to pay more attention to the image than the soundtrack, we may have difficulty establishing the precise crossover point between the two orders of time.
The different temporal orders that come into play at the start of the film have the effect of positioning us differently to most movies. The tension between the time of the present, the narrative reality, and the time of the past, the replay of taped reality, functions to disrupt the narrative flow in several ways. First, the present tense that characterizes the overall temporality of movies is frequently under check and, second, the replaying of the surveillance tape interferes with the subjunctive mode of the thriller, its predication on what is to come, because of the continual return to that which has already occurred. (5)
To further add to our confusion, we become aware as the film proceeds that the “present” is also probably being recorded by the hidden camera, while the vacillation between tape and narrative reality produces confusion as to what and whose points of view we are given throughout the film – and our recognition that, at times, the watching involves the uncomfortable sensation that we, too, are somehow implicated in the surveillance activity. This awareness complicates the more straightforward, even if varying, identification with characters usually proffered to us by the thriller or detective movie. The instability of the audience’s position is one of the many ways that Hidden generates the sense of uncertainty that characterizes the film as a whole.
While all narratives use some repetition as part of their structuring process and genres, in particular, draw on stereotypes that involve repetition, Hidden’s particular emphasis on the device – the replay of video footage and the near doubling of many sounds, images, motifs and situations throughout the film – has an uncanny effect, not the least because it frequently occurs unexpectedly and may even not be consciously perceived. Hence, when in a later night scene the sound related to the hedge is repeated, we may interpret it as a signifier of the house as being in some way “unhomely” or contaminated – or, perhaps, perceived to be so by Georges because it occurs as he nears the threshold. It may also be an allusion to the similar unnerving “shimmer” of the wind in the leaves of the trees in the park sequence of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (1966), but, if so, it accrues a different signification through repetition. (6) And while the gurgling sound and the faint flapping of wings can be identified retrospectively as sound flashbacks to the film’s central traumatic event, even then the earlier positioning of the sounds may not make narrative sense. Similarly, there’s a double twist to the dinner party shaggy-dog story. The dénouement involves an “injury” to the narrator’s neck and such an injury is to be a motif through out the movie’s “real” story, prefiguring the tragedy to come.
Just as Haneke shows us how it is possible to manipulate different layers of fiction, he also disorients us by the interplay between conscious and unconscious subjectivity. Flashes of nightmarish hallucinations are inter-cut with disorienting rapidity. They surface when we least expect them, and it’s hard to establish whether they are part of a character’s waking or dreaming life, and even, initially, to whom they belong. These interruptions to the flow of the narrative have the effect of denying us the kind of identification with characters that we’re accustomed to experiencing.
Haneke has said of Hidden:
It basically develops like a classic thriller. Thrillers always work with fear. You have a cell. Then a letter arrives, a cassette or even a packet with a head in it and it all takes off from there. In the process, you learn a lot of things about the inner world of this cell and its social infrastructure. (7)
The videotape that arrives unexpectedly on the doorstep of the Paris household of Georges, Anne and their son, Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky), shows that their house and their comings and goings are under surveillance. Its arrival throws the household (the “cell”) into a state of disequilibrium and, as more parcels – including the addition of strange drawings – arrive, Georges and Anne’s anxiety is shown to increase.
The workings of the household are not disclosed through dramatic action, nor do we understand relationships between people in the conventional manner through dialogue. Rather, language in itself is shown to be untrustworthy: “Why do you say anything? What is there to say?”, Anne asks Georges, and “What is there to say?” remarks a stony-faced Pierrot to his mother, in one of the many repetitions of the text through which we may subconsciously perceive connections between characters.
The film reminds us of the limited truth-capacity of words, that the manner in which we use words can override what we say. Hence, those who know Georges – Anne, his mother, Majid (Maurice Bénichou) and, even his boss – can easily detect his lies and half-truths. “You seem strange, Georges. Listening to you, I’m worried about you”, his mother says as she perceives that he is not telling her the full truth. We are also shown how the meaning and transparency of verbal language is often modified and contradicted by body language. Thus, the whole micro world of sounds, gestures and looks that explain, destabilise and even “give us away” is brought into play in the film. For example, Georges’ nasal exhalations (exasperated sighs), heard before they’re identified with him, reveal his suppressed anxiety and, like other such idiosyncratic mannerisms (the tightening of his lips, the twitching of his eye), belie his otherwise impassive countenance.
While framing, camera angles and editing have always been devices to express characters’ relationships, especially in the genre of the thriller, the difference here is that not only do such elements become major rather than secondary signifiers of meaning, they are often used in unexpected ways. For instance, the voyeuristic orientation of the gaze of many conventional films is replaced by an emphasis on interrogating gazes that seek to establish the “truth”. Hence, Anne (and later Georges’ mother, his boss, Majid and Majid’s son) uses a prolonged gaze in the attempt to get Georges to “face-up” to his evasive and dishonest behaviour.
With few exceptions, Georges and Anne are shown to be emotionally distanced from each other by the way they are framed individually, or, if they’re shown in two-shot, angles and framing, as when they sit at opposite ends of the sofa, indicate a lack of real intimacy. In contrast, when we see Anne at a book launch, not only has she discarded her shapeless, at-home, blue dress for a tailored cream linen suit but she’s also framed in proximity to Pierre (Daniel Duval). The framing and angle of the shot allow us to decode the animated glance that she throws to him while speaking to Georges on the phone as a flirtatious one. We also have the sense that Pierre is not engaged with the man who is talking to him (he says little), perhaps because he’s conscious of her presence, and this lack of reaction doubles with the abstracted manner with which he responds to Georges during the dinner party.
While both Anne and Georges are depicted as loving their son, Pierrot, he is shown to be subject to the kind of benign neglect that is the fate of many children with working parents, and this is indicated by the lack of knowledge they have of what he does after school. Our understanding of the household, therefore, comes to us through the knowledge we gain of their mundane everyday domestic reality. For instance, Anne and Georges’ verbal and body language transmits to us their tired and irritable response to each other at the end of the working day. And yet another sense of their everyday life is gained through the vignettes that show them at work and socializing.
Georges is shown at work during production and post-production of the book show he hosts. While he works for public television, it is evident that he has internalised the values of the marketplace because he takes a tabloid approach, exhibiting no qualms about removing a large chunk of the ideas that his guests have exchanged during the show on the grounds that they are theoretical. That the segment he edits out is about the lack of ethics involved in meddling in a text for commercial gain is one of a number of ironic points made in the film. He treats his show as a commodity (“cut at ‘we agree on that point’ and go to where Teulé talks about homosexuality”), stripping the interchange between the guest speakers of any complexity and dissension. As such, it is a clear abrogation of his responsibility as a journalist and as an intellectual in transmitting ideas.
If Georges lacks intellectual integrity, his producer also reveals himself to be a contemporary organization man. He is an urbane man with a vaguely bookish air but, it seems, someone too busy to read the authors he promotes. Our realisation that the “study” setting of the show, with its background of book-lined shelves, is a fake comes with the perception that these men are also not what their appearances suggest. There is an implicit suggestion that the current rhetoric of time-poor, attention-deficit and gossip-hungry audiences is no more than a projection of the media’s own mediocrity.
The concern with issues, such as the banal commercially oriented thinking that characterizes contemporary public television, takes Hidden beyond the usual preoccupations of the crime genre, where, although there’s often attention to moral issues, they tend to be presented in a timeless, universal manner. There is a contrast in the film between the old and new bourgeoisie. Georges is a contemporary man, so his choice of a television career over the management of his parent’s country estate (a passage from solid, property-owning bourgeois to salaried employee and promoter of cultural products in the ephemeral entertainment “industry”) doesn’t surprise. (8) But the scene where he visits his mother offers us, without sentimentality, a glimpse of a bygone age. It evokes a sense of loss for a past when the pace of life could accommodate a different way of being in the world – a time when people didn’t fret so much about being alone or old, and when the family piano was both a source of individual creativity and collective pleasure. The changed relationship between us and culture is made clear by this scene.
The scenes at what we assume are the school swimming pool are also indicators of different times. It is clear that the modern mania for seeking the “best” for children in order that they become the “best” is part of the kind of aspiration-driven society that would have been alien to Georges’ parents. A corporate ethos of winners and losers underpins the kind of hothouse training that we see in progress, and it’s telling that the only moment of shared joy between Georges and Anne is the one when Pierrot wins his race. They’re a couple (in terms of being in unison) only on two occasions, both of which are at the swimming pool (the site for them of “positive” things), where we see them in two-shots that indicate their temporary closeness. (9)
An abrupt cut from the dingy, desaturated lighting of the shabby café in Majid’s neighbourhood to the hard bright light of the swimming pool also serves to mark a shift into another world, and it is one of a number of times that Haneke uses contrasting environments to indicate the social divide between classes and communities. Thus, the background in which Majid and his son live doesn’t function, as in the thriller, as a backdrop to “low-life” criminal activity, as an underworld; rather, it indicates the ghetto-like conditions which an underclass, especially generations of immigrants from French colonies, endure.
The laboratory-like character of the swimming training and the reverberating (this is no small local pool), detached, intercom-relayed voice of the instructor, whom we don’t see, link to the movie’s themes of alienation and surveillance but, rather than conveying essential plot-related information, they imply that scientific management with a Taylorist dimension (the conveyor-belt production of the “swimmer”) has permeated even the childhood experience of sport. And, in the swimming carnival scene, people are seen documenting the race with their cameras, so there is also the suggestion of a new technology-engendered, mediated relationship between spectator and “live” event.
Haneke notes: “I used this format [the thriller] principally to ask one question: how do we deal with our guilty consciences?” (10) Guilt is a theme of all crime movies, but the way Hidden turns on it has dimensions that go well beyond its conventional treatment. For instance, during the dinner-party scene, there’s a conversation about a separated couple. We learn that the woman is in hospital, while the man has a new lover and his career is going well. It is quickly apparent that the split has resulted in those around the table “siding” with the more fortunate of the two: the man. Reasons are given to justify the abandonment of the sick friend, but they’re unconvincing and indicate a shared guilt about their “dropping” of her, especially at this point in her life. Thus, it’s implied that the group’s friendships are predicated on convenience and self-interest, on “going with the winner”, rather than on any genuine fondness for each other. Without a doubt, for instance, the publisher-media nexus that the cultivation of these particular friendships facilitates is of mutual benefit to all. When in the adjacent scene Georges’ mother comments dryly that Anne’s friendship with her publisher employer is “very handy”, Georges agrees, and it’s clear that he is so immersed in a whole system of opportunism that he’s unable to pick up her ironic tone.
Haneke says that a key scene to the issue of guilty conscience in the film is the one in which Georges and Majid have their first encounter. (11) Georges arrives at the flat of the person he has shared his early childhood with, treats him as if he is a total stranger, and immediately takes an offensive and belligerent position, assuming he’s responsible for the surveillance tapes. His manner is not only inappropriate but, as Majid points out, it’s also characteristic: “You barge in here accusing me of trying to blackmail you. You haven’t changed.”
Georges’ furious and predictable response to Majid is explained by Haneke in terms of our past being inscribed in our subconscious: “There’s such a thing as a sort of emotional memory for evil deeds. When a Proustian Madeleine appears by coincidence, then it all emerges.” (12) But if for Marcel Proust the small cake that he had not tasted since childhood represents an epiphany, a flooding back of happy childhood memories, for Georges the meeting with Majid provokes a barely controlled, infantile-like rage, one at odds with the logic and reason we would expect of someone with an intellectual training.
Majid’s measured response to the anger that Georges expresses towards him is to suggest its futility. He remarks that Georges won’t learn anything about him, even if he beats him to death, and adds that such a course of action won’t be an option because “you’re too refined for that. Above all, you have too much to lose”, following the comment with the direct question, “That’s not true?” When Georges, startled, asks, “What?”, Majid adds, “I think it is. What wouldn’t we do not to lose what is ours?” In response, Georges offers a weak, justifying rationalization of his childhood actions: “You were older and stronger than me. I had no choice.”
At this point in the exchange, he appears to equivocate, to even be on the verge of an admission of the damage he has caused, but when Majid asks whether his mother is sick, the old, perhaps œdipal-based, resentment and suspicion takes over, and he reverts to his hardline stance, threatening Majid: “If you try again to interfere in my life … you’ll regret it, I swear.”
In this scene, it is indicated that while there is a strong relationship between negative memory and involuntary reaction, it is something that can be recognized and dealt with accordingly. Majid describes his instinctive reaction when he accidentally tuned into Georges’ book-show: “I just had a nasty feeling in my gut. Weird, no? I felt nauseous and I didn’t know why. When your name finally came up, I began to understand”. But he is shown to possess the emotional and political maturity that Georges lacks. Not only does he appear to understand himself, but he also perceives Georges’ lack of honest self-appraisal to be related to a strain of individualism that will always privilege its own interests over others. That this is bourgeois individualism is made clear by the way Majid contrasts the two men’s positions, indicating that when it comes to the question of what each has to lose, he is referring to their very different material conditions and social standing.
In the “real” narrative version of the encounter, as Majid identifies the reasons why he believes Georges will control his violent impulses, Georges’ face is in shadow. The use of low-key lighting as a signifier of guilt occurs again in the adjacent scene when he returns to the café he’d visited before seeing Majid. As he sits at the bench by the window having a drink, we see him clearly but, as he turns away from the light and calls Anne on his mobile, we understand that the shadow that falls across his face has to do with the totally concocted and untruthful story that he proceeds to tell her.
This subjective signifier is absent, however, when we re-experience the meeting between the two men through the surveillance tape. There is an uncanny sense of a mismatch on this occasion as we struggle to remember the previous version of the encounter. This time, we are also deprived of the identification mechanisms that allowed us to enter the space of the subjects at a subjective level. Whereas previously the shot and reverse shots between the two men gave us a sense of participation as we moved between the two points of view, now we take up the position of the “objective” camera and a different mode of listening and seeing. Haneke notes of this “taped” version that it is angled in order to give “the scene more of “a security-camera perspective” (13). On theatrical viewing, we’re unable to compare and contrast the two versions and, as our memory is likely to be deficient, the gap between the two modes of experiencing the event can’t be closed and a sense of a troubling excess of meaning persists. We are also deprived of our role as detectives because, try as we may, it’s hard to pinpoint the exact location of the hidden camera.
If guilt is the main theme in this film, then who is guilty? Initially, we’re biased towards an interpretation of Georges as the story’s “victim” because one of the hallucinatory flashbacks shows him about to be attacked. Later, however, we realise that this assumption is premised on our interpretation of the image as the “truth”, whereas its latent content, its second hidden meaning, has to do with Georges’ fear of punishment, and his subconscious attempt to rationalise his guilt by inverting the true order of the perpetrator-victim relationship.
Georges cannot be held culpable for the “crime” he committed as a six-year-old, but what seems unforgivable is his repetition of a similar action as a mature adult. When he “incriminates” Majid for the second time, the outcome is Majid’s subjection to a forced removal not unlike that he experienced as a child. We must assume that Majid re-experiences the despair, powerlessness and sense of loss (in this case, his possible separation from his son) which accompanied the traumatic childhood event. And, crucially, the use of shadow as a motif to indicate Georges’ guilt, as in the earlier scenes, becomes important at this point. Georges stands across the street in the shadows while the two men are taken to the paddy wagon by the police. While he was only a child when he witnessed Majid’s removal by the authorities from the concealed vantage point of the barn of his parent’s house, his refusal to “come out of the shadows” as an adult indicates his awareness of the destructive role he is again playing in Majid’s life, and his inability to take responsibility in any way.
While fear appears to activate Georges’ behaviour, it is not a blanket response to any perceived provocation. There is an amusing mirror-image when his boss claims he’s destroyed the compromising tape that has come into his possession. Both he and George know that it’s a lie, but Georges is unable to challenge his boss because he holds the power. That the suave media man’s “iron fist in velvet glove” approach has to do with his protecting his own interests is evident, while Georges, fearful that his career is at risk, vents his bottled-up fury by pounding on Majid’s door.
George’s unpremeditated antipathy towards non-white males (the presence of a beautiful young but naïve black woman at his dinner table does not pose a threat, she simply seems to figure as his middle-aged friend’s neo-colonial trophy girlfriend) also surfaces when he has a run-in with a black male cyclist. Unthinkingly stepping off the pavement and so just missing a collision with the rider and his bike, his aggressive reaction is out of proportion with the harmless nature of the event. Retrospectively, we understand his reaction also indicates his jittery state, just as we may pick up his distraught feelings when he jaywalks across the road after his meeting with Majid, ignoring the “do not walk” sign.
His compulsion to repeat the past is indicated throughout the film whenever moments of crisis arise. Anger is exhibited towards Majid and the cyclist, but there is also a pattern of hiding and passivity that doubles with his reactions to his childhood “crime” (the frozen stance that he takes up during the killing of the rooster and when Majid is removed from his parents’ place by the authorities), while his compulsive telling of lies indicates his refusal to engage in a serious appraisal of his past actions.
Thus, when Pierrot is missing, Georges sits slumped in front of the television and, as noted, he stands across the road in the shadows during the paddy-wagon scene. Most chillingly, when Majid commits suicide, he does nothing. The death of an “enemy” is frequently presented in movies as a moment of redemption and there’s a sense in which Georges could have attained “absolution” by showing concern for Majid as he lies on the floor before him. But, as we in the audience strain to identify the strangulated sounds that we hear, fearful that they are the death throes of the dying man and worried that no action is being taken, he instead repeats the phobic and passive behaviour that characterized the traumatic childhood event. After temporarily “freezing”, he somehow extracts himself from the scene and room, leaving the corpse alone and unattended. The fact that the act of suicide takes place in front of the door could be a conscious decision on Majid’s behalf not just to force Georges out of his “observer” position, but to make him confront brute reality in a fundamental way – although we don’t see it, it’s clear that he has to physically engage with the body (no wonder he can report to Anne with confidence that Majid was dead!). In the extraordinary ellipsis that follows, day has become night time, as we see him emerging from a cinema where it seems he has taken refuge from the horror by watching a movie. Haneke seems to imply here that cinema is a mode of forgetting but it is also an allusion (even joke) because one of the movies on the marquee is Pedro Almodóvar’s La Mala educación (Bad Education, 2004), a movie not only concerned with the shared past between two boys (one with a homo-erotic rather than competitive theme), but one in which a similar ellipsis occurs. After they have committed murder, the two men responsible go to a cinema complex where a ‘week of film noir’ is advertised. When they emerge, day has become night as in Hidden.
Much of our horror at George’s terrible negligence during the immediate period following Majid’s death derives from our perception that Majid is the moral centre of the narrative. He is represented as a man of integrity, a man at peace with himself, who can live without fame or fortune and who, despite his underprivileged life, has produced a fine-looking son who is now getting the education he was deprived of by Georges’ actions. The prejudice inherent in the old coloniser-colonised binary is shown to be without substance; he is the civilised figure to Georges’ barbarian. He conducts himself with courtesy and dignity, demonstrating a capacity for empathy that Georges not only lacks but doesn’t understand as a quality in others (for this reason, when Majid enquires after his mother, Georges immediately misconstrues his empathic intuition and genuine concern for a more sinister motivation).
What are we to make of Majid’s suicide? Is it possible to argue that he’s guilty of the desire to revenge himself, even at the cost of taking his own life, and of repeating the past by leaving his son an orphan? While Haneke leaves this possibility open, it seems unlikely. (14) In his first encounter with Georges, he dismisses the question, “Do you want revenge”, with a quick shake of his head, moving on to talk about Georges’ mother, a subject evidently of more concern to him. Rather, we can assume he is deeply depressed because he has been put through an experience recalling one of the most traumatic moments of his life. And his relationship with his son has been endangered through the latter’s probable breach of trust – the consequent alienation implied by the paddy wagon shot in which father and son are shown separated from each other, not making eye contact and contained by the entrapment imagery of barred windows. Far from involving a motive of simple revenge, his final calm words before he takes his life are a testimony to his innocence: “I truly didn’t know” is followed by “I wanted you to be present”, suggesting one of his aims is to achieve a justice of sorts by forcing Georges to finally come out of the shadows, to fully witness and “face up to” the enormity of the havoc he has caused in another person’s life.
Like Majid, Georges’ mother is represented as a person of empathy and intelligence, yet her evasive response to Georges when he questions her about Majid, her initial claim not to remember the traumatic removal of him from her care, amounts to a disavowal that indicates she’s probably guilty of sacrificing the happiness of one child for another, an act perhaps subconsciously justified on the grounds of legitimacy (ironically, it’s clear that, of the two men, the foster child would have been the more caring “son”).
That Anne shares with Georges’ mother the antennae that Georges lacks is made clear by the way the two women are “doubled” by their similar responses to Georges’ refusal to tell the truth. But Anne is evidently preoccupied with thoughts of her friend’s husband rather than her own, and this distraction, as well as the fact that she’s a busy working parent and the partner who appears to do all the housework, means she has little idea as to how her son occupies his after-school life. But these are perhaps minor sins. What is reprehensible is that, while she is outraged and alienated by Georges’ duplicitous behaviour, it is mostly because of its impact upon their life as a family. Although, like his mother, she’s more principled than he is (she asks whether he went for help after Majid committed suicide), her concern doesn’t extend to the welfare of Majid’s son after his father’s death. So, in the end, her compartmentalised way of life isn’t perhaps so far removed from Georges’ narcissistic self-absorbed behaviour. (There is sardonic humour in the way Haneke has Georges describe Majid’s behaviour as “pathological”.)
Agents of justice are pivotal to the thriller, but they are often ambiguous figures whose legally based justification of their brutality does not overcome the troubling perception that they share much in common with the criminals they hunt down. Are Majid and Georges’ sons guilty of a conspiracy to tape and “out” Georges and, if so, how are we to perceive their mission?
There are pointers towards their mutual implication in the surveillance activity: Majid’s son is the only person who, apart from Georges’ mother, could know the full story of the childhood event, while Pierrot is the only one likely to know the precise location of Georges’ mother’s house, and the alibi that Pierrot supplies when Georges quizzes him as to where he spends his evenings (an early indication that Georges may subconsciously suspect his son’s involvement in the taping) has a hasty trumped-up quality. The evasive response can be taken on several levels. It may be a defensive, guilty reaction or it could simply be a symptom of teenage disaffection, in particular, an œdipal-related resistance to his father.
The meeting of the boys on the steps after school, which we witness at the end of the film, is the first indication that the boys know each other, but again we’re deprived of any hard evidence of conspiracy because we’re unable to hear what is said and (for once!) their gestures only reveal that a lively exchange is taking place.
From the film’s beginning, it is very difficult to attribute, with any certainty, the source of certain sounds and whether it is objective (real, external) or subjective (the characters’ inner state of mind) sound. As has been noted earlier, unlike the tonal backgrounds in Lynch’s films which are synthesized, constructed, Haneke uses the tones that the “natural” world generates, the sounds of distant traffic, the internal purr of a car engine, the hum of electric lights in a corridor. And because these sounds so often seem to mirror changes in feeling, in emotion within the narrative, they not only take the place of music but they also come to be understood like music. They establish a dynamic whereby they function both as source sound and scored music. They are natural sounds behaving unnaturally.
When the paddy wagon takes Majid and his son to the police station, because we are not allowed a clear view of the space to which they’ve been confined, what we hear takes precedence over what we see, not the least because of the overwhelmingly expressive nature of the sound. The scene gives wonderful proof of Bresson’s assertion that “the ear goes more towards the within, the eye towards the outer.” (15) The “natural” sound, the jarring sound of the paddy wagon making impact with an uneven road surface, is rendered dissonant and there’s a disturbing unidentifiable tone. It could be attributed to Majid’s son (signifying his guilt) and so linked to Pierrot because, in the scene where he’s picked up by Georges after school, there are also strangely intrusive “car” sounds (hence a conspiratorial relationship between the boys may be indicated). But it could also be an involuntary memory effect: Majid re-experiencing the turmoil of his forced removal from Georges’ parents’ place. (In that particular instance, there is a possibility that the tone could be attributed to Georges, signifying his troubled conscience as Majid is taken away.) So, the interplay of seemingly subjective, unidentifiable sounds and their multiple possible correspondences produces a sense of an abyme that destabilizes any possibility of using them as definitive guides to establish either boy’s involvement in the surveillance taping.
And if they are involved, who possesses and drives the car – apart from the one driven by Georges – in which the camera is sometimes used? And what motives can we ascribe to their partnership? The posters in Pierrot’s room show that he’s a fan of black sportsmen and musicians, and the Eminem poster suggests that the singer’s call to youth for a crusade to challenge the conservative times would have appeal to a child belonging to a generation whose parents may be regarded as complicit in war, social injustice and racism. But he’s a competitive child, as his win in the swimming race indicates, and his action may also have an œdipal dimension, as his mother suggests when he has an angry outburst against her friendship with Pierre (the implication being that he has monitored the meeting between Anne and Pierre at the café). Therefore, there’s a suggestion that his alliance with Majid’s son could stem from several motivations, including a puberty-related rivalry with his father, and the opportunity to spy on his mother, whom he suspects of infidelity.
While the evidence is circumstantial, the motivation for Majid’s son to be involved in the taping is strong – he has his father’s life, his deprivation of an education and the security of family life – to avenge. That he is the one principal character not named in the film may be a red herring. We make his acquaintance late in the film and know little about him, so we may not suspect him of being a major player. But the lack of personalization also has a distancing effect and it may mean that, when he confronts Georges at his workplace, we perceive his mission to go beyond one of personal justice (the ellipsis makes the time between his father’s death and this encounter uncertain, but he is both resolutely purposeful and calm for someone whose father has died under terrible circumstances).
If we surmise, on the basis of the inconclusive evidence that we’re given, that the boys are involved in the surveillance, what does the betrayal of trust between fathers and sons signify? There’s a moral paradox in that the situation is uncomfortably close to the real-life betrayal of parents for the “cause” in repressive régimes. Here, as in such real historical instances, there is a problem with the attribution of blame to those not mature enough to realise the uncontrollable consequences of their actions. But Hidden raises interesting issues by defamiliarising the family, showing it as a site of deception and alienation, as opposed to trust and intimacy, while also suggesting a reconfiguration of social relationships in the public sphere, particularly inter-racial relationships. Thus it appears that some kind of fraternal relationship that was not possible between the fathers is able to exist between the men’s sons. Likewise, the black cyclist involved in the confrontation with Georges makes it clear that his generation will have no truck with old racist attitudes and assumptions.
If Majid’s son and Pierrot have envisioned themselves as figures of justice, they lack the political insight and strategy to be effective, instead becoming agents of destruction. A major consequence of their actions is the damage caused to their ties to their fathers. In Majid’s son’s case, the damage is of a terrible, final and irrecoverable nature, something that he couldn’t have envisioned. And Pierrot’s future relationship with his father seems uncertain for, while Georges seems finally able to confront the probability of his son’s involvement in the surveillance activity, his response is staggeringly inadequate: “Tell him [Pierrot] to go easy on his poor old Dad”.
Hidden’s theme of fathers and sons has other implications and, in this respect, Peter Brooks’ discussion of importance of the fathers and sons theme in the 19th-century novel, and its particular treatment by Stendhal, seems worth considering. Noting the way the novels are “inescapably pervaded by a historical perspective”, Brooks remarks:
Nowhere is the historical problematic more evident than in the question of authority that haunts Le Rouge et le Noir, not only in the minds of its individual figures but in its very narrative structure. (16)
If the 18th-century novel of manners is seen by Stendhal as incompatible with 19th-century reality, Hidden’s characters can also be seen to inhabit a different modernity, one that in its turn throws into question the viability of realism, the idea that there is a coherent or intelligible order underlying things that can be made visible to us.
Haneke makes this clear when he speaks of the imperative for an æsthetic able to undermine our belief in the media-mediated reality that dominates our lives, one that refuses the old certainties of realism: “It’s no coincidence that post-War literature signaled the end of classical narrative literature. It came from the experience of fascism, and the same applies to film.” (17) Without a doubt, he is conversant with modernism’s earlier beginnings so, in this sense, he joins those “after Auschwitz” writers, artists and filmmakers for whom the development of a politics of the æsthetic involves not just the proclamation of the post-WWII death of classical realism, but also an attempt to bring into being a new more critical audience. (18)
If the characters in Stendhal’s novels live during the real-life context of nationalism and colonialism, those in Hidden live in a neo-colonial, global yet, paradoxically, often nationalistic world. The fictional world of the film is haunted by the ghosts of Majid’s parents, but real and fictional events are intermingled in the film in such a way that the characters are situated in a setting beyond the national context of French colonialism, in one that evokes the wider history of imperialism.
A Euro television news broadcast depicting, in capsule-format, crises involving scenes of street violence and anarchy in Iraq and elsewhere, is the background to Anne and Georges’ personal crisis, and Pierrot’s failure to return home. In a characteristic figure, they’re seen in wide shot, “separated” by the centrally positioned television in the background. The implication is that their alienation from each other, depicted through the framing, is repeated at another level: their estrangement from the war-related events that are unwinding on the screen before them but to which they are seemingly oblivious. (19) The insertion of real-life news into the fictional story also situates Hidden unequivocally in a contemporary context. The graphic nature of the violence in the items indicates the disarray of our neo-colonial world, while the question of authority is foregrounded when the Governor of the Iraqi city of Nassiriyah, Barbara Contini, speaks of the imperative for a “united front” of Western forces in Iraq. The propaganda content of her speech, its implicit reference to re-colonization by the United States, and the relentless sameness and inadequate treatment of the images of war and insurgency takes the narrative beyond its subtext of issues of national belonging and legitimacy that the flow of colonial people, especially Algerians to France, has resulted in. If, as Peter Brooks remarks, Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir asks the question “To whom does France belong?”, Hidden may provoke in us the recurrent questions “To whom does the world belong?” and “To whom will it belong?”
The use of the contemporary news broadcast ruptures the illusion of the narrative reality. Hidden doesn’t replace real historical memory with fictionalised memory, nor does it refuse ties with the real world, as in the manner of many “post-modern” movies. Rather, it uses devices that allow us to find correspondences and make associations in relation to the interpenetration of past and present, ones that show us that acts of remembering and forgetting involve varying stakes.
Georges is a man too alienated from himself to ever fully acknowledge the major determining event of his childhood. As such, he confirms Jean Amery’s caveat that “home is the land of one’s childhood and youth. Whoever has lost it remains lost himself […]”. (20) Yet, we’re shown that he’s not entirely cut off from his past. One of the loveliest moments in the film is when he comes downstairs to have breakfast with his mother. He hesitates before the door to the dining room and, instead, turns, crosses the hall and throws open the door opposite. We hear the faintest ticking of a clock as we see, from his point of view, an empty sitting room and, in particular, an armchair. The night before his mother had remarked that she missed his now dead father’s piano playing, so it seems he allows himself, at this moment, to remember what we assume are benign memories, for it is apparent that we are looking at the chair once occupied by his dead father. Later, when he is asleep in his own house experiencing a nightmare related to the terrible childhood event, we hear the sound of a clock again, but we are never able to establish, in either instance, whether it is the ticking of a “real” clock in the sitting room – this time incorporated into his dream – or whether it is to do with his internalisation of his mother’s comment that time passes quicker than you think.
In terms of narrative progression, the scene at his mother’s house is a diversion because it doesn’t advance the story. However, like other such moments in the film, it may set off various associations in us. It may trigger questions about the unknown father-and-son relationship, and it may also tap into our own personal memories, our sense of the double life of things such as chairs – the way that they become imbued with the presence of those who once occupied them. In this brief moment, Haneke gives us a sense of the complexity of the man without psychologising (explaining) him and he reminds us of the universal nature of memory. Thus, here, and in other ways, Hidden answers Alexander Kluge’s call for film to produce a “public sphere”, one possessing “the status of a communal medium, and this includes the stream of associations and the faculty of memory (the two main avenues of phantasy)” (21).
If construction of meaning in Hidden is built as much on a vertical as a horizontal level, does this mean that it moves too far from the thriller for consideration within the genre? The thriller’s raison d’être is the provision of thrills and these are predicated, in the main, on suspense and event-related violence. It is 36 years since Pascal Bonitzer and Serge Toubiana, writing in Cahiers du Cinéma, argued, after Bertold Brecht, that the thriller was one of the culinary genres: “One consumes here physical violence and fascist behavior.” (22) Since then, a transformation of the genre has long been underway, but while many contemporary thrillers play with generic conventions, at the same time they “feed” the appetite for violence in a much more graphic way than the pre-1970s films referred to by the Cahiers du Cinéma writers. (23)
Hidden is a film in which the violence cannot easily be categorized as “thrills”, although the two scenes of physical violence – the killing of the rooster and, in particular, Majid’s suicide – produce an intense emotional reaction in the audience, the major aim of the genre. On one level, the moment when Majid cuts his throat is comparable to the terrible moment in Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s 1932 surrealist film, Un Chien Andalou, when, at a totally unanticipated point near the beginning of the film, a man slices a woman’s eye open. Georges Bataille has noted the defamiliarising effect of that moment – “it alone is brutal enough to break everything that stifles” (24) – and the effect here is one of similar mind-numbing surrealism. But, in this instance, it’s not just the unexpected and visceral nature of the death that stuns; it’s also the weight of everything that’s happened before the catastrophe and the mode in which we’ve experienced the movie up until that moment.
All films in the crime genre use diversions and false clues to mislead us and such devices abound in Hidden but, in general, here they are of a different nature and have a different outcome to those that we’re used to. Thus, the shot of the long corridor that leads to Majid’s flat immediately evokes the whole history of such corridors in thrillers and horror films. The hand-held tracking shot is accompanied by soft, muffled footsteps (similar to the muted sounds in the opening sequence), so that the movement along the corridor is imbued with an uncanny ghostly feeling that fosters our anticipation that a violent act is about to take place. Once we become familiar with the corridor and what’s behind the door of number 047 (the tracking shot is repeated twice more before Georges arrives with the police), we let go of our premonition and, while we’re surprised that Majid has a son, we’re lulled into a state of complacency that nothing too terrible will happen. (There’s a wonderfully comic moment when the police enter the flat. As one passes Majid’s son, he punches him in the stomach, but the second stops and gazes at him in astonishment, asking Georges feebly, “Is that him?” It is, of course, a case of mistaken identity: the policeman thinks Majid’s son is the supposedly kidnapped Pierrot and he’s taken aback to find he is black.)
The fifth and final visit to Majid’s corridor, however, breaks the pattern. Instead of tracking down the corridor towards Majid’s door, the camera is now positioned at the door, facing back towards Georges’ approach. Not only is our sense of spatial orientation disturbed, but we are no longer “with” Georges; he is being drawn to us.
While retrospectively the shift may be viewed as a portent (Georges’ movement towards the door accrues the inexorable logic of “fate”), when Majid commits suicide, the shock comes from the way it short-circuits our expectations with its startling suddenness – there’s no accelerated rhythm of editing or sound to prepare us, so there’s no time to avert our eyes from the slicing of the jugular artery and the immediate visceral gush of blood. But our sense of disbelief and shock also derives from our perception of the act of suicide as irreconcilable with the man. In our previous encounter with Majid, and in the space of the replay of that moment, we witnessed his calm reasonableness and lack of rancour towards Georges, so it seems inconceivable to us that he should take his life.
The real figure of violence in the movie is Georges and here Haneke recasts the thriller’s usually clear-cut, proto-fascist “man of violence” as the more ambiguous “man without qualities”, as a functionary whose violence is concealed, waiting to surface when his self-interest is threatened. That in real life the figure of the new, urbane, yet ruthless, bourgeois is fast replacing the old more civic-minded, liberal thinking, bourgeois is evident. And we are shown that violence can take a number of forms. One of the most brutal moments in the film occurs when Georges, confronted by Majid’s son at his workplace, the television station, refuses to take responsibility in any way for the suicide.
As the two men face each other in the men’s lavatory, he says: “You’ll never give me a bad conscience because your father’s life was sad or a failure. I’m not to blame! Do you get that?” Then, almost exactly mirroring the exchange he had on his first meeting with Majid, he adds, “If you ever try to hurt me or my family, you’ll regret it. I guarantee it. I’m sick of your crap!” (Earlier, he says to Majid: “If you ever try to hurt me or my family, you’ll regret it, I guarantee it.”) When Majid’s son notes his propensity for making threats, Georges asks whether he expects an apology. Majid’s son pointedly replies, “To whom? Me?”, and to Georges’ further enquiry of “So what more do you want?”, he answers, “Nothing more. I wondered how it feels, a man’s life on your conscience.”
Yet, despite his intransigence, there are a number of indicators in the narrative, some of which have already been outlined, that Georges is subject to strong inner conflict. Haneke says that one of the strategies we use to cope with guilt is to talk ourselves out of it and such a situation occurs when Georges finally recounts to Anne his version of the childhood event. Anne queries his description of it as an “interlude” and he replies: “What should I call it? A tragedy? Maybe it was a tragedy. I don’t know. I don’t feel responsible for it. Why should I? It’s all so absurd.” He can only go so far in admitting the enormity of what has happened by introducing the term “tragedy”, before he pulls back, denying any culpability and reducing the event to the status of the “absurd”. To the audience, the injustice of his comments is clear: although thus far Majid has survived against the odds, the traumatic childhood loss of his parents and subsequent loss of those prepared to be parental figures to him, along with the denied opportunity of education, does indeed constitute a tragedy.
Throughout the film, Georges is shown to be incapable of real dialogue because of his need to manipulate language to suit his ends rather than to communicate with others. Thus, as in this instance, he “talks himself out” of any guilt by denying there’s been a tragedy. On a professional level, he controls the dialogue of others through the process of editing while, at a personal level, he baffles even his mother when he is unable to speak honestly to her about the past. The cumulative effect of this refusal of real dialogue, of true sociability, is his self-estrangement that, it is implied, involves damage to his own integrity on several levels. Hence, the repression of his actions and their consequences is shown to be ineffectual. The surging up in his conscious and subconscious of repetitive images and sounds related to the childhood events indicates that he will be condemned to endlessly repeat the past, and there’s a sense that his inner and outer worlds will always be out of “sync” because of this troubling and disruptive undercurrent. And there are also indications that he will suffer a vitiation of his world because of depression.
There is an indication that he begins a slide into melancholia after his first hallucination of the child (Majid) gagging and wiping blood from his mouth when he uses tiredness to excuse his preoccupied behaviour to Anne. When he visits his mother, he again complains of being tired and it becomes evident that his evasive behaviour is having the effect of draining his energy. The pathological dimension of the “tiredness” is again manifested when, after Majid’s suicide, he returns from work during the day and, behaving as if he has a simple hang-over, takes a couple of pills and goes to bed. But the seeming banality of his response to the tragedy is contradicted by the manner in which, after the suicide, his behaviour becomes almost catatonic (an extension and intensification of the frozen reaction that he habitually has to crises). And the motif of low-contrast lighting now becomes a major signifier of his guilty state of mind. Thus, apart from the scene at his workplace where Majid’s son confronts him, he remains in near darkness until the end of the film. When he tells Anne about the suicide, it is as if his refusal to honour Majid’s final testimony – he “edits” his last words, omitting the crucial testament, “I truly didn’t know” – is the trigger for his descent into the moral darkness that has threatened to overwhelm him at a number of times during the film.
Georges’ unyielding pride and need to preserve his own interests at all costs ensure that he will never confront the meaning of his hidden past. The return of the past in the present, and the ability to come to terms with it, is a frequent theme in the crime genre (it’s the theme, for example, in Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 noir movie, Out of the Past), where a character’s ability to confront a terrible secret is also part of the restoration of social order. In such plots, part of the solving of the secret is related to a main character’s ability to apply deductive reasoning. In this sense, Georges’ refusal to face the past means that not only is he unable to resolve his own “crime”, but also that the destabilizing effects of his repetition of it will continue to be suffered by those around him.
What we’re asked to do in Hidden is to question every sound and image given to us, to be alert to the problematic nature of representation. As shown, the opening scene sets up one of the stylistic features of the film: the long take. Because of its central place in the narrative, there is a temptation to assume that, in the tradition of neo-realism, many of the movie’s events occur without “dramatic manipulation” (25). Yet, on closer inspection, the “reality” of such scenes is undermined in ways that may not be picked up on a first viewing. Thus, the action and sounds of the black cyclist with whom Georges has a confrontation double too neatly with those of the cyclist who rides past Georges and Anne’s house in the opening scene (even the sound of the swerve is duplicated). The repetition device also comes into play when Majid commits suicide and we see that the blood that spatters the wall takes the precise configuration of the pattern of the cartoon-like spray depicted in the drawing that has been a motif throughout the film.
When Georges comes home from the office, takes two pills and goes to bed, we see him lying motionless in the darkened room as we hear birdsong similar to that in the initial sequence. In this context, we may assume that the sound functions as a “prelap”, an anticipatory bridge over the visual cut into the next scene indicating that its rightful context is in Georges’ memory-derived nightmare. But the room’s dark only because Georges has pulled the blinds so it may again have its source in the “real” daytime life of the street outside, its exaggerated nature indicating his edgy state as he goes to sleep. (If so, it recalls the moment in Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail, 1929, when the unbearably loud and cheerful chirps of the canary becomes a subjective cipher to the overwrought state of mind of the guilty character.) And, if the “real” birdsong outside Georges and Anne’s house is incorporated into the childhood trauma scene in the manner such traces of our everyday waking life enter our dreams, the nightmare is shown to be as untrustworthy as the earlier one in which a murderous young Majid appears to approach Georges with an axe. Hence the migration of sounds – for instance, the flapping of wings and the gurgling sound heard in the opening scene – can be viewed as indicators of the complex interplay between conscious and unconscious subjectivity or, perhaps even more radically, as throwing into doubt the truth of the piecemeal “narrative” of the childhood event which we have been given access to primarily through Georges’ hallucinations and nightmares.
Haneke employs that apt metaphor of modernity – consumption – when he says that his films are
an appeal for a cinema of insistent question instead of false (because too quick) answers, for clarifying distance in place of violating closeness, for provocation and dialogue instead of consumption and consensus. (26)
And he views such a cinema as one able to
fuel mistrust in our faith in reality. We know nothing about the world, except the things we have experienced directly. And we can examine these things. But everything else we experience through the media. (27)
He also raises the question of media responsibility in relation to the issue of omission, noting that he based Majid’s story on a television documentary:
It mentioned the events in 1961 in Paris when Algerian demonstrators were beaten to death by the police and their bodies thrown into the Seine. No one wrote about it although France has a liberal press. This is a phenomenon I still can’t get to grips with. (28)
If the media refused its role as guardian of public remembrance in the early 1960s, one of the outcomes of Hidden, and the documentary that triggered it, has been to contribute to the unearthing of the shameful buried history of the historical massacre as Googling the internet reveals. (29)
There are many things in this movie that can’t be “checked out” or clarified, but which can sharpen our ability to question what we see and hear. While in the thriller a moral equivalence is often suggested between criminal and cop, what are we to make of the scenes in which we watch Majid and Georges break down and weep in their kitchens? Can we attribute any difference to the quality of grief when it occurs in a shabby working-class kitchen-cum-sitting room or in a smart bourgeois kitchen replete with Alessi-like accessories? Does the weight of one man’s life over the other grant one the greater grief? Unlike the thriller where convention has primed us to accept twinning as part of the genre’s logic, there’s a confused sense of the “wrongness” of the situation here. Should we be gleeful that Georges has “got what was coming to him”? It’s tempting to regard these scenes as representative of what has been identified in oral tales as “moment[s] of evaluation” – those times when the audience is called upon to take up a position – in this case, to be adjudicators, to “compare and contrast” the situations of the two men. (30) However, perhaps we should be wary of such an approach as Haneke eschews simple moralism.
Our ability to be gleaners and to find value in things in the film that may not fit with our usual expectations has to do with a number of things. Entering the film may be easier if we have certain political, historical and cultural knowledge, and if we’re familiar with a whole strand of film history that has always functioned differently to Hollywood, with for instance, the films of Robert Bresson, which Haneke has written about. (31) Hidden’s æsthetic can be seen as Bressonian in its avoidance of both the dramatic treatment of narrative and the psychologising of characters (as in the withholding of Majid’s son’s name). For Haneke characters are
less characters than projection surfaces for the sensibilities of the viewer, blank spaces force the spectator to bring his own thoughts and feelings to the film. Because that is what makes the viewer open to the sensitivity of the character. (32)
And, as in Bresson’s films, the treatment of sounds and gestures reminds us how coded and empty the realism of many contemporary movies has become. A wonderful example of the underplaying of emotion in order, paradoxically, to get a real sense of it, is the scene in which Anne searches Pierrot’s room for his diary. Juliette Binoche conveys precisely the terrible blank state that characterizes panic as tiny strangulated sobs escape Anne while she frantically and fruitlessly rifles through Pierrot’s things.
Not only does the movie deny us the comfort of “old certainties”, but it also denies us the new hedonistic pleasures of the playful postmodern movie. So, we can’t have the pleasure of easy identification with characters, nor can we have the frisson and cathartic release that goes with uncomplicated thrills. And the audience’s role as puzzle solver is also frustrated because the lack of a “confession” gives a narrative logic to the continuation of the surveillance without the unveiling of those behind it. Thus we are denied the kind of dénouement that is, for the audience, the initial promise of the movie. However, if we return to Haneke’s comment that Hidden “develops like a classic thriller” because it is predicated on the concept of the “cell”, it is also clear he does not say that it is a thriller, as such. Thus he evokes the crime genre by including a number of the features of the thriller, detective and suspense movie, but then uses such features in order to digress, to speak of other things – in particular, the exploration of guilt.
But perhaps one of the most infuriating aspects of the movie for those who disliked it is the ending, and this may have to do with way it not only thwarts our ability to pull all the strands together but it denies us, in lieu, a strong emotional resolution (as for example, in the independent movie, Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale, which screened concurrently with Hidden, where the ending was unconventional but where the audience was given an easily understood visual metaphor and exultant music as assurance that all’s well with the world).
In the final scene, when the children flow down the school steps, chatting and grouping and regrouping, no child appears lost or marginalized. The scene seems to provide what the narrative has so far lacked: a redemptive image, one of hope. But, at the same time, the utopian import of the image is contradicted by our awareness of the meeting between Georges and Majid’s son (our eye has already been trained by the previous shot of the school steps to move down to the bottom of the steps, where they talk), and by our realization that the scene is probably taped. A clue to this is given by the way the action continues under the closing credits, thus mirroring the film’s opening sequence where, as we have seen, the sense of unstoppability gives the false impression that we’re experiencing “present” (film) rather than past (taped) “reality”. The circularity of the film implies a conspiratorial world in which normality may never be restored and, while the motif of the inescapable circle is a convention of many crime, science-fiction and horror movies, in the context of Hidden’s history subtext, it seems to signify differently.
In the seventh of the Duino Elegies, Rainer Maria Rilke describes the instability of the world for a generation born a decade before the advent of National Socialism:
Each torpid turn of the world has such disinherited
To whom no longer what’s been, and not yet what’s coming,
Like the unstable world that Rilke describes, Hidden presents us with a world in which the bad faith and actions of adults may have jeopardized the future of their children (the barbarians are at the gate and they’re not the mob we expected). From the initial title sequence, Haneke uses the device of repetition to render the narrative world ambiguous and the sense of diminished possibilities that the device generates goes beyond the “on screen” personal events. Even in this fictional story, there are indications that blame cannot simply be attributed to Georges’ and Anne’s generation, that the “treason of intellectuals” is not a contemporary phenomenon. The disinherited include Majid’s parents and those that were murdered with them in 1961 and, by implication, all colonized peoples. And, the final scene suggests, the future world will be characterized by a continued erosion of freedom through mechanisms of control, such as surveillance. In this sense, it is of little importance that we’re unable to solve conclusively the puzzle structure of the film. By withholding such a resolution, Haneke rightly makes us more conscious of the horror of a world in which everyone is suspect and everything uncertain, and in which we must foster a spirit of scepticism towards those institutions, including cinema, that mediate our knowledge of past and present events.
- There was what appeared to be a collective gasp on the two occasions we viewed Hidden in the cinema.
- The argument that it has polarised audiences derives from anecdotal accounts of box-office staff at four Sydney cinemas where it screened. The divided response and anger from those who “hate” the film is apparently often directed towards its perceived “coldness” and its inconclusive nature, particularly its ending. Mattias Frey refers to the “schizophrenic” reactions of critics to various aspects of Haneke’s works in “Michael Haneke”, Senses of Cinema.
- Although the end purpose of these directors is different, Lynch uses sound to construct expressionistic “states of mind”, while Haneke’s main concern is to show that, like the image, it is always a construct, never simply a given.
- While Haneke notes that the surveillance and narrative scenes were shot simultaneously, it’s not possible to establish by looking at the “behind the scenes” item on the DVD version whether the surveillance scenes were shot on film and transferred to tape or whether both Betacam and film cameras were used. For the purpose of the movie, it’s not really important, as long as the video “effect” is achieved. While recording to analogue (VHS) tape has become almost obsolete (in the swimming pool carnival scene those around Georges and Anne are filming with post-VHS digital cameras), the video effect is necessary because only analogue tape in disruption shows evidence of that disruption – a distortion, a breaking of “reality”. Digital recording, by its very nature, makes time transitions (between “real time” and forward, backward, slow and fast motion) seamless. The ability of characters and audiences to scrutinize, and hence pinpoint “clues”, means that the older technology is more effective in giving the audience a sense of shared participation in the process of detection. Movies that have used VHS surveillance themes, despite the medium’s imminent obsolescence, include David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997) and Nakato Hideo’s Ringu (1998), and its American spin-offs. Sooner or later, filmmakers and scriptwriters will have to deal with the epistemological, æsthetic and narrative questions that arise from the “invisibility” of the line between traditional film and the digital medium – the issue of what each medium represents in terms of “film reality”. Such issues have been addressed by theorists since William J. Mitchell’s pioneering text in 1992, The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post Photographic Era (Cambridge: MIT Press).
- In his typology of the crime genre, Tzvetan Todorov argues that in the thriller, as opposed to the whodunit, “prospection takes the place of retrospection”. Tzvetan Todorov, The Poetics of Prose, translated by Richard Howard, new foreword by Jonathon Culler (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1977), p. 47. Haneke’s use of what Walter Benjamin terms “an ironization of form” means that his movies deliberately refuse the notion of genre as such.
- Haneke expresses his admiration for Michelangelo Antonioni’s work in Christopher Sharrett, “Austrian film: Michael Haneke interviewed”, kinoeye: New Perspectives on European Film; see also Sharrett’s introductory comments, ibid. The sounds that surround the initial shot of the leaves moving in the trees not only includes a similar shimmer but there are bird chirps and muffled traffic sounds as in Hidden’s opening sequence.
- Dominik Kamalzadeh, “Cowardly and Comfortable”, an interview with Michael Haneke, Signandsight: Arts, Essays, Ideas from Germany.
- The changing nature of the bourgeoisie is directly referred to in Hidden when Georges notes the possibility that the operator of the hidden camera may be one of Pierrot’s friends, someone intent on frightening his friend’s “bobo” parents. It seems to be a rare moment of ironic self-appraisal and, perhaps foresight, although it’s not certain whether Georges uses the term in its traditional sense (the French equivalent of the gentle tease of children as ‘fraidy cats’) or its current hip usage (‘bourgeois-bohemian’). See David Brooks, Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000). The over-determined “casual” décor of the rooms of Georges and Anne’s house – the endless (real) book lined shelves and the inclusion in shot of a set of elephants, those exotic ornamental animals of the colonial imaginary and of tourist trade – indicates an ironic commentary by Haneke on the ‘bourgeois bohemian’ household. While both partners have jobs in literature-related fields, their lives are compartmentalized and there’s no sense of a place for the world of ideas in their lives.
- When in the bedroom scene after Majid’s suicide, Anne crosses to Georges and places her hand on his shoulder, the mute and tentative gesture suggests a cessation of immediate hostilities between the couple, but Georges is unable to respond and there’s only a faint suggestion of real conciliation. Thus, Haneke refuses us the comfort of a “happy ending”.
- Kamalzadeh, op. cit.
- Haneke’s refusal to explain or allocate blame, and so produce a simple story of good versus evil, is part of a conscious strategy to keep the audience in an active and critical state, alert to the manipulative powers of the media as storyteller. As a principle, it recalls Karl Marx’s call for “the ruthless critique of everything”. Karl Marx, F. L. Bender (Ed.), second edition, The Essential Writings (Boulder: Westview Press, 1986), p. 41. At stake is the question of whether the plurality of perspectives/possibilities, including the freedom to exercise our own judgment of what we see and hear, runs the risk of falling into postmodern relativity, a dead-end that Haneke seeks to critique.
- Robert Bresson, translated by Jonathon Griffin, with introduction by J. M. G. Le Clezio, Notes on the Cinematographer (London, Melbourne, New York: Quartet Books, 1976), p. 51.
- Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England: Harvard University Press, 1992), p. 62.
- Kamalzadeh, op. cit.
- See, for example, Thomas Elsaesser’s description of the 1962 Oberhausen Manifesto in New German Cinema: A History (Houndsmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire and London: BFI, Macmillan Education, 1989), pp. 20-4.
- The role of television is viewed by Haneke as “the key symbol primarily of the media representation of violence, and more generally of a greater crisis, which I see as our collective loss of reality and social disorientation. Alienation is a very complex problem, but television is certainly implicated in it.” Sharret, op. cit.
- Jean Amery, translated by Sidney Rosenfeld and Stella P. Rosenfeld, At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and its Realities (London: Granta Books, 1999 ), p. 48.
- Alexander Kluge, “Film and the Public Sphere”, in New German Critique, no. 24-5, Fall-Winter, 1981-2, p. 215. The filmmakers share a number of general ideological principles, including a commitment to the critique of the media and the belief in the importance of an active audience, although their strategies are based on opposing æsthetic principles: Kluge favours montage, Haneke the long take (see note 25).
- Pascal Bonitzer and Serge Toubiana, “Etat de Siege”, Cahiers du Cinéma, no. 245-6, avril-mai-juin 1973, p. 49, cited in George Lellis, Bertolt Brecht: Cahiers du Cinéma, and Contemporary Film Theory (Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1982), p. 129.
- See Haneke’s comments on media violence, especially in television, in Sharret, and Mattias Frey’s discussion of violence in his movies in “Michael Haneke”, op. cit.
- Georges Bataille, edited and with an introduction by Allan Stoekl, translated by Allan Stoekl, with Carl. R. Lovitt and Donald M. Leslie, Jr., Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939 (Theory and History of Literature, Vol. 14, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1985, p. 19, no. 1.)
- In his clarification of what he means by “phenomenological integrity”, André Bazin (the major advocate of the long take) describes it as events presented “without dramatic manipulation that may ‘cheat on reality’”. André Bazin, essays selected and translated by Hugh Gray, foreword by François Truffaut, What is Cinema? Volume 1 (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1968), p. 182. Probably Haneke refers to Bazin and the neorealists when he notes that the long take has long been understood as a means of renewing the experience of the world and that, while film is always manipulative “if each scene is only one shot, then, I think, there is at least less of a sense of time being manipulated when one tries to stay close to a ‘real time’ framework. The reduction of montage to a minimum also tends to shift responsibility back to the viewer in that more contemplation is required, in my view.” Sharret, p. 7.
- Quoted in Frey, op. cit.
- Kamalzadeh, op. cit.
- Ibid, pp. 5-6. The documentary he refers to but does not name appears to be Drowning by Bullets (Philip Brooks and Alan Hayling, Icarus Films, 1992). See First Run Icarus Films.
- See, for example, reviews of Drowning by Bullets, such as “A 1961 Massacre of Algerians in Paris where the Media Failed the Test”, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, and “Paris Massacre of 1961”, Answers.com, and the various reviews (op. cit.) generated by Hidden.
- Brooks, p. 236.
- Michael Haneke, “Film als Katharsis”, in Francesco Bono (Ed.), Austria (in)felix: zum ősterreichischem Film der 80er Jahre (Graz: Blimp, 1992), p. 89, cited in Frey, op. cit.
- Frey, op. cit.
- Rainer Maria Rilke, the German text with an English translation, introduction and commentary by J. B. Leishman and Stephen Spender, Duino Elegies (London: The Hogarth Press, 1952 ), p. 73.