There’s a scene in Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown (2000) that epitomises both the brilliance and the frustrations that mark his entire body of work. It takes place on the Parisian Métro, where a woman named Anne (played by Juliette Binoche), is taunted by a young Arab man (Walid Afkir). At first, the encounter occurs at the rear of the subway carriage, yet the static camera remains at a distance, lending the image a certain neutrality. Anne refuses to acknowledge the man and although his flirtatious teasing becomes increasingly unpleasant, the passengers around them stay firmly within their own worlds. Even when directly confronted, they remain silent, preferring hesitant glances to risky involvement. Anne escapes to a seat at the front of the carriage, where she sits facing the camera, and the claustrophobia mounts. The young man follows. “I’m just a little Arab looking for a little affection,” he tells her. As the train pulls into the station, he spits in her face, prompting another passenger (also of North African descent) to intervene. Eventually – and this scene feels far longer than its five and half minutes – the young man leaves the carriage, though not without scaring Anne, the other passengers and us one final time. The ordeal doesn’t end there: Haneke forces us to witness the aftermath of the incident – forty seconds of distress for Anne and more silent unease for those who observed it.

The sequence is flawlessly constructed and rigorously executed. Like several other scenes in Code Unknown, it constitutes a single shot extended to excruciating and mesmerising lengths. As well as demonstrating technical mastery, the subway scene raises some profound questions – about our responsibilities to those around us, about issues of proximity and distance in the city, about the boundaries between private and public space. Hypocrisy imbues the action with additional resonance (earlier in the film Anne failed to intervene when she suspected a neighbour’s child was being abused), while issues of race, class and gender also demand our response. Yet, while the scene is undoubtedly compelling, it simultaneously frustrates our attempts at analysis: it seems too contrived, too deliberately designed to provoke certain thoughts. What happens to Anne is a microcosm of Haneke’s cinema: the comfortable isolation of bourgeois life is disrupted, without warning, leading to images of suffering; spectators become uncomfortably aware of their own complicity; we all feel guilty together. And what, we might conclude, are the uses of guilt?

Code Unknown (Michael Haneke, 2000)

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As Mattias Frey has previously argued in Senses of Cinema, the career of Michael Haneke maintains a strange temporal ambiguity. He was born in 1942, before the likes of Fassbinder and Wenders, yet he now stands as the leading figure in contemporary European cinema. According to Frey, Haneke “lets us imagine what Bergman, Tarkovsky or Fassbinder might be delivering if they were alive and active in the age of complex multinational co-productions, the digital and the increasing systemisation of film festivals.” (1) The political issues explicitly confronted in Haneke’s work – the alienating rituals of late capitalism, immigration, multiculturalism, the legacies of colonialism, the origins of fascism, the media’s relationship with violence – further encourage the idea that he is attuned to the contemporary world, and prepared to engage with it, with a commitment matched by few other directors today.

It is no surprise, then, that recent years have seen an extraordinary outpouring of scholarship devoted to Haneke’s work, especially following the international success of Hidden (2005), which featured prominently in many lists detailing the best films of the last decade. In fact, the editors of this latest collection of essays, Ben McCann and David Sorfa, claim that, “This amount of critical interest in a single European auteur is almost unprecedented since the 1960s.” (2) In many ways, Haneke’s work is perfectly suited to academic investigation: not only do his political concerns enter controversial and wide-ranging territory, but the films also maintain a resistance to easy interpretations. His cinema is full of unanswered questions, ripe for repeated viewings and critical debate. Who sent the tapes in Hidden? Who’s behind the violence in The White Ribbon (2009)? What caused the apocalyptic scenario in Time of the Wolf (2003)? Thus, the 21 essays compiled by McCann and Sorfa are able to position Haneke’s work within a variety of theoretical conversations, such as Susan Sontag’s reading of pain, Guy Debord’s society of the spectacle, Jacques Derrida’s concept of hospitality and Emmanuel Levinas’s formation of ethics.

Amongst these disparate contexts, key themes can be identified in the collection. Violence, whether physical, psychological or social, is a recurrent feature of Haneke’s cinema. Of particular interest in this book is the debate over the status of suicide. Drawing on Lacan and Žižek, Lisa Coulthard argues that throughout Haneke’s work (but especially in his first feature film, The Seventh Continent, released in 1989) suicide has an ethical force, creating the possibility of new meanings despite its logic being inconceivable to other characters. According to Coulthard, “Haneke’s ethical violence stresses effects, not causes, and asks how we respond to the territories and consequences opened up by extreme acts” (p. 48). Oliver C. Speck, by contrast, claims that what is remarkable about the self-aggression seen in Haneke’s films – including the genital mutilation of The Piano Teacher (1997), as well as the recurrent suicides – is that “none of these gestures carries any meaning”. For Speck, such acts hold no potential for transformation: rather, they are “completely nihilistic gestures that have no redemptive value” (p. 61). These contrasting perspectives on suicide are among the few arguments in the collection that relate to the book’s surprising subtitle: Europe Utopia. Although the editors begin by claiming that “a dark strain of optimism” runs through Haneke’s work (p. 1) – something Coulthard’s argument supports – this intriguing vision of a future beyond guilt, miscommunication and violence is not substantiated by the majority of the essays that follow.

With Haneke, questions of violence are intimately connected with questions of representation and media. His whole career has been explicitly constructed in opposition to the dominant modes of spectatorship operating in Hollywood cinema and in television. Catherine Wheatley, who has written widely on Haneke (including a recent study of Hidden in the BFI Classics series), focuses her essay here on the ubiquitous television sets in Haneke’s films and the implications of domestic spectatorship in general. Haneke’s homes are always vulnerable to violent interference from outside forces, whether it comes in the form of unexplained videotapes or neighbours asking for eggs. Wheatley’s piece reminds us how television permeates these homes too, often broadcasting news bulletins that are ignored by the inhabitants, and suggests we consider the spatial, technical and moral aspects of home viewing. With reference to Levinas, Alex Gerbaz explores the ethical implications of direct address in our consideration of screen violence. He argues that characters who explicitly face the camera engage us in ways that other facial close-ups cannot. Discussing the original version of Funny Games (1997), he suggests that the film’s self-reflexive moments, when one of the torturers winks at the camera or rewinds the action with a remote control, are part of Haneke’s broader desire to encourage viewers to claim responsibility “for treating pain as spectacle” (p. 171).

Who, though, does Haneke have in mind when he makes such demands of the cinematic spectator? For the identity of the audience has vital implications for the ambitions of his cinema. While Ben McCann claims Haneke is “a director who refuses to pander to audience expectations” (p. 29), Christoph Huber has recently argued elsewhere that Amour (2012), Haneke’s most recent film, is “the ultimate in art-house art: a film that comfortably ushers its dwindling target audience towards its eventual demise.” (3) By committing himself so completely to a critique of bourgeois life, and bourgeois life alone, Haneke not only demonstrates little interest in the lives of his non-bourgeois characters: he also makes a telling assumption about his own audience. Benjamin Noys makes a similar point in his excellent essay on The Seventh Continent, a film which “relies on a certain audience class position and fraction – the intellectual alienated from alienation” (p. 148). Haneke’s relentless desire to induce guilt, discomfort and self-examination among his assumed audience has distinct political limitations. As Nemonie Craven Roderick explains in her discussion of Hidden, the film’s identification with a bourgeois couple provokes “a masochistic enjoyment of guilt” and “a safe defusing of responsibility” (p. 231).

For all the reflexive manoeuvres in his cinema, the moments when our attention is drawn to the malign and manipulative capacities of the camera, Haneke has always exuded an absolute certainty in his own film-making. While he is keen to stimulate guilt within his audience, there is little sense he regards his own position with similar scepticism. As Landon Palmer points out with regard to Funny Games, “Haneke is able to criticize the spectator for enjoying such violence without having to confront his own complicity in this process as its creative source” (p. 184). In discussing how the grainy, low-qualities images watched by the protagonist of Benny’s Video (1992) contrast with the clarity and precision of those created by Haneke, Ricardo Domizio identifies a rather cosy hierarchy at work: “The cinematic image here is deployed effectively as a critique of the ‘lower forms’ of moving-image culture and Haneke trusts that we recognise the dangers of entrapment and stick to the ‘right side’ of the divide” (p. 241). It remains unclear whether Haneke’s work offers a challenge to cinema or a reassurance of its privileged status in a multimedia world.

Funny Games (Michael Haneke, 1997)

Perhaps, these discrepancies and disagreements emerge from a contradiction at the very heart of Haneke’s cinema. Through the deployment of fragmented narratives and self-conscious editing, Temenuga Trifonova claims that Haneke challenges “the idea of the art work as internally coherent, unified and self-sufficient” (p. 67) – the kind of argument that has led to him being described as the “last modernist.” (4) It seems equally true, however, that his films, products of such supreme authorial mastery, feel so precisely controlled by their creator that they actually reinforce the idea of a “coherent, unified and self-sufficient” art work. This, after all, is a director who claims to favour ambiguity over fixed interpretations, yet frequently offers very tight guidelines on how he believes his work should be viewed.

That said, Haneke’s films seem destined to remain of great interest to scholars and spectators (and not only bourgeois ones). Though McCann and Sorfa’s book has some of the common problems associated with essay collections – notably, the repetition of production information and plot summaries – it provides a range of ambitious and insightful critical approaches to the director’s work. Its coverage extends to all ten of Haneke’s feature films prior to Amour and also contains welcome discussion of his work in television, which has received far less scholarly attention.

How, finally, might Amour complicate or confirm these impressions of Haneke? Certainly, his latest film exhibits many of his most characteristic features: an early static shot of a concert audience once again emphasises spectatorship as a primary concern; we meet, as so often, a bourgeois family about to experience severe suffering; Emmanuelle Riva follows Isabelle Huppert, Juliette Binoche and Naomi Watts in giving an extraordinary performance in response to psychological terror; and violence, with its attendant guilt, comes as a shocking intrusion into this world. Reviewers, though, have tended to see Amour as signalling the arrival of a new and mature humanity in Haneke’s work, as if Funny Games was merely an adolescent caper. Most glaringly, there has been a failure to acknowledge that Amour is just as manipulative as Haneke’s previous work; indeed, its subject matter (an elderly couple facing mental and physical decline) seems even more carefully designed to provoke its audience. Almost instinctively, critics have rushed to label the film as moving and truthful. The verdict of Mark Peranson provides a much-needed intrusion into this dubious consensus: “It’s far more interesting to ponder why people love the dishonest Amour than to actually think about the material of the film itself.” (5)

Amour (Michael Haneke, 2012)

Ben McCann and David Sorfa (eds.) The Cinema of Michael Haneke: Europe Utopia (London: Wallflower, 2011).

Endnotes

  1. Mattias Frey, ‘Michael Haneke’, Senses of Cinema, Issue 57 (December 2010).
  2. Ben McCann and David Sorfa, ‘Introduction’, in The Cinema of Michael Haneke: Europe Utopia, eds. Ben McCann and David Sorfa (London: Wallflower, 2011), p. 2. Subsequent page references from the essays in this collection are included in the main text.
  3. Christoph Huber, ‘Amour’, Cinema Scope, Issue 51 (Summer 2012), p. 43.
  4. Frey, ‘Michael Haneke’.
  5. Mark Peranson, ‘Cannes 2012: The Forecast Calls for Pain’, Cinema Scope, Issue 51 (Summer 2012), p. 38.