Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 5
26 October 1998

Michael Haneke
  Michael Haneke: Fighting Austria's
  emotional ice age
K I N O E Y E:
De-icing the Emotions
Michael Haneke's retrospective in London

Andrew J Horton

When a director announces "I wish you a disturbing evening" before the showing of his latest film, you probably are not in for an easy ride. If he says it with cheerful abandon, you have all the more reason to take him seriously, or so discovered Londoners attending the recent retrospective of five films by the controversial existentialist director Michael Haneke, part of the Festival of Central European Culture.

Haneke, who studied philosophy at Vienna University, talks about his films using long barely translatable German words that make you wonder if discussing his work in English is at all possible: Entfremdung (alienation from oneself), emotionale Vergletscherung (emotional glaciation) and Entwirklichung (reality losing its sense of realness).

Behind these fearsome expressions, Haneke's films are very immediate and comprehensible, although by no means simplistic. He is concerned with a society that no longer knows how to love - or for that matter how to hate. His films are an attempt to resharpen our feelings and responses to the world around us, which have been blunted, especially by the media. Rejecting standard conventions of timing , build up of suspense and logical plotting, he is not worried about inducing boredom, irritation and frustration. Haneke repeatedly draws us into the cinematic medium, as any film seeks to do, but then breaks the illusion to show us how we have been seduced and tricked, and what willing accomplices to it we were.

Michael Haneke's Der Siebente Kontinent (The Seventh Continent)
Some strict thinking on suicide
Although he had been writing television scripts since 1974, Haneke first hit cinema screens in 1989 with part one of his trilogy on "emotional glaciation," Der Siebente Kontinent (The Seventh Continent, 1989). This leisurely but intricate study, inspired by the real-life suicide of a middle-class Viennese family, immediately established Haneke as a unique director. The critic Alexander Howarth has suggested that the film should bear the subtitle "How strict thinking, writing and viewing found how to love each other." The trilogy, which followed with Benny's Video (1992) and 71 Fragmente einer Chronologie des Zufalls (71 Fragments in a Chronology of Chance, 1994), is permeated with a crushing absence of passion. Apologies are monotonously murmured unmeant, a man's "I love you" is addressed more to his beer than his wife and a father's reproaches to his son for murdering a girl are little different from those for staying up too late. This makes bleak viewing, but Haneke insists he is an optimist. "The people who make entertainment movies are the pessimists," he explains, "the optimist tries to shake people out of their apathy."

With several literary adaptations already behind him, and such excellent existentialist credentials, you would think Haneke would be the ideal man to interpret Kafka's Das Schloss (The Castle, 1995). Curiously, though, Haneke's screen adaptation is his weakest film to date. It feels rushed and hectic, a far cry from both his first film and the texture of Kafka's original novel. Ultimately, it adds little to our understanding of either Kafka or Haneke.

Michael Haneke's Funny Games
  Neighbours from hell
His latest film, Funny Games (1997), sees a return to form, and it will, if nothing else, do much to bolster Haneke's notoriety. Whilst Hollywood is spending millions of dollars on marauding aliens, city-sized dinosaurs and icebergs to convey fear and terror, Haneke has realised that the people from the house next door who drop in for some eggs can do the job far more effectively. Especially if they bet that by nine o'clock the following morning their hosts will all be dead. Such is the case when two charming lads, Peter and Paul, pop over to sadistically torture and psychologically terrorise a family for what could well prove to be their last twelve hours alive - unless they can escape. Why all the needless brutality? It turns out the well-mannered funsters have an altruistic urge to provide the cinema audience, who they address directly, with what they have come to see in the film - mindless violence.

As the duo try to entertain us by playing their games with the family, Haneke plays games with us in order to awaken us to the senselessness of the increasing lust audiences have for blood on the cinema screens. He builds up tension and then destroys it. He gives us what we want and then takes it away. He pulls us out of our comfortable cinema seats and forces us to recognise our role as protagonists in the film and de facto initiators of the bloodshed. The ultimate object is to restore to violence its real properties, as opposed to its cinematic ones, and to faithfully represent the very real suffering and distress that actual violence causes.

Michael Haneke's Funny Games
  Paul (Arno Frisch) engages little Georgie
  in some funny games
The focus is therefore far more on the after-effects than the actions themselves, which, with one deliberate exception, are not shown. Haneke skilfully lets us create the violence in our own minds, and stresses the agony, terror and humiliation through unimportant actions, a device he used so well in his trilogy. Doubtless many will disapprove of Haneke using violence to criticise violence (as censors in several countries have), but he sees no other way. In a post-screening discussion with a rather vocal audience, he expressed his reservations about the efficacy of Wim Wenders's The End of Violence, which just talked about the subject.

Funny Games is a genuinely shocking and discomforting film. In shattering preconceptions and by confronting you with your darker, more bloodthirsty nature as a cinema viewer, it goes much further than other films tackling the issue of violence, such as Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. This is not a film to be easily dismissed, particularly since it is currently making its way around Europe and could well be appearing at a cinema near you shortly. I, too, wish you a disturbing evening.

Andrew J Horton, 26 October 1998 (republished 22 November 1999)



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