Happy Haneke

12 11 2009
The White Ribbon

'The White Ribbon'

OK, I admit it: that title doesn’t make a lot of sense. Pun-notwithstanding, there are very few film-makers working today who are less likely to branch out into light romantic comedy than Michael Haneke. In the last decade, with work like The Piano Teacher, Code Unknown and Hidden, the Austrian director has established a reputation for himself as the master of certain kind of austere, serious and confrontational cinema that is about as far from Hollywood schmalz as it’s possible to get.

This week sees the UK release of Haneke’s latest film, The White Ribbon (Das weisse Band), in which he tells the story of a small German farming community plagued by a series of unexplained outrages sometime before the outbreak of World War One. A barn is burned down, a tripwire throws a doctor from his horse, and the local baron’s son is beaten by assailants unknown. The powers-that-be – the baron, the pastor, the doctor – respond to this anarchy with a wave of violent discipline against their social inferiors and the children of the village. These latter will, we realise, grow up to form part of the Nazi generation, and Haneke has spoken of setting out to explore the movement’s roots in the kind of repressive, petty and suspicious community portrayed in the film. 

If this all sounds a bit heavy, then consider for a moment the subject matter of some of the director’s other work. In The Piano Teacher (2001) he dealt with self-mutilation and repressed sado-masochistic fantasies, in Time of the Wolf  (2003) with the aftermath of an apocalypse, and in Hidden (2005) with post-colonial guilt. Watching a Haneke film can often feel like undergoing a trial of some sort; like being provoked and lacerated from the other side of the screen by a scrupulous, cunning intelligence.

It was this provocation that critics focused on when the director’s break-through film Funny Games played at Cannes in 1997. The tale of a middle class Austrian family who are set upon, tormented and killed by a couple of cartoon-like nihilists provoked walkouts and hostile reviews, with calls to ‘ban this evil filth’ and suchlike. Haneke could quite reasonably respond that his film was much less violent than most mainstream action movies, and that much of the violence in Funny Games is implied or happens off-screen anyway. But still, by toying with his viewers’ expectations, and by revealing the audience’s own bloodlust in the notorious scene where an act of retaliatory violence is ‘rewound’ and undone, Haneke had touched a raw nerve. ‘Perverted poison,’ wrote Rex Reed in The New York Observer. ‘The lurid sickness inherent in the director’s desire to shock and repel is grim enough, but worse, his movies make no sense.’

Funny Games

'Perverted poison.' 'Funny Games' (1997)

Most intelligent critics have since realised that provocation for provocation’s sake was never Haneke’s point. Indeed with his subsequent films the director has shown himself to be, if anything, perhaps the most stern moralist at work in today’s cinema (as if that big white beard wasn’t enough of a clue). The subject to which he returns again and again is guilt.  If he makes us see things that we would rather ignore – and he does this rather a lot – it is to force us confront them. So, in Hidden, he addresses head-on France’s – and by extension much of Europe’s – racist colonial past. In Code Unknown (2000) the subject is immigration and social tension in Fortress Europe. And in The Piano Teacher, we follow the life of a woman whose desires are, to all extents and purposes, forbidden and repressed by the ‘free’ society in which she lives.    

You don’t need to know a lot about Austrian history to see where some of this stuff comes from. The post-war republic in which Haneke grew up was keen to portray itself as the victim of foreign aggression, and to forget quietly about its own complicity in the crimes of the Nazis. Ex-Nazis could, and did, hold high office in Austria right up until the 1980s. The 1990s saw the rise of Jörg Haider’s far-right Freedom Party, which brought a heady brew of xenophobia and historical revisionism to the country’s elections, and captured the state of Carinthia. 

To put the pop psychology handbook to one side for a moment though, Haneke’s films work because the kind of guilt he addresses is not specifically Austrian but pan-European, pan-‘Western’ even. It is the guilt that rich countries owe to the poor, and that we owe to one another for looking the other way ten times a day. It is the guilt of those who refuse to do anything to change the world for the better. Importantly, he never lets the individual off the hook. Daniel Auteuil’s journalist in Hidden and Juliette Binoche’s actress in Code Unknown are complicit in the society in which they live. Society’s shame is their shame. They’re as guilty as everyone else, including us popcorn-munchers. 

Michael Haneke

Bad Santa? Michael Haneke, yesterday.

But the upside of all this is that it is within our power to change things. For all of their formal rigour and seriousness, the implication in Haneke’s films is that things can get better, if only we choose to look at the world unflinchingly and to act. Take, for example, the famously ambiguous final scene in Hidden, which both gives us a possible solution to the film’s puzzle and suggests that the next generation will start to undo and overcome some of the problems created by their parents. In Time of the Wolf too, Haneke finds the good as well as the bad in a society that is rebuilding itself from scratch, and suggests that kindness and solidarity are at least as inherently human as selfishness and brutality.

A stern optimist then, I would say. And, if the definition of a great artist is someone who looks unflinchingly into the abyss on behalf of the rest of us, then a great artist too. 

Now how’s about a remake of Pretty Woman Mike?

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4 responses

15 11 2009
cherishedcinema

thoroughly enjoyed this article, thank you again for sending me the link. What’s your favorite film of his?

15 11 2009
kieronclark

Erm… both ‘Hidden’ and ‘The Piano Teacher’ are extremely good. Probably ‘Hidden’, I’d say.

22 12 2009
David H. Schleicher

Great article…Haneke is always “interesting” even when I don’t care for his films (like “Funny Games” and “Time of the Wolf”). “Cache” I thought was his most accessible (though still very challenging) piece, but “The White Ribbon” looks splendid and might be a career-capper.

Have you actually seen it yet? I eagerly look forward to its stateside release.

I’ll be adding your insightful blog to my blogroll…thanks for stopping by ‘the Spin earlier.

4 01 2011
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