There’s a revealing moment in the beginning of Michael Haneke’s 1997 “Funny Games”- a bourgeoisie family is traveling in their Expedition through the countryside playing a game of ‘guess what opera song is on the radio’. In between the calm singing of that style of music, a screaming death metal tune interrupts their game on the film’s soundtrack and the title “Funny Games” splashes across the screen in huge red letters. It’s this collision of domestic casualness and violence that seethes throughout Haneke’s cinema. His films confront and assault the viewer, which is not always a good thing, and only a handful of filmmakers successfully straddle this provocative line (Cronenberg and Gaspar Noe also spring to mind).
His first film, “The Seventh Continent” (1989) establishes a majority of motifs early including his predilection for objects over people, his rhythmic editing style coupled against hypnotic fades, distaste for narrative exposition and a reliance on television and video images that evoke strong reactions. A wealthy husband and wife, for inexplicable reasons, gradually descend out of society and take their unwitting daughter with them. This is explained only in a voiceover as the wife reads her final written letter to her in-laws. “The Seventh Continent” is metaphorical (there are only 6 continents) and it eludes to a state of mind that draws people towards cataclysmic decisions. The final 20 minutes, as Haneke methodically films the man and wife breaking their house apart with hammers and hands, are hypnotic and terrifying. As with so many future Haneke films, the violence is unsettling because he doesn’t gives the viewer a rational starting point. One could call his films true domestic horrors.
Next came “Benny’s Video” (1992) in which a young boy, fascinated by a home video clip of his family slaughtering a pig as well as violent action movies that run on a continuous loop on his bedroom tv, meets a girl in the local video store. He takes her home while his parents are away, awkwardly flirts with her, then uses his video camera to film his murder of her. Like many murders in future Haneke films, the desolation of the act is never seen, only heard (which makes it all the more terrifying as we’re forced to absorb the murders in his films on a much more visceral level, allowing our minds to fill in the horrid blanks). But the real vitality of “Benny’s Video” is not the first 45 minutes, but the final as his father and mother decide to cover up the murder for him. His mother takes him to Australia while his father stays home and disposes of the body. The scene as Benny’s parents rationalize the cover-up is actually more chilling than the murder itself. Once again, Haneke forces us to confront violence and its reverberations on an intelligent and cerebral level.
In 1994, Haneke released “71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance”- a film that weaves several narrative strands together as the film’s characters eventually end up in a bank where a young man inexplicably enters and kills several people. If I’d seen this film earlier, it may have made more of an impact, but the idea of a multi-faceted drama whose characters bounce in and out at a seemingly random pace, echoes the heavy handed narratives of Altman and Paul Thomas Anderson. Still, the film’s final image- an overhead tracking shot as the killer stumbles across a busy street and back into his parked car in a gas station, leaves one with an emotionally distanced outlook on the proceedings that doesn’t minimize the rest of the film, but enhances it.
With “Funny Games” (1997) Haneke uped the ante of passionless violence unleased by young people on the upper class. A man, woman, boy and dog retreat to the French countryside. On their first day there, a young man arrives at their doorstep asking to borrow some eggs. Since the woman had seen this man in the neighbor’s yard earlier in the day, she lets him in. Soon, another man shows up. What begins as annoyance soon towards violent as the two young men invade the house, beat up the father and begin playing manipulative games with the family. It’s in “Funny Games” that Haneke’s understanding of the medium comes full circle. The way he uses long shots (one take lasting 11 minutes that is a devastating and gut wrenching scene), mannered dialogue and old fashioned suspense (as the family’s son makes a short-lived escape into the neighbor’s house) exemplify his emergence from obsessive object infatuation to a filmmaker more satisfied with the actors and the pace they lend a film. While his first 3 films displayed a keen sense of mood and place, “Funny Games” feels like Haneke trusted his actors a little more. Gone are the long shots of hands and objects, replaced with the tension of the human face.
Is next 3 films, “Code Unknown”, “The Piano Teacher” and “Time of the Wolf” may deserve another viewing. While all three are competent studies in isolation, and the various effects of violence, they feel like rigorous re-treads on topics done much better in the past.
Then, this year saw the release of “Cache”. One of the best films of the year, Haneke morbidly dares the viewer to relax. Right from the opening image- a static exterior shot of a house that slowly turns into a videotaped image- reverses our expectations of what is real and what is dated. This videotape turns out to be shot from an unknown source, and delivered to the owners of the house (brilliantly portrayed by Juliet Binoche and Daniel Auteil). More videos arrive. Georges (Auteil) begins to (maybe) piece together the intruder, deciding the perpetrator is his childhood friend, a young boy taken in by Georges’ family during the Algerian war. There are several “oh shit” moments within “Cache”. This is not a film that startles, but slowly crawls under your skin and begs you to question each and every image. “Cache” is truly an interactive movie, effectively warping each and every theme throughout Haneke’s career into an intelligently crafted masterwork. And much has been made of the film’s final scene… as the credits roll (when most filmmakers breathe a sigh of relief and fade to black) the camera watches a stream of people come and go from a school. In the left corner of the frame, 2 characters from the film meet and briefly talk. It’s not too hard to figure out in my estimation. Taken in context with Haneke’s fascination of violence propagated by youth, “Cache” is yet another clinical dissection of this theme. And while his predisposition of image over formal dialogue often overtakes the proceedings, this is one time that the image is more alive than any words possible. It opens up and out, creating a whole new interpretation of the previous 119 minutes. Isn’t that the greatest thing a movie can do?