Ed Howard: It isn’t very fashionable to be a moralist in art these days. Films that deal with moral issues in a direct way are often tagged, rightly or not, as preachy and didactic. So in a way Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke is an anomaly, a director who unapologetically has a definite moral agenda that he’s been exploring for over 20 years now, closer to 40 if one considers the TV work he made in the ‘70s and ‘80s before embarking on his feature film career in 1989. Not that Haneke himself would probably consider himself a moralist—he’s consistently said that he wants his films to ask questions but not necessarily answer them—but whether his films are polemical or simply explore these issues in more ambiguous ways, there is a undoubtedly a core of forceful moral ideas about politics, media, and human relationships that runs through his entire oeuvre.
In this conversation, we’ll be discussing most of Haneke’s feature films, from his early “glaciation trilogy” (The Seventh Continent, Benny’s Video and 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance), made in his native Austria, to his brutal thriller deconstruction Funny Games, to the films he’s made in France (Code Unknown, The Piano Teacher, Time of the Wolf and Caché) and his return to Austria for the harrowing parable The White Ribbon. It’s a consistently provocative and challenging body of work, and consistently bleak as well, something that’s only reenforced by revisiting all of the director’s films in a condensed period of time. But what’s not often acknowledged is the thread of hope that also runs through much of Haneke’s work, because being a moralist means not only documenting the evils of the world but presenting at least a slim hopefulness that the conditions depicted in these films are not permanent.
Jason Bellamy: At least not permanent for everyone. Haneke’s work does contain slight yet dazzling threads of hopefulness here and there, but for each of those threads there’s at least two instances of unequivocal and irreparable carnage serving as a counterbalance. There’s no bringing back the girl in Benny’s Video, for example, or the boy in Funny Games, or the father in Time of the Wolf, and so on. And so in Haneke’s work, hopefulness isn’t evidence of progress or potential so much as it’s the byproduct of endurance—it isn’t a slate-cleaning sunrise so much as a (momentary?) passing of the tornado. Misery and despair so thoroughly blanket Haneke’s filmography that one could argue quite plausibly that many of his stories’ apparent victims wind up being victors, because the dead are spared from continuing to experience the unavoidable disasters of life.
I’m not entirely sure what my opinion was of Haneke’s filmography before I began preparing for this conversation, but whatever it was I know that I vastly underestimated the suffocating bleakness of his work. That feels strange to say because I went in—having seen his three most recent films and parts of several others—fully aware that Haneke’s movies start at icy and grow colder from there. Yet somehow I was still surprised at the incredible consistency in bleakness of tone and, especially among his early works, deliberateness of style. (Haneke is as singular and as consistent as Terrence Malick but from the other end of the emotional scale.) That said, readers should know that whenever this piece publishes it will be at least a week behind schedule because watching all of Haneke’s films in close succession was such an emotionally trying experience for me that I often needed a few days of rest between viewings. And while I don’t mean that as praise (nor as criticism, for that matter), I suspect Haneke would take it that way.
EH: Haneke certainly doesn’t want his films to be easy viewing, and if we didn’t find his work “emotionally trying,” he’d doubtless see it as a failure. His films are all about complacency and ignorance and denial of guilt, and he clearly doesn’t want his audiences to fall into those same traps with respect to his films. Interestingly, while you were surprised by just how intensely and consistently these films affected you, I shouldn’t have been surprised, but was anyway. Prior to this conversation, I’d already seen all of Haneke’s features, most of them years ago, and though I’d only seen one or two of these films more than once, I felt like I had a pretty good grasp on his oeuvre. But I still found myself affected and shaken up all over again, because I hadn’t expected many of these films to be as bracing or as trying the second time around.
His first feature, The Seventh Continent, in particular, was a film that I’d always assumed would be a one-time-only experience, the kind of film that’s harrowing for a fresh viewing but might lose its impact on repeat visits to its bleak, spartan world. So much of the film’s effect rests on its unsettling and ambiguous aesthetic, which conveys the impression that something terrible is going to happen, though it’s not quite clear precisely what form that horror will take. At the same time, Haneke dangles a slim hope that in retrospect is just a cruel red herring, by repeatedly hinting that the bored, alienated bourgeois family of this film will find an escape from their dehumanized existence by embarking on a trip to Australia. Of course, the film’s climax depicts a very different form of escape, one that’s incredibly difficult to watch.
What I found striking this time around was how much bleaker and more affecting the film is with the foreknowledge of its ending, and how rigorous its clinical dissection of modern society is. The film’s basic form—the mechanical repetition of everyday tasks leading to breakdown—is borrowed from Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, though Haneke expands his thematic focus beyond the feminine domesticity of Akerman’s film to a study of the family unit as a whole. Haneke is relentless: 10 minutes pass before he clearly shows anyone’s face, and much of the film’s action is conveyed in tight closeups of disconnected hands interacting with various consumer goods. The family is woken up in the mornings by radio news announcements about tensions and violence in the Middle East (the film is set in three consecutive years leading up to 1989, the year it was made). At one point, an old woman tells Anna (Birgit Doll) a disturbing story about her school days, about teasing a classmate so viciously that the girl peed her pants, though even so many years later, the old woman seems more annoyed that the teacher made her clean it up than she is upset for her tormented friend. The story epitomizes the pointless cruelty that so often dominates Haneke’s world, but when Anna relates the story to her family later, they all simply laugh about it over the dinner table. In retrospect, the film’s truly hopeless conclusion is inevitable, because these people are totally disconnected from normal emotions, unable to relate to one another’s suffering or break through the barriers that separate and isolate them.
JB: That sure sounds convincing, but I think it steps too far, because, really, could the grisly conclusion of The Seventh Continent seem “inevitable” in anything but retrospect? Sure, the film is scattered with signs that these people are emotionally adrift, from the episode you mentioned involving Anna to the one in which her scientist husband, Georg (Dieter Berner), has the personal belongings of his former boss removed from his locker, presumably to avoid any personal interaction when his ex-boss comes to retrieve his things. But these are such small signs, wouldn’t you agree? There’s nothing exceptional about them, and thus there’s no reason to expect the conclusion to be exceptionally hopeless. That’s why Australia—with an assist from the movie’s title—dangles out there for so long as a plausible destination for escape and rebirth, to the point that even during the movie’s pivotal scene, in which Georg goes to the hardware store and loads up saws, hammers and other destructive (dismembering?) equipment, there’s room to think that the Schober family might still get away in one piece, even as it becomes apparent that something or someone else surely won’t.
I make that argument mainly to point me here: What defines the Schober family isn’t the way they live but the way they die. These aren’t “developed” characters in any respect. They are distant, unknowable shells—in life and in death. And while some of that is a product of who the characters are, and thus also the ingredients for why they do what they do, it’s also a product of Haneke’s cinematic approach, which, as you already pointed out, pays as much attention to truly inanimate objects as to these nearly inanimate ones. It seems to me that Haneke is in fact deliberately thwarting our ability to trace the conclusion back to any telltale signs, because as discomforting as the conclusion is on its own, it’s even more disturbing if the Schobers seem relatively normal. So while it would be inaccurate to suggest that the grisly conclusion comes out of nowhere, I think the only reason their group suicide (or is it a murder-suicide?) seems retrospectively inevitable is because it also makes for the Schobers’ most expressive action in the entire film. Their means of death explains their lives only because it’s almost all we have to go on.
EH: It’s true, the Schobers are scrupulously normal until the moment when they begin their horrible and extraordinary process of dismantling their lives, and that’s probably part of the point—the film wouldn’t be as bracing without the insinuation that this family is very much like any other family living in the modern world. I think you’re right that Haneke doesn’t want us to link the conclusion to any specific “telltale signs” but rather to think of this ending as one possible end point for the entirety of the existence depicted in the rest of the film. It’s not any one thing or any one symptom that leads to this total destruction, it’s everything that these people experience, everything they see in the world around them.
That includes, by necessity, the dream of escaping to Australia, which is raised as a possibility because the family see a travel agency ad for an Australian getaway outside the car wash they visit periodically throughout the film. Occasionally, Haneke inserts shots of this serene but also desolate Australian beach, as seen in the ad, with waves crashing against the rocks, the sound recalling the roar of the car wash. At one point, this insert is followed by a shot of a lamp turning on as Georg wakes up in the middle of the night, suggesting that this is his dream. Australia is the only hope provided in this film, and it’s kind of a sad, slim hope when one thinks about it, because even this dream is a product of the very society that’s crushing this family: even their dreams are consumerist, couched in the imagery of pre-packaged vacation bliss, and when they imagine the sound of waves, it’s the sloshing water of the car wash that they actually hear.
The car wash is also evoked when the family passes the site of a horrible accident on the highway: rain streaks the windows, and lights blink through the water outside, and the car wash’s roar is evoked by the mechanical grinding noises of the rescue teams sawing through the metal of a crashed car. If there’s any definitive point where a break seems to have occurred for this family, it’s here, though the reasons remain mysterious and unstated. The car crash scene is followed by another visit to the car wash, where Georg and Anna exchange ambiguous glances across the front seat, and their daughter Evi (Leni Tanzer) holds her mother’s hand as Anna starts to sob uncontrollably. It’s perhaps notable that this time, the camera doesn’t follow them outside the car wash to pass the Australian travel ad, because that ad, commercial and artificial as it is, provides the only hope, and as the film’s third act begins, that hope is rapidly fading away.
JB: Indeed it is. It’s difficult to express just how jarring it is when Haneke shows us Georg’s hand grabbing instruments of destruction off the racks in the hardware store: first an axe, then a hammer—oh, wait, not a hammer, a mallet—and then a power saw, a pair of huge scissors and a handsaw. It’s dreadful (especially if you know what Haneke is capable of doing to his characters) and yet, after so much emotional monotony, there’s something playful about it, too; Hitchcock would have chuckled at it, I suspect, and the footage could be inserted into any modern zombie movie without anyone noticing.
It’s an atypically fast sequence—six shots in 20 seconds; Haneke’s version of chaos cinema—as if Haneke wants the scene to end before we’ve even finished asking ourselves the question: “Whoa, what the fuck is going on!?” As soon as it was over, I remembered one of my high school English teachers who, when explaining to us how he could grade papers and watch a movie at the same time, said, “I read your papers and then when I hear a chainsaw or bedsprings, I look up.” It’s not that I found The Seventh Continent boring to that point, understand, but after that scene Haneke definitely had my full attention.
From there it isn’t long before the Schobers start putting those tools to work, and here Haneke takes his time. For about nine straight minutes, we see only shots of the Schobers dismantling their property: pictures taken off the walls, clothes taken from closets and then ripped to pieces (again and again and again), curtains torn down, illustrations cut to shreds, magazines and records ripped, drawers emptied and furniture smashed. During this sequence we see nothing of the Schobers except their hands, which are covered in big work gloves, effectively rendering them anonymous. The sequence ends with the smashing of an aquarium and the image of several fish flopping around on the carpet, gasping their final breaths—a sign of what’s to come for the Schobers.
If I had to describe the two sequences of the film that I’m confident I’ll never forget, it’s those two: the 20-second trip to the hardware store and the nine-minute demolition of the Schober family home. But that second sequence is one that plays much better in my memory than it did as I was watching it, because it’s a tough scene to endure, less for what it shows than for how much time it spends showing it. I’m sure this won’t be the last time we’ll talk about Haneke drawing out scenes of discomfort in a calculated attempt to unsettle the audience, but I think this scene is worth exploring in isolation—not as part of a Haneke trend—and so I ask you this: Does Haneke strengthen his point with each passing second of the nine-minute demolition sequence, or does he smash it until we can’t recognize it?
EH: I’d say in this case the duration is absolutely essential to Haneke’s point. As you note, Haneke shoots this sequence with the same detachment he’d applied to the scenes of the family cooking meals or performing their morning ablutions, focusing only on hands performing mechanical tasks. That’s important: throughout the film the family is defined primarily by their relationships with objects rather than with one another, and when they engage in their ritual of self-destruction, they’re still interacting with objects, acting with the same mechanical precision and abstraction with which they’d lived their ordinary lives. The way Haneke films this, with the closeups of hands and the repetition, enforces the idea that the family is in the process of dying exactly as they’d lived. If the sequence weren’t so long and repetitious, if it were punchier and less deliberate, there would be a risk that it could be taken as a catharsis, and Haneke clearly doesn’t intend it as one: this isn’t rebellion, really, it’s giving up, succumbing to the numbing societal structure that had been beating this family down throughout the entirety of the film.
There’s another thing to note about this sequence, and that’s the shattering of the aquarium, which as you say is a pretty obvious symbol for the impending fate of the Schobers. One thing that bothers me tremendously about this sequence—beyond the obvious, that is—is the fact that these are real fish flopping around on the carpet in front of Haneke’s camera, and they really died for the sake of those shots. Again, this won’t be the last time we’ll deal with the real deaths of real animals in Haneke’s cinema—it’s a common trope in his work—but it’s worth noting here just because it’s the first time it’s come up. As a moral principle, I think the deaths of real animals for the sake of a film are unforgivable and indefensible. Moreover, such moments inevitably shatter the illusion of the fictional narrative, working against the filmmaker’s point because as a viewer, at that moment, I’m not immersed in this family’s destruction of their belongings and themselves, I’m distracted by the filmmaker’s destruction of these living creatures.
JB: Yeah, in the case of the fish I was less distracted (although I was similarly taken out of the scene), because at least I could tell myself that it was possible Haneke let them gasp for a while before throwing them in a tank. (His other animal executions leave no room for such illusions.) But while I think you’ve made a sound argument for the architecture of that destruction sequence, I have to admit that I find its length distracting, even for a Haneke film. Somewhere during the 90-or-so seconds in which Haneke shows us a pair of hands cutting up one clothing item after another, I couldn’t help but think: How does Haneke think I don’t get this already? How many times does he need to underline it? Do I really need 90 seconds of shirt-cutting? Wouldn’t 30 seconds have been enough?
This is a pesky topic to discuss, because Haneke clearly has his own rhythms, and I don’t mean to imply that filmmakers can’t indulge themselves—hell, I’m the guy who loves the creation sequence in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Likewise, just as I don’t think there’s anything inherently “better” about the efficiency of Haneke’s economical shot structure (relative to other filmmakers, his camera is predominantly fixed and his takes are long), I also don’t mean to imply that there’s anything inherently “better” about efficiency of duration—sometimes there’s flavor in the fat. Still, sometimes I get the sense that Haneke becomes less interested in provoking the audience as a means to an end than in provoking the audience as an end unto itself. Put another way, at some point I feel that Haneke is less interested in conveying the Schobers’ pain than in inflicting some on me in the audience.
His next film, Benny’s Video, happens to combine both of the elements we’ve just discussed: The movie opens with some home-video-type footage of a pig being marched outside, held by its tail at one end and a rope in its mouth at the other, and then shot in the head. As soon as the scene ends, the footage is rewound and played again in slow motion. Later in the film, we’ll see this footage again, twice more, once at regular speed and once in slow motion. The execution of the pig is a crucial element of the story, no question, and by playing the footage multiple times Haneke suggests the fascination of the main character, Arno Frisch’s Benny, and perhaps also Benny’s desensitization to the slaughter. But, truthfully, those feel like ancillary outcomes. I can’t shake the notion that more than anything, Haneke just wants to disturb me.
EH: Oh, I think he does, no question. That will be especially apparent when we get to Funny Games, which is nothing if not an exercise in audience torment, but it’s also an element of these earlier films. I should say that Benny’s Video used to be one of my least favorite Haneke films, but I came around on it a little when revisiting it for this conversation. The first time I saw it, I took away the idea, which I saw and see as very simplistic, that Benny’s violence arose entirely from his obsession with violent movies, his fetish for TV and video, as expressed by the fascination with the pig’s death especially. I saw it as essentially a conservative film, like the blame-placing rhetoric about violent video games and Marilyn Manson that inevitably fills the airwaves after any school shooting or other violent act involving young people. In retrospect, although that’s certainly a big part of the film, it’s somewhat more complicated and ambiguous than that. Like The Seventh Continent, this film presents an image of a society in which human relations are deadened, not only by TV but by a whole cultural apparatus that creates distance and disconnection and leads to the disassociated emotions displayed by the characters in this film.
This time around, the key idea I took away from the film was that Haneke’s exploration of desensitization here isn’t limited to the effects of media by any means. What’s most disturbing about this film is that Benny’s violent act—killing a girl (Ingrid Stassner) who he meets and brings to his room while his parents are away—is somehow not a total split in the fabric of society, that life somehow goes on without anything changing. After the murder, Benny eats yoghurt, chats with his friend and makes plans for that night, and goes about cleaning up as if it was just part of his chores, one more activity to keep himself busy for a while, just as the family in The Seventh Continent had enacted their self-destruction with the nonchalance of ordinary household activities.
Benny’s parents (Angela Winkler and Ulrich Mühe), once they learn about the murder, seem concerned simply with allowing life to go on, getting everything back on the track of normality after this violent disjunction. His father, especially, is more concerned, not with the fact of what happened, but with the possible effect it will have on his son’s future, on his career prospects, on his ability to have a comfortable, ordinary bourgeois life of the kind his parents have. The father reacts with efficiency and methodical planning—counting out possible next steps and lists of pros and cons—to the murder, and reserves his anger for insignificant signs like Benny’s haircut.
In this context, Haneke’s desire to disturb and provoke his audience is very understandable. The whole problem that these films are documenting is that people generally aren’t disturbed or shaken up enough by the routine violence that’s all around them. If we’re not disturbed by this film, Haneke would probably say, then we’re uncomfortably close to Benny or the Schobers.
JB: But isn’t that twisted logic? I recognize that Haneke resorts to extreme violence and graphic imagery as a means of shocking us from our complacency and capturing our complete attention, and I respect that for the most part—Funny Games perhaps excluded, but maybe not—he does so not through volume of atrocity (which he obviously perceives as part of the problem) but through intensity. Still, just as François Truffaut argued that “there’s no such thing as an anti-war film,” because battle scenes in movies are inherently exciting, isn’t there something inherently backward about Haneke thinking he can comment on our desensitization without exacerbating it at the same time? Sure, Haneke’s knack for unsettling audiences is enough to make many of us rethink not just our consumption of graphic media but also our willful disconnection from the real-life suffering around us. But, for most of us, I suspect that experience is temporary, and after the moment of reflection passes the unintended side effect lingers on: once we’ve been forced to endure Haneke’s grim emotions and disturbing images, things that we once thought bleak or disquieting don’t seem quite so bad.
Having said that, and agreeing with your reservations about Haneke’s distasteful penchant for slaughtering animals as a means of artistic expression, I can’t deny that the execution of the pig, as much as it offends me, is effective in underlining our desensitization to human carnage, because even before the gun is raised to the pig’s skull, when all Haneke gives us is a squealing pig being manhandled against its will, it’s a much more discomforting scene than the one later on, when Benny shoots the girl with the same gun. True enough, one of the big reasons the pig scene is so disturbing is because we know that the animal isn’t acting, and by that design we should be more disturbed by the pig scene—because the pig’s abuse is real and the girl’s isn’t. Still, as we squirm through the pig’s trauma, sensing its execution before we have any real reason to, Haneke effectively reminds us: this is what cruelty looks like. And in addition to making us consider how we can so be so nonchalant when faced with images of dramatized human-on-human cruelty at the movies, it’s enough to make one wonder how we can watch the nightly news, so often filled with gruesome images of real atrocity, without curling up into the fetal position. With so much real gruesomeness in the world, the killing of a pig should be the thing that doesn’t faze us. Instead, it’s the other way around.
EH: Again, the big sticking point for me there is that the killing of the pig is real, which is why it’s more disturbing, so while I see the point you’re making and that Haneke is trying to make, I don’t think it comes across because it rests on a false equation between real animal slaughter and performative, staged human slaughter. This is what cruelty looks like, perhaps, but it’s the director’s cruelty—it’s always struck me as perverse when a filmmaker uses his own killings of animals symbolically in a film to represent cruelty and inhumanity, because the message he’s really sending is not about the characters or the society they live in but about himself. Not to mention, I have to think that the pig slaughter and similar scenes of animals being killed in Haneke’s films are only so disturbing to us because we’re somewhat privileged urban dwellers—it’s hard to imagine a more rural audience being equally upset by something as routine as a pig being killed. (Of course, the urban middle-to-upper-class most likely to be offended by those scenes is precisely Haneke’s target—and his target audience.)
I also see your point about Haneke’s use of violence contributing to our desensitization rather than curing it, and I think it’s a valid criticism. Haneke is walking a fine line in these films, one that I’d argue he crosses especially in Funny Games, and even though most of the human violence in his work occurs offscreen, he continually risks the possibility that his films are simply adding to modernity’s barrage of violent, dehumanizing images rather than offering a tonic.
Maybe that’s why I find Benny’s Video is most effective and interesting when it’s exploring emotional violence rather than physical violence. One of the most compelling scenes is the one where Benny and his mother are watching TV, on vacation while back home Benny’s father is disposing of the corpse. The mother abruptly breaks down, sobbing and moaning, rolling away from her son. Benny reaches out and tries to touch her but she only flinches away, while he ineffectually asks, “what’s wrong?” Of course, that’s the same thing he’d said to the girl he killed after the first time he shot her. These scenes represent the essential human disconnect at the core of this film: Benny and his mother sit apart on the bed, unable to touch or comfort one another, and Benny’s lame attempt to bridge the gap between them totally fails. He just sits there watching TV while she collapses into her private suffering, and there seems to be no empathy in him, no possibility of this mother and son sharing their emotions rather than remaining separated like this.
JB: Benny’s Video is one of Haneke’s most consistently paced films, and I think the way he captures the girl’s suffering (after the first shot and before the last one) just offscreen might be his best use of a fixed camera. For those reasons especially, I admire Benny’s Video quite a bit. But watching it this time I couldn’t help but see some unfavorable parallels with Lynne Ramsay’s recent We Need to Talk About Kevin. On the positive side, both films provide thought-provoking glimpses of the effect of adolescent crime on the parents of the murderer. But on the negative side, the most glaring similarity between the films is that they leave very little room to see the young murderer as anything more than a psychopath. This is much more exaggerated in Ramsay’s film, but as with the Schobers in The Seventh Continent, Benny’s most descriptive action is one of pure detached destruction, and almost every other scene in the film is designed to underline that detachment.
For me, this is problematic in two ways. First, by ridding Benny of nuance, it’s hard to see him as capable of anything else. And second, building out from that, I think it’s all too easy to make some lazy assumptions about why Benny is the way he is. For example, several reviews I’ve read point out that Benny has, as you put it, an “obsession with violent movies.” But does he? Yes, he obsesses over the pig video specifically. Yes, he goes to the video store often. But the videos he rents and watches are more action oriented than violent—nothing particularly unusual about them. Sure, it’s safe to argue that for Benny, whose room is filled with video equipment, the line between dramatized life and real life has blurred to the point that he can’t differentiate one from the other, but I’m not convinced that has anything to do with the content itself. Rather, I think it has more to do with the behavior, which becomes an indictment of folks who experience the world by sitting in front of a TV. The thing is, I think Haneke invites some of those knee-jerk readings (which, appropriately enough, actually have a lot in common with the “blame-placing rhetoric about violent video games and Marilyn Manson”), because he gives us so little else to cling to, which makes it all too easy to blow the smallest details out of proportion.
EH: I think that’s right. As I said, the first time I saw Benny’s Video, I thought it was lazily suggesting that watching violent media necessarily leads to real-life violence. And while I found much more to admire in the film this time, a second viewing didn’t entirely erase the suspicion that Haneke is at least skirting around the edges of a very simplistic and reductive reading of how people relate to media. It’s very tempting to draw a straight line in this film from Benny’s consumption of those, as you say, rather typical (and typically dumb) American action movies to his violent behavior and sociopathic detachment. And while I now think that’s a misreading of what Haneke is going for, he opens himself up for that misreading because the film is not nearly clear enough about what its actual stance on media violence is. Haneke is often ambiguous in this fashion, usually for the better, letting viewers make up their own minds about the ideas in his films, but in this case I’d say he leaves so much leeway that it’s easy to come to conclusions that are the opposite of what he intended.
On the other hand, at least some of the film’s contradictions do seem intentional. One interesting thing about Benny’s Video is that it’s an early hint of the rather conflicted feelings that Haneke seems to have about the medium of video in particular. It’s video that desensitizes Benny, numbing his feelings through repeatable images of violence, both real and cinematic. But for Haneke, video is also a record, a form of documentary proof that, properly used, can make it difficult to avoid the truth—an idea he’d take to its logical conclusion many years later in his masterpiece Caché. Towards the end of this film, Haneke shows us a video that Benny had shot of a scene that we’d already seen earlier in the film: the shot from inside Benny’s bedroom, his door slightly ajar, as his parents discuss what they’re planning to do with the girl’s dead body. There’s a crucial difference between the two presentations of this otherwise identical shot: earlier in the film, the parents’ voices were muffled from inside Benny’s room, what they were saying couldn’t be made out at all, but when Benny plays the tape for the police, his video equipment, more sensitive than the human ear, has picked up every word perfectly. There’s a disconnection here, a gap between the reality and the video, with the video actually presenting a heightened and expanded reality, containing more information than what could have been gleaned from actually being in the room at the time the video was shot.
This idea is perhaps related to Haneke’s habit of weaving contemporary news reports into his films. His characters generally take no notice of the continual TV news bulletins about atrocities being committed in foreign lands—genocide in Bosnia in this 1992 film—but the presence of these reports provides important real-world context for Haneke’s ideas. Haneke doesn’t offer any solution for how to get people in a desensitized, apathetic society to pay attention to these video records of horrific violence, but it does seem to be important to him that these records exist. It’s probably notable, then, that his next film, 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, begins with reports about violence in Somalia and Haiti, and ends with some chatter on Michael Jackson’s plans for a “worldwide comeback” tour. This film is in general very interesting to consider in terms of the discussion we’ve been having about causality in Haneke’s work. The film is based on a real incident in which a man opened fire in a bank and killed several people before committing suicide, and Haneke announces that this bloody event is coming in the text at the beginning of the film. The film is then structured around 71 short, clipped scenes from the lives of various random people who will eventually arrive in or around the bank at the time of the killing spree. The unspoken question is: what caused this event? Is it chance, as the title implies? Did everything depicted in this film in some way “cause” the violence? Or is it really impossible to make sense of such an inherently nonsensical act? Whereas cause and effect were problematic in Benny’s Video, here Haneke makes these tricky questions the core of the film—without answering them, of course.
JB: For me, 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance is one of the least satisfying Haneke films because I think it’s a whole lot of nothing. You wonder if it’s possible to “make sense of such an inherently nonsensical act as the one at the end of this film,” and I say, of course it isn’t—not if you look for the answers in the places Haneke looks. Of those titular 71 fragments, many have no impact on the eventual shootout whatsoever—from the scene in which a man slowly eats his soup dinner, to the one in which a boy steals a comic book, to the one in which an orphan girl asks to see her new room at her foster parents’ house, to the one in which men unload money at a bank, and so on. Mixed within these ultimately meaningless scenes are scenes in which the eventual gunman throws a temper tantrum when he can’t figure out a puzzle, drills himself in table tennis (for almost three exhausting minutes) and gets lectured by his coach. By contrast, sure, those scenes seem as if they must be revealing, but the truth of the matter is that Haneke never looks deep enough for us to know for sure, and so his examination doesn’t feel like an examination at all. It’s like being asked to find a needle in a needle-less haystack.
All of which has the effect of making 71 Fragments seem less like a statement unto itself than a collection of scenes picked up off the cutting room floor and fed back at us through the projector. You hinted at the disconnect between the news footage sequences and the rest of the action, but really none of it feels connected, and it shouldn’t because it isn’t: yes, several of these individuals wind up somehow involved in the tragic event, but only one of those players has a story worth examining—the shooter. Everybody else is just there. Alas, that’s the way I feel about the news footage in this film, too. It reminds us that there is all manner of awfulness all around the world—wars, ethnic cleansing and even a pop music star who can’t keep his genitals to himself—but to what end? Is 71 Fragments merely a reminder that “acts of insanity,” to borrow a phrase from one of the news broadcasts, happen every day around the world? And if so is that a reminder we need? 71 Fragments is considered the third film in Haneke’s glaciation trilogy, but this film isn’t as distinct as the other two. It’s more like the leftovers that Haneke wanted to chew on a little longer before swallowing. Am I missing something?
EH: I don’t think this is one of Haneke’s strongest films, either—his later Code Unknown adopts a similar “network narrative” style but does so with more substance and depth—but I do think there’s more to it than you suggest. Its style is different from the other “glaciation” films, but its thematic focus on human disconnection and failures of empathy is very clearly in line with Haneke’s first two features. Whereas you see the scenes that don’t directly deal with the gunman as “meaningless,” I think that’s where the core of the film actually rests.
All three of the films in Haneke’s early trilogy are about the gaps between people, here quite literally depicted as the short black spaces that separate each of these short scenes from one another. There are scenes here that present miniature, densely packed riffs on the disconnections explored at length in the preceding two films. In one scene that’s equal parts darkly humorous and deeply sad, a bank manager gets through most of a transaction with an old man with businesslike efficiency and politeness, slightly distracted from her work, and then as she finishes his transaction, she calls him dad and says she’s busy, that she can’t talk. In another scene, a man suddenly tells his wife that he loves her, and all it does is start a fight, as she gets suspicious and accuses him of being drunk. “I thought it might help,” he says sadly, but as their fight escalates he finally just slaps her before they return to eating in sullen silence.
These scenes certainly don’t have anything to do with the shooting that the film is leading to, at least not directly. In another sense, though, Haneke seems to be suggesting that all of these isolated moments are part of the same problem, symptoms of the same disease, outbursts of emotional violence that are caused by the same kinds of wounds that lead to the physical violence of the film’s climax.
JB: I suppose I just don’t find the recipe very daring. Haneke gives us a collection of scenes that show little, explain even less and that don’t really have a point, and he uses them to showcase human disconnection and emotional ambiguity. Well, of course. It’s not that I need every director to go all Fitzcarraldo on us to earn my respect, but this is the kind of filmmaking that the expression “like shooting fish in a barrel” is meant for. Don’t get me wrong: Haneke clearly achieves exactly what he’s going for. I have little doubt about that. So it would be silly to imply that his cinematic approach to 71 Fragments is anything less than successful. But it sure isn’t impressive, and I don’t have a lot of patience for storytellers who underline the unknowability of things by telling us as little as possible. Haneke’s most ardent fans would say I’m oversimplifying, and I understand that, but I’d argue that finding much depth in this film is the result of overcomplication. The benefit of saying very little as an artist is that your fans will rush to ascribe profundity to the vacancies.
As you’ve already indicated, the natural film to talk about next would be Code Unknown, which feels like an unofficial companion piece. But let’s stick with the chronological approach, because I suppose part of my argument against 71 Fragments could also apply to what must be Haneke’s best known (and most notorious) film, Funny Games. The topic of that film isn’t emotional distance (at least not exactly); it’s violence, and specifically violence as entertainment. But much as Haneke “explores” themes of real-world disconnection via dramatic disconnection in 71 Fragments, in Funny Games he examines the extremes of cinematic violence via, you guessed it, extreme cinematic violence. Some might see those as natural approaches. But in some sense Haneke isn’t “exploring” these themes so much as he’s emulating them. It reminds me of that famous Hollywood story about Dustin Hoffman getting all Method-y while preparing for his role in 1976’s Marathon Man by staying up all night and running around to the point of exhaustion, which supposedly prompted a confused Laurence Olivier to quip, “Why not try acting?” Likewise, sometimes I think Haneke gets lost in re-creation, which doesn’t necessarily include investigation.
EH: You may be surprised to find that I agree with you on this one. My initial viewing of Funny Games (the 1997 original) left me exhausted and overwhelmed and battered, which at the time caused me to mistake the film’s cynical manipulations for something more interesting. But each successive viewing of Haneke’s exercise in audience-baiting—I’ve now seen the original and the remake, which are essentially the same movie, twice each—has only made me hate this film more and more, finding less and less to appreciate with each painful viewing. I think the problem, which you hint at, is that Haneke sets out to critique a certain kind of violent movie by essentially making a movie that fits neatly into the genre he’s critiquing. True, though the film feels gory and violent, Haneke actually doesn’t show very much onscreen violence, and he keeps implicating the audience in the film’s action by having the villains (Arno Frisch and Frank Giering) wink and talk at the camera, but in most ways Funny Games, in either version, feels way too close to the kinds of entertainment it’s supposedly deconstructing.
As we’ve already mentioned, Haneke often risks being guilty of the same crimes he’s trying to expose, and I think it’s with Funny Games that he falls headfirst into that trap. Haneke has famously said of this film that he expects people to walk out, and that those who do don’t need the message he’s trying to convey, while those who sit through the whole picture needed his lesson. That’s a pretty paternalistic way to think about one’s own films, but moreover I’m not convinced that the film even achieves its stated aims. There are doubtless plenty of people who miss the film’s point altogether and simply appreciate its violence and its obvious encouragement to side with the killers—I was darkly amused by the IMDb commenter who expressed his love of the film and hoped for a sequel called Funnier Games. The thing is, those most likely to get the film’s message are those who are already familiar with the rest of the director’s work, because taken on its own, without that context, Funny Games could all too easily be mistaken for exactly the kind of manipulative, blood-soaked celebration of violence that it’s actually satirizing.
JB: I feel like I should give you a hug or a Paxil or something, because I have no idea how you’ve managed to suffer through Funny Games so many times. Prior to this conversation, I’d seen brief clips of it, and I’d read quite a bit about it—thanks in large part to think pieces inspired by Haneke’s American remake—but I’d never sat down and watched it because, well, it sounded like torture porn to me, which made it no more appealing than one of the Saw films, which I’ve also avoided. And if not for this discussion, I’m confident saying that I never would have watched Funny Games, not for some political or moral reason but simply because I see no upside in watching any movie that’s designed to put the audience through hell—never mind that Funny Games has the added insult-to-injury ingredient of criticizing those who endure its hell.
That’s the thing that puzzles me most about Funny Games, because I just don’t understand the concept of an artist who wants to drive people away from his art. That doesn’t compute for me. Frankly, I’m not sure something with that design should be considered art. It makes me think, strangely enough, of that period a few years ago when everyone was talking about the online scat porn sensation “2 Girls, 1 Cup” (another thing I’ve never seen, by the way). Around that time, George Clooney was interviewed for Esquire, and mentioned seeing part of the video on the set of one of his movies: “It’s like the rodeo—see how long you can stay on,” he said of trying to endure the sight of two women shitting and puking into the same cup and exchanging drinks of the wicked brew (or something like that; again, I haven’t seen it). So far as I can tell, that’s pretty much the attitude that Haneke had when he made Funny Games, except what’s different is that “2 Girls, 1 Cup” wasn’t designed to revolt—it was designed to appeal to a niche group of sexual deviants (please tell me this is one sexual behavior I needn’t be open-minded about). “2 Girls, 1 Cup” was designed to be a turn-on. And so to me this comparison illustrates Haneke’s gross miscalculation (pun intended): He set out to make a punishing rodeo movie, but the ones he means to offend aren’t the ones who suffer.
EH: I should say, though any respect I once had for Funny Games has been thoroughly worn away by my repeat viewings—and I only revisited both versions because of this conversation; I’m not a masochist—I do see some value in a work of art that’s intended primarily to provoke and to repulse audiences.
There is one scene in Funny Games that I still appreciate, even now, and even if I freely admit that my pleasure in it is a little juvenile. In the film’s opening sequence, the family is driving to their vacation house, playing a guessing game with classical music CDs. After a while, the relaxed, tranquil music is suddenly drowned out as Haneke cuts in some excerpts of the noisier moments from a few songs by Naked City, with vocalist Eye Yamatsuka yammering over the combination of blaring sax and metal-inspired riffing. It’s the first sign of the filmmaker’s intrusive presence in the film, but unlike the later moments when the killers direct insinuating remarks at the audience, it remains interesting because it’s also a sign of Haneke’s commentary on classical culture.
Haneke’s films often contain these references to the bourgeois appropriation of art in ways that reduce the potential of art to be truly meaningful, to provoke emotional and intellectual responses. The guessing game at the beginning of Funny Games is a good example: beautiful classical music recontextualized as a show-offy game intended to prove the intelligence of the players, with the music itself serving as a prop. In Benny’s Video, the walls of the family’s dining room are loaded with tiny reproductions of art, with little context or sign of curation: the Mona Lisa abuts Warhol’s rows of screen-printed Marilyns, suggesting that the only criterion for selection is that the art is famous. These miniatures are so densely packed together and so reduced in scale that any impact, any statement the art might be making, any aesthetic interest, is all but entirely lost. It’s art reduced to a mere marker of taste or status, a symbol of the bourgeois’ empty understanding of art’s real potential. In this context, Haneke’s more provocative, off-putting tendencies make some sense: his characters are often so comfortable and blasé about art that it takes something drastic, like Eye Yamatsuka or Funny Games itself, to provoke any reaction other than a shrug. None of this makes Funny Games any better or any less condescending, but I think I understand Haneke’s impulse in making a film like this.
JB: Provocation is one thing—that’s the pig slaughter scene in Benny’s Video, no matter if you think that moment is a cheap shock tactic, an unforgivable abuse of artistic license, a genius commentary on our desensitization to onscreen violence, or some combination of all of the above. Trying to buck your audience so hard that they fall off and hurt themselves is something else altogether. Most of all, it’s an affront to the unspoken contract between the artist and the consumer. Had I watched Funny Games under different circumstances and not felt a critical duty to suffer through it until the end, I still would have felt an artistic duty to watch it all. Some people feel differently, I know, but my theory is that if I watch a film I owe it to the filmmaker to see it all. I have the right to stop, of course. But if I stop, I don’t have the right to say I’ve seen the film. So what bothers me about Haneke’s approach is that he abuses those cinephiles with the best intentions, the folks who endure it all because they trust Haneke wouldn’t abuse them for the sake of abusing them. Even though he does.
Having said that, I owe Haneke the respect I don’t feel he shows for his audience: There are moments of Funny Games that I found quite powerful, moments that—just for a moment—made me feel that perhaps it was worth it to suffer through all of the quasi-erotic abuse. The best example is the one after the killers have left the husband and wife alone in their home, having wounded the husband, humiliated the wife and killed the couple’s son. First the wife, Anna (Susanne Lothar), helps her injured husband, Georg (Ulrich Mühe), limp out of the living room—her straining to help hold him up, both of them struggling not to look in the direction of their murdered son, whose body lies a few feet away. In and of itself, that moment is a powerful demonstration of human resilience, a demonstration of our ability to compartmentalize in moments of terror in order to survive. I find that inspiring (although perhaps Haneke means it as a criticism), but not nearly as inspiring as what happens not long after that.
As Anna prepares to escape through a window to get help, Georg apologizes to her, because he wasn’t strong enough to overpower the two men and save them. It’s a gut-wrenching apology—he’s been seriously beaten and he already feels guilt—and it brings Anna to tears. She embraces him. Their lives are still in danger, they haven’t had time to really accept their son’s murder, and yet she offers him instant forgiveness and compassion. Amidst a gruesome film, and in the immediate aftermath of a grotesque tragedy, their tearful embrace is as touching a depiction of love and devotion as I’ve ever seen at the movies. It’s a moment that, to borrow your phrase, offers at least “slim hopefulness.”
EH: That is a powerful moment, though it’s a shame that the film as a whole doesn’t live up to the emotional honesty of those scenes. His next film, Code Unknown, marked a change in Haneke’s career, as he began making films in France, with French casts. Haneke has said that leaving his native Austria was a practical decision, because there’s a far better film industry infrastructure in France. But for whatever reason, I think the start of the French period also coincides with a leap in the quality and complexity of Haneke’s work after the singlemindedness of the glaciation trilogy and Funny Games. As we’ve already mentioned, Code Unknown is somewhat similar in style to 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, in that it’s a loose series of stories about various people who are linked only by an incident that occurs in an alley one morning. But Code Unknown is a far more sophisticated and complex film, a sustained study of guilt and responsibility.
The beginning of the film is one long seven-minute take in which Anne (Juliette Binoche) walks out of her apartment, meets her boyfriend’s younger brother Jean (Alexandre Hamidi), walks down the street, stops to get pastry, and then parts with Jean. Still within the same shot, Jean walks back down the street towards Anne’s apartment, stops in an alleyway to watch some performers, and casually drops his trash in the lap of an immigrant beggar (Luminita Gheroghiu). Jean is then accosted by a passerby, Amadou (Ona Lu Yenke), who witnesses the incident and tries to get Jean to apologize to the beggar woman. Soon Anne returns to the scene and the cops show up, and how it all plays out from that point on resonates throughout the rest of the movie. Whereas 71 Fragments was building up to an act of violence, Code Unknown, which has the subtitle Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys, reverses the structure by examining the repercussions of something that happens at the beginning of the film, an incident that epitomizes not physical violence but a more subtle form of institutional, societal violence. The one-take first shot is very important, with the camera flowing up the street and then back again, maintaining the continuity of cause and effect.
JB: I agree, of course, that the initial scene sets the stage for what follows, and the no-cut structure is appropriate for conveying a sense of all these different stories intersecting, as everyone meets in one big (leftward- and rightward-tracking) shot. But we should be careful not to overstate the importance of the cut-free approach. It’s effective here, no doubt. But it would be silly to suggest that Haneke couldn’t have just as easily gotten the point across with numerous shots, numerous angles and numerous cuts, or, hell, even split-screen. This is, after all, a filmmaker who has spent about half his career telling stories in fragments—and he’s been effective that way, too. That said, I think what you’re getting at is that what’s significant here is the contrast between the long introductory scene and the many fragmented scenes that follow it. It’s as if Haneke is out to establish that these are not different or unrelated lives, even if they seem disconnected and dissimilar when viewed in isolation.
The tricky thing about network narratives like this, in which various mostly unrelated stories are linked together by one (or a few) event(s), is that sometimes the “network” aspect dominates our attention, which is to say that the interrelatedness of the pieces becomes more significant than the pieces themselves. In some cases, that’s the whole point. Paul Haggis’ much loved and much reviled Crash, for example, has some wonderful little moments, but I don’t think there’s much question that his film is actually “about” the proximity of those moments to one another more so than about the moments themselves. On the other hand, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel is, in my mind, about the moments themselves, and Iñárritu simply uses a network structure as a means to explore several emotionally similar stories without creating unnecessary divisions between them (although most critics sure didn’t see it that way in the aftermath of Crash). I mention all of this en route to these questions: Ed, do you think Haneke uses a network approach in Code Unknown as a narrative tactic, allowing him to explore these otherwise disparate lives, or do you think the connectivity of these stories is core to what’s being explored? And that said, when you watch or think about Code Unknown, what stands out to you: the moments themselves in isolation or the connectivity of those moments, or maybe something else?
EH: Those are great questions. Although there are moments in Code Unknown that are powerful and affecting in isolation, the real strength of the film, in my opinion, is the cumulative effect. The individual characters here are far more developed than the ones in 71 Fragments, but there’s still definitely a sense that it’s the whole that really matters, while the individual pieces are intended primarily to reveal different aspects of the bigger picture. The different stories are connected, superficially, by a chance encounter on a certain street corner, but more substantially they’re connected thematically, as a broad examination of the human responsibility to respond to injustice.
The key question of the film is, what do we do when we encounter wrong? Do we intervene, speak up, or keep quiet and try to go about our lives as usual? That’s the question Anne faces when she hears a young girl in her building screaming and crying, possibly being beaten or abused by someone in her family. It’s the question Amadou faces when he sees Jean drop a paper bag in the lap of the beggar, though his intervention has unintended effects, while Anne’s failure to intervene has tragic results for the little girl who’s being abused. It’s the question that Anne’s boyfriend Georges (Thierry Neuvic) faces in his work as a war correspondent. Writing to Anne from a war zone, he tells her, “I tried writing often but gave up. I didn’t know what to say.” Haneke accompanies this letter with a montage of war photographs, implying that, yes, it’s difficult to formulate a proper response to something like this, but it’s nevertheless necessary. Haneke’s film connects various forms of moral responsibility, suggesting a link between the kinds of domestic moral questions that people might face in the course of everyday life—responding to the crimes of a neighbor, dealing with the poor, confronting petty cruelty when one witnesses it—and the larger moral questions that define the behaviors of whole nations and races towards one another.
There is often a disconnect between these various forms of morality, and one of Haneke’s main targets here is the hypocrisy of those who have “correct” views about international affairs and politics but don’t apply those morals in the course of everyday life. During a scene in which Anne and Georges go shopping, Georges says that the possible child abuse in Anne’s building isn’t his problem: he didn’t hear the child screaming, he doesn’t know the parents or the old lady neighbor, so he has no responsibility to intervene. But how does that connect back to his work, in which he documents atrocities occurring in foreign countries, and presumably believes it to be important? These connections are the core of the film, drawing lines between war, immigration, racism, and how we treat our neighbors, our lovers and spouses, our friends and families, and the strangers we meet or see in the streets.
All of this adds up to the conclusion that Code Unknown is structurally more like Crash than Babel (at least based on your distinctions between them; I haven’t seen the latter). The difference is that Haneke’s film is far more sophisticated and subtle than Haggis’, and despite Haneke’s reputation for hammering home his points until they hurt—well-earned by his earlier films, for better or worse—he has a much lighter touch here.
JB: It sure sounds good when you write about it. I don’t really disagree with your analysis, but to me what stands out are moments in isolation, even when I can recognize how they connect—narratively or thematically—to everything around them. The most powerful scene, in my opinion, is the one in which Anne is verbally abused and physically intimidated by some young thugs on the subway. This happens on a car fairly full of people, but only one man sticks up for her, and when he does, brave as he attempts to appear, you can tell he’s terrified; he isn’t intervening because he’s a tough-guy but because he feels he has to. That scene is evidence, no doubt, of society’s incredible ability to look the other way in deference to personal interests, but because of the way Haneke frames the scene, leaving his camera focused only on Anne and the old man who intervenes, what stands out isn’t the inaction of the other passengers but the terror of the bullies’ target(s). And so the scene instead becomes about the fragility of peace and security, not one about responsibility.
The same could be said of another scene involving “Anne”—the one in which she’s happily playing in a roof-deck swimming pool and looks up to see that her son is crawling over the building’s edge. It’s a terrifying moment, one that’s this close to tragedy. But it isn’t real; it’s a scene from a movie that Anne is shooting. Much earlier in the film, Haneke plays a similar game, making us wonder if Anne has been captured by some sadistic killer or instead is merely auditioning for a part in a slasher movie. And as convincing as Binoche is in these scenes, I can’t say I know what Haneke is trying to accomplish with them or how they serve the movie’s larger themes. Is Haneke patting himself on the back for getting the audience to fall for these movie-within-a-movie fabrications? Is he trying to imply that those other scenes are somehow more real? I can’t say I detect a motivation beyond basic provocation, which is why the connectivity of the narratives seems fairly insignificant.
EH: Those scenes are definitely ambiguous in their connection to the “real” scenes, but I do think there’s much more to it than provocation. Frankly, though Haneke has certainly never shied away from provocation for its own sake, I don’t think that’s what the fake-outs in Code Unknown are about at all. For me, those scenes fill in the character of Anne in some interesting ways, even though they’re not really about her but about characters she’s playing in movies. As you say, Binoche is very convincing in those scenes, and in some ways those are the scenes in the film where she displays the most raw emotion, where she really breaks down and cuts loose. One gets a sense that she’s saving her emotional expression for performances, that only onscreen does she really unleash those tears and screams that might be equally appropriate in response to the real tragedies or problems in her life. The scene with Anne’s son nearly falling, for instance, resonates with the argument she has with Georges in which she mentions the son he apparently doesn’t see much, and tells him, seemingly just to wound him, that she had an abortion while he was away.
One important theme of this film is the difficulty of communication, as suggested by the bookends with deaf-mute children playing signing games. The film opens with the little girl who eventually dies from being abused, miming cowering in the corner, and the other kids guess a variety of possibilities—including “bad conscience,” a theme that runs through this film and is picked up again in Caché—but they never get that she’s trying to tell them about what happens to her at home. Anne gets more direct communications about the girl’s plight—she hears the screams and receives a letter that might be from the girl or from an old lady neighbor—but she still doesn’t respond, with tragic results. Whereas onscreen she reacts with terror and sobbing to a child’s danger, and is able to rescue him, offscreen she’s much more distanced in her responses, and when confronted with an actual child in danger, she doesn’t even attempt to rescue the girl.
I think this is an extension of Haneke’s examinations of the effects of media, suggesting that in many ways the movies have become substitutes for reality. The movies offer visceral thrills in serial killer slashers like the Funny Games-esque thriller Anne’s acting in, or melodramas that allow viewers to vicariously experience powerful and scary emotions that they might not allow out in their actual lives outside the movie theater.
JB: That’s an interesting theory, although personally I would never criticize a mother for having a stronger emotional response to watching her own child nearly crawl over the edge of a high rise than to hearing what might be—but she’s not entirely sure—the abuse of a stranger. So if you’re correct about Haneke’s intent, he could have made his point more clearly (and more convincingly) by comparing two more similar events.
That said, our inability to agree on what’s happening in Code Unknown sets us up nicely to discuss Haneke’s next picture, The Piano Teacher, which happens to be one of his most ambiguous movies. Based on an autobiographical novel by Elfriede Jelinek, the film’s narrative structure is about as straightforward as it gets: Isabelle Huppert plays Erika Kohut, a woman who had been raised by her especially strict mother to be a concert pianist and now, in her 40s, still lives with her mother (played by Annie Girardot) while making a living as a piano instructor. Unlike some subsequent Haneke films, the Xs and Os of what happens are easy to recognize: Erika gets involved in a sexual affair with one of her students, a 20-something named Walter (BenoÓt Magimel), that becomes both emotionally and physically abusive. What’s difficult to figure out is how Erika and Walter feel about what happens between them, even though they spend much of the film ostensibly telling one another how they feel. While Walter’s affection for and attraction to Erika is more traditional, Erika’s attraction to Walter is an outgrowth of some unhealthy sexual fantasies that fixate on her own physical abuse—and, indeed, even before she meets Walter, Erika tends to her own urges by taking a razorblade to her vagina.
In large part because we can’t be confident how Walter and Erika feel about what’s happening—are some of their emotional outbursts against one another merely part of the ritual, part of the turn-on, part of the basic attraction?—it’s also very difficult to know how to feel about what we see. The film ends with Walter beating and then raping(?) an almost catatonic Erika, which on paper sounds like an unequivocal crime, except that Walter gives Erika almost exactly what she asks for—no, not what she asks for: what she repeatedly begs for and demands. In fact, based on her detailed requests, if anything Walter goes easy on Erika. The overall effect of Walter and Erika’s twisted relationship is in line with the themes of Code Unknown, as Haneke once again challenges the audience to grapple with our concept of moral absolutes.
EH: Yes, one of the things that’s interesting about The Piano Teacher is how thoroughly it fits in with Haneke’s other work even though it’s one of his rare adaptations of someone else’s writing. The Piano Teacher stands out because it’s the only Haneke film in which sexuality is at the center of the story, but in most other ways it’s very typical of his examinations of communication breakdowns and violence. Like the deaf-mute kids in Code Unknown, Erika and Walter have trouble communicating, even though it seems like sometimes they do nothing else. Erika even writes out a multi-page letter detailing everything that she wants from Walter, but as you say, once he delivers on her desires—out of spite rather than a wish to fulfill her sadomasochistic fantasies—she’s humiliated and terrified rather than turned on. The question is, what does she really want?
It’s obvious that Erika is a deeply repressed woman, and that her sexuality is tied up with her complicated feelings about the domineering mother who habitually rummages through Erika’s purse and harangues her about everything from clothes purchases to Schubert. “This is nothing to do with you,” Walter says to Erika’s mother, right before he locks the mother in a room and rapes Erika, but actually it has everything to do with her. All of Erika’s fantasies involve her mother: being tied up in the room next to her mother, being helpless and so close to the woman who runs her life, except that her mother would be unable to get to her or help her. That’s why, after Walter rejects Erika’s S&M proposals, she throws herself desperately at her mother instead, because in many ways that’s who she was fixated on all along—her mother is mentioned as often in Erika’s letter as Walter is.
JB: That’s a terrific observation, and it explains more than it might initially appear. For example, what is Erika and Walter’s first sexual encounter about if not Erika’s desire to control someone else to the point that even their sexuality doesn’t seem to belong to them? The first time Erika and Walter get physical together, they’re in a public bathroom at a concert hall, and while Walter wants to express his passion physically and verbally, Erika just wants him to obey. Her pleasure comes from making him subservient. And the longer the scene goes on the clearer it becomes that Erika isn’t acting. She isn’t role playing. She’s interested in sex on her terms or not at all.
Of course, as much as Erika’s story examines the repression of her natural womanhood at the hands of her domineering mother, The Piano Teacher is also a comment on our desensitization to violent or otherwise extreme imagery. Erika’s sexual fantasies appear to be lifted from pornographic movies that are typically defined by demonstrations of dominance, and, sure enough, Erika tries on both roles: she’s detailed in articulating exactly what she wants from Walter, and yet her fantasies are built around her own submission. Much as Funny Games is designed to make us question our casual acceptance of graphic violence, The Piano Teacher points out that the eroticism of many fairly typical sexual fantasies that are frequently depicted in movies—pornographic or mainstream—often shatters when brought into the real world. I don’t think Haneke is condemning the sexual rituals themselves, necessarily. He’s simply condemning those who don’t know where to draw the line between fantasy and reality.
EH: I think that’s right. What Haneke is decrying here isn’t necessarily sadomasochism in itself, but the disconnection and alienation that prevents these characters from knowing what it is they really want, as opposed to what they think they want. Both Walter and Erika are responding primarily to ideals rather than reality: Walter to a conventional romanticism in which he’d like to sweep this woman off her feet and have a passionate affair, Erika to the elaborate and violent fantasies she’s constructed as a subconscious compensation for a life in which she otherwise feels she has no control. Neither of them gets what they want in the end, even though, technically, they both get their desires; Erika lives out her bondage fantasy and Walter finally consummates the love he at least once felt for Erika, but neither of them is too happy about this conclusion.
A big part of the problem, for Erika at least, is disconnection from her feelings. Many of Haneke’s films deal with the disassociation of emotions: the killers’ muted responses to violence in Benny’s Video and Funny Games, the shifting of emotion into performance that I discussed in Code Unknown, the denial of guilt in Caché, which we’ll be discussing shortly. Haneke has repeatedly returned to this theme, and Erika fits the pattern as well. There’s very little that moves Erika, very little that wipes away the stern, stoic expression that is pretty much locked on her face like a mask. That’s why the few moments when Erika does betray flickers of emotion are so startling, like the closeups of her face when she’s listening to Walter play for the first time, and, in a very different way, the expression on her face as she illicitly watches a couple having sex in the backseat of a car at a drive-in movie theater. Erika is generally detached and desensitized, and only raw sexuality and the music of Schubert still have the potential to move her—which is perhaps why she attempts to combine the two with Walter.
It’s interesting that Haneke, in this film, is so respectful towards the classical music that Erika loves. There’s little trace of the antagonistic attitude behind his gesture of drowning out classical music with Naked City in Funny Games—though that gesture is echoed here in the weird little scene where the big, bulky hockey players chase the graceful figure skaters off the ice, which has a similar effect to the noisy jazz barreling over the delicate classical music. There’s always been a conflict in Haneke’s work between the classical and the modern, often in the context of mocking the bourgeois habit of appropriating classical art and rendering its beauty and ideas inert. Here, the classical music that Erika loves doesn’t seem nearly as safe or decontextualized as the music played by the family at the beginning of Funny Games—this is classical culture that still has the potential to move and provoke, which is why the closeups of Erika listening to music are some of the most affecting images in the film, the only moments when Erika achieves something like grace.
JB: Music is linked to grace in Haneke’s next film, too, although this time music is the exception to the rule. Time of the Wolf is what you might call a mid-apocalyptic movie, showing French citizens stuck between some unspecific ecological disaster and what seems to be their eventual demise. It’s a dreary film, no surprise, with a color palette dominated by grays, dark greens and dull browns, and it’s without a musical score. But it isn’t entirely without music. In one noteworthy scene, a teenage girl named Eva (Anais Demoustier, who could be the sister of The Descendants’ Shailene Woodley), who has seen her father murdered in front of her and now is fighting to survive with her mother, Anne (Isabelle Huppert again), and brother, Ben (Lucas Biscombe), approaches a stranger at a small train depot where dozens of fellow drifters have come together in hopes of escape, and asks to hear music from his portable cassette player. The stranger smiles and complies, first showing her how he manually rewinds the cassette with his finger, in an effort to save precious battery life, and then handing over his player, which Eva holds to the side of her head to let the classical music play into her ear. As she listens, Eva gazes at the flickering light of a lantern, but dark as the shot is, the mood of the scene is atypically bright.
I’ve started at an emotional high point here, because seven films into this discussion there should be little doubt that Time of the Wolf is full of palpable suffering and despair; Haneke’s bread and butter. In fact, in the scene immediately after the one I described above, Eva witnesses another young girl in the encampment being raped with a knife to her throat. But as grim as Time of the Wolf tends to be, its ending might be the most hopeful of any Haneke film, and thus one of the most surprising. In the penultimate scene, young Ben heads out to the fire that’s been built on the train tracks to slow down any passing train, stokes the flames with fresh branches and then steps dangerously close to the fire. He’s naked, and he looks ready to leap onto the fire as an act of sacrifice—apparently determined to reenact a mythic ritual he’d overheard someone else in the encampment describing earlier. But before he can jump, a man comes rushing up behind him and scoops Ben up in his arms. Ben resists at first, only to break down crying in the man’s arms. “Have a good cry,” the man says. “That will make you feel better.” He rocks the boy in his arms and tells him not to believe everything he hears, and then, as the camera cranes upward and away, he compliments the boy’s bravery. “You’d have done it for sure. Believe me. You were ready to do it. That’s enough, see.”
It’s a beautiful scene, both in execution (that long, retreating shot captures the intimacy of the moment while also suggesting how small, and thus powerless, the man and boy are in the big picture) and in spirit. It’s enough to make you wonder if the cynical and pessimistic Haneke has more hope for the world than his films let on. “You’ll see,” the man says. “Everything will work out. Maybe tomorrow even.” It’s as if Haneke can’t help but be moved by those who remain hopeful in the face of overwhelming horror, chaos and destruction.
EH: Way back at the beginning of this discussion, when I cited the surprising hopefulness that at times balances the overriding horror of Haneke’s work, it was that scene especially that I had in mind, along with the more ambiguous but still strangely hopeful final shot of his next film, Caché. The ending of Time of the Wolf is marvelous in so many ways, but most of it all it’s fantastic because of the way it suggests this sense of human hope even in the face of what seems to be certain destruction. This film is about what people might be like in the absence of the rules and boundaries placed on us by society, and on the whole it is not an especially uplifting portrait of human nature: people kill, steal, horde supplies, exploit the weaknesses of others and generally act in all the terrible ways that people already act before the collapse of society, except that now there’s nothing to hold them back anymore. In some scenes towards the beginning of the film, Anne tries to find food and shelter for her family with the residents of the rural town where the family had kept their vacation home, but with few exceptions no one even opens the door or responds to her pleas, even though these people seem to be friends and acquaintances, people who knew her and her family well. Later, ironically, they find more welcome with some strangers in a train station, forming a new makeshift society that provides a little stability to their lives.
In this context, that shot of Ben and the watchman embracing by the fire is especially powerful. As Haneke pulls back, away from the fire, the darkness seems to close in around it, until the flames, with the boy and the man who saved him silhouetted in front of them, become a shrinking and fragile beacon of light in the dense surrounding darkness of the night. I think for Haneke that light is society, a fragile and imperfect flame that is nevertheless the only light holding back the darkness and despair that would otherwise swallow us all up. It’s through society that we provide frameworks for law and justice, for order, and care for the young and the weak. So many of Haneke’s films are about the darkness surrounding that flame, but this one especially is ultimately about the light in the darkness: the signal fires that Anne and Eva use to find each other while looking for Benny, the flick of a lighter, the flame that they keep burning in the hope that a train will stop.
That’s why, after that scene by the fire, in the final shot Haneke cuts to a shot taken from a train as it goes chugging through the countryside. The meaning of this final shot is ambiguous, and purposefully so. Did the train finally come? Or is this simply a representation of eternal hope, the hope that rescue is coming, that the train will arrive and take off all the survivors to some vaguely defined safe place?
JB: Don’t forget the flickering flame of the lantern that Eva looks into as she listens to the music; indeed, there is a strong light-in-the-darkness theme running through Time of the Wolf. As for the final shot, I must admit I wish it weren’t there. The previous shot—the retreating view of the man and boy in front of the fire—is so graceful, so touching, so powerful, that it would be difficult for any scene to follow it. And so even if one interprets that final shot to represent that the man’s hope isn’t foolish, that the train is coming, cinematically speaking it’s such a mundane visual that it doesn’t feel as meaningful as I think Haneke wants it to be. In short, he had the perfect ending already. (Although, a closing credits sequence over that final train shot would have been effective.)
As for the larger themes: At the risk of beating one of Haneke’s dead horses, I think the familiar morality play that unfolds in this film is unusually interesting. In films like 71 Fragments and Code Unknown, Haneke’s examinations of right and wrong, of involvement and indifference, of selective ethical standards, and so on, create depth, but they also make the films feel rather academic, as if they should come with discussion group questions at the end. Obviously I’m very much in favor of movies that challenge us and make us think, but for whatever reason I find the questions posed by Haneke’s films more engaging when they’re seamlessly embedded within the structure, rather than laying out there on the surface. Time of the Wolf is built on Haneke’s most fantastical narrative, as it implies a disaster the likes of which mankind has never seen, but it feels particularly real because Haneke seems more willing to let his characters operate within that narrative, rather than using them as diagrams in a larger thesis. Over time, Haneke has become a storyteller who wants to grapple with moral and ethical issues, whereas early in his career it was the other way around.
EH: I think that’s true, though I’d say that the shift started with Code Unknown, which is far more character-based than the early films while dealing with the same thematic currents that have always animated Haneke’s work. I don’t want to suggest, of course, that Haneke’s more abstract, theoretical approach in his “glaciation trilogy” is invalid, or that films with a more academic slant don’t have merit, because I certainly don’t think that’s true as a general principle. In Haneke’s case, though, I think his films have definitely grown richer and more complex as he’s fleshed out his ideas with more substantial characters who seem to exist for more of a reason than to prove one of the director’s points.
Haneke’s next film, Caché, continues this trend. Although the film is typically rich in thematic subtext—about guilt, the French treatment of Algeria, and the denial of responsibility—it explores these ideas through the personal experiences of television host Georges (Daniel Auteuil). Georges and his wife Anne (Juliette Binoche) begin receiving mysterious videotapes taken from outside their house—an idea possibly borrowed from David Lynch’s Lost Highway, though Haneke takes it somewhere very different—and Georges gradually connects this strange form of harassment to an incident from his youth, in which he lied about the Algerian orphan Majid, who his parents had been on the verge of adopting until Georges’ lies caused them to send the boy away.
This is an obvious metaphor for French denial of the atrocities committed during the Algerian independence movement, and Haneke makes explicit reference in particular to a massacre that occurred in Paris on October 17, 1961, when an undetermined number of protesting Algerians (including Majid’s parents in the film) were killed by Parisian police and dumped in the Seine. The French government denied the incident for a long time (just as Georges seems almost amnesiac about his mistreatment of Majid) before belatedly admitting, in 1998, that 40 people were killed, though unofficial estimates have always placed the toll at 200 or higher. This is not the first time that Haneke has built a film around real historical events or news stories, but whereas his earlier films might have examined this incident directly and polemically, here Haneke gets at the historical context more obliquely, through the personal guilt and avoidance of responsibility of one man who represents this larger societal denial.
JB: Yeah, Caché is a terrific example of Haneke engaging with difficult issues without allowing his film to feel overly academic. The references to the 1961 massacre are overt, but the film doesn’t require the audience to know anything about that event, or even to care, in order to feel challenged by Georges’ very personal story (of course, knowing about the 1961 massacre certainly deepens the significance of Georges’ story). Similarly, Haneke borrows elements from his previous films but employs them with a lighter touch. For example, the videotape scenes remind of Code Unknown in that we can’t immediately tell if the event is happening “live” or is the playback of a recording, but the scenes don’t seem to be so much “about” that audience manipulation; the sloppy execution of a chicken is still difficult to watch, but at least Haneke doesn’t replay it three more times as in Benny’s Video; Majid’s death is gruesome and shocking, but Haneke doesn’t linger with the carnage to the degree that he does in The Seventh Continent or Funny Games or several of his other films; and so on.
The first time around, Caché is effective as a rather straightforward mystery—one in which we can tell that the de facto detective, Georges, is withholding information while still aligning with his quest to understand what’s going on. Over subsequent viewings, the intrigue of the investigation erodes a bit because it becomes clear that Caché is one of those mysteries that relies too much on characters avoiding obvious questions. (For example, when Majid claims to have no knowledge of the videos or threatening cartoon drawings, Georges manages to avoid doing what I think anyone would do in that situation: ask Majid to come up with at least one scenario in which anyone else could be responsible.) But that only allows the character study to become all the more apparent. As you already indicated, Caché is—especially in terms of Georges’ personal story—about guilt and denial of responsibility. But if I could combine those two and reshape them just a bit, I think Caché is about the everlasting power of moral truth. Georges has spent his life trying to forget his mistreatment of Majid, and when he can’t do that he finds ways to justify it. And the thing of it is, his justifications aren’t entirely bullshit: Georges was just an insecure young boy when he concocted stories about Majid that caused this relative stranger, who was intruding on Georges’ sense of security, to be exiled from a family that he technically never belonged to. In the big picture, Georges’ misbehavior is easy to forgive—in fact, within Haneke’s world of gruesome violence it’s hardly worth noting. But what Caché suggests is that Georges feels the act is unforgivable, that even at that young age he violated his own morals, and thus he can never free himself from his own, private shame.
EH: It’s a private shame that threatens to become public, dragged out into the light of day. Light and dark are again used as symbolic opposites, but whereas in Time of the Wolf this rubric embodied the opposition of hope and despair, here Haneke opposes the darkness of what’s private and hidden (which is what Caché means) to the light that exposes the truth. After Majid’s suicide, Georges goes to the movies, hiding in the darkness of the theater, then returns home to his darkened house, hiding in his bedroom, refusing to let his wife turn the lights on. He finally tells her the full story in this scene, but in a sense he’s still hiding in the shadows, unwilling to have the light of conscience shined on his actions, unwilling to truly take responsibility. In the next scene, at Georges’ office, everything is bright and white, with the sunlight pouring in through large glass windows, everything open and illuminated. Here he can’t hide, can’t duck the responsibility, and when Majid’s son (Walid Afkir) confronts Georges there’s a threat that his secrets will be exposed. Georges says he doesn’t care, that he has nothing to hide, but although you’re right that Georges’ boyhood crimes are forgivable, especially since he was just a kid, and kids often act horribly, he’s still embarrassed and frightened, nervous that his actions will become known and judged. As much as he denies feeling any sense of responsibility, he is clearly ashamed of this whole affair and his part in it.
Haneke is exploring the ways in which the sins of the past continue to haunt and corrupt the present, both at the personal level and at the institutional level. Georges’ life falls apart, really, because he has never properly dealt with what he did as a kid, so he can’t move on from it, can’t escape it. He is simultaneously wracked by guilt and locked into denial, unable to accept his responsibility for the trajectory of Majid’s life and yet unable to overcome the feelings of shame and guilt that are obviously affecting him. For Haneke, the worst sin is forgetting. Georges and his mother forgetting about Majid is an obvious metaphor for the French forgetting about the ignominious history of their country’s treatment of Algeria, while the connections of that tragedy to the larger history of Europe generalize the issue beyond specifically French failings. (One interesting footnote is the fact that Maurice Pepon, the police chief who ordered the 1961 Paris massacre, was also a prominent Vichy official responsible for deporting Jews from France during World War II.) Just as the videos force Georges to remember, to consider his actions and their effect, Haneke’s film is intended as an uncomfortable reminder of past atrocities that many would like to forget.
JB: That’s certainly the way Haneke intends it. But to some degree I think he outsmarts himself. Although the mystery design of Caché keeps the film from feeling overly didactic, it also inspires questions that Haneke has no interest in answering. Haneke would say that’s because he’s focused on deeper things; in fact, he has said that. In a 2010 interview with Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir, Haneke summarized his approach to Caché perfectly: “The question of who sent the videotapes isn’t important at all. What’s important is the sense of guilt felt by the character played by Daniel Auteuil [Georges] in the film. But these superficial questions are the glue that holds the spectator in place, and they allow me to raise underlying questions that they have to grapple with. It’s relatively unimportant who sent the tapes, but by engaging with that the viewer must engage questions that are far less banal.” While I agree with that last sentence, I think Haneke goes too far in discounting the mystery as “superficial.” Because while Haneke is primarily interested in Georges’ guilt and denial, he needs to recognize that he’s also raising some interesting questions about emotional terrorism and retribution. I don’t think it’s insignificant to wonder: Who finds Georges’ relatively minor childhood crimes so unforgivable that they think he deserves to suffer for them so many years later? And is the motive purely related to Georges’ past sins, or does it have more to do with his current celebrity, or perhaps something else altogether?
All of that leads us to Caché’s famous final shot, which shows kids talking and milling about on some stairs outside of a school. Just under two minutes in length (before the closing credits start to roll), the anchored composition seems to show nothing in particular, except that to the careful observer it shows quite a bit: from the lower right corner of the screen, Majid’s son walks up the stairs to the top left corner of the shot where Georges’ son Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky) is standing, talking with some other boys. Majid’s son (Walid Afkir) seems to ask Pierrot to talk with him privately, and so they walk down the steps to the lower left corner of the shot, chat a while, and then go their separate ways. We hear none of their conversation, and, in fact, because Haneke keeps moving the boys around the frame and away from action that’s likely to attract our attention, some people watch all or much of the shot without even noticing or recognizing the boys. But it’s clear that the boys know each other and that their relationship seems friendly enough (Majid’s son smiles several times and Pierrot appears comfortable with him). What isn’t clear is how they know one another, how long they’ve known one another and what they know about one another. Because some of the secretly-shot videotape footage was taken from inside Majid’s home, we have to conclude that either Majid or Majid’s son (or both) was involved in sending Georges the tapes and drawings. Pierrot may have been an accomplice, but maybe not; it’s possible he has no idea that Majid’s son and his father are in any way linked.
This scene has been analyzed and written about by several critics (including Roger Ebert), and while some of that analysis is simply a fun cinematic exercise—following an evidence trail to see if it leads anywhere—I think there’s more to this mystery than closure. That is, I don’t think our desire to know if Georges’ son is terrorizing his father is just an empty question borne of mystery novels and Scooby Doo cartoons where the truth always comes out in the end. Caché is plenty challenging by its actual design, and I hate to be greedy by asking a very good film to give me even more to grapple with, but do I think Haneke loses something, or at least misses an opportunity, by discounting the motives of the crimes as superficial.
EH: I see your point, but I don’t really agree. The mystery in Caché is deliberately ambiguous and all but unsolvable, the many attempts to solve it by various critics and viewers notwithstanding. Furthermore, I’d say that it’s not because it’s entirely irrelevant that Haneke leaves the mystery unresolved, no matter what he claims, but because leaving it unsolved is itself essential to the film’s ideas. To solve the mystery, to tie it back to a specific person or persons who sent these videotapes—some combination of Pierrot, Majid and/or Majid’s son is the most likely solution—would be to imply, contrary to the film’s themes, that this is primarily a personal vendetta, that Georges’ guilt and its resonance with real-world atrocities could be understood in terms of revenge and punishment. That’s not what Haneke is after here at all.
In fact, the most compelling theory about the film’s mystery that I’ve heard is that Haneke is the one who sent the tapes, a theory that, personally, I’d interpret metaphorically rather than literally. What’s most interesting to me about Caché is how often Haneke destabilizes audience expectations by shooting scenes in ways that suggest a hidden camera, so that there’s always this uncertainty about what’s being taped and what’s not. The first time Georges goes to see Majid, their argument is filmed from the kind of distant, static vantage point that’s associated with the videotapes, and indeed it’s soon revealed that this conversation has been taped, although in this case we seem to be seeing the conversation live rather than on tape. That alone is interesting, because earlier in the film when we’d seen the scenes on the videos, we were watching them with Georges (he even rewinds and fast-forwards), whereas in this scene we’re watching from the point-of-view of the hidden camera itself rather than the point-of-view of Georges playing back the videos. When Georges returns to Majid’s apartment to witness Majid’s suicide, the scene is again filmed from a similar vantage point, albeit this time so head-on that it’s hard to imagine how any camera shooting this scene could be hidden.
This ambiguity extends into the scene, late in the film, that shows Majid as a boy being dragged, kicking and screaming, away from Georges’ family’s farm. This scene also evokes the style and perspective of the videotapes, though of course it would have been all but impossible for there to be a camera there. Instead, this must be another of Georges’ dreams or memories of his childhood, although even there there’s some uncertainty, since the rest of Georges’ memories of Majid as a child turn out to be twisted false memories that reflect the lies he’d told about the boy (that Majid was bleeding from his mouth, that he advanced threateningly on Georges with an axe) rather than the reality. In all these ways, not only does the film not explain who was sending the tapes, it consistently calls into question what’s being filmed and why, conflating unmediated reality with both video records and memories. But whereas memories can lie—and Haneke shows us several memories from Georges’ perspective that are eventually revealed as false—videotapes have an accusing objectivity that’s hard to avoid. It doesn’t really matter where these tapes come from; just that they exist, stirring up all this complicated history.
JB: Don’t get me wrong, these tapes are far more important as a tool to explore Georges than as a gimmick of a whodunit. I don’t disagree with that at all. And yet, if we take that angle of approach and decide that it doesn’t matter where the tapes come from, then we must also agree that Caché’s famous final scene doesn’t matter either. Because that scene isn’t about Georges’ shame or guilt. It isn’t about ignoring one’s past. It tells us nothing about denial. All that scene does is deepen the mystery—and, unlike previous scenes, we can’t argue that the scene with Pierrot and Majid’s son serves as some kind of narrative bridge between deeper “underlying questions,” because as the last scene in the movie there’s nothing for it to bridge to. And, look, that’s fine. Again, one of the things I enjoy about Caché is how neatly Haneke weaves his probing examinations of human behavior into a whodunit. His films needn’t be one or the other. But at the same time, if Haneke wants the audience to walk away thinking about Georges’ behavior and not the mystery of the terrorism inflicted on Georges, he ends his film with the wrong scene. Better to have flashed back to that view from Georges’ childhood home and the memory of Majid being dragged away, kicking and screaming.
Before we move on to Haneke’s most recent film, The White Ribbon, I want to note something else about that final scene: Without critical assistance, it’s in danger of being overlooked. When I saw Caché for the first time, on the big screen, I didn’t notice Pierrot and Majid’s son until just before they started wandering down the steps together. And over the next 30 seconds or so, I heard members of the audience gasp as they noticed the boys talking for the first time. As I noted earlier, with so much action going on in the frame, away from the boys, they’re easy to miss. And I think more and more people are going to miss them when they see the movie for the first time on a smaller home-theater screen. Seeing this movie for the second time in preparation for this conversation, I remembered that the boys talk to one another during the scene, but I couldn’t remember where on the screen they were. And watching from the comfort of my couch, looking toward my 42-inch TV just a few feet away, I’m not kidding: I couldn’t find them. When I backed up the scene and watched it again, I spotted them, and I realized that previously I’d managed to keep examining the spaces that the boys had just left. It was bad luck. Nonetheless, I knew there was something worth looking for, and my experience was evidence that even an attentive viewer could easily overlook what happens in that scene. In recounting this story, I’m not disparaging Caché. Rather I’m offering this up as a general reminder: sometimes we don’t all see the same movie.
EH: I don’t believe that the final scene is only relevant to the whodunit mystery aspect of Caché. Sure, Pierrot and Majid’s son meeting like that raises all sorts of speculation, but as with the question of who sent the tapes, why these two young men are talking and what they’re saying is less important than the very fact that they’re talking. For me, that last shot is an expression of the elusive hopefulness we’ve sometimes noted in Haneke’s work. If the bulk of Caché is about the unresolved guilt of Georges and his generation, that final shot suggests the possibility of change for future generations. At the root of much of the suffering in this film, as in Haneke’s work in general, is a lack of communication. Georges’ inability to talk honestly and openly about what happened in his boyhood, either with his wife or with Majid himself, strains his relationship with his family and leads to the tragedy of Majid’s suicide.
While Majid kills himself and Georges gets swallowed up by his guilt, in the final shot the two men’s sons meet and, though their relationship is ambiguous and we have no way of knowing what they’re saying to one another, it’s obvious that some kind of communication is occurring here. In my opinion, the final shot of Caché is similar to the light-in-the-darkness ending of Time of the Wolf: ambiguous, bittersweet, leaving the future very much uncertain, but allowing in that sliver of hope that the cycle won’t be repeated, that things will change. Pierrot and Majid’s son, whatever they’re saying, seem relaxed and friendly with one another in a way that suggests they’ve moved beyond the divisions of the past, that they can talk comfortably. Thus, this scene isn’t a bridge between the narrative and the subtext; it’s a bridge to the future, its meaning uncertain and ambiguous but containing at least a possibility that this generation won’t repeat the mistakes of their fathers.
Of course, Haneke never wants to make things that easy or that tidy, which is why the scene is so ambiguous—I admit that my reading of it is only one possibility, and doesn’t necessarily preclude some more pessimistic interpretations—and why Haneke makes it so easy for even attentive viewers to miss the implications of the scene altogether. The meeting is there to be seen or not, and the same goes for the feeling of hope that might be embodied by this unheard conversation. I think this too is part of Haneke’s point: while suffering is omnipresent in his world, hope is rarer and more elusive, only to be found by those who really go looking for it.
JB: I must say, I never considered such a hopeful conclusion to this film. Building off Time of the Wolf, it’s not without precedent. But given that bleakness and aggression are more in line with Haneke’s default setting, I find it much more convincing to conclude that there’s something sinister in the relationship between Pierrot and Majid’s son, even if it’s only known by one of them—that is, even if Majid’s son is simply using Pierrot in some way. After all, Haneke has never been shy about associating evil and youth. He does it in Caché with Georges’ story at least (and maybe also with Pierrot and/or Majid’s son). He does it in Benny’s Video and Funny Games. And he at least nods that way in The White Ribbon.
His most recent release, The White Ribbon is at once a departure for Haneke and a summation of his career. It’s his only period piece, set in a small German village in the years before World War I. It’s his only black-and-white film, full of gorgeous compositions by Christian Berger, his cinematographer for Caché, The Piano Teacher and Benny’s Video. It’s his only film with a narrator, allowing a schoolteacher (Christian Friedel, with Ernst Jacobi providing the voiceover) to take us through the events retrospectively but without much benefit of hindsight. And it’s his longest film by almost 30 minutes. But the film throbs with evil, some of it perhaps inflicted by children, some of it most certainly inflicted by adults, all of it unmistakable and yet somehow indistinct, which makes it quintessential Haneke.
As in Caché, The White Ribbon is full of mysteries that Haneke has no desire to solve, but I wonder if you agree with me that the mysteries are even more ambiguous in this film. Sometimes it’s difficult to even figure out what’s a mystery and what only feels like a mystery because of connections that we humans tend to make—sometimes falsely—as we grapple with all that we can’t explain. Ebert put it nicely in his review, which I think might be one of his strongest of the past several years: “[Haneke’s] films are like parables, teaching us that bad things happen simply because they…happen. The universe laughs at man’s laws and does what it wants.” To me, that’s what The White Ribbon is about—about all that we can’t control, and about our desperate attempts to prove otherwise.
EH: You’re right that The White Ribbon is even more ambiguous than Caché in its mysteries. Furthermore, despite the connections between the two films, they are essentially very different forms of mysteries. In Caché, though we don’t know who’s sending the videotapes, we can probably assume that the tapes are originating with a single source, with one person or several people working together, while in The White Ribbon, evil seems to emanate from everywhere and nowhere. Moreover, though whoever’s sending the tapes in Caché is psychologically tormenting Georges and Anne, the purpose of this harassment seems to be to call attention to Georges’ past, suggesting that there’s a moral imperative behind the videos that is utterly lacking from the cruel, violent acts that occur in the small town of The White Ribbon.
Indeed, The White Ribbon might be Haneke’s most unsettling film. This is the Haneke film that epitomizes his bleak worldview, in which most people are essentially cruel, violence is senseless and unavoidable, and even children can’t remain innocent for long when subjected to the pointless cruelties of their parents. Haneke has often been interested in the generational reach of violence: the way that the Schobers’ daughter is sucked into their self-destruction in The Seventh Continent, the deaf-mute girl unable to communicate her torment in Code Unknown, the mostly silent boy who tries to sacrifice himself in Time of the Wolf, and the ambiguous way that Georges and Majid’s pasts affect their sons in Caché.
Here, the passing of warped values from one generation to the next is made especially explicit. When the mentally handicapped boy Karli (Eddy Grahl) is savagely beaten in the woods around the village, whoever attacked him leaves a suggestive note beside the body: “for I, the Lord, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sins of their parents to the third and fourth generation.” After another beating of a child, when the son of the Baron is hung from a barn’s rafters, the schoolteacher’s fiancée Eva (Leonie Benesch) asks, “Who does things like that? Beating a child like that?” The unspoken answer is that this violence is an outgrowth of the more routine physical and psychological violence that runs throughout this town, often directed, like many of these crimes, against children. Many of the town’s fathers beat their children for minor infractions, the town doctor is sexually abusing his daughter, and the pastor ties his son to a bed at night to prevent masturbation. The town’s children are victims of both horrible public outbursts of violence and the more private torments inflicted by the adults in their lives, and it’s implied that this general atmosphere of neglect and punishment warps these children, who seem to be responsible for at least some of the film’s horrors. They learn violence and hate from watching their parents, and pass their own suffering on to others.
JB: Sometimes. In one significant exception, the farmer’s son disobeys not only his father’s example of acceptance but also his direct orders when he destroys a cabbage patch in retribution for the mysterious death of his mother, who fell through a floor while working. And in other cases the boys and girls seem to have evil brewing within them. The pastor’s children, for example, come off as suspicious and deceitful even before the oldest children are adorned with white ribbons to symbolize their misbehavior. But appearances can be so deceiving, and if nothing else that’s what Haneke underlines again and again and again. Re-watching The White Ribbon for this conversation, it struck me that it would actually make for a surprisingly appropriate double-feature with Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure, which is all about demonstrating just how little we often learn from seemingly straightforward little bits of evidence. For instance, in the case of the doctor, who gets injured in the early going when his horse trips on an almost invisible wire strung out in the open, it seems certain that someone must have deliberately tried to injure the doctor—perhaps even the peculiar kids, one of whom is seen shortly afterward walking along the railing of a bridge, tempting fate to see if God wants him to die. But by the end of the film, enough seemingly random disasters have happened that it isn’t difficult to imagine that the doctor’s fall was an accident (perhaps the kids were playing with the wire but didn’t intend to harm anyone) or that maybe the kids weren’t involved at all (the doctor has people in his immediate family who would have motive to try to hurt him, we eventually learn).
The way I’m describing the movie, you’d think it was a Lynchian head-trip. But it isn’t. This is a different kind of ambiguity. It’s less abstract, more elliptical. We never struggle to make sense of what is happening, we simply can’t explain why it happened, or who caused it. We don’t have all the information, and as much as we fumble around in the dark hoping to find it, at some point we must accept that we know very little. And I think that’s part of the lesson Haneke is trying to teach here: that even if things could be explained, sometimes we must accept that we’ll never have enough information to understand.
EH: That lesson is especially important in terms of the specific historical era that Haneke is evoking here. Much has been made of the fact that the film is set in the years before World War I—towards the end of the film, the villagers learn about the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, which is what decisively pins down the time period—and that thus the generation of German children depicted here would be adults, and likely Nazis, during World War II. But far from imparting a simplistic moral about these childhood traumas setting the stage for the horrors of the Third Reich, the film is suggesting, as you say, just how difficult it is to understand the nature of evil.
Certainly, Haneke isn’t drawing any simplistic conclusions here, but The White Ribbon is subtly seeded with suggestions of what’s to come for this country and these people. The actual white ribbons, which the pastor puts on the arms of his children to remind them to do good, ironically evoke the armbands of the Nazi era, these supposed icons of childhood innocence and purity tangled up with more sinister connotations. Similarly, after the funeral of a local farmer, Haneke cuts to images of pristine, tranquil snowy plains while the narrator says, “None of us suspected it’d be our last New Year in an era of peace, and that this year would bring a radical change, of a magnitude we couldn’t foresee.” The snow, so pure and white, drapes the film in a crisp, clean look that is very much at odds with the ugliness of the events that occur within these white expanses.
JB: Agreed. The white ribbons also, of course, remind of the Jewish Star of David—the idea of marking those who should be punished or cast out. On that note, there’s no doubt that historical context is important here. After all, this is Haneke’s only period piece, so it’s safe to assume that he isn’t choosing this period at random, and, as you point out, there are references near the end of the film that pin down the time period clearly. But it’s also no accident that for the majority of the movie’s running time, Haneke is mostly cryptic about the setting (time and place); Haneke isn’t implying that the Nazi movement sprang up from this little village so much as he’s suggesting that we could look at any little village at any point in history and find evil pumping through it. Having said that, I also don’t think it’s an accident that Susanne Lothar appears in this film as the verbally abused midwife. Sure, Haneke routinely reuses actors from film to film, but it seems especially fitting that Lothar, who was the target of so much verbal and psychological harassment as Anna in Funny Games, once again finds herself playing a woman who gets viciously mistreated as sport. It’s as if Haneke is suggesting that before there were the two young thugs of Funny Games there was the doctor of The White Ribbon, and so on to the beginning of time.
Speaking of beginnings: Way back at the start of this conversation you brought up the “slim hopefulness” Haneke often subtly provides “that the conditions depicted in these films are not permanent.” Sure enough, there’s some of that in The White Ribbon, thanks mostly to the character of the teacher, who somehow manages to meander through the village and its tragedies without getting touched by them. So as we head toward the end of this discussion, I wonder what you think of The White Ribbon’s final shot. The film closes with the teacher providing narration about the start of the war, his enlistment and even the war’s aftermath. Meanwhile, Haneke gives us a fixed shot of the villagers assembling for church service, looking straight ahead toward the altar and, thus, straight into the camera. The teacher mentions that this specific event was, for him, a rather positive occasion, because he knew he was about to be joined with his future wife. But he describes the service, occurring just after declarations of war have been announced, as a “solemn” affair and says, “Now everything was going to change.” Ed, the change that’s coming to these villagers is the arrival of war, but it’s hard to dispute that this is a village in desperate need of change. So, I’m curious, do you consider the end of The White Ribbon to be hopeful, mournful or something else?
EH: One interesting thing about this film is the way that the schoolteacher and Eva seem to exist apart from all the evil and violence plaguing this town. The schoolteacher is the one narrating the story, but none of the violence affects him directly, and apart from his attempt to intervene at the end by telling the pastor he suspects the kids, he is simply an observer. The romance between the schoolteacher and Eva is the embodiment of hope in The White Ribbon, precisely because these characters are so separate from the rest of the events in the film. Even the tone of their scenes together is quite distinct from the bleakness of the film as a whole; there’s a sense of sweetness and even some low-key comedy in the scenes between these two shy, kind people who slowly, hesitantly fall in love with one another.
In one scene, the schoolteacher goes to propose to Eva and is comically frustrated by the insistence of her stern father that they should wait a year rather than marrying immediately. In another scene, the couple goes for a picnic and Eva resists his idea to go off the road to an out-of-the-way spot, not because she thinks he’d actually take advantage of her but because it wouldn’t look proper. Their story is a rare bright spot in a film that is otherwise almost entirely unrelenting in its depictions of people treating each other with cruelty. (Another such character is the pastor’s youngest son, who touchingly offers to replace his father’s bird after another of the pastor’s children kills it.) There’s an old-fashioned morality and sense of tradition in this romance that, despite the historical setting, seems to be missing from the rest of the town—except perhaps in the much colder, more violent but equally old-fashioned form of morality embodied in the pastor’s treatment of his children. We have a tendency to idealize the past, to think that the past was a simpler and sweeter time, but The White Ribbon strips away that sentimentality, retaining almost exclusively the harsher aspects of the past. Only Eva and the schoolteacher, with their proper, sweet romance, embody the idea of the past as a more innocent time.
Throughout the film, there are these brief flashes of genuine human decency, as contrasted against the general atmosphere of abjection, and also against the pastor’s hypocritical conception of what it means to be good and pure. Without these examples of goodness and purity, The White Ribbon would be even darker and more cynical about human nature. As bleak as the film is, Haneke at least includes some characters who don’t give in to the general malaise, who simply go about their lives, fall in love, try to help other people when they can, and don’t let the corruption of the other townspeople touch their own souls. At the same time, the film would almost be easier to take if not for these bright spots in the darkness. The very fact that the evil of the town doesn’t touch everyone, that there remain good people who aren’t corrupted, creates a sense of danger hanging over the end of the film. You ask if the end of The White Ribbon is hopeful or mournful, and really it’s both—hopeful on the personal level for the schoolteacher and his fiancée, mournful in that Germany, and Europe with it, is about to be plunged into decades of war and suffering. But there’s also a sense that the mournfulness, the evil that runs through the film, is poised to smother the much more delicate and precarious goodness represented by people like Eva and the schoolteacher. There’s hope here, to be sure, but whereas in Time of the Wolf the light of the signal fire seemed to be holding back the darkness, here the light seems very much in danger of being snuffed out, the darkness of history closing in on those characters whose decency and innocence runs against the tenor of their times.
JB: The last words of the schoolteacher’s closing narration, the ones he finishes uttering just seconds before his on-screen character signals the church choir to start singing, are, “I never saw any of the villagers again.” I think you’re right that this conclusion is both hopeful and mournful, and also grimly beautiful—contradiction in terms intended. The White Ribbon won’t be Haneke’s last film, but since it’s the final film of this discussion I couldn’t help but notice how neatly that line of narration could apply to the end of so many Haneke pictures, much the same way that Werner Herzog noted that “Into the Abyss” could have been the title of almost any movie he’s ever made. Looking back, the endings of Haneke’s films are almost always about some kind of escape. Sometimes it’s an escape through suicide (The Seventh Continent, 71 Fragments and The Piano Teacher), sometimes it’s through some other kind of death (Funny Games) or near death (Time of the Wolf) and sometimes it’s through the acceptance of past wrongs (Benny’s Video and Caché). But over and over again, Haneke’s films end with characters reaching some kind of turning point or breaking point—and depending on how they reach that point, sometimes the ending seems mostly hopeful (say, Benny’s Video and Time of the Wolf) and sometimes it seems just sad (Funny Games, 71 Fragments and The Piano Teacher), and sometimes it’s a combination of both (Code Unknown and The White Ribbon) and sometimes it’s hard to tell (Caché).
Given how often the only escape in Haneke’s films is death, it would be easy to decide that he’s excessively cynical about this world and pessimistic about our ability to change. But instead, he strikes me as a filmmaker who is cynical about this world and yet admires those who don’t succumb to the gravitational pull of its darkness. Haneke’s films aren’t hopeful; that’s going too far. But, indeed, there’s hope in them. And given that his films, as diverse as they might seem from a distance, so consistently wrestle with the same issues, I get the sense that maybe Haneke himself is trying to persevere and is using cinema as his motivation to keep going.
Locarno Film Festival 2019: Technoboss, Echo, & A Voluntary Year
A striking number of the titles that appeared in the festival’s competition slate this year operate in a playful, breezy register.
Locarno often leans into its reputation as Europe’s most unapologetically highbrow summer festival, but a striking number of the titles that appeared in the festival’s competition slate this year operate in a playful, breezy register. Such as João Nicolau’s Technoboss, an unwaveringly deadpan musical comedy about an aging divorcé, Luís (Miguel Lobo Antunes), nearing the end of what seems to have been a tedious career selling and maintaining integrated security systems. His existence is far from enviable, as he’s past his prime as a salesman and baffled by modern technology, while his primary companion is his cat. To compound the overriding sense of ennui, Nicolau presents a decidedly drab vision of Portugal, all cramped offices, cluttered shop floors, and soulless hotels.
Luís, though, remains optimistic, as evinced by his tendency to burst into song as he drives between assignments, and by the quietly determined way in which he attempts to regain the affection of an old flame, Lucinda (Luisa Cruz), despite her apparent disdain for him. Antunes, in his first professional acting role, is compelling, with a perpetual twinkle in his eye that hints at a rich inner life. And while his vocal range is limited, to say the least, he brings an earnestness to the musical numbers that elevates them above mere quirky window dressing.
Ultimately, the film is too narratively slight and tonally monotonous to justify its two-hour running time. One running joke in particular, involving a smarmy executive who’s frequently heard off screen but never seen, runs out of steam in the final act. And yet, when viewed in close proximity to the likes of Park Jung-bum’s dreary crime drama Height of the Wave, which bafflingly won this year’s special jury prize, Technoboss is a breath of fresh air.
Runar Runarsson’s Echo isn’t exactly a laugh a minute: An early scene depicts the preparation for a child’s funeral, while subsequent sequences revolve around police brutality, domestic violence, and the lasting impact of childhood bullying. But it’s delightful to behold Runarsson’s sly execution of a formally bold premise. Clocking in at 79 minutes, the film is composed of 56 standalone vignettes connected by a Christmas setting. The constant narrative shifts are initially jarring, but recurring themes begin to emerge: rising social inequality in the aftermath of the financial crisis; the impact of modern technology on traditional ways of life; the drabness of winter and its impact on the country’s collective mental health.
Yet while the film’s underlying tone is melancholic, there are frequent bursts of pure comedy, from the absurd spectacle of abattoir workers bopping along to a jaunty rendition of “Jingle Bells” amid animal carcasses, to a farmer and her partner earnestly squabbling about the state of their relationship as they document the mating habits of their goats. Humor also arises through the juxtaposition of scenes. The haunting image of a boy in a coffin is followed by a clinical shot of a similarly motionless adult body, and it takes a moment to register that we’re looking at not another corpse, but rather a man lying under a tanning lamp. Later, a heartwarming kids’ nativity scene cuts abruptly to a shot of bikini-clad bodybuilders performing in a harshly lit, half-empty auditorium.
However, it’s Echo’s sincerity that really impresses. One sequence, in which an emergency services operator calmly reassures a child reporting a violent altercation between his parents, is remarkable in the way it hooks the viewer emotionally in mere seconds. The film ultimately coheres into a vivid portrait of contemporary Iceland that’s equal parts bleak and beguiling.
A Voluntary Year, co-directed by Berlin School alumni Ulrich Köhler and Henner Winckler, is a similarly bittersweet affair, walking a fine line between raw domestic drama and precision-engineered comedy of errors. Sebastian Rudolph stars as Urs, an off-puttingly pushy small-town doctor intent on packing his teenage daughter Jette (Maj-Britt Klenke) off to Costa Rica to volunteer in a hospital. Jette, though, would rather spend her gap year at home with her boyfriend, Mario (Thomas Schubert), who seems harmless enough but has been written off as a poisonous influence by Urs. A sequence of mishaps in the thrillingly unpredictable opening act gives the young couple a brief chance to take charge of their own futures, but the decision Jette hastily makes pushes her strained relationship with her father towards breaking point.
Köhler and Winckler do a fine job of eliciting sympathy for their deeply flawed characters. Jette is maddeningly indecisive and prone to overly dramatic outbursts, but her brash exterior masks deep-seated vulnerability. Meanwhile, it’s easy to share Urs’s disbelief that Jette should be even remotely infatuated with the woefully uncharismatic Mario, but the boy’s earnestness ultimately proves strangely endearing. Urs is much harder to warm to, as he’s the quintessential big fish in a small pond, clearly used to throwing his weight around and getting his own way. To add insult to injury, his handling of sensitive situations is often jaw-droppingly misjudged. And yet, the viewer is given a strong enough sense of his good intentions to at least partially root for him as he attempts to patch things up with Jette.
While it may not do this modest film any favors to make the comparison, there are shades of Maren Ade’s masterly Toni Erdmann in The Voluntary Year’s nuanced depiction of a fraught father-daughter relationship, and also in the way the filmmakers play the long game when it comes to delivering comic payoffs. An enigmatic narrative thread involving a migrant boy has a laugh-out-loud resolution that also neatly paves the way for a moving final scene.
The Locarno Film Festival ran from August 7—17.
Interview: J. Hoberman Talks Make My Day, Ronald Reagan, and ‘80s Movie Culture
Hoberman discusses how the art of filmmaking, and the business of moviegoing, influenced, mirrored, and altered Reagan’s presidency.
The poster boy of American conservatism, the bar to which all Republicans would unashamedly evaluate future candidates, and yet now seemingly lower on a weekly basis, Ronald Reagan was an ideal movie star with an idealized view of the past. His perfect America would be equivalent to the opening shots of red roses, green lawns, and white picket fences that kick off Blue Velvet, while America’s reality would be what transpires once Bobby Vinton’s song concludes and the swarming ants are revealed beneath the surface.
A time of Hollywood blockbusters and silver screen patriots, macho men and teens headed back to the future, the 1980s, while not considered a golden movie age, saw a symbiotic relationship between American film and the nation’s chosen leader. How else to account for Reagan proposing his “Star Wars” strategic defense initiative in March of 1983, a mere two months before the release of the year’s top grossing film, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi?
With his methodically researched new book, Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan, former Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman takes a sociological approach to discovering how the art of filmmaking, and the business of moviegoing, influenced, mirrored, and altered the goings-on of our 40th president’s administration. And on the occasion of the book’s release and accompanying Film at Lincoln Center series, which samples feature films from the ‘80s, I spoke with Hoberman about the first Reagan screen performance he ever saw, being a working film critic during the “Age of Reagan,” and the unexpected rise of real estate mogul and Celebrity Apprentice host Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States.
One of your most revered books is Vulgar Modernism, a collection of reviews and essays written during the ‘80s without the benefit, or trappings, of historical hindsight. Now 30-some-odd years later, you’ve taken a step back to take a look at the bigger picture of the decade. What was that experience like?
I should say that this book was the culmination of two earlier books, The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties and An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War. Make My Day is the end of a trilogy. When I began writing the trilogy, I didn’t realize how central Reagan would be to it, but by the time I started Make My Day, he had become, in effect, the protagonist of the entire trilogy. Make My Day was different from the other two books. It’s not just that I lived through this period, but that I was then a working critic. How was I going to deal with that? In the earlier books, I went out of my way to quote critics and others who wrote about movies because I was very interested in how these films were initially received. In the case of Make My Day, however, it seemed absurd to quote other critics when I was there myself. It took me a while to come to that conclusion because my impulse wasn’t to put myself in the book and yet I realized that I would ultimately have to.
I found that my opinion of the various movies discussed hadn’t changed all that much. My opinion of Reagan was modified somewhat, in that I saw him as a more complicated figure than I did during the 1980s, but I also believe my response to him in the ‘80s was true to the moment. That’s why I included a number of longer pieces in the book, while also annotating them, so that one could see that I wasn’t just reusing the material without thinking about it.
You note that each volume can be read in chronological order, the order in which they were published, or as standalone installments. I took it up after finishing your and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Midnight Movies, and it felt like I was emerging from the pre-’80s underground to a Reaganized American society that had become depressingly anything but countercultural. What was it like being on the underground and Hollywood beat as a critic throughout those years?
I didn’t really start reviewing the blockbuster films until around 1984. I was the Village Voice’s second-string critic when Andrew Sarris, the first-string critic, fell ill, and I took his spot for a while. As a result, I was reviewing movies that I might otherwise not have. To make things interesting for myself, I began reviewing these movies from a political and ideological perspective. Even when Andy came back, that stayed with me. So, for example, there were a lot of action films during that period that Andy was very glad not to review, like Top Gun, but I did those while also reviewing foreign films, avant-garde films, documentaries, and so on. I always said that I could never be a first-string critic for a newspaper. I would have lost my mind having a steady diet of big Hollywood movies! I would have had to mix things up.
While midnight movies aren’t the primary focus of Make My Day, the underground did find a way into your reviews of ‘80s blockbusters. I recall a review in the Voice titled “White Boys: Lucas, Spielberg, and the Temple of Dumb” in which you tear down the nostalgic Indiana Jones prequel while praising Jack Smith’s nostalgic Normal Love. Was it maddening for you to review the latest Spielberg while underground artists concurrently made the same points to much smaller audiences?
That was really something that came from the heart. I was outraged by Temple of Doom, by its attitude, and I was really sick of these guys, Spielberg and Lucas. I wanted to bring out that there were other forms of filmmaking and other ways of dealing with this material. I was making a point, yes, but it was something that was fueled by emotion rather than reason.
Were there any Spielberg films, or Spielberg-adjacent films like Gremlins or Poltergeist, that you found less than risible throughout the Reagan years?
There were some that I preferred. I liked Gremlins quite a bit, and I enjoyed Back to the Future, which is Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis. At the time, I didn’t much care for Poltergeist, but when I looked at it again for the book, I thought it was interesting in terms of its pathology. I should also say that I liked Jaws and E.T., to a degree, although it was no Blade Runner.
Though primarily concerned with Regan’s political reign, you also dig deep into his filmography, noting how his sole villainous role, in The Killers, has always prompted a vocal reaction from every audience you’ve watched it with. Why do you think that is?
Well, I’m not sure that’s still true. A friend recently saw The Killers at Film Forum and told me he was sort of shocked that people didn’t respond to the scene where Reagan slaps Angie Dickinson. The first time I saw The Killers, which was, I think, in June of 1969, I didn’t expect to see Reagan in it. I don’t think I had seen him in a movie before. I was well aware of who he was, of course, and I hated him because I had been at Berkeley the previous summer, when students were public enemy number one and there were disturbances every night—the whole thing was extremely compelling for me as a 19-year-old. The point I wanted to make was that my whole view of Reagan was predicated on The Killers. To me, he seemed to be playing himself. I had a very naïve response. I couldn’t understand why he would do the role. I mean, what crazy hubris prompted him to show what he dreamed of becoming on screen? I recognize my response as primitive, but it also demonstrates the power of movie images. I didn’t see him as acting, even though he clearly is. I saw it as him projecting his evil, bastardly essence.
Speaking of essence, it’s odd re-watching Donald Trump’s numerous cameos in American film and television. Unlike Reagan’s silver-screen presence, Trump literally always played himself: an obscenely rich braggadocio. Whereas Reagan’s “lovable” persona no doubt helped his later career in politics, Trump’s media appearances helped to fortify his reputation as an arrogant huckster.
This is the point I tried to make at the end of the book. I was surely thinking about Trump a lot while writing the book, but he only became president when I was close to finishing it. Trump may have a star on Hollywood Boulevard, but it doesn’t come as a result of the movies. He’s a celebrity and a celebrity is someone who’s able to project a cartoon version of themselves, or a larger-than-life version of themselves, into the media world: TV, the tabloid press, and so on. Trump is being true to this persona. I didn’t really see Trump’s presidency coming. For me, he was a New York City character, a local celebrity who was regularly exposed in the Village Voice’s narrative of New York City corruption. I had no sense of how he existed to the rest of America, in Celebrity Apprentice. Clearly that’s what put him over, or at least helped to put him over. That and his appearances on Fox News as a kind of pundit and even his involvement with professional wrestling.
As you mention in your book, the uncomfortably awkward 1979 CBS Ted Kennedy sit-down interview with Roger Mudd ultimately derailed Kennedy’s attempt at a presidential run. It’s hard to imagine, given the feckless attempts by our current political leaders to appear like an everyman, that current presidential candidates’ chances could be derailed by the televised struggle to answer a basic question. If anything, we might view the guffaw as endearing and humanizing. Trump says dumb stuff on a daily basis, and we all just accept it. Have we become desensitized to politicians being put on the spot and not being able to come up with succinct answers?
I think it’s different for different candidates. Being the younger brother of J.F.K., who was the first real political star, created a lot of expectations. People credit Kennedy’s success in the 1960 election with his appearance in the first debate, for looking so much better than Nixon. That may be simplistic, but it’s not simplistic for people to think that TV had something to do with Kennedy becoming president. I think this is a case of “live by the sword, die by the sword,” that his brother just stumbled so badly in that interview, in what was essentially his television debut. He did go on all the way to the 1980 Democratic National Convention, but the myth of the Kennedy charm and invincibility was destroyed by that interview.
Looking at subsequent presidents, Reagan certainly had an elastic sense of reality. But in his distortions and lies and misstatements, he was by and large upbeat and, when he wasn’t, he was at least coherent. Trump lies so continuously that you feel that that must be part of his appeal for his base, that he’s just going to make this stuff up. They think it’s funny or entertaining or maybe that it represents a “greater degree of authenticity.”
There had been a very interesting point made by Theodor W. Adorno about Hitler’s appeal. I’m not saying that Trump is Hitler, but he’s a demagogue and Hitler was too. Adorno, who lived through Hitler’s lies, made the point that intellectuals and serious people didn’t get Hitler’s appeal. Before he came to power, he just seemed like a clown. There was something ridiculous about Hitler’s assertions and his tantrums. What they didn’t realize was that’s precisely what his fans liked about him. I think that’s also the case with Trump and his supporters.
If Nashville, as you point out in the book, foresaw the real-life presidential assassination attempts that were soon to come, could you see the same cinematic influences happening today? Are there films today that you think are foreshadowing things that could come into fruition within our own political future?
Nashville was a movie made at a time when movies were much more central to American culture than they are now. It was made by a filmmaker, Robert Altman, who was directly addressing, as an artist, what was going on. I bracketed Nashville with Jaws because in some respects, Jaws is a similar movie, although I’m not sure if Spielberg was consciously making an allegory. Some things in the film are political, for example the behavior of the Mayor of Amity, but beyond that the movie itself was utterly central to American culture. There was nothing more important during the summer of 1975 than Jaws. There’s no movie that has that kind of centrality anymore, nor do movies as a whole.
A number of television shows seemed to be predicting Hillary Clinton before the 2016 election. There were shows like Madam Secretary and Veep and Homeland, strong, female, political heroes, or, in the case of Veep, comic. But what were they compared to Celebrity Apprentice? Those aforementioned shows were very feeble in terms of reaching an audience and I think it was more a projection of the people who made it. When I look at movies now, and I have to say that I don’t see as many movies as I used to, I see some that seem to manifest things that are in the air. Jordan Peele’s Get Out would be the best example of this. That movie was made and conceived while Obama was president, but it certainly projected the post-Trump mood. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is interesting because, on the one hand, it’s a movie about 1969, and yet it’s also a movie about 2019. It can’t help but manifest some of our current fantasies and tensions. But even if it had a bigger audience than Nashville, people just aren’t taking it the same way.
And Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood presents a cinematic take that has a romanticized, almost fetishistic view of a 1969 that never truly existed, at least not the way Tarantino wishes it did…
Well, that’s certainly one way to look at it. I would put it somewhat differently, but we can let people discover for themselves if they haven’t seen it!
The book also talks a great deal about the revisionism and idealization of specific time periods that were said to represent wholesome Americana. The ‘50s is a big one, but as you point out, the movies’ view of the ‘50s were drastically different from the one the world actually experienced. I remember growing up in the ‘90s convinced Happy Days was a TV show not just about the ‘50s, but from the ‘50s itself.
That makes perfect sense, and I think other people share that same experience. The genius of that show is that it portrayed the ‘50s “as it should have been.” Jean Baudrillard has a memorable description of walking in to see Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 black-and-white film The Last Picture Show and, for a moment, thinking it was actually a movie from the period it depicted: the early ‘50s. It was a hyper-real version of it. That’s what Happy Days was. I think Reagan’s genius was to be able to do that on a larger scale, to conjure up an idealized ‘60s almost out of whole cloth, vague memories, old television, and old movies in his own conviction, even if that was ultimately a fantasy. It was an idealization of the period.
On the occasion of your book’s release, you’ve programmed a selection of double features for an upcoming series at Film at Lincoln Center. Outside of a closeness in release dates, like The Last Temptation of Christ and They Live, what went into the pairing up of certain titles?
I appreciate that question. I really love the concept of double bills. Whenever it’s possible, I like to teach using double bills, because then the movies can talk to each other—and I don’t have to talk as much. Ideally the movies should comment on each other. The reason for including The Last Temptation of Christ was a bit tricky. I thought that the response that it got certainly looked forward to the culture wars of the ‘90s. There was such hostility directed toward that movie and, by extension, the movie industry as a whole. As Trump would say, it was as “an enemy of the people.” And to me, They Live seems to be the bluntest, most direct critique of Reaganism ever delivered, and it was delivered at the very, very end of his presidency. In a sense, it was already over, as the film came out just before the 1988 presidential election. I see both They Live and The Last Temptation as political movies, one overtly political and one that was taken in a political manner.
Review: Vita & Virginia Leaves the Nuances of a Love Affair to the Imagination
The film frequently falls back on the stately demeanor of countless other historical biopics and period pieces.2
When capricious socialite and writer Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton) first glimpses Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki) at a bohemian party in Chanya Button’s Vita & Virginia, the latter is the midst of a dance, her head leaning back and arms freely swaying in the air. It’s an uncharacteristic moment of outgoingness for the author, who by this time in the early 1920s has had only modest success, and the throbbing ambient techno music that underscores the scene lends her and Vita’s desires a strange and striking modernity. But the film doesn’t fully commit to such anachronistic flourishes in its portrait of the two women’s tumultuous love affair, instead frequently falling back on the stately demeanor of countless other historical biopics and period pieces.
Vita’s deviousness and unpredictability does, for a time, make for some compelling proto-feminist drama, thanks in large part to Arterton’s bold performance. Vita is amusingly blasé in the face of both her heiress mother, Lady Sackville (Isabella Rossellini), who protests to her dressing as a man and openly having affairs with women, and her diplomat husband, Harold (Rupert Penry-Jones), completely dismissing his concerns about maintaining their marriage of convenience. Elsewhere, Debicki is left with the difficult task of dramatizing Virginia’s escalating strife, and with little help from a script that basically skirts over the serious mental health issues that plagued Woolf throughout her life. In fact, Virginia’s joys and struggles as they arise from Vita’s hot-and-cold treatment of her are rarely given any concrete form aside from the occasional ham-fisted touch of CGI-enhanced magical realism, as when vines grow out of the woodwork when Virginia returns home after first sleeping with Vita.
Outside of these moments, Virginia’s interiority is given similarly blunt expression through her relationships with her passive yet understanding husband, Leonard (Peter Ferdinando), her lively artist sister, Vanessa (Emerald Fennell), and Vanessa’s roommate, the flamboyant painter Duncan Grant (Adam Gillen). Each of these archetypes always seems to be conveniently on hand to explicitly outline the details of Virginia’s emotional state. The only time her thoughts and emotions, as well as Vita’s, are articulated with any nuance is through a series of epistolary interludes that see Arterton and Debicki reading the love letters that Sackville-West and Woolf wrote to one another. And yet, these moments are so awkwardly and unimaginatively incorporated into the film, with the actresses speaking their words directly into the camera, that the letters’ flowery language is effectively drained of its poeticism.
Vita & Virginia eventually lands on Woolf writing her breakthrough novel, Orlando, which was inspired by her relationship with Sackville-West. But as Button gives us only a vague sense of what drew these two vastly different women together, she leaves to the imagination how Sackville-West had such a lasting and profound effect on one of the great authors of the 20th century. In Orlando, Woolf writes, “Illusions are to the soul what atmosphere is to the earth.” There’s more ambiguity, complexity, or passion in that one line regarding the elusive and illusory qualities of Vita’s love for Virginia than there is in all of Button’s film.
Cast: Gemma Arterton, Elizabeth Debicki, Isabella Rossellini, Rupert Penry-Jones, Peter Ferdinando, Emerald Fennell, Gethin Anthony, Rory Fleck Byrne, Karla Crome Director: Chanya Button Screenwriter: Chanya Button Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Review: Ready or Not Ribs the One Percent with More Laughs than Horror
Only in its giddily gory finale does the outrageousness of the film’s violence come close to matching that of its plot.2.5
Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett’s horror film Ready or Not is centered around a high-stakes game of hide-and-seek, and if that sounds unconscionably silly, at least the filmmakers are aware of that. Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy’s screenplay embraces the inherent absurdity of this premise, concocting an elaborate narrative justification as to why a bunch of grown-ups would be engaged in a murderous version of the classic kids’ game. It all boils down to a family ritual: Anyone marrying into the obscenely wealthy Le Domas clan must play a game at midnight on their wedding night, and this game, which is selected at random by a puzzle box, could be anything from old maid to checkers.
Bright-eyed good girl Grace (Samara Weaving), who’s just wedded the family’s favorite son, Alex (Mark O’Brien), gets picked to play hide-and-seek, and that’s where the trouble begins. Because while the other games proceed in perfectly ordinary fashion, the Le Domases have made a violent mythology surrounding this one game: The family must capture its newest member and slaughter them in a ritual sacrifice before sunrise, or else each family member will be cursed to die. And so, the Le Domases give Grace time to hide anywhere she likes in their sprawling country manor before they set out with rifles and crossbows to find her.
Gradually, the convoluted family mythology comes to overtake the goofy simplicity of the film’s premise, and to the point that one is apt to forget that a game of hide-and-seek is even going on. But Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett keep things lively with a lavish visual style that nods toward Kubrick’s The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut, and even Barry Lyndon, while still maintaining an identity of its own. Lit mostly with candles, the sprawling villa in which the film mostly takes place assumes a creepy aura reminiscent of the opulently spooky house in Robert Wise’s The Haunting. Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett’s mildly showy use of long takes and lithe camera movements exhibit an ironic grandiosity that suits the film’s light-hearted sadism.
Funny but not quite a comedy, Ready or Not, to its credit, leans in to the arbitrariness of its own myths and rules. Some of the members of the Le Domas clan aren’t even sure they believe in their family curse, and they bicker over whether they should be allowed to utilize modern technology, such as their mansion’s security cameras, to track Grace down. But the film’s constant reiteration and reevaluation of the Le Domases’ goofy traditions can sometimes make things feel repetitive and slightly exhausting, impressions which are enhanced by the lackadaisical handling of the film’s kills. Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett primarily employ violence for laughs, but they frequently flub the punchline with a confusingly quick edit or an awkwardly shaky handheld shot. Only in its giddily gory finale does the outrageousness of the film’s violence come close to matching that of its plot. But this gonzo capper has the effect of retroactively diminishing the tame, uninventive bloodshed that preceded it.
Cast: Samara Weaving, Adam Brody, Mark O'Brien, Henry Czerny, Andie MacDowell, Melanie Scrofano, Kristian Bruun, Nicky Guadagni, Elyse Levesque, John Ralston Director: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett Screenwriter: Guy Busick, Ryan Murphy Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Jawline Takes a Measured Look at Social Media Stardom
The film is refreshing for its lack of pearl-clutching, its ambivalence in assessing what it’s like to be a commodity with a nervous system.3
The perma-glossy avatar of our profit-minded social media era is the cheery influencer, that species of professional bon vivant who seems perpetually more put together than anyone could be. Liza Mandelup’s debut documentary feature, Jawline, traces the dynamics that drive such influencers, their intensely adoring fans, and the malicious managers who try to turn a profit on them, and it’s refreshing for its lack of pearl-clutching, its ambivalence in assessing what it’s like to be a commodity with a nervous system.
The film begins on Austyn Tester, a sweet, poor Tennessee teen with a few thousand followers across Instagram, Twitter, Musical.ly, and YouNow who’s itching to escape his hometown and become an online celebrity. Mandelup mostly focuses on his daily efforts toward achieving that fame, including his semi-disciplined uploading regimen and the many retakes required to snag the perfect post. He spends much of his times posting, singing, and assuaging his young fans’ personal frustration on live chat. Only a slight variant on his actual personality, Austyn’s online brand, a “follow your dreams, no matter what” sort of positivity, would be unremarkable if it weren’t for its apparent impact on his teen girl fans.
Several of these fans are interviewed throughout the film. Each one is grappling with unique problems, from abusive families to bullying, though all of them justify their interest in Austyn and his peers for their willingness to listen, emphasizing the therapeutic effect of his livestreams. Jawline displays a certain evenhandedness here. The girls’ intense reliance on a stranger for comfort is uncomfortable to watch, but the film doesn’t trivialize this dependence. In an act of fan service, Austyn meets with a small group of girls at a local mall where their intense affections make themselves plain. Mandelup records them pushing an uncomfortable Austyn to ride around motorized stuffed animals so they can post it on Instagram, all the while demanding affirmations from him. Later, one girl forces him to share his phone number with her. Here, Jawline suggests a limit to his affection for them, if it ever existed, as well as the emotionally transactional nature of the relationship between fan and influencer.
The libidinal peak of this surreal relationship, though, occurs when Austyn and other influencers go on tour, performing shows for adoring fans with the hopes of upping their follower count in the process. On stage, the teens pose with fans, sing, and dance, all without any clear knack for it, in what amount to in-person livestreams. In this moment, there isn’t much that can be said about these largely cookie-cutter performers except that they’re toned, twinky, and peppy, and their fans love them for it. Mandelup’s footage of their displays is transfixing, not because the performances are spectacular—the shows are expensive to attend but often happen in dingy unadorned venues—but because the nearly contentless shows are only about the fans’ adulation. From an outsiders’ perspective, there’s a dizzying mismatch between the palpable intensity of their fervor and what they’re actually responding to.
How to relate to teen girls, how to monetize what’s relatable, and how to make the content more relatable and more profitable? These are the sorts of questions pondered by social media talent manager Michael Weist. He’s great to watch in the way reality TV villains are, as his success is propelled by a well-known combo of business sense, greed, and probable chicanery (appropriately, he finds himself in legal trouble by the film’s end). Around 21 years old, Weist has somehow marketed himself into a role as an authority figure on social media stardom, roping in young wannabe celebs and growing their followings. He’s turned a house in L.A. into a content factory, living there with his clients while haranguing them into posting, recording, and being on call 24/7 for their needs. Ever-candid, Weist reveals his long game at one point without being prompted: to run influencers through the content mill before they’re old enough to drink, at which point he can move on to the next hot prospect seeking fame.
At the heart of Weist’s efforts is the exploitation of Austyn’s more successful colleagues to commodify young girls’ emotions. Jawline is most fascinating when it tracks this process in action. Mandelup doesn’t draw as much attention to it as she could, meandering through IRL details that don’t quite elucidate or explain as much as they pretend to and don’t measure up to the retina-display realities of virtual stardom. A similar problem shows up in the documentary’s way of depicting tween girls. One notable scene involves slow-motion portraits of the fans accompanied by their disembodied voiceovers explaining why they spend so much time online. The scene is conceived in the spirit of chromatic maximalism, with the girls brightly lit against floral-print and pastel backgrounds, in a manner that humanizes their experience but flattens their differences, as if one were the precondition of the other. The style presents their range of justifications for standom as more or less equivalent to each other, reducing these girls to the same faceless morass of drives that Weist cashes in on.
More importantly, while Jawline’s depictions of predatory managers, overblown hopes, and obsessive followers spell out reasons to be despondent about the way this economy works, the film doesn’t look past its narrow horizon. There’s little indication of how this phenomenon is so profitable or how wide reaching this it is. Instead, Jawline offers a deflationary, measured suggestion that the current crop of influencers differs only in quantity from celebrity cults in Hollywood or the music industry. The latest iteration of celebrity is just monetizing a new type of media. All that’s really changed is that the stars burn dimmer and fade younger.
Director: Liza Mandelup Distributor: Hulu Running Time: 99 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Brittany Runs a Marathon Is a Moralizing Buzzkill of a Comedy
The film is inspirational only in the sense that it may inspire an uptick in Amazon searches for running gear.1.5
Watching writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo’s Brittany Runs a Marathon is a bit like listening to a runner describe a motivational poster—the type with a single-word slogan below a stock photograph—that inspired them to persevere as they trained themselves to be a serious runner. Sensing that such overt preachiness would be irksome, the film cloaks its proselytizing in self-aware jokes about how much more pleasurable sitting around is than running and a token acknowledgment that there’s nothing wrong with being out of shape. But the screenplay’s cute, if somewhat insipid, humor doesn’t prevent the film from feeling self-righteous. Indeed, for a comedy about a woman who makes a personal decision to get in shape, Brittany Runs a Marathon sure engages in a lot of moralizing.
At the start of the film, twentysomething Brittany (Jillian Bell) is overweight and working part time as an usher for a small off-Broadway theater, which somehow provides enough income for her to regularly drink champagne at high-end clubs with her roommate, Gretchen (Alice Lee). Walking back to their Queens apartment after nights of hard drinking and eating greasy food, they often catch their uptight, bougie neighbor, Catherine (Erica Hernandez), going out for an early morning run, seemingly judging them for their indulgence. It’s only a matter of time, then, before Brittany is informed by a Yelp-recommended doctor (Patch Darragh) that her lifestyle has led to elevated blood pressure and an unhealthy body mass index—and an ominous close-up on the doctor’s chart shows us that she’s crossed over into obese terrain.
And so Brittany begins running, ill-advisedly, in her beat-up Chuck Taylors, which she soon upgrades to spotless, turquoise New Balances. Catherine, for some reason forgiving of Brittany’s persistent churlishness, introduces the young woman to a local running club. What follows is surely intended to inspire laughs of recognition in audience members who picked up running in adulthood, as the neophyte Brittany hangs out at the back of the group with a fellow reformed slacker, Seth (Micah Stock). The new trio sets themselves an ambitious goal: to complete the New York Marathon the following November.
The film makes jokes about how hard running can be, but there’s an earnestness behind such humor that leaves certain sacred cows untouched. Most of these have to do with the self—namely, self-discipline, self-love, and self-actualization. As the film sees it, all those things can be realized through running. Seth may joke about how ready he is to stop, or how much he’d rather be doing something else, but he keeps going, and if Brittany cheats on her diet and eats some cheese fries, it’s portrayed as a dramatic, shameful misstep. We’re told over and over that Brittany is valued by her friends, old and new, because she’s funny, but we see scant evidence of this, particularly as her devotion to running takes on a quite pious dimension.
Arriving for comic relief and romantic interest is Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar), who works the night shifts at the same house-sitting service where Brittany has begun picking up hours during the day to fund her marathon training. Casually trashing the house they’re meant to be looking after, Jern supplies Brittany Runs a Marathon with the levity that began to evaporate from the film as soon as Brittany started exercising. But as her flirtatiously contentious relationship with Jern deepens, the other parts of her life become a plodding series of confrontations. Her improving self-image emboldens Brittany to kick Gretchen to the curb, accusing her friend of having always viewed her as a “fat sidekick.”
It’s a fair enough grievance for the character to have, but at a certain point in Brittany’s active defense of herself, the film takes on a self-righteous tone, associating its protagonist’s newfound healthy living with virtuousness and seeing Gretchen as despicable for her profligate lifestyle. Brittany Runs a Marathon’s positioning of exercise as a moral triumph is nothing more than a marketing technique, as Colaizzo’s film is “inspirational” only in the sense that it may inspire an uptick in Amazon searches for running gear.
Cast: Jillian Bell, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Michaela Watkins, Lil Rel Howrey, Micah Stock, Mikey Day, Alice Lee, Dan Bittner, Peter Vack, Patch Darragh Director: Paul Downs Colaizzo Screenwriter: Paul Downs Colaizzo Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 103 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Official Secrets Is an Ambitious Muckraking Thriller Prone to Melodrama
Gavin Hood wrings suspense out of the parsing of the nuances of evidence and the tapping of mysterious contacts.2.5
Gavin Hood’s Official Secrets is a muckraking thriller that revels in wonderfully lived-in details as well as generic biopic platitudes. The film tells a story that might have caused a sensation in Britain and the U.S. had it not been drowned out by those nations’ war machines. In 2003, Katherine Gun, a British translator for an intelligence agency, leaked an email in which the American National Security Agency urged for surveillance of pivotal members of the U.N. Security Council. This operation was for the purpose of blackmailing the U.N. into voting for the American invasion of Iraq (which President George W. Bush authorized later that year anyway, without the U.N.’s approval). Katherine leaked this email, and faced prosecution from her government under the Official Secrets Act of 1989.
In the film’s first half, the filmmakers offer a fastidious glimpse at how the press responds to Katherine’s (Kiera Knightley) whistleblowing. Peter Beaumont (Matthew Goode), Martin Bright (Matt Smith), and Ed Vulliamy (Rhys Ifans) are anti-war reporters for The Observer, which is in favor of the war and eager to maintain its relationship with Tony Blair’s government. Hood wrings suspense, and docudramatic fascination, out of the parsing of the nuances of evidence and the tapping of mysterious contacts. Various jargon in the N.S.A. email is decoded, as insiders weigh its legitimacy. An intensification of surveillance is referred to as a “surge effort,” intelligence sources are “product lines,” and so forth.
This sort of commitment to texture is reminiscent of the novels of John Le Carré, as are the juicy scenes in which Beaumont and Bright reach out to people in the MI6 and the British government. Though Hood isn’t a moody stylist in the key of, say, Alan J. Pakula, his handling of the film’s actors is sharp, as their crisp and musical cadences allow the audience to understand that every spoken word matters, and that, if the reporters misstep at any time, they could potentially lose more than their contacts.
Katherine is eventually defended by an attorney, Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes), who has vast experience with human rights cases and with working within the labyrinthine British government. Fiennes’s probing, tormented, erudite charisma is always pleasurable, but this section of Official Secrets, meant to provide the legal counterpoint to the journalism thread, is shortchanged, as Hood starts to juggle too many balls at once. Interspersed with Emmerson’s adventurous interpretation of the Official Secrets Act are moments in which Katherine must rush to prevent her Turkish-Kurdish husband, Yasar (Adam Bakri), from being deported out of an obvious retaliation against Katherine. These scenes are unimaginatively staged and unmoving—a sop to melodrama that temporarily halts the film’s procedural momentum.
It’s strange that the domestic dimension of the protagonist’s life should feel like clutter, which underscores a larger issue with Official Secrets: Katherine herself isn’t especially compelling as rendered here, as she almost entirely operates in the formula mode of aggrieved, persecuted, self-righteous avenger. A major ellipsis in the narrative is telling, as the British government forces Katherine to wait almost a year in limbo before deciding whether or not to persecute her, which Hood skips to keep the story moving. The emotional toil of such a year could’ve provided a personal counterpoint to the film’s political gamesmanship. As it is, the filmmaker reduces Katherine to a supporting character in her own story.
Cast: Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Ralph Fiennes, Matt Smith, Indira Varma, MyAnna Buring, Rhys Ifans, Tamsin Greig, Jack Farthing, Hattie Morahan, Conleth Hill, Katherine Kelly, Kenneth Cranham, Hanako Footman, Adam Bakri Director: Gavin Hood Screenwriter: Gregory Bernstein, Sara Bernstein, Gavin Hood Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 112 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Tigers Are Not Afraid Wrings Preciousness from a Drug War’s Carnage
It never resolves its commingling of the fanciful and the mundane into a particularly compelling argument about the legacy of trauma.2
Writer-director Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid is a tapestry of flourishes. All are inseparable from Mexico’s gangland carnage, but its most memorable one is also rooted in magical-realist tradition, namely 100 Years of Solitude. The novel tells the multi-generational story of the Buendía family, and in one particularly exacting and vivid passage, master fabulist Gabriel García Márquez details how the seemingly eternal Ursula Iguarán learns of her son José Arcadio’s death after a trickle of blood from his body winds its way through war-torn Macondo, around corners, across terraces, down steps, and over curbs, before finally arriving at his mother’s doorstep. “Holy mother of God,” she says.
Ursula comprehends the truth of that thread of blood even before it leads her back to her son’s body. By contrast, the protagonist of Tigers Are Not Afraid, Estrella (Paola Lara), prevaricates so as to put distance between herself and the horrors around her. “We forget who we are, when the things from outside come to get us,” she says in voiceover at the start of the film. She doesn’t see the line of blood that runs from a dead man’s head and follows her all the way home until it’s already tracing a path across her living room floor and up a wall, finally creating the shape of an insect on a dress that hangs from the ceiling. Estrella’s mother is missing, and in this moment, the girl seems to know that she’s being sent a message, which she won’t learn to decipher until she becomes more fluent in the language of fairy tales.
At its most assured, Tigers Are Not Afraid strikingly literalizes the idea of the ties that bind, suggesting how the living and the dead walk hand in hand, almost as a matter of course, in a modern-day Mexico where 160,000 have been killed and 53,000 have disappeared since the beginning of the drug war in 2006. Before Estrella stumbles upon the aforementioned dead man’s body, you get the sense that today isn’t the first time she’s seen boys use police tape as limbo sticks, or dragged her fingers across walls riddled with bullet holes. Which isn’t to say that the girl is desensitized to this violence. She seems to almost exist at a remove from it, and López sensitively syncs the swaying of her camera to the girl’s visible numbness.
That sensitivity, however, proves to be a kind of redundancy. Throughout Tigers Are Not Afraid, López effectively conjures an aura of ordinariness, but she never resolves her commingling of the fanciful and the mundane into a particularly compelling argument about the legacy of trauma. The film concerns Estrella and a group of orphaned boys going head to head with a cartel after young El Shine (Juan Ramón López) swipes a gun and phone from the treacherous El Chino (Tenoch Huerta), and when that narrative isn’t picking up signals from the supernatural realm, you sense its allegiance to so many films indebted to the neorealist tradition, from Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados to Héctor Babenco’s Pixote. Tigers Are Not Afraid is alive to the harsh reality of its main characters’ lives, though at times it feels as if López’s only means of accessing that truth is by conspicuously shaking her camera.
As for the film’s supernatural flourishes, none are as inspired as that thread of blood that trails Estrella at various points. Little flying creatures suggest visitors from Guillermo del Toro’s cabinet of curiosities, while a gathering of ghosts inside an expansive, derelict building brings to mind a Silent Hill freak-out. And in the case of the tiger graffiti on a wall that comes to life at one point, there isn’t even the sense that we’re watching the dead’s handiwork. After a while, death’s intrusions come to feel more cosmetic than substantial.
Early in the film, López fascinatingly suggests that Estrella’s perception of the world, after a teacher grants her three wishes, is both shield and sword. But after the girl uses one of those wishes to commit an act of brutality, the film’s fairy-tale conceit reveals itself as an engine for easy absolution. By the time the girl arrives at an understanding of her world that isn’t too far removed from the logic of her opening voiceover, Tigers Are Not Afraid has so given itself over to feeling the innocence of cocooning that it only effectively haunts us with its preciousness.
Cast: Paola Lara, Juan Ramón López, Hanssel Casillas, Tenoch Huerta, Nery Arredondo, Rodrigo Cortes, Ianis Guerrero Director: Issa López Screenwriter: Issa López Distributor: Shudder Running Time: 83 min Rating: NR Year: 2017
Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette Serves Up Lifetime-Grade Chestnuts of Wisdom
The film is a curiously anodyne affair that proposes the distinctly unenlightening idea that the medicine against despair is just a little R&R.1.5
The opening passages of Where’d You Go, Bernadette include a handful of scenes in which an agoraphobic architect and mother, Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett), restlessly expresses her internal thoughts inside the empty rooms of her Seattle mansion. Observed in flowing Steadicam shots, these soliloquies—recorded and translated to text by Manjula, the digital assistant on Bernadette’s smartphone—give space to reflect on how the woman’s eclectic furnishings grow out of her racing mental landscape. And in performing them, Blanchett offers the rare cinematic spectacle of a mother in her alone time, compelled to let her imagination and anxieties loose outside the pressures of maternal duty. In these moments, the film, an unapologetically straightforward adaptation of Maria Semple’s best-selling novel, briefly takes on the tone of something candidly personal.
It’s a shame, then, that Where’d You Go, Bernadette is cloyingly beholden to the demands of its crowd-pleasing narrative arc—that of a creative woman driven to ennui by motherhood and middle age yet rescued from the brink by an inspiring vacation and the love of her family. It’s nice, reassuring stuff, not false by any standard, but told with such didacticism and cuteness that one can’t help but be bewildered by the fact that the film was co-written and directed by Richard Linklater. Where the Texas auteur’s leisurely paced Boyhood and Everybody Wants Some!! excel in their attention to the nuanced spectacle of characters changing over time, Where’d You Go, Bernadette plays like all of its air has been sucked out in the interest of plot progression, which it conducts with the workshopped efficiency of a television movie mindful of commercial breaks. In fact, with its coverage-dependent mise-en-scène, off-the-rack musical score, and tacked-on bookending voiceovers, Linklater’s latest feels strangely close to something Lifetime might have churned out in the early aughts.
The film establishes its narrative conflicts quickly and bluntly, often through dialogue, simple juxtaposition, and, in one particularly dull case, a YouTube mini-documentary about Bernadette that plays in full in order to clarify her backstory. A brilliant and influential architect in the midst of a long hiatus after a demoralizing relocation and a series of miscarriages, she displaces her creative frustration on her city and its inhabitants, including her prosperous, TED Talks-giving husband, Elgie (Billy Crudup); stuffy neighbor, Audrey (Kristen Wiig); and Soo-Lin (Zoe Chao), a gossipy associate of Elgie and friend of Audrey. Her only routine source of joy is her wise-beyond-her-years daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson), who loves her unconditionally and whom she treats perhaps a bit too much like a peer.
Symptomatic of Linklater’s always-generous worldview, the film sees Bernadette’s quirks not as deficiencies, but as inevitable side effects of life’s persistent curveballs. When the character refers to herself as a “creative problem solver with good taste and a soft spot for logistical nightmares,” it’s clear that the filmmaker endorses that assessment, and perhaps even recognizes it as a description of his own artistic career. For all their suspicion toward Bernadette, Elgie and Audrey aren’t characterized entirely negatively either, for each is given a path to redemption, and Wiig’s portrayal of her character’s transition from belligerence to empathy in particular is one of the highpoints of Where’d You Go, Bernadette.
Rather, in true boomer fashion, Linklater reserves his cynicism for technology, kickstarting the film’s third act with the contrived revelation that Manjula is actually a Russian-operated phishing scheme seeking to steal Bernadette’s identity. This development briefly gets a Department of Homeland Security agent, Marcus Strang (James Urbaniak), and a therapist, Dr. Kurtz (Judy Greer), caught up in the narrative, but it’s all really just a busy preamble to the Antarctica family vacation that’s hinted at from the very first scene. Bernadette has her reservations about the trip, Bee thinks it will be cathartic for the family, Elgie is too preoccupied with his career to concern himself with the logistics, and the shadowy forces behind Manjula are poised to swoop in and cause chaos during the scheduled dates.
What ends up happening is neither the transporting escape Bee wants nor the complete disaster Manjula intends to enact, but something messily in between that triggers a coordinated stream of life lessons—and a few uninspired drone shots of icebergs. Indeed, in its eagerness to diagnose Bernadette’s existential impasse, the film lays on thick the kind of back-patting chestnuts of wisdom that have become increasingly common in Linklater’s recent films, groaners like “Popularity is overrated” and “You don’t have to do anything you don’t wanna do.” Such sentiments have always been window dressing in Linklater’s nonchalantly libertarian body of work, but if in many cases his films have tacitly acknowledged the limits of language to articulate life’s mysteries, here there’s very little sense of a frontier to be explored. If Bernadette is Linklater and Blanchett’s collaborative expression of the right balance between parenting and artistry, it’s a curiously anodyne affair that proposes the distinctly unenlightening—and privileged—idea that the medicine against despair is just a little R&R.
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Kristen Wiig, Emma Nelson, Zoe Chao, James Urbaniak, Judy Greer Director: Richard Linklater Screenwriter: Richard Linklater, Holly Gent, Vincent Palmo Jr. Distributor: Annapurna Pictures Running Time: 130 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Roberto Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
The film is beautiful and occasionally quite moving, but its subject matter deserves more than art-house irresolution.2
With What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, Roberto Minervini returns to the American South to tell the stories of several African-Americans living in New Orleans, over the summer of 2017. These stories are so self-contained that the documentary comes to suggest an anthology film, which, in this case, has been organized around a pervading theme of how political and personal textures intersect in everyday black life. And in the tradition of the anthology film, Minervini’s material is also variable, suggesting that the filmmaker could’ve been more ruthless in the editing room and less beholden to the pleasures of his self-consciously neat aesthetic.
Violence, poverty, incarceration, and sexual abuse haunt Minervini’s subjects, and his film is most powerful when it shows how casually people have acclimated themselves to systemic failure. Two half-brothers, 14-year-old Ronaldo King and nine-year-old Titus Turner, are lectured by their mother, Ashlei, about meeting a 7 p.m. curfew that’s clearly been implemented to steer them away from crime, the dangers of which she explains to Titus. In this moment, Minervini dramatizes Titus’s inoculation into a volatile world, capturing how the boy gradually sheds his innocence—an impression that’s affirmed later in the film when Ronaldo tutors Titus on fighting. Duct-taping towels around Titus’s hands in place of boxing gloves, Ronaldo tells his little brother to hit him with decisiveness, while admitting that, once one gets older, most fights are settled with guns. Ronaldo dispenses such advice with a matter-of-fact-ness that’s bone-chilling, and with a brotherly love that’s deeply poignant.
Juxtaposed with this coming-of-age youth narrative are stories of a recovering crack addict, Judy Hill, who’s realized her dream of opening a bar, and of a local chapter of the New Black Panthers, which is investigating and protesting several murders, such as the recent decapitation and burning of a local black man. Intellectually, one can see why Minervini believes these threads belong together, as they both illustrate how African-Americans foster their own infrastructures as a reaction to the corruption and indifference of governments on various levels. But Minervini’s cross-cutting shortchanges both of these story threads. Minervini reveals preciously little about the principle murder that the New Black Panthers are seeking to avenge, using it vaguely as a symbol of Southern atrocity at large, and the practical details of operating Judy’s bar are reduced to sketches. In both cases, the specifics of the subjects’ concerns haven’t been entirely dramatized.
In certain portions of What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, particularly those featuring the New Black Panthers, Minervini taps into reservoirs of anger that are nearly at odds with his chilly formalism. The film was shot by D.P. Diego Romero in pristine black and white, with long takes that drink in the details of the landscapes and people’s bodies. One is often encouraged to savor the beauty of the lighting, especially in Judy’s bar, and Minervini eschews typical documentary devices like narration and interviews. In terms of gliding, sumptuous style, What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is reminiscent of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, as both films verge on turning class struggles into moving coffee-table books.
We’re supposed to feel as if we’ve slipped effortlessly into the lives of Minervini’s subjects, which might have been possible if more time had been devoted to pivotal moments. If Minervini wasn’t able to capture the moment when Judy learns that she must close the bar, then perhaps he could’ve wrestled with his inability to capture it. Judy demands a meta-textual approach anyway, as she is a highly charismatic and self-absorbed person who is often clearly performing for the camera, most gratingly when she responds to her mother’s fear of homelessness with a monologue about her own generosity. A filmmaker like Robert Greene might’ve challenged Judy and utilized her for a riff on the power of self-mythology, but Minervini prizes his faux-objectivity; he’s more interested in mood than process or character. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is beautiful and occasionally quite moving, but its subject matter deserves more than art-house irresolution.
Director: Roberto Minervini Screenwriter: Roberto Minervini Distributor: KimStim Running Time: 123 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
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