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The Conversations: Michael Haneke

It isn’t very fashionable to be a moralist in art these days.

The Conversations: Michael Haneke
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

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.

The Seventh Continent

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.

The Seventh Continent

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.

The Seventh Continent

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.

The Seventh Continent

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?

The Seventh Continent

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.

The Seventh Continent

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.

Benny’s Video

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.

Benny’s Video

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.

Benny’s Video

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.

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