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The Conversations: Michael Haneke

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The Conversations: Michael Haneke
The Conversations: Michael Haneke

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.

Poisoned Well (of Truth?): The White Ribbon

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Poisoned Well (of Truth?): The White Ribbon
Poisoned Well (of Truth?): The White Ribbon

Ben Begins:

Poison in the well. I don’t know if this qualifies as its own genre or a trope or whathaveyou, but I have to classify The White Ribbon as a poison-in-the-well film. I can distinguish this from plague-upon-the-land, which draws on causative metaphysical force, and something’s-rotten-in-the-state-of-Denmark, which also does so but only in passing to focus on social corruption directly; yet both rest on the theme of perverted Nature, what one theology calls “sin.”

The White Ribbon is completely past all this, thoroughly modern, if you will. I’m not sure if it would be correct to say that it is a critique of authoritarian political power—the patriarchy in the family, the church, and the vestiges of the feudal manor—but it is strictly sociological. And the fact that the film ends with the outbreak of WWI is surely not trivial to its meaning. Full-out and without doubt, the topic is a terrorized society. And it is terrorized by itself. There’s poison in the well.

Who put it in? The plot of The White Ribbon asks this question but does not answer it. All the horrible incidents that take place are never explained. Who committed the crimes remains an unsolved mystery. But the lack of forensic resolution in the film is not an invitation to dwell in the mystery for its own sake. This is not an Agatha Christie conundrum lacking a final scene. The point is that the town only has one well and everyone is drinking from it. What matters is the poison they have all ingested.

The brutal and shocking things that happen are certainly that. But their occurrence is the epitome and not the essence of what is going on. They are the fullest manifestation of the loveless lives lived by each and every person in the program; well, just about, and more on the exception below. It’s a festival of mutual abuse, contempt, disgust, suspicion—all the passions are negative. And they are revealed after much passionless, nearly soul-less going-through-the-motions. You tagged The White Ribbon as Fanny and Alexander (how could you!) meets The Tin Drum (fair enough). I offer: The Crucible meets Sátántangó.

Funny Like a Crutch: Funny Games U.S.

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Funny Like a Crutch: <em>Funny Games U.S.</em>
Funny Like a Crutch: <em>Funny Games U.S.</em>

Michael Haneke is a clever guy. I promised myself I’d never revisit his 1997 film Funny Games, yet he’s tricked me into doing just that by remaking it, shot by agonizing shot. In Funny Games U.S., the grim Austrian auteur brings the original’s hectoring scald to this side of the pond, changing the story’s location to America while keeping virtually every line, camera setup and movement exactly the same. Conceptually, the shift is clearly significant to Haneke, who has in interviews identified the subject of his critique (i.e., the use of cinematic violence for unthinking entertainment) as an essentially American one. Furthermore, there’s a certain inside-job subversion to the film’s advertising campaign, including a trailer which (unintentionally?) illustrates Haneke’s point by attempting to palm this intellectual distress-machine as a darkly comic thriller. In execution, however, the project amounts to nothing more than a stunt, and a particularly lazy and unilluminating one at that.

Just Beautiful

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Just Beautiful
Just Beautiful

On the desk beside my keyboard lies one of my most prized possessions: a ticket stub from the January 21, 9:30 p.m. showing of The New World at BAM-Rose Cinemas in downtown Brooklyn.

At this showing of this movie, at this time on this day, in this theater, in this borough of this city, I bore witness to American commercial cinema’s ability to astound, move and inspire masses of people—an ability that reached its fullest realization during the heyday of the blockbuster art film, the 1970s, but has rarely been exercised since.

The history of American studio blockbusters includes a handful of indisputable high watermarks, moments when entertainment and art merged to create not just a hit, but an origin point for new ways of thinking about, and making, popular cinema; a rallying point for anyone who still believes in the blockbuster’s ability—and responsibility—to deliver more than escapism; a secular house of worship for anyone who prizes ambition, mystery, and beauty over familiarity and neatness; a transformative experience that can be had for the price of a movie ticket, and that anyone who ever called him or herself a movie lover must seize now, or forever regret having missed.

The New World is a new watermark. It is a $50 million epic poem made with Time Warner’s money; it is an American creation myth that recontextualizes our past, present and future as fable, as opera, as verse. It is this era’s 2001: A Space Odyssey—a musical-philosophical-pictorial charting of history’s slipstream and the individual’s role within it.

It is nothing less than a generation-defining event.