The duplicity of human emotions, made ubiquitous and commonplace by the culture industry... [PT]
...has undermined the entire social order. The film Frequency is playing at...
... the drive-in movie theate where Erika seeks voyeuristic sexual thrills by looking at people having sex in cars. For her, reality and fantasy collapse upon each other in a disasterous way. [PT]
Erika Kohut uses flirtations with rough sex and masochism to attempt to repress the deeper and more painful wounds... [PT]
...of her childhood and her abusive relationship with her mother...
...but she goes, so to speak, from the frying pan into the fire. [PT]
In The Piano Teacher Erika thrives in a world of pure fantasy:
...the attractive student strikes her as a perfect candidate for...
...her fantasies of being dominated, but...
...the reality of it is not what she had expected. It turns out that...
...abuse from an attractive man is as painful as abuse from any other.
Erika sticking a knife in her own heart. [PT] One may be inclined, instinctively, to fight against the extreme pessimism and spirit of negation that operates in Haneke’s work, as well as in Adorno’s.
A farmer in Code Unknown, slaughtering his cows.
Newsreel footage is incorporated into the complex narrative structure of Code Unknown. To a certain extent, Haneke’s films reflect a world in which the triumph of fear has already taken place, but not necessarily for anyone’s improvement.
In Code Unknown Anne hears the little girl next door being beaten on a regular basis, and is depressed and worried about this, but cannot confront the girl’s guardian, even at the little girl’s subsequent funeral.
The war correspondent in Code Unknown who is involved with Anne comes to crave his exposure to the killing fields.
Indeed, in Haneke’s films, the brutalized heart, assaulted by the world, can never unmake any of its scars, but it can only... [CU]
... learn to play with the scars, wallowing and fixated in controlled repetitions of the torture.
Safely home in Paris, the photojournalist misses the day-to-day experience of life in a war zone. [CU]
If not indifferent to the carnage he has witnessed, he is not angry or fearful enough.
“Over there, it’s simple. Here life is complicated.” He senses that bourgeois society is also an all-out war zone, but undeclared, hidden, and as a result less easy to navigate. [CU]
The farmer, who ekes out a lonely life from the land, plows his field in Code Unknown. The world of work includes the two-day weekend and the two-week vacation — precisely as sanctioned islands away from labor's drudgery, and therefore circumscribed by that drudgery. Such a routine guarantees that no one will have any fun.
Anne and a fellow actor in a swimming pool conjure up an image of romantic happiness, but it's really a stage set from the movie she is shooting—one of the many scenes about filmmaking in Code Unknown.
As a study in the psychosexual dynamic of sadomasochism, The Piano Teacher boldly rewrites the traditional models of how this dynamic has been portrayed. Let’s compare it to Luchino Visconti’s Senso (1952).
Senso is a masterpiece of melodrama: its characters’ emotions obey a crazy logic. Alida Valli is an Italian countess during the Austrian occupation, who, literally overnight, surrenders so completely to a young Austrian officer (Farley Granger) that she ends up not only betraying her husband but her entire country as well. She gives this officer the subscription money that has been raised to support the Italian rebel army. The Farley Granger character, likewise, emotes his way through a difficult key change, when he decides to desert his own army and become a ne’er-do-well.
Visconti’s bravura camerawork establishes needed distance from these operatic characters — throughout long scenes where they declare their love, argue, gnash their teeth, wring their hands — by swooping past them, or looking down on them from disorienting angles, or having them play directly to the camera, to startling effect. We feel that we are watching people on a stage, rather than “real” people. But the situation, we note, is fairly straightforward. The male is a sadist who picks out and trains a female masochist to sacrifice herself for him. This masochistic impulse is one of passive surrender. The woman suffers, gives herself away.
Haneke’s film presents an important twist on this well-worn scenario. In The Piano Teacher, masochism is itself a naked bid for power. Just as (in Schopenhauer) the stone reveals its will, its inner nature, through its perfect obedience to the natural law of gravity, the masochist, too, has a will, however self-limiting, that expresses itself in surrender. Ultimately, Erika uses her masochistic fantasies, not to complete her surrender to Walter, but to push him away. She gains the upper hand by these fantasies, revealing her coldness, her indifference to actually sleeping with him. She claims to want a full-blown master-slave relationship with complicated daily rules of behavior, but she resists even being alone with him in a room. After pushing him away and making him read the long letter in which she has detailed the various abuses she would like him to inflict, she attempts to send him away: “Go home and let me know tomorrow. It doesn’t matter.” Walter senses that her “surrender” is actually an attempt to maintain greater control, or to evade a real relationship altogether, and it’s this that frustrates him, drives him into rage.
Erika’s masochism has short-circuited her emotions, precluding any possibility of her feeling love — unlike the overblown suffering of Alida Valli in Senso, where masochism becomes a gateway to expressing the most passionate romantic feelings. Valli seeks to reclaim Farley Granger’s “humanity,” hidden underneath the Prussian officer’s cloak. Her love is meant to elevate them both to the status of Two Human Souls, no longer defined by nationalistic allegiances. Granger’s exploitation of her idealism is the film’s central tragedy. But all of this soft-focus romanticism which, in Visconti’s film, makes masochism nearly indistinguishable from “operatic love,” is stricken from Haneke’s hard-edged approach.
In giving his masochistic protagonist a certain agency — she coldly engineers the terms of her own abuse — Haneke exposes the ways in which she has fully internalized the limited, one-sided choices offered to her by male-dominated society. Erika represents, in extremis, the distortion of woman through the lens of male domination. Knowing that she is only permitted to enter society at the status of an object, she chooses to do so with a vengeance.
If the reigning sexual and romantic economy which Erika attempts to disrupt is not, in itself, a healthy one, we nonetheless see that her “hostile takeover” is staged, not on her own terms but on that reigning economy’s — which is driven by issues of power and control at its very core. In a reversal of Valli’s crusade to find and restore a higher humanity through love, Erika wants to strip away all possible tenderness from her love for Klemmer, reducing them to cogs in some infernal desire-machine. At the very least, Erika cannot view Walter as a human being and respond to him accordingly. She turns him into an unfeeling and dehumanized tool, thereby reifying the trend of society to do this to all of its members.
Again, the emotional duplicity that is everywhere in post-industrial capitalist society gives birth to a will divided against itself. Beneath the depraved, desperate sensualist clawing after pleasures, lies the frigid case-study who will have none of it, even under duress. Being driven to these extremes, with no modulation between them, is already the sign of a deep and distressing lack of freedom. As Adorno writes in Minima Moralia, “Freedom would be not to choose between black and white but to abjure such prescribed choices.” Adorno speaks of the acculturation of femininity as being part of such a prescribed, “black and white” choice, a zone pre-conditioned by (and dependent upon) male domination, the image of woman as automatically the opposite of man:
There is a particularly painful and graphic scene in The Piano Teacher where Erika, alone in the bathroom, cuts her vagina with a razor and bleeds into the tub. She brutally reconciles, in herself, woman-who-bleeds and man-who-penetrates, suggesting that, in the immediate absence of men, women will step in to assume the natural “implacability” of males. Indeed, it is another woman, her mother, who, seeing the trickle of blood down her leg and assuming it to be her period, upbraids her for the “ugly truth” of her femaleness: “Be more careful. That’s not very appetizing.”
And isn’t this “scar of social mutilation” also the reason why Anne, in Code Unknown, gets back at her distant boyfriend by telling him that, while he was away in Afghanistan, she aborted their child? Her story turns out to be a ruse, an instance of woman-as-everyday-actress, taking available refuge in deception and manipulation. But for a moment his painful sense of betrayal is all too real, as she uses her biology against him, claiming her reproductive organs not as an extension, or a mirror, of male society, but a weapon against it: a trick of domination which she has also learned from men.
If masochism becomes a way of getting at the truth of social brutality and indifference, then, it must be asked, is it an act of sadism to elicit this truth? Is Haneke, by definition and default, a kind of sadist? Fear would seem to be the most real of human emotions, the most visceral and spontaneous, the least easily faked — why would anyone fake fear, anyway? It doesn’t lead to social power, after all, but rather to the opposite: social disempowerment. Fear is iconoclastic, centerless, the feeling of everything falling apart. The killers in Funny Games say that they are after “the truth,” by which we understand them to mean, specifically, an emotional truth, the outward affect in harmony with inner nature. They are not satisfied until they have replaced the contented smiles of the bourgeois family with twisted grimaces and eyes reddened and puffy from crying.
Likewise, in Code Unknown, the offscreen director at Anne’s audition wants to break her down. In the role of the serial killer he says, “Show me your true face. . . Not your lies or tricks. A true expression.” The sadism of the killer, trying to break down his victim, becomes identical with the coercive methods of the director trying to elicit the best possible performance. Perhaps Haneke is saying that, where humans have lost the ability to react spontaneously and naturally, in a word humanly, to the events around them, they must be broken down still further, until they remember what humanity is, at an exact distance from which they can become aware of what is lost. “Being aware of what it is to lose oneself,” Erika explains Schumann’s mental illness to Klemmer (but it becomes clear she is talking about herself), “before one is completely abandoned.” If the masochist knows this truth, only the sadist can provoke and savor it. Therefore, utopia, if it could be achieved, might possibly be organized around principles of sadism.
It would conceivably be, if nothing else, a utopia of honest feelings, in which a few coerce and enjoy the honesty of the many, through fear. (All utopias are organized around some central principle, after all, which the citizens must either follow or reject.) The fact that this sounds dystopian and fascist is an indication of how relative everything is, at bottom.
Haneke exploits this relativity for some of his most disturbing insights. The black characters in Code Unknown, feeling that they are not on a level playing field in white society, attack the white characters again and again in an attempt to intimidate them and bring about a belated sense of justice. This justice is, perhaps, appropriate. It redresses a long history of white racism against blacks, but as we watch the black characters push around the whites, it becomes increasingly uncomfortable. Anger is anger, destruction is destruction, regardless of what righteous element might motivate it.
To a certain extent, Haneke’s films reflect a world in which the triumph of fear has already taken place, but not necessarily for anyone’s improvement. This is especially true in Code Unknown. The immigrant characters live in constant fear of being deported. Anne hears the little girl next door being beaten on a regular basis, and is depressed and worried about this, but finds it impossible to confront the girl’s guardian, even at the little girl’s subsequent funeral. The war correspondent is, if not indifferent to the carnage he has witnessed, at least not angry or fearful enough. “Over there,” he says, “it’s simple. Here, life is complicated.” He senses that bourgeois society is also an all-out war zone, but undeclared, hidden, and as a result less easy to navigate. Significantly, his response is an aesthetic one, suggesting possible sources of Haneke’s own art. The correspondent takes to the subways, secretly snapping portraits of commuters at rush hour. Their dazed, deadened faces mark them as casualties similar to (if not as extreme as) the dismembered corpses he shot on assignment in Afghanistan.
This is how the artist assimilates his fear; but for the rest of bourgeois society there is still the toxic possibility of denial, of looking away. One of the photojournalist’s friends upbraids him for taking war pictures: “As if I wouldn’t know what war was without seeing pictures!” From her hysterical tone, it’s clear that she just doesn’t want to see, to know, in the first place. Everything in the world becomes either part of the mystifying veil, or a means for its violent tearing-asunder.
This is the meaning of the symbolism of the eggs in Funny Games. The first act of violence done to the family by the killers is the smashing of their eggs. Faceless and featureless, stillborn, and absolutely identical to each other at a glance, eggs are perfect emblems of the drab, conformist functionaries humans have become — but ironically, they also serve to reaffirm the smug sense that human society has of occupying the top of the food chain. In this way, Funny Games dovetails with another dark satire, John Waters’ notorious Pink Flamingos (1972), in which the senile Miss Edie sleeps in a playpen, bathes in scrambled eggs, and worries that, one day, the world will run out of chickens and she won’t be able to eat her favorite food any longer. She is told by her daughter (the drag queen Divine): “There will always be chickens. Why, there are so many chickens now that we can eat some and let some of the others live in order to supply us with eggs!” In both films, the movement that begins with the harvesting of eggs from lesser species ends in homicide as a universal condition.
Bourgeois obtuseness is also the satiric target of Code Unknown’s opening scene, where deaf children are playing charades in a schoolroom. One little girl mimes what seems to be “fear,” backing away and crouching against the wall. The other children guess everything but this. “Sad?” “Imprisoned?” “Gangster?” The little girl, misunderstood, shakes her head “no” with each wrong guess. Like the parlor games turned inside-out in Funny Games, these charades are both trivial and, on another level, deadly earnest.
Theories of historical pessimism — such as the negative dialectics of Adorno and the Frankfurt School — are often reminiscent of the methods used by science-fiction dystopians like Bradbury and Orwell. (Reading Adorno, for instance, can create an uncanny frisson: one feels like the last authentic human being, awakening to a voided world, a world that is now nothing more than a simulacrum under enemy control. The extent to which one validates Adorno’s apocalyptic vision depends greatly on one’s sympathy for the Marxist principles underpinning his social critique.) We can say that both sci-fi and negative dialectics always tend to imply a diachronic model. In sci-fi, a frightening future is described, through which we can transparently read an analysis of contemporary social problems. Likewise, Adorno and Horkheimer’s exploration of the philosophical values of the18th century, Dialectic of Enlightenment, is equally diachronic, but looking backwards to the past rather than forward to the future. The seeds of totalitarianism implicit in the writings of the Marquis de Sade, for example, are shown to have come to fruition in the fascist movements of the 20th century. Our current American age has its own diachronic preoccupation of reading itself through the crucible of World War II. The right-wing lays claim to a historical precedent for ridding the world of perceived tyrants by spreading “democracy” with military might, while the left sees, in this same past, a warning about how fascism can overtake and monopolize a once-democratic nation.
One may be inclined, instinctively, to fight against the extreme pessimism, the spirit of negation, that operates in Haneke’s work, as well as in Adorno’s. Is all authentic human activity wholly circumscribed by the production-consumption nexus? Are people really like automatons, whose behavior is determined by their function in the system and by the representations of themselves sold to them by the culture industry? Are women’s struggles for self-emancipation (selfhood in general) undermined, a priori, by the fact that these struggles take place within the same power structures that were employed to enslave them in the first place? Adorno is very clear that the context for any societal change is dependent on the existing society itself, and thereby doomed from its inception: no one can escape from bourgeois nature, from one’s pre-ordained place in the machine. Yet, the severely limited, deadened humanity described in his writings does not always suggest political realities so much as the pathic symptomology which attends upon neurotics who have been traumatized by exposure to violence. In such cases, there is a similar reaction of feeling damaged and helpless, controlled by external forces.
Haneke’s films, again and again, resort to incidents of brutal violence in order to dramatize the omnivorous threat of social conditioning, the inability to escape the mass processes of dehumanization and conformity — as if to suggest that interpersonal violence is both an ineluctable side-effect of these processes and also, conceivably, a way to break free from them (though nihilistic and, ultimately, equally unhealthy). But these acts of violence are not necessarily melodramatic appendages, entropic solutions to imploding or exploding plotlines. Historical pessimism, rather than being a revisionist approach, is often sustained by the events of history itself. Just as violence against women is a day-to-day reality that informs the movement of temptation and repression in The Piano Teacher, so Code Unknown is informed by the newsworthy massacres in Afghanistan and Bosnia. And the violence in all of Haneke’s films can be said to refer back, at greater or lesser remove, from the most notorious mass murder of the 20th century, the Holocaust.
Exactly how much Haneke has been formed by the violence of Austrian-German history is a deliberate secret of his cinema. He has turned himself into an internationalist, and refuses the “easy” (or complex) identity of a German-speaking filmmaker. In recent years he has worked mainly in France, with French casts and stories set in modern Paris. (The Piano Teacher was adapted from an Austrian novel, but is, for all intents and purposes, a French film, as is Code Unknown.) Among other things, this “French connection” allows Haneke to escape from the historical bind of being a commentator on (only) his own society.
It’s even conceivable that Haneke could make a film in the United States one day, given the right project and enough latitude. Haneke could bring the same tense, cold, claustrophobic eye to a U.S. story, just as Adorno did some of his best writing after coming to the United States in the 1940’s. Surrounded by images of conformity and consumerism, while longing for the collapsed European culture that he knew was gone forever, Adorno found new conviction, in the United States, that totalitarianism had won, in spite of Hitler’s defeat.
In a world wholly co-opted by the demands of advanced capitalism, cinema itself may be the mystical “seventh continent,” from the poetic title of one of Haneke’s early films: a borderless place if not entirely a place of refuge. Ultimately, it is the plasticity of film — the ability to “kill” with a camera, and the masochistic endurance of film characters — that seems to interest Haneke the most.