copyright 2006, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media

Jump Cut, No. 48, winter 2006

Films of Michael Haneke
The utopia of fear

by Justin Vicari

“Something in reality strikes a chord in paranoid fantasy and is warped by it. The sadism latent in everyone unerringly divines the weakness latent in everyone. And the fantasy of persecution is contagious: wherever it occurs spectators are driven irresistibly to imitate it… — the bottomless solitude of the deluded has a tendency to collectivization and so quotes the delusion into existence.” — Theodor W. Adorno [1]


Michael Haneke’s cinema is stark. His films have few stylistic flourishes. Toward the end of The Piano Teacher (2001), there is almost a fade-to-white, when the heroine Erika Kohut (played by Isabelle Huppert) staggers out onto the ice rink. This unexpected flirtation with a “romantic” cinematic device becomes an uncharacteristic, but effective, commentary on the action we’re seeing. At the moment when her fragile identity seems on the point of completely disintegrating, the screen itself is engulfed, blinded, blurred. But for the most part, Haneke abjures such commentary — except, sometimes, by omitting things. Minimalistically, he subtracts from, rather than adds to, the mise-en-scene. In Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys (2000), he often cuts scenes in the middle of dialogue, using brief intervals of black screen to separate these fragments. Indeed, this very discontinuity, expressive of an atomized social order, is referred to in the film’s title, the idea that human interaction has become impossibly disjointed and devoid of meaning, an “unknown code,” a series of “incomplete tales.”

Haneke depicts human behavior at its worst, but never to glory or wallow in this, rather to point up the universal conditions under which such behavior inevitably takes place. Deformations are imposed on human life by the “dog-eat-dog” terms of capitalist society, where only the fittest, and most ruthless, are able to survive. Haneke’s nihilism has an essentially moral component, a negation that is not pessimistic for its own sake but meant to produce in the audience a level of outrage that can become transformative. There is no safety net occupying the margins of Haneke’s films, qualifying their invidious nihilism as only one possible point of view among many. There is no indication that the world could be other than violent, chaotic, inhuman. We are always aware in Haneke that we are helplessly watching — like his camera that only watches, never underscoring, never intervening. But this feeling of helplessness fuels the films’ critique.

As a result, his films can be grueling. The systematic psychological and physical destruction of the family in Funny Games (1997) takes place seemingly in real time, uninterruptedly. Neither the authorities nor the filmmaker will step in to restore even a temporary sense of order or breathing room. Similarly, Erika Kohut’s devastating self-destructiveness in The Piano Teacher is a mechanism that, once put into motion, can not be stopped. One thinks of those little wind-up toys that hurtle spasmodically forward and will tumble off the edge of the table unless someone catches them. (“I’m just winding you up,” a film director tells an actor and actress to prepare them for a scene, in one of the many sequences about filmmaking in Code Unknown.) But this saving agency rarely occurs. When it does occur, startlingly, in Funny Games — one of the killers suddenly rewinds the film to make the action turn out differently — it is not in the service of rescue, but rather of greater destruction. The only certainty in Haneke’s films is that the world we know will come to a violent end, right before our eyes. The only questions are, how quickly and by what means.


The duplicity of human emotions — made ubiquitous and commonplace by the culture industry — has undermined the entire social order. Early in Code Unknown, the actress Anne (Juliette Binoche) goes to audition for the role of a woman trapped in a room by a serial killer. The audition is an improv, with the director filling in the killer’s role. She is told she is about to die. From off screen, the director says, “You fell into my trap.” Instantly, Anne begins to enact “terror.”

There is a moment where reality and fantasy conflate. What if this happens to be a real trap, if the audition itself has been used as a ploy (in the “real” world) to lure her to her death? Her fear seems genuine, even to the extent that it is tentative at first. She’s baffled, incredulous, “You can’t be serious, this can’t be happening.” In terms of the narrative, we have only recently met this character and engaged with her. And this moment of “sudden death” recalls Hitchcock’s sardonic, outrageous killing-off of the main character midway through Psycho (1960), a flagrant breaking of the unwritten laws of filmmaking that simultaneously inscribes the breaking of the written societal law in an act of murder.

Put otherwise, someone whom we feel is or should be familiar (in all senses of this word —  known; seen; acquainted with; unconstrained; part of a recognizable family structure)  gets suddenly and irrevocably removed from us. To add to the viewer’s discomfort, Haneke films this scene like a typical slasher movie, with the camera bearing down on the victim from the killer’s point of view. Haneke cuts away before we find out exactly what happens. Several scenes later, we see Anne again, alive and well, and can assume with real certainty that her earlier scene of terror was, in fact, only what it seemed to be on the surface: a harmless acting audition — no doubt precisely for a role in a slasher movie.

But have we really broken the unknown code, even after gaining this certainty? One of the more provocative statements posed by Haneke’s films is that representation is as real as reality itself — perhaps even more so, since representation is deliberate, pre-selected, chosen, while reality is ephemeral and subject to chance. The actress who has elaborately pretended to die in front of our eyes has, in some sense, truly died for us. Otherwise, the feelings occasioned in us by her “death” would be ineluctably a lie. Living with so many lies on a daily basis — lies that have the visceral feel of truth — becomes dislocating, maddening, and leads to further lies. To torment the victimized family in Funny Games, the killers spin various identities for themselves, mostly untrue. (They also use, as aliases, the names of famous cartoon duos: Tom and Jerry, Beavis and Butthead.) It is part of the killers’ sadism that they tap, sarcastically, into the need of their middle-class victims to be clear about identity as the key to the puzzle of social meanings. Being murdered for no discernible reason at all, by a complete stranger, is presumably more disturbing than being murdered for some specified, “comprehensible” reason, by someone whom one knows or thinks one knows — as if the end result for the victim were not ultimately and disastrously the same.

An awareness of one’s own vulnerability, coupled with the manifest intention of others to do harm, forms the first mortification of the flesh and spirit, the first scar, after which one already begins to die or become dead, precisely from the fact of this awareness alone. Indeed, in Haneke’s films, the brutalized heart, assaulted by the world, can never unmake any of its scars. It can only learn to play with them, wallowing, fixated, in controlled repetitions of the torture. The photojournalist in Code Unknown, a war correspondent who is involved with Anne, comes to crave his exposure to the killing fields; safely home in Paris, he misses the day-to-day experience of life in a war zone. Erika Kohut uses flirtations with rough sex and sadomasochism to attempt to repress the deeper and more painful wounds of her childhood and her abusive relationship with her mother, but she goes, so to speak, from the frying pan into the fire. We see that being saved from one horrendous fate does not preclude meeting an even worse one, as when the wife, escaping from the killers in Funny Games, makes a desperate decision on the road to flag down a strange car — which turns out to be the killers again. This trick, a staple of thrillers from time immemorial, takes on renewed urgency in Haneke’s fatalistic vision: given enough time, the wind-up toy will always find the edge of the table.


Some people “live in reality,” we are told by the killers in Funny Games, and others “in fiction.” Like a plague, “fiction,” entertainment, escapism — in the shape of these killers — are spread from home to home, family to family, wiping out everything in their path. Are these killers an allegory of the culture industry? Just as they constantly and sadistically urge the family whom they are torturing to “join in the game,” to have fun and (in effect) enjoy getting killed, so they also directly engage us, the audience. “You want a real ending, with plausible plot development, don’t you?” one of them asks the camera, his wink indicting our relentless need to be entertained as yet another part of the system that creates such dehumanized violence to begin with. “Why don’t you kill us right away?” the husband asks, hoping for mercy, and the killer answers by referring to “the entertainment value” of a slow death. “We’d all be deprived of our pleasure.” (In the very next scene, we see that the killer has already grown bored with torturing his victims and has now turned to watching TV.)

For all of these reasons it makes absolutely no sense to speak of heroes and villains in Haneke’s work (this is an idea that belongs to a continuous, ordered universe), not even flawed, villainous heroes or heroic villains — or, for that matter, the slyer, more modern and politicized dialectic of the disenfranchised and the privileged. Haneke’s films view society as combinations and conflicts of integers, animals or machines. There is a question as to whether his characters are even fully sentient, much less agencies of morality or immorality. What Haneke depicts is a condition of total war, “the war of all against all,” from which no one is spared from participating.

Though Haneke’s films could be called “behaviorist” in their dispassionate tracking of random or repeated actions, they do not suggest that behavior can ever be neatly tied to, or predicted by, the characters’ ostensible identities. The victimized family in Funny Games is well-off. (Haneke lingers on shots of their boat, their expensive golf clubs, the fully stocked refrigerator in their lake house.) When we first meet them, they are playing a silly guessing-game with their classical CD collection, the haut-bourgeoisie at home. However, their attackers are also wealthy, boys from rich families with a similar, if more sociopathic, sense of entitlement. Likewise, in The Piano Teacher, we feel sorry for Walter Klemmer, the young man from a privileged family who is drawn into Erika’s web. He eventually assaults her, but we see that he’s been driven to this brutal moment by her psychological warfare and her advertisement of her masochistic fantasies. Prior to this, he had attempted to treat her with respect and love.

The thorny knot at the heart of The Piano Teacher — the raging masochist, the passive-aggressive woman destroyed by finally getting the abuse she has craved — is a central metaphor for Haneke’s vision of the world. In a condition of total war, love has to become tough. Where it remains selfless and sacrificing, it (of course) is no longer fit enough to survive — but also, significantly, it becomes masochism. “Love isn’t everything,” Klemmer tells Erika after he has beaten and raped her. The ultimate act of masochism would be to die for someone else. This is certainly no longer within the realm of romantic or even particularly sexual experience, but occurs, rather, as a symptom of the very impossibility of authentic romantic-sexual experience. 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.


Haneke’s matter-of-fact depictions of universal alienation recall the pessimistic philosophy of Theodor W. Adorno. (Haneke seems to acknowledge this connection by having Erika quote Adorno’s essay on Schumann at her first meeting with Klemmer.) Adorno had a keen sense of societal apocalypse, but almost what one could call an apocalypse of banality. The great catastrophe — capitalism — has already taken place, devastating entire nations for generations into the future, without necessarily killing anyone directly. Those who experience the catastrophe become like the walking wounded or the undead, trying to inhabit a barely inhabitable world, living lives that are no longer their own, no longer human, lives that have been profoundly deformed.

As part of this process of deformation, emotions are turned into commodities, mocked, made unreal. The lack of freedom in public life remorselessly invades private turf: any attempt to break away from the herd, to reclaim personal space and time, personal identity, is allowed for, a priori, and therefore nullified, within the confines of the herd itself. The two-day weekend or the two-week vacation — precisely as sanctioned islands away from the drudgery of work, and therefore circumscribed by that drudgery — guarantee that no one will have any fun. The family on holiday is no freer than the same family trapped in its work and school routine, and to underscore this, Haneke shows them being slaughtered like cattle during their vacation. In Haneke, worldwide destruction is not a sci-fi phenomenon, not a matter of special effects. Haneke’s films depict this destruction — as Adorno does — as an ongoing attrition that looks and feels no different from “normal” day-to-day life.

Even the potential antidote to this universal condition of deformity — rebellion — has been co-opted by the totalitarian system of post-industrial capitalism. “Rebellion” is itself just another mass-produced commodity, waiting harmlessly on the shelf to be purchased and consumed. Therefore, those films, for instance, which seem to make a point of radically questioning the system, nonetheless emerge from the heart of the system itself, which is inoculated, a priori, against such protest. Radical activity is already wholly circumscribed by the production-consumption nexus. The challenging, disturbing, threatening film gets consumed like any other, and the ideas within it remain embryonic, fantasies; nothing is spawned. The “dangerous” film, already a product and a mass-media event, is neutralized as a weapon precisely by appearing in the same theaters and video rental stores as Jurassic Park and Harry Potter. (Likewise, the raucous, atonal John Zorn music — used in the background of Funny Games — is, again, just another segment of the culture industry, however menacing and experimental, something that can be purchased in a store alongside the staid recordings of classical music that define the taste of the victimized family.) What would be truly radical would be art that never becomes available at all, in a mass-produced sense — but how would we even know such art existed? It would suffer from a lack of influence because of its invisibility, even as mass-produced art loses influence due to its visibility.

Though essentially disarmed, castrated by commodification, “taste” nonetheless remains as a stubborn, goading signifier of intellectual or social placement; seemingly, it exists to torture the ones for whom such issues of taste might still matter. “Anarchy doesn’t seem to be your forte,” Erika chastens Klemmer at one of their tense piano lessons; she’s already sublimating rampant sexual urges into music (and music criticism). “That’s the obstinacy of the complacent middle-class,” she tells another student, underlining the use of irony in Schubert’s song-cycle Winterreise.

Erika upholds the idea of art as rebellion. Since she is a live performer of essentially “dead” music, we think that she might escape the effects of commodification, and the duplicity of emotions promoted by the culture industry. “I have no feelings,” she says at one point, “and if I ever do, they won’t defeat my intelligence.” Instead, she ends up helplessly enacting the allegory of castrated rebellion. What she really craves, at a level even deeper than her championing of anarchy, is to be repressed, imprisoned, defeated, held in check. Her own self-destruction, her nullification, is the main ingredient in her radicalism. She offers herself up to be crushed (first in her fantasies, then in real life) by an imagined male figure who could be called, for lack of a better word, Nazi-like — as if by being willing to become a victim one could definitively prove that fascism exists. (This psychological double bind is similar to that of the black characters in Code Unknown, who need to view themselves as perennial victims of white racist society in order to derive their sense of identity, and along with that identity, the power to make others take note of them.)

In their first conversation, at a genteel recital, Erika coaches Klemmer not to be “disdainful” of Bruckner (historically, a notorious anti-Semite) in the same way that, later on, she coaches him to be physically abusive during sex. The corrosive irony of The Piano Teacher is, of course, that the masochist must become the aggressor, demanding abuse from a man who is at first completely willing to treat her well — a man who, in short, tries to love her. But Erika’s perverse machinations are a denial of the existence of love, or indeed, a bitter acknowledgment of that universal power of the culture industry to crush all opposition by co-opting it. For her, sexual pleasure (already identical to its affective opposite: pain) must take on the same chilly, demanding rigors of playing note-perfect music — an ideal which is frustrated by ordinary human physical limitations.


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 — he 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.”[2] 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:

“The feminine character, and the ideal of femininity on which it is modeled, are products of masculine society. The image of undistorted nature arises only in distortion, as its opposite. Where it claims to be humane, masculine society imperiously breeds in women its own corrective, and shows itself through this limitation implacably the master. The feminine character is a negative imprint of domination. But therefore equally bad. Whatever is in the context of bourgeois delusion called nature, is merely the scar of social mutilation. . . The woman who feels herself a wound when she bleeds knows more about herself than the one who imagines herself a flower because that suits her husband.” [3]

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.[4]


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.[5] 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.[6] 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.[7] 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.


[1] Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia, p. 162 (Translated by E. F. N. Jephcott, London and New York: Verso, 2002)

[2] Ibid., p. 132

[3] Ibid., p. 95

[4] It almost goes without saying that there is no glamour in Haneke’s films, and that he is especially hard on actresses. But I find it difficult to interpret his work as “sexist.” (The imperious Erika Kohut is not thoroughly deprived of agency and cast adrift, like the semi-retarded “suffering angels” of Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark; Erika’s is a complex double movement of control and surrender, enticement and pain.)Just as Adorno’s insistence on reading women through the context of men and male domination — women as objects of control a priori — is more indicative of dialectical thinking than anything else (the whole is its parts, the parts are the whole), so Haneke is defining a context: ultimately, no realistic emancipation of women will ever be able to take place unless they can be viewed, not autonomously (as if any member of the social organization could ever be read in strictly autonomous terms) but in terms of the power structures already in place, power structures in which men, too, are objects of prior control. This is not only to say that the ways in which women behave destructively and self-destructively are conditioned by their limited options; it also means that “emancipation” itself is as limited an option as any other. Fantasies of empowerment, based on nothing but the arbitrary and histrionic display of acts of power, are ultimately no more genuinely liberating than fantasies of masochistic victimization. True empowerment would not be based on acts of power at all, but on the ability to see society restructured along completely different principles.

[5] The character of the war photographer — standing apart from the social collective and watching its movements — has its precedent in the Jimmy Stewart character in Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954).  In that thriller, Hitchcock establishes the idea of the “lonely crowd,” the neighbors in an apartment block living in their isolated boxes, rarely communicating; yet galvanized out of their isolation, in the end, by the intrusion of violence, murder and death.  In Code Unknown Haneke goes even further: the little girl in the next apartment, whom Anne hears being seemingly abused, becomes a potentially melodramatic, Hitchcockian subplot. But nothing in the desultory and silent routine of daily life is changed by the little girl’s mysterious death.  Even moral outrage can no longer unite people who are hopelessly isolated, or caught up in a constant struggle to defend their own “turf.”  Proximity — the simple fact of nearness, of strangers living virtually on top of each other — is the illusion that binds the whole collective together, but it is also the intrusive reality that ultimately causes people to seek to ignore each other more and more. It is definitely not automatically equal to a healthy, integrated society whose members care about each other’s well-being.

[6] With multinational corporate capitalism spreading rapidly across the globe in the past five years, what Adorno forewarned about the links between capitalism and totalitarianism has the potential to speak more loudly to us than ever before. The hegemony of economic self-interest creates a scenario in which the last Other is stripped of his distinguishing characteristics and cheerfully folded into the herd. Whoever could have guessed that the India of Schopenhauer, of the Vedas and of earthly renunciation, would become a corporate satellite of the United States, a global capitol for the outsourcing of telephone customer service labor, whose workers are painstakingly taught to speak in Americanisms like “Cool,” “Way to go,” and “You got that right,” with no trace of an accent?

[7] I can’t help but wonder what Haneke might have done with a project like One Hour Photo (2002), a mainstream thriller about a photo-lab technician who becomes obsessed with an all-American family and begins to stalk them. Haneke would have surely made it more rigorous; and he would have attached the terrors more specifically to the mall-like superstore in which the film is set. For, in spite of some intriguing ideas, One Hour Photo ends up looking, in parts, like those ubiquitous TV commercials for Wal-Mart. While courting an atmosphere of suburban paranoia, the movie ultimately fails to indict the superstore itself as a malignant place of alienation, a place that almost forces the kind of lonely psychopathy that the technician evinces in his need to belong. In other words, the superstore is not in itself seen as a negative environment, but simply the only available environment, and one so universal and natural that it necessarily contains — in addition to the throngs of contented shoppers — its own zone of horror, madness and death. This is why American cable TV channels are able to run Wal-Mart commercials during showings of One Hour Photo, whereas all commercials would seem hollow and impossible during a Haneke film. Comparisons could also be drawn between Haneke’s films and the work of David Fincher, another modern Gothic who uses extreme violence to point toward the ultimate tendencies of a decaying, atomized social order.

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