copyright 2010, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 52, summer 2010
Michael Haneke: a little colder than reality
by Jason Kelly Roberts
Review of Michael Haneke (Contemporary Film Directors) by Peter Brunette (University of Illinois Press, 2010), 168 pages, $19.95.
Michael Haneke’s appearance at this year’s Golden Globe Awards was the ceremony’s most quietly surprising moment. Amidst the pomp, circumstance, and silliness of the industry’s televised self-aggrandizement, Haneke’s bleak The White Ribbon won Best Foreign Film. The director’s demeanor on the podium, more than the film’s victory, was startling—he seemed… happy, and honored. Stars and filmmakers tend to gush when the cameras are rolling and their names have been called, but to see the author of so many harrowing excursions in cinematic tension so earnestly touched struck me as almost shockingly incongruous.
Peter Brunette’s Michael Haneke was undoubtedly in the can before this highly visible triumph (or his loss in the same category at the Academy Awards), but Haneke’s formidable reputation amongst film critics was established long ago. As further recent evidence of that reputation in cinephile discourses, the January/February 2010 issue of Film Comment featured a poll of film culture luminaries that named Haneke the seventh most important director of the preceding decade, sandwiched in between two U.S. heavyweights: Clint Eastwood and David Lynch. Brunette’s volume is one of a handful of new monographs and edited collections on the director’s work released in the last two years, a welcome attention that was well overdue. The book offers close readings for each of Haneke’s feature-length theatrical releases, beginning with The Seventh Continent (1989), written in accessible and jargon-free prose that could be used productively to introduce undergraduates to film analysis and/or the director’s work (which assumes their willingness to sign up for a class based on a rather difficult corpus of films). Furthermore, the methodological modesty of Brunette’s analysis also creates the opportunity for exploring the myriad other ways in which texts are interpreted in academic film studies and beyond.
The apparent contradiction outlined above—the emotionally brutal qualities of Haneke’s films, juxtaposed against his honest gratefulness in the epicenter of Hollywood middlebrow schmaltz—is only one of several conflicting images emerging from the intersection of films signed by Michael Haneke and his authorial persona. Brunette’s introduction and subsequent argument highlights a number of other crucial nodes of dissonance, describing Haneke, for example, as a “provocative figure who likes to disturb people, most notably his audience,” while declaring in the very next sentence that the “overarching themes that unite Haneke’s films are not especially novel” (1). How does Haneke provoke audiences while remaining conventional? Brunette also astutely demonstrates a tension between the frequently mechanistic or determinist logic of Haneke’s narratives and the director’s self-described humanism. On the one hand, Brunette is right to label Haneke as, at times, a “hectoring scold and unassailable moral arbiter” (4). On the other hand, Brunette appears to take Haneke at his word when the director offers this rationale for his approach to filmmaking:
“I try in all my films to be a ‘humanist’ because I think if one is seriously interested in art, you can’t do it any other way” (107).
Haneke’s humanism may seem perverse in comparison to other celebrated cinematic humanists, from De Sica to Kiarostami. Nonetheless, underneath the punishing veneer of his style, which Haneke accurately describes as “a little colder than reality,” is the mark of a filmmaker who believes better things are possible for all of us (31).
In addition to fleshing out some of the contradictions that add interest to Haneke’s career trajectory, Brunette also pursues at least one major source of unity across that career: the director’s critique of media technologies as an intrusive, manipulative, and exploitative force in modern culture, particularly as it relates to the representation of violence. (As Brunette notes in the book’s final chapter, The White Ribbon stands as an intriguing exception to this trend, opening the possibility that future Haneke films will begin exploring new obsessions and mapping fresh terrain.) Brunette’s understanding of this critique is yoked to a call for greater “responsibility” initiated by Haneke, though Brunette is careful to challenge the director’s reasoning in certain instances. In particular, Brunette locates a tendency in Haneke’s films to flirt with the same kinds of exploitation they otherwise purport to reject. Brunette is skeptical of Haneke’s belief that shifting extreme acts of violence offscreen while graphically recording them on the soundtrack is a sufficient refusal of the types of violence commonly depicted in Hollywood blockbusters, erotic thrillers, and horror films. Brunette contends,
"Thus, while it is true that we rarely see the actual blows in this or any other Haneke film, we are forced constantly to confront the victim's pain that results, a situation that produces a complicated dynamic and belies the simplistic claim [made by Haneke and some film critics] that virtually all violence in Haneke's films is offscreen, hence nonexploitative. Clearly, the violence is being 'represented,' even if it is not actually 'seen' " (55).
In other words, Haneke’s films compel us to look more critically at the media’s representation of violence, even as they indulge in the same sensationalism. This may represent some kind of ethical advance beyond more “consumable” forms of mediated violence, as Haneke describes it, but it doesn’t absolve Haneke for his own responsibility in contributing to that visual discourse.
Another major theme courses through Haneke’s oeuvre and Brunette’s critical unpacking: the possibility of genuine communication in a heavily mediated society. These two themes—the representation of violence and the difficulties of communication—are closely intertwined, as both focus on the role and impact of communication technologies in our everyday lives, exemplified in the drama and very title of Haneke’s Code Unknown (2000). Brunette repeatedly employs published interviews with Haneke, and throughout the book they reveal the director to be a deeply self-aware practitioner and a slightly old-fashioned intellectual. Haneke’s position on the problems of communication in mediated societies demonstrates both his eloquence and the foundations of his thinking in mass culture and postmodernist critiques. In interviews, Haneke frequently sounds like Baudrillard. In his films, modern communication technologies (especially television and video) appear to have exclusively alienating, even menacing, effects on the characters that use them; or, as in Benny’s Video (1992) and Caché (2005), characters become the victims of their use as devices of terror. The director says his films dramatize “communication that doesn’t communicate” and insists that, prior to the ubiquity of communication technologies, human beings enjoyed direct access to reality (39). This latter observation is difficult, if not impossible, to glean from the director’s films, with their focus so exclusively trained on the historical present. And again, Brunette judiciously contests Haneke’s testimony, citing Derrida and writing a pointed critique of Haneke’s naïve belief in an idyllic moment for human interchange prior to the rise of communication technologies. Brunette argues:
“Technology of some sort, no matter how primitive, must always intervene, and any reality must also be framed to be perceived” (33).
Brunette wields critical theory with an extremely light touch, which results in a smooth reading experience that sometimes smoothes over the thornier socio-political complexities depicted in a film like Caché. Consequently, Brunette’s hesitancy to delve into the messy history of the Algerian War or the complex racial stratification in modern-day Paris renders his chapters on Code Unknown and Caché curiously flat. These two films, in particular, seem to beg for the tools of a committed critical theory, not only because of their subject matter but also because their meanings feel so intractably oblique.
For Brunette, obscured meaning(s) are at the heart of Haneke’s artistry. Indeed, both Brunette and Haneke advocate for a cinema that enlists the audience to complete the chain of signification, though such an open attitude contrasts with Haneke’s hard-earned reputation as a bruising moralist. Of course, it can also be argued that all signs, including those produced by the Hollywood sausage factory, have indeterminate meanings, but Brunette is primarily interested in linking film style and economics to make the case for Haneke as a preeminent figure in the art cinema. Haneke’s preferred style—long takes and deep focus—is a canonical prototype of art cinema, and, combined with the director’s unflinching examinations of violence, racial discord, and sexual dysfunction, leads Brunette to characterize Haneke’s films as a “kind of counter-cinema that defies commercial considerations” (8). However, given Haneke’s stature in the art house economy, I think the comparison between films like Benny’s Video and Hollywood in the monolithic sense are too imprecise. Instead, I propose that we regard Haneke’s work as differently commercial, which allows for a more nuanced consideration of how his work finds funding and audiences.
This lack of context also impacts Brunette’s discussion of Haneke’s stylistic preferences. More than any other director, Brunette connects Haneke with Antonioni, even calling the latter Haneke’s “aesthetic mentor” (22). Certainly, these two directors share a taste for languid pacing, obtuse characters, and the proverbial long take, but the tone each director mines throughout their work is, I would argue, starkly distinct. In Haneke, I see Hitchcock’s deft manipulations, Kubrick’s icy intellect, and Bergman’s exploration of emotion at the fringes of madness and despair. But I simply never feel a strong bond between Haneke and Antonioni when watching their respective films. Moreover, Brunette misses an opportunity, I believe, to locate Haneke more forcefully within the current constellation of other critically celebrated art cinema directors. How does his work compare to the films of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Wong Kar-wai, or Claire Denis, to name only a few of his contemporaries? Brunette’s treatment of Haneke tends to disarticulate the director’s body of work from the channels of theatrical distribution in which it circulates and wherein its reputation is established. Instead, Brunette implies a timeless quality to Haneke’s films that justifies comparisons to Antonioni and virtually no one else, and certainly not the kinds of films and filmmakers that Haneke’s work shares space with in contemporary art house cinemas.
The critical apparatus Brunette utilizes places the director front and center—there's no fear of the intentional fallacy in this analysis. If this can be regarded as a methodological shortcoming, then Brunette's book provides a compensating quality. Throughout Michael Haneke, Brunette creates, at least for this reader, the impression of an active and engaged dialogue between filmmaker and critic. Brunette quotes Haneke to underscore interpretations, but he also takes the director to task, demonstrating that this critic's auteurism is never blind faith. I also found Brunette's evaluative commentary refreshingly honest. He describes a lengthy segment of Code Unknown as "utterly boring, to the point that the viewer wonders whether this effect is intentional or whether the scene simply doesn't work" (77-8), and flatly declares Time of the Wolf (2003) "largely uninvolving" (103). At times, I found myself wondering if Brunette even especially liked Haneke’s work, an ambivalence I sympathize with. I thought The Piano Teacher was the best film of 2001, but I have yet to summon the required courage for a second screening. The physical, emotional, and psychic violence that Haneke so painstakingly depicts in The Piano Teacher was a wrenching spectatorial experience upon first viewing, an experience that both won my admiration and has scared me off since. Indeed, Brunette adopts an appropriately ambivalent appreciation of Haneke and his work, straddling the line between weary admiration and necessary skepticism.
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