[MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS]
‘Rare is the director whose every film is perfect’ – this is the maxim taught to each and every graduate of the Roobla Talent Academy (MFTA), the five year course at which contributors to this site learn their craft. It is rare, but not unknown – Michael Haneke is one such man.
Starting his career as he meant to go on, his first film was The Seventh Continent (1989). Unrelenting, uncompromising, unpleasant; this film served as Haneke’s mission statement to the world. It’s about a middle-class family who have become so deadened to their life of dull pleasure that they wordlessly begin to literally tear it to pieces. They destroy their possessions, their accumulated wealth and eventually kill themselves.
He followed this with the film that made his name, Benny’s Video (1992). Benny’s Video is about a young man, Benny, who is obsessed with video cameras and images and has become desensitised to violence. When he videos himself killing a girl with a slaughtering gun, his parents attempt to discover why he did it, while also trying to hide the body and cover his tracks. Haneke’s theme of a cosseted middle-class existence being interrupted by terrible violence is beginning to show itself.
71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994) is seen as a more minor film but is still an interesting look at violence and lives differing between cultures. He states that this film is the third of the Glaciation trilogy, of which his two preceding films formed the first two parts.
Next came Funny Games (1997), a film that further pushed the idea of middle-class violence but this time as victims, instead of participants. A family are subjected to an evening of random torture by two teenagers, the film anticipated other films such as Them (2006) and The Strangers (2008) and remains superior to the both of them. Funny Games is also more obviously political than either of those films. The film was pointlessly remade by Haneke himself for an American audience within the Hollywood studio system in 2008, starring Naomi Watts and Tim Roth, and is worth watching if subtitles are just too darn difficult to follow.
Haneke followed Funny Games with Code Unknown (2000), a film that is serviceable but whose release was greatly overshadowed by Haneke’s first true masterpiece and the film that catapulted him to worldwide fame, The Piano Teacher (2002). Starring Isabelle Huppert, the film takes a different spin on Haneke’s standard theme by presenting Huppert’s character Erika, the eponymous piano teacher, as a repressed and lonely woman with an overwhelming desperation for sadomasochistic sex, voyeurism, and a whole buffet of other freaky sex dishes. She encounters 17 year-old Walter and they find themselves mutually drawn to each other.
They hold fire on the physical side until a dark evening before a concert in which Walter rapes Erika. She finds herself disgusted and shocked at the reality of her fantasies and the film ends with her descending into a mess of self-harm. The film was lauded on release for Huppert’s incredible performance, and is a brilliant film in that it asks questions about the nature of consent. If people should treat others as they would like to be treated, how should one treat someone whose idea of heaven is to be beaten?
After the fantastic The Piano Teacher, Haneke attempted to keep up the pace with Time of the Wolf (2003), a dystopian film set after an unknown event. The film was again overshadowed by another, more commercially and critically successful film, Hidden (2005). Juliette Binoche and Daniel Auteuil are a middle-class couple who find themselves under surveillance in a way that echoes the mysterious videotapes from David Lynch’s film Lost Highway. The story spirals out of control as the characters wrestle with issues from the past, making themselves a problem in the present, culminating in a showdown at the apartment. It’s a film about not only how the camera recording their apartment was hidden, but about how things in the past are hidden and that people’s worst flaws are hidden in life. It is a tense slow-burner of a film, and not one to watch alone.
The dull remake of Funny Games followed Hidden but after that came proper, real-life cast-iron Hollywood American success with The White Ribbon (2009). An epic film, it’s about a series of malicious prank-style attacks that occur in a small German town just before the start of World War I. The prankster is never caught but many of the children in the town are summarily accused and punished and this forms the basis for the film – the effect that punishment has on people and how different forms of terrorism manifest themselves in different ways. The film was nominated for an Academy Award in two categories – Best Foreign Language Feature and Best Cinematography, missing out on both. It did however win the Palme d’Or, three big awards at the European Film Awards, the BBC Four World Cinema Award and the Best Foreign Language Film award at the Golden Globes.
Haneke’s latest film, competing for the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year, is Love (2012). It is about two retired music teachers, Anne and Georges, whose relationship is strained when Anne suffers a stroke, rendering her paralysed on one side. It remains to be seen how the film fares as it is in competition with Moonrise Kingdom, Cosmopolis, Like Someone in Love and others.
All that matters is that Michael Haneke is a great director and if someone truly wants to be challenged by cinema, they should see his work.
Best known for:
The Piano Teacher (2001)
The White Ribbon (2009)
He’s a lecturer at Filmacademy Vienna.
Horrific violence against or perpetrated by the middle class.
Couples named Anna & Georges.
Characters with the same name who are otherwise unrelated.
Too many to list.
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