This article is an updated and substantially revised version of his original essay from 2003.

b. March 23, 1942, Munich, Germany

A cinema of disturbance: the films of Michael Haneke in context

My films are intended as polemical statements against the American ‘barrel down’ cinema and its dis-empowerment of the spectator. They are an appeal for a cinema of insistent questions instead of false (because too quick) answers, for clarifying distance in place of violating closeness, for provocation and dialogue instead of consumption and consensus.

– Michael Haneke, “Film as Catharsis”

Michael Haneke is arguably Europe’s most esteemed and most controversial filmmaker. After twenty years of directing for the cinema, he has earned a place in the pantheon of the most acclaimed active auteurs. His feature Benny’s Video (1992) shocked crowds with its restrained, antipsychological portrait of a teenager who kills a young girl “to see how it is”. Funny Games (1997) inspired a fierce debate on how one can interrogate violence in film. On the whole, Haneke’s polemical programme attempts to lay bare the coldness of Western society and challenge Hollywood’s blithe treatment of violence. With acknowledged influences including Andrei Tarkovsky, Jean-Marie Straub, Michelangelo Antonioni, Jon Jost, Abbas Kiarostami and above all Robert Bresson, his recent work has garnered a host of accolades and arthouse success. Caché (Hidden, 2005) won the Palme d’or and was voted by The Times as the “film of the decade”. Das weiße Band (The White Ribbon, 2009) earned Academy Award nominations for Best Cinematography and Best Foreign-Language Film.
Born in 1942 in Munich, Michael Haneke grew up in the Lower Austrian city of Wiener Neustadt. He studied psychology, philosophy and theatre at the University of Vienna and wrote film and literature reviews on the side. From 1967 to 1970 he worked as editor and dramaturge at the southern German television station Südwestfunk. It was in 1970 that Haneke began writing and directing films and (similar to most Austrian directors of his generation) his initial experiences behind the camera were projects for television. Haneke has also directed a number of stage productions (including Strindberg, Goethe, Bruckner, and Kleist) in Berlin, Munich, Vienna and Paris. His first film intended for cinematic release, Der siebente Kontinent (The Seventh Continent), premiered in 1989.

Writers retrospectively plot a director’s career as a teleological historical narrative with a familiar literary pattern, in this way circumscribing his or her works for the sake of a neat (if contrived) principle of organisation. Examining a living, very much active filmmaker is problematic and, I would argue, assessing Haneke is particularly challenging. No sooner has a commentator made a “definitive” pronouncement on what does or does not characterise Haneke’s oeuvre, than the director defies all expectations. After being initially positioned in the context of Austria’s television and film (cottage) industries and cultural politics, for example, he moved his operations to Paris and began making French-language “European” films with high-profile arthouse stars and multinational funding. Over the years, Haneke has regularly issued devastating squibs denouncing the manipulative American cinema (see the epigraph to this essay)—and then proceeded to make a picture with Hollywood money. After years of nostalgic recuperations of celluloid materiality and cinematic spectatorship, he began to make films that depend on digital technology and demand DVD viewing.

In spite of my own admonition against trying to pin down a moving target, I will attempt to work out a few characteristics of Haneke’s cinema and the experience of watching it. Although these principles do not apply equally to each individual film, they provide a framework to begin to approach the director.

Stories chronicle the failings of emotionally cold individuals and the implosion of bourgeois social structures when placed under a complicating duress.

Culturally, these narratives concern and comment on the identity politics of European class systems, gender roles and ethnic hierarchies, as well as the individual and collective guilt that these structures engineer.

Narrative forms tend toward the episodic and elliptical. Befitting art cinema practices, characters’ motivations remain obscure and their goals ambiguous; clear narrative resolutions are foreclosed or made impossible to determine. Haneke’s cinema provokes, demands but ultimately frustrates interpretation.

Stylistically, Haneke’s work favours the long take over montage and static shots over camera movement. Specific patterns of editing, framing, sound design and performance produce an uncomfortable viewing experience that, at best, invites a critical attitude towards media, images and the representation of violence and, at worst, uses these elements as titillation or authorial signature.

More so than the works of other filmmakers, watching Haneke is coloured by his media performances, theoretical observations and self-analyses. On the festival circuit and in provocative interviews, an ensemble of Hanekean provocations and buzzwords (e.g., “Every film rapes”; “I want to rape the viewer into independence”) competes with the viewer’s experience and invites critical attacks.

Welcome to surmodernité: The Seventh Continent

Not beautiful photography, not beautiful pictures, but rather necessary pictures, necessary photography.

– Robert Bresson

In the 1989 edition of Austrian Film, the Austrian Film Commission’s annual promotional booklet on the national film crop, Haneke describes The Seventh Continent, the first film of his “Vergletscherungs-Trilogie” (“glaciation trilogy”) (1) as follows:

The film is about the life of Georg, his wife Anna and their daughter Eva over a period of three years:
It is the story of a successful career,
it is the story of the price of conformity,
it is the story of mental short-sightedness,
it is a family story
it is the story of a lived consequence.

This laconic summary is an apt approximation of the sparse film that premiered at Cannes 1989. The setting is a hopelessly defamiliarised Linz, the city rendered as a wasteland of industry, Autobahn and row houses. The characters populating this world are literally faceless: Haneke avoids shots including faces and instead concentrates on close-ups of hands and objects. There is little “story” to speak of. Father, mother, and daughter have all but stopped talking to each other. One day the daughter claims to be blind, although she isn’t. The mother’s brother comes for dinner and begins crying for an inexplicable reason. The father begins destroying the house and flushes piles of banknotes down the toilet. The family commits suicide. All of this transpires with no convincing motives and only scant psychological insight into the characters.

What to make of a film that reveals so little of itself? One might first turn to the director. In interviews, Haneke has in turn emphasised his intention to leave the work of interpretation to the spectator: “I try to make anti-psychological films with characters who are less characters than projection surfaces for the sensibilities of the viewer; blank spaces force the spectator to bring his own thoughts and feelings to the film. Because that is what makes the viewer open for the sensitivity of the character”. (2) Haneke, in other words, strangles the flow of information in order to compel the spectator to “think with” and “feel with” the film, instead of simply consuming it.

Re-viewing Haneke’s early features more than 15 years after their initial release is a strange exercise. The films’ address and stance—indeed, the very aesthetic and moral questions they raise—seem to come from an uncannily distant past. In order to understand their creative energies, however, they need to be read against the contemporary social and cultural theory and the anxieties that these theorists addressed. In the 1980s and 1990s, Marc Augé, Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze and others were scrutinising the very perceptual systems (and the environment and conditions fostering them) that Haneke took to task in his “Austria” trilogy. Indeed, in a larger sense, Haneke and these thinkers shared a common perspective: they sought to revive moribund fields with a respective cinematic/theoretical shock therapy. (3)

One useful reference point for The Seventh Continent and Haneke’s stark dramaturgy is the social theorist Marc Augé. Augé investigates what form of obligation we encounter in the anonymous “non-places” of modern urban space: hotel rooms, supermarkets, ATM machines and other transit points at which we spend an increasing proportion of our lives. Non-places refer to spaces “which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity”. (4) Augé argues that although we don’t “rest” or “reside” in non-places but merely pass through, we nevertheless enjoy a contractual relation with the world. These “contracts” are symbolised in train or plane tickets, bank cards and email addresses. Augé infers from such spaces a paradox of what he calls surmodernité, roughly translatable as “supermodernity” or “hypermodernity”.

Supermodernity is a paradoxical condition. On the one hand it implies a proliferation of events, a surfeit of history and above all an abundance of news and information describing these occurrences. At the same time, this excess means that “there is no room for history unless it has been transformed into an element of spectacle, usually in allusive texts. What reigns there is actuality, the urgency of the present moment”. (5) Supermodernity generates a paradoxical excess and lack of identity. PIN codes, e-mail addresses, Social Security cards, driver’s licenses and national identity cards with biometric data function to differentiate between individuals. At the same time, this proliferation has made personal identity more rigid and formally interchangeable: everyone can be identified by a “number” and one’s identity can be “stolen”.

This is the diegetic world of The Seventh Continent: supermarket checkout counters and credit cards, car washes and automatic garage doors; as Amos Vogel describes the film, “anonymity, coldness, alienation amidst a surfeit of commodities and comfort”. (6) The characters wander aimlessly and seemingly without motivation between Augé’s anonymous transit points and temporary abodes: the home, that traditional point of bourgeois differentiation is a refuge, but also a prison; it is one of many in the suburban development. The family could be anywhere, on any seventh continent, most important (and most alienating and destructive) is the dialectic between anonymity and identity.

From Oedipus to Narcissus: Benny’s Video

The digital Narcissus replaces the triangular Oedipus…the clone will be your guardian angel…Your ‘neighbour’ will be this deceptively similar clone, so that you will never be alone again and never again have a secret. ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’: this old scriptural problem is solves—your neighbour, you are him. The love will thus be absolute. Absolute self-seduction.

– Jean Baudrillard (7)

Benny’s Video, the second part of Haneke’s “glaciation trilogy”, begins with a buzz and a bang: the white noise of a television screen snow shower and the sound of a pig being shot on the subsequent home video. Benny is a neglected son of rich parents in Vienna. He spends his days and nights in his room lost in a cobweb of video equipment, cameras, monitors and editing consoles. He keeps his shades drawn at all times and experiences the outside world mediated through the camcorders he has set up outside his windows. He obsessively reviews the farmyard killing of a pig in forward and reverse, slow motion and freeze-frame. Intermittently, he flips through channels full of news on neo-nazi killings, toy commercials, war films and reports on the incipient war in Yugoslavia. One day he meets a girl at the video store and invites her back to his empty house. He shows her the weapon he used to kill the pig and shoots her with it. Although the girl’s death occurs out of the camera’s reach, the audience is privy to excruciating minutes of screams and whimpers. In the end, Benny foils his parents’ perversely cynical attempt to cover up the murder.

Commentators on Benny’s Video nearly unanimously cite Benny’s murder of the nameless girl he meets at the video store to be the key scene in the film. Like the two other panels in Haneke’s triptych (the family’s suicide at the conclusion of The Seventh Continent and when the student runs amok at the end of 71 Fragmente einer Chronologie des Zufalls (71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, 1994)), a murder serves as the focal point of Benny’s Video. This moment is the nexus for the critics’ respective agendas – moral/theological issues, formal concerns (Haneke’s denial of unmediated visual access to the murder), violence or media. As important as this scene is, however, what this scene displaces is equally as important.

Of the three films in the trilogy, Benny’s Video is the most aesthetically and formally conventional. Thus, for example, when Benny brings the girl back to his place after meeting her at the video store, one expects (both by conditioning via traditional cinematic narratives as well as through the way Haneke stages the meeting) a sexual encounter: boy meets girl, girl meets boy, boy kisses girl. Instead: boy meets girl, boy kills girl. What should be Benny’s first sexual experience becomes a violent act that he records and ritually rehashes. A sexual act comes only after the violent one: in an auto-erotic spectacle, Benny strips naked and observes himself in the mirror, smearing himself with the girl’s blood.

This scene might be seen as the cinematic re-working of the Baudrillard quotation above: in the postmodern moment the myth of Narcissus is now the guiding paradigm that structures experience and narrative, rather than the Oedipus initiation story. When Benny rearranges the girl’s shirt so that she is “properly” covered, this lack of curiosity further distances him from normative heterosexuality. If the Oedipal myth arcs towards the idea that human subjectivity is sexually realised in love between partners, then the Baudrillardian Narcissus myth enables Benny to believe that mediated, digitally manipulable violence is the “authentic” experience in a “me” world without connections; so why not “see how it is”? Benny comes of age not through sexual conquest and replacing a mother figure (8) but rather by eliminating the potential object of desire and retreating into the cave of video equipment, over which he commands absolute control. (9)

71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance

The question isn’t “how do I show violence?” but rather “how do I show the spectator his position vis-à-vis violence and its representation?”

– Michael Haneke

The final instalment of the trilogy transforms the (true) story of an Austrian university student who one day runs amok into 71 discrete scenes. Chronicling the causes for a killing spree as well as the preceding events in the lives of the victims would seem almost necessarily melodramatic; indeed, the story stems supposedly from the reportage of the Kurier, the best-selling tabloid and Austrian equivalent of The Sun (the idea for The Seventh Continent supposedly came from an article in Der Stern). Haneke, however, renders the story with little pathos. 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994) reads like a structuralist exegesis straight from Roland Barthes’ S/Z. The spectator is treated to snapshots, such as four minutes of the future “killer” playing table tennis alone, or a future victim silently watching the evening news. These 71 moments, remarkable only in their unremarkability, form a system that implicates an entire form of society for the crime of one.

71 Fragments marks a departure from the longitudinal studies of a single family as seen in the first two parts of the trilogy. The violent outburst is instead contextualised within a cross-section of society: a lonely father, a couple in a dysfunctional relationship, a woman who wants to adopt a child, a Romanian immigrant. The film is moreover a preview of coming attractions, particularly in Haneke’s attention to people and cultures from outside of the traditional Western and Central European “first world”. This “foreigner thematic” reappears in Code Unknown, Time of the Wolf and Hidden. 71 Fragments indicates the beginning of Haneke’s transition to a wider European purview.

Funny Games: The Aesthetics of Violence, The Politics of Self-Referentiality

I try to give back to violence that what it truly is: pain, injury to another.

– Michael Haneke

Funny Games is in a sense an epilogue to Haneke’s “glaciation” trilogy: this film, like the others that precede it, conducts an investigation of violence and spectatorship. Here, however, the subject is more a confrontation with the shape of popular film and cinematic genre, rather than a statement on contemporary Austrian society.

The plot is terrifying and simple. A wealthy father, mother and son (plus dog) go on vacation to their lakeside summer house. Two well-groomed young men arrive clad in golf gear and ask to borrow some eggs. The two then proceed, without any motive, to terrorise and then kill dog, son, father and mother.

Funny Games turns Cape Fear on its head; it is an anti-thriller. The threat to family bliss comes from within the upper-middle classes, rather than from a rogue element at the edge of society. Innocent children and animals are savagely destroyed in the very beginning stages of the film. (10) The violence, moreover, is never really shown, but rather indicated in the soundtrack or recorded in the faces of the killers or other family members. Haneke focuses instead on the effects on the victims, revealed for example in a several minute-long shot of the father attempting to stand up. There is no rescue sequence, revenge scenario or happy ending to the story – the last shots show the two killers ready to strike the next vacation spot.

In Funny Games there is certainly a surfeit of violence, enough to shake even the most jaded viewers (and which prompted scores of spectators, including Wim Wenders, to walk out of the screening at Cannes in 1997). In addition, Haneke employs a number of self-referential devices to, as the director often repeats, “rape the spectator to independence”. One killer winks into the camera and subsequently asks the viewer, “what would you bet that this family is dead by nine o’clock tomorrow?” The film toys with the spectator just as the young men play their “funny game” with the family. The killer Paul later explains why he can’t possibly stop his abuse: “we’re still under the length of a proper feature film”. The ironic self-referentiality climaxes when a character actually rewinds the proceedings in order to revise the outcome. When the mother manages to grab a gun and shoot Paul’s accomplice, Paul grabs a remote control and rewinds the scene, thus ensuring his success.

Funny Games‘ denial of visual access to acts of violence bespeaks central aspects of Haneke’s theoretical programme. The director’s views on representing violence and his concomitant spectatorship theory are well documented in numerous interviews as well as his own essays (“Film als Katharsis”, “Violence and the Media”, “Terror and Utopia of Form: Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar”). There are striking parallels in Haneke’s logic with argumentation in memory and trauma theory. Haneke’s philosophy draws, perhaps perversely, on Holocaust depiction theory (such as that voiced by Claude Lanzmann) in that he makes films about violence without showing it (i.e. Bilderverbot), or more precisely, Haneke thematises the representation of violence in the way that he denies the spectator his/her presumed visual access to the violence. Similar to Lanzmann, Haneke’s project attempts to correct Hollywood’s glorified treatment of violence (or in Lanzmann’s case, the sentimentalised version of the Holocaust as found in the mini-series Holocaust or later in Schindler’s List): Haneke wants to concentrate on the suffering of victims and to hinder identification with any pseudopsychological motivation of the perpetrator; he uses a slow tempo in montage and camera to allow audience a distanced “thinking space” and he challenges the action film’s practice of selling violence as a consumer good (i.e. violence as spectacle, dramaturgy). In this way, Haneke attempts to discuss violence without inciting fascination or titillation for his subject. Whether Haneke succeeds in this last crucial point has filled the feuilleton pages of newspapers across Europe and abroad. Some have praised Haneke in his formal daring; others have scathingly criticised him for excessive didacticism and depicting violence in essence no differently than in action films.

A final note on Funny Games should point out the connection between the film and its Austrian contemporaries. A wave of ironic and often self-referential “black comedies” appeared in Austria in the late 1990s and the first few years of this century. Funny Games should therefore also be seen in the context of films like Die totale Therapie (Christian Frosch, 1996), Die Gottesanbeterin (Paul Harather, 2000), Komm, süßer Tod (Wolfgang Murnberger, 2000), and Der Überfall (Florian Flicker, 2000) and their typically Austrian mix of comedy, violence and irony.

Vienna-Paris-Vienna: Code Unknown and The Piano Teacher

That does not mean that I will never work in Austria again. But given the not exactly rosy financial working situation in my country it is naturally comforting to be able to fall back on foreign options.

– Michael Haneke

After the release of Funny Games, Haneke set to work on Wolf-Age, a script he had written before Benny’s Video but then shelved. In his second attempt to realise the project, Haneke fared no better – the financing ultimately collapsed at the last minute and he found himself at a dead end in his career, ironically just after scoring his then biggest hit, Funny Games. It was at that time that the “miracle” happened, as Haneke terms it. Juliette Binoche contacted him and asked if he would shoot a film with her in France. The result was Code Unknown, which debuted in competition at Cannes 2000.

In an interview with the Stuttgarter Zeitung from 8 February 2001 Haneke revealed that if “Funny Games was the conclusion of my Civil War trilogy, Code Inconnu (Code Unknown, 2000) could be given the heading of ‘World War’”. With Code Unknown, Haneke’s searing vision expanded beyond Austria and the concerns in the “Alpine Republic”. The narrative takes a cue from 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance: it offers 27 vaguely connected scenes from the varying perspectives of an actress, an African immigrant and a reporter who covers the war-torn Balkans. Code Unknown, however, lacks the deadly teleology of 71 Fragments; there is no “big-bang” act of violence at the end. Instead, Haneke concentrates on perhaps more quotidian, but none less pressing, problems: the new waves of immigration in Europe and the difficulty of interpersonal communication, be it between a couple in a relationship or between cultures.

Code Unknown represents a different cinematic experience from Haneke’s earlier features. Haneke had previously used a few actors recognisable to German cinephiles, for instance Angela Winkler or Ulrich Mühe. Still, even they were employed in rather restrained and “anonymous” roles, in keeping with Haneke’s philosophy that characters should only be surfaces onto which the audience should project their own emotions and thoughts. The acting firepower and pure expectations that an international superstar like Juliette Binoche brings to Code Unknown (not to mention Isabelle Huppert to La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher, 2001) and Le Temps du loup (Time of the Wolf, 2003)) in some sense at least tempers the audience’s ability to project anything onto a figure laden with so many associations. Haneke had always sought to position himself as the opposite of Tarantino, as the “last modernist” whose bare, deliberate cinema treated violence and media with a non-titillating distance without the illusionist chicanery of Tarantino’s multilayered association project. In this way, Haneke’s “French Films” dilute the ferocious theoretical rigour of the “glaciation theory” at the same time that they broaden their thematic attack.

Nevertheless, Haneke’s penchant for disturbing the spectator remains intact throughout, if by other means. Anne becomes hysterically upset when a child nearly falls from a tall apartment building. Suddenly we hear her laugh from off screen: the whole sequence was taking place at a sound studio where Anne was synchronising her voice for the soundtrack of a film she had appeared in. Sequences like this reward careful spectators. In another scene, for instance, the viewer must ponder the image produced by a static camera in order to derive its importance. At length, we watch an airplane cabin door, before a Kosovar woman suddenly appears in police handcuffs. Our attendance to the important narrative element occurs without traditional devices, such as a cut or a close-up. In a later scene, like a game of “Where’s Waldo?”, we find Amadou in a crowd of drummers nearly hidden in the frame. These moments take to an extreme what Bazin writes about neorealism in “An Aesthetic of Reality”: rather than using montage to fix the viewer’s attention, “it is the mind of the spectator which is forced to discern . . . the dramatic spectrum proper to the scene”. (11)

Code Unknown contains some of Haneke’s most intricate uses of stationary camera and long takes. One such sustained shot captures Anne ironing in her living room. Postcards, presumably from Georges’ travels, fill the wall. The TV-image reflects in the glass door, providing the spectator with a flat composition of the apartment space and the action of the sequence, without the need to cut. On the soundtrack we hear the TV news, then the sounds of domestic abuse in a neighbour’s flat and then, with the aid of the remote control, the TV once again. Anne overwrites the “noise” of the beating with the remote control, Haneke’s privileged media device. This scene implies an off-screen space and indeed larger forms of culture, even while the shot itself is cramped. Formal “limitation” becomes in fact a scene of invention. Haneke’s flat, painterly composition is in fact a highly evocative prospect of a world beyond in which every piece of information does not contribute to a neat whole. Despite the film’s use of parallel narrative, Code Unknown is—like 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance—in fact anti-Altman, anti-Kieslowski and unlike vulgar examples such as Magnolia (1999) and Crash (2004).

At Cannes 2000, Haneke addressed the difficulties of transferring Elfriede Jelinek’s writing to the screen. “The hard part about The Piano Teacher”, he foresaw, “is to make an obscene film but not a pornographic one”. The following year Haneke returned to the festival with the finished adaptation and left with three major awards. The Cannes jury, at least, deemed the picture less a porn flick than a magnum opus.

Haneke brings Jelinek’s story of a virtuoso piano teacher and her sadomasochistic sexuality into the present time and into the French language (although still staged in Vienna). Erika Kohut is a piano teacher at the Vienna Conservatory and lives with her mother (played by Annie Girardot). The two have an abusive, symbiotic dependency that contains sexual elements; otherwise, Erika has no other romantic attachments. Her sex life is solitary and voyeuristic. She retrieves disposed semen in shopping-mall porn shops and urinates while watching coupling teens at a drive-in movie theatre. Her unconventional behaviour includes permanently scarring her student’s playing hands, genital self-mutilation and a destructive liaison with Walter Klemmer, a talented student who first pursues her—and then is pursued by her. The protagonist’s extraordinarily odd comportment and explicit rape and bondage scenes are never fully explained nor justified.

Haneke’s initial feature films had been subsidised predominantly by public Austrian funds: The Seventh Continent was a solely Austrian production and Benny’s Video and 71 Fragments remained co-productions with Switzerland and Germany that included one or two production partners. Code Unknown and The Piano Teacher, on the contrary, were financed from an alphabet soup of sources that included public and private channels from Austria, Germany and France, local funding boards, EU monies and private capital. The multinational funding structures persisted and became more complex in subsequent projects.

Apocalyptic Allusionism: Time of the Wolf

Although not necessarily his richest film, the arthouse success (12) of The Piano Teacher was the final reminder to the unconverted that Michael Haneke could no longer be ignored as a major player in European cinema. Accordingly, many channels of funding (above all in France, but also in Italy and elsewhere) became options for Haneke. In 2003 his follow-up, Time of the Wolf, debuted out of competition at Cannes. Time of the Wolf represents a revision of the Wolf-Age project from the pre-Code Unknown days. It is post-apocalyptic science fiction.

The point of departure recalls Haneke’s earlier Austrian features: a couple and their two children drive to their vacation house and begin to unload the car. A first-time viewer might think we are back in Funny Games, or on the way to Egypt with Benny and his mother. Once inside the house, however, they find another family that apparently has been squatting in the home. Without warning or explanation, the squatter-father shoots his counterpart, Georges, and Anne, the mother (played by Isabelle Huppert), and the two children Anne and Ben find themselves alone in the wilderness.

The remainder of the film involves the family’s search for shelter in the dark and foggy countryside, the disappearance of Ben and the days at an abandoned train station, where a “civilisation” of multinational refugees is divided into strategic gangs (e.g., “The Just”), waiting for “the train” to arrive. Even if the setting diverges starkly from previous efforts, familiar stylistic devices persist. Sequences are often staged in a long take; a few dramatic tracking shots punctuate generally static camera work. The aesthetic is spare and favours dark spaces: when Anne and Eva notice that Ben is missing, minutes transpire in total darkness. Starkly lit scenes of fires against the otherwise black night foreground the lost accoutrements of modern society. We are a universe away from the busy Autobahn in Benny’s Vienna, the bustling Parisian streets or the carefully electronic Linz home. (If anything, this is a vile version of The Seventh Continent’s mythical and empty Australia.) Although the main characters are native French, there are never any specific clues to their whereabouts or background; one speaks of “the city”. Even in the virtual absence of modern technology, however, Haneke’s media critique remains conspicuous. In this post-apocalyptic order, the “necessities” of modern culture have instantly lost all value. The purpose and relative worth of space and material objects have been mercilessly readjusted; a lighter is extraordinarily valuable, while an watch is worthless. Similarly, emotional economies undergo extreme fluctuations. In Haneke’s most sentimental film until The White Ribbon, feelings change in an instant, as if the characters are relearning them in the absence of modern society’s distractions and inhibitions. Early in the film, Anne coldly breaks off her daughter’s embrace. Shortly thereafter, subsequent to Ben’s disappearance, she reminds Eva that she loves her, only (once the small fire grows into a conflagration) to yell at her for being stupid. In a parallel way, the supporting characters serve alternating and morally criss-crossed roles. A rapist is also a saviour; murder is no repugnant crime.

Time of the Wolf meditates on the failure of Enlightenment ideas of civilisation and progress; in this way it picks up on the themes of Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice (1986). Beyond auteurist genealogies, moreover, it is surely part of a series of more mainstream disaster movies and novels which proliferated around the millennium and then in the years following the 9/11 attacks and the climate-change, including The Postman (1997), The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and The Road (2009). The essential difference to these projects—and perhaps even more important than any facile divisions between Hollywood and European arthouse—is the aesthetic and moral status of the apocalypse. In Time of the Wolf, panoramas in which the built and above all natural landscape dwarf the human characters transmit graphically a setting in which nature rules. The compositions produce a somewhat ambiguous mood, however. Post-ecological disaster France is figuratively rendered Romantic. Even as the figures starve, die, and kill each other, the surrounding nature retains—or assumes for the first time—a pastoral beauty and majesty. The transformation of these hitherto “civilised” Europeans into feral primitives is presented as both natural as well as terrible. Despite the filmmaker’s criticism of Quentin Tarantino or Oliver Stone for their aestheticised violence, (13) Haneke’s films celebrate a certain beauty of destruction.

Another clear formal difference to other disaster movies is the elliptical narrative and its extreme restraint with information. Wide stretches feature little or no dialogue and silence generally abounds; a rigorous editing scheme interrupts this reticence with sudden bursts of dialogue and screaming, especially in the Babel of a train station. There is little explicit background to these characters, almost no history in this place. Whatever massive disaster has occurred—surely the focal point for any action “disaster” picture—we do not see it. The moral question—natural or man-made?—is also elided. Although generally episodic, the narrative features the odd exceptional device, most notably a montage sequence in which Eva narrates in voice-over a letter she writes to her dead father. Haneke used a nearly identical device in The Seventh Continent, when Anna writes to Georg’s parents and (more or less) suggests their psychological situation. Similarly, Eva’s letter economically offers news about daily life at the camp and insight into the family’s mental state. More importantly, like in The Seventh Continent, the juxtaposition of the voice-over soundtrack and the montage is tense rather than redundant. In the sequence, an image of the pastoral outside precedes several shots of now superfluous interiors: disused pipes, an empty refrigerator. Finally, there is a series of photos: a picture of a moustached man in front of a cathedral in Italy and a family perhaps having a picnic in the countryside, an obscured photo of a snow-capped mountain and two pin-ups of buxom women. These are presumably the remains of whoever worked in the railway office, found objects meant to communicate the lost existence of some subject with social, familial and sexual connections and geographical mobility.

The last image in the montage is a rendering of a blue-black explosion that seems to rain over a field: a reproduction of Albrecht Dürer’s 1525 watercolour “Traumgesicht” (literally: “Dream Face”). Dürer created the apocalyptic vision and accompanying text supposedly after seeing the image in a dream; the historical context was the Peasants’ War (1524-1525), the largest and bloodiest popular European uprising until the French Revolution. Of course, the Dürer vision of a mushroom cloud functions as the visual link to the film’s unspoken history. Indeed, (Germanic) cultural allusions fill the missing space of dialogue, intertitles or direct visual depictions in representing the “event”. In the station, Béa sings “Maikäfer flieg,” a German folk song that describes the destruction of Pomerania during the Thirty Years’ War and, in particular, the need to flee from the burning towns. In addition, the title Time of the Wolf derives from a verse from the visionary poem “Voluspá”, from the Old Icelandic saga Edda. The poem describes the progress of civilization, battles of the gods and the destruction of the world by war. The 44th stanza describes one stage in the apocalypse thus:

Brothers will fight and kill each other,
sisters’ children will defile kinship.
It is harsh in the world, whoredom rife
—an axe age, a sword age—shields are riven—
a wind age, a wolf age—before the world goes headlong.
No man will have mercy on another. (14)

Taken together, these allusions connect the film to previous imaginings of the apocalypse, but also to other European wars. With a script written at a time when the Balkan wars were still fresh, and shot in the midst of military operations in Afghanistan and the looming invasion of Iraq, Time of the Wolf is both a disaster film and a comment on the civilian experience of war. Let us not forget that for Germans and Austrians of Haneke’s birth year, the ferocious Allied bombings and childrens’ forced relocations to the countryside (often without their parents) made war a primal and formative memory.

By eschewing visual depictions of disaster for references to war and catastrophe via visual subjective memories (the photos; Dürer’s watercolour) and collective memories encapsulated in the oral tradition (Edda; “Maikäfer flieg”), Time of the Wolf risks a spare narrative economy. Indeed, by obscuring the explicit stakes of conflict into intertextuality (à la Kluge), the film has fewer avenues for identification than Benny’s Video or Code Unknown. This dictated a largely cool reception and meagre box office, even for auteurist standards. Some (apparently including the Cannes selection committee, which placed it out of competition) found it disappointing, arguing that it returns to themes that Haneke treated better before.



If critics on the Croisette had been lukewarm about Time of the Wolf, Haneke’s next French-language feature proved a red-hot hit. Set in Paris and starring Juliette Binoche and Daniel Auteuil, Hidden won three major Cannes awards, including Best Director, and went on to earn a host of recognitions, from European Film Awards to the César. After flopping with Time of the Wolf, Haneke had delivered by far his highest-grossing and most critically acclaimed film.

Drawing on the conventions of the thriller, Hidden evokes David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997) in the way that it introduces anonymous missives as springboards for epistemological conundrums. Georges is a television literary critic and his wife Anne is a book editor. Together with their teenage son Pierrot, they live in a handsome townhouse in a tony neighbourhood. The family receives a series of disquieting drawings and videotapes; after the police are powerless to help, Georges pursues the man he suspects is sending the unsolicited post, Majid (played by Maurice Benichou), a French-Algerian who had lived with Georges’ family as a child. Both Majid and his son deny any involvement, but when recordings of Georges’ encounter end up at his boss’ office and Pierrot goes missing, Georges’ suspicions increase. In a subsequent meeting, Majid kills himself; the film ends after Majid’s son confronts Georges at work and speaks with Pierrot outside of the school.

Numerous critics have written persuasively about the levels of personal and collective guilt at work in the story and on the cultural legacy of Franco-Algerian relations and the massacre of approximately 200 Algerian protestors by Paris police on 17 October 1961. (15) Here, however, I want to focus on the critique of the image. More precisely, the film interrogates the belief in images to provide truth—and uses images and image technologies to perform this critique.

If the first scene of Time of the Wolf riffed on Funny Games, Hidden begins with a nod to Benny’s Video: images from a hidden surveillance camera that the first-time viewer mistakes for the actual film. (16) For five minutes a long shot captures a quiet street in the 13th arrondissement called “rue des Iris,” during which the credits superimpose and fill the frame. Yet, the shock in this sequence derives not from any sudden graphic violence; it is an ontological surprise. As a male and female voice begin to argue from off-screen and fast-forward lines blur the frame, the spectator realises that the characters are watching this image along with him or her, that his or her perspective is aligned with theirs. The film itself has not quite begun.

This opening both re-visits and transposes devices employed in previous works. The introductory sequence to Benny’s Video, for instance, provided a model for this VCR logic. Indeed, already in Code Unknown Haneke toyed with the spectator by employing a film within his film. In these earlier works, however, the joke is easier to perceive visually. The amateur camcorder images make Benny’s video legible as a different aesthetic and phenomenological layer. A careful viewer would detect the high-rise death scene in Code Unknown as a fake: whereas Haneke shoots all other sequences in long takes, this scene deploys conventional continuity editing. Hidden’s different layers disappear, unlike in prior films, because of the uninterrupted use of HD digital video. Benny’s Video functioned by maintaining a strict division of camcorders, surveillance monitors, TV news and commercials and the 35mm “film”—modes of viewing that the spectator could differentiate and that Benny somehow could not. Hidden depends on the seamlessness of all these forms on the same digital medium, which destabilises the spectator with a desubstantiated image. (17)

The initial sequence in Hidden is the first of many instances in which Haneke destabilizes point-of-view. Later, a car trip to a public housing project on the outskirts of Paris—following sequentially Georges’ departure from his mother’s house—turns out to be another video. A variation comes after Georges’ TV show. What appears to be the camera taping the show for televisual broadcast (or what might in fact be television itself) seamlessly tracks Georges receiving a phone call off-set. What might be the providence of one camera-eye is revealed as omniscient. Even the tapes that Georges receives are sometimes shot from positions illogical within the fiction (the rue de Iris would have to have been outfitted with a crane).

As ever, a critique of bourgeois hubris appears as a function of media. In spite of Georges and Anne’s education, privileged social status and careers in television and publishing, their relation to media is fantastic. Georges tells his editor to cut footage where the guest becomes too “theoretical”; in order to escape his bad conscience, he goes to the cinema to clear his mind. This hypocrisy is realised most powerfully in the mise en scène. With television scenes of the Iraq war in background, Georges and Anne blame each other for a lack of communication. Shelving systems stylise compositions and echo across the film. Books line Georges and Anne’s house in imposing rows from floor to ceiling as badges of their educated bourgeois status. This serves as a contrast to Majid’s flat, which bears neither books nor videos, although apparently a hidden camera. The compositions of shelving at Georges and Anne’s highlight their pretensions as competent and authoritative parents and socialites. These compositional forms recur once again at Anne’s work—in the background during the telephone conversation at the party—and in Georges’ boss’s office—not only in the books in the foreground of the two-shot between Georges and his boss, but also in the clear lines of the neighbouring building’s architecture in the background. The fake books behind Georges on the set of his TV show are the most painterly in this series. Georges figures as a Wizard of Oz before panels of simulated knowledge.

Hidden seems to require a DVD viewing after one or multiple viewings on the big screen. Built into the film is on the one hand a need to stop, rewind and repeat—in other words, to manipulate cinema’s traditional time values. Viewing Hidden for the second time, for instance, the spectator searches in vain along Majid’s cluttered wall in the effort to discern the hidden camera filming the action. On the other hand there is a virtual requirement to see the film in a theatrical format. The final image, in which Pierrot converses with Majid’s son, has the potential to alter dramatically the spectator’s sense of narrative cause and effect: that is, if he or she actually detects the inconspicuous meeting in the corner of the frame just before the credit titles. Nevertheless, in Haneke, impossibility is always built-in: no matter often we watch the film, blow it up or slow it down, we can always speculate, but never know.

The Language of Casting: Funny Games U.S.

Haneke’s English-language remake treads very closely to the original, and many scenes are shot-for-shot copies of the Austrian version. Of course the switch in language, and, in particular, the casting choices and actors’ performances make the experience resonate differently. In the original, deploying Ulrich Mühe (who grew up in the GDR) and Susanne Lothar (a native of Hamburg) in the roles of Georg and Anna produced a neo-colonial aspect to the brutal killings: parallel to the generic rules of Deliverance (1972) and many horror films, urbane, middle-class German owners of an Austrian summer house must die at the hands of provincials because of their “invasion” of foreign territory. Mühe and Arno Frisch revised their father-son roles in Benny’s Video and subtly played out a sinister continuation of the earlier film’s Oedipal rebellion. To be sure, the British-Australian Naomi Watts and London-born Tim Roth pose a similar “foreign” element to Ann and George in the Hamptons; these backgrounds, however, remain as part of the spectator’s foreknowledge and do not play significantly into their performances. Watts and Roth did, however, bring a very different quality to their roles. In particular, Watts’ turn as Ann introduced much more sexual tension than did Lothar’s slight body and neurotic, slightly bitchy interpretation.

Beyond the casting, the most interesting aspects of the remake involve the authorial or economic reasons for its existence. Commentators and admirers, accustomed to the director’s screeds against American popular cinema, were nothing short of flabbergasted when advance notices for the project appeared. Why would Haneke remake Funny Games and why would he choose make a “Hollywood” film? When posed this question, he responded that Funny Games was meant as an experiment about America and an English-language version would actually reach his target audience. He also indicated his long-held desire to collaborate with Naomi Watts. In these interviews, Haneke rarely failed to emphasise how much he despised making a studio picture and the American trade unions came up for particular excoriation: to get a cup of tea on set, he claimed to have had to ask an assistant to ask an assistant to ask an assistant to fetch it for him. These comments might provide some insight into the reasons for the film; financial remuneration surely played another (unacknowledged) role. Regardless, Funny Games U.S. flopped and received only measured critical plaudits. Even more troubling for those who had previously appreciated Haneke’s principled stance against the “barrel-down” American cinema, Haneke confirmed that Ron Howard had declared his interest in remaking Hidden. (18)

Morality Detective Story: The White Ribbon

Winner of the 2009 Palme d’Or at Cannes and nominee for Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, The White Ribbon seems to be thoroughly out of the past. Shot in sharp, high-definition digital (cinematographer Christian Berger earned an Oscar nomination for his work) and converted into black and white during post-production, the pre-World War I historical reconstruction in many ways feels like a throwback to Haneke’s television adaptations The Rebellion and The Castle. The language is anachronistic; it evokes the rhythms and, partly, the milieu of 19th-century bourgeois realism, epitomized by authors such as Theodor Fontane. The overdub narrator—who, in the first dialogue of the film unreliably suggests that “I don’t know if the story that I will tell you corresponds to the truth in every detail”, gestures towards the ornate frame structure of Theodor Storm’s Der Schimmelreiter or a much more recent play on this tradition, W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz.

The plot documents the “strange events” that afflict a Northern German village and its principal characters: the Baron’s family, the Pastor’s family, the Farmer, the Steward, the Midwife and the village Doctor. The Schoolteacher, who is also the retrospective storyteller, narrates the proceedings, intercut with the subplot of his courtship of the Baroness’ nanny, Eva: the Doctor’s horse is felled by a wire; the Farmer’s wife dies in an accident at the mill; the harvest is destroyed and a barn goes up in flames; Baron’s son, Sigi, is kidnapped and beaten; Karli, the Midwife’s handicapped son, is attacked so severely that he can hardly see.

The narrative form is episodic and the larger political background—we find out only near the end—is the beginning of the First World War. Above all, however, this is a milieu study hidden in a mystery that will never be solved: character sketches in physical and sexual abuse and passive-aggressive emotional cruelty. The rigid social hierarchies and rituals of the Protestant village are examined from a distinctly 21st-century perspective. This includes the courtship between and the Schoolteacher and Eva, the gender dynamics of the Baron and the Baroness and, in particular, the atmosphere at the Pastor’s house. The children address their parents as “Mr. Father” and “Mrs. Mother” and with the formal word for “you” (“Sie”); they curtsey and kiss their parents’ hand as valediction. The Pastor and his wife employ (based on today’s standards) draconian disciplinary measures; when the father suspects Martin of self-exploration, he has his son’s hands bound to the bed at night to prevent impropriety. Besides beatings and violating sex, there is little physical human contact. Echoing Time of the Wolf’s Anne, the Pastor snaps “don’t touch me” to his children; the Doctor, in particularly vicious scenes, is repulsed by his lover, the Midwife. The title “White Ribbon” is an armband that Martin and his sister must wear, a sign of their purity and a reminder to save them from falling into the temptation to sin again.

The social construction of violence—how it is passed down in families, in schools and by religion—is always at issue in this film, subtitled “A German Children’s Story”. The Doctor’s sexual abuse of his daughter, the general severity and hypocrisy of the village adults and class tensions are played out in the children’s increasing aggressions and it is implied that they are also responsible for the “strange events”. One of the final scenes—when the Midwife inexplicably needs to leave town and a tracking shot reveals that the children are trying to gain access to the Midwife’s house, where the battered Karli had been convalescing—recalls Funny Games’s sinister dénouement, when we realise that the killers will strike again and again. (This effect is only heightened by the casting of Susanne Lothar as the Midwife.) In this tale, children mobilise for a generational struggle not by rebelling, but by overlearning their lessons and taking the adults’ moralism literally. These are young people who have internalised their parents’ pressures (cf. The Seventh Continent, Benny’s Video and Time of the Wolf) and project them as violence they inflict among and upon themselves. Martin, who nearly kills himself, suffers like a real author contemporary to the fiction; the Austrian author Robert Musil, of the immediately previous generation, allegedly tried to take his own life before he was a teenager. The children’s sadism, a perversion of the supposedly innocent that has been a persistent motif in Haneke, places The White Ribbon into the tradition of Village of the Damned (1960, 1995). The casting of real siblings and the careful selection (Haneke claimed to have examined 7,000 head shots and child actors) of certain physiognomies and body types, certainly contributes to the eerie mood. This is a film about the generation that will become, if not the architects, then the executors of Nazism in Germany. Historians pinpoint precisely that children of this age, too young to be enlisted in the Great War and thus see horrors of armed conflict firsthand, became the instruments of Hitler and the most enthusiastic National Socialists.

The White Ribbon employs some classically Hanekean stylistics. In some scenes, the camera pursues a character, a style of surveillance featured most rigorously and prominently in Hidden; at the village dance, a kinetic camera encircles the Schoolteacher and Eva à la Michael Ballhaus. More frequent, however, are long takes using a stationary camera, such as a sustained shot of the Farmer’s wife lying in wake, or the shot of a hallway and closed door as Martin is beaten; we are only allowed access to the boy’s faint cries. Nevertheless, these techniques reappear less self-consciously and less rigorously than in previous films. The latter scene, for example, recalls, but is much shorter (and therefore more palatable) than previous sequences in which Haneke substitutes sounds for the visuals of violence.

Disturbingly, for a project that wants to explain the roots of fascism or the fallacy of moral rigidity, and for a filmmaker who follows Bresson’s doctrine on the unity of content and form, who once claimed “beautiful pictures are boring”, the aesthetic could hardly be more sumptuous. Some compositions, like the deep focus shot of the Farmer’s family eating at the table, quote North European genre painting’s idealised peasants. Glorious long shots show farmhands who cut wheat in precise, synchronized movements; the attention to setting and costume is loving and exact. (Haneke supposedly had the fields sown precisely according to 1914 agricultural customs and with seeds from the era; he had just one take to capture their threshing, which the actors rehearsed for weeks). Panorama shots reveal an almost ridiculously flat landscape; not only the sharp High German makes it abundantly clear that we are a long way from Austrian Gemütlichkeit. For keen observers of German cinema, the casting of stars and familiar character actors irritates: Ulrich Tukur, Burghart Klaußner, Gabriele Schmiede, Steffi Kühnert, Brigitte Minichmayer. Detlev Buck (Eva’s father) and Josef Bierbichler (the Steward), two actors who often appear in comedic roles, were especially complex choices. Indeed, a small war launched on the pages of German arts pages between eminent critics Ekkehard Knörer and Wolfram Schütte about whether it was legitimate to treat such a dark subject with such beautiful images.

In the end, however, The White Ribbon is as much thriller as history lesson or morality tale. The Schoolteacher is essentially a detective figure whose efforts to solve the crimes are frustrated by the townspeople’s instincts to protect their children and thereby, most importantly, their social status. The narrative form, and our superior access to information, produces a certain suspense: typically for Haneke, episodes begin in medias res, which, coupled with a rigorous editing scheme creates surprising and initially misleading transitions. For instance, after the Doctor tells the Midwife to “die already” there is a cut to a funeral procession; only later do we understand that we have seen the coffin of the Farmer and that the Midwife is still alive. Similarly, after the Pastor has awkwardly disciplined his son for alleged masturbation, there is a disturbing cut that implies that the Pastor is sodomising Martin. (It turns out to be the Doctor and the Midwife.) This editing programme deludes and foreshadows at the same time.

* * *

When I first wrote this article in the spring and summer of 2003—in social accommodation in Berlin and on the shores of Altavilla Milicia, I re-viewed rented videocassettes and typed on a black-and-white screen without internet access. The world was a different place. At the time I enjoyed the thrill and challenge of writing on a director who had received only piecemeal attention. In the years that followed and with Haneke’s increasing visibility, this prospect changed. Critics and scholars lavished him with ever greater attention and appraised his work through a whole host of perspectives and methodologies.

Why has there been so much interest in Haneke? One explanation might begin by quoting Jonathan Jones from The Guardian, who recently wrote that Haneke “has put European cinema back into the premier league”. (19) One might be puzzled by this generalisation, but what Jones really means to say is that Haneke puts a certain kind of European cinema back into view. The “last modernist” recuperates the hermeneutic circuses of Bergman and Antonioni and Tarkovsky and Janscó, he returns us to a time when the primary function of film criticism, but also film studies and cinephilia, was to figure out: What did I just watch? What was that film about? Haneke’s practice, for all of its invocations of voguish 80s and 90s media theory and its shocking portraits of contemporary life, is a cinema out of time. This is partly because of the director’s physical age: he is a contemporary of Werner Herzog and was born three years before Wim Wenders and Rainer Werner Fassbinder; yet, he directed his first theatrical feature in 1989 at the age of 47, a good 20 years after Fassbinder garnered acclaim with Love Is Colder Than Death (Die Liebe ist kälter als der Tod, 1969). Although by birth a member of the generation of 1968, Haneke somehow belongs to the cutting edge of European cinema.

In turn, the great interest in Haneke has to do also with his classical artistic affinities, which include Bresson, Antonioni and Pasolini. These similarities feed both on a lack and surfeit of critics’ imaginations. Schooled in the concerns and techniques of those canonical directors, we can reliably apply trusted paradigms to Haneke: from themes of guilt, memory, national identity or the broken modern life, to violence and image critique, to open-ended narratives and difficult forms of spectatorship. But, perhaps on a more hopeful note, watching Haneke and what he is achieving in the current history of technology can also be a utopian and nostalgic exercise. He lets us imagine what Bergman, Tarkovsky or Fassbinder might be delivering if they were alive and active in the age of complex multinational co-productions, the digital and the increasing systemisation of film festivals. How might these filmmakers have reacted to the internet? Perhaps in the manner of Haneke, who reports he will make a film on the subject, due for release in 2012.

The great critical interest in Haneke pertains also to his sophistication. Let us remember that he holds professoriate at the University for Music and Visual Arts, Vienna; in conversation with journalists he cites Adorno, recites Brecht, quotes Godard and alludes to Baudrillard and Jean-Louis Baudry. His published statements on media violence, the role of television and the films of Bresson may not be ground-breaking pieces of scholarship, but they certainly evince a man who thinks deeply about cinema and contemporary theoretical debates. As I have elaborated in regard to his Austrian trilogy, these ideas often find expression—and sometimes parody—in his films. (Think of Anne’s book-release party in Hidden and the drunken critic who drops the names of Proust, Baudrillard and others).

The engagement with theory and, in particular, Haneke’s analyses of his own work in interviews and appearances have roused critics’ ire. Writing on a filmmaker always must go through certain stages, the first being the “discovery mode”, which, by definition, often resembles promotion. (Imagine approaching an editor and pitching an article about an unknown director whose work is terrible). In this initial stage, the enterprising critic has the task to decode and categorise the director’s oeuvre. Subsequent writers then make their mark by revising or rejecting the findings of the “discoverers” or by devising new approaches. Finally, the next wave needs to criticise the entire process. In many ways, this is the current, middle stage of Haneke scholarship. Critics find the need to position themselves for Haneke or against him. They do so by comparing his statements to his films and proceeding to point out every way in which, in fact, the two differ. These reactions reveal the fundamental anxiety of the critic, whose very existence rests on a simple, yet terrifying premise: that he or she knows more about a film than its maker, or anyone else. (Full disclosure: I do not deny participating in all of these stages in some form).

The often scathing and ad hominem attacks made against Haneke by otherwise civil writers seem to exceed those criticisms of filmmakers dealing with similar themes. (Besides general castigations of middle-brow meaninglessness levelled by the likes of Manny Farber and Pauline Kael, I don’t recall Antonioni, for example, earning the rants that Haneke regularly receives.) As preeminent critic Wolfram Schütte has claimed, “no other director—with the possible exception of the Straubs—has been so persistently persecuted by German critics with more hate and spite than Michael Haneke”. (20) Criticising the director as elitist and racist and yet banal and trite, the cynical, blasé (but nonetheless outraged) attitude of the pundits is, not unironically, often the very stance that they so deplore in Haneke. These reactions, if nothing else, reveal that Haneke’s cinema of disturbance has succeeded in its purpose. Haneke has won.


  1. The three films received the name from Haneke’s assertion that they are “reports of the progression of the emotional glaciation of my country.” See Michael Haneke, “Film als Katharsis” in Francesco Bono (ed.), Austria (in)felix: zum österreichischem Film der 80er Jahre, Graz, Blimp, 1992, p. 89.
  2. Wolf Donner, “Das Gegenteil von Hollywood”, Tip, no. 12, 1993, p. 35.
  3. For an expanded discussion of these issues, see Mattias Frey, “Supermodernity, Sick Eros and the Video Narcissus: Benny’s Video in the Course of Theory and Time,” in Ben McCann and David Sorfa (eds), The Cinema of Michael Haneke: Europe Utopia, London, Wallflower, forthcoming; and Mattias Frey, “Supermodernity, Capital, and Narcissus: The French Connection to Michael Haneke’s Benny’s Video,” cinetext, October 2002, http://cinetext.philo.at/magazine/frey/bennysvideo.html
  4. Marc Augé, Non-places. Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, trans. John Howe, London, Verso, 1995, pp. 77–8.
  5. Augé, p. 104.
  6. Amos Vogel, “Of Nonexisting Continents: The Cinema of Michael Haneke”, Film Comment, vol. 32, no. 4, July–August 1996, p. 74.
  7. Jean Baudrillard, De la séduction, Paris, Denoël-Gonthier, 1979, p. 233.
  8. Those looking for an Oedipal trajectory here can find one: only in reverse. After the murder, Benny and his mother are the couple (in Egypt and especially as Benny lies with her and videotapes her while she urinates). The girl is eliminated so that Benny’s desire can be displaced to the mother for whom he previously showed little care.
  9. A useful exercise might be to compare Benny to the teenager in American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999), a character whose verisimilitude vis-à-vis Benny suggests either a rather generous case of borrowing by Mendes or proves Baudrillard true in his thoughts on the ubiquity of this situation, etc. In that film, the teenager is a drug dealer, an obsessive voyeur who records everything on video, and lives in an oppressive/dysfunctional family situation. The crucial difference is that he strives for the heterosexual coupling he finds with the neighbour’s daughter. Benny, in contrast, kills the analogous character.
  10. For a fascinating account of, among other concerns, Haneke’s violence against animals, see Michael Lawrence, “Haneke’s Stable: The Death of an Animal and the Figuration of the Human,” in Brian Price and John David Rhodes (eds), On Michael Haneke, Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 2010, pp. 63-84.
  11. André Bazin, “An Aesthetic of Reality,” in What Is Cinema? Vol. 2, trans. Hugh Gray (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), 28. For more on the connection between Haneke and neorealism, see John David Rhodes, “The Spectacle of Skepticism: Haneke’s Long Takes,” in Brian Price and John David Rhodes (eds), On Michael Haneke, Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 2010, pp. 87-102.
  12. According to various sources, The Piano Teacher grossed nearly $2 million in the first six months of its US release and over $10 million worldwide. (See http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0254686/business and http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?page=main&id=pianoteacher02.htm.) Compare this with Haneke’s earlier efforts: Code Unknown, his first film to be released commercially in America, had only generated $95,242 in the USA. See http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?page=main&id=codeunknown.htm.
  13. See, for instance, Michael Haneke, “Film als Katharsis,” ed. Francesco Bono, Austria (In)felix: zum österreichischen Film der 80er Jahre (Graz: Blimp, 1992), 89. For more on Haneke’s theoretical pronouncements, see Mattias Frey, “Haneke’s Film Theory and Digital Praxis,” in Brian Price and John David Rhodes (eds), On Michael Haneke, Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 2010, 153-165.
  14. Anonymous, The Poetic Edda: Volume II Mythological Poems, ed. and trans. by Ursula Dronke, Oxford, Clarendon, 1997, 19.
  15. See, among others, Catherine Wheatley, Michael Haneke’s Cinema: The Ethic of the Image, Oxford, Berghahn, 2009.
  16. I expand on these ideas here in Mattias Frey, “The Message and the Medium: Haneke’s Film Theory and Digital Praxis,” in Brian Price and John David Rhodes (eds), On Michael Haneke, Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 2010, pp. 153-166.
  17. D. N. Rodowick envisions “desubstantiation” as the disappearance of visible and tactile support from both image and text. Simply put, in an age where we realize that digital images are so easily manipulable, we have a new, more sceptical perspective on the visual. See D. N. Rodowick, Reading the Figural, or, Philosophy after the New Media, Durham, Duke University Press, 2001, p. 212.
  18. See Peter Keough, “The Play’s the Thing,” Boston Phoenix, 4 March 2008, http://thephoenix.com/Boston/movies/57279-plays-the-thing/
  19. See Jonathan Jones, “Michael Haneke: Cinema’s Serious Man,” http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2010/feb/18/michael-haneke-cinema-director.
  20. Wolfram Schütte, “Eine deutsche Psychose?,” perlentaucher.de, http://www.perlentaucher.de/artikel/5806.html



The Seventh Continent (Der siebente Kontinent) (1989)

Benny’s Video (1992)

71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (71 Fragmente einer Chronologie des Zufalls) (1994)

Funny Games (1997)

Code Unknown (Code Inconnu) (2000)

The Piano Teacher (La Pianiste) (2001)

The Time of the Wolf (Le Temps du loup) (2003)

Hidden (Caché) (2005)

Funny Games U.S. (2007)

The White Ribbon (Das weiße Band) (2009)

Amour (2012)

Happy End (2017)


. . .Und was kommt danach? (And what comes afterwards?) (1973)

After Liverpool (1974)

Sperrmüll (Household Rubbish) (1976)

Drei Wege zum See (Three Ways to the Sea) (1976)

Lemminge (Lemmings) (1979)

Variationen (Variations) (1983)

Wer war Edgar Allen? (Who was Edgar Allen?) (1984)

Fraulein (Miss) (1985)

Nachruf für einen Mörder (Obituary for a Murderer) (1991)

Die Rebellion (The Rebellion) (1992)

Lumière et Compagnie (1995) one episode in omnibus film

Das Schloß (The Castle) (1997) although commissioned by and debuting on the French-German television channel Arte, Das Schloß also enjoyed a later cinematic release

Selected Bibliography

Marc Augé, Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, trans. John Howe, London, Verso, 1995.

Jean Baudrillard, De la séduction, Paris, Denoël-Gonthier, 1979.

Peter Brunette, Michael Haneke, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 2010.

Norman K. Denzin, The Cinematic Society: The Voyeur’s Gaze, London, Sage, 1995.

Norman K. Denzin, Images of Postmodern Society: Social Theory and Contemporary Cinema, London, Sage, 1991.

Wolf Donner, “Das Gegenteil von Hollywood”, Tip, 3 June 1993, pp. 34–39.

Richard Falcon, “Forbidding Cinema: The Discreet Harm of the Bourgeoisie”, Sight and Sound, May 1998, pp. 10–12.

Franz Grabner, Gerhard Larcher, Christian Wessely (eds), Utopie und Fragment: Michael Hanekes Filmwerk, Thaur, Kulturverlag, 1996.

Roy Grundmann (ed.), A Companion to Michael Haneke, Oxford, Blackwell, 2010.

Michael Haneke, “Film als Katharsis”, in Francesco Bono (ed.), Austria (in)felix: zum österreichischem Film der 80er Jahre, Graz, Blimp, 1992, p. 89.

Michael Haneke, Nahaufnahme Michael Haneke: Gespräche mit Thomas Assheuer, Berlin, Alexander, 2008.

Michael Haneke, “Terror and Utopia of Form: Robert Bresson’s Au hazard Balthazar”, trans. Robert Gray and Roy Grundmann, in Roy Grundmann (ed.), A Companion to Michael Haneke, Oxford, Blackwell, 2010, pp. 565-574.

Michael Haneke, “Violence and the Media”, trans. Evan Torner, in Roy Grundmann (ed.), A Companion to Michael Haneke, Oxford, Blackwell, 2010, pp. 575-579.

Alexander Horwath (ed.), Der siebente Kontinent: Michael Haneke und seine Filme, Vienna, Europaverlag, 1991.

Alexander Horwath and Giovanni Spagnoletti (eds), Michael Haneke, Turin, Lindau, 1998.

Herbert Hrachovec, “Heimelektronik und Heimnachteil: Michael Hanekes Benny’s Video”, in Gottfried Schlemmer (ed.), Der neue österreichische Film, Vienna, Wespennest, 1996, pp. 286–299.

Gerhard Larchner, Franz Grabner, and Christian Wessely (eds), Visible Violence: sichtbare und verschleierte Gewalt im Film, Münster, Lit, 1998.

Ben McCann and David Sorfa (eds), The Cinema of Michael Haneke: Europe Utopia, London, Wallflower, forthcoming.

Jörg Metelmann, Zur Kritik der Kino-Gewalt: Die Filme von Michael Haneke, Munich, Wilhelm Fink, 2003.

Brian Price and John David Rhodes (eds), On Michael Haneke, Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 2010.

Amos Vogel, “Of Nonexisting Continents: The Cinema of Michael Haneke”, Film Comment, vol. 32, no. 4, July–August 1996, pp. 73–75.

Christian Wessely, Gerhard Larcher, Franz Grabner (eds), Michael Haneke und seine Filme: Eine Pathologie der Konsumgesellschaft, Marburg, Schüren, 2005.

Catherine Wheatley, Michael Haneke’s Cinema: the Ethic of the Image, Oxford, Berghahn, 2009.

Articles in Senses of Cinema

Do the Right Thing: The Films of Michael Haneke by Maximilian Le Cain

Between Action and Repression: The Piano Teacher by Nina Hutchison

Code inconnu: Récit incomplete de divers voyages by Darragh O’Donohue

Funny Games by Chris Justice

Notes Towards a Reading of Michael Haneke’s 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance by Adam Bingham

The Seventh Continent by Christopher Sharrett

The Time of the Wolf by Bill Blick

Web Resources

Film Directors – Articles on the Internet

Several online articles can be found here.

Michael Haneke

IndieWIRE Interview.

Michael Haneke

Acquarello reviews The Seventh Continent and Code Unknown.

Central Europe Review

An article on Code Unknown.

Benny’s Video

A dissertation situating Benny’s Video within the context of contemporary French thought.

Facets Multimedia

About The Author

Mattias Frey is Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Kent, UK. His film reviews and scholarly articles have appeared in various books and reference works as well as in Cinema Journal, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Framework, Film International and the Boston Phoenix. His book on post-1990 German film, Goodbye, Hitler: Postwall German Cinema and History, is forthcoming with Berghahn Books.

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