Michael Haneke’s Cinema: The Ethic of the ImageMichael Haneke, the Austrian director who has crossed national boundaries to make films in France, the US and now in Germany with Das weisse Band (The White Ribbon, 2009) – newly crowned with the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival – is concerned with the ethical problem inherent in the viewing situation. The critical and box-office success of Caché (Hidden, 2005) saw an abundance of essays on his films in various scholarly journals such as Screen’s Caché dossier in 2007. Yet books which focus on Haneke have been restricted to German- and Italian-language publications (1), until recently with Ben McCann and David Sorfa’s The Cinema of Michael Haneke: Europe Utopia (2) and Michael Haneke’s Cinema: The Ethic of the Image by Catherine Wheatley.

Wheatley’s book, a new addition to Berghahn Books’ series Film Europa: German Cinema in an International Context, is the first English-language monograph on Haneke. It proposes an ethical theory of spectatorship to fill the gap in scholarship on his films, which very often looks at the socio-political messages implied by the content in the vein of American moralism or psychoanalytical reading of his characters and abrupt outbursts of violence. Wheatley, in her examination of Haneke’s authorial persona, poses the rarely reflected-upon question of the origin, function and particularity of unpleasure in Haneke’s films. This leads to the question of the spectator-screen relationship and the spectator’s complicity, which are at the core of Haneke’s own discussion of his films. Wheatley surpasses the usual approaches to Haneke’s films and considers his ethical concerns vis-à-vis cine-televisual images in the framework of Kantian ethics, both established upon the tension between emotion and reason, the pleasure-seeking instinct and moral responsibility.

Tracing Haneke’s career from his debut trilogy produced in Vienna to Funny Games U. S. (2007), discussed in the coda, this monograph provides a very convincing argument of Haneke’s cinema as both a balance between and an alternative to classical realist cinema and counter-cinema. Wheatley suggests that in his earlier career the director employs counter-cinematic techniques to alienate the spectators in order for them to react to the images rationally. Yet the emotional detachment between the spectator and the film does not help position the spectator morally. Later on, Haneke, still informed by but gradually diverting from the route of counter-cinema, tempts the spectator with classical cinematic elements such as genre structures, linear narrative and star appearances, and then punishes them for pleasure-seeking by upsetting their expectations and providing them with unpleasure. Wheatley thus provides a model to evaluate the development of Haneke’s authorial career according to the extent to which the spectator is positioned morally in relation to the film. Her model convincingly accounts for Funny Games (1997), La Pianiste (2001) and Caché’s critical and popular success, and his other films’ relatively lukewarm reception.

The starting point of this book resides in spectatorship, originating from the unique feeling of unpleasure that Haneke’s films elicit. Wheatley provides a helpful discussion of the key debates in theories of spectatorship. The apparatus theory proposed by Jean-Louis Baudry and Christian Metz posits that spectators in classical narrative cinema are manipulated by the images and, deprived of the ability to critically contemplate the act of viewing, confuse film illusion and reality. Refuting Noël Carroll’s statement that the semiotic theory of illusion overestimates the power of representations, Wheatley follows the arguments of Baudry, Richard Allen’s projective illusionism and Gregory Currie’s impersonal imagining to argue that, while watching a film, the spectator is unaware of their actual relationship between the cinematic apparatus and their position as a viewer unless the film forces them to be aware of it. In order to force the spectator to be aware of the cinematic apparatus, Haneke creates a new route, differing at the same time from the classical narrative cinema, which suspends the spectator’s awareness, the first-generation modernism of benign reflexivity, characterised by Chantal Akerman’s cinema, and the second-generation modernism of aggressive reflexivity, exemplified by Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Vent d’Est (1970). Through cinematic means, Haneke aspires to force the spectator to think morally and actively reflect upon their relationship with the screen.

This intention of situating the spectator morally is achieved to different degrees throughout Haneke’s career. Haneke’s debut trilogy Der siebente Kontinent (The Seventh Continent, 1989), Benny’s Video (1992) and 71 Fragmente einer Chronologie des Zufalls (71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, 1994), according to Wheatley, are art films which aim to be treated as intellectual products but insufficiently allow the spectator to become a moral agent engaging with film content autonomously. Through the montage of fragmentation of different natures, episodes, moments and brief shots, Der siebente Kontinent’s first-generation modernist practices challenge the illusionism of classical narrative cinema and refuse the psychological elucidation of characters. Yet, uncritical of the cinematic medium and unconnected with moral concerns, it does not offer the spectator a different position from what mainstream cinema or counter-cinema offers. Benny’s Video, on the other hand, still practices first-generation modernist aesthetics but starts to incorporate some second-generation modernist techniques which directly confront the mechanic recording of the cinematic apparatus. 71 Fragmente negotiates the Brechtian distanciation and fragmentation in the body, and the critique of the cine-televisual medium at a metatextual level through the framework of the news bulletin, again producing rational awareness but not moral awareness for the spectator. Wheatley argues that Haneke’s early career lays out the formal and thematic concerns for his later films, which would later be developed towards the Kantian moral orientation.

Funny Games extends the counter-cinematic strategies of alienation in the debut trilogy and superimposes the framework of the generic structures of the thriller and the horror film in order to attract the very spectators who, according to Haneke, need to be critically aware of the cine-televisual medium. Haneke’s efforts at attracting horror film-goers through posters and trailers are salient, especially in the advertising campaign for Funny Games U.S. (although it is arguable whether his goal was realised). Wheatley posits that, through the production of cinematic unpleasure, Haneke forces the spectator to examine the source of unpleasure and thus become a rationally aware spectator who takes up some responsibility for viewing. Funny Games draws on the formal and narrative repertoires of the suspense thriller and subsequently subverts them. By playing with the spectator’s expectations of catharsis, it forces them to respond both emotionally and intellectually and to take a more ethical position in relation to the film by rationally contemplating their emotional response.

Wheatley argues that after Funny Games, Code inconnu (Code Unknown, 2000) goes back to the counter-cinema practice of his debut trilogy which encourages rational awareness of the spectator but fails to link the portrayal of the alienated society with its reflexive devices, which leads to the limited extent of ethical spectatorship. Code inconnu, immersed in first-generation modernist conventions, detaches the audience emotionally and thus, with its lack of desire for pleasure, the spectator is not forced to negotiate the tension between reason and emotion. Similarly, Le Temps du loup (The Time of the Wolf, 2003) incorporates first-generation modernist and generic conventions but fails to integrate second-generation modernist reflexivity into the cine-televisual medium. The spectator’s rational and emotional responses are thus harmonised. They are both trapped in Haneke’s paradox of simultaneously manipulating the spectator through fragmentation and trying to force them to reflect upon the manipulation of the cinematic mechanism. Among these three French-produced films, Wheatley argues that La Pianiste is the only one which succeeds in placing the spectator morally, balancing the generic and modernist frameworks. Unpleasure, which originates from the sudden violence with an unexpected source in the genre subversion of Funny Games, is replaced by unpleasure from sexual acts in La Pianiste. The star system helps reinforce Haneke’s increasing emphasis on genre, seducing the spectator at both intra- and extra-cinematic levels and involving the spectator at an emotional level.

Wheatley attributes the success of Caché, which won Haneke the best director award at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, to its successful incorporation of counter-cinema and generic conventions to situate the spectator morally. In a detailed and insightful manner, Wheatley analyses the distinction between the objective responsibility and subjective emotion of the feeling of guilt and the comparison between shame and guilt. These distinguished nuances set a crucial tone for the analysis of Caché. As shame is a self-enclosed and irresponsible emotion with psychological self-awareness, Caché aims to produce a guilt response which would turn rational awareness to moral thoughts. Through the dialectic between the felt and the thought, Wheatley suggests that the moral positioning of the spectator incites moral thoughts, which do not embed prescribed moral judgments. This contrasts Kantian ethics which focuses on moral action and pragmatic result but approaches Stanley Cavell’s moral perfectionism which defies absolute moral values. Through Caché, Haneke endeavours to engage the spectator in the process of moral deliberation without imposing a universal moral value system.

What distinguishes Catherine Wheatley’s work from other scholarship on Haneke is her close examination of spectatorship and the consideration of the connection between film medium and self-awareness. It bridges the lacuna in the research of Haneke which very often concentrates on Haneke’s portrayal of violence at an intra-diegetic level without considering the spectator’s position in relation to the screen. In rich detail, Wheatley cleverly interweaves the narrative and formal aspects of Haneke’s films with audience response and Haneke’s ethical intention. Through analysing the forging of the amalgam of first- and second-generation modernist conventions, generic structure and the star system, this book develops a convincing paradigm for evaluating the spectatorship of Michael Haneke’s films and broadens the scope of what is called (in the book’s title) “the ethic of the image”. Wheatley’s model not only establishes Haneke as an unusual auteur, who bridges mainstream cinematic techniques and counter-cinema approaches to draw attention to his special relationship to the spectator in terms of moral questions, but also successfully integrates the analysis of Haneke’s moral intention, his means to achieve this goal and the spectator’s response. At the same time she demonstrates that Haneke’s films externalise the underlying ethics of ideological critique, Wheatley contributes to the conceptualisation of the consumption of film.

Michael Haneke’s Cinema: The Ethic of the Image by Catherine Wheatley, Berghahn Books, New York and London, 2009.


  1. Alexander Horwath (ed.), Michael Haneke und seine Filme, Europaverlag, Vienna, 1991;
Alexander Horwath and Giovanni Spagnoletti (eds), Michael Haneke, Lindau, Turin, 1998.
  2. Ben McCann and Davd Sorfa (eds), The Cinema of Michael Haneke: Europe Utopia, Wallflower Press, London, 2009.

About The Author

Yun-hua Chen is a PhD candidate in Film Studies at University of St Andrews. Her research interests include global space, mosaic narrative, spatial aesthetics and transnational auteurs such as Michael Haneke, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Atom Egoyan and Alejandro González Iñárritu.

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