Bourgeois Nightmares

Gilberto Perez on Michael Haneke

‘What I want,’ a young Luis Buñuel announced to the audience at an early screening of his first film, Un Chien Andalou (1929), ‘is for you not to like the film … I’d be sorry if it pleased you.’ The film’s opening scene, which culminates in a close-up of a straight-edge razor being drawn through a woman’s eyeball, is often taken as the epitome of cinema’s potential to do violence to its audience. The suasions of rhetoric, the effects of art on the observer, are of course achieved by inflicting pain as well as eliciting pleasure, by aggression as well as ingratiation. Horror movies frighten us; violent thrillers agitate us; sentimental stories make us cry. Suffering is often part of our enjoyment. Within limits, however: we are not to be so displeased that we are not pleased. Buñuel deliberately went beyond the limits of permissible displeasure. And so, in his own way, does the Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke.

Funny Games (1997) is a violent melodrama about a respectable family set upon by nasty criminals, much as in The Desperate Hours (1955) or Cape Fear (1962). (Both films were remade in the 1990s, by Michael Cimino and Martin Scorsese respectively; Haneke himself remade Funny Games in Hollywood in 2007.) The difference is that the criminals in The Desperate Hours or Cape Fear have a motive for assaulting the family, whereas in Funny Games they terrorise for the sake of it. Which, Haneke implies, is the real motive for this kind of picture: to terrorise an audience that enjoys being terrorised. Yet he makes sure that his own movie offers us no such enjoyment. The family in Funny Games – husband, wife and small son – arrive, sailboat in tow, at their gated lakeside summer house, where their dog is waiting for them. A chubby young man comes to the door, tells the wife he’s staying with a neighbour, and asks to borrow four eggs, which he then clumsily drops on the floor. He asks for four more, and as she reluctantly complies he drops her mobile phone in the kitchen sink. He leaves but promptly returns with another young man, slim and slick and clearly the leader of the pair. Nothing like the lowlifes in The Desperate Hours or Cape Fear, these well-bred young men seem to belong in this wealthy milieu – which is why the wife lets them in the house in the first place and why, even after she senses that something is wrong and tells them to get out, the husband hesitates for a fatal moment and allows them to gain control of the situation. It transpires that the slim young man, who has noticed a splendid set of golf clubs and asked if he could try one out on the lawn, has used it to kill the dog. As the wife looks for the dog, he stands in the near foreground, back to the camera, in soft focus, calling out ‘cold’ or ‘warm’, and then comes into sharp focus as he turns to the camera and winks at the audience.

An actor looking into the lens is not so unusual a breach, such an unconventional gesture, as some suppose: it breaks the fourth wall, we say, but it could be argued that in films there is no fourth wall, or else every reverse angle would be breaking it. Neither is it strange for a melodrama to enlist our complicity with the villain: from Dr Mabuse to the femme fatale in film noir to Norman Bates, it is typically the villain who drives the story forward. The young man’s wink merely makes this explicit. Later on, when the wife manages to get hold of a gun and shoots the chubby young man, the slim one regains control by using a remote control to wind back the images on the screen, so that the scene can be redone according to his intentions: this time the wife is rendered unable to retaliate against his partner. Manifestly it is the villain here who is writing the script.

Haneke does want to teach us a lesson, though, to call us to task for our complicity with villains and our enjoyment of screen violence. He recalled in an interview that the audience at Cannes cheered when the wife killed the chubby villain – the only moment of graphically depicted violence in the movie, and the only instance in which the violence doesn’t go in the other direction – but fell silent after the rewinding and revising of the scene because they understood that they had been manipulated into applauding murder. Let’s not forget, though, that this woman has seen her family brutalised, her dog and her little boy killed, and that her husband is next in line; she has tried to escape but was captured and brought back to the house and is now being forced to say a prayer to procure for her husband a quicker, less excruciating death. What’s wrong with cheering when she picks up a rifle and shoots her tormentor?

Behind the villain stands the author, and directors such as Hitchcock and Fritz Lang declare their complicity, their identification, with their villains. Like the author, the audience in melodrama identifies with both good and evil. But in Funny Games Haneke makes the bad guys so repellent – motiveless, affectedly polite, affectlessly vicious – that we can’t even love to hate them, can only recoil from the complicity they solicit. And the victim family, who would normally have been the good guys, Haneke makes unappealing and incapable of fighting back, their gated self-satisfaction turning into equally gated self-pity, so that our identification with them is held in check – though it is at the ready, as the audience reaction to the wife’s retaliation demonstrates. Haneke erases that moment because he would have us refuse identification with violence of any kind, and we are more tempted to identify with justifiable than with unjustifiable violence.

Why was Gus Van Sant’s remake of Psycho so bad when it so closely followed the original? The answer lies not least with the actors: Anne Heche and Vince Vaughn are no match for Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins. Haneke’s American remake of Funny Games, even closer to the original movie in story and shot arrangement, is also inferior, and again the actors are a primary reason. The villains aren’t quite right in their social demeanour: Funny Games is a story of violence not intruding from without, but erupting from within an affluent class that is more precisely observed in the Austrian than in the American version. And Naomi Watts and Tim Roth, two talented actors, render the wife and husband more sympathetic, more endearing, than they are in the Austrian version. Why should it be detrimental that the good guys are easier for us to identify with? Because our identification with them as individuals blurs the focus on social class.

Funny Games isn’t just a critique of screen violence and its audience but a disquieting picture of the violence fostered by insulated privilege. When the family first arrives at the house, and the gate mechanically closes behind them, Haneke holds the image for a long, ominous moment, conveying a sense that the gate designed to protect them is actually a trap. They’re on their own, too fenced in to get help, the mobile phone – their sole connection to the outside world – drowned in the sink. This is the ultimate bourgeois nightmare.

At the start of 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994), a screen title tells us that on 23 December 1993 a man killed three people in a bank in Vienna, then shot himself. The ensuing fragments of Viennese life give us glimpses of different stories, some in the news on television, others from everyday existence: a migrant boy wandering the streets; an edgy young man now contemplating jumping out of a window, now strenuously playing ping pong with a machine; an old man living alone, having a protracted and uneasy phone conversation with his daughter; a couple contacting the migrant boy after they see him on television; another couple eating at home in silence until the husband mutters to his wife that he loves her and she asks him if he’s drunk. The incessant cross-cutting from one fragment to another makes no clear connection between them – code unknown, to invoke the title of a later Haneke film which uses a similar device – yet we expect the pieces to come together in some way to throw light on the story of the killing spree. It’s the edgy young man who eventually goes berserk at the bank, but couldn’t it just as well have been the old man estranged from his daughter, who works at the bank, or the man, drunk or not, who loves his wife and is a guard there? As it is usually told, the story of a mass killer treats him as a singular case and focuses on his individual psychopathology, but by decentring the story Haneke suggests that the pathology could be anyone’s, that any of us could break under everyday stress – the film is a depiction not of individual but social pathology.

On the day before Christmas, the edgy young man, whose car is running on empty, stops at a petrol station but is short of money and has his card refused; he is sent to the bank across the street, but its cash machine is out of order, and when he tries to jump the queue at the teller’s window by explaining that he’s holding things up at the petrol station, he’s not only rebuffed by the teller but beaten up by an irate customer. This sounds like farce, which is often crueller, more violent than melodrama, giving us the outlet of laughter as melodrama gives us that of tears. Haneke allows us no outlet, no satisfaction. His comedy has a rigorous, grim detachment. The three people the young man kills at the bank are the old man, the bank guard and the woman taking care of the migrant boy, whom she has left waiting for her in her car.

Benny’s Video (1992) begins with a videotape of the slaughter of a pig, which is then rewound and replayed in slow motion: this is a video Benny has made, and he watches it again and again. Benny (played by Arno Frisch, later the slim villain in Funny Games) is a spoiled teenage boy who watches the world – even the view out of his window – through a camera lens. Outside a video store he picks up a girl and takes her to his room, where he shows her the video of the pig and brings out the butcher’s gun, which he has stolen. He kills her with the gun. Whether he had planned to do so all along or not isn’t clear; nor is it clear, when he shows his video of the murder to his parents, whether he is confessing out of remorse or spite, whether he wants to be punished, or to punish them, or just needs their help to dispose of the body. Haneke doesn’t probe the psychology of his characters. In any case Benny’s parents decide to cover up his crime: otherwise his life would be ruined, they decide, and so would their own good name. They think he’s asleep in his room, but it turns out that the indefatigable videomaker has slyly recorded their conversation. He leaves for a week in Egypt with his mother – a trip mostly spent either videotaping or watching television – while his father cleans up the mess at home. On his return, Benny denounces his parents to the police; he hands over the video he made of their conversation, on which they are heard plotting to cut up the girl’s body into pieces small enough to flush down the drain without leaving a trace.

This could be black comedy, after the manner of Buñuel’s El (1953) or The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955). Archibaldo is, like Benny, a well-heeled aesthete of violence. Francisco in El is a perfect Christian gentleman and a paranoid monster, a paranoid monster because a perfect Christian gentleman; his insanity, like Benny’s, or like the mass killer’s in 71 Fragments, is very much a product of his society. Comedy deals in commonality. We laugh at Francisco and are taken aback by him, but identify with him nonetheless – Buñuel does too – as a disturbingly recognisable version of ourselves. In a way Haneke identifies with Benny, a protagonist he stays with throughout and whose videos he incorporates into his film, though the rough homemade images are distinct from his own polished efforts. And when the boy turns his parents in to the police, surely the director endorses this twist towards justice? The killing of the girl is strictly revolting, and no less so for being kept out of view; Haneke may refrain from graphic violence, may switch to Benny’s oblique video of the scene, but the girl’s screams alone are upsetting in the extreme. Haneke has little apparent sense of humour, but he has an appalled sense of commonality: we’re all in this together, this state of affairs awful beyond the blackest comedy.

Caché (Hidden, 2005) also begins with a video, though for a while we don’t know it. On a Parisian back street, the camera gazes fixedly at a house situated among taller buildings and obscured by a leafy tree in the garden. The credits appear in small letters as if being typed on a computer screen. The stationary image continues unperturbed. This is a nice, quiet neighbourhood. A man walks by, a woman comes out of the house, a cyclist turns into the street. Then we hear voices on the soundtrack. ‘Where was it?’ a man asks. ‘In a plastic bag on the porch,’ a woman answers. They are Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Anne (Juliette Binoche) – Georges and Anne, Georg and Anna, George and Ann are names Haneke likes to give his couples – and they are inside their house watching a videotape taken of the outside of the house. This is the very footage we have been watching and, to our surprise, see revealed as video when Georges and Anne fast-forward it and horizontal scan-lines appear across the screen. In Caché, Haneke does not make it easy to distinguish between his own images and those on videotape – he used a high-definition digital camera for both – or between images of reality and images in the mind. Where the image comes from is an issue he thematises and has us ponder. Where the videos come from – someone is recording them and leaving them at Georges and Anne’s door – is the central mystery in the film.

It is night, and we see the house from the same fixed viewpoint in the street. This, we suspect, could be another video. The lights of a car being parked behind the camera shine into the dark image and cast long shadows, perhaps of the camera itself. The car belongs to Georges, who at length comes into view as he walks towards the house and enters it. As Thomas Elsaesser has pointed out, Haneke draws attention in unusual ways to the implied space behind the camera.[*] He thereby raises the question of agency: who or what is behind what appears on the screen? Cut to a well-lit close-up of Georges facing the camera, an image coming from somewhere else: Georges hosting a literary talkshow on television. After the show Anne tells him over the phone that they have received, wrapped in a childish drawing of a face spewing blood, another videotape, which we now see being rewound – more scan-lines across the screen – as they watch it on his return home. It’s the footage of their house at night we saw a few moments before. Cut to another night image, but one we cannot place in relation to anything we’ve seen so far: a frightened Arab boy looking out of a window in our direction and wiping blood from his mouth. This, we later infer, is an image from Georges’s childhood. Haneke seems to be suggesting that our inner images get mixed up with the outer images we keep receiving.

‘What’s wrong?’ Anne asks as they watch the tape. ‘Nothing,’ Georges says after a pause. ‘You want to call the police?’ ‘Yes … No. I don’t know. Let me see the drawing again.’ At work he receives a postcard bearing another childishly drawn figure spewing blood. The tapes are inducing paranoia – someone out there is watching – but the drawings are stirring up something hidden within. The couple go to the police station but leave dissatisfied and irritated. Georges walks ahead of Anne into the street, where a passing cyclist almost hits him. He yells at the cyclist, a young black man, who yells back at him with equal vehemence. This ‘raises the spectre of racism’, Catherine Wheatley writes in her monograph on the film, and she thinks Anne settles the matter ‘with a measure of temperance’: both men were at fault, neither one was looking.[†] Georges and Anne are educated, enlightened, surely not personally racist. Yet the spectre is not dispelled: in this overwrought altercation there is a palpable undercurrent of racial tension that excludes no one.

The next tape left at the door – again inside a childish drawing; blood now issues from a dead rooster’s neck – is not of the house in Paris but shot through the windscreen of a car driving to the farmhouse where Georges grew up and his old mother still lives. He goes to visit her but says nothing about the worrisome tapes. He tells her, however, that he dreamed about Majid, an Algerian boy who lived on the farm when Georges was a boy and whom his parents wanted to adopt. And that night, sleeping at his old home, Georges has a dream about Majid, who is the boy seen in the earlier image, bleeding in the night. In the dream Majid kills a rooster with an axe and, with the axe in his hands and the rooster’s blood on his face, advances towards little Georges menacingly until the screen goes dark. Another tape arrives: after a car journey through city streets, the camera enters a dim hallway and stops at the door of the low-rent apartment where Majid now lives. Georges follows the same path, and at the apartment encounters a mild-mannered, downtrodden man who, when Georges rudely accuses him of sending the tapes, gently denies having anything to do with it. Georges lies to his wife afterwards: nobody was in, the apartment seemed unoccupied. He withholds from Anne what the bloody drawings suggest to him; he’s not a man to talk about the guilty past.

The next and final tape, sent not only to the couple but to an executive at the television station, is a record of the encounter in Majid’s apartment and of Majid crying after Georges left. Georges is now called on to tell Anne the truth about Majid, whose parents worked on the family farm and never came back from a demonstration in Paris during the Algerian War: ‘October 17, 1961. Enough said. Papon. The police massacre. They drowned about two hundred Arabs in the Seine.’ It annoyed little Georges that his parents were planning to adopt the orphaned Arab boy, and he tried to dissuade them by telling lies he tells Anne he doesn’t remember but in fact, of course, does. These are the images that haunt him in the night: he had told his parents that Majid was coughing up blood, then misled him into killing the rooster. The upshot was that his parents sent Majid away. He finally admits these things only after he visits the apartment a second time, when – a gush of blood again – Majid cuts his own throat in front of him.

From place to place, Parisian house to farmhouse to rented apartment, the videotapes in Caché trace the narrative path; like the villain in a melodrama, they drive the story forward. For some the film is all about the fear of surveillance, but if that is so, then surveillance is a villain that Haneke identifies with. In the film’s opening scene and twice more afterwards, the images made by his camera and by the anonymous videomaker’s are one and the same; every time Haneke returns to a stationary view of the house from the street we feel as if we are spying through a surveillance camera. Spying on what? The view from the street is perfectly public: it sees nothing that is not there for everyone to see. Only the bourgeois obsession with privacy makes this public gaze threatening. Only if you have something to hide are you frightened of the view from outside.

He was only six years old at the time, Georges pleads, what he did was normal. He may be arguing in bad faith, but he’s right. That, for Haneke, is the worst thing about it, that it would be normal for a little boy to do what Georges did. And it is normal, too, for a grown man to keep his feelings of guilt to himself. Normal, that is, for the bourgeoisie, a class without much sense of community. Back then what he did to Majid wasn’t traumatic for little Georges, Haneke has explained: it becomes traumatic once Georges is an adult because he doesn’t want to admit his guilt. He tersely mentions 1961, Papon, the Arabs drowned in the Seine, assuming that nothing more need be said about that atrocity, but about his own small atrocity he resists saying anything. And the French as a whole have resisted saying anything about the police massacre – the fascistic Papon was the Paris police chief – of peaceful Algerian demonstrators that took place on 17 October 1961. Georges’s personal guilty secret is the nation’s guilty secret.

The whodunnit mystery of the videotapes is never solved. How can it be, when the filmmaker’s camera has from the start been working in alliance with the culprit’s video camera to uncover a different culprit? The film concludes with two extended stationary long shots that look like surveillance videos. The first seems to be a dream – Georges has taken sleeping pills and gone to bed early – though we don’t imagine dreams taking the form of stationary long shots. We see the farmhouse, chickens in the yard; a green car from an earlier era pulls up. The view is distant, but we can make out clearly enough that the car is from the orphanage, and that it has come to pick up Majid. Georges’s parents stand motionless as Majid tries to escape and is seized; then they go back into the house as he is driven away, calling after them. Georges is absent from the dream: he carries the burden of guilt, but in the end it was up to his parents to rescind their benevolent gesture and shut the door on the Arab boy. Again, the racial tension spares no one.

The final shot is a static view, from across the street, of the entrance to the school attended by Georges and Anne’s 12-year-old son, Pierrot. There are a lot of people in shot: parents waiting, students coming out of the doors, standing or sitting on the steps, and we might not notice Pierrot among them or, entering the frame and looking for him, Majid’s somewhat older son. We haven’t seen the two meet before, but now they talk at the foot of the steps, and we can’t hear what they’re saying. Were they behind the videotapes? Many critics have seen Caché as a puzzle film. Some have proposed that the final shot belongs not at the end but at the beginning of the story and shows the two boys plotting the harassment of Pierrot’s parents. Others have seen hope in the ending: the two sons as friends, overcoming the animosity between their fathers. Yet the mood is unsettling, not reassuring. This is another public view from which something private is hidden. If the previous shot looked back at the past with regret, this one looks to the future with apprehension.

The White Ribbon (2009) has a subtitle: ‘A German Children’s Story’. It takes place in a village in northern Germany shortly before the First World War, so far the only Haneke film set in the past and the only one shot in black and white. It is narrated in voiceover by an old man, the village schoolteacher recollecting the story many years later, and although what we see departs from his perspective, showing things he could only imagine, and continually shifts from one part of the story to another, his presence serves to remind us of the limits to our knowledge: we never quite find out what has really taken place in the story being told.

The narrator thinks it all began when the local doctor was riding home one day and his horse tripped on a wire that had been strung between two trees, an act of malice that seriously injures him. Then the wife of a farmer is killed while working in unsafe conditions for the local baron. One of the farmer’s sons decapitates the cabbages in the baron’s patch with his scythe; after that, no one in his family can find work and the farmer hangs himself. The baron’s little blond son is abducted and cruelly caned, not by anyone in the farmer’s family but by persons unknown: we presume they are the same persons who injured the doctor and who later burn down the baron’s barn and abduct another child, the village midwife’s son, who has Down’s syndrome and gets even crueller treatment. The baron, the rich exploiter nobody likes, could have been the villain here; so could the doctor, who humiliates the midwife when he breaks off his affair with her and sexually abuses his adolescent daughter; and so could the puritanical village pastor, a harsh disciplinarian who canes his children, giving them advance notice so that they suffer in the meantime, and who makes them wear white ribbons as a mark of sin, a reminder that they have strayed from purity.

In this village, even the children might be villains. The way some of the children band together around Klara, the oldest of the pastor’s children, had always seemed odd to the narrator. Her brother Martin had also aroused his suspicions, but after the doctor skipped town and the midwife borrowed a bicycle to go to the police and was never seen again, village gossip blamed them for the unexplained crimes. It is understandable that Klara and Martin would resent their father and revolt against his authority, as it is understandable that the farmer’s son would wreck the baron’s cabbage patch. But even against reprehensible authority, as Haneke shows, protest can shade into malice, revolt into viciousness. Nietzsche despised the politics of rancour, not because rancour cannot be justified but because, no matter where it comes from, rancour is bad for the soul. That’s what The White Ribbon is about, revolt poisoned by rancour. At one point Klara kills a pet parakeet with her father’s scissors and leaves it on his desk: evil authority breeds evil in its rebel offspring. These children aren’t just imitating their parents, beating as they are beaten, which would mean more of the same: they are subversives fighting the bad with the bad and portending worse. This is the Nazi generation, as Haneke has noted: two decades later, by which time these children would have been adults, Hitler, himself a son in revolt against the father, rose to power. Yet the film doesn’t spell out the Nazi connection and should not be reduced to that: it is a broader parable, warning against rancour as a political force.

The narrator has a sweetheart, an angel in this village of the damned, and their story of young love is like nothing else in Haneke. Except maybe for his new movie, Amour, which tells a story of old love. This time Georges and Anne (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) are retired music teachers in their eighties, and their love story has not only lasted through their long marriage but also has a happy ending of sorts. The film begins, however, with the police breaking down the door to their apartment in a frontal shot from inside that makes it look as if they are coming towards us, intruding on our space. There is an odd detail: a window is open in the entrance hall of the apartment, which is otherwise shut tight. Inside, the police discover Anne’s rotting corpse, dressed up in bridal white and decked out with flower petals, lying on her bed. After this preamble, which is also an ending, the film retrospectively tells the couple’s story.

Returning from a concert given by one of her pupils, Anne and Georges find that someone has tried to break into their apartment. Georges tells her how pretty she looks and how proud she should be of her pupil’s success, but she isn’t soothed, and can’t sleep. At breakfast the next morning she suddenly becomes numb and blankly unresponsive to her husband. He applies a wet towel to her face, forgetting to turn off the water as he hurries to get help. But then, off-screen, the sound of the water stops. ‘You left the tap running,’ she chides him, remembering nothing of her lapse. She has had a stroke, apparently brought on by her anxiety the night before. The threatened privacy of the bourgeoisie is a theme as central to Amour as it is to Caché or Funny Games.

Once the couple have returned from their evening out, we remain inside the apartment until the end. Yet even though we are cooped up with them in their private space, we remain detached. Like Antonioni, a filmmaker he admires, Haneke puts us in the position not of an intimate but of a stranger who knows only what can be gathered from appearances, fragments of narrative that are sometimes attentively drawn out, sometimes elliptically cut short. The couple’s daughter (Isabelle Huppert) comes to visit, and as she talks to her father we realise that some time has passed. Anne, after her stroke, has been in hospital for an operation that has failed. She returns to the apartment in a wheelchair and asks Georges to promise never to take her back to hospital. He keeps his promise. Anne is increasingly unwilling to receive visitors, to let them see her in her worsening condition, and even fends off her daughter. This story of love, face to face with death, is also a story of isolation.

Like the couples in Funny Games and Caché – like Haneke and most of his audience too – Georges and Anne are members of the comfortable, cultivated bourgeoisie. An ‘unflinching portrait of an elderly couple and the ravages of time’ is how one reviewer describes the movie, in which there is no villain, nobody is at fault, and grief is a natural inevitability. Yes, but this is nature as we have domesticated it in our culture. Who among us would not want to live in such a nice apartment? And even if we have children, even if we have a loving partner, who among us does not fear the dire eventualities of lonely old age? When Anne has trouble swallowing and spits out the water Georges makes her drink, to his own surprise he gives her a hard slap. And finally, out of love and pity and despair, he kills her, suddenly suffocating her in her bed. It is another bourgeois nightmare.

I mentioned a happy ending. Earlier in the film a pigeon flies in through the window in the entrance hall, and Georges helps it fly out. After he kills Anne, it flies in again, but this time Georges gets up from his writing, shuts the window and captures the pigeon in a blanket. He writes that he let the pigeon go, but we never see him do it. He stays alone in the apartment. From his bed he hears the sound of water off-screen: Anne is there, washing the dishes in the kitchen. I’m almost finished, she says, put on your shoes if you want. She puts on her coat and reminds him to take his as she opens the door of the apartment and they go out for the evening. The shot is held after they leave. No doubt this is a dream, but it suggests something like their entering the afterlife together. Asked to comment on the pigeon, Haneke has observed that they often fly into Parisian apartments. But this one might represent the freedom from confinement that Georges refuses following his wife’s death, then accepts in his dream. Perhaps he flew out of the window, now open again, as the police noticed when they broke in.

[*] Elsaesser’s essay appears in A Companion to Michael Haneke, edited by Roy Grundmann (Wiley-Blackwell, 638 pp., £29.95, April 2010, 978 1 4051 8800 5).

[†] Caché (Hidden) by Catherine Wheatley (Palgrave, 96 pp., £10.99, January, 978 1 84457 349 3).