More Than a Master of Everyday Horror

The films of Michael Haneke

The French call Michael Haneke “Le Cineaste d’Horreur Ordinaire”: the master of everyday horror. While this is true in a large sense, it fails to capture the nuances of his work. Many people would compare him to discomfort-inducing filmmakers like Lars von Trier, whose subversion of film conventions to provoke and often anger the audience seems quite like Haneke’s attempts in movies like Funny Games and Benny’s Videos. However, Haneke’s targets tend to be more complex than von Trier’s (at least until von Trier’s Dogville), and have not gone for a blithe deconstruction of easy targets. Rather, what makes Haneke’s films compelling but disturbing are their deconstruction of societal mores and politesse. He pulls back the curtain on these tropes and allows us to see what really holds them up and what we really think. In a world where rebellion and taboo have become clichés and, worse yet, marketing terms, Haneke shows us what honest rebellion and taboo-breaking really mean and what the consequences of those acts really are. He avoids the easy road of complete and utter cynicism seen in many films today.

Lately, Haneke has become an even more complex thinker in his films. As a director, he is similar to Polanski in the way he allows his films to unfold seductively, naturally and smoothly. He allows his actors to carry the most difficult emotional aspects, and recently, in films like The Piano Teacher and The Time of The Wolf, Isabelle Huppert has become his muse.

At the same time, he experiments with conventions to make a cogent point. In Funny Games, a family is under siege from a couple of boys who want to kill them for fun. When the mother shoots one of her attackers, the act is immediately undercut by the other attacker, who grabs a TV remote and “rewinds” the film we’re watching, giving himself a chance to reorder events and reclaim the upper hand. He overpowers her and continues his torture of her and her family, taking any sense of comfort and relief away from the audience. It’s one of Haneke’s cruelest moments; he inflicts a taste of the family’s torture on the audience not through the violence, which in his films is always off-screen, but through the sense of emotional horrors that the protagonists are suffering. Why do these boys decide to torture and kill this particular family? The irrationality is terrifying. The viewer, like the family, is at the mercy of the senseless.

In The Piano Teacher, Isabelle Huppert plays a Viennese piano instructor who has emotionally repressed herself to the extent that only the most violent and abusive acts can bring an emotional response out of her. She embarks on a disastrous relationship with a student. While the novel on which this film is a critique of the Viennese middle class and the class structure in Austria as a whole, Haneke, as in many of his films, avoids the political and remains focused on the emotional. He recognizes that emotions drive the body politic rather than the other way around. As a result, The Piano Teacher is less a suspense or horror show than it is an expression of humanity desperately screaming out to be recognized. When it is not, it is destroyed.

Code Inconnu (“Code Unknown”) is his most sociological picture. Where his other films remained within the personal, this film critiques Western European society as racist and unfulfilling. Lives intersect and move in and out of each other, almost anonymously, but the film asks whether, separated from the travails of its eastern and southern neighbors by the luck of rich capitalism and relative stability, Western Europeans can afford to live deeply inside Fortress Europe. The infidels have already arrived. Even the liberal, tolerant and open Juliette Binoche is forced to face her own demons when attacked by Arab youths on the Metro.

The code that is unknown is the code not spoken, one that drives our differences and similarities: the lack of acknowledgement of basic humanity in others. In other words, we hide behind societal mores, politesse and manners rather than confront realities. When Binoche’s character’s husband returns home from covering the conflict in Kosovo, he cannot feel comfortable anymore, because all he sees now are the hypocrisies of Western society. His dip into a torn-down society has spoiled him in a sense, because humanity and reality are all explicit and upfront. Life in a state of chaos is about the basics and it has a thrill, a sense of meaning and purpose. His life in Paris has no such purpose; it is all hidden by lies.

The Time of The Wolf is Haneke’s latest film, and it continues his development as an observer of the political upon the personal. A horrible event has happened, but the movie never shows exactly what it is. A family goes to their country retreat and finds another family living there; the patriarch of the interlopers holds a gun upon them. From this premise, Haneke imposes a complete societal breakdown and a stripping away of all that keeps us rational. He asks whether we can keep our humanity under such circumstances, and what kind of humanity can emerge. As society is being destroyed, all of its demons, specifically class and racism, rise up again — even though rationally, at this point, they no longer matter. Clearly, these events are not new, and societal implosions of the kind that Haneke depicts happen every day in many countries (though usually not in the West), but, at the same time, senseless acts of kindness occur as well. It is Haneke’s most optimistic film, even if it seems to be advocating a kind of complete destruction of society in order to rebuild something that is fair and honest.

It’s this sense of optimism that keeps Haneke from falling into the all too familiar role of the cynical filmmaker, merely breaking the dishes for the sound of it. He truly loves his characters, despite how flawed or predatory they may be, and imbues them with strength and beauty, giving them all a complexity and depth that belies their faults and allows the audience to appreciate the complete character even more.

Ultimately, Haneke’s message comes down to this: in The Time of The Wolf, a young girl writes a letter to her dead father, communicating her hopes, dreams, loneliness, and fears in the midst of what can only be described as hell. Her letter carries such emotional clarity and beauty that the viewer knows the gorgeous fullness of the human spirit will rise above the senseless, irrational and baser parts of ourselves.