Thursday, April 08, 2010

Modern Maestros: Michael Haneke

Robert here, continuing my series on great contemporary directors.  I thought I’d stay overseas this week and feature a somewhat daunting European presence.

Maestro: Michael Haneke
Known For: difficult movies about human treacherousness and the breakdown of society.
Influences: Imagine the love-child of Robert Bresson and Franz Kafka.  Then again, maybe don’t.
Masterpieces: The White Ribbon and Caché
Disasters: Not sure why Funny Games worked reasonably well in Europe but was a real misfire in it's American version.  But it was.
Better than you remember: Let’s put it this way.  If you remember a Haneke film as being bad because it was unpleasant, then it was probably better than you remember.
Awards: Nothing from the establishment, expectedly.  But they love him in Europe, giving him the Palme d’Or for The White Ribbon and Best Director for Caché and the same for both films at the European Film Awards.
Box Office: Over 3 million dollars for Caché.
Favorite Actor: German actress Susanne Lothar has appeared in four films: The Piano Teacher, The White Ribbon, The Castle, and Funny Games, beating out better known stars such as Juliette Binoche or Isabelle Huppert (2 each)

The word provocateur.  Someone who provokes.  Michael Haneke fits the definition to be sure.  Sadly, all too often he gets grouped in with a large collective of European filmmakers whose provocation is their calling card.  Director's like Lars von Trier, Gaspar Noe, Catherine Breillat and more who make films that are routinely unbearable (in a good way).  And while it's unfortunate that all of them are grouped so generically (as many of them are great), I feel that Haneke perhaps deserves it the least.  So how can I claim that a man who was once quoted saying "I'm trying to rape the viewer into independence." Isn't a mere outrage-monger?  Consider the previous part of that quote as his opinion on the medium "I’ve been accused of ‘raping’ the audience in my films, and I admit to that freely — all movies assault the viewer in one way or another."  Haneke believe that all films influence and manipulate the audience, whether that be with suggestions about gender politics, love's ability to conquer all, or the usefulness of violence to achieve a goal.  Hollywood movies that sell themselves as nothing more than fun entertainment are most dangerous as they anesthetize the viewer while still suggesting a form of reality.  Haneke speaks out against the concept of the popcorn movie more than almost anyone, because most of all he wants you, the viewer, to think.

Not that other provocateurs don't want you to think.  But first they want you to feel shock, or discomfort or visceral horror as a jumping off point to thought.  Haneke, much like Bresson before him, wants to be an unbiased observer (something that he himself will admit is impossible and something he toys with in Funny Games).  And because we're observing the events with such impersonal distance the shocking moments that unfold pack even more of an impact.  To put it another way: in terms of accessibility most films meet us more than half way, whether they're peddling Hollywood entertainment or artistic provocation.  Haneke's films ask us to do the work, to make the effort toward understanding what we're seeing.  When forced to make that kind of investment in a movie, how could it not affect us more?  Consider the ending of The Piano Teacher (which I will not give away, but can be seen here (without English subtitles)).  It is a shocking moment indeed.  But what makes it shocking?  Certainly not because we've come to truly like Isabelle Huppert's distant, unkind character.  Not because we pity her either.  And while the moment is certainly surprising, after spending an entire movie observing her psyche we can't claim to be too surprised.  It's our investment that's the key.  And so it is time after time, in enigmatic films like Caché, The White Ribbon and all the way back to The Seventh Continent.  We're asked to commit only to be shocked into thought.  This is what makes Michael Haneke the best kind of provocateur.

Haneke's immediate plans are unknown, but no one would blame him for taking a break, especially after completing one of the most successful films of his career (no Oscar, but then again Oscar films aren't usually described as "difficult" or "demanding").  Until his next picture, there's always the back catalog.  If you're unfamiliar with Mr. Haneke's work, there's no better time than now (notice: if you're currently experiencing depression or some kind of emotional distress, there may in fact be a better time than now).


Notas Sobre Creación Cultural e Imaginarios Sociales said...

You're right! He doesn't use shock to catch our attention.
In fact I often find his films moving, because like you say he just observes, he never exploits his direction but let's us contribute to make the movie with him.
I loved how "The White Ribbon" for example could be seen as a whodunit, a political allegory, a morality tale, a horror film...all depending on who was watching it.
He sure ain't cuddly, but he makes going to the movies an experience in the way James Cameron could only dream of.

Burning Reels said...

Great pieces on Haneke and Wong Kar Wai (which I just caught up on) Robert.

There are few directors where each film is anticipated as an event - these are two of them. Malick is surely the big event this year, no?

As with Bresson and Tarkovsky, when I watch Haneke's films for the first time, I can't pretend to be fully aware of what he is saying or what i'm feeling but his films linger and the imagery haunts until i'm compelled to watch them a second time.

Rodrigo/UK said...

During the London Film Festival last year, he said his next project will be again with Isabelle Huppert, with a story about the degradation of the human body during old age. ´Another joy´, in his own words! That said.... can´t wait!!!

Burning Reels said...

Sounds like ideal Haneke territory to me Rodrigo!

Huppert nominated for best actress in a Haneke film. To quote Roy Orbison, 'In Dreams...'

J. Cross said...

Depite winning the Palme D'Or, The White Ribbon is by no means a masterpiece.

OtherRobert said...

I'm reluctant to call the US Funny Games a disaster. It wasn't as shocking the second time around for those of us who saw the original first, but it certainly seemed to shock, disgust, and confuse first time American audiences. I reckon it might only be a disappointment for those who were expecting something radically different when it was remade for the states. For me, I'm glad that he stuck so close to his original vision and allowed the actors to interpret the characters in different ways.

Ben said...

I love these pieces, and I do love the Haneke I've seen.

The fact that The White Ribbon lost Foreign Film to The Secret in Their Eyes, an enjoyable but rather slight thriller, is a travesty. Then again, I can't see Haneke caring all that much about the Academy.

It's been many weeks since I saw The White Ribbon, and I'm still thinking about it. The same thing happened with Cache. I can't think of another director whose films really stay with you in quite the same way.

Glenn Dunks said...

I'm all over the place with Haneke. Loved Hidden, thought The Pianist was quite great, Code Unknown and The White Ribbon are both heavily flawed, but fascinating movies. And then there's Funny Games and Time of the Wolf, which I hate. So there ya go.

RobUK said...

I actually properly love Funny Games US, but I know I'm in the minority. I found it deeply disturbing and cinematically thrilling; and even though I'd seen the original version, I still can't believe the audacious refusal to compromise its almost incidental and unreprimanded brutality.

Dimitra said...

I've only seen The White Ribbon, quite recently actually. It wasn't bad, but I didn't find it great, either. But I do understand why others went crazy over it.

I enjoy this series of articles so much.:)

Anonymous said...

Nice homage.

And I absolutely loved Funny Games (and yes, I mean the US version). It's my favorite. Then White Ribbon. Then Caché. Didn't like The Piano Teacher at all. Just reviewed that one, btw.

Andrew David said...

Personally, I love the US version of Funny Games. I think it's more relevant than the German version - not necessarily better, but more essential.

And I can't believe that The Piano Teacher wasn't listed among the masterpieces. Far more important than The White Ribbon, to my mind.

anna said...

I watched a documentary about Haneke a few weeks ago and it really changed the way I see him. He came across as a very gentle person.

Btw, Haneke has said that the late Ulrich Mühe (Susanne Lothar's husband) was his favourite actor. He was supposed to play the pastor in "The White Ribbon", this would have been his 4th collaboration with Haneke.

Michael R Roberts said...

Overall observation method in movie making is the best way of sending messages. Me to don`t like shock to catch my attention.