Richard Elliott examines the work of award-winning auteur Michael Haneke
30 JULY 2012 | RICHARD ELLIOTT
When, earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival, Michael Haneke won the Palme D'Or for his latest film, Amour, he became the seventh double-winner of the award. His previous win came just three years ago with The White Ribbon (pictured), while four years prior to that he won Best Director. What was unusual about his most recent award was the degree of consensus amongst the critics; according to most, to give the prize to a film other than Amour would have been unthinkable. Aged 70, Haneke, it seems, now stands alone at the summit of European cinema.
Born in Munich, Haneke grew up in Austria, studying philosophy and psychology at the University of Vienna. He worked at a German television station for 18 years, before directing his first feature film, The Seventh Continent, in 1989. The film is based on the true story of a middle-class Austrian family of three who committed suicide. As with his subsequent work, Haneke employs a sparse narrative style, with long shots of the family in the midst of regular activities such as eating breakfast or driving through a car wash. Almost no explanation is given for the family's decision to end their lives.
His second feature, Benny's Video (1992), is even more disturbing. Before the opening credits appear, we are shown what appears to be the genuine slaughter of a pig. Twice. It turns out that the footage is from a home video shot by a teenage boy, Benny. Watching and re-watching the moment of death is the only thing with the power to affect Benny; ?
? as he responds as passively to his parents' questioning as he does to the relentless stream of news stories on war and violence - a Haneke staple.
If all this seems a little heavy going, it's because it is. It is also compulsive viewing. An air of menace inhabits every frame of a Haneke film. The lack of soundtrack, the long takes and the brilliantly understated performances combine to produce a hyper-realist aesthetic that magnifies the intensity of the (often extreme) stories he tells.
In 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994) and Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys (2000), Haneke, as the titles suggest, takes a multiple narrative approach to exploring fractured, multicultural modern society. Anyone hoping for a neat resolution of the strands will be disappointed: both films deal in questions rather than answers. Indeed, DVD viewers of Code Unknown will find (under the director's statement) 11 questions that motivated the film, including: "Can reality be represented?" and "Is truth the sum of what we see and hear?". Haneke admits that such questions are not new; he merely hopes that they "evoke something of the intellectual climate" that led him to make the film.
For many critics, the intellectual climate that led Haneke to make Funny Games (1997) was a patronising and mean-spirited one. The film's plot is straightforward. A wealthy family are staying at their idyllic summer home when a pair of polite young men arrive on their doorstep. One of the men asks to borrow some eggs, which he then clumsily drops on the floor. This 'accident' turns out to the first in a series of decidedly unfunny games. The two men quickly reveal themselves as sadistic torturers, with one of them occasionally turning to address the camera, implicating the viewer in the harrowing on-screen events. Haneke has said that Funny Games is the only film he made in order "to provoke". He goes on to explain "it's a film you watch if you need this film", apparently implying that anyone who makes it to the end credits has failed a moral test. A droll game indeed.
The Piano Teacher (1999), a twisted tale of repressed desire, is perhaps the most difficult watch in Haneke's oeuvre. I recently revisited it during a long train journey. Unfortunately, I had forgotten about a particularly challenging scene early on in the film. I couldn't close my laptop quickly enough. Thankfully, no-one was watching.
For the family at the heart of Haneke's masterpiece, Hidden (2005), the precise opposite is the problem: someone definitely is watching. This uncomfortable fact is established by a videotape left on their doorstep, showing surveillance-style footage of the family's home. Subsequent tapes provide clues about the sender, as well as hinting at a dark secret which Georges, the father of the family, is reluctant to admit. Hidden is not just a taut thriller, but a haunting exploration of guilt, paranoia and the nature of truth. It is the film that elevated Haneke from an interesting film-maker to a great one. I hope Amour is half as good.
Amour will be released in the UK on 16 November 2012