Dispatches: On Michael Haneke

There are filmmakers who help us learn to watch movies better. Many of them are canonical: Eisenstein, Hitchcock, Ford, Kubrick, Kiarostami, Sokurov, etc. What links the group of directors I am referring to is the way that watching their movies forces the viewer to pay attention to form. Rather than simply immersing one in plot, these artists ask viewers to glean information from the directorial choices being made, from compositions and cuts and such. In Hitchcock, to give the classical example, pretty generic plots combine with a camera eye that makes associations and psychological inferences with startling sharpness. These are moviemaker’s moviemakers. The critic-artists of the nouvelle vague did much to emphasize the aesthetic value of highlighting formal elements, and so the auteur, rather than the studio, became the most important unit to consider when watching movies (they also extended this view backwards to incorporate Hawks and many others). Film formalism is really part of the mid-century revaluation of modernism that extended to criticism and architecture. These days, auteurship mostly serves as the justification for self-absorbed directors whose most urgent message is the advertisement of their own genius.

There are, though, directors working today who respect their audiences enough to command and repay that respect with thought-provoking work that also relies on the audience’s attention to formal features. One of these is the Austrian director Michael Haneke. The sobriety and equipoise of his camera, and the subtlety of his aesthetic choices, make most of his films a pleasure to watch. His recent work has seen him rein in his early tendency towards flashy violence and degradation, as in Funny Games. His adaptation of Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher was amazing in its visual translation of that novel’s obsessive tone, and I though his fondness for menacing quiet moments made “Time of the Wolf” one of the best post-apocalyptic movies made recently.

The first shot of his latest, Cache (“Hidden”) is a perfect example of his talent. He holds the wide shot of the main characters’ home for an extremely long time, maybe five minutes. Luckily (or rather, deliberately) the composition is complex enough, and photographically interesting enough, to maintain one’s interest despite the confusing lack of activity. Soon it is revealed that the nature of the first shot is very different to what one at first assumes, and one is forced to revise one’s faith in the basic nature of shots in movies. It’s that clever. As the image becomes a motif, repeatedly returned to, over the course of the film, its details become more and more familiar, and our encounters with the same space from different perspectives are made as familiar as if we ouselves had inhabited this street. This is filmmaking: to grasp a space and its complexity and impart that complexity to a viewer, in something like three-dimensionality. The movie is about surveillance, literally and figuratively, and it commands the viewer to confront the ambiguity of looking at the world, and how assumptive most of the judgments we make about it are. Like most great formal films, we learn about observation by observing it.

The narrartive theme of Cache might be said to be the return of the repressed, globalized. The movie concerns an haute-bourgeois couple – their modernist dwelling, decor, even food, perfectly observed – who are possibly threatened by figures from the husband’s past. The relations between the modern liberal individual, secure in his sanctimonius domain, and the world-at-large (in this case, the French colonial world) are called in question with devestating results. Compared to a movie like Syriana, whose idea of exploring the links between countries is to represent everything through the tired themes of espionage and politics, with human beings a kind of generic afterthought, a plot device, Cache starts from the most locally situated, domestic setting (the ur-Parisian couple of Juliette Binoche and Daniel Auteuil) and gradually expands the circle outward, relentlessly and at times grimly, until you feel the distance between places and places, times and times, unraveling.

At times, in all his films and this one, Haneke can risk dourness. I never actually feel he is a miserablist; more likely, I think, his tone is so even and reserved that easily bored viewers sometimes feel punished. I think his directorial reserve, his lack of flashy camera movements and cuts, is his great strength: it buys him the time to examine people more closely than most filmmakers. If he has a trademark shot, it is the stationary wideshot. These shots, so beautifully composed, are reminiscent of another very systematic artist, Andreas Gursky. But they are much more daring in the cinema than in photography, and they build up great pathos over the long durations for which he holds them. What seems to get exposed by these patient intervals of looking is something like the Pinterian hypocrisy of everday life, the little lies that must be constantly told and that we must ferret out. The artificial, quick style of the commercial film industry can’t show us this; it substitutes the pleasure of cutting to the beat of music and fetishizing the close-up. Haneke can’t or won’t provide these confectionary pleasures, but he substitutes something richer: visual detail, blocks of color, compositions that combine foreground and background elements. In a way, his work is a defense of cinema against music, and against television (the home of the close-up).

Haneke’s comfort with unsympathetic characters, actions, and styles comes along with something a little less savoury: his attraction to sadism. Violence, and especially the visceral display of blood, in his movies is a bit of an addiction for him, and at times it can feel a little too much. But he shows signs of maturation: where he reveled in brutality in his earlier films, especially Funny Games, The Piano Teacher mostly observes blood so clinically as to reconfirm the aversion to violence. In this sense, Haneke’s violence is the opposite of the kind of celebratory intensity that you find in so many American directors (Scorcese, Tarantino). In Cache, despite a pervasive air of menace, there is only one violent moment, and it irrupts so shockingly into the texture of the film that it at first feels manipulative. Later one begins to decide it was earned after all.

The film’s final shot, another elegant stationary composition held for minutes, only furthers the ambiguity of what has come before. The film, full of jokes and setups that defy generic expectation, ends by neglecting to conclude, instead pointing to the unknowability of urban culture. It poses some really difficult questions about contemporary French identity and the price of its maintenance. For his recommitment to radically simplistic cinematic tools; his mastery of tone and pacing; his photographic complexity; his fearless attitude towards unsympathetic characters; and most of all his respect for the viewer’s intelligence, I think Haneke is one of the most interesting directors at work in the world today.


Divisions of Labor III (NYU Strike)
Divisions of Labor II ( NYU Strike)
Divisions of Labor (NYU Strike)
The Thing Itself (Coffee)
Local Catch (Fishes)
Where I’m Coming From (JFK)
Optimism of the Will (Edward Said)
Vince Vaughan…Eve Sedgwick (Homosocial Comedies)
The Other Sweet Science (Tennis)
Rain in November (Downtown for Democracy)
Disaster! (Movies)
On Ethnic Food and People of Color (Worcestershire Sauce)
Aesthetics of Impermanence (Street Art)