“All of us have these hidden moments in our lives . . .”
“I wish you a disturbing evening!” This is how Michael Haneke, who won Best Director award at Cannes this year for Caché (Hidden), introduced his films one evening at a festival in London. Audiences — and their complacency towards the political conflicts “hidden” in the screen — are a prime target for this Austrian intellectual. Caché is a case in point. The story of a TV producer haunted by creepy cassettes, videos of his own house, sent him by an angry Algerian in his past, it boldly addresses the issue of first-world seclusion from the third-world — and the collaboration of the media, and its audiences, to keep this issue hidden. As Haneke said at our interview in Cannes (below): “Each of us pulls the blanket over our heads and hopes that the nightmares won’t be too bad.” Notably, the TV producer (played with tortured intensity by Daniel Auteuil) watches his own nightmares as if with a wide-angle lens.
We, as spectators, are also kept out. We watch the film through a distant camera, a reflection of our own alienated relation to the world around us. The closing shot ofCaché is that of two boys, Algerian and French, conversing on the steps of a school, a mute “dialogue” that we can only glimpse through a wide-angle shot of a grate.
Similarly, Haneke’s best-known film, The Piano Teacher (2001), begins (as it ends) with a closed door. Isabelle Huppert, playing Erica, comes in, shuts it behind her, and says “Hello Mother.” The setting — dark, grim Viennese hallway — prepares us for the distasteful violence of the answer: “Why are you late?” Then the mother jumps on the daughter, tears into her purse, extracts a new sexy dress and rips it. Behind each closed door — behind each screen — lies the perversity of violence.
The Piano Teacher brought Haneke his first award at Cannes: the grand prize of 2001, It established the director’s well-known recipe: in it, the sadistic relationship between mother and daughter is a microcosm for bourgeois Austrian society. Erica, a piano teacher at a conservatory, has no warmer relations with her colleagues and students than she does with her mother. Piano playing is a cold, heartless affair, a means for students to try to be upper-class and for teachers to enjoy their hierarchical power. Between the trapped spaces of her home, where Erica perversely shares her mother’s bed, and the beige corridors of the conservatory, the pianist finds no space for expression, except when she detours into the sex shops to watch live porn and sniff men’s used semen-redolent tissues. Or in the privacy of the bathroom, where she slashes her genitals with a razor. The film shows that in a stale bourgeois hierarchical power-ridden society, where all is “hidden,” the only way out is sadomasochism.
In Elfriede Jelinek’s novel on which the movie is based, the emphasis was quite different: it was on the disinherited position of women, and the hatred between the sexes that results. Jelinek draws a depressed Erica, who is bitter as much because of her awful mother as because of men who treat women as dispensable objects. Notably the young seducing student is depicted, from the beginning, as a despicable representative of malehood, whose sole motivation is to conquer and destroy Erica. Haneke views the picture differently. Alienation results more from evil bourgeois authority figures: the mother and the teacher.
He adds another dimension as well, the theme dominant in all seven of his films, from The Seventh Continent (1989) to Caché. He parallels the abuse of parents to the imperialism of the media, and its depictions of war, slaughter, and commerce. A television program plays while Erica hides from her mother in her room: a program on how the mustang was the result of the Spanish colonization of the Americas. While television also figures in Jelinek’s book, for her “it’s the muffled thunder of the tv in which a male is threatening a female.” For Jelinek, the root of evil is gender politics; for Haneke, it’s the conspiracy between media, global violence, and family. The collusion is buried in our unconscious: in Caché, the Algerian tragedy that forms the subtext results from a bad adoptive parent, a family past linked to the TV producer’s present only through dreams.
Haneke himself comes from television. He began his career producing TV programs for German television and did so for l8 years, an experience that evidently marks his vision. His first film, The Seventh Continent (1989), was the true story of a family collective suicide, where all the family members die slowly on a couch, zapping between stations. It’s a typical family — husband, wife, daughter — who live in a town that looks as ordinary as Haneke’s own Weiner Neustadt, a flat colorless suburb an hour from Vienna, whose main attribute seems to be, from my visit there, an icy silence. The film was the first of a trilogy dedicated to show “emotional glaciation.” And emotionally cold it is: the first ten minutes show this family as a compilation of body parts: hands preparing breakfast, carrying briefcases, feeding the goldfish, raising the garage door. It is a full ten minutes before we see a face. And as in The Piano Teacher or Caché, no one in this Austrian society is sensitive to the invisible inner pains of its suffering outcasts. The little girl complains of strange psychosomatic symptoms to her teacher — imagined blindness and scratching — and is slapped. The only emotional outlet comes at the end of the film, when after the father and mother have chopped apart every piece of their furniture, flushed their money down the toilet in a memorable series of 15 shots, the aquarium bursts, and the little girl sobs watching her goldfish flop to their deaths. Later, the family members settle down to poison and television, and slowly each dies to the tune of “The Power of Love,” chanted by a TV singer.
Haneke’s second film, Benny’s Video (1992), also drew a strong connection between media and family alienation. A boy kills a girl “just to see how it is.” He videotapes the murder and rewinds it continuously. The parents who discover the murder want to cover the crime in case they get accused of “negligence.” So the father volunteers to cut the corpse in pieces, while the mother and the boy take a deserved holiday to an Egyptian beach hotel, where, of course, they spend the week in bed zapping between Egyptian TV stations.
Haneke’s most experimental film, 71 Fragments of a Chronicle of Hazard (1994), went so far as to zap between images of alienated family members: from scenes of one man slapping his wife over a plate of peas, to shots of television programs on Kosovo. At the end of this movie of fragments, an Austrian university student, refused change to pay for his gas at a gas station, is sick of the cold universe he lives in and blows up everyone he sees with a gun, who happen to be all the characters we have met sporadically in the film. Here a direct link is made between how people do not communicate at home (especially because they watch a lot of television) to the way those in media destroy the world at large. The last shot of 71 Fragments is a TV clip of Michael Jackson in his Never Never Land, defending his abuse of a minor. The last words: “for his career.”
Haneke’s vision is alienation at its irremediable height. His icy approach — and his own upright posture, aloof on a chair, dressed in immaculate black — seems aimed to shock the audience that has so complacently absorbed media news for the last half century. To disturb, he suggests, is all we have left.
Karin Badt: This film like your others examines the relationship between “the hidden” in the family and “the hidden” in politics. Could you comment more specifically on how the secret problems of a family connect to the problems between the first world and the third world?
Michael Haneke: You can see the film like a Russian doll with dolls inside dolls inside dolls. The same story can be seen on different levels, can represent different levels: the personal level, the family level, the social level, the political level. The moral question the film raises is how to deal with this question of guilt. All of us have moments of selfishness, moments that we prefer to hide. The Daniel Auteuil character has this choice. The act that he carried out may not be likeable, may be reprehensible, but it is realistic, all of us have these hidden moments in our lives. All of us have such hidden corners in our lives, we all feel guilty, about the relationships between the industrialized world and the third world, or how we deal with the elderly, for example. We all take sleeping pills as does Daniel Auteuil, although it may take many different forms: it may be alcohol, a drink before we go to bed, it may be sleeping pills, or we may donate money to children in the third world. But each of us pulls the blanket over our heads and hopes that the nightmares won’t be too bad. For example, I am sure you oppose strict immigration laws that have been introduced in almost every European country. And yet what would you say if I were to suggest that you take into your home an African family? I think this is the case with all of us. All of us have knowledge that tends to lead to tolerance; at the same time we have selfish interests that are contradictory to this tolerant ideal.
You worked for 20 years in television,. In Hidden, you have a TV producer punished by a video — a rather telling irony. From your insider experience, can you tell us what makes TV so evil?
There is a short scene in my film in which the literary debate is edited, where we see that reality is manipulated by TV to be more attractive to viewers; TV reproduces and transmits a vision of reality that is supposed to be more interesting to viewers, and I am glad I was able to point that out in the film. . . . Yes, absolutely, there is the problem of the terrorism of the mass media today. There is the dictatorship of the dumbing down of our societies.
Your films often depict disturbing psychological situations, with an undercurrent of violence. Do you purposefully make the spectator uncomfortable?
The society we live in is drenched in violence. I represent it on the screen because I am afraid of it, and I think it is important that we should reflect on it. All my films deal with issues that I find socially relevant, and all my films deal with my own fears. I am dealing with questions that I find oppressive or important, that interest me dramatically. I think that the things that are going well in society are difficult to present dramatically. In my 20 years of working in the theater, I only staged one comedy, and that was my single failure. My films are also a protest against the mainstream cinema, a response to the films screened in theaters today. If mainstream films were different, my films would be different as well.
What inspired this script?
Daniel Auteuil was the reason I wrote this script. I wrote the entire script for him. I wrote the script with almost all the actors in mind, including Juliette Binoche.
Why a co-production?
I think that the co-production represents the only chance that Europe has in film. Beyond the diversity and specificity of each country and film production, it offers the possibility of working together to create films and to oppose the American cultural imperialism. My film has four co-producers. My film should have been finished last year. We originally planned it as a solely French production, but it wasn’t possible, we couldn’t raise enough funds, and it was only because we were able to structure the film as an international co-production that it is here today. I am very happy that this possibility exists. It is fortunate for me that I have two legs that I can stand on: I can work in French and in German. This means I can work with much more regularity than my colleagues, many of whom have to wait 5-6 years between projects.
How do you feel about the fact that engaged filmmaking is so rare today?
Commitment is not a service, it is not something one can choose to have. One either is engaged or is not. And if filmmakers are not committed, I don’t think they should be reproached. It’s simply a different way of dealing with the world, to approach their art. I think what is essential to film so that it is taken seriously is that it represent not only social concerns, but also debate its very existence: the medium itself, just as is the case with literature and every other serious art form. The question is, is film merely entertainment, or is it more? If it is art, it has to be more. Art can be entertaining. The Passion of St. Matthew is entertaining, it is more than diversion, it is concentration, focuses your thoughts.
The last shot of this film resonates with the last shot of The Pianist: in both, we have a static wide-angle shot of a closed door, where the viewer remains outside. How can we spectators break beyond this alienating distance?
That’s the 64,000 dollar question.
Do you think cinema can change the world?
No, but it can make it a less sad place than it already is.