The Cinema of Michael Haneke between artifice and reality
Individual, family, society, these are the pillars on which Michael Haneke built the foundations of his cinema; images and their power, the means by which to analyze them.
“For the film viewer, the boundary between real existence and representation has been hard to discern from the outset, and it is precisely this which has endowed film with a major part of its fascination. The oscillation between the disconcerting feeling of taking part in a real happening, and the emotional security of seeing only the depiction of an artificially created or even discovered reality, was what indeed first enabled development of this genre“, says Haneke.
From the beginning, what has attracted and scared the director at the same time is the influence that the media have exercised and continues to exert over the masses, the awareness of the increasingly widespread inability to relate to others except through screens, the wondering about the destiny of mankind in the event that a system entirely based on technological development collapses, forcing us to return to the time of wolves.
Imagine in other images, Haneke seems obsessed with this. Often in his films he shows the life of the protagonists running parallel to that of those who appear on television screens, he films what, at a given moment, is in turn filmed by another recording device inside the film.
On more than one occasion Haneke introduces this register from the first frames.
Benny’s video (1992) begins with the footage of a prisoner pig inside a fence waiting for his death sentence to be consumed; is the same Benny, the protagonist boy, who directs this macabre show and who later will not hesitate to replicate what he has filmed on a human being, turning from an observer to a performer. In the same way we see the opening scene of Happy End (2017) through the screen of a smartphone while the young Eve films first the repetitive gestures of the mother who now moves like a lifeless automaton, later the agony of a hamster in a cage that she herself poisoned, and then returns to the mother who replicates the animal’s agony.
Hidden (2005) opens with the image of a quiet city quarter but soon we realize that what we see is taken up by a camera of someone unknown and the initial feeling of serenity gives way to a strange sense of anxiety.
In Happy End, after the sorrowful Eve’s video, a security camera films a city construction site where some men are working, once again we see a shot that looks like nothing more than a normal television movie, when suddenly the tragedy is consummated, a crack opens in the retaining wall, the ground collapses in a merciless way involving also one of the workers. Responsible for the construction is the family protagonist of the film, that will have to deal not only with the physical and material damage caused by this collapse but above all with the emotional consequences that it indirectly caused, uncovering a carefully buried Pandora’s box.
Family, therefore, a nucleus composed of people linked by ties of kinship who should share feelings of love and mutual respect but which in Haneke’s films often present themselves without these fundamental values, incapable of feeling authentic emotions. Just think of Haneke’s first feature film, The Seventh Continent (1989), in which the collective suicide planned and carried out by the protagonist family demonstrates the seriousness of this crisis of values.
The lack of communication is the disease that afflicts modern society, the screens created to bring us closer to the world around us have erected very high walls that have altered our perception of reality.
At the end of The Seventh Continent the last thing the father does, before reaching his wife and daughter in the afterlife, is watching TV, in which he sees his life, images from his past that come back to haunt him until the last, a landscape with the sea and the beach, like a dream postcard that the celluloid world has impressed in his mind. It is a family that belongs to the middle bourgeoisie like the others presented by Haneke in his films, precisely to highlight the fact that evil and the uncanny often hide behind the most unexpected people, those who apparently live a happy life.
The Laurents in Happy End belong to this category; their prefabricated relationships appear clear to us immediately, when we see them sitting around the table to share the most important meal of the day and, after an initial hint of tension between mother and son, these are immediately brought back to order by the grandfather, determined to silence those who have dared to spoil the peaceful yet formal atmosphere of dinner.
The grandfather, played by Jean Louis Trintignant, who returns to recite for Haneke after the award-winning Amour (2012) constitutes, with his niece Eve, the center of interest of the film. His desperate search for someone to help him pass away, almost a sort of retaliation with the previous film, in which he himself had to accompany his wife to death, is a tragic awareness of the impossibility of having still something to say in this world. More worrying is the realization that a similar condition is experienced by a thirteen-year-old girl.
Of course Haneke has accustomed us to a glacial vision of childhood, Benny’s ruthlessness, the children’s ambiguity of The White Ribbon (2009) or the unconsciousness of the young Georges in Hidden, but in this case he outlines a more complex character, in which mixed feelings coexist. The self-confidence and the audacity demonstrated by Eve in her conversations on Snapchat hide a deep pain, an emotional void that she cannot fill. It will be precisely the private conversation with the old Georges that will allow her to bring out her fears and faults, a generational confrontation in which it is not difficult to see the director’s attempt to create a dialogue between old and new, reclaiming the past to give substance to a present emptied of authenticity.
“People today no longer look each other in the eyes”, notes Haneke, we are all part of a middle class interested in consumption that prefers not to see, hiding behind virtual screens that distort reality and normalize evil; “on TV things like this seem normal” says Georges to Eve,” but when you see them in real life your hands are shaking”. The story is therefore not only that of a single family but also that of an entire society that tends towards uniformity but must inevitably confront itself with the different. It is no coincidence that Haneke chose the city of Calais to set his latest film, symbolically called “The jungle” for Europe’s largest refugee camp in this area between 2015 and 2016. However, migrants are not protagonists here, they are deliberately kept in the background to highlight a problem that would like to be forgotten but actually exists. In the past, Haneke has already addressed the delicate issue of racial integration. Just think of the individuals who cross the streets of Paris in his Code Unknown (2000) or the Romanian child who among the 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994) tries to survive indifference of the inhabitants of Vienna.
Wounds that profoundly mark those who carry the weight of history since birth, like the Algerian Majid who in Hidden returns to Georges’s life not so much to claim revenge wrongly suffered in his youth but rather to force the man, responsible of his departure from a family that could welcome him with affection, to remember his actions, in the same way that the French should remember their harsh and violent repression against the Algerian people.
When Georges goes to Majid’s apartment, before committing suicide, he tells him: “I wanted you to be present”. So while in other Haneke’s films death is intentionally left off-screen, this time it is shown to us in all its atrocity. As Georges cannot close his eyes to this horror, all of us must also acknowledge our responsibilities in the face of history. Denying one’s faults will not make us innocent.
However we continue to be blind, like the Laurents in Happy End, who on more than one occasion show all the bourgeois hypocrisy that refuses to accept similar traumatic events hiding behind a mask of small moralism and claims to appease immigrants simply by giving them sweets and candy.
The fairy tale comes to an end, the Laurent family again gathered around a table, surrounded by guests sitting neatly in the immaculate banquet hall, celebrating the marriage between Georges’ daughter, Anne, and the perfect English gentleman, when suddenly the disturbing element, the annoyance of having to welcome a group of immigrants who accompany the unfortunate Anne’s son. While the banqueters try to remedy this embarrassing blip, Georges seeks once again to carry out his suicidal intent by asking for help from his niece.
We return to the beach and the sea, to that postcard-like landscape that accompanied his father’s last breath in The Seventh Continent and once again we see it through a screen, again Eve’s smartphone, as if through its objectification we wanted to normalize what is happening.
Anne and her brother Thomas are scrambling to help their father, snatch him from the jaws of death, and in the end we wonder if they act this way because they want to do it or rather to save appearances.