With all of the well-deserved acclaim over the foreign masterpiece of the year, Amour, I have decided to delve further into Michael Haneke’s filmography. My first Haneke experience was in 2008, when I rented The Piano Teacher based on an acquaintances recommendation. To say that I wasn’t quite prepared for the film would be something of an understatement. It haunted me for days. The impact of Haneke’s cold, distant approach to the inherently difficult subjects of sadomasochism and sexual repression proved to be quite the potent cinematic cocktail.
Further exploration into Haneke’s world only proves that the man is a certifiable force to be reckoned with, and with that in mind, I have decided to explore his work, from the debut feature onward. Of course, this will require patience and steel nerves. I have already screened two of the seven films featured in Kino’s acclaimed set of DVDs, The Films of Michael Haneke. They are The Seventh Continent and Benny’s Video.
The Seventh Continent
The first three films in Haneke’s filmography comprise the “glaciation trilogy” – films which explore alienation and emotional detachment. The first of these is The Seventh Continent, which focuses on the Schober family: Georg, Anna, and their daughter, Evi.
The opening scene sets the tone for the rest of the film. The family vehicle enters a car wash, and we sit with the family for the entire duration of the cleansing. The tedious and mechanical process of the car wash system mirrors the lives of the Schober’s – predictable, monotonous, and devoid of joy. Over the years, their lives have become depressingly routine, and Haneke conveys this with redundant scenes of the family’s private life at home. During these moments, Haneke wisely refrains from showing their faces, shooting them from the neck down, or simply allowing their hands or feet to dominate the frame. Whether they are simply applying paste to a toothbrush or tying their shoes, Haneke emphasizes the mundane nature of their lives by utilizing this method.
In what seems to be a desperate ploy for attention, little Evi feigns blindness at school one day, much to the surprise of her teacher as well as her mother, who reacts violently by slapping her daughter in the face.
Anna’s brother is by far the most emotionally transparent member of the family. He is severely depressed and still mourning over the loss of his mother. He breaks down at the dinner table one night, much to the dismay of Georg, Anna, and Evi. Anna consoles her brother at this moment, maintaining her composure.
The film chronicles the family over a span of three years, each one more superficial than the last. They begin to isolate themselves from the rest of the world, watching music videos on the television and ridding themselves of their possessions. In one shocking scene, Georg rips up and flushes hundreds of dollars down the toilet. The scene goes on for several minutes. As a family, they come to the conclusion that they haven’t accomplished anything significant with their lives. Why bother trying now?
It all leads to one of the most harrowing and controversial finales ever committed to celluloid. To say anything more would diminish the power of the film, and I would not want to deprive serious viewers of the experience. According the Haneke, this film is based on a true story.
The second film in Haneke’s trilogy centers on a young man named Benny, whose life revolves around his video camera. He comes from an affluent family, and his parents have packed his room with the latest in technology. Throughout the film, he is constantly carrying around his camera, recording the usual day-to-day events of his life. Over a period of time, he has become somewhat obsessed with a videotape featuring the slaughter of a pig with a butcher’s gun. He watches the video repeatedly and often slows it down to savor every frame of the grisly act.
When his parents leave him unattended for the duration of one weekend, he invites a young girl over to his home to watch a movie and eat a pizza. After a while, the girl decides to leave. Benny convinces her to stay. He proceeds to show her the aforementioned video. Afterwards, he goes to his drawer and pulls out the butcher’s gun, supposedly the very same one that was used to slaughter the pig. Benny holds the gun to her chest, and she playfully dares him to pull the trigger.
What happens next is appalling and near impossible to watch. Haneke cloaks the remainder of the film in ambiguity. Benny’s motives, as well as the emotional response to his actions, are entirely up for debate. We will eventually learn that Benny’s parents are some of the coldest individuals to ever grace the screen.
The themes of desensitization and our obsession with violence and media are brought to the forefront. Haneke acts as a moralist here, as he tries to convict the audience of complacency and arrogance in regards to human life. Some of these themes are revisited in the third film in this trilogy, 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance.
Part II: 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance and Funny Games coming soon.