MUBI's retrospective "Empowering the Spectator: The Films of Michael Haneke" runs October 17 – December 16, 2019 in the United Kingdom.
Alexander (Udo Samel) has his eyes glued to a TV screen when he recounts, halfway through Michael Haneke’s The Seventh Continent, his mother’s last words: “How would it be if we had a monitor instead of a head, where we could see our thoughts?” Released in 1989, The Seventh Continent marked Haneke’s feature film debut, but not the end of a career the Austrian had amassed during the previous fifteen years he’d spent writing and directing TV productions. Take his two-part 1979 television movie Lemmings as a single project, and the twenty-three films Haneke has directed since 1974 are somewhat evenly split: twelve features and eleven TV movies—the last of which, an adaptation of his theatrical staging of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, only came out in 2013.
But the relationship between Haneke and television is a profoundly conflictive one. Sure, TV sets pop up everywhere in his feature films—from the small screen Alexander gapes at in The Seventh Continent to the larger one Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche's married couple watch in horror in Hidden (2005). But their insertion is hashed out as clash, an intrusion into a world and a medium—cinema—with which TV stands in fundamental opposition. Prompted to elaborate by Christopher Sharrett, Haneke has claimed his interest in television lies in its representation of violence, but also as a symbol of what he sees as a “greater crisis” of our “collective loss of reality and social disorientation.” TV shrinks our experiential horizon and eventually substitutes reality, to the point that all we can hope to know of the world is its televised derivative. Not only does this pose serious political concerns, for Haneke, it also forfeits “our ability to have a palpable sense of the truth in everyday experience.”
More than a simple leitmotif, television turns into Haneke’s chief vehicle to articulate that critique further. And the multiple roles it plays across his body of work helps illuminate his theatrical output in surprising ways—so much so that to revisit Haneke’s feature films through their relationship with TV is to open them up in novel, illuminating ways.
Curiously, The Seventh Continent became Haneke’s feature debut only after it was rejected as a television movie. Whether or not the snub owed to the film’s depressing storyline (in which an ostensibly normal family of three proceed to destroy all they own before committing group suicide), TV percolates through the film’s aesthetics and themes. Meet the Schobers: Georg (Dieter Berner), a promising engineer on his way to a remunerative promotion, his wife Anna (Birgit Doll), working with her brother as an optician, and their little daughter Evi (Leni Tanzer). They live in a pristine world of shiny objects and rigidly observed schedules—think of the hyper-modern urban nightmares in Jacques Tati’s Mon oncle or Playtime—a reassuringly dull existence regulated by alarms, routines, displays, and transactions. It’s a soulless and amorphous universe that could effectively jut out of any Western middle-class household, an anonymous look that underscores how The Seventh Continent isn't so much interested in photographing the ills of present-day Austria as in sponging up something of the universality of bourgeois ennui. Even the Schobers are meant to be somewhat typical: not a particular family from Linz (as revealed by the number plate on the family’s car) so much as a mold for your average middle-class nuclear household. Crucially, this character standardization will turn into a leitmotif for Haneke, with the three names—Georg, Anna, and Eva—resurfacing all through his oeuvre.
In his interview with Sharrett, Haneke himself has admitted that, as far as the aesthetic goes, much of The Seventh Continent “could be said to resemble television advertising.” Marie Homolkova’s accelerated editing echoes the pace of TV programs, while the comforts—and lifelessness—of the Schobers’ cushy bourgeois existence is crystallized through relentless close-ups of the objects they engage with on a daily basis. More than a portrait of a family, Anton Peschke’s static shots concoct a glacial succession of still lives that essentially display the Schobers’ possessions: alarm clocks, cutlery, shoes, plates, and the like. It’s not that the three never appear on the frame, just that when they do, they’re often reduced to protruding limbs: hands tying laces, spreading butter on toast, interacting with the technology around them. The choice serves a crucial purpose, for the close-ups do not quite simply convey images of objects, but underscore, in Haneke’s own words, “the objectification of life.” The Schobers do not live so much as perform ritualized gestures, and the frigid shot composition accentuates their emptiness. Ironically, even as they proceed to destroy all they own, Georg insists they do so “systematically,” and this may well be the tragedy’s saddest twist: the family’s self-destruction could never amount to some liberating act, because it still operates in accordance with the rules of the world they seek to escape.
Ironically, the only object to survive the intramural devastation is the family’s TV. Running somewhat counter to Haneke’s suggestion that The Seventh Continent hardly explores “the television phenomenon” to the extent some of his later works do, TV does not just shape the film’s aesthetic, but also penetrates it as an entity in and of itself. As the family lies moribund before the small screen, a late-night music program offers clips by Jennifer Rush and Meat Loaf. What’s striking here isn’t merely the juxtaposition between pop songs and family suicide, but the extent to which television ends up swallowing the family’s tragedy, with Haneke closing in on the TV static until this fills the whole screen. As the first chapter of a trilogy Haneke said was devoted to “communication which doesn’t communicate,” The Seventh Continent’s closing shot—with the static screen blinking in perpetuity, and no exchange taking place through it—feels like a mission statement.
Where The Seventh Continent makes TV’s infiltration explicit at the very end, Benny’s Video (1992) leaves it unambiguous from the preamble. Haneke’s sophomore feature centers on another act of unspeakable violence: the cold-blooded murder of a high school girl by a boy her age, eponymous Benny (Arno Frisch, who’d resurface in 1997 as one of the two deranged white-gloved psychopaths in Funny Games). Here again, the horror springs out of the dullest bourgeois settings. For Benny is a Viennese boy happy to fritter away his adolescence in the confines of his bedroom, where he toys with a whole arsenal of video equipment, and gapes at TV screens regurgitating anything from news reels to B-movies to CCTV footage he records from the street below.
From the outset, TV enters Benny’s Video as a means to crystallize and reproduce violence. Everything about Benny’s crime is mediated through the small screen. Benny and the unnamed girl he kills (Ingrid Stassner) meet at a video store. He lures her into his parents’ flat to show her his video kit and VHS tapes. Her death resembles—as far as the weapon is concerned, at least—the slaughter of a hog that’s captured on the home video with which the film opens. And the murder too, most importantly, is immortalized on camera, still rolling as Benny hobbles after the agonizing teen crawling on his bedroom’s floor, and finishes her.
Haneke has been infamously mum on the motivations behind his character’s actions, but the musings he offered critic Serge Toubiana on the boy’s behavior are eye-opening. “Benny thinks he can control things by incorporating them into video, [and that’s] a dangerous illusion… [The idea is that] if I have an image, I possess it.” In the media-saturated world Haneke dissects in Benny’s Video, the boy’s horrific act responds to an unarticulated longing to truly live through the experiences promised by the small screen. Television, framed as a simulacrum of reality, serves here as a crucial entry point to address the paranoias anchoring Benny’s Video as well as its protagonist’s inexplicable act. Which is why the words Benny gives his father (Ulrich Mühe) toward the film’s end are so illuminating. Only someone who’s as severed from the world as Benny could suggest, with the insouciant shrug Frisch gives as he stares into space, that he did what he did because he “wanted probably to see what it was like.. What Benny’s Video problematizes isn’t just the fact that television has substituted reality, but that it keeps regurgitating images of extreme violence that both numb people toward the horror, and make it viciously tantalizing.
Benny’s Video is not an easy watch. There’s something excruciating in the nonchalant swagger with which Benny saunters through the murder’s aftermath, as though none of it should ever remotely concern him. It’s a media-induced apathy that would be further dissected in 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994). Haneke’s third feature pivots on the real-life killing spree Vienna witnessed on December 23, 1993, when a military cadet entered a city bank, shot three people dead, and killed himself in his car seconds later—all for no apparent reasons. Like the first two installments of Haneke’s (un)communication trilogy, this is a fragmented and elliptical non-explanation of a tragedy, a mosaic of seventy-one vignettes of various lengths unrelated to one another save for the final slaughter they all orbit toward. But even that link only becomes evident at the film’s very end. Much of what we know about the seventy-one micro-chapters and the characters populating them (a refugee street kid from Romania struggling to avoid deportation, a bank security officer and his spouse, a couple looking to adopt their first child, a bank clerk and her estranged old father, and of course, the cadet himself) comes in retrospect.
Possibly his most experimental and least narrative to date, 71 Fragments demands plenty of speculation in return for very little immediate payoff. You may argue the lingering frustration responds to Haneke’s critique of mainstream cinema and its totalizing presumption to know and explain everything away. “Only in fragmentation we can tell a story honestly,” he told Serge Toubiana about the film. Accordingly, 71 Fragments seems quite content with just letting the narrative derail and sprawl in a myriad subplots, storylines, episodes, and fissures.
So where does television fit within the massacre? As a chronology, 71 Fragments spreads across five days, beginning in October and culminating on that fateful late December afternoon. Each of the five begins with a televised news report, with screens regurgitating horrific footage of conflicts around the world. We’ve seen this before. Clips from the war in Bosnia had surfaced all through Benny’s Video, and they return here too, interspersing scenes of domestic life with images of faraway terror. Except 71 Fragments takes this a step further. Here, TV traces a geography of horrors that spans from the Balkans to war-torn Somalia, Georgia, Northern Ireland, Argentina, and back to besieged Sarajevo. But it all enters the frame as background noise, so repetitive and amorphous it gradually loses all its shocking power, lulling you in a state of desensitized indifference. As the trilogy’s third and final chapter, 71 Fragments complements what Haneke had begun articulating in The Seventh Continent and Benny’s Video. Much like its predecessors, 71 Fragments reads as an attack on a TV-induced emotional anesthesia, and it is telling that Haneke should choose to end it with a newsreel juxtaposing a clip from the Balkan tragedies with one of the investigation around Michael Jackson’s alleged sexual abuses, effectively equating the war with the scandal. A media form that reduces reality to its mere representation, television strips images of their individual force, value, and truth; the world the small screen conjures in 71 Fragments is one wherein everything carries the same worth.
Following 71 Fragments and Funny Games (1997), the early 2000s ushered in Haneke’s first two French-speaking projects: the Juliette Binoche vehicle Code Unknown (2000) and his only literary adaptation to date, The Piano Teacher (2001). Based on the 1983 novel by Austrian Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek, The Piano Teacher follows Isabelle Huppert as Erika Kohut, a sadistic music professor whose solitary existence starts to unravel as she begins a liaison with one of her students (Benoît Magimel). It’s a striking, shocking, and perturbingly seductive film that finds in Huppert’s mercurial performance its crowning glory. But in the context of Haneke’s filmography, it also represents a crucial point of rupture.
An emotionally stunted forty-something prone to self-harm and living in close quarters with her co-dependent old mother (so close the two sleep next to each other), Erika is indubitably alienated from the world around her. But unlike the other psychically troubled characters dotting Haneke’s canon, her angst does not so much stem from being adrift in a de-humanizing and hyper-modern environment, but from a mental prison she’s created for herself. Haneke’s critique of technology takes a step back, as conflict erupts here largely from the clashes between Erika, her student, and her own mother. But while TV screens appear far less prominently than in previous works, the rare occasions they protrude into the frame still open up the film in illuminating ways.
Case in point: the early sequence where Huppert’s Erika pays a visit to a local porn video store, and locks herself in a booth for a private screening. Interestingly, the whole scene was Haneke’s addition. In Jelinek’s novel, the piano teacher travels to the dark alleys by the city’s railroads and watches a live peep show. This sublimating of the “real deal” (however real and tangible a peep show can legitimately be) with its screened transposition harkens back to Haneke’s preoccupation behind the threats of TV images as reality’s derivative. Here again, the small screen mediates the lived act, this time serving as a vehicle for pleasure. But it’s only a titillating surrogate, of course, and it is no surprise pornography should only constitute a tiny corollary to the full spectrum of Erika’s sexual fantasies, pivoting so heavily on bodily desires and their violent actualization upon her own flesh.
Scarcely visible in The Piano Teacher, TV returns prominently in Hidden. Haneke’s eighth feature revolves around an unanswered question: what’s the source and purpose of the videotapes sent to Daniel Auteuil’s Georges? A forty-something married to Anne (Juliette Binoche) and father to teenage Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky), Georges enters Hidden as Haneke’s quintessential bourgeois type. He helms a literary TV talk show where he hobnobs with intellectuals and discusses literature, his ratings are an all-time high, and nothing in his chic Parisian existence seems to indicate horrors lurking in the darkness.
And yet one day Anne and Georges wake up to a VHS tape left at their doorsteps: a single, two-hour static shot of their house, captured from a nearby street. More tapes are delivered, accompanied by macabre child-like drawings of a boy coughing up blood. They may or may not be the work of Majid (Maurice Bénichou), a man of Algerian descent and Georges’ age, who’d spent some of his childhood living with Georges’ family in their large countryside estate. Speaking to Christopher Sharrett a year or so before the release of Hidden, Haneke billed the project “a story of guilt, and the denial of guilt.” For Georges and Majid are connected to a far larger and unresolved national trauma, the French-Algerian war—specifically, the horrific 1961 “Battle of Paris,” when police forces slaughtered hundreds of Algerians participating in peaceful demonstrations against the French occupation of their native land. Majid’s parents were among the many victims, whereupon Georges’ parents adopted the boy, only to then hastily purge him from the family, with little Georges’ pivotal contribution.
Crucially, television surfaces all through the drama as a conduit for Georges’ guilt. To some fundamental extent, Hidden marks a rupture from the criticism of the medium Haneke had offered in previous works. Here, TV is not so much assessed as a vehicle to represent violence (although this is certainly one of many roles it plays via the tapes). Nor does it seem to be questioned for its role in shrinking our experiential horizon, as it was in Haneke’s earlier trilogy. Instead, the small screen helps exhume an unresolved trauma and the shame that comes attached to it. Take the opening shot of Georges and Anne’s house: only after the couple’s voices echo offscreen do we realize that we are watching, together with them, the first of the several videotapes they’ll receive through the film. The ambiguity around the source of the visual field persists all through Hidden, so much so that we begin to question the authorship of all shots we’re shown. Haneke’s aesthetic further obfuscates matters, as both Hidden and the multiple videotapes therein are shot in digital, leaving no real way of telling whether any given shot is live, or another film-within-the-film.
But the mystery around the tapes’ source also narrows the distance between Georges and audience, effectively forcing us to witness as past horrors resurface, and making us complicit with Georges’ efforts to deny his role in them, only to share his guilt once the denial shatters. And this unnerving proximity, evoked by Haneke’s commingling of film and TV, is what accounts for Hidden’s disquieting wonder. As the drama unfolds and the tapes come in, we watch—and we are watched—with Georges. The legacy of his atrocious past swells into a collective guilt. United through the small screen in the film’s opening shot, we are reunited, all through the multiple times Haneke blurs the two media, in a shared experience of shame.
Early into Hidden, Auteuil visits his ailing mother (Annie Girardot) in the old family countryside estate, the very house Majid was kicked out of decades prior. He finds her lying in bed, elated at the impromptu visits, and asks whether she ever feels lonely in a mansion so large. She smiles and points to the TV set by her bed. “I have my family friend.” Pitted against the tragic significance of other small screens in Hidden, the line takes on a darkly comic echo. But it also speaks of the multiple, oftentimes conflicting roles television plays in Haneke’s features—an intruder shrinking and replacing everyday experience with seductive but fundamentally hollow images; at once an instrument of torture, and a surrogate for pleasure.