The Visual CV: Matthew Sweet picks the greatest hits of a German-Austrian film-maker whose style is all his own...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, November/December 2012
1992 Benny’s Video (above)
There’s a feeling that goes with watching a Michael Haneke picture. It’s like someone piping chilled water into your intestines. This early work opens with fuzzy footage of a pig taking the slaughterman’s bolt, and worse is to follow: the teenage protagonist invites a girl round, switches on his camcorder and makes an abattoir of his parents’ house. It’s a species of horror film, but one that refuses to indulge the audience with a moment of catharsis. Haneke’s eye sees a world in the grip of a moral ice age—and, shockingly, Benny’s parents seem as glaciated as their son.
1994 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance
Haneke is a master of contemporary cinema. Possibly the master. Looks like Christopher Lee—toweringly tall, burning eyes, greying mane, voice like an antique bassoon. This is a portrait of the random victims of a teenage gunman, who shares Benny’s glassy disengagement. Haneke’s themes blaze forth: isolation, violence, the queasy desires stirred and fed by the moving image. Self-plagiarism? Nein. Fidelity to the defining anxieties of our age.
1997 Funny Games
A lakeside holiday home, a spoilt bourgeois family, two smirking young men who turn up to borrow a box of eggs—but whose real intention is butchery. This was my first exposure to Haneke: it felt like provocation. Father is tortured; mother is forced to strip at gunpoint; their little boy suffers a shotgun execution. And when the tables seem to turn, Haneke freezes the film and tells us what we’re thinking—that it would be good to see these murderers murdered. And he’s right. Suddenly, brilliantly, he has questioned every thrill-in-the-dark that cinema has ever offered.
2000 Code Unknown
That freeze-frame in “Funny Games” made audiences catch their breath—and made Juliette Binoche pick up the phone to beg for a part in Haneke’s bleak universe. He cast her as an actress taking on a faintly Hitchcockian role in a film-within-the-film (her big scene involves a child and a rooftop swimming pool). He played her unseen, unreasonable director himself. I once asked him if he had treated Binoche more graciously than his alter ego. “Obviously I can be unpleasant,” he said. “But if something doesn’t work in the film, you can’t always make it work by being nice to people.” Whatever he did, I’m glad he did it.
2001 The PianoTeacher
Schubert and sadomasochism are the keynotes: Isabelle Huppert is the instrument Haneke uses to communicate them. Here she is, on the edge of a bath, hitching her skirt and taking a razor blade to herself, improving her aim with a mirror. Or here, slipping shards of glass into the pocket of a pupil for whom she has conceived a romantic jealousy. It’s a razor-sharp portrait of a disordered mind, but there’s something broader too—the suggestion that all human relationships have a comparable narrative of power and submission.
Textbook Haneke: a wealthy Haneke couple (Binoche and Daniel Auteuil) endure a skin-crawling Haneke nightmare (surveillance tapes of their cosy home, popped carefully through the letterbox). The last shot also follows a pattern—daringly long and slow. And it may be the finest thing Haneke has done. We see a school. Suddenly we notice—or miss—a familiar figure sitting on the steps. The image justifies the title, and says that this is a film that will never yield its secrets.
2009 The White Ribbon
We visited places like this on the arm of Ingmar Bergman: a tight-knit Lutheran community just before the Great War—a wooden church, vegetable plots, a doctor, a pastor, a presiding squire. Bergman, though, was nostalgic for that pre-war sunshine. Haneke sees a world already in conflict. His village, shot in cheerless monochrome, is haunted by some mysterious agency that sets tripwires, kidnaps children, ensures that tell-tales never reach the police station. The film won Haneke his first Palme d’Or: he should have had something carved from darker materials.
The winter wind still blows through Haneke’s second Palme d’Or winner—an essay about dying. But it is his warmest picture so far. When a stroke fells a piano teacher (Emmanuelle Riva), her bookish husband (Jean-Louis Trintignant) promises to cope. Here are two legends, veterans of films by Truffaut, Resnais and Chabrol, giving the performances of their careers. But it is Haneke’s cool gaze that makes this possible. Utterly unsentimental, unflinching and truthful.
Amour opens in Britain Nov 16th
Matthew Sweet presents "Night Waves" on BBC Radio 3. He is the author of "The West End Front"