Old (Film) School: Cinema of Michael Haneke

Originally written on October 3, 2002

Author’s Note: I had never watched a Haneke film previous to that Autumn. Try watching ‘The Piano Teacher’ 8 times in a week.  FUN! I still love Mr. Haneke today.  Hurts so good.  

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Director Michael Haneke incites audiences to ponder deeply the motivation of his characters and their worldview. In Code Unknown seemingly disjointed scenarios bring forth a feeling of repression and loneliness. In The Piano Teacher, one is encountered with scenes of horrid brutality which are enacted with quiet calm. Haneke’s use of little to no backstory and unsettling camera movements lead the viewer to have to work for an answer.

Film theoretician Noel Carrol discusses how an audience views a text through narrative structure in Theorizing the Moving Image. He speaks of audience expectation when he says,

“….they expect answers to the questions that earlier events have made salient …. we not only want but expect answers to questions that have assertively been put before us … (Carroll, 89).”

With this in mind, the cinema of Haneke poses a sharp contrast to what is supposed to happen in the course of a film. Haneke does not make viewing easy; rather he makes it an arduous task for any tangible meaning.

The style of filming which Haneke employs is not in the usual mode encountered. Carroll’s view on visual devices is

” ….directing audience attention through the single shot or variable framing …. the devices of visual narration….help make those questions salient.(Carroll, 91)”

When Haneke uses the camera, he does not make the questions raised answerable. He uses the visuals to create an intense mood, rather than to coddle the audience.

Haneke strives to make his films worthy of the title of art. He states,

“I try to leave my films as open as possible. It’s up to
the spectator to grapple with what he sees and try to
build an explanation.(Jeffries, 2)”

He also explains why his films tend to be abrasive to viewers,

“There are a lot of people who need to escape …. But this
has nothing to do with an art form. An art form is
obliged to confront reality, to try to find a little
piece of the truth.(Foundas,7)”

From these statements, one can begin to understand why Haneke’s films are so thought-provoking and difficult for audiences. He strives to make the audience confused and bewildered. To more fully grasp his intent, exploration of several key scenes can shed light on his overall intent.

One impressive scene Haneke executed was the final scene of Code Unknown. This scene lasts approximately ten minutes, and is one continuous shot. All of the characters encountered in the film are joined in this scene. Yet none of them actually meet. The camera follows the characters moving along the street seeking out their intended aim. The immigrant woman seeks a place to beg, with little success. The dashing boyfriend is unable to gain entry into (his?) apartment. All of the characters diverge here, as the only non-diegetic music
of the film pulses in the background.

This scene is intense because it leaves the audience wanting more. It leaves all of the plot lines open, with no resolve. The scene builds and builds, but with no release. The build-up with no tangible explanation synthesizes Haneke’s need for truth. This scene is incredibly life-like; as in life we often do not know what happened to, say, the local beggar or how or why that guy’s car needed to be jumped. We just know that we observe these events on a daily basis, and Haneke makes us aware of them.

One particularly intense scene from Code Unknown involves a long shot on a subway. The camera is positioned so that one feels like they are looking down into the car. Anna is sitting quietly on the train trying to ignore two young “Arab” teens. They keep taunting her and eventually she moves her seat. Yet the camera still stays put. Finally a fellow passenger tries to help with no avail; and the scene leaves Anna frightened and crying.

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This scene follows in Haneke’s quest to portray the truth. Most people have, at some point, encountered obnoxious youths trying to intimidate others on the subway. The set-up of a subway lends itself to a diverse mixing of people. Haneke wanted to illustrate that in Europe people are still racist and fearful of one another. The boys are angry because they perceive Anna’s presence as being unattainable, because she is an actress, and they therefore must punish her for this. Anna ignores them out of possible bigotry, but probably more because they are men who could cause her physical harm. The scene brings about much social commentary with very little dialogue or cuts. The persistence of the shot and the superb acting convey the message very clearly.

The Piano Teacher follows the character of Erika Kohut, played masterfully by Isabell Huppert. Huppert fills the screen with icy reserve and conversely a disarming need for humiliation and pain. Huppert describes Erika thusly,

“She has become a woman to all appearances, but in her domestic universe she has remained a little girl. (Jeffries,2)”

The control her elderly mother holds over her has caused her social and sexual life to divert into destructive and seamy manifestations.

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A scene that perfectly illustrates her need for pain and also her mother’s unyielding presence takes place in the bathroom. Erika ritualistically mutilates her own vagina for an extreme release. This is ritualistic, not in a religious sense, but in the monotony of the experience. The camera observes this scene in clinical detail. Erika removes the razor from its wrapping in a bag. She then takes a mirror and positions it in one hand while cutting with the other. After the cutting, blood pours into the tub and her mother also calls her to come for dinner. With this she grabs a maxi pad and meticulously cleans up the room swiftly and with little observation of the strangeness that just occurred there. That is why this scene is so powerful. Not because she is mutilating her vagina, but because she is doing it so passionlessly, while mommy makes dinner. Erika’s loneliness and inability to even enjoy her own brutal pleasure are cunningly achieved through Huppert’s austere reserve.

The final scene of The Piano Teacher is the most shocking event of a film filled with shocking events. Right before the recital, after encountering her students, mother, and her rapist, Erika calmly plunges a knife into her heart. The expression on her face is not one would think of when pondering what a knife in the heart would feel like. Her eyes tear up a bit and the realization that she just mangled her
most important organ are evident, but that is all. Not a sound is uttered and she swiftly walks out the front of the conservatory and out of the frame.

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With this final image, Haneke achieves his goal. He forces audiences to piece together what has happened and why. We have learned that Erika is utterly cut off from everyone and therefore her suicide appropriate. The overall aura that the film projects is of violence covered under a facade of Germanic reserve. Haneke’s employment of long shots, uncomfortable situations, and expert acting lend his films to an audience that must be prepared to work for their explanations.

References

Carroll, Noel. (1996). Theorizing the Moving Image. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Foundas, Scott. (2001). Michael Hankeke: The Bearded Prophet of “Code Unknown” and “The Piano Teacher. n IndieWire
[online] http://www.indiewire.com/film/interviews/int_Haneke_Michael_011204.html

Jeffries, Stuart. (2001). Just Don’t Ask Her to Play Cute. The Observer [online] http://www.film.guardian.co.uk/Print/0.3858.4286483.00.ht

Jeffries, Stuart. (2001). No Pain, No Gain. The Guardian [online] http://www.film.guardian.co.uk/Print/0.3858.4191785.00.ht

Quick Take: Rebecca by Alfred Hitchcock

rebeccaThis classic film from 1940 is adapted from the Daphne de Maurier novel of the same name and tells the story of a young woman who marries a widowed man and cannot escape the memory of his late wife. An engaging plot draws the viewer into a world of paranoia and secrets that could destroy the lives of all involved.  Rebecca is one of the great disturbing films in cinema history and should be required viewing for all movie-buffs.

Sound City

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In his directorial debut, musician Dave Grohl tells the story of the Los Angeles recording studio ‘Sound City’, which was the birthplace of several iconic rock albums.  The star of this documentary is the Neve console, an incredibly rare analog mixing console which produced a rich, wonderful sound. The recording studio is repeatedly referred to as dumpy by those who recorded there, yet the highest praise is heaped upon the Neve console.  The wide array of musicians surveyed for this documentary agree ‘Sound City’ may have been gritty, but the music which was created from the Neve was priceless.

Grohl’s high regard for this studio is very apparent; he practically leaps out of his seat with boyish glee many times while recounting stories of ‘Sound City’.  His personal praise is understandable, due to having recorded Nirvana’s Nevermind there, which propelled him into super-stardom.  A good deal of significant contemporary musicians, such as Fleetwood Mac, The Grateful Dead, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Rick Springfield, Rage Against the Machine, Tool, Bad Religion, Nine Inch Nails, Weezer, and many others recorded at this unassuming studio due to the analog recording offered by the Neve.  Not every album produced at ‘Sound City’ was as exceptional as Grohl believes, despite the passionate championing of the recordings. For example, as an avid Nine Inch Nails fans, I can assert with authority that the two albums which the band produced at ‘Sound City’(With Teeth and The Slip) though decent, do not possess the best sound fidelity(The Downward SpiralThe Fragile, and Year Zero) that the band has ever produced.

Despite Grohl’s possibly disproportionate praise of every recording which emanated from ‘Sound City’ and the Neve, his narrative arc of the studio ultimately closing due to digital recording is an important story.  In the early 1990s digital recording began to transform the landscape of the music industry.  The revolution in digital recording and editing resulted in less need for physical studio space and the corresponding analog equipment therein.  Pro Tools digital music editing software became affordable and preferred over analog studio recording, due to ease of use and economy.  Though everyone knows that analog music sounds better (compare a CD recording with a vinyl version; the vinyl will always sound richer), digital recording is for the masses, not the few and this is why it caught on.  Digital manipulation is a good thing on one hand, due to the democratizing of music production, but the experts who utilized analog production were fine artists who have been pushed to the wayside.

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Grohl was such a fan of the Neve board that he purchased it for an undisclosed amount of money (originally priced at $75,000 in the early 1970’s) when ‘Sound City’ closed its doors.  The Neve was installed in Grohl’s home studio, so that it could be available for musicians in the future who crave analog sound.  The end portion of the film showcases artists like Stevie Nicks, Rick Springfield and even Paul McCartney recording in Grohl’s studio.  Though this film may be slightly apocryphal, witnessing the huge smile on Grohl’s face as he jams with his remaining Nirvana band mates and Sir McCartney is a true delight.

Quick Take: A Separation

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Winner of the Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film in 2012, A Separation directed by Asghar Farhadi is an Iranian film which follows the series of events which stem from a married couples’ struggle to mediate a divorce.  Many critics have hailed this film as an exemplary example of Iranian cinema, which it is, as the constraints of the Iranian film code lead directors to employ creative methods with which to deliver quality stories.  This film is positively PG, yet conveys the bitterness and turmoil which can arise from marital conflict in a completely realistic manner.  Employing handheld camera and earthly performances from actors young and old, A Separation is a film that audiences will ponder long after viewing.

From One Second To The Next – Werner Herzog’s Texting & Driving PSA

from-one-second-to-the-next-L-jHPoeLWerner Herzog has teamed up with AT&T to direct a short documentary about the dangers of texting & driving.  An unexpected partnership possibly, but the resulting film is very successful in getting the idea across that texting while driving has horrible consequences. The film gives voice to both the victims of car accidents resulting from texting & driving and those who caused the accidents. This is not an easy documentary to view; you will cry.  I am pleased that this film will be used as an educational tool in high schools and other institutions in the US because people need to be reminded that cars are dangerous and need your full attention to operate. My grandfather was a body and fender man; he owned a body shop with wrecks scattered about the yard.  I learned very young that you can fix most cars, but not a person, so you better wear your seat belt and be a safe driver.  Respect cars for the dangerous machines they are and respect your fellow human by waiting to send a text.

Quick Take: Jiro Dreams of Sushi

jiro_dreams_of_sushiDocumentaries about food have seldom been so engaging and uplifting.  Jiro Dreams of Sushi(2011) follows the operations of a miniscule sushi restaurant in Tokyo which happens to be regarded as producing the best sushi in the world.  Jiro Ono is an octogenarian who has been honing his craft of sushi-making for most of his life.  His fastidiousness, indefatigable work ethic and a passion for sushi are highlighted throughout the film with quiet care.  The relationship between Jiro’s sons (also sushi chefs) and himself brings an element of drama that is unexpected from a story about fish.  This documentary is a lovely illustration of a passionate senior and his gift to the world of meticulously-crafted sushi.

Happy Friday: Treme returns to HBO…eventually

treme_hbo1It has been announced that David Simon’s Treme will return to HBO in December 2013 for it’s final season.  Only five episodes of the New Orleans- after-Katrina program will be aired.  Read more here to find out the particulars.  Since the return has been pushed back again I urge you to borrow the previous seasons at your local library in the meantime and catch up, if you haven’t watched it yet.  I have a feeling that not many have watched this show, as I usually get blank stares when I mention it or people say, “It’s boring”. Admittedly, the show does not have the swiftest narrative, but it pays off if you stick with it.  The musical performances alone are enough to keep you watching; fantastic stuff. The cast is also exceptional; John Goodman, Khandi Alexander, Wendell Pierce, Clarke Peters, Steve Zahn and my personal favorite Phyllis Montana LeBlanc.  Ms. LeBlanc appeared in Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts and told her story of the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.  This is her first acting job and she knocks it out of the park. Treme is a little fish that swims in the sea of flash that dominates the serious television world.  But it is the prettiest of them all.