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.  


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.


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.


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.


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.


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