Michael Haneke's aesthetics of shame and terror

By Megan Cerminaro

I'm looking at you
My mother and I have been avid “theater-hoppers” since I was a child. Even though we’re sort of cinema snobs, we’ll generally see anything, anywhere and at any time. And we especially like to catch Hollywood’s trashiest genre by reputation and actual product, the horror film. Seeing people sliced and diced on the silver screen is a great way to catch up on mother-daughter time, and when we spotted the poster for Michael Haneke’s American version of Funny Games, starring Naomi Watts, Tim Roth and Michael Pitt, we thought, “Why not? Let’s grab some popcorn, some sodas and soak up a few blood-soaked scares.” I can’t quite remember whether we ambled or shuffled into the theater, but that was the last carefree moment of that particular day or week or month. What we saw, all one hundred and eleven minutes of it, was not another standard slasher film, but a relentless attack on the very impulses that brought us into the theater in the first place. Haneke had caught us and once he had us he wasn’t going to let us go. I can still remember my mother relentlessly asking over and over again: “Why did we go see that movie?” It’s a question I’ve asked myself ever since, and I ask it not because the movie was exciting or scary, though it was both, but because it made me feel shame. I was ashamed by what I had seen, and I wanted to know more about the filmmaker responsible.
Haneke is Austrian. Born in 1942, he was raised in Munich, Germany and later studied at the University of Vienna in philosophy, psychology and drama. He has a reputation for making dark, terrifying and unenjoyable films. If there’s a Haneke method, it seems rooted in the seductive or addictive nature of looking and especially looking to know, to find out or learn about experiences and feelings that should remain private. He dares us to look away, to hide from what we so obviously, whether we own up to it or not, want to see. It’s this contrary impulse that underlies many of his film’s most disturbing moments, and it’s important to note that we close our eyes, not because the images are disturbing (that would be simple and operate along the lines of the conventional horror film), but because we can’t stand our own desires, our own imaginations. Haneke is a master at calculating what should and shouldn’t be shown. It sounds easy, but the results are complex and horrible. In a 2010 online interview for, he explained some of the logic of his method: “By showing or not showing certain situations, you can make a film unbearable for the audience. If you reach this, your film will be more than just consumed. I don’t want to say that I do not enjoy consuming good entertainment, but I think that it really depends on your topic and whether the film should be consumable or not. And if you want to talk about a problematic topic, the film itself should do justice to that.” Unlike many filmmakers, Haneke has a method and a purpose; it’s nothing less than using cinema as a form of moral probing and questioning.
What's happening!
Haneke first struck a nerve with filmgoers when the original German-language Funny Games was released in 1997. Haneke’s deliberate and rather gleeful (?) choice to force the audience into the role of an active character was met with widespread disapproval. Many critics missed Haneke’s purpose. Richard Roeper from Ebert & Roeper whined, “The fact that it features fine performances, talented direction and some moments of genuine suspense only makes the end product that much more grotesque and appalling.” Other critics were as equally confused and ashamed as my mother and I were when we saw the remake. David Edelstein from New York magazine describes his experience with the film: “I watched to the end, removed the DVD from the player, and snapped it over my knee. Then, with a pair of scissors, I cut the halves into quarters, walked the pieces to the kitchen garbage can, and shoved them under the debris of the previous night’s dinner. It only hit me later that my melodramatic response would have delighted the director. It takes a special kind of talent to drive a critic who enjoys zombie cannibal pictures to cry, ‘Unclean!’” A decade later he duplicated the stunt for American audiences with a shot-for-shot remake that sparked the same negative reactions as the German original. This Austrian is as precise as a Swiss watch in his ability to provoke audience disgust and shame. Through the use of stark realism, the destruction of the fourth wall and an antic disregard for any kind of hope for “happily ever after,” Haneke takes a conventional Hollywood narrative and forces us to see how much we participate in the “writing” and “producing” of it. It’s as if he’s saying, “This is what you want, and I’m just fulfilling your desires, no matter how sick and twisted they are.”

We should answer his questions
Both versions of Funny Games revolve around the same idealized and archetypal family shell: husband, wife, son and loyal dog. On a peaceful lakeside retreat, this family soon falls under the sadistic control of two, seemingly normal, young men with a knack for senseless violence. Their apparent lack of motive for torturing the innocent family wanes in comparison to their constant acknowledgment that they know that we’re watching them. Starting with brief winks at the camera, the two antagonists begin addressing the audience face on, pummeling us with question after question. In one scene, the killers propose a bet to the family that by morning all three of them will be dead. Then one of the young men turns to the camera and asks, “What do you think? Think they stand a chance? Well you’re on their side, aren’t you?” Breaking the fourth wall, Haneke speaks through his characters and asks us to stop and assess what truly brought us to the theater. The question, “you’re on their side, aren’t you?” catches us off guard. It’s assumed that we are, that we don’t side with murdering sadists, but if we didn’t why are we watching Funny Games or any horror film for that matter? It’s a good question, even if it comes from a killer.

Haneke’s breakthrough international hit, The Piano Teacher, is another, perhaps more sophisticated, example of his ability to turn us into unwilling spectators. The film follows Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert), a stoic piano professor, who teaches at a Vienna music conservatory. When a young and talented student catches her attention, she pursues him in the hope that he might fulfill her secret desire for violent, sadomasochistic sex. Unable to control and come to terms with her desires, she soon finds herself in a disastrous situation. When he could so easily take advantage of sensationalist sex and graphic horror, Haneke is almost discrete in his lack of detail, retraining us in what and how we expect desires like Kohut’s to be represented. He told in 2010 that “ the creaking of stairs is much more exciting than the monster itself.”

You can't always get what you want,,,Wait! You can
At one crucial moment, the camera doesn’t move, it just stays with a medium shot. Kohut’s relentless pursuit of her student to sexually humiliate her finally drives him to break into her house and abuse her. Although this is what she wanted all along, the scene is starkly disturbing in Kohut’s sudden realization that she’s going to get what she what she really wants. The beauty of the scene is that Haneke’s placement of the camera keeps the violence just off camera. By doing so, we’re put in a vulnerable position. We’re witnessing something we shouldn’t and feel guilty; and yet we can’t get as close, or for that matter, as far away as we’d like. Again, Haneke is horribly precise in how he manipulates our desire to see and forces us to realize how complicit we are in what’s happening on the screen. It’s both incriminating and emotionally distancing. We never know enough, and Haneke is careful never to allow us to fully understand the motives of Kohut or any of his characters for that matter. His rejection of explanatory techniques, such as voice-overs or internal dialogue, puts us in an emotional void. We feel, but we don’t know why. We’re clearly in a relationship with these characters, but it’s not because we sympathize with or even understand their actions. It’s just happening and, sadly, we want more of the worst. In fact, that’s why we keep watching.

Caché, or “Hidden,” works in much the same way as The Piano Teacher. It revolves around a content Parisian family. Aren’t they all content? The family starts to crumble once surveillance tapes of the exterior of their residence start appearing at their doorstep. Caché’s plot comes down to the simple notion that someone, somewhere is watching you. If you happen to be a character in a movie, it’s even truer. We experience the deterioration of the family’s privacy and on top of that we actively participate in destroying it. The more they want to shield themselves, the more we want to know. The tapes are just a red herring for Haneke’s real game, which is to get us to participate in the destruction of people we should be rooting for. Just like Funny Games and The Piano Teacher, Haneke holds back on the depictions of overt violence, ratcheting up the tension until we need a true act of violence just to end the tension. It’s a horrible moment and leaves you with a horrible feeling. Just as Kohut’s motives remain unclear in The Piano Teacher, the characters in Caché are similarly ambiguous and that makes their downfall all the more unnerving and real, especially since we’re kind of, you know, actively hoping for it to happen.

Does that unnerve you?
Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2009) also utilizes similar tactics. Set in a small rural town in pre-World War I Germany, a series of strange events, which appear to be punishing in nature, strike the community. It is clear that the sexually suppressed youth are involved. Just as in Funny Games, The Piano Teacher and Caché, The White Ribbon manipulates us by merely recognizing that we are watching and calling attention to how we watch. It makes the film horribly claustrophobic and the claustrophobia is compounded by the film’s thematic concerns. Shot in a cold and gorgeous black and white, Haneke both distances and tempts us at the same time. This detachment leaves little room to breathe or escape from the sinister events that unfold. Haneke’s depiction of guilt and punishment places us in a cage in which we question the very motivations that brought us into the theater in the first place. However, The White Ribbon stands out from his other films through his use of heavily loaded and historically significant subject matter. You can’t watch The White Ribbon and not think that these kids are going to make great Nazis, as they very soon will be. In a way, Haneke constrains himself by focusing on such an over-determined point in history. It steers the audience to certain conclusions too quickly, not leaving enough to our imagination. It’s interesting that a specific historical moment should cripple Haneke’s abilities to manipulate the audience and points to certain limitations in his aesthetics. Still, it’s an interesting film, if not wholly successful.

Taking home the Oscar for Best Foreign Feature this year, Haneke’s most recent film, Amour, seems to stand out from his other films, at least in subject matter. It’s merely about an elderly couple and they are neither sadists nor hiding dark secrets. However, when examined closer, Amour is very much a Haneke film. We slip into the private world of an elderly couple facing the inevitability of decline and death. Amour confronts one of the most universally avoided topics—death and the fact that there is nothing to be done about it. With the opening scene depicting the police breaking into the couple’s home, only to find the wife dead in a bed decorated with flowers, the rest of the film is a flashback leading up to that point.
Am I bothering you? Am I a trespasser?
The movie slowly explores the events that lead to this moment, which are presented as a series of intrusions upon and against the very private act of dying. One of the main intruders is the couple’s daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert). As she continues to visit her dying mother, she becomes frustrated that her father won’t put her mother in an assisted living home. Becoming more and more agitated, she fails to see her parent’s acceptance of the approaching end that both they and we know is going to happen. Just as in his previous films Haneke places us in the role of malicious intruders, in Amour he reminds us of that over and over again, building the story of the film off of nothing more than a series of trespasses. Set solely in the couple’s apartment, the film is paced by the various interruptions upon a person’s last moments of life.

The audience is once again pushed into the position of the sadistic voyeur; however, instead of shuddering at cruel acts of unspeakable violence or sadism, it is the blunt presentation of the inevitability of dying that hits the hardest. The one scene in Amour that doesn’t take place in the apartment happens when the couple attends a music recital. We are never shown the stage or the source of music. Instead the camera faces the audience, mirroring the spectators on screen with those in the fictional realm of the film. We are viewing the main characters of the film as they gaze at us through the screen, tightening their grip on our emotional investment in the movie, as well as our ability to critically ponder the agonizing events that unfold. With this most recent cinematic creation, Haneke has mastered his puppeteer skills in order to will his audience into shameful self-reflection, yet again.

Really look, really really look and then you will see
©CCA Arts Review and Megan Cerminaro

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