Michael Haneke: Beyond Compromise
Wood, Robin, CineAction
Prior to his masterpiece, Code Inconnu, Michael Haneke made five films as writer/director, one adaptation, and wrote one screenplay realized by another filmmaker. The Castle, though a thoroughly accomplished film in its own right, is the least interesting: an intelligent and faithful film version of Kafka's novel. Its importance in relation to the more personal films lies in the link Haneke presumably wished to make between his own work and Kafka's--at which point I should say clearly that I find Haneke's work the more interesting and productive, the more directly relevant to the quandaries we all face today: Kafka's novels induce a sense of hopelessness, Haneke's films (although profoundly pessimistic) continue to demand change, if change is still possible. What connects the two artists is a sense of a terrible, perhaps unreachable, hence undefeatable power that ultimately hangs over our lives, controls and destroys us. Those unsympathetic to Haneke (and they are many, especially since Funny Games) might link his work to Kafka's under the general label of 'paranoia'. But there is a crucial difference: in Kafka the higher power remains mysterious, inexplicable; in Haneke it is subjected to scrutiny and analysis, unmasked, named. Kafka is paranoid; Haneke is realistic.
The screenplay (realized by Paulus Manker) is another matter: The Moor's Head relates very closely to Haneke's concerns but is an altogether cruder, uglier, more simplified statement of them. It's possible (I don't know) that the screenplay was an earlier work, preceding his own films; or it's possible that Manker simplified and coarsened Haneke's vision. It differs from his own films in a number of ways: 1. It contains 'in your face 'physical horror (making it, at climactic moments, almost unwatchable); 2. It places a major burden of responsibility on the protagonist's wife (insensitive, incapable of understanding her husband's obsessions), whereas women in Haneke's films are shown to be at worst uneasily complicit (The Seventh Continent), and otherwise (Benny's Video) capable of beginning to extricate themselves from the dominant male discourse; 3. Its analysis of our predicament (if we really want to save the human race, or the planet, and defy Freud's universal death wish) is altogether too simple: ecology, although obviously of enormous importance, is not the only issue involved. Rather, the later films suggest that (as Jane Fonda asserts at the end of the Godard/Gorin Tout Va Bien) we must 'Change everything. But how? Everywhere, now.' Haneke, today, seems less optimistic about the possibility of this happening (but then so, today, does Godard).
The five films that Haneke has directed from his own screenplays fall neatly into two groups: the two multi-narrative films (71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, Code Inconnu) and the three single-narrative films (The Seventh Continent, Benny's Video, Funny Games). This article is concerned with the second group (the only three films I have available on video for repeated viewings), but I want to preface it by making the obvious connections. Chance (unpredictable encounters, people happening to be in the same place at the same time) plays a major role in the two multi-narrative works, no more than a minor one in the other group (in Funny Games it is virtually eliminated by the film's dominant character, who not only dominates the others but controls the film itself), but it is not the films' inner concern. Rather, the two films examine (one might say mercilessly scrutinize) people's reactions and their effects: the consequences of the chances, the coincidences, would have been different if those involved had reacted differently: accidents happen, yes, but what counts is how you respond, how you deal with them, the words you speak, the gestures you make. Beyond this is the films' omnipresent awareness of the pressures of modern living that partially, perhaps predominantly, determine one's behavioural choices. …