Michael Haneke and the Discontents of European Culture

By Sharrett, Christopher | Framework, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Michael Haneke and the Discontents of European Culture


Sharrett, Christopher, Framework


At the risk of being perceived as pointlessly creating a straw man out of a very distinguished critic, I would like to preface these remarks on Michael Haneke by commenting first on Robin Wood's thoughts in Sexual Politics and Narrative Film concerning the nature of fascism and what he terms, borrowing from Norman O. Brown, the struggle of life against death, represented by an unrepressed, creative civilization versus fascism and its various institutions functioning as agents of repression. In one subsection of his introductory remarks, in which he complements sectors of cultural resistance to the fascist complexion of our current society, Wood writes "In Praise of Yo-Yo Ma," about the distinguished cellist whose video of his teaching sessions at the Tanglewood music festival Wood screened while writing Sexual Politics. Wood is a dedicated student of classical music, and a devotee of Bach and Mozart, whose works he counts among the greatest achievements of humanity. Wood praises not only Yo-Yo Ma's extraordinary mastery of Bach, but his apparent openness and congeniality in the Tanglewood session, an expression, in Wood's mind, of the values antithetical to fascism. Wood writes, "Let him stand as the perfect paradigm of the human being in his/her creative flowering, from which all taint of the fascist mindset is totally absent."1

Was there absolutely no evidence with which Wood could anticipate Yo-Yo Ma's joining U.S. Secretary of State-then National Security Advisor-Condoleeza Rice in concert at the April 2002 National Humanities Medal Ceremony, the two playing the adagio to Brahms's Sonata for Violin and Piano in D Minor? Mrs. George Bush introduced the performance, saying that Yo-Yo Ma and "Doctor" Rice, would "play it as a prayer for peace." Rice, of course, is a key operative in the current U.S. state murder apparatus, and a perpetrator of one of the worst genocidal wars of conquest of recent U.S. imperialism. Did Yo-Yo Ma at the time of his collaboration with Rice not understand Rice's relationship to power? Did Yo-Yo Ma, an intelligent man, not know of the ambitions of state power? Did he feign a familiar apolitical posture in order to maintain his position within dominant culture? (One might note that while there is a good argument, one offered in large measure by the Frankfurt School and Raymond Williams, that classical music is a healthy antidote to a degraded culture industry, the classics have seldom been seen as adversarial in nature, or in any sense threatening to state and private power.) I have little doubt that Robin Wood would not hesitate to analyze the Yo-Yo Ma/Rice performance and its implications. My point is that Wood's appreciation of Yo-Yo Ma, and many of his very well-reasoned appraisals of classical music generally, repeat to some degree reactionary and always popular refrains about the importance of the Western "canon," and how one's mastery of this culture essentially guarantees the construction of a humane self, a "better person." His praise of the famous cellist seems to take for granted Yo-Yo Ma's political worldview solely on the basis of his artistic accomplishment, and an attendant congeniality which can hardly be accepted as an index of his humanity.

Certainly Michael Haneke doesn't partake of such illusions. His sense of the limits of culture, its role in simultaneously offering awareness while enforcing bourgeois notions of human interaction, is a major concern of all of his films. I have been reevaluating some of my initial analyses of his most accomplished work thus far, La Pianiste/The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke, FR/AT, 2001) (although Caché challenges seriously this evaluation); my conversation with Haneke has assisted this reevaluation and disabused me of some assumptions.2 La Pianiste may be the most important study of repression and its consequences yet portrayed in narrative fiction film, but while I initially intended this paper to revisit the specifics of Haneke's delineation of the dynamics of repression (two earlier pieces on the film sketch this issue),3 I find that my understanding of Haneke benefits from mapping the framework of his overall vision, particularly his conception of the crisis of western patriarchal capitalist society as represented by its culture. …

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