A young woman is harassed on the metro by a young man and his friend. Having verbally bullied and menaced her, her tormentor spits in her face.
A family are taken prisoner by two young men and are subjected to sadistic games that end in murder. There will be no revenge and no justice. The victims will be despatched with a flippant glee and the murderers will continue their escapades.
An apparently good and respected man, a pillar of the community, tells his lover that she is ugly and he has no feelings for her beyond using her for his own gratification. In the same idyllic village, the son of the landowner is tied up and beaten and a young disabled boy is almost blinded.
After an unspecified apocalyptic event, society breaks down into a bunch of savagely competing groups. It is a world of cruelty, violence, despair and hatred.
People do terrible things to people. Michael Haneke’s films are all essentially hate stories. His corpus of work is an anatomy of hatred: hate fuelled by post-colonial racism (Hidden, 2005), hate caused by racism pure and simple (Code Unknown, 2000), misogyny or class jealousies, misunderstandings, paranoia and anxiety. It can be provincial (The White Ribbon, 2009) or urban (Code Unknown); personal, political, familial (The Seventh Continent, 1989, and The Piano Teacher, 2002), intimate or partake of an epic historical sweep (Time of the Wolf, 2003, and The White Ribbon). It can even be a kind of hatred without hate; the unfeeling hatefulness of Funny Games (1997) and Benny’s Video (1992).
As well as showing hatred, Haneke, in his turn, has been hated. His films are uncomfortable viewing experiences to say the least. In The Guardian, Jonathan Romney accused his films of being ‘a terrorist attack on the audience’ and in a Sight & Sound review, Mark Kermode writes of Haneke’s ‘unbridled contempt’ for the audience. At first glance, Haneke might look like he belongs in the pantheon of contemporary provocateurs, such as Gaspar Noé and Lars von Trier, whose films seek to cause outright outrage in their audiences, but Haneke is much subtler than that. His films rely less on schlock, the in-your-face, taboo-breaking shot (although he can provide that as well) than on a creeping, insidious manipulation. While garnering critical praise and festival awards, Haneke’s project has often been greeted by an ambivalent critical reception. His acceptance of the best director’s award at Cannes in 2005 was emblematic as the audience responded with boos and applause in equal measure. Some of his films, such as Funny Games and its US remake, have been met with outrage: ‘a sophisticated act of cinematic sadism’ (A.O. Scott). And even his critical successes have been decried as cold, cynical and manipulative: ‘an exercise in pain’ as Mike LaSalle noted of Hidden. Haneke’s public utterances often stoke reaction rather than placating it. His famous argument that if you left during a showing of Funny Games you didn’t need the film, annoyed the hell out of everybody for its presumptuous circumscribing of all possible reactions, i.e. if you left hating the film, that’s exactly what he wanted and if you stayed then you definitely need the film (also what he wanted).
For Catherine Wheatley in her new book Michael Haneke’s Cinema: The Ethic of the Image, Haneke’s films are ‘irritating’ in a very real and intentional sense. Wheatley argues that Haneke doggedly produces an uncomfortable watching experience as each film probes and wrong-steps our own ethical presumptions. This is done in different ways. In Funny Games, our expectation of a conventional horror movie calculus (capture, torment, turning point, revenge) is consistently foiled as one of the attackers takes over the film, breaks the fourth wall (winking at the audience) and even rewinds a scene when things go wrong, the little Brechtian bastard. In Code Unknown, the audience is given privileged information (the Code Unknown of the title?) which is denied the characters. As in classical Greek tragedy, we watch helplessly as terrible events unfold, unable to intervene, our knowledge no use to anyone, helping only to make us feel worse. In both The White Ribbon and Hidden, this imbalance is reversed and it is we as the audience who lack information that the characters might be withholding, suppressing or might even themselves not know.
Although the bad things that happen in Haneke’s films often appear random, they occur within a framework of overarching moral judgement. Haneke’s films seem hell-bent on punishment of one kind or another. Although Anna’s attacker on the metro in Code Unknown cannot possibly know this, we know that she has participated in an injustice towards a beggar and the son of an immigrant earlier in the film. We also have seen her as an actress starring in an exploitative thriller about a misogynistic killer (at least this is as much as we glean). In this sense, her random attacker becomes a kind of karmic agent, a version of Jean, the thuggish relative she defended earlier in the film. By blindly defending him and not listening to the accusations against him, she is allowing a world to exist that also includes someone like her own attacker.
Likewise in The White Ribbon, the original crime that begins the film, the placing of a tripwire that brings down the doctor’s horse, giving the doctor a broken arm, is retrospectively justified by the doctor’s vile abuse of his housekeeper. The moral equivocations of the entire village, the hypocrisy of the pastor who punishes his children for impure thoughts but then refuses to act when they are implicated in a series of more serious violent crimes, foreshadows the punishment of the film’s historical aftermath: the First World War and the disastrous slide into Nazism and near annihilation.
Haneke’s films punish people with a moral rigour few would survive, and poetic justice allows for no legal defence, no humming and harring. Our discomfort as viewers is that we are rarely just viewers: we are the jury and Haneke is the executioner in a process that feels as rigged and unfair as the sadistic bet of Funny Games. Although Haneke’s films vary in language, technique, location, genre and historical period, the accused are frequently the usual suspects: a middle-class, privileged couple called Ann(a/e) and Georg(e/i/es). Anna and George retreat to their house by the lake in Funny Games with disastrous consequences. Likewise, at the beginning of Time of the Wolf, Anna and George retreat to their holiday home (with disastrous consequences). In Code Unknown and Hidden, Anne and George’s lives and assumptions are rattled /disturbed /destroyed by events that they are somehow complicit in. But do Anna and George ‘deserve’ their punishment? Or is this an Old Testament punishment, which punishes you for the presumption of expecting fairness, of expecting God to act with humanity? Is it perhaps paradoxically through witnessing hate and its consequences that we see love and feel pity?
Anna is tormented on the train by a stranger, a young Arab, but it is also a stranger, an old Arab, who, at great risk to himself, stands up and defends her. In Funny Games, despite their smugness, their yacht and their ridiculous opera guessing game, we feel pity and despair for Anna and George. There is no scene more moving than when George asks Anna’s forgiveness. Love and pity do exist, and are (perhaps) more valued and more valuable for existing in a world of punishment and hate. Even the bleak end-of-days final judgement that is Time of the Wolf ends, remarkably, with a ray of hope, and hints at salvation.