Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Ranking Michael Haneke

I have been busy in the past week – first week back at work after 6 months of paternity leave and planning my annual TIFF expedition – so my apologies for lack of activity here. While planning my TIFF trip, I put two films as my “Must Sees” – P.T. Anderson’s The Master, and Michael Haneke’s Amour. Sadly, I did not get a ticket for The Master – but I did get one for Amour. This gives me an excuse to look back at the films of Michael Haneke, who has made quite a name for himself over the past two decades as Europe’s premier film provocateur (yes, more than Lars von Trier, who’s pretty damn good at it himself). I haven’t seen Haneke’s vast amount of TV work, or his adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Castle, which has proven hard to find. I have seen his other 10 films however, and I present them to you ranked from 9-1 (yes, that’s odd, but read the list, and it makes sense immediately). All are worth at least a look.

9. Funny Games (1997/2007)
I include both of Haneke’s versions of Funny Games in one spot because they are essentially the same film – one just happens to be in English and the other not, but the 2007 American version has the same dialogue, and is pretty much a shot for shot remake of his original. Both films are effective, and yet I must say I find both films to be rather juvenile. Haneke himself has indicated that he sees Funny Games as a test – those who do not need to see the film, will walk out – while those who do need it, will stay to the bitter end. The movie is about two preppy looking teenagers who come to the summer house of an affluent couple and their son. They start out nice – perhaps too nice, as something is not right about them – and then proceed to put the family through their own warped “games”, which start innocently – seeing how many eggs they can get them to give them – and eventually will proceed to torture and murder. Haneke’s point is all this is happening only because we are watching – he has one of the killers wink at the audience at some point – and he’s trying to get the audience to acknowledge their own bloodlust – get them to admit that they want to see the family murder their torturers – which the father is able to do at one point, shooting one of their captors, but since that isn’t part of the plan, the other one picks up the TV remote, and rewinds the action so that it didn’t happen. Haneke has a point, but it’s an easy and crude one, and frankly, it is beneath him. That said, both films are well made and well acted – and strangely if you’re only going to see one (and truth be told, if you see one, there really is no reason to see the other one), I’d go with the American remake, as I think Naomi Watts and Michael Pitt are brilliant in the film, and elevate the material a little bit. I guess Funny Games served his purpose – it was his international breakthrough back in 1997 – and allowed him to go on to bigger and better things.

8. 71 Fragments from a Chronology of Chance (1994)
Looking back at it now, Haneke’s third feature seems more like a dry run for his later, better film Code Unknown. Here, the action starts with a bank robbery where three people are murdered, and the 19 year old culprit commits suicide. Haneke than flashes back to give us precisely what the title implies – 71 scenes, some long, some short, that shows how everyone ended up at that bank at that time. Haneke takes shots at his favorite targets – alienation, media saturation and violence – as he coldly and calculatingly moves towards the movies conclusion that we already know from the first scene, giving the whole movie a feeling of dread and inevitability. This is a skilled, meticulously crafted film, but it’s on that point forward, to the greatness Haneke would later achieve.

7. The Time of the Wolf (2003)
The opening of The Time of the Wolf, recalls Funny Games, as a family shows up at their summer home. But instead of the idyllic vacation they were planning on, they find the house already occupied by squatters – who murder the patriarch, and send Isabelle Huppert and her children out into the wilderness. It appears that while the family was travelling to their summer home, the world has essentially collapsed, and Huppert and her kids have to struggle to maintain their sanity, and hold onto some sort of normalcy and hope – eventually they wind up with many others waiting at a train station for a train they are told will eventually show up. This is a story of man’s own self destruction – it is largely implied that humans are responsible for whatever this “apocalypse” is. Yet as grim as most of this film is – and the first, terrifying hour is better than the second, more philosophical one – this strangely may be Haneke’s most hopeful film. While no one is saved at the end of The Time of the Wolf, that last shot really does seem to looking out the window of a moving train.

6. Benny’s Video (1992)
Haneke’s second film may be a little bit obvious, but that doesn’t distract from its disturbing power. The film opens with a fuzzy VHS tape playing the killing of a pig with one of those bolt guns. We soon pull back, and are inside Benny’s room. Benny is a young teenager; with a successful money making scheme at school, who has filled his room with video equipment and TVs – this is how he sees the world, through these things. When watching horror movies and atrocities on the news grows tiresome for him – he picks up a girl at a local video store, and brings her back to his room – to make his own violent video. His parents are clueless as to how damaged their son is until it is far too late – and then they try to cover for him, which will cost them, again, because of Benny. The movie, like most of Haneke’s early work is about isolation and our collected media fixation, and while it could be said that Haneke’s point is an obvious one, it doesn’t really distract from this disturbing film.

5. Code Unknown (2000)
As mentioned before, Haneke’s 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance really seems to be like a dry run for the themes and structure of Code Unknown – an even better film, where Haneke perfected what he was trying to do. The movie is still a series of seemingly interconnected scenes that leads to a final shocking act – but Haneke has refined the technique, giving his characters more depth and more interest. He also managed to get Juliette Binoche in his film as an actress, who may not be as liberal as she thinks she is. And the shocking act here is much less deadly than in the previous film, and yet just as shocking. In many ways, it feels like Code Unknown was the film Haneke had being trying to make up throughout the 1990s – and when he finally nailed it, he was able to move on.

4. The Seventh Continent (1989)
Strangely, Haneke’s first feature, The Seventh Continent, is more confident and subtle than most of his films he made in the following decade. The film centers on a middle class couple named Georg and Anna (like all of Haneke’s films), who along with their daughter Eva, seem to live a normal, happy existence. And then one day, for no reason, they decide to throw it all away and kill themselves. Before they do, they decide to empty their bank accounts, and destroy everything they own. Haneke gives no reason why the decided to do this, although the film heavily implies that it has to do with isolation and the alienating effects of the modern world – showing us  a day of their lives in both 1987 and 1988, which are basically the same thing, before they decide to do what they do in 1989. The Seventh Continent is a chilling film – and showed right off the bat just how good Haneke could be.

3. The White Ribbon (2009)
The White Ribbon is a black and white visual masterpiece – and one of the most haunting films in recent years. It takes place in a small German village just before the outbreak of WWI. Everyone plays the role they are supposed to – and in fact, almost all of the adult characters are never really given names, just job descriptions, and they do what they must. Then a series of disturbing incidents start to happen – people are hurt or killed, a barn burns down. This shocks the community because nothing like this has happened before – and yet, it doesn’t appear that one person could possibly have done everything that has been done. What the hell is happening? Haneke, like he often does, never really explains the mystery of who did what in The White Ribbon – I think, because he really doesn’t care. The movie is not really about what happens, but the effect of what happens on the village – as the people with power start to take a strangle hold of the village, and freedom is sacrificed for security. The film has been read by many as Haneke’s explanation as to how the Nazis rose to power – after all, the children in this movie, would be the right age to be Hitler’s followers two decades later. But it is wider than that – and deeper. And as such, it is one of the most disturbing films in recent memory.

2. The Piano Teacher (2001)
Haneke was already a director of note when he made The Piano Teacher in 2001 – and which won three prizes at Cannes (The Grand Jury Prize, and one each for Actor and Actress), but this was the film that showed he was a master. This may well be Haneke’s most disturbing film – a film about a buried madness that shows itself slowly, although doesn’t fully explain its roots. It stars the great Isabelle Huppert as a 40-something piano instructor at a prestigious conservatory, who outwardly appears hard and cold. And yet, she visits porn shops to indulge in some of her darker fantasies, and then goes home and sleeps in the same bed as her mother. We know there is something wrong with her. But one of her students, played by Benoit Magimel, does not know that, and sets about trying to seduce her – and has no idea what he is getting himself into, as while she is certainly willing to play sexual games, they were not the ones he was thinking of. The Piano Teacher is disturbing in the extreme in its look at these two people – but especially at Huppert’s character, who in one of the best screen performances of the decade, completely owns this movie, and her disturbed and disturbing character. A lot of people hate The Piano Teacher – I understand that – but it is a great movie.

1. Cache (2005)
To this point in Haneke’s career, Cache is his masterpiece. It is a haunting and disturbing film, about the sins of the past being coming back to haunt you – and in a nation as well. It stars Daniel Auteil and Juliette as (you guessed it) an upper middle class couple, who seemingly have a near perfect life in Paris, with their teenage son. And then something disturbing starts happening. They find a videocassette on their doorstep – and it shows the front door of their home, seemingly taken from a camera standing still for hours on end. And then another video surfaces. Autiel is forced to try and figure out what is going on and why. How does a camera sit there for hours on end, and why does no one seemingly notice it? The answer, if indeed the film even provides one, is haunting. Cache has one of the most shocking moments in modern movies, that we think may explain everything, but then again, maybe it doesn’t. The same could be said for the final shot in the movie, that shows two people who shouldn’t know each other, but somehow do – but even that raises more questions than it answers, as it appears to be yet another videotape from the same source. Haneke’s films are often intricate puzzles and ones where he places far more value on the mysteries than the solutions. Cache is his greatest achievement – and one of the great films of the last 10 years.

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