We investigate six of Austrian director and screenwriter Michael Haneke’s output, namely Caché, The White Ribbon, Funny Games, The Piano Teacher, Amour, and Happy End. Will our report be positive? Negative? Both? Neither? Tune in and find out!
Caché was the first Haneke film what I done saw and that, back in the dimly remembered Before Times of 2006, and given that I liked it, it’s a bit of a mystery why I didn’t make much on an effort to seek out the rest of his work. But I suppose that’s what we’re here to fix.
In Caché, Daniel Auteuil’s Georges Laurent and his wife, Juliette Binoche’s Anne Laurent lives a happy middle class life in Paris with their son, Lester Makedonsky’s Pierrot, which takes a turn for the sinister when a videotape shows up on their doorstep, a videotape of their doorstep, and surrounding environs. Someone is surveilling them, and wants them to know it, but apparently not keen on revealing who is doing it.
And, well, at least in terms of the plot, there’s not much more to say, other than as more tapes show up, some with crudely drawn references to events in Georges’ childhood, an atmosphere of threat and mistrust continues to grow, souring Georges and Anne’s relationship as Georges seems unwilling to share the events referenced for which he clearly harbours guilt.
Eventually this leads back to his parents, their farm and their decision to adopt Maurice Bénichou’s Majid, the son of their Algerian farmhands after they went missing in the Paris massacre of 1961. Is this a belated revenge for childhood mistreatment? Georges certainly thinks though, although by the tragic end to Majid’s tale I don’t think we can say there’s a definitive answer to whodunnit, or indeed that the matter is over.
I suppose if you were to judge this solely on the basis of being a thriller, there’s not a lot of satisfaction in that ending, but that would largely miss the point of Caché, and as a look at the way guilt can cause people to reflect on their actions, or indeed not reflect, this is a fine work, particularly given the strong parallels with Europe’s attitude on their colonial past that’s still barely being reflected on today.
All this is backed up by what will become a repeated mantra for Haneke’s work, which is to say that he’s assembled a great cast, gleaned great performances out of them, while working with the cinematographer, most frequently Christian Berger as he does here, to produce something that looks distinctive and compelling, even when it’s just the framing of an ordinary street corner.
While there’s a not a film we’ll talk about today that I wouldn’t recommend on some level, this has perhaps remained my favourite, and the easiest to recommend without caveats about mood. The most common knock on Haneke’s body of work is normally that it’s too clinical, although I think detached is a better way of putting it. There’s certainly that level of distance present in Caché, although I think that given the subject matter, and the way the film feels like it is watching you watching it, it fits better here than in the other films we’ll speak of today.
Haneke has made other films that on an individual basis might look better, or have deeper characters, or have more emotional heft, but Cache may just remain the best overall balance of Haneke-ness if you’re looking for an introduction to his work. So, challenging without being overly so, and a well put together, enjoyable film – that’s Caché. Available in all good stores now.
Das weiße Band, Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte (“The White Ribbon, a German Children’s Story), or simply The White Ribbon, takes its name from ideas found in late 19th century books on education and morality on which the film is based, in particular the idea that a white ribbon (white being the colour of purity) tied around the arm of a misbehaving or morally delinquent child would promote feelings of purity and goodness and correct their waywardness, as well as marking them out to others.
Set in a small German village between mid-1913 and the outbreak of war in mid-1914, The White Ribbon begins with a voiceover from the older version of the village’s schoolteacher, Christian Friedel, seen here as a young German Benny Hill, as he tells of the events that occurred in the village over that period, and that he thinks help to “clarify some things that happened in this country”. As none of the events, nor even the behaviour and, well, character of the characters, can have any impact on that war, and that Haneke has described the film as being about the “roots of evil”, you’ll realise I’m sure that it’s what happened to Germany after World War I that the older teacher is referencing though, despite the fascists present, it could be applied to any authoritarian society, and all of the hypocrisies it displays likewise.
The village’s doctor is severely injured when he falls from his horse returning from his daily ride. The cause of this fall is found to be a wire tied around the base of two trees across his regular route. Soon thereafter a woman dies in an accident at the sawmill, and the doctor’s accident is largely put out of mind, but is there a relation between the two events?
A number of other mysterious events occur, including fires and the severe beatings of two children. Perhaps it is Martin, the haunted and troubled-looking son of Burghart Klaußner’s puritanical local pastor, who we observe walking precariously over a drop and who tells the teacher that he gave God a chance to kill him. But maybe that’s simply because he’s an adolescent boy with the attendant urges, and his father is the sort of terrible person who would try to dissuade his child from these urges by telling him cautionary tales about a boy of the same age who wanked himself to death. (No, really. Victorians were super weird.)
A number of vignettes cover the rest of the year up until the outbreak of war, giving a slice of life of this small village and, one imagines, other rural German settlements in the early years of the 20th century, in which we observe the casual cruelty of the respected doctor to his lover, and the much more personal cruelty to his daughter whom he is abusing; the entirely typical lack of love and empathy displayed by a man whose teachings and religion are based on someone extolling the virtues of love and empathy; apparent death by suicide; marital breakdown; and the schoolteacher’s courting of the Baroness’s nanny (it’s not all bleak and terrible, just mostly).
I have seen The White Ribbon described as too simplistic, the suggestion being “naïvely so”, and that it unsatisfyingly suggests everyone is to blame for the evils in which the film foreshadows. This is a nonsensical criticism. Of course it doesn’t explain the rise of fascism: it’s a two and a half hour film, it’s barely possible to adequately explain anything in that time, let alone how one of the world’s most technologically and culturally advanced nations could incubate and then birth one of the most poisonous and harmful ideologies in human history.
What it does do, in my opinion, is portray and highlight some of the everyday, mundane evils that, left unchecked or unmodified, lead to greater evils and harm (applicable to any ideology that creates fear of “the other” and encourages or even demands unthinking obedience, not simply fascism), and question what we will give up for security or stability (whether that be financial or civil), and what we are willing to turn a blind eye to to achieve that.
It’s not an entirely successful film: while I have already mentioned Michael Haneke’s filmmaking philosophy and his disdain for neatness, sometimes a little neatness might be nice. Throughout The White Ribbon is the question of who is responsible for the mysterious accidents and cruel assaults. The strong suggestion is that it’s the children of the village, led by the pastor’s daughter, Klara, to whom the other children seem subservient, punishing others for not playing along or for being different, but it’s never explicitly confirmed. And that might be fine if the rest of the film’s narrative wasn’t largely reducible to “some mostly unrelated stuff that happened”.
But that’s a minor complaint and certainly doesn’t much detract from the film’s power, nor its stark, cold beauty (shot by Haneke’s regular cinematographer, Christian Berger). It’s uncompromising, riveting and rewarding, if incredibly cynical.
I am going to do Funny Games dirty, I think, in as much as I knew the trick of it long before watching it. And I think the film, and presumably the later remake, would work much better without knowing that, and therefore I caution you, gentle listener, about progressing further if you haven’t seen it, and although it’s a 1997 joint, that just means there’s a generation of people who might not have heard of it. Consider yourself suitably bespoilerwarned.
The well-heeled Schober family, Anna, Georg, and Georg Jr. played by Susanne Lothar, Ulrich Mühe, and Stefan Clapczynski, head off to their lakeside holiday home, boat in tow. Before they’ve had a chance to do so much as settle in, they are bothered by Peter and Paul, Frank Giering and Arno Frisch, supposedly to borrow a few eggs on behalf of their neighbours.
That is not their real intention, as they begin a violent home invasion that’s initially straight out of a slasher movie, were it not for the moments where Paul launches another invasion, through the fourth wall. In terms of the plot recaps, I suppose home invasion, with the terrified family trying to escape and suffering violent indignities for it is pretty much all you need. Soon the more interesting aspect is that there fourth wall endangerment, and I suppose the attempt at making the audience complicit in the suffering of the characters.
Frankly I feel that might be a little too generous a spin on it, particularly as Haneke himself apparently calls this an incredibly violent, but otherwise pointless film. I’m not even sure it’s technically all that violent, as almost all of the violence and the most shocking acts occur off camera, which arguably gives them more impact than a graphic close up as might be seen in the horror flicks I presume he’s critiquing.
The very act of smashing the fourth wall in such a manner means that Haneke is again keeping us at arms length from the characters and their struggles, and certainly for me knowing this was the real funny game of the film definitely kept me from being even slightly invested in it, even in the early running, so any sucker punch this might have brought to the audience was scouted and negated. Which does leave this film feeling, well, pointless. So, um, yay?
I don’t quite know how to take Funny Games in the abstract – I’ve seen it said it’s a criticism of the Germanic Heimatfilm, homeland-films, although it seems as well tailored to be a complete rejection of horror film tropes and concepts. Which of course I completely agree with, it’s a trash genre for trash people, but I’m not sure Funny Games would be convincing anyone else of this.
I will add again that the Haneke table stakes are suitably met, even in this relatively early outing, with solid turns in front of and behind the camera. It’s just that the film that’s been so precisely made seems to have no precise point. It’s an interesting conversation piece, I suppose, and a fairly audacious thing to sneak in front of audiences, but I’m not sure it’s going to last in my mind all that long. A somewhat caveated recommendation, then, but it’s more likely to land with the audience of people who listen to movie podcasts than general audiences I would think, so on that basis give it a look.
A little while ago on the podcast we talked about the French film La cérémonie, during which discussion Craig voiced his long-held reservations about the French. I demurred at the time, in part due to my personal experience with the French, but mostly because I reserve my reservations and suspicions for the Germanic peoples, it being generally only a matter of time before something weird or horrendously inappropriate happens (I don’t think I’m ever getting Der Architekt out of my memory, sad to say).
Haneke is perhaps less directly to blame for that weirdness here in La pianiste, or The Piano Teacher, as it is, amongst his feature film work, unique in being the only work that is an adaptation rather than written by him, the source for this being a novel by the Nobel Prize-winning Austrian writer, Elfriede Jelinek.
Here is perhaps the opportune time to mention Haneke’s personal philosophy, despite most of his TV films being adaptations, that adaptations of novels don’t work, and that stories written specifically for cinema are the most successful as the two mediums are quite different. I don’t entirely disagree with him, but there are, of course, exceptions, though I do agree with him in his belief that the writer (or writers) are by far the most important part of any film, and Haneke considers himself a writer more than a director. It is, then, little surprise that Haneke subscribes to auteur theory, something I myself largely do not, film generally being far too complex and collaborative a medium, but this director may be one of the exceptions: certainly, despite it being an adaptation of another’s work, The Piano Teacher is definitely a Michael Haneke film.
The film itself is about Isabelle Huppert’s Erika Kohut, the titular piano teacher, a French woman living in Vienna with her mother (this whole “German weirdness” thing begins early with the revelation that, for some reason, mother and daughter unnecessarily share a bedroom), who teaches aspiring adolescents to play piano, as well as teaching more advanced, talented students in a very competitive masterclass at a musical academy.
One of these advanced students is Walter Klemmer (Benoît Magimel), an engineering student who, after becoming infatuated with Erika at a recital, gives up his studies to enter her masterclass. At the risk of sounding crass, that’s not all he wants to enter, and he attempts to seduce Erika. Erika’s own proclivities and tastes, most of which are in the realm of sadomasochism, prevent her from having a straightforward relationship with Walter, and he seems disgusted by her desires.
It is generally bad form to yuck someone’s yum, but it’s hard not to here because Erika’s pretty damn weird, beginning with sniffing the used tissues in a sex shop’s viewing room and going on from there. In addition, she’s also rather evil, cruelly punishing one of her students for the crime of being near Walter, but none of this excuses the ordeal that she is put through in the film’s climax as a frustrated and angry Walter enacts a twisted version of the fantasies that she had confessed to him.
“Good” is, of course, a particularly subjective term, but I’d argue that most, if not all, of these films are objectively interesting, and The Piano Teacher is one such. It is not traditionally “entertaining” (and intentionally not so), and the ending may frustrate some people, but how do you end a film like this, about this complex, troubled and lonely person? The story is not neat, because life is not neat.
I watched a very interesting discussion with Haneke that was included on the Blu-ray for his most recent film, Happy End, which we will talk about later, in which he described his approach to filmmaking, and why he refuses to tie his narratives up in a satisfying little bow. He said, “in general, that’s what bothers me about the cinema. The world gets explained. But the world is too complex and contradictory to be explained in a two-hour film or a 200-page book.” It’s something worth bearing in mind when watching or talking about the Austrian’s films.
To return to this film, Isabelle Huppert in particular is superb, and amongst the supporting cast there are many standouts, but most particularly Annie Girardot as Erika’s controlling and supremely hateable mother. I can’t say that I “enjoyed” The Piano Teacher but I found it engaging and interesting, though I am puzzled as to the setting: why is the film set in Vienna? The city plays little role in the events, and so too does the fact that Erika and her mother are immigrants as all of the dialogue is in French. All that it provides is a chance for Haneke to work again with previous collaborators like Susanne Lothar and other German actors, and then have to very awkwardly dub them because they don’t speak French. Bizarre.
2012’s Amour is Haneke’s most critically regarded work, all the way up to the Oscars, and in a lot of ways feels like Haneke’s direct response to critics of his usual working style like what I’ve been doing in this podcast. Certainly, it’s his most intimate and involving work.
In Paris, Jean-Louis Trintignant’s Georges Laurent and Emmanuelle Riva’s Anne Laurent play happily married, retired octogenarian piano teachers, whose lives become a lot more complicated when Anne undergoes a stroke. One botched artery surgery later, she’s left paralysed on her right side and stuck in a wheelchair, but wants to remain in their home, not a hospital or care home. Georges promises this, and sets about the task of full time carer.
Without minimising the events of the film, narratively speaking that set-up will tell you most of what you need, with life becoming more stressful and less enjoyable for both Anne and Georges first by slivers, already enough to drive Anne to contemplate suicide, then by jumps as Anne suffers a second stroke and is left with severe dementia.
It’s a powerful look at love and responsibility, up to and including Georges final duty, or act of love, or crime, depending on how you view these things, and I’m not here to interpret that for you. Given the subject matter, it’s not a film I can say I enjoyed, but it’s a film that I, and I’m sure you, will appreciate for it’s many moments of warmth, and of tragedy, and heartbreak, but all tempered with a contemplation of what it means to have shared a lifetime to be with someone.
I feel like I should have a lot more to say on this, but I don’t, really. Again, the Haneke table stakes of it looking great are there, although I suppose even by his standards he’s got incredible performances from the cast, of course Trintignant and Riva prime amongst them. It’s a hell of a film, and its acclaim is well earned. There’s none of Haneke’s films that aren’t in some way challenging, mostly I find in the sense of actually connecting with the characters and events of the film. It’s interesting, then, to find this challenging for the exact opposite reason.
Great filmmaking, but not of the type that will leave you on a high note.
Haneke’s most recent film as of recording is the French film Happy End which, in a shocking departure, features a bourgeois family. I know. And they say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Feeling weirdly like an oblique continuation of Amour thanks to a number of characters and referenced events (though actually not related at all), it stars Isabelle Huppert as Anne Laurent (Huppert has managed to pull off the remarkable trick of not seeming to have aged at all in the near two decades since The Piano Teacher, or possibly even aged backwards slightly), the boss of a construction firm in the northern French city of Calais.
The film begins with two disasters: a young girl documents a practice run of feeding her mother’s sedatives to her pet hamster before doping her mother, leading to her hospitalisation due to overdose, which results in the girl, Eve (Fantine Harduin), being sent to stay with her philandering father and his new wife; and a retaining wall collapsing at one of the family’s firm’s construction sites, nearly killing a worker.
Anne, her brother, Thomas (Matthieu Kassovitz) and his wife, Anaïs, and her father, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) live together in separate apartments in one large house. (And yes, that’s right, there are characters called Anne and Georges Laurent, and an Eva, a recurring trait the BFI describes as being “typical of [Haneke’s] taste for intertextual jokiness” but I less charitably consider “being useless at coming up with names”.) Also here is Anne’s son, Pierre (played by the French Joaquin Phoenix). There’s also Toby Jones, every now and then, as Anne’s fiancé. And… ????
Happy End (which you have no doubt guessed is an ironic title and contains no such thing) feels in a number of ways like Amour minus any sympathy. We’ve talked a lot about Haneke’s lack of completed narratives, but it’s only here that it really feels like a problem, that, finally, that particular trait has run out of steam, because here is where there is so little else to occupy the mind or fuel the imagination.
There’s a murder, with a horrible little murderer and we know from the beginning who it is, but there’s no Columbo to catch her out. The family is dysfunctional but not particularly noteworthy or engaging. Pierre is a screw-up but singularly uninteresting, and while Jean-Louis Trintignant is expectedly excellent, his character’s desire to die seems to be related not to illness or infirmity but to… boredom? There’s some suggestion Georges has dementia, but if so it’s early, and could just as easily be the forgetfulness that comes with being 85 – certainly it’s not cut and dried.
The most interesting part of the film is, alas, one of the smallest parts, and that is the Moroccan couple who are the Laurents’ cooks and housekeepers. There is so much potential there, with racism in France as well as the country’s post-colonial heritage (including Pierre embarrassing the woman, Jamila, at Georges’ birthday party by calling her their “Moroccan slave” and the husband, Rachid, willing to overlook the family’s dog biting their daughter and play the loyal servant, over fear of losing his job), and yet it almost seems incidental, despite the clearly purposeful setting of Calais and a reference to the Jungle, the migrant camp near the entrance to the Channel Tunnel.
The family are, perhaps, amoral, but it’s not a defining trait, and themes we’ve seen before of the cruelty or the abuse of power of the rich or influential are hinted at but not significant. Bleak and cynical an aspect as many of his other films may seem to have, they also contain humanity, but that’s noticeably lacking here, and is probably the film’s biggest failing. Meh.
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