There can scarcely be a living filmmaker more revered, more reviled, or more persistently misunderstood than Austria’s Michael Haneke. For some, he embodies a heroic refusal to compromise, an almost spiritual austerity, both formally and ideologically; others cherish him as one of the more elegant purveyors of shock cinema; still others seem to view him—even now, as he nears his eighty-first birthday, and as his films have become more expansive, more nuanced, more palpably human—as a creator of rarefied BDSM. College kids watch his films for the bragging rights; American critics tend to treat him, even in their most flattering reviews, as some peculiarly Germanic type of morbid aberration. Reviewing his 1997 succès de scandale, Funny Games, J. Hoberman wrote: “His movies are founded on the denial of catharsis, and, to compound the creepiness, Haneke insists he is occupying the moral high ground . . . The wheel is rigged so only Haneke can win.”
The wheel is always rigged, of course. We cry when Bambi’s mother dies, laugh when the Little Tramp splits his pants, cheer when Brad Pitt carves a swastika into a Nazi’s forehead. Even the most innocuous-seeming news report plays on our sympathies and moral preferences in calculated ways. To exist as a consumer of media in any form is to submit to the agenda of the existing power structure, and thus to be complicit in its many crimes, both intimate and systemic. Mainstream discourse—in its online strains, at least—has been waking up to this reality in recent years; Haneke’s films demonstrate that he has known it all along. His goal is to deprogram us, to prevent us from dissociating, to divest us of the plausible deniability we cling to—academics and reviewers by no means excepted.
Haneke’s first three features, which the director now regards as a trilogy, contain—by his own admission—the genetic code to his entire oeuvre. Adore them or despise them—and they are, arguably, the most polarizing of all of his dependably controversial films—The Seventh Continent (1989), Benny’s Video (1992), and 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994), taken together, serve as the template for Haneke’s work in all its fierce variety. But the critical response to those early films—to which the director’s own statements contributed—has muddied the conversation ever since.
“I once told someone, foolishly, that my first film was about ‘inner glaciation,’ because I liked the sound of it,” Haneke told me in August 2022, over lunch at his estate in the cool and somewhat gloomy hills of Lower Austria. “I regret that phrase now. I view my films as anything but cold—who could describe Amour that way, for example? But critics—and especially newspaper and online journalists—dust off that quote each time I release a new film.” He watched me for a moment. “I hope that you won’t use that in your piece.”
There was little danger of that, as it happened, because I’ve never thought of Haneke’s work in such terms. His films can be bleak, even punishing, but I’d argue that no contemporary filmmaker’s output is more clearly marked by passion. Like Ingmar Bergman, especially in his “God’s silence” period, Haneke is intensely concerned with the lies we tell ourselves in order to live, and with the reality, however frightening, that those lies serve to conceal. As with Bergman, this sense of urgency, of higher purpose, can lend his work an almost missionary starkness. No one makes The Seventh Continent, or Funny Games (the original or the 2007 remake), or The White Ribbon (2009), or even Amour (2012) unless they feel a moral imperative to do so. These films are difficult to watch, at times nearly unbearable, precisely because of the emotions they trigger. And nowhere is this more evident than in Haneke’s seminal trilogy.
Formally, the films of the trilogy have a great deal in common—deliberate pacing, jarring cuts, dominance of blue tones over red, insertion of actual contemporary news broadcasts into otherwise fictional narratives—but for Haneke, their unifying characteristic is their approach to character. “I was working out a problem in those first three films,” he told me. “The question of how to interrogate human actions, even the most shocking ones, without explaining them to the viewer and thereby reducing them to anecdotes. The solution I found was a structural one: to resist all techniques conventionally used to psychologize, and simply to present the events of the story as directly as possible. The idea for The Seventh Continent began with an article in the newspaper, about an event that I couldn’t explain to myself. I knew that I wanted to make some kind of film about it—that I wanted the audience to ask itself the same questions I’d asked, and to struggle, as I had done, to find an answer.”
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