This article is an updated and substantially revised version of his original essay from 2003. Born in 1942 in Munich, Michael Haneke grew up in the Lower Austrian city of Wiener Neustadt. Writers retrospectively plot a director’s career as a teleological historical narrative with a familiar literary pattern, in this way circumscribing his or her works for the sake of a neat (if contrived) principle of organisation. In spite of my own admonition against trying to pin down a moving target, I will attempt to work out a few characteristics of Haneke’s cinema and the experience of watching it. Stories chronicle the failings of emotionally cold individuals and the implosion of bourgeois social structures when placed under a complicating duress. Culturally, these narratives concern and comment on the identity politics of European class systems, gender roles and ethnic hierarchies, as well as the individual and collective guilt that these structures engineer. Stylistically, Haneke’s work favours the long take over montage and static shots over camera movement.
More so than the works of other filmmakers, watching Haneke is coloured by his media performances, theoretical observations and self-analyses. Not beautiful photography, not beautiful pictures, but rather necessary pictures, necessary photography. This laconic summary is an apt approximation of the sparse film that premiered at Cannes 1989. Re-viewing Haneke’s early features more than 15 years after their initial release is a strange exercise. One useful reference point for The Seventh Continent and Haneke’s stark dramaturgy is the social theorist Marc Auge. The digital Narcissus replaces the triangular Oedipus…the clone will be your guardian angel…Your ‘neighbour’ will be this deceptively similar clone, so that you will never be alone again and never again have a secret. Of the three films in the trilogy, Benny’s Video is the most aesthetically and formally conventional. This scene might be seen as the cinematic re-working of the Baudrillard quotation above: in the postmodern moment the myth of Narcissus is now the guiding paradigm that structures experience and narrative, rather than the Oedipus initiation story. The final instalment of the trilogy transforms the (true) story of an Austrian university student who one day runs amok into 71 discrete scenes. 71 Fragments marks a departure from the longitudinal studies of a single family as seen in the first two parts of the trilogy. In Funny Games there is certainly a surfeit of violence, enough to shake even the most jaded viewers (and which prompted scores of spectators, including Wim Wenders, to walk out of the screening at Cannes in 1997).
A final note on Funny Games should point out the connection between the film and its Austrian contemporaries. After the release of Funny Games, Haneke set to work on Wolf-Age, a script he had written before Benny’s Video but then shelved. Code Unknown represents a different cinematic experience from Haneke’s earlier features. Nevertheless, Haneke’s penchant for disturbing the spectator remains intact throughout, if by other means. Code Unknown contains some of Haneke’s most intricate uses of stationary camera and long takes. At Cannes 2000, Haneke addressed the difficulties of transferring Elfriede Jelinek’s writing to the screen. Haneke brings Jelinek’s story of a virtuoso piano teacher and her sadomasochistic sexuality into the present time and into the French language (although still staged in Vienna). Learning to play the Piano well requires the use of a piano Teacher who will teach the basics of Music as well as the piano.
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They are an appeal for a cinema of insistent questions instead of false (because too quick) answers, for clarifying distance in place of violating closeness, for provocation and dialogue instead of consumption and consensus. After twenty years of directing for the cinema, he has earned a place in the pantheon of the most acclaimed active auteurs.
He studied psychology, philosophy and theatre at the University of Vienna and wrote film and literature reviews on the side.
Examining a living, very much active filmmaker is problematic and, I would argue, assessing Haneke is particularly challenging.
Although these principles do not apply equally to each individual film, they provide a framework to begin to approach the director.
Befitting art cinema practices, characters’ motivations remain obscure and their goals ambiguous; clear narrative resolutions are foreclosed or made impossible to determine. Specific patterns of editing, framing, sound design and performance produce an uncomfortable viewing experience that, at best, invites a critical attitude towards media, images and the representation of violence and, at worst, uses these elements as titillation or authorial signature. The setting is a hopelessly defamiliarised Linz, the city rendered as a wasteland of industry, Autobahn and row houses. The films’ address and stance—indeed, the very aesthetic and moral questions they raise—seem to come from an uncannily distant past.
Auge investigates what form of obligation we encounter in the anonymous “non-places” of modern urban space: hotel rooms, supermarkets, ATM machines and other transit points at which we spend an increasing proportion of our lives.
On the one hand it implies a proliferation of events, a surfeit of history and above all an abundance of news and information describing these occurrences. Thus, for example, when Benny brings the girl back to his place after meeting her at the video store, one expects (both by conditioning via traditional cinematic narratives as well as through the way Haneke stages the meeting) a sexual encounter: boy meets girl, girl meets boy, boy kisses girl. When Benny rearranges the girl’s shirt so that she is “properly” covered, this lack of curiosity further distances him from normative heterosexuality. Chronicling the causes for a killing spree as well as the preceding events in the lives of the victims would seem almost necessarily melodramatic; indeed, the story stems supposedly from the reportage of the Kurier, the best-selling tabloid and Austrian equivalent of The Sun (the idea for The Seventh Continent supposedly came from an article in Der Stern).
The violent outburst is instead contextualised within a cross-section of society: a lonely father, a couple in a dysfunctional relationship, a woman who wants to adopt a child, a Romanian immigrant.

Here, however, the subject is more a confrontation with the shape of popular film and cinematic genre, rather than a statement on contemporary Austrian society. The threat to family bliss comes from within the upper-middle classes, rather than from a rogue element at the edge of society. In addition, Haneke employs a number of self-referential devices to, as the director often repeats, “rape the spectator to independence”. The director’s views on representing violence and his concomitant spectatorship theory are well documented in numerous interviews as well as his own essays (“Film als Katharsis”, “Violence and the Media”, “Terror and Utopia of Form: Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar”). A wave of ironic and often self-referential “black comedies” appeared in Austria in the late 1990s and the first few years of this century. But given the not exactly rosy financial working situation in my country it is naturally comforting to be able to fall back on foreign options.
In his second attempt to realise the project, Haneke fared no better – the financing ultimately collapsed at the last minute and he found himself at a dead end in his career, ironically just after scoring his then biggest hit, Funny Games. With Code Unknown, Haneke’s searing vision expanded beyond Austria and the concerns in the “Alpine Republic”. Haneke had previously used a few actors recognisable to German cinephiles, for instance Angela Winkler or Ulrich Muhe.
Erika Kohut is a piano teacher at the Vienna Conservatory and lives with her mother (played by Annie Girardot).
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His feature Benny’s Video (1992) shocked crowds with its restrained, antipsychological portrait of a teenager who kills a young girl “to see how it is”. From 1967 to 1970 he worked as editor and dramaturge at the southern German television station Sudwestfunk. No sooner has a commentator made a “definitive” pronouncement on what does or does not characterise Haneke’s oeuvre, than the director defies all expectations.
The characters populating this world are literally faceless: Haneke avoids shots including faces and instead concentrates on close-ups of hands and objects.
In order to understand their creative energies, however, they need to be read against the contemporary social and cultural theory and the anxieties that these theorists addressed. Non-places refer to spaces “which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity”. At the same time, this excess means that “there is no room for history unless it has been transformed into an element of spectacle, usually in allusive texts. The family could be anywhere, on any seventh continent, most important (and most alienating and destructive) is the dialectic between anonymity and identity.
He spends his days and nights in his room lost in a cobweb of video equipment, cameras, monitors and editing consoles. If the Oedipal myth arcs towards the idea that human subjectivity is sexually realised in love between partners, then the Baudrillardian Narcissus myth enables Benny to believe that mediated, digitally manipulable violence is the “authentic” experience in a “me” world without connections; so why not “see how it is”? The film is moreover a preview of coming attractions, particularly in Haneke’s attention to people and cultures from outside of the traditional Western and Central European “first world”.
Innocent children and animals are savagely destroyed in the very beginning stages of the film. One killer winks into the camera and subsequently asks the viewer, “what would you bet that this family is dead by nine o’clock tomorrow?” The film toys with the spectator just as the young men play their “funny game” with the family. There are striking parallels in Haneke’s logic with argumentation in memory and trauma theory. Funny Games should therefore also be seen in the context of films like Die totale Therapie (Christian Frosch, 1996), Die Gottesanbeterin (Paul Harather, 2000), Komm, su?er Tod (Wolfgang Murnberger, 2000), and Der Uberfall (Florian Flicker, 2000) and their typically Austrian mix of comedy, violence and irony. The narrative takes a cue from 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance: it offers 27 vaguely connected scenes from the varying perspectives of an actress, an African immigrant and a reporter who covers the war-torn Balkans.
Still, even they were employed in rather restrained and “anonymous” roles, in keeping with Haneke’s philosophy that characters should only be surfaces onto which the audience should project their own emotions and thoughts. Suddenly we hear her laugh from off screen: the whole sequence was taking place at a sound studio where Anne was synchronising her voice for the soundtrack of a film she had appeared in. The following year Haneke returned to the festival with the finished adaptation and left with three major awards.
The two have an abusive, symbiotic dependency that contains sexual elements; otherwise, Erika has no other romantic attachments. You must have a repertoire that works well but is adaptable to different situations and different students.
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It was in 1970 that Haneke began writing and directing films and (similar to most Austrian directors of his generation) his initial experiences behind the camera were projects for television.
After being initially positioned in the context of Austria’s television and film (cottage) industries and cultural politics, for example, he moved his operations to Paris and began making French-language “European” films with high-profile arthouse stars and multinational funding.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Marc Auge, Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze and others were scrutinising the very perceptual systems (and the environment and conditions fostering them) that Haneke took to task in his “Austria” trilogy. He keeps his shades drawn at all times and experiences the outside world mediated through the camcorders he has set up outside his windows. What should be Benny’s first sexual experience becomes a violent act that he records and ritually rehashes. Benny comes of age not through sexual conquest and replacing a mother figure (8) but rather by eliminating the potential object of desire and retreating into the cave of video equipment, over which he commands absolute control.

The two then proceed, without any motive, to terrorise and then kill dog, son, father and mother. Code Unknown, however, lacks the deadly teleology of 71 Fragments; there is no “big-bang” act of violence at the end. The acting firepower and pure expectations that an international superstar like Juliette Binoche brings to Code Unknown (not to mention Isabelle Huppert to La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher, 2001) and Le Temps du loup (Time of the Wolf, 2003)) in some sense at least tempers the audience’s ability to project anything onto a figure laden with so many associations. The TV-image reflects in the glass door, providing the spectator with a flat composition of the apartment space and the action of the sequence, without the need to cut. The piano teacher uses exercises to develop technique and music theory along with practice skills. Haneke has also directed a number of stage productions (including Strindberg, Goethe, Bruckner, and Kleist) in Berlin, Munich, Vienna and Paris. Over the years, Haneke has regularly issued devastating squibs denouncing the manipulative American cinema (see the epigraph to this essay)—and then proceeded to make a picture with Hollywood money.
These “contracts” are symbolised in train or plane tickets, bank cards and email addresses.
He obsessively reviews the farmyard killing of a pig in forward and reverse, slow motion and freeze-frame. The spectator is treated to snapshots, such as four minutes of the future “killer” playing table tennis alone, or a future victim silently watching the evening news. 71 Fragments indicates the beginning of Haneke’s transition to a wider European purview.
Haneke focuses instead on the effects on the victims, revealed for example in a several minute-long shot of the father attempting to stand up. The ironic self-referentiality climaxes when a character actually rewinds the proceedings in order to revise the outcome. Instead, Haneke concentrates on perhaps more quotidian, but none less pressing, problems: the new waves of immigration in Europe and the difficulty of interpersonal communication, be it between a couple in a relationship or between cultures.
Haneke had always sought to position himself as the opposite of Tarantino, as the “last modernist” whose bare, deliberate cinema treated violence and media with a non-titillating distance without the illusionist chicanery of Tarantino’s multilayered association project. In another scene, for instance, the viewer must ponder the image produced by a static camera in order to derive its importance. On the soundtrack we hear the TV news, then the sounds of domestic abuse in a neighbour’s flat and then, with the aid of the remote control, the TV once again. She retrieves disposed semen in shopping-mall porn shops and urinates while watching coupling teens at a drive-in movie theatre.
With acknowledged influences including Andrei Tarkovsky, Jean-Marie Straub, Michelangelo Antonioni, Jon Jost, Abbas Kiarostami and above all Robert Bresson, his recent work has garnered a host of accolades and arthouse success. His first film intended for cinematic release, Der siebente Kontinent (The Seventh Continent), premiered in 1989.
After years of nostalgic recuperations of celluloid materiality and cinematic spectatorship, he began to make films that depend on digital technology and demand DVD viewing.
Auge infers from such spaces a paradox of what he calls surmodernite, roughly translatable as “supermodernity” or “hypermodernity”. PIN codes, e-mail addresses, Social Security cards, driver’s licenses and national identity cards with biometric data function to differentiate between individuals. Intermittently, he flips through channels full of news on neo-nazi killings, toy commercials, war films and reports on the incipient war in Yugoslavia. These 71 moments, remarkable only in their unremarkability, form a system that implicates an entire form of society for the crime of one. There is no rescue sequence, revenge scenario or happy ending to the story – the last shots show the two killers ready to strike the next vacation spot. When the mother manages to grab a gun and shoot Paul’s accomplice, Paul grabs a remote control and rewinds the scene, thus ensuring his success. In this way, Haneke’s “French Films” dilute the ferocious theoretical rigour of the “glaciation theory” at the same time that they broaden their thematic attack. At length, we watch an airplane cabin door, before a Kosovar woman suddenly appears in police handcuffs. Anne overwrites the “noise” of the beating with the remote control, Haneke’s privileged media device. Cache (Hidden, 2005) won the Palme d’or and was voted by The Times as the “film of the decade”. At the same time, this proliferation has made personal identity more rigid and formally interchangeable: everyone can be identified by a “number” and one’s identity can be “stolen”. Our attendance to the important narrative element occurs without traditional devices, such as a cut or a close-up. This scene implies an off-screen space and indeed larger forms of culture, even while the shot itself is cramped.
Das wei?e Band (The White Ribbon, 2009) earned Academy Award nominations for Best Cinematography and Best Foreign-Language Film.
In this way, Haneke attempts to discuss violence without inciting fascination or titillation for his subject.
In a later scene, like a game of “Where’s Waldo?”, we find Amadou in a crowd of drummers nearly hidden in the frame.
Whether Haneke succeeds in this last crucial point has filled the feuilleton pages of newspapers across Europe and abroad. These moments take to an extreme what Bazin writes about neorealism in “An Aesthetic of Reality”: rather than using montage to fix the viewer’s attention, “it is the mind of the spectator which is forced to discern . Haneke’s flat, painterly composition is in fact a highly evocative prospect of a world beyond in which every piece of information does not contribute to a neat whole. All of this transpires with no convincing motives and only scant psychological insight into the characters.
In the end, Benny foils his parents’ perversely cynical attempt to cover up the murder. Some have praised Haneke in his formal daring; others have scathingly criticised him for excessive didacticism and depicting violence in essence no differently than in action films. Despite the film’s use of parallel narrative, Code Unknown is—like 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance—in fact anti-Altman, anti-Kieslowski and unlike vulgar examples such as Magnolia (1999) and Crash (2004).

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