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Haneke’s Social Contract

A Question of Temperature


In a DVD interview with Serge Toubiana, Michael Haneke points out that there have been two studies of his work done by a theological academy in Vienna. Yet few filmmakers give less of an impression than Haneke of God’s presence or absence. Where filmmakers from Bresson to Dreyer, Tarkovsky to Sokurov, Dumont to Reygadas, often seem preoccupied with God’s invisible or visible presence, Haneke’s work suggests much more some Kantian contract gone wrong. Certainly Haneke presents theologically inclined characters in his work – whether that is the family who kill themselves in The Seventh Continent, or the securicor worker in 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance – but Haneke surely presents the theological as false consciousness. It is as though something else has eroded society, and religion is expected rather unsuccessfully to shore it up.

So the question that interests Haneke is not the theological, so much as the socio-political, and though he of course insists, in Enthusiasm magazine, for example, that his “films have never defended any party-political interests, that always bored me”, he does seem interested in the breakdown of certain Enlightenment ideas, or, as Christopher Sharrett proposes in Cineaste, “an ongoing critique of western civilization.” What happens, his work so often asks, to the Social Contract, what happens to those values proposed loosely by thinkers as different as Kant, Rousseau and Locke? There is, for example, Kant’s idea of the “civil” and “cosmopolitan constitution” Habermas invokes in his book, The Divided West. As Habermas says, “In [Kant’s] bold outline of a cosmopolitan order, he takes his inspiration from the revolutionary constitution-founding acts of the time” – namely the French and American revolutions. Meanwhile, Locke may invoke God when saying, “God, having made man such a creature that, in his own judgement, it was not good for him to be alone, put him under strong obligations of necessity, convenience, and inclination, to drive him into society, as well as fitted him with understanding and language to continue and enjoy it” (The Social Contract: Locke Hume, Rousseau), but it is the social that takes priority. Then there is Rousseau, who says, under the Social Contract “instead of a renunciation, they [the people] have made an advantageous exchange: instead of an uncertain and precarious way of living they have got one that is better and more secure; instead of natural independence they have got liberty…” (The Social Contract and Discourses)

It is not especially an empathic feeling that Haneke’s films search out; much more a degradation of socialization, where socialization is the requisite level of feeling required for successful human interaction. A more theologically inclined filmmaker might search out the desire for a higher level of feeling than the Social Contract demands – the Social Contract merely wants society to function well. However, this is still a level of feeling based on healthy, rational human interaction. Haneke’s purpose is so often simply to show the level of its dysfunction. Higher affectivity, or lower affectivity, comes when something in the social contract breaks down.

Hence, in 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, the teenager who eventually runs amok and kills three people in a bank seems to find the casually dismissive attitude and unhelpfulness of a petrol pump worker too much. Haneke consequently leaves us wondering whether our social interactions are in danger of becoming so without even the modicum of feeling for social conviviality that the whole social discourse might collapse as the teenager offers high affectivity against a backdrop of weak communicative links. Earlier in the film in one long, single take, Haneke shows us the same teenager batting table tennis balls endlessly against the net as a machine fires them out at him. As the scene goes on we notice that this is not exclusively about a teenager mastering his craft; it is also a kid taking out his frustrations on the ball. It seems hardly coincidental that he’s playing against a machine: by the end of the film it is as if that is what he is up against anyway. We might ask – why not take out three lives when the feelings emanating from others seem to be at such a low level of communicative sympathy?

In Benny’s Video, the problem seems to be an undernourished sense of feeling, that Benny’s emotional relationship with the world has become mediated through ethically lazy cinematic images, and exacerbated by his own video camera take on the world. As he murders a teenage girl whom he happens to meet outside a video shop, he does so almost to see what it is like: as though all the films he has seen somehow entitles him to his own little experiment with life and death. That his parents then become involved in covering up the murder leads Haneke to muse of course not just over the boy’s desensitised relationship with the world, but the parents’ overly sensitive relationship with their boy’s future. As they discuss the crime, and wonder what they should do about it, they accept that, even if he spends only a few years in an institute for the mentally unstable, his future is ruined. They become part of the low affectivity as they think of teleological aims over ethical concerns.

Haneke’s world, then, is generally a cold one; evidenced so often in critical comments about Haneke’s films. Sight and Sound refers to Funny Games as ‘doubly chilling’, The Guardian insists Hidden is ‘icily brilliant’, while Roy Grundmann in Cineaste referred to Haneke’s work as a “Cinema of Glaciation” But it is a cold world which contains less moments of warmth than flashes of heat. Warmth of course connotes the human need for others; heat suggests much more the flashpoints of failed communication. We see it for example in Hidden where, early in the film, the generally cold central character, Georges, played by Daniel Auteuil, crosses the road and almost gets knocked over by a cyclist. He overreacts while the subject of his ire, a burly young black man, quickly works himself up to an equal temperature. Luckily Georges’ wife is on hand and a fight is avoided. Such scenes are also present in several instances in Code Inconnu, whether it is the early scene where the film’s social worker for the deaf, Amadou, gets arrested simply for trying to save a homeless woman from humiliation, or, later, when Juliette Binoche’s actress gets harassed on a metro train.

These are all examples of a cold world, then, with moments of heat, rather than a world contained by a general, healthier temperature suggestive of warmth. Obviously this isn’t only Haneke’s theme, it is also vital to his style: how to find the appropriate cinematic temperature, the appropriate formal approach, to capturing this world turned cold because the contract between people loses its meaning? Several things should be said here. First of all there is the Haneke long take. Sometimes this is lateral – as in the opening scene in Code inconnu – and often static – as in the aforementioned table tennis scene in 71 Fragments.  Sometimes, though, it is overtly self-conscious – as in the use of the video image allowing Haneke to utilise off-screen space during a murder in Benny’s Video, the video rewind during a revenge moment in Funny Games, and rewinding footage we assume is ‘actual’ in Hidden.  In each instance Haneke wants the shot present to us, wants to make us feel the weight of a given image. For Haneke, film isn’t an observational medium – though his style is often true to Bazinian notions of realism and the long take – but more a performative and implicative one. We are certainly not ‘entertained’, nor even especially engaged, but much more involved.

Of course we are using a series of words here – entertain, engage and involve – that would often be used interchangeably, but it might be useful to try to differentiate them for the purposes of understanding Haneke’s style and ethos. Entertainment for Haneke would suggest disrespect for the reality of violence. As he says in relation to Funny Games in a Sight and Sound supplement “the businessman who defines and produces film as merchandise knows that violence only sells (but then sells very well) when deprived of reality, or the main elements that make it up: the deeply shaking fear, the suffering, the pain.” Violence devoid of these elements allows film to remain a commodity: it becomes entertainment. But what about engagement? In this context, again Haneke would seem to have problems with the idea. Engagement would be too close to identification and narrative involvement. “The boundary between the real existence and its representation”, he says in the same article, “has been hard for the viewer to discern from the outset, and it is probably this which gives film its fascination. The oscillation between the disconcerting feeling of being involved in something genuinely happening now, and the emotional security of seeing the depiction of an artificially created reality…” This is the film world; but, Haneke asks, is that feeling of disconcertion too often tempered by “the emotional security of seeing the depiction of an artificially created reality?” Haneke thinks it shouldn’t be. To involve us, to implicate us, to force us to be present to the unease more than the comfort – this appears to be Haneke’s aim. He seems to be suggesting that cinema shouldn’t be an entertainment, nor an act of aesthetic engagement, but, if you like, a sort of socio-aesthetic action. Can it return us to the Social Contract? Thus, when Haneke was talking to The Guardian about the meaning of Hidden, he was asked whether he enjoyed frustrating people. He replied: “I look at it as productive frustration.” Productive frustration suggests struggle, implies a move towards generating answers out of difficult questions, the sort of questions, of course, that can lead to social change.

Yet Haneke’s work doesn’t indicate a revolutionary consciousness; for Haneke seems to be looking for answers not in broad social progress, but in the micro-social meaning of the every day. His is not so much the psychopathology of every day life, but the socio-pathology of every day existence: how can we eradicate the socio-pathology and return society to socio-health? This is hardly radical, but it contains within it a transformative possibility if each individual chooses neither to be apolitical, especially, nor political, per se, but concern themselves with the Kantian notion of making one’s actions universally applicable. From this point of view, from the point of view of Social Contracts, this is much more politically helpful than radical change. If people are making their actions subjectively applicable, yet nevertheless believe themselves to be attaching this subjectivity to political radicalism, is this socially useful?

One might think not, taking into account an Umberto Eco essay where he invokes the Social Contract called ‘Falsification and Consensus’. Here he looks at the idea of a subjective radicalism that attempts to counter the basis of power, but in fact proves to be false consciousness. In this article in his book, Travels in Hyperreality, he gives a series of examples of a kind of electronic terrorism, where student radicals will find ways to counter power. This may take the form of ever so slightly overpaying one’s phone-bill, and persuading many others to do the same so that “if large numbers do it the whole business management of the telephone company is thrown out of whack.” Another example Eco gives is where students, especially in technological departments, can get hold of top execs’ company card phone details and use them to make international phone calls. Eco questions one of the students about why they don’t get caught, and the student explains that generally companies budget for illicit calls – it is not worth their while to chase these things up. From one angle the students are offering a micro-political action, but Eco suggests, if quite conservatively, that they’re at the same time destroying the ‘molecular’ consensus: the specifics of the Social Contract we’ve been talking about. As he says “it takes thousands of fathers, wives, and children who recognize themselves in the family structure before a power can base itself on the family ethic as institution.” Eco proposes that power resides not somewhere, but everywhere, and that actually these guerrilla activities don’t so much destroy power with a capital p, but consensus with a small c. “The new forms of guerrilla protest are aimed instead at wounding the system, upsetting the fine network of consensus, based on certain rules of living together.”

This is the micro-social aspect that Haneke wants to explore, and our purpose here is not to agree or disagree politically with such a position, but to try and understand it in relation to Haneke’s work. He wants to look at the network: the intersecting of existences that can make society either work or collapse; and because he is what we’ll call a ‘threnodic’ thinker, a director whose vision gravitates towards the pessimistic, he focuses very much on the deterioration. Or not so much on the collapse, which implies the monumental, but the erosion, which suggests the ‘micromental’. Haneke, at his most interesting, is a great director of this micromental look at society’s impending doom. Though he has of course made the apocalyptic The Time of The Wolf, with its post-societal despair and power shortages, generally Haneke is more interested not in environmental disaster, but micromental erosion – in showing us a world that will lose its way familially and micro-socially. Thus there is the great single take scene of a grandfather talking on the phone to his daughter and granddaughter in 71 Fragments of a Chronicle of Chance.  Here in Haneke’s nine minute sequence shot the camera fixedly focuses on the old man as he tries to instigate conversations with his daughter and his granddaughter whilst, within the frame, we see him half watching the television half in and half out of the frame. His own lack of concentration towards the often violent, political images that pass before his eyes seems equalled by his daughter’s half attendance to the phone call. Though she is never seen or heard, and we only have the grandfather’s end of the conversation, we can tell that she wants to get off the phone, and that she sees her father’s constant probes as an intrusion into her domestic life. Maybe the scene could have fallen into pathos if the grandfather didn’t have in front of him images that demanded his concentration as readily as he demands hers. Once again we’re in a low affectivity world, where somehow people just aren’t concentrating, aren’t focused on the moment.

Haneke films this process of attention deficiency with the very attentiveness he feels is lacking in his characters’ lives. It is a point Haneke more or less makes when talking about Hidden. As he says, Georges and Anne have a “library in the living room…with a huge TV in the centre, a screen which becomes increasingly dominant, acting like a window – into Georges’s private life and soul, when they play the tapes on it, and onto the world as news programmes blare away – ignored – in the background, telling of continued wars and colonial type disputes in Iraq and Palestine.” (The Observer Review) The key phrase seems to be the news programmes that blare away but are ignored. Perhaps Haneke is suggesting we should attend to these crises that are going on around the world. But maybe what is important here is not that the programmes blare away, nor that they are ignored, but this combination; this combo of push me-pull me emotional engagement and disengagement in our lives that adds to the fraying of the Social Contract. It makes us neither concerned enough with the numerous social situations in our own lives, nor especially concerned with those trouble spots around the world. Maybe, finally, television doesn’t keep us informed about the situation everywhere else, but makes us oblivious – because distracted – to that fragile consensus Eco talks about. Haneke’s purpose in the shot with the grandfather that he holds for nine minutes is a sort of ‘politics of concentration’, a sense that whatever social contracts we instigate need to be sustained by an immediate affective attentiveness.

In Hidden, Georges’s relationship with the adopted Majid is based on childhood duplicity as the young Georges lied to make sure Majid would be forced to leave the family home, and, later on, as adults in the present, on self-protectionism when he accuses Majid of sending him notes and video tapes that upset his carefully calibrated upper-bourgeois existence. However, what is also at work in the film is Georges’s curious bad faith; his problems with attention and concentration.  His wife is perhaps having or moving towards an affair behind his back; and what about his son’s activities, alluded to but never specified in the now famous closing shot? There is this sense that Georges’ problems aren’t only socio-political; they illustrate his limited awareness of his own immediate existence

Thus when Catherine Wheatley says, in her article on Hidden in Sight and Sound that Haneke in his work talks a lot about the war in the former Yugoslavia, but talks about it in televisual terms, the important thing is to think of it not as a political event only, but as an event on the periphery of European consciousness to which we half attend. Here was this war in the centre of Europe and what was it: simultaneously a war in the region, and on our conscience? But does it become useful to have a war on our conscience, and which war should it be, with so many wars around the world and so many news items on these wars? Does the news not become like a vast, militaristic soap opera, as it cuts from one war to another to keep up with the most exciting of world events?  What happens is that we keep up with global situations but don’t really attend to them, for how can we attend to the many atrocities that take place daily around the world? What happens is we have our concentration diluted.

How the wealthy westerner should approach atrocities world wide is a moot point in Haneke’s work. If we assume his films are saying we should feel guilty for all the trouble in various countries, then that might be a fair if conventionally guilty liberal response, but it wouldn’t really be getting us anywhere ethically or aesthetically. Thus if people insistently read Hidden as a film about France’s guilt towards its Algerian past, and that Georges and his half-brother allegorise this tension, then the point has surely been missed.  If Hidden has any political worth it must lie instead in the socio-specifics of Georges and Majid’s relationship and how it opens up onto broader problematics that are very much secondary to the story to hand. This doesn’t mean that they are irrelevant, just that their relevance needs to be contextualised by a more immediate emotional problem. If Haneke talks about the war in Yugoslavia, but chiefly through its media representation, then should we not think also of the Algerian situation through the characters that have been affected by it, however tangentially, like Georges and Majid, and not see them merely as a symbol for a political issue? That is, it is not the politically symbolic that matters; but the politically allusive. There is the danger that the symbol closes off meaning and turns the situation into an allegory of a crisis; the allusive constantly asks us to keep seeing where the crisis lies. If the viewer too readily insists on seeing the cock killed in Hidden as a symbol of France’s loss of innocence in relation to the tragedy it alludes to (that in 1961 numerous Algerian protestors were thrown into the Seine and left to drown) then what about all the atrocities before then? The symbolic shrinks; the allusive expands. This does not mean that we are then expected to attend to all these allusive political events. But we do need to find ourselves within the complexity of the socio-political; not the narrowness of the politically symbolic.

Perhaps we can even go so far as to say that we ought to ignore the wider political issues unless we can find an immediate reason to concern ourselves with them: that can make us micro-political, and by the same token do likewise in relation to Haneke’s films. That is, we ought to concentrate on what the film image attends to rather than allegorizes, just as we ought to be first and foremost sharp to the nuanced injustices of our immediate lives: the intolerances of everyday life that are writ large elsewhere. We can think here of the scenes in 71 Fragments where a childless couple look to adopt. After initially appearing to show interest in one young girl, they then change tack as they become fascinated by a news story where a teenage boy from Hungary relates to TV crews how he has spent his recent weeks on the street. The couple decide this is the boy they want to adopt, but the boy has of course gained an authenticity and significance through the televisual, and the other child who was beginning to adjust to the possibility of a newfound family can’t match it and gets rejected. Here we see Haneke’s problem with ‘televisual distraction’, where an immediate existence loses out to a secondary existence. The question would seem to be less that bourgeois western man must concern himself with the problems of those less fortunate than himself, but must focus on the immediacy of his own existence in a way that avoids the twin perils of distraction and solipsism. This would allow for a constantly expanding socio-political world, but grounded in the immediacy of the self.

Yet are distraction and solipsism not so often the twin perils besetting Haneke’s characters? We can think once again of Benny’s Video, where self-absorption and distraction combine after Benny’s murdered the young girl, and Benny and his mother take off to Egypt as the father disposes of the body back home. Egypt’s purpose is to function as nothing more than a superimposition: it must help Benny forget about the atrocity committed. Find a distraction to justify one’s self-absorption, we might say, and is this not so often the problem with a televisual landscape, a world where we are simultaneously present and absent (minded); where we are concerned, but generally unable to act, and when we do act (as the couple in 71 Fragments do) do so in the manner of false consciousness? Have they credited television with a meaningfulness greater than that of their own immediate life?

What we are proposing here then is the problem of the consciousness removed from its immediate concerns, and placed into an overly solipsistic or dispersed realm. In each instance bad faith or false consciousness is likely to beckon. Bad faith presents itself in characters like Georges in Hidden, and the parents in Benny’s Video. Georges wants to keep his family together, his job secure and his home guarded, but wants to believe he is an innocent hounded, and refuses to look at the reason for the hounding: he instead wants to accuse the possible hounders. In Benny’s Video, Benny’s parents function as proud matriarch and patriarch determined to protect their boy’s future against the onslaught of the social and legal services that will ruin their child’s prospects. In relation to false consciousness we can think of the childless couple’s need to adopt a boy from the world of television, and the couple in The Seventh Continent who decide to take their own life for the sake of God.  In each instance bad faith and false consciousness work their way into the Social Contract.

And this really returns us to the thrust of the article, the degree to which Haneke’s work threnodically concerns itself with the ever more tenuous social bonds between human beings, and the state within which they (dys)function. Now what is interesting about Haneke is that he is actually a filmmaker on the side of the state. If his style so often feels cold is doesn’t only lie in the long, distanced takes, it also resides in a sense that he sees his characters not from inside their own subjectivities (despite the odd apparent dream as in Hidden and Amour), but from the outside, from their roles within the social order. When the older man in 71 Fragments of a Chronicle of Chance talks with his daughter on the phone, we are given less a sense of the man’s loneliness, than feel we are witnessing the process of social atomisation. Many would probably claim this is Haneke’s limitation as an artist: that he rarely gets inside the lives of his characters. However it might be more useful to think of Haneke as a filmmaker interested in the outside, if we see the outside as the societal, the inside as the prejudicial, neurotic, selfish and absorbed. Haneke wants to show how the subjective creates problems for the body politic, for the social self and our contractual obligations. It takes us back to our point about Haneke being not especially interested in deep feelings but rational, emotionally meaningful yet contained, functional ones that are getting lost. He sees that the rational, functional faculties are failing us; intense subjectivity is not a luxury we can afford until the social order is at least running efficiently.

For example, would our tennis table playing murderer have run amok if the social order happened to be functioning properly, would the family have committed suicide if their lives didn’t seem empty of a broader meaning in The Seventh Continent, would, for that matter, Erika Kohut in The Piano Teacher have stuck a knife into her shoulder blade if she had come from a healthy functioning family in a healthily functional environment? Deviance in Haneke’s work rarely finds a useful place; and he isn’t interested in a von Trier-like fascination with the transcendent possibilities in deviance as defiance, nor in a Wong Kar-Wai like romanticism attached to solipsism. No, Haneke is the filmmaker who wants to suggest that our autonomy is too often falsely utilised, taking into account a passage from Kant in Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals: “the will is therefore not merely subject to the law, but is so subject that it must be considered as also making the law (of which it can regard itself as the author).” Kant here indicates that man applies himself singularly to the universal; that he has the autonomy to choose the right thing to do, but not to choose what that right thing is. If one does the right thing, then it contributes to the general good, the universal law.

Haneke’s work indicates this need; but of course he tends to express its failure. There is the scene early on in Code inconnu, where the black character Amadou witnesses a young boy casually and condescendingly tossing his empty bag into the lap of a homeless woman. As he takes the boy to task, various people – including shopkeepers and policemen – interpret the scene in such a way that the boy walks free, and Amadou is arrested. If everybody acted within the realm of a universal law of the good, of the social contract, the boy would have been chastised, the homeless woman found a bed, and Amadou thanked. The situation would have conformed to Rousseau’s demands in the Social Contract: “the fundamental compact substitutes for such physical inequality as nature may have set up between men, an equality that is moral and legitimate, and that men, who may be unequal in strength or intelligence, become every one equal by convention and legal right.”

So if we can say that Haneke is driven by the idea of a social contract that is constantly being undermined because its own citizens are refusing to contribute to the universal law (à la Eco’s students), then that still leaves us with the problem of the aesthetic self-consciousness of Haneke’s work. Would a filmmaker simply so concerned with societal well-being be interested in the jiggery-pokery of cinematic form? The answer is of course affirmative. For Haneke, the camera has a moral duty. Talking about real and fictional violence, he says, talking again of Funny Games, in Sight and Sound: “Is it that the very similarity of the forms of representation… represented onscreen has so influenced our perception and above all our feelings, that we are no longer capable of differentiating the content of these forms?” Haneke wants us to confront the content through our awareness of the form. He wants us to see that if the medium becomes the message, then the message therein contained alters greatly. After all, those great Enlightenment thinkers of universal laws and social contracts were functioning long before the media was anything more than the Fourth Estate. Now, as writers like Paul Virilio suggest (in The Information Bomb), the press and media no longer serve as an adjunct to the state; the state is closer to an adjunct of the media. As Virilio says, what we pretty much have is “a reflex democracy without collective reflexion, in which conditioning would have greater importance than ‘electoral campaigning’ and in which ‘demonstrative’ character of the party programmes would give way to the strictly ‘monstrative’ and spectacular character of a drilling of individual behaviour, the parameters of which were long ago tested by advertising.”

All the images in Haneke’s work showing television (The Seventh Continent, Benny’s Video, 71 Fragments, Hidden etc.) as an omnipresent medium in our lives, and where politics now more or less takes place whether as event (wars filmed, tragedies captured) or as political propaganda (press conferences and anodyne interviews), leaves us quite removed from the state we are in. The state concerns less the immediate actions of our own lives than the televised lives of others. Haneke’s aesthetic self-consciousness seems to reside in trying to use the medium of film not as a passive receptacle for our feelings, but as an active ethical force that confronts us with the notion of choice. When he was asked by The Guardian do you enjoy frustrating people, he replied, as we’ve noted, “I look at it as productive frustration”, and then adds, “Films that are entertainments give simple answers, but I think that’s ultimately more cynical, as it denies the viewer room to think.” Ditto television, presumably. In Haneke’s take, art forces upon us our place not just in the art work, but also in the world, because both would seem to demand active perceptions as opposed to passive faculties.

Now we can return to our earlier point about images of war on television, and Wheatley’s observation that Haneke always talks about the Balkan war as a mediated event, not as a reality. The problem with the Balkan war in its televisual form is that it accesses passive faculties; it is more likely to make us feel passively guilty than actively angry. So many of the world’s events on our TV screens are less designed to make us act, than make us feel, but to feel in such an abstract, uncommittedly affective way, that mediated reality functions on the same affective level as ‘entertainment’. Hence Haneke’s belief that the similarity of forms represented onscreen leaves us with this homogenised feeling that can’t differentiate the real from the false, the entertaining from the actual. Form, for Haneke, would be the need to find an ethical angle on the events he shows us, to force upon us an ethical relationship with the images he utilises. This is evident when he says in the Guardian, “If 300 people are in a cinema watching it, they will all see a different film, so in a way there are thousands of different versions of Hidden. The point being that, despite what TV shows us, and what the news stories tell us, there is never just one truth, there is only personal truth.” Whatever Haneke’s exaggerated claims, he clearly needs to find a form that heterogenises perception rather than homogenises it.

Yet how does this fit with our claim that there is a Kantian perspective in Haneke concerning the absence of autonomy in relation to the universal law? Surely the universal law suggests not many subjectivities, but a singular universal? Yet Haneke’s most interesting work wants to force upon the viewer an ethical perspective on the universal. We don’t notice in Haneke’s work or in his interviews a Nietzschean sense of all being permissible, but instead an attempt to explore events where the universal law fails in its application because the citizens are no longer pursuing the general happiness but instead the specifics of their own misery, alienation, and low-key spiritual despair, all wrapped up in a material plenitude that demands a wake-up call. As Paul Arthur proposes in a Film Comment piece, “Haneke specializes in what Alexander Horwath labels “boundary trangressions”, narratives in which upscale professionals – cushioned from harsh realities by racial and class privilege, as well as by an illusion of control derived from televised news programming become”, he adds, “suddenly vulnerable to hostile outsiders or, alternatively, to subversive acts from within the family circle, frequently committed by children.” Haneke seems to want the multiplicit viewer to have their own perspective on the work; to break free from their own hermeneutic comfort zone. But the perspective nevertheless needs to be an ethical one, and that the truth, though personal, is a truth and not a lie.

A personal interpretation that suggests Georges in Hidden is a paragon harassed by forces outside his control as he tries to get on with his own well-earned comfortable life would hardly pass for a personal truth the way Haneke frames it. It would surely be a personal lie, an act of viewer denial as they refuse to face up to the problems raised in the film. Yet how many films would frame the intruder on the bourgeois life in such a fashion: hermeneutically closing off the options and leaving the viewer with a sense that their entitlement to the good life is ensured? For Haneke, a perspective is only as good as the truth it reveals, which isn’t too far removed from Kant when he says “the principle of humanity…is not borrowed from experience; firstly, because it is universal, applying as it does to all rational beings as such, and no experience is adequate to determine universality…” (Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals)

Now Haneke may also say, again in the Sight and Sound Funny Games piece, “I would go so far as to talk about moving pictures as art only if they contain these operations of immanent self-reflection…” but we should accept this is not especially open-ended, and that Haneke’s use of news events (in for example 71 Fragments which was based on an actual case) may not want the cause and effect of tabloid journalism, but it does want a sort of sociological cause and effect that lays out all the permutations that go into the creation of an atomised State. If Haneke has a problem with journalistic readings of events, it is not necessarily that they’re simplistic – though of course they often are – but that they are too readily psychological, explaining the situation in the personal sphere, and not taking into account the many social variables that go into an act. Haneke’s ‘message’ at the end of 71 Fragments wouldn’t so much be thou shalt not kill, but thou shouldn’t create the sort of social fragmentation, mechanical sense of self and empty ambition that together moves us towards falling apart both individually and socially. Haneke’s is an ambitious body of work: he is an Austrian filmmaker who nevertheless sees the problems he addresses as western European (in relation to content) and anti-American (in terms of form): he wants to questions the whole identificatory mechanisms of Hollywood.  But anyone who thinks Haneke’s work stares into the abyss would be missing the point; Haneke’s oeuvre seems much more to stare into the possibilities of the Enlightenment, and shows us how we are failing the social contracts that make can make our lives relatively comfortable but increasingly, anxiously empty.


©Tony McKibbin