Manipulating the Passive
Michael Haneke is a bit of an anomaly. He is a director older than New German cinema filmmakers Herzog, Wenders and Fassbinder, but this Austrian auteur (though born in Munich) is not a director at all connected with the seventies, but much more a millennial filmmaker who made his debut in 1989 with The Seventh Continent, and became an imposing figure in world cinema during the late nineties and early 2000s with films like Funny Games, Code: Unknown, and Hidden. We mention Herzog and co. because of course Haneke shares with the German directors a language, but also because up to a point he would seem to share a film language. Aren't these great New German filmmakers, like Haneke, directors of the hard gaze, directors who force upon us an interrogation of the image and not its ready acceptance? Yet while most would agree that Herzog, Wenders and Fassbinder (who died young in 1982) were very much filmmakers of the seventies and early eighties, if Haneke appears a millennial filmmaker this isn't only an issue of factual detail, but also aesthetic concern. Haneke wants not so much a meditative cinema that calls the image into question, but wonders how cinema fits into the world of images: it is as much a mediated image as a meditative one. This is the key difference, and what makes Haneke a filmmaker of his times. It also explains something of his cruel gaze.
In The Seventh Continent, the three lead characters (husband, wife and daughter) are in their apartment having decided soon to end their lives, when Jennifer Warren's 'The Power of Love' plays on the television that the characters have been half attending to throughout the film. They sit on the bed watching the TV which is lop-sidedly on the other side of the room: a canted object rather than a canted image as the singer belts out the emotion while the characters lie slumped against the wall. It is maybe the most extreme gap between what the televisual image offers and the film conveys. Here is this family on the verge of suicide (they've already written a letter to the husband's parents announcing their intentions), having ripped up and pulled apart most of the material items in their house, and Warren's song expresses absurd emotion given the context of the scene. This isn't music to their ears, but wallpaper for their eyes, with the characters as passive as Warren is active. It is an act of interpassivity as Robert Pfaller might describe it: the delegation of feeling outside of oneself, so that others can have the feeling for us, with canned laughter a typical example. As Warren sings about the power of love, the family seems atrophied of all emotion, with the song not at all sharing a feeling with the characters, but expressing it for them. The film seems to be built on a series of interpassive tropes, as the characters get trapped outside their own feelings and mediated objects must speak for them instead of to them. In a scene quite early in the film, the wife's brother comes round for dinner and bursts into tears while a pop song plays on the radio in the background. The real tears lead to the radio being turned off, off-screen, as the sister gives solace in a rare moment that breaks through the interpassive.
Yet it is the various questions concerning the problem of interpassivity which preoccupy Haneke in The Seventh Continent and in most of his other films also. Part of his reluctance to explain the meaning of the work resides in this worry that the viewer will end up interpassively accepting the director's interpretation or find the narrative answer in his remarks. Speaking to Guardian journalist Jason Solomons about Hidden he said, 'I'm not going to give anyone this answer. If you think it's Majid, Pierrot, Georges, the malevolent director, God himself, the human conscience - all these answers are correct. But if you come out wanting to know who sent the tapes, you didn't understand the film. To ask this question is to avoid asking the real question the film raises, which is more: how do we treat our conscience and our guilt and reconcile ourselves to living with our actions?" He expects us to ask the questions that don't promote the interpassive, but generate instead an active spectatorship. Herein partly lies the cruelty of Haneke's gaze: the look's unwillingness to shape the material into a meaning that can be given, but instead into one that must be sought.
Now our purpose here isn't to defend too strongly this position, which for some critics comes across as high-minded and even hypocritical, with Haneke setting up narrative conventions - the invasive tapes that are sent in Hidden, the intruders in the house in Funny Games - only to reject them when he feels they no longer suit his purpose. As Catherine Wheatley says in Michael Haneke's Cinema: The Ethic of the Image: "...perceptive reviewers including Sight and Sound's Mark Kermode and The Village Voice's J. Hoberman, pointed to the contradiction between Haneke's stated aims and his cinematic aesthetic. [Funny Games'] heavy dependence on the very generic structures it critiques led to accusations of hypocrisy on the director's part." It is instead to concentrate chiefly on the cruelty of his gaze in relation to the need to undermine the interpassive. This is evident for example in the scene from Funny Games where it looks like the family gets revenge, only for the film to rewind the footage and show that just as cinema can create narratives of hope out of situations indicating despair (as most intruder in the house films happen to do), so Haneke can say that since we are watching a fiction made, then the very made object can turn against the viewer also, not only the narrative. The cruelty here resides in the manipulation of the viewer negatively (through the pessimistic over the optimistic), but not only through the narration, but with the form too. Haneke says that we can expect the worst within the story and from the story's creator as well. Haneke doesn't play God with the audience as Hitchcock would, but instead a particular type of devil: the imp of perversity here functioning as the rectitude of a filmmaker rectifying the false consciousness of cinematic expectation. If one expects that the trope of the intruder in the house film (Hider in the House, Cape Fear, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle) usually demands the dispatching of the intruders, then what happens if the film instead dispatches those whose house it is, and does so in a manner that insists even the filmmaker will not help the viewer out? It isn't just that the diegesis ends without hope, but that the film actively denies that hope in the very form.
If Haneke had made a film that would have meditated on the problem concerning the intruder genre then that would be one thing, but to mediate it through a self-reflexive form is another. Fassbinder for example was a self-reflexive director, often using door frames to suggest frames within frames, and frequently utilized Douglas Sirk's work to make melodramatic films which at the same time would insert radical social critique into the story. Yet while Fassbinder would still allow space for the passive as he searched out ways in which to deny the interpassivity of spectators who would not ask questions of the films themselves, Haneke demands interactivity. If we might wonder whether the great filmmakers of the sixties and seventies (from the ones mentioned to Bergman, Antonioni and Bunuel) risked flirting with boredom - one thinks of Antonioni's nickname, 'Antoni-ennui' - Haneke is, like other late modern filmmakers Lars von Trier, Gaspar Noe, Bruno Dumont, Carlos Reygadas, someone who often flirts instead with outrage. If the great modernists of film risked in the viewers narcolepsy, these late modernists might instead generate epilepsy: the body doesn't slow down, but is suddenly expected to speed up: to feel at risk rather than at rest. When Haneke says in an LFF supplement in Sight andSound, 'Believing not Seeing', that: "I would go so far as to talk about moving pictures as art only if they contain these operations of immanent self-reflection (which have in all the other art-forms of modernity for so long been a sine qua non)", we might wonder how the newer generation presents this self-consciousness differently from the earlier directors. Of course there are shocking images in the films of the auteurs we have mentioned. The opening sequence of Persona, the eyeball scene in Bunuel's twenties film Un ChienAndalou, the slaughterhouse scene in In The Year of Thirteen Moons, even the sex scenes in Identification of a Woman, but the raison d'etre lies elsewhere. In Funny Games, Anti-Christ, Irreversible, Battle in Heaven and Twenty Nine Palms, the films invoke the possibility of a disgruntled exit: it is a vital dimension of the work. As Time Out's Ben Kenigsberg notes, "Haneke has told journalists that viewers who could learn from Funny Games will stay until the end, and that those who don't need the lesson will simply walk out". It would seem a remark that could be echoed by Reygadas, Noe and others. Didn't Noe insist on giving the audience a thirty second warning near the end of Seul contre tous, offering them the chance to leave the theatre?
Contemporary filmmakers seem to be trying to find a place between the interactivity of mixed media, the self-reflexivity of the great art Haneke invokes, and the interpassivity he insists is central to most mainstream film. As Haneke says in relation to the latter, in a passage quoted in Senses of Cinema, "my films are intended as polemical statements against the American 'barrel down' cinema and its dis-empowerment of the spectator. 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." The mainstream film in this sense wants to provoke and even replace feeling, with Slavoj Zizek exploring well Pfaller's ideas in his essay 'The Interpassive Subject.' "In some societies, the same role [of interpassivity] is played by so-called "weepers" (women hired to cry at funerals): they can do the spectacle of mourning for the relatives of the deceased, who can dedicate his time to more profitable endeavors (like taking care of how to split the inheritance). Similarly in the Tibetan praying wheels, I put a piece of paper with the prayer written on it into the wheel, turn it around mechanically (or, even more practically, let the wind turn it around), and the wheel is praying for me..." Zizek adds, "to dispel the illusion that such things can only happen in "primitive" societies, think about the canned laughter on a TV-screen...even if I do not laugh, but simply stare at the screen, tired after a hard day's work, I nonetheless feel relieved after the show, as if the TV did the laughing for me." This is the problem for Haneke with the mainstream, but the opposite would hardly be the solution either. The interactivity of computer games leaves the viewer not interpassive, but interactive, but is this perhaps a false feeling of mastery? In the video game we may have control of the virtual world, but does it tell us anything about our existence beyond that virtual sphere? If Hollywood proposes a relationship with the real world that it negotiates interpassively for us, then the video game gives us the opportunity to shoot the villains, but it doesn't seem to create the space for an ethical relationship with the image. Whether interactive or interpassive, where is the broader sense of responsibility?
This is not the place to analyse the video game, but only to point out that the interactivity involved is hardly the escape from interpassivity Haneke seeks. Instead what he seems to be searching for is the 'hermeneutically active', to insist that one possesses an intellectually active relationship. The problem with the video game here would be that it may expect us to engage in reconfigurating the mise-en-scene, in being part of the world shown as we take out baddies, scale-walls, and leap through fire with one's avatar, but the problem of meaning is not broached. We don't wonder why we have taken out the person in our way or climbed the wall, they are acts of action pragmatics. The villain and the wall are obstacles. But in Haneke's work he wants one to be, ethically and epistemologically, as actively involved as one would be with our motor skills in playing the game. It is a place between the interpassivity of canned laughter that means we don't even have to laugh since the audience is doing it for us, and the video game that insists we immerse ourselves in the sensory motor experience, but don't think too much about the ethical implications of our actions.
What examples can we give of this hermeneutic activity, this sense we have watching a Haneke film where our relationship with knowledge and morality are not so much called into question, but called to order: where we are expected to be involved in the process of making meaning and arriving at only tentative conclusions? Maybe it is useful provisionally to break this activity down into three categories: the violent, the personal, and the social, though all three often interact with each other.
Examples of the violent would include the scene in Benny's Video where the youthful central character shoots a fellow teenager dead, the moment in Hidden where Georges' half-brother slits his throat, the self-administered knife stab at the end of The PianoTeacher, Georges suffocating his wife in Amour, the killer spree at the end of 71Fragments of a Chronicle of Chance, and of course, the murdered family in Funny Games. In Benny's Video, the scene where he kills the girl is mostly off-screen. After shooting her in the stomach with a slaughtering gun, she falls to the ground and the film views the rest of the sequence on a monitor in the room as the film camera concentrates on what the video camera witnesses. Even here, though, the event is mainly off-screen, with Haneke focusing chiefly on the sound of the girl's screams. The interpassive approach to such a scene would also probably contain within it a dimension of the sensory motor. The music would contribute to the adrenaline state the girl would be feeling as she tries to escape after being shot, and the image would indicate ways in which she might escape: a cut to the door, to a weapon she might be able to club her attacker with. Instead Haneke forces the viewer into extreme passivity all the better to generate an ethical questioning, as we listen to her squeals of anguish, and watch a more or less blank monitor. There are similarities here with the scene in Funny Games, with the couple's son shot by the killers and we focus on the blood all over the TV screen while the Grand Prix race continues indifferently.
In each instance, Haneke pushes the spectator out of their interpassive expectation, and into an ethical hermeneutic that asks not only questions about what we are seeing, but why we are choosing to watch it at all. If there was an element to Antonioni, Godard and Jancso's films where we might wonder what we were watching, maybe we didn't quite have to ask why we were watching. When Godard dawdles over Jean Seberg and Jean Paul Belmondo lying in bed in Breathless, when Jancso shows the ritualized activities in RedPsalm, when Antonioni shows the central character in La notte wandering through the streets, we may wonder what we are watching but not quite why. It would take a filmmaker like Pier Paolo Pasolini in Salo to ask this type of question, and few films since have quite pushed this issue of whether the viewer should stay where they are or get up and leave more than the Italian director in his final work. As Haneke acknowledges in Der Spiegel, "Look, Pier Paolo Pasolini's film "Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom", which deals with sexual perversion in fascist Italy, scared me so much that I was sick for 14 days. Completely wiped out. To this day, I haven't drummed up the courage to watch it again. Never again did I look into such a deep abyss and rarely have I learned so much." One reason why we ask the 'what' question in numerous 'art house' films is because the film leaves behind the development of the story for other things: for a critique on history, a commentary on urbanism, an exploration of intimacy. We could find ourselves epistemologically bored, but not ethically confronted. Haneke wants that ethical confrontation by utilizing elements of the freedom of aesthetic choice Godard, Antonioni and Jancso adopted, but towards extreme imagery which makes it all the more distressing that the film does not follow the story but confronts us with our impassivity in the face of it.
The second area of the hermeneutically active concerns the personal, where Haneke removes the context that another film would be obliged to offer. We don't know much about the back stories of the two killers in Funny Games, past love interests or projections of Erika in The Piano Teacher, precisely what the husband's job was in Amour, why Anne changes the security code at the end of Code: Unknown. There are clear actions but no clear motivations. The killers in Funny Games will murder the family but we don't really know why, just as Erika will become obsessed with Walter in the Piano Teacher but we have no idea whether this is the first time or a recurring trauma. Where Elfriede Jelinek's novel The Piano Teacher talks of earlier encounters, "with a salesman who tried to pick her up in a cafe", "a young law student and a young school teacher", here Erika remains sexually a blank slate. This allows for productive aporia; for us to muse over motivation without assuming we know for sure where the actions come from. When in Amour the husband turns a little sourly to his wife as she looks through a photo album, might we wonder why she seems happy with her past and he seems less so? Some might claim this is Haneke showing little interest in character, but it is more useful to see the director's interest in character allowing space for interpretive investment. When the camera holds on Erika's face while Walter performs his audition in The Piano Teacher, or later when she looks on inscrutably as Walter and one of her pupils react warmly to each other, before Erika goes off and puts broken glass in the girl's coat pocket, this is the director at least as fascinated by character as someone utilising voice-over to express what is going through Erika's mind. The difference is that Haneke searches out an empathy through her body, the other director through a character's mind. Haneke holds the camera on Erika in these instances for longer than is expected, as though cinema itself has its own version of the social rule that it is rude to stare at a person for more than a couple of seconds. But Haneke has no interest in such socio-cinematic norms as he allows us to muse over what is going on in Erika's mind, without giving us back story, voice-over or clear motivation for her later actions.
Whether it is watching Erika in The Piano Teacher, the brother crying in The SeventhContinent, Georges returning to his home near the end of Hidden, taking sleeping pills, phoning his wife and getting into bed, the film scrutinizes character from the outside, but scrutinizes it nevertheless. In the sequence from Hidden, the film offers a thirty second fixed take on Georges in the kitchen, a minute long shot while he is on the phone in the sitting room, and about forty seconds as he closes the curtains and gets into bed. Here we might be wondering what is going on in this man's mind, and Haneke films the sequence to create that sense of enquiry. If the director kept cutting from one thing to another, from Georges taking the pill, to drinking water from the tap, to going into the sitting room and picking up the phone, to close ups of him talking on it, the action would seem more important than the enquiry. In Haneke's work he doesn't assume we can know somebody's thoughts, but we can often infer them.
It is as if formally the difference between inferring and knowing comes in the slow accumulation of detail at one remove in the former, while the action contains what can be known in the latter as the film cuts within the conventional film vocabulary of establishing shots and close-ups to reflect this. We aren't positioned obliquely and aloofly, but directly and immediately, and so the form doesn't call the behaviour into question; it reflects the behaviour. It is of course the case that Haneke gives us often complex or strangely motivated characters (the killers in Funny Games, Erika in The Piano Teacher, Georges in Hidden, Georges in Amour), but he more commonly gives us complexly filmed situations. The closing shot in Hidden showing the two boys talking may leave us wondering what they are talking about, but central to this complexity is the formal decision made: we have to pick them out from the crowd within a busy frame, and because they remain at a great distance from us, we are not privy to what they are talking about. Here again this isn't a lack of interest in character, but a demand that we probe into the nature of it through Haneke's framing, a framing that asks for empathic understanding but not simple co-feeling.
The third element of active hermeneutics resides in the socio-political. When Haneke says that "we imprison ourselves to defend our affluence. The main characters in "Funny Games" are prisoners in their own world. In the end, they are unable to scale the security fences intended to keep intruders off their property" (Der Spiegel), it is an example of this need to examine the socio-political nature of the characters' circumstances." On CodeUnknown he says, "at the time when Antiquity turned into the Middle Ages there was a migration of nations. Now there is a new one which, in detail, obviously has different causes, but the primary reasons are economic, both then and now, the divide, the divide between rich and poor. A lot of our people are fed up about it, but there is no way around it." (Enthusiasm) In Code Unknown the notion of poverty takes the form of a homeless woman, Maria, from Romania begging on the Parisian streets, while relative wealth is manifest in Juliette Binoche's Anne, an actress. But both suffer through the socio-political: Maria will be sent back home after a situation on the street, while Anne will be abused and spat on in the metro. As in Hidden, Amour and Time of the Wolf there are tensions based on or hint at racial, ethnic or class conflict. In Hidden, there is the moment where Georges and a black cyclist clash; while in Amour the exchange between Georges and the nurse might be based on her insensitivity towards Anne, but his contains within it his own complacent ability to buy her off. At the beginning of Time of the Wolf, Anne's husband is killed when a hungry family comes looking for basic supplies in an apocalyptic world where some social differences can still be discerned. Anne and George are clearly bourgeois; the other family clearly not.
Haneke's socio-political critique is not of course party political. "My films have never defended any party-political interests" (Enthusiasm), he says, unlike other important filmmakers, whether it be Jean-Luc Godard during his Maoist phase, Eisenstein's Soviet work in the twenties, or Ken Loach's socialism for most of his career. This is not to set up Haneke against two masters and one fine filmmaker, but it is to try and understand Haneke's interest in the political. He often films a situation that has the possibility for different perspectives, for the interpretive faculty to be deployed. Generally we will side with the black cyclist in Hidden, Anne in Code Unknown, Georges In Amour and Georges and Anne's family in The Time of the Wolf, but Haneke would seem not to want us to do so unequivocally. There is often a socio-political dimension within the conflict that means we can't simply side with a character, but must find within our ethical stance a political one also. What are the power dynamics at work, and how might we negotiate them in our own lives? Georges might be right in Hidden to get annoyed within someone cycling too fast in the wrong direction up a one way street, but his tone is irritated and superior, the entitlement voice of a man who we will see has practiced this sense of superiority since being a child. Even the much sympathetic Anne's abuse on the metro in Code: Unknowncomes from a couple of young Arabs, who may possess a justifiable gripe generally, but we are hardly likely to give it much credence specifically, as they take it out on perhaps the most bourgeois figure on the train. Haneke would seem to want a push-me pull me feeling in such scenes, so that we can never fall smugly into our own socio-political assumptions, but must work with the variables.
Thus, these are three areas of interpretive freedom we can discern in Haneke's films. The violent, the personal and the socio-political are the three categories in which we can escape from the interpassive not of course by interactivity, but by hermeneutically working with the elements of the film that are complex and problematic. Some of the problems Haneke addresses were of course present in the work of some of the New German filmmakers. The interest in dead time Haneke's films utilise as we've proposed in the scene where George gets ready to go to bed, can be found in Wenders' Kings of the Road and Alice in the Cities. And they are evident in still more quotidian detail: the central character's shave in the former; the central character's desultory TV watching in the latter. The problem of social critique is evident in almost all of Fassbinder's work. Emmi's embarrassment when failing to order properly from the menu in Hitler's former eatery in Fear Eats the Soul, and the mother's insistence that her son won't take a menial mechanic's job in The Merchant ofthe Four Seasons, are examples that could easily be found in Haneke's films, though the issue of social status would be differently deployed. Sometimes the blank stare of Haneke's approach might make us think of Herzog, even if Haneke's compatriot Ulrich Seidl seems finally more Herzogian than Haneke. Nevertheless. there are moments with the pigeon in Amour, the cock in Hidden and the pig in Benny's Video that possess an element of Herzog's quizzical aloofness.
Yet Haneke equally appears to be a filmmaker generationally connected but aesthetically at several removes from this movement, and we feel this distance resides in Haneke's making active the potentially passive spectator. Most of the New German Cinema directors were less concerned with generating the active than absorbing the passive, finding new ways to make the viewer critical without making the viewer dismayed, disturbed, manipulated. There are strong moments in seventies New German Cinema (the beheading in Aguirre, Wrath of God, the defecating scene in Kings of the Road, the slaughterhouse sequence in In the Year of Thirteen Moons), but it is not a cinema of visceral confrontation, but of ideological and aesthetic enquiry. One absorbs the image in all its slowness and, on occasion, in its apparent audience indifference. It is as though the filmmakers had turned in on themselves and then back out to the society and nature after, and from, this deliberate self-absorption. Haneke is more external, much more aware of the audience as a contributory maker of meaning and this is his strength if also perhaps his weakness. This isn't the place to go into what those weaknesses may be, though a couple of them might include the complacent notion of a specific type of viewer (the passive American filmgoer), and an unwillingness to see that some of the devices he utilises (like the whodunit in Hidden, the sci-fi apocalypse in The Time of the Wolf, the intruder in the house genre in Funny Games ), possess generic rules, and to break them is also to endanger certain logical requirements and explanatory expectations that aren't simply cheap devices. Some might even argue that Haneke's are cheaper still as we've suggested in mentioning Kermode and Hoberman.
No, our purpose has been chiefly to explore what makes Haneke a new and important director, a filmmaker who believes in an audience one feels much more than Herzog, Wenders and even Fassbinder, and positions his films in a way that incorporates their contribution to the film's meaning in an attempt to stave off interpassive spectatorship. Haneke is a polemicist, and at the same time a sort of practising reception theorist, who intriguingly claims to know what his films are about, who claims to know what the enigmas actually mean (as in Hidden for example), but refuses to divulge them to the spectator. This is not quite a cinema of enquiry, where the filmmaker's camera is a querying probe into the nature of things, but instead an authoritative command of the medium that insistently leaves spaces to generate a viewer that feels free. Whether they are or not, is surely a moot point if the filmmaker has the answer to hand, but keeps it close to his chest; a card sharp playing an elaborate guessing game. But for all that, Haneke's work is important, as he more than almost anybody else creates a cinema of cruelty in a number of ways. Not only does he show often violent images, not only does he remove ready identification, not only does he put us in ambivalent social situations, he also withholds meaning that he acknowledges will not be divulged. These are some of the reasons why Haneke is admired but not quite respected and far from loved. But the oeuvre is also a body of work that helps us understand cinema and society into the new millennium. As Gilberto Pereze says, "Horror movies frighten us; violent thrillers agitate us; sentimental stories make us cry. Suffering is often part of our enjoyment. Within limits, however: we are not to be so displeased that we are not pleased. Buuel deliberately went beyond the limits of permissible displeasure. And so, in his own way, does the Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke." (London Review of Books) Indeed, we might say that Haneke does so far beyond Bunuel's demands. The famous and particularly transgressively cruel moment in Un Chien Andalou where an eye is sliced with a razor blade is an apt image to sum up much of Haneke's cinema, and the unease he makes us feel not in an isolated moment, but over the body of his work.
© Tony McKibbin