Four books, comprising more than twelve hundred pages of reflections on the films and thoughts of Michael Haneke, lie askew on the desk in front of me. Peeking from their covers, yellow Post-it Notes run up and down the volumes’ sides. A quick perusal of the margins reveals penciled notes in my own hand: exclamation points, question marks, sometimes question marks followed by exclamation points. Many considered but, yes, some testy, scribbled comments abound. Clearly, Haneke Studies has ballooned into a minor publishing industry, and anyone wishing to take stock of it has to be willing to commit time and energy comparable to what they may previously have devoted to the lives and works of Orson Welles, Jean Renoir, or Sergei Eisenstein. What should one make of the stunning recent proliferation of academic texts devoted to this Austrian director, whose thirty-plus years of making European “art cinema” has developed over a period when that model was steadily receding from the forefront of the worldwide university discipline of Cinema Studies? (1) And what, if anything, do the diverse approaches to Haneke’s films by his professorial acolytes say about the practice of film criticism today?
For the moment, at least, Haneke’s reputation seems to have reached its apogee. He is one of the last representatives of the great era of German-language art cinema, which began in the mid-1960s, and which entered its death throes after Fassbinder’s drug-induced demise thirty years ago, before, perhaps, breathing its last once Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire hit global movie screens in 1987. Few filmmakers from that explosive, formative era of “Das Neue Kino,” in fact, still command much attention outside the borders of Germany except in German Literature or Film Studies departments. Alexander Kluge has been hors commerce as a filmmaker for a quarter century. Volker Schlondorff has remained content to work rather anonymously at the artier margins of commercial filmmaking for nearly as long. Though once regarded with great promise, Reinhard Hauff, Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, Helke Sander, Edgar Reitz, and Dorris Dorrie have largely disappeared from international view, while today, certainly, only small American movie audiences still eagerly await new work by Wenders, Margarethe von Trotta, or Jean-Marie Straub. Currently, no other contemporary filmmaker of German or Austrian origin–with the notable exception of Werner Herzog–has a claim equal to Haneke’s august stature as an auteur. Haneke’s career is, as Roy Grundmann aptly characterizes it, “anachronistic”: it is a throwback to another age and paradigm of making movies.
In some ways, Haneke was fortunate in being a latecomer. Prior to 1989, he had worked for Austrian and German television, although often at a relatively lavish scale, just as the competition for new viewers heated up in the late 1970s, when pan-European, satellite commercial channels with substantial programming budgets were first introduced in those countries. His own initial efforts for the big screen began only when the New German Cinema was entering its terminal phase, yet Haneke somehow managed to surmount the formidable difficulties bedeviling subsequent European filmmaking that have stymied the careers of many of his peers. Indeed, he has thrived. A surprising number of Haneke’s last half-dozen films, regularly financed by the now inevitable public-private consortiums from several different European countries, have earned him critical as well as box-office successes in world markets. Clearly, his work continues to generate interest in reasonably large audiences who still seek out his brand of “art cinema” as a meaningful vehicle of edifying entertainment.
Art cinema was always distinguished by its passionate commitment to formal innovation and scripts that pronounced on the grandest sorts of ideas. Haneke’s films certainly qualify on both counts. To be sure, Roy Grundmann, Peter Brunette, and Thomas Elsaesser, among the most searching of Haneke’s commentators, do intermittently express a certain ambivalence toward the well-worn themes of his films. After all, Haneke’s signature concern at the beginning of his career–the failures of human relationships in cold, modern urban societies where the ability to communicate has (supposedly) radically atrophied–has been a staple of sociological concerns since the late nineteenth-century publication of Ferdinand Tonnies’s famous tract, Gemeinschaft und Gesellschafi (Society and Community). For most of the contributors in the sixty-six chapters contained in these books under review, however, such a theme does not seem hackneyed at all, but rather the very stuff of which exquisite art cinema cauchemars are made.
It is also true, of course, that Haneke’s themes have developed and matured, especially since what might be thought of as his middle-period films of the 1990s onward. Haneke’s later themes have never achieved the loftiness of Antonioni’s riffs on existential alienation or Bergman’s grappling with the fact of human cruelty, the loss of religious faith, and the inevitability of death. Instead, they echo some of today’s headlines even as they hark back to now classic, neo-Marxist expositions of the dangers posed by the mass media. Going back at least as far as Guy Debord and the Situationists in the 1960s, contemporary media-saturated environments have regularly been charged with derealizing experience in general, diminishing social interactions as well as desensitizing viewers to the violence that inevitably bursts forth under such conditions for the legions of sad, addled watchers addicted to mass-produced TV programs and films. And, in another vein, many European intellectuals have lamented the ways in which their societies have failed to live up to universalist ideals by closing off to “Others” from both outside and inside their cultural borders. Haneke, a former philosophy student, has repeatedly emphasized these themes in his interviews and occasional writings. He has also dramatized them in films like Code Unknown (2000) or Cache (2005), and they clearly have resonated with European and American academics who share his concerns and have read many of the same formative books Haneke has. The result has been an enviable amount of gratifying attention from anxious, generally left-leaning cultural observers on both sides of the Atlantic.
Haneke’s exponents, moreover, find much to praise in his coolly cerebral explorations of film form. His achievements in this regard have also matured, grown more assured since his first television films, though certain fundamental strategies have remained cornerstones of his style from its beginnings. As many of the essayists in these volumes correctly suggest, Haneke’s stylistic embrace of fragmentation, difficulty, and ambiguity is correctly labeled “modernist”–yet another way in which his orientation is, in Grundmann’s phrase, anachronistic in a postmodern age. The episodic, elliptical narratives of early films like The Seventh Continent (1989) or 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994), and even the less radical, but still open-ended plot of his most recent success, The White Ribbon (2009), have garnered for Haneke waves of critical applause that fanned out from Germany through the agency of European and international festivals, principally Cannes, where he has been awarded several of the major prizes. The physical brutality meted out to innocent haute-bourgeois victims during the agonizing long takes of the first, German version of Funny Games (1997) underscored Haneke’s mastery of camera movement, raise en scene, and his astute direction of actors (a skill that receives remarkably little attention in these texts under review), even as it highlighted his clear taste for provoking controversy, indeed outrage, from some spectators. (Consider but one of his shockingly flamboyant, though highly calculated, remarks expressing his intent “to rape the spectator into autonomy.” Indeed.) Many reviewers have also followed Haneke’s lead when in interviews he described the way he has tried to fashion his films as quasimusical orchestrations of varied patterns of shots, objects, and actions–since the 1920s a dream of avant-garde filmmakers and the critics who have applauded them.
Importantly, however, Haneke does not conceive of his formal innovations as mere exercises of art for art’s sake. He conceives of his narratives as relevant allegories of current historical, social, and political concerns, and of his techniques as crucial vehicles to convey them. For example, the studied ambiguity of mediated and “real” images in Cache–explored by Tom Levin in his brilliant essay for Grundmann’s anthology, and by Rosalind Gait and Patrick Crowley in their contributions to the Price/Rhodes collection-artfully meditates on a long-suppressed episode of the wanton murder in 1961 of hundreds of Algerian protesters by French police in the heart of Paris itself. These studied allusions, articulated through such striking means, have burnished Haneke’s leftish political credentials by making plain his longstanding engagement both with neo-Adornoesque media critiques and the fight for multicultural values in a rapidly changing Europe. (2) Such efforts have secured for Haneke a well-cultivated persona as a modernist avatar and the legitimate heir to the great, politically engaged, European art cinema directors before him. His shock of white hair and beard have only enhanced this well-honed image.
No one can question the largeness of ambition animating Haneke’s achievements, and the considerable diversity of perspectives on his oeuvre is evident in these volumes. Roy Grundmann’s edited anthology is extravagantly rich in this respect: it includes no less than twenty-nine critical essays, as well as two interesting texts by Haneke himself translated into English for the first time; a reprint of Christopher Sharrett’s oft-cited interview with the filmmaker; and a new, ranging conversation with Haneke by the editor. Most of the essays were first presented as talks at a Boston University conference in 2007, although their length and the density of the articles’ many footnotes indicate that they have been substantially beefed up for publication (at a rather beefy, price, too).
Although more modestly scaled (and bearing a much lower price tag), the Price-Rhodes collection encompasses fifteen essays addressing a variety of thematic issues, including the lethal violence that suddenly erupts into the stories of so many Haneke films. The texts also offer more general considerations of his cinematic style and his films’ place in the changing philosophical discourses of contemporary Europe. Both anthologies contain welcome information about and analyses of Haneke’s earliest forays into television drama, which have rarely been seen abroad since they were broadcast in the countries that commissioned them. The two individually authored books provide shorter but more comprehensive surveys of the best-known Haneke films. These monographic texts supplement their authors’ more specialized articles in the anthologies. The two book-length accounts of Haneke’s career differ in a crucial respect. Despite its careful attention to pertinent theoretical issues raised by the films, the late Peter Brunette’s compact study seems geared more toward undergraduates, while graduate students and faculty who read German will be better able to negotiate the convolutions of Rutgers University professor Fatima Naqvi’s sophisticated, more theoretically inflected prose.
Even simply listing the various approaches to Haneke’s work contained in these volumes would take up the bulk of the space allotted to me for this review. I therefore can do no more than to briefly mention Roy Grundmann’s fifty-page essay “Haneke’s Anachronism,” which provides a searching overview of Haneke’s directorial career and perceptively frames many of the topics pursued by contributors to his anthology,. Grundmann’s equally long reflections on Haneke’s modernism, “Between Adorno and Lyotard: Michael Haneke’s Aesthetic of Fragmentation,” also can only be referenced here rather than explored in the depth it deserves. Together, certainly, these two texts constitute a virtual stand-alone monograph that explores the theory and formal dimensions, the scope and possible interpretations, of Haneke’s work. For those interested in Haneke’s ongoing projects, these essays will constitute a foundation for much further discussion and debate.
Interdisciplinarity, it seems, is the watchword governing all the approaches to Haneke’s cinema gathered in these books. For many–though certainly not all–authors, it is not enough, apparently, to look closely at the interrelationships of the images and sounds, the edits and camera movements, the raise en scene and performances that Haneke uses to construct the narratives he imagines. Some do, of course, and these are, for me, among the most illuminating contributions. For many of the authors, however, analyzing the works themselves is usually only a jumping-off point toward more distant–sometimes very faraway–intellectual horizons. The disciplines such authors refer to are astoundingly diverse: psychoanalysis, sociology, political science, philosophy, literary theory, and film theory. Brian Price and John David Rhodes introduce their anthology by commenting that most of the essays they reproduce “take up the challenge of Haneke’s work” to offer nothing less than “new theories of culture and the image that speak to questions that must be answered by way of philosophy as much as or more than they must be answered by way of film theory.” This is a tack also taken by some of those contributing to Grundmann’s collection. Such an understanding of what writers supposedly have to do to engage with Haneke’s films, however, constitutes a tall order to fill and bears risks. Stakes are thereby ratcheted up to a pitch encountered infrequently in film writing. A large degree of intellectual showmanship, admittedly not unfamiliar in academic venues, inevitably comes with the territory. The need to locate in Haneke’s pronouncements and his films supposedly decisive insights into philosophical matters (ontological, epistemological, moral, etc.), or into questions of cultural identity conflicts, however, too often leads to claims that strain credibility. The writers tend to overestimate both the quality or importance of individual works as well as their own command of highly specialized disciplines that they import to bolster Haneke’s (and, one suspects, their own) statures. At their worst, these essays should remind us that hagiography is always a lurking danger in academic auteurist studies. Bloated claims and blowsy writing, something to which quite a number of the philosophers or sociologists manque in these anthologies succumb, is too often the result.
A few of Grundmann’s colleagues add interpretive notes that are sometimes oddly out of key in the chorus of writing about Haneke in the United States. Gregor Thuswaldner, for example, poses Haneke as a religious thinker, a dimension that for quite a while has been grist for the mill of several Austrian theologians turned film commentators, although it has not been previously acknowledged very much byAmerican writers. Thuswaldner discourses at length about Jansenism, the seventeenth-century Catholic sect whose philosophical tenets were important to Robert Bresson, whom Haneke claims as a major influence on his work. As his essay continues, however, Thuswaldner backtracks to undermine his own hypothesis. He correctly notes that in Haneke’s world, “organized religion seems like a relic from the past … whose presence is more embarrassing than comforting.” As he also observes, in 71 Fragments the primary Christian symbol of the cross appears as a mere doodle. And one would be hard put, certainly, to find any God references or religious sentiments infiltrating the icy amorality of Funny Games or La Pianiste (2001), although one might argue that something masquerading as religious conviction does reappear in The White Ribbon. A kind of intellectual inertia is at work here that transforms the paucity of such reflections in Haneke’s films into a concerted meditation on faith. Aside from some characters, who are sometimes relatively minor ones at that, and Haneke’s limited, rather rote deployment of Christian symbols, he does not really seem interested in religious belief per se, as were, say, Bresson, Bergman, or Dreyer. Moral issues more general than any particular dogma, however, such as the debased values of modern consumer societies, remain a pertinent topic when discussing his work.
Many of Haneke’s commentators attempt to focus on what they understand as these larger moral-cum-political issues. Unfortunately, in order to define them, the authors often force-march readers through bulky discursive material. This is too often a burdensome imposition. Jorg Mettelmann, for example, rehashes some well-known ideas about Brechtian distanciation in order to suggest that Haneke’s filmmaking goal “is to push alienation to an unprecedented degree of otherness.” To flesh out this rather cryptic, vague conclusion, he then devotes no less than eight long pages to an elaborate, shifting account of melodrama that, in passing, includes reflections on: Arundhati Roy’s comments about George W. Bush; Eva Illouz’s sociology of “emotional capitalism”; the way that Freud, Abraham Maslow, and Carl Rogers allegedly “psychologized” life; constructions of the history, politics, and structural dynamics of melodrama by Linda Williams, Elizabeth Anker, and Peter Brooks; Jean-Francois Lyotard’s critique of Niklas Luhmann’s “depersonalized systems theory,” and so on and on. Such a glut of references bludgeons the reader and only blurs the focus of Mettelmann’s argument about Haneke’s quasi-Brechtian critique of melodrama.
A similar intellectual bloat pervades Brian Price’s essay “Bureaucracy and Visual Style,” also in the Grundmann volume. In order to explain the expressive dimensions of eleven tracking shots in one of Haneke’s lesser works, his TV adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Castle (1997), Price spends eight full pages teasing out Claude Lefort’s theory of bureaucracy, which Price punctuates with asides to Max Weber, Richard Sennett, and Deleuze and Guattari (on rhizomatic form, naturally), before winding up with Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe (on the teleological movement of capital). To be sure, Kafka’s novel does evoke–often comically–the frustrations of dealing with institutionalized bureaucracies and the slippery evasiveness of their functionaries. Although Price’s descriptions of the camera movements that follow, lead, and tantalize K. during his struggle to get to the castle are admirably precise, his chewy, at times congested, prose produces a tortured reading of Haneke’s camera movements that are expressive without the elaborate intellectual apparatus Price conjures to explain them.
Another case in point: Alexis Lykidis offers many pages of what is surely an unnecessary history lesson about bourgeoisie/ state relations from the French Revolution onward, no less, in order to discuss French immigration policy in recent decades. The precis of boiler-plate history he lays out is then brought to bear on scenes in Code Unknown and Cache that are quite comprehensible without such a preamble. Self-inflating verbiage posing as philosophical speculation also weighs down his text. In Code Unknown, Lykidis rightly observes, the protagonist Anne (Juliette Binoche) more than once acts out what the film viewer does not initially perceive as a staged, scripted performance. These are gripping scenes, crucial both to the elaboration of Anne’s character and the narrative enigmas of the film. But Lykidis’s further comments about them far overshoot the mark: Haneke, he (ex?)claims, “reveals the role of desire, subjectivity, and projection in the production of knowledge, promoting an epistemological relativism that reminds us of the opacity of social experience.” Such pretentious babble then leads Lykidis to claim that Haneke’s films challenge nothing less than the universalism of European political discourse, its purported values and cosmopolitanism, in order to “reveal the limits of European bourgeois paradigms in explaining contemporary multicultural realities.” These three authors’ flights of pseudosophistication simply smother the films they discuss. I could unfortunately cite too many other examples of similarly overblown claims that plague the reader in other essays from both volumes. In their zeal to make Haneke into a Continental Thinker of the first order, his most zealous “philosophical” acolytes sometimes simply overlook Haneke’s filmmaking knowhow and his passionate interest in the films of his peers.
Simply put, Haneke is an intellectual, yes, but also a cineaste, something immediately apparent in Haneke’s own essay on Robert Bresson, whose late films’ sparse, parametric style clearly influenced the quasi-musical structure of Haneke’s early works. Happily, some of the authors do focus on such issues. Charles Warren offers a stimulating, freewheeling essay that illuminates the ways in which La Pianiste, among other Haneke works, engages in an intertextual dialog with other films and filmmakers. The range is very large indeed: Warren cites individual works by Kiarostami, Tarkovsky, and Robert Altman, among others. Hugh Manon makes similar attempts to locate cinematic sources for some of Haneke’s films. Leland Monk’s careful comparison of the American remake with the original Funny Games usefully highlights the ways Haneke’s project poses fundamental challenges to Hollywood norms. These essays provide thought-provoking touchstones for further thinking.
Other contributors deepen one’s understanding of the cinematic forms Haneke has created by tying careful observations to insightful, neatly argued critical perspectives they bring to bear. Tom Conley closely examines the complicated first tracking shot, lasting more than eight minutes, of Code Unknown. Prefacing his detailed description of the long take with some general remarks about the functioning of codes according to the psychoanalyst Guy Rosolato and the semiologist Roland Barthes, Conley demonstrates how small details and repeat exchanges can be discerned that reveal what may be at stake in this particular instance of what Godard once called the “moral drama of the tracking shot.” Conley, moreover, looks deeply into the set to locate embedded details–the bakery sign, Viennoiserie, for example, or a reference to the early French filmmaker Louis Feuillade–whose allusions or punning language amplifies the theme.
Some may argue that such readings of nearly invisible and arcane minutiae are too forced, but this is not the only time Haneke, like many directors of the French New Wave before him, placed tantalizing thematic clues on shop windows or movie marquees. When Georges exits from the movie theater in Cache, for example, he briefly lingers under the posters, providing time for the viewer to read them for clues directly relevant for his key ambivalence toward Majid, his erstwhile stepbrother who has just committed suicide. Looking closely at the language on the large posters, one can, in fact, make out, from left to right: “La … Education,” “Ma Mere,” “Deux Freres,” and “So! Film?”–a virtual summary, one could say, of what the film is, at least in part, about. A complementary reading of many long takes in Haneke’s films by John David Rhodes reveals the complex theoretical relationship they sustain with Andre Bazin’s theory of cinematic realism, even as they are countered by what Rhodes calls “Haneke’s spectacles of skepticism.” Such essays–and I would add Brigitte Peuker’s essay on Code Unknown that appears in both anthologies–enhance one’s appetite to see the films again.
Peter Brunette’s blow-by-blow plot description of the relatively little seen, two part Lemmings (1979/1981) in Grundmann’s book is very similar to those he provides of the better-known Haneke films in his monograph. His is a more conventional, even old-fashioned, kind of study, but Brunette writes with a clear command of the material and a great admiration for Haneke’s scriptwriting and cinematic skills. He is very attentive to nuances of sound and editing (the resistance to using eye-line matching in The Seventh Continent  is but one example he mentions), the role of close-ups, especially of objects, and Haneke’s predilection for long takes. His plot readings are sensitive and alert to aspects of the characters Haneke creates, and he comments intelligently on the use of media imagery that so often figures in the films, even as he respectfully pokes holes in some of Haneke’s more contradictory or outlandish statements. Brunette is certainly not indifferent to theoretical speculation, but he also knows how to anchor it concretely in the texts it is used to illuminate. Certainly, those seeking a nicely detailed comprehension of what Haneke is about will find this an all too easily raidable source. Brunette does all the work for them. The illustrations are well selected, and they are much sharper than the fuzzy gray images used in both anthologies.
That better reproduction of film stills is possible in film books is clearly evident in Naqvi’s monograph. Published in Austria, Trugersche Vertrautheit (Deceptive Familiarity) displays many sharp, relevant images; an additional eighteen pages taken from Haneke’s shooting scripts provide tantalizing insights into his working practices and suggest how much benefit could be derived from more thorough investigations of such sources. Her chapter on the adaptation of Ingeborg Bachmann’s Three Paths to the Lake is essentially similar to her article in Grundmann’s collection, as is the chapter on La Pianiste, which is virtually identical to the piece on the film in the Price-Rhodes collection attributed to her and Christophe Kone. The English version of the first essay is compromised by an editorial lapse: German passages from, ironically, Benjamin’s theory of translation are not themselves translated, producing some rough going for anyone who does not read German. For those who do, however, Naqvi’s patient and insightful analyses of most of Haneke’s major and some minor films, informed by her consistent engagement with relevant, high theory, will prove a stimulating read.
Haneke is not the first–nor will he be the last–filmmaker to be embraced by academic critics who, unlike daily reviewers, have the ambition, time, and training to attempt to comprehend individual films, or an entire oeuvre for that matter, in larger cultural terms. This is by no means a bad fate for a filmmaker–whatever protestations one sometimes hears from any creative artist disconcerted by such occasionally overbearing consideration. Film arrived very late on the world’s cultural agenda, and, in some ways, those of us devoted to it as an art form of great power and eloquence remain protective of and, yes, often defensive about its stature in the hierarchy of the arts.
But can we agree on the following principles? Criticism that enables readers to see the works more clearly, both the crucial formal decisions the filmmaker has made and the range of interpretations they open up, are valuable and to be welcomed as enhancements of the moviegoing experience. But academics writing to show off their intellectual chops for tenure and promotion committees too often lard their texts with dispiriting displays of irrelevant erudition that only dull insight and dampen the enthusiasm that can generate genuine critical engagement..
Books Reviewed in This Article
A Companion to Michael Haneke Edited by Roy Grundmann. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. 638 pp., illus. Hardcover: $204.95.
Michael Haneke by Peter Brunette. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2010. 168 pp., illus. Hardcover: $65.00 and Paperback: $22.00.
On Michael Haneke Edited by Brian Price and John David Rhodes. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2010. 289 pp., illus. Paperback: $29.95.
Trugerische Vertrautheit by Fatima Naqvi, with a foreword by Elfriede Jelinek. Vienna: Synema, 2010. 193 pp., illus. Paperback: EURO 30, available online from email@example.com.