The world’s greatest pure director comes to DC
The American Film Institute’s Silver Spring theater will have a complete retrospective starting Saturday of the films of that man, Michael Haneke (yeah, yeah, he’s only made eight theatrical films — but they ARE all here, so it IS complete). But yes, that’s the Michael Haneke to whom my blog header refers. The Michael Haneke who is simply the best pure director in the world — the moniker I’ve consistently used about him for several years.
I’ve seen all eight of the films in this retro, and every one I’d rank 8 or 9 (curiously, no 10s, though). I’ve already written quite a bit about Haneke. I reviewed TIME OF THE WOLF for The Washington Times here in a piece that was also a expanded, edited and slightly reworked from the 4th capsule that I wrote at the 2003 Toronto fest. I also reviewed CACHE for the Times early this year. I wrote a short capsule on LA PIANISTE for a private board after seeing it at Toronto in 2001. (See the heavily-cached material here and here and here) On that same private board, referring to Haneke as the world’s best “pure director,” I was challenged on what I meant by that by Adam Villani. Here’s what I wrote in response, which collects all my thoughts on why this man is such a master, with a formal control of the medium that is nothing short of staggering. It is slightly edited, and with a few clauses added in italics.
There has been no doubt in my mind for a couple of years now that Haneke was the answer I’d give to “best director in the world,” even though Von Trier has the 10-grades on Haneke by 4-0. But now that you ask … I honestly had to think about this for a while and then look at a few Haneke clips to answer your question, Adam.It’s that Haneke seems to have the most precise, ever-present and complete formal control over his movies of any director I can think of. He both frames and defines his images perfectly (i.e. what he shows) and makes great creative use of offscreen space and sound (i.e. what he doesn’t “show”). And yes I do realize that, by these lights, a great mannerist like Haneke (or Dreyer or Hitchcock or Kubrick) is by definition a greater director than a perhaps equally great artist with a more naturalistic style (say, De Sica or Renoir or Hawks).
For example, at the start of THE SEVENTH CONTINENT, you don’t see a human face for about 10 minutes, but you DO see continual (and often jarringly cut) images of things and stuff, while family conversation goes on like a rite. He’s baiting a trap about the framing (Heidegger’s “gestell” and don’t think that’s not part of Haneke’s point) of the world, that he pounces on in the second half in a near-identical set of shots of stuff, only having other kinds of behaviors performed upon them.
There’s no greater tribute to how masterfully Haneke builds dread and fear in FUNNY GAMES than the realization that there’s almost no blood in this movie and almost all the violence occurs offscreen (though often with offscreen sounds). Haneke also uses offscreen sounds, both short, piercing sounds and long, low sounds — think also the glass-in-pocket from LA PIANISTE, Binoche ironing clothes in CODE UNKNOWN, the various radio shows in SEVENTH CONTINENT and BENNY’S VIDEO. Everything in FUNNY GAMES is in how the two thugs are framed, increasingly obtrusively throughout.
There is a 10-minute unbroken shot in FUNNY GAMES, one of the greatest in film history, in which nothing really happens, but the placing of the four or five key elements in it, the very slight movements of a couple of them, the utter stillness of the frame, the silence on the soundtrack gives you nothing to do but reflect on what has just happened, how you now feel, the catharsis achieved and the loss therein. The subway scene in CODE UNKOWN and the cabin confrontation at the start of TIME OF THE WOLF have a similar tightly-wound tension to them. Meanwhile, the similar appearance of fire on the horizon in TIME OF THE WOLF, incredibly, seems to have almost the opposite effect, yet it doesn’t really because of all the associations Haneke brings to that style.
Then there’s the way the central crime in BENNY’S VIDEO is shown — the shot selection and the setting has the inevitability of a mathematical proof and conveys a whole universe of Oliver Stoneisms in 2 minutes (I’m being vague here I realize … I really don’t want to spoil the utter surprise of the crime for anyone; it’s almost identical in come-out-of-nowhere effect to CACHE’s best-scene winner in last year’s Skandies). Haneke portrays commodity exchange, several types of them, in that movie, and somewhat in THE SEVENTH CONTINENT as well, in a rhymed, consistent manner — from above, in one-second shots, still frame, cuts on movement within the frame. It gives a busy-busy, clinical, antiseptic quality to the alienation of labor.
In CODE UNKNOWN, he cuts off nearly every single-take scene in mid-line, a jarring, uncomfortable gesture that, like nearly everything in Haneke, calls attention to itself. He uses slo-mo and reverse to vicious effect in BENNY’S VIDEO and FUNNY GAMES. He also plays with cinematic convention and mixes in other styles for meta-purposes (the heavily edited material Binoche is performing in CODE UNKNOWN, the documentary pig footage and the TV shows in BENNY’S VIDEO) and to call attention to his own style as a deliberate provocation, as a choice, and a psychological tool. He’s playing the audience like a piano.
Basically, the reason I would say Haneke is the world’s best pure director is that nothing enters his frame except as he wills it and every thing you see you know you were meant to see, to see that and no more and no less. Even if you don’t *like* the results, I just don’t see how there can be any denying Haneke’s formal mastery, his pure director-ness.
At the time of writing that, CACHE had not been made and I had not seen 71 FRAGMENTS OF A CHRONOLOGY OF CHANCE. But nothing I have written about Haneke was altered by them. He’s been fully formed in his aesthetic and themes from the very beginning of THE SEVENTH CONTINENT.
Haneke’s the heady, brilliant misanthropic director of your worst nightmares, the director who gets under your skin (I deliberately chose that picture of him for that reason). He’s a combination of Hitchcock, Bunuel and a pedantic German philosophy professor. We get the extreme formal control (airless and stifling, say those who don’t like the two men) of Alfred, combined with the bourgeois-baiting and sadism of Luis. Haneke has the same interest (obsession, say those who don’t like the two men) in the dark thoughts and sins of men. I think LA PIANISTE is more than this, but it certainly has at least the surface appearance of a denunciatory catalog of perversion — a Kino Krafft-Ebing. I also mentioned Heidegger above in re THE SEVENTH CONTINENT. There’s undoubtedly a cold, chilly, forbidding tone to Haneke that seems so utterly Germanic.
His two great themes are “communication” and “intervention” in all their senses — social, foreign policy and familial — and the way souls are constructed by the media age. So, unlike Hitch and Bunuel, Haneke often attacks his audience and assumes their complicity. FUNNY GAMES, for example, is a film to which the only moral response is to walk out because it offers absolutely no catharsis and absolutely no point (or rather, it starts to do both and then … well, let’s just say I’m looking forward [sic] to seeing it with as full an audience as possible). Now the fact that FUNNY GAMES has no point IS the point, but it’s only discernible or meaningful in a meta-way. I described CODE UNKNOWN this way in private correspondence with a skeptic:
In one paragraph — CODE UNKNOWN is about the first dramatic scene (the street altercation) and all the reverberations of that one event in the lives of the principal parties. It’s like watching a hand grenade explode and then following all the shrapnel. Thematically, it’s united by the theme of intervention, broadly construed, i.e., to what extent are we (or are we not) our brother’s keeper, not just military intervention (though the latter is there too). It’s also about how is this duty constrained by communication, or more properly the refusal and/or inability to communicate. It’s not a perfect film (some of the material in Romania is a bit pro forma), but it’s also formally dazzling. Wasn’t it awesome when we finally go to a conventional editing pattern and it turns out it’s a movie-within-the movie? I guess you think not.
At his best, Haneke disturbs you more than he “entertains” you; he’s not anybody’s idea of “good time” and communicating with him presupposes a certain amount of emotional masochism. So … see as much as you can stomach, because Haneke’s style makes its greatest effect when seen in a theater. Incidentally, I really DO intend this post to be a recommendation for a favorite director, but I don’t want to create false illusions. A co-worker saw CACHE on her own based on my Times review and some conversations I’d had with her since Toronto. When she left the theater, she actually called me on her phone demanding to talk about CACHE. It’s not that Shibani was driven insane or anything; she said it was just not the kind of movie that you could leave behind without discussing and making sense of your emotional reactions.
Unfortunately for me, the only film I can definitely go to that I haven’t already seen in a theater is FUNNY GAMES (so I will move hell and high water for that one). But one interesting thing about this retro is the order of the films. It’s not chronological and does “front-load” Haneke’s (relatively) better-known films and give them more weekend slots. This is a business move no doubt, but I think it also happens to be the best way for people coming fresh to Haneke to get acclimated to him. There’s some overlap but, measured by premieres, the order is CACHE, 71 FRAGMENTS, CODE UNKNOWN, LA PIANISTE, FUNNY GAMES, BENNY’S VIDEO, TIME OF THE WOLF and THE SEVENTH CONTINENT. Move WOLF up to before 71 FRAGMENTS, and this would also be IMHO, the approximate order of the films, starting at the top, in terms of emotional accessability.
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