Filmmaker Michael Haneke Pours Blood on Troubled Waters

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 24, 2008

Michael Haneke's films are audience provocations in disguise.

At first glance, his movies make us think we've signed on for a regular European art film. We see upper-middle-class families and hear dinner-table talk of Bourdeaux, violin lessons and forthcoming trips to Les Alpes. Maybe the husband is going to have an affair, but he'll keep his mistress in such wonderful furs and jewelry, we may forgive. And besides, we console ourselves, the wife (Catherine Deneuve, Fanny Ardant, Isabelle Huppert, whoever) is probably going to have a dalliance with the music teacher, all to the strains of Brahms.

But then comes the quintessential Haneke ambush -- usually some jolt of violence or self-destruction. In the 2005 "Cach¿," for example, a seemingly innocuous visit to an old Algerian man becomes -- without warning -- a gruesome, deeply shocking bloodletting. And in 1992's "Benny's Video," a young man invites a female date to his house. We think his intentions are romantic or sexual, until he kills her.

Sometimes the violence is systemic. A family in 1989's "The Seventh Continent" suddenly -- and inexplicably -- decides to close itself off from society. Holing up at home, they destroy everything that society spends its life nurturing: their possessions and, in a scene that draws genuine deep-seated gasps from audiences, they flush money -- thousands of bills -- down the toilet. Eventually, they commit mass suicide.

What's going on here? Our genre-centric sensibilities think of these tactics as the exclusive domain of horror flicks, the kind that end with screams and picturesque exit wounds. But Haneke's brand of shock is subtle and insidious. The violence is often an impulsive, extraordinary measure by seemingly normal people. Watching these outbursts, we feel much more violated than we do watching the likes of "Saw" or "Hostel."

Haneke's intentions, he maintains, are in some way moral. They're not intended to titillate but to jar us out of our moral complacency.

That killing in "Cache" is meant to draw our attention to France's post-colonial racism. It's all in what the Algerian says before he slices his own throat. The horrible killing in "Benny's Video" is Haneke's attempt to come to grips with the amoral killers who murder just to see what the experience is really like. Raised on media depictions of violence, whether in war coverage or on the 11 o'clock news, they are unable to distinguish between reality and illusion.

The family members in "Seventh Continent," Haneke has said in interviews, are protesting the morbid routine of everyday life and the crass commercialization around them. Their act of physical violence and personal obliteration is the equivalent of the Buddhist monks who immolated themselves. It's a howl of the soul.

Haneke seems to be everywhere lately. Next month, Warner Independent Pictures is releasing Haneke's remake of his 1997 film "Funny Games," a "Cape Fear"-style thriller of sorts that stars Naomi Watts. Three Haneke films -- "The Time of the Wolf," "The Piano Teacher" and "Cache" -- have enjoyed festival and art house success in recent years. At least three books about him are on the way. And starting tomorrow night, Washingtonians can sample his early television dramas and some feature films in a partial retrospective at the Goethe-Institut and the French and Austrian embassies.

Is there a reason for this perfect sturm? There doesn't seem to be. But it's a great opportunity to appreciate an uncompromising artist who, despite 30 years of filmmaking in Austria, Germany and France, has barely made a dent in the U.S. market.

Haneke, a private man who turns 66 next month, is reluctant to grant interviews. For one thing, he speaks only French and German. He did not respond to several e-mails requesting comment for this story. But when he does talk, he is nothing if not direct.

We see this in Kino International's DVD series of seven of Haneke's works, including "The Seventh Continent," "Code Unknown," "Benny's Video" and "The Piano Teacher." (Other Haneke films are also available through various other distributors.) The Kino series includes brief but revelatory interviews with Haneke. And it's the perfect way to become acquainted with him -- a veritable wolverine with his feral smile, full white beard and long hair -- and the thinking behind his work.

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