Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Michael Haneke and His Films

Winter, as you know, is movie time. Last year we settled into a good, long run with the director Werner Herzog. This year, sort of propelled by the Palm Springs Film Festival in mid-January, I was more alert to the films we had not seen that are getting good reviews.

Among those, the most intriguing was Michael Haneke's film The White Ribbon. We went to see it in Minneapolis two weeks ago, at the wonderfully shabby, broken-down-seated, single screen Uptown Theater. It was a really wonderful film.

It is about a village that seems to still operate along feudal lines, although it's 1913 when the film begins, and World War I is just getting started when the film closes. The village is pretty much run by the baron, who hands out the good jobs, including keeper of his estate, tenant farmers, doctor and minister. The people of the town them to tolerate and have the proper love/hate relationship with him and his family. Thanks for the jobs, but why do you have all the power? The film is ostensibly about the generation of German children who would grow up to be Nazis, although I think it's more helpful to think of them as the children who would grow up to tolerate Nazis. Because really the movie is fueled by the villagers' desire and astounding ability to look the other way. When things happen, and they do, no one seems very concerned about finding out who has done the damage. Everyone lives in the sphere of their own small families, with tyrannical patriarchs in charge. There is much petty cruelty, very low-level violence, the kind I've been saying is really everywhere. The movie is very real and has a very contemporary feel to it. It is shot in black and white, but the interactions between the children and adults, and between the children themselves, is natural and compelling. By the end of the film you think you know some things-- but it would be very unlike Michael Haneke to solve the mystery completely, or spell anything out.

The second film of his we watched was Cache, or "Hidden." It is a French film starring Juliette Binoche as Ann (next to Blue, this may be the best performance I've seen from her) and Daniel Auteuil (Georges) as a couple under surveillance. They receive videotapes at their door that simply show a view of the exterior of their home. The tapes are followed by postcards, but the police can't do anything without an actual act of violence or real threat. It turns out the mailings are related to a childhood incident in Georges' life. It is another story of petty cruelty leading to larger consequences, and the filmmaking does a good job of building suspense and an aura of threat with few tools.

Haneke likes to set a camera in the shot and let things unfold. My favorite scene in The White Ribbon shows a closed parlor door. The father leads his two oldest chlidren through the door, where we see a glimpse of the other children waiting for the punishment that has been promised. We see the closed door, then it opens and the son walks down the hall, gets the switch, and returns, closing the door. We hear rather than see the first strikes and the child's reaction. He does the same thing with the voyeur's camera in Cache, again to unnerving effect.

The real story here, though, is power. Georges maintains power over Ann by controlling information, and by silence. She responds appropriately, railing at him and trying to make sense of what's going on. He seems particularly ineffectual, a quality that Daniel Auteuil embodies well, and which makes his influence on people so striking. The real power is simply in his privilege, not in anything he's actually doing.

Last night we watched The Piano Teacher, with Isabelle Huppert, which is the last film by Heneke we'll be watching. I'd already decided from reading the descriptions that Funny Games, both the German original and the American remake, were not for me. They promised more violence and horror plotlines than I want to be exposed to. The Piano Teacher, though it has the stylishness and a lot of the same great qualities of the other two films, also lost me with its disturbing subject matter. At the heart of it is a masochistic woman who turns sadist as a piano teacher. Her demons are also from childhood, and have gripped her in a terrifying way-- she sleeps in a twin bed next to her mother's twin bed, and we know that can't be good. Her mother berates her constantly, and the two have a mutually destructive relaitonship. The dead father is, in a shadowy way, also clearly to blame, since it turns out her real twisted behavior is related to sexuality. Watching this woman come undone and undo her students in the process was not really all that entertaining...

I highly recommend The White Ribbon and Cache. They are complex, and also open enough that you can explore several threads-- class, injustice, child/parent relationships, the nature of childhood, power, patriarchy-- it just goes on and on. And though at first I was quite against the thesis that the plot of The White Ribbon in any way at all explained the Nazis, after a few days I thought that, well, it explains them as well as anything else. Let us not, after all, think they were so different from us, that generation in Germany. Let us not overestimate our own virtues.

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