As part of the film course I attend at the University, we were asked to write an essay entitled “A film/actor/director that changed my life for the better and forever”. I have finally got around to putting my essay on my blog, so have a read and feel free to leave comments:
A few years ago I was shown a film by a former colleague which had a huge effect on my interest in cinema. Prior to this, I hadn't taken too much notice of foreign-language films and would only infrequently venture to the cinema, usually to see the latest James Bond release or something similar. But when I saw this film, it inspired me to search for other films by the same director, which in turn has inspired me to watch things that previously I wouldn't have dreamt of seeing. The film in question was Caché, by Austrian director Michael Haneke.
Although I could talk about Caché and how it changed my outlook on cinema as a medium, I want to go further than this and explain how it was an interest in Haneke himself that has sparked my real interest in films.
Firstly though: understanding why Caché struck a chord. For me, it told a complex story in a way that was not immediately clear or easy to understand. It became an enjoyable exercise in piecing together the various aspects of the story and I found it had an ability to be both touching and emotional, followed by a sudden change to suspense and shock. More importantly, it was the first film I had seen that did not resolve itself in a way I could have anticipated, and indeed most of the film, including the final scene posed more questions than it answered. What seemed at the outset to be a mysterious thriller about a family hounded by a stalker turned out to be something much more, with a lot of the film having to be pieced together and extrapolated; full of 'what-ifs'.
Following Caché , I was inspired enough to see some of Haneke's other works, and to date these include The Seventh Continent, Funny Games, Code Unknown and most recently The White Ribbon. What has become apparent in the majority of his films is, not just the strength of the narrative, which is usually captivating, but rather the reaction that the films provoke from the viewer.
The majority of reviews of Haneke's films that I have read in the papers and websites seem to focus purely on the content of the films themselves; and thus they pick up on things like his use of graphic violence and exploitation. However, to focus on this alone is to miss the point of what he has set out to achieve; that is, the reason for having such scenes is to both provoke a reaction from the audience, and to provoke the viewer into examining this reaction and exploring what it means for them.
I have subsequently listened to some interviews with Haneke that are added to some of the DVD releases of his films, and he is clear to never admit what the 'correct' reaction should be to the films, or if there even is such a thing. He lets us make up our own mind about whether we should be shocked, angry, amused or fascinated and if different people have different thoughts, he seems happy with this outcome. He also likes to carry an audience along with him, quite happily following the story, only to abruptly stop (literally in the case of Funny Games) and make the audience aware of what they are watching and what they are feeling. It didn't surprise me to read, in researching this essay that he studied philosophy at university and though he does not describe himself as a philosopher, I believe there are deep philosophical issues reflected in most of his work, in the style of a true auteur perhaps.
Funny Games in particular stands out as one of my favourite Haneke films, not just for the content, which in itself was terrifying and disturbing, but rather for the way in which the film openly showed us its 'raison d'être'; when suddenly at a key point in the story, as the suspense is building to a climax, the main (unlikeable) character looks straight to the camera and talks to us directly - the viewer is suddenly aware that they are part of the story and are complicit in the actions we are seeing on screen. Similarly, when the main kidnapper is shot dead by one of his victims, we feel immense relief and are certainly glad that he is dead, only for the film to pause, rewind and re-tell the story in the 'true' way where he is not shot. This action of rewinding and replaying the action is enough to make us sharply aware of the reaction we just had to this moment of violence - in true thriller methodology we are pleased when the bad guy is killed, and this provides a stark moment of reflection on our views of violence in cinema as a whole. This sort of depth and detail in film-making is something I had never experienced before, and why I think it has sparked my interest so much.
This does not mean, and should not imply that I have some sort of gruesome fascination with violent films - I like a nice thoughtful story as much as the next person, but I have come to realise that what I personally want to see in cinema, and what it has taken me until now to find, are films that can maturely tackle challenging subjects and provoke some kind of reaction, positive or otherwise, from the audience. I think this is why I felt disenchanted with typical Hollywood cinema - too often the story asked nothing of the audience and they could sit through an entire film without thinking too hard as the plot was explained and resolved for them. It seems that in order to be successful in Hollywood terms a film must too often obey a standard genre format - the very antithesis of what Haneke's films are about. As Wood (2009) says, "In an age of mindless blockbusters, [Haneke] has revived the prestige that arthouse cinema enjoyed in the 1960s". However, this is probably a subject best developed in more detail elsewhere.
I am intrigued by some of the technical aspects Haneke uses in his work. Most are familiar from the Hitchcockian thriller genre: static shots, long takes, inferences or untold stories, and action happening off screen can be seen in many of his films. One scene that particularly comes to mind is the scene in Funny Games where the child has been murdered. The camera fixes on the room for an age with the only sound the breathing of the parents. This powerful scene serves to lengthen the discomfort and anticipation of what may follow.
Extending this theme of spectator discomfort further, most of Haneke's films present some kind of ethical issue for us to examine, and like other thrillers, he likes us to empathise with the victims and despise the villains. But only up to a point. Haneke does not want his films to be as easy to understand as that and rarely presents a simple good-versus-bad story that we could all understand. Instead, rather than just present this narrative, the appeal lies in his desire to focus our attention more on the ethical relationship between the viewer and the film itself, and I am drawn back to the pause-rewind scene from Funny Games that I mentioned above. Film critics who focus solely on the ethical issues told in the narrative are missing this key point to his films.
I should also mention the fact that I don't think every Haneke film I've seen is brilliant. Code Unknown remains a mystery to me, with its disconnected, long-take scenes seeming to leave me empty and lacking a meaning or compelling reason to bring them together. But I have heard other people hold it in high esteem so it will be watched again until sense is made of it.
In conclusion then, Michael Haneke's films, although only introduced to me fairly recently, have sparked an interest in what cinema can really offer me as a viewer. Previously unaware of most foreign-language films I am now scrambling to make up lost ground. The joys of the film festival have been discovered both in Belfast and where I previously lived in Cambridge, and I now watch films with more than just a desire to be entertained with a shallow plot. Instead I have become fascinated by films that make me think: either about the challenging issues they discuss or, more subtly, by examination of the reaction I feel upon watching them.
Haneke has inspired me to watch films that are not always easy to find, not always easy to understand, but which reward those who go to the effort of watching them.
--------- Bibliography ---------
Cousins, M. "The story of film" Pavilion Books, 2004.
Frey, M. "A cinema of disturbance: the films of Michael Haneke in context" Senses of Cinema, Issue 28, 2003.
Wheatley, C. "Michael Haneke's cinema : the ethic of the image" Berghahn Books, 2009.
Wood, G. "High points of the noughties", Guardian: Reviews of the Decade, 2009.