Violence In The Films Of Michael Haneke
Film violence is one of the most highly contested issues in cinema. The problem of what can or should be depicted onscreen, and how explicit it can be, is the source of dispute among filmmakers, censors, critics, and viewers alike. Often the most insightful thought comes from filmmakers who are able to articulate their views through film itself. As director and critic Jacques Rivette wrote, “The only true criticism of a film is another film” (Cahier 84, 1958). For Austrian director Michael Haneke, violence and ideas surrounding its cinematic depiction are crucial.
Violence in cinema is clearly an issue that preoccupies Haneke, sometimes prompting him to make films based solely on the subject. Whether witnessed or only implied, violence is always an integral yet subtle part of his work. The great impact of a Haneke film is not in vivid depictions of cruelty, but in the ability to deconstruct conventional film narrative in order to place the viewer under scrutiny.
Haneke involves the viewer in the film both directly and indirectly; he gives the impression of allowing the viewer a certain amount of narrative power, while actually using his portrayal of violence to suggest the viewer’s own guilt. Haneke attempts to make the viewer feel complicit in the film by suggesting that the act of viewing can itself be considered violent. However, his films are not in fact particularly violent. Haneke has claimed that while he despises physical violence, he understands the human fascination with it. His goal is therefore to explore this facet of our culture in marked contrast with mainstream film.
Within the context of the film, the act of viewing or observing is an act of violence.
It is possible to identify Haneke’s signature method of depicting violence in many of his films, including one of his earliest features, Benny’s Video (1992). This film tells the story of Benny, a young boy obsessed with violent films. He rents them repeatedly from his local video store, but his favourite is a short sequence of a pig being killed, which he filmed himself. Benny watches the death of the pig over and over, sometimes in gratuitously slow motion, perhaps referencing the assertions of campaigners such as Mary Whitehouse (who coined the term ‘video nasty’) that the rise of the home video industry in the 1980s would lead to unhealthy amounts of re-watching violent or salacious scenes. Benny eventually takes his obsession too far, and films himself murdering a young girl. Early in his career, Haneke’s ideas concerning film violence were a little crude; however, they became fully formed and precise in his later work.
In his 2005 French language film Hidden (Caché), a family begin to receive anonymous video tapes. The male protagonist, Georges, slowly realises that the tapes reference his childhood, and are connected with his sabotage of his parents’ adoption of a boy named Majid. The film opens with one of these tapes in full screen, a static shot of the family house. The viewer initially does not realise that what they are watching is a tape, until Georges and his wife Anne begin speaking over the image, and then start to rewind it.
Usually putting the video full screen would be an attempt to make the viewer identify with the characters watching the tape, but because, in this case, the tape is literally full screen (there is no other screen visible around it), this puts the viewer in the place of the watcher, or perhaps even of the maker of the tape. Rather than committing actual violence towards the family, their stalker sends them videos to let them know they are being watched. Within the context of the film, the act of viewing or observing is an act of violence.Michael Haneke’s Benny’s Video
When the tapes play, Haneke does not always warn the viewer that they are watching one; even the very beginning of the film plunges the viewer straight into a tape. Any static camera shot (a favourite of Haneke’s) then becomes potentially violent, in case it turns out to be a tape. The static shot, even when it is not a tape, is the echo of one, and therefore becomes immediately associated with an attack in the mind of the viewer.
The actual violence in Hidden, as with most Haneke films, is not great, but the key aspect of it is suddenness. The scene in which Majid cuts the head off a chicken (which is in fact based on an incident from Haneke’s own childhood) and the scene in which the now adult Majid slashes his own throat are both extremely sudden, with no foreshadowing at all. Just as with the playing of the tapes, Haneke throws the viewer in at the deep end. This has the disconcerting effect of making the viewer feel either as though their own throat has been slashed, or that they themselves have done the slashing (or even both).
Haneke has said that the main issue he wanted to explore with Hidden is guilt. Where guilt lies is unclear in the film, as both the viewer and the family never know for sure who sent the tapes, and it is heavily suggested that Georges himself bears some blame for bullying Majid as a child. Because the issue of who is ‘guilty’ is left open and ambiguous, it is possible for Haneke to suggest that the viewer could be actively involved, and in a way culpable for what is happening. Of course, the viewer cannot possibly be literally involved in the narrative, but Haneke’s suggestion causes the viewer to deeply consider their own position before pointing an accusatory finger at any of the characters.
The most self-reflexive of Haneke’s films with regard to his particular depiction of violence is German language film Funny Games (1997). The film is very similar to Hidden in that it also tells the story of a family being victimised, only this time it is in a much more direct manner. Married couple Georg and Anna (Haneke has a fondness for reusing names) take their young son to stay at their lakeside house, but on arrival, they are visited by two strange young men, apparently named Peter and Paul, who proceed to terrorise them physically and mentally for no reason.
The violent acts in Funny Games, as with Hidden, are not conventional to begin with. The confident rudeness of the two young men disconcerts the family, especially the strange business of Paul occasionally referring to Peter as Tom. This oddness of manner is a build up to the actual assaults that come later, beginning with the breaking of Georg’s leg, which the viewer recognises as literal violence.
Haneke seems to delight in defying both expectations and conventions in his films.
The viewer is even more involved in the violence in Funny Games, and this involvement is not just implied but actually referred to. The character of Paul is self-aware; he knows he is in a film and sometimes breaks the fourth wall, grinning at the viewer as he sadistically forces Anna to hunt for the dead body of her pet dog, and inviting the viewer to join in when he and Peter bet with the family that they will be dead by 9 o’clock the next morning. Clearly the viewer will identify with the family (Paul even says to the viewer, “You’re on their side, aren’t you?”), but due to Paul’s self-aware, conversational attitude, the viewer is treated as though they are present within the film, not just witness to the violence, but actually allowing it to take place.
To have a character suddenly be aware of the viewer’s presence, to talk directly to the viewer through the camera, completely flips the power dynamic of the film. The viewer is no longer the passive observer; suddenly, they are being observed themselves.
After they hurt people, Peter and Paul constantly offer help; they act as if the family have forced them into being violent, using Georg’s little slap of Paul for his rudeness as leverage for their ‘retaliation’. When asked why they are doing this, they give a series of reasons for their actions, usually to do with their bad upbringing, before immediately revealing their stories to be lies. The whole point of Funny Games is that the violence has no discernible reason. This is Haneke’s comment on the overuse of extreme violence in mainstream cinema, and also the reason he remade Funny Games in English in 2007; he felt that the original German version did not reach the audience it was intended for, i.e. an English speaking audience already saturated with ‘Hollywood’ violence. This is the reason that Peter and Paul are always so polite to the family, even as they are torturing them. Making a film about film violence itself is Haneke’s way of saying “the Emperor has no clothes.” He is drawing attention to the incongruous violence inherent in everyday Western/American culture; people meet, are wonderfully polite to each other, and then go to the cinema to watch ‘torture porn’ horror films.
By torture porn standards, the violence in Funny Games is practically non-existent. The shootings, when they do happen, take place off screen. The camera will follow a character out of the room, and the viewer will only hear the sounds of what is going on. One of the most intriguing sequences of the film is the one in which self-aware character Paul picks up a TV remote and actually rewinds the film after Georg’s wife Anna manages to get hold of a gun and kill Peter. This is not in Paul’s ‘script’. In order to punish Anna for attempting to take control of the narrative, Paul rewinds the film to a point before Peter is shot. Through his knowledge of the structure of his cinematic world, Paul essentially negates the only shooting that takes place onscreen.
In Funny Games, all the violence that the viewer actually wants to see take place (the violence the family attempt towards the young men) is thwarted. This is ostensibly not a film that will follow any kind of conventional narrative structure, which, in a way, is the most shocking thing to a viewer who has grown up on predictable mainstream fare. What their movie experience tells them will happen (that the family will fight back and get away) is thwarted at every turn. Haneke seems to delight in defying both expectations and conventions in his films, even saying that the only sensible reaction to Funny Games is not to watch it.
In turning the gaze of the viewer back on itself, Haneke’s self-reflexive version of film violence is never senseless. Even when there is apparently no reason behind it, as in Funny Games, it is never akin to Hollywood violence, and in fact exposes the absurdity of it. The viewer becomes complicit in the narrative until, in the diegetic world of Haneke, just being witness to an act means being actively involved in it.
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