Haneke: films for middle-class masochists

The director is popular with the arthouse crowd because he gives their prejudices a gloss of seriousness.

Tim Black

Tim Black

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Austrian film director Michael Haneke’s latest, The White Ribbon: A German Children’s Story, has already won the Palme d’Or. The chances are it’ll pick up Best Foreign Film at next month’s Oscars, too. Critics have heaped praise upon it, and arthouse audiences have flocked to see it. You see, there’s just something about Haneke’s work that culture vultures can’t stick their beaks into quick enough.

Which, in its way, is puzzling. Not because Haneke is not a talented filmmaker. Far from it, in fact. From their stately structures to the languorous, deliberately disconcerting extended takes, his films are always painstakingly crafted. No detail is accidental, no thing unthought. No, what’s puzzling about Haneke’s popularity amongst those who take their films nearly as seriously as they take themselves is that his films are so desolating. Almost every review of Haneke’s work gushes with the same adjectives: disturbing, disquieting, discomfiting. Haneke’s films don’t please, they unsettle. They are the artistic equivalent of middle-class masochism.

Funny Games, for instance, was the heartwarming tale of a nice bourgeois family tortured to death by a couple of boys in tennis kit. The Piano Teacher was the groin-girding story of a nice bourgeois society driving a libidinous pianist to torture her genitals. Hidden was an endearing portrait of a nice bourgeois couple tortured to distraction by post-colonial guilt, and unfathomable surveillance. But it’s not just the content that is so dismal. Formally, too, his films resist pleasure. Almost without fail they refuse to resolve themselves into anything resembling a conclusion. This is hardly surprising: agency in his work, whether that of psychotic kids or camcorder-wielding stalkers, is without reason. Bad things happen, that’s all we on Earth can know.

The White Ribbon: A German Children’s Story is no exception to Haneke’s rule of thumb – build something dispiriting and the plaudits will come. Set in a German village on the eve of the First World War, it centres around several inexplicable acts of cruelty and misadventure that perplex the small community. The local doctor is sent tumbling from his horse by a trip wire; a female labourer has a fatal accident at the saw mill; the son of the village baron is found hanging upside down in a barn, his backside bleeding following a severe beating. Misfortune and malice continue to afflict the locals. And they, along with us, have no real idea, but plenty of suspicions, as to who is causing this.

The chief suspects are ostensibly the village children, a ghostly bunch that congregate near the houses of victims. Whether this is out of concern or cruelty we are never sure. But Haneke has a deeper motive than creating some Turn of the Screw-style ambiguity around pallid kids, or even a whodunit, with no who and little dunit. His concern, rather, seems to be with a society that breeds cruelty.

Consequently, the village here functions as Haneke’s view of society as a whole. It’s a study in psychopathology, a portrait of a community in which cruelty is mundane and evil banal. Haneke seems to want us to see this village as an incubator for some coming monstrosity. Little wonder that every relationship is packed full of latent violence, each interactions pregnant with menace. And given the film’s pre-First World War German setting, we can be in little doubt that Haneke intends us to see where and when the seeds of fascism were sown.

The problem with all this is that it is so thoroughly hackneyed. The principle unit of socialisation here – the family – is portrayed as little more than a Freudian caricature, which, given that Haneke studied psychology in Vienna, is perhaps apt. Still, that doesn’t make it any more edifying an insight. From the doctor ‘fingering’ his 14-year-old daughter to the pastor tying his son’s arms to the bed to stop him from masturbating, abuse and repression is the familial norm here. And so it must be if Haneke is to reduce the brutal extremes of Nazism to a psychological sickness generated in the bosom of the family.

Perverting the great psychoanalyst himself, one child, Erna, asks her teacher ‘if you dream of something, really dream of something, can it come true?’. Her dream? The torture and near blinding of the local disabled kid. The suggestion is clear. The routine repression, often cruel, always damaging, is creating psychotic dreamwork, and dreams here, as the eventual torture and near blinding of the local disabled kid show, do become real.

To Haneke, this is just how it is – ‘the truth is obscene’, he said in a recent interview. All he’s doing is making us see. And what a vision it is. In Haneke’s films, human society is sunken, rank, a place where mass culture is dumb, where people, turned on and tuned off by TV, are cruel and complacent, and where families will, for time immemorial, fuck you up. Socialisation here is virtually synonymous with corruption.

Why is this vision so popular? What is it about this crass, aloof moralising that is so attractive? The answer lies in the question. In Haneke, every countercultural prejudice, from the perils of consumerism and mainstream entertainment to the denunciation of the family, is given a sophisticated artistic form. Never has liberal snobbery looked so clever.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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