The Essential Michael Haneke Review
One of the most original and provocative filmmakers working in cinema today, Michael Haneke has always been prepared to exploit the technical capabilities of the medium with a rigorous formalism. Stripping his narrative down and pushing the form to its limits, Haneke clearly aims to teach us something about ourselves and how we communicate, partly as citizens in a modern multicultural society, partly as consumers, but almost inevitably and unfortunately self-referentially, his films speak to us mostly as cinema goers, saying more about cinema as a tool for communication. The constraints of an overly-formal, clinical, distanced and intellectualised approach both towards the medium as a technical form and towards the subject matter itself, can often make Haneke’s films tough going, touching on a number of social and political issues obliquely and with apparent neutrality, ostensibly leaving it up to the viewer to decide and formulate their own personal response to the themes presented. In reality the director has very specific points to make through the medium of cinema.
Consequently, Haneke’s films can draw varied responses from viewers and critics that depend very much on how receptive one is to what he is presenting and how committed one is to drawing meaning from it. Some see his films as overly preachy, didactic, full of empty rhetoric and manipulative tautology, mere trickery with more technique than substance pandering to a middle-class arthouse cinema audience, critics and film students (Haneke is a film lecturer), others find their openness and neutrality as being necessary to engage the viewer and make them think for themselves, rather than spoon-feeding them, raising issues and topics that continually place demands on the viewer and challenge their outlook, leaving the films open to constant re-evaluation and personal interpretation and identification. Haneke’s films are actually all of the above, and it is the fact that they are so controversial and open to interpretation, creating such a strong personal reaction with individual viewers, that makes them such fascinating viewing.
These traits were already clearly evident in Michael Haneke’s earliest films. Born in Munich, Germany, it was however in Vienna, Austria that Haneke was raised and educated, going on to work as a director for theatre and television. His first three feature films made in Austria – The Seventh Continent (1989), Benny’s Video (1992) and 71 Fragments Of A Chronology Of Chance (1994) all demonstrate the themes, techniques and shock values that are now very familiar in the director’s style, each of the films revealing the cracks in modern society, particularly in the middle-classes, that push vulnerable individuals to commit inexplicable acts of violence. Each of the three films here flirts with ambiguity and indirectness around a scene of shockingly senseless violence to varying degrees of success. Haneke’s fourth feature film made in Austria, Funny Games (1997), extended the frame further, abandoning the strict realism and naturalism of his earlier films to exploit the techniques of filmmaking in a way that illustrated and implicated the viewer’s response into the experience of what they were watching, yet in the process losing none of the formal asceticism or the harsh nature of the grim events depicted. Also from this period, Haneke would make The Castle, finding themes in Franz Kafka’s unfinished novel that suit his own purposes and method rather than being a strictly faithful adaptation of the author’s work.
Up until the American remake of Funny Games U.S. in 2007, Haneke’s subsequent films have been all made in France using French actors. In many ways, two of the films – Code Unknown (2000) and Hidden (Caché) (2005) – explore similar situations to those in his Austrian films, that of the complacent middle-class western European family unit being faced to confront the state that the world finds itself in today that they have been complicit in creating either directly or through their own wilful ignorance. I personally find these the less interesting films in Haneke’s French period, being deliberately manipulative and preachy, rather patronisingly wagging his finger at the situation without having anything to add to the subject of living in a multicultural society. Furthermore, the films rely heavily on a familiar little bag of tricks, techniques, situations and shock tactics that Haneke has already explored exhaustively in his Austrian films – tactics that are barely adequate to convey the levels of complexity they confront. Much more interesting are the films The Piano Teacher (2001) and Time Of The Wolf (2003), both of which see Haneke taking these themes in a new direction, forcing him to find a new means of expressing his considerable filmmaking talents – the former demanding ahderence to a relatively traditional narrative format in an adaptation of Elfriede Jelinek’s admittedly far from conventional novel; the latter by taking a look at a post-apocalyptic situation, forcing the director to use allegory to depict his favourite themes regarding the failings of a self-destructing society.
Artificial Eye’s The Essential Michael Haneke contains all ten of the films the director made between 1989 and 2007. All of the films have been released previously by Artificial Eye with the exception of The Castle (previously unreleased in the UK) and Funny Games U.S. (previously released by Halcyon Pictures in the UK). Summaries of each of the films are provided below with links to full reviews of the films, the transfers (where representative discs were provided) and the extra features on each disc.
The Seventh Continent (1989)
Michael Haneke’s first feature film for theatrical release is a fully accomplished film that already displays many of the themes, techniques and shock values that would become very familiar in the director’s subsequent works. Following the lives of a seemingly normal middle-class family over three years, Haneke’s film sees the Schober family deliberately and methodically destroy all the trappings of the modern, consumerist society in a quite brutal and shocking manner. Of all his earliest films, it’s in his debut feature that Haneke is perhaps most successful in striking a balance between technique and message, providing an unsettling look at modern society and how it can lead to deeply disturbing and incomprehensible acts of violence
Click here to read here to the full review of The Seventh Continent.
Benny’s Video (1992)
Michael Haneke’s second feature film is a natural follow-up to the disquieting portrait he depicted of the bourgeois family in The Seventh Continent. A young teenage boy, obsessed with horror videos and violent imagery, acts out and records on video a horrifying act of violence he has seen on the screen with a young girl he has just met, to the incomprehension of his mother and father. Although it contains some powerful and genuinely shocking scenes, Benny’s Video is however a little too simplistic and direct in its correlation between on-screen violence and the actions of a desensitised youth who imitates what he sees.
Click here to read here to the full review of Benny’s Video.
71 Fragments Of A Chronology Of Chance (1994)
Following on from themes presented in his first two films, Michael Haneke’s 71 Fragments Of A Chronology of Chance widens his scope and view of society, while expanding and developing his filmmaking technique. The film again centres on an act of senseless violence, this time recounting the killing of three people in a Viennese bank, following the lives of a number of people who will ultimately become involved in the event through a series of fragmented scenes. Here technique starts to play a greater role than the message in Haneke’s films, the director attempting to find a means to open up the idea of randomness and interconnectedness and leave it to the viewer to make the connections and look for answers, if answers can even be found.
Click here to read here to the full review of 71 Fragments Of A Chronology Of Chance.
Funny Games (1997)
The original German version of Haneke’s 1997 film (remade in English in 2007) is a much more ambitious expression of the director’s themes and techniques. The film portrays a bourgeois Austrian family who are held captive and tortured by two young man who invade their country home, but there is much more going on beneath the surface of what initially appears to be a standard thriller. Through a number of cinematic devices, Haneke manages to raise interesting questions not so much about the nature of screen violence as the art of illusion in cinema and our own troubling responses to what we view on the screen
Click here to read here to the full review of Funny Games.
The Castle (1997)
Made in 1997, Haneke’s adaptation of Kafka’s unfinished novel ‘The Castle’ presents a number of interesting parallels with his feature film Funny Games made in the same year with several members of the cast common to both films. Thematically, Haneke manages to align his favourite themes well with Kafka’s views on society pushing individuals to the limits, but his cold, methodical approach and some notable omissions from the original novel reduce the humanism of Kafka’s work.
Click here to read here to the full review of the French edition of The Castle.
Code Unknown (2000)
Using many of the themes and techniques of his Austrian films, Haneke’s first French feature film is virtually a remake of his 1994 film 71 Fragments Of A Chronology Of Chance, with a subtle shift of emphasis that examines the conditions of the much more multicultural French society and the problems inherent in the subsequent failure of communication that exists on many different levels between the various cultures and classes. Formally austere, using long unedited takes with little narrative drive, Code Unknown can be difficult and abstract, but is nonetheless an extremely powerful film about a serious, relevant and modern subject.
Click here to read here to the full review of Code Unknown.
The Piano Teacher (2001)
The Piano Teacher is quite unlike any of Michael Haneke’s other films in that, apart from an Austrian television adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Castle, it is an adaptation of another person’s novel and not written by the director himself. The subject matter of the power of repressed violent impulses finally given vent to is nonetheless one that Haneke is fully in tune with. The protagonist, Erika Kohut, is an apparently straight-laced music teacher at the Vienna Conservatory, who’s violent and self-harming impulses come out in a masochistic sexual relationship she embarks on with a young pupil. With a great deal of both subliminal and direct violence and an astonishing performance by Isabelle Huppert – one of the best in modern cinema – Haneke is forced to adapt his style considerably towards the narrative form and the result is nothing less than astonishing.
Click here to read here to the full review of The Piano Teacher.
Time Of The Wolf (2003)
Time Of The Wolf is perhaps Michael Haneke’s most untypical film – an almost science fiction situation where society has been plunged into turmoil after some unspecified global disaster – yet it is perhaps also his most open and fascinating film that into which can be read any number of interpretations. Haneke fully exploits the situation to examine his favourite themes, using the post-apocalyptic circumstances to create a social model as an experimental testing ground. Stripped down of all of its rules and conventions, the true impulses that lie beneath human behaviour are thus laid bare and the results aren’t pretty. Unlike any of the director’s other films however, which could all almost certainly be described as cold, bleak, intellectualised and pessimistic, here in Time Of The Wolf there are shades of both darkness and light that allow the viewer to form a more favourable interpretation on the essence of human nature.
Click here to read here to the full review of Time Of The Wolf.
Haneke’s 2005 film is perhaps his most ambitious yet, combining a rigorous technique with controversial social critique and politically sensitive material. There is little that is new in Haneke’s technique or his message – he reaches into his familiar bag of tricks with shock flashes of unexpected violence, manipulated video images to disorient the viewer, twisting their perception of reality to show how miscommunication can exist between classes and cultures – this time expanding the theme of cultural confrontation from small scale to global significance drawing on imagery from the Algeria, Iraq and 9/11. He even ties it all up into a mystery thriller. Or does he? Haneke’s skill and brilliance as a filmmaker is never more apparent than it is here in Caché, but beyond the marvellous technique, quite what message he expects the viewer to draw from it all, if anything, is rather tenuous and subjective.
Click here to read here to the full review of Hidden (Caché).
Funny Games U.S. (2007)
Given the opportunity to make a film in America with English-speaking actors, Haneke seized upon the opportunity to “educate” American cinema audiences by remaking his 1997 film. Although practically a shot-by-shot remake, retaining the tone and method of delivery of the original film, a subtle shift in emphasis completely changes the film from a study of the nature of filmmaking as an illusion to a bewildering condemnation of horror films. Redundant for anyone who has seen the original film, misguided and patronising towards American fans of Haneke and almost certainly unseen by the masses that Haneke wanted to address, Funny Games US is a curious but intriguing misfire, with Haneke himself finding the experience of making a film in the US somewhat frustrating and unproductive.
Click here to read here to the full review of Funny Games U.S..
The Essential Michael Haneke is released in the UK by Artificial Eye as a ten disc set. All of the films have been previously released and are available separately with the exception of The Castle. The films are presented on dual-layer discs in PAL format and encoded for Region 2.
The three early Austrian films (The Seventh Continent, Benny’s Video and 71 Fragments Of A Chronology Of Chance) are transferred from almost flawless prints that show only a few infrequent and very minor white dustspots. Each of the films is presented anamorphically at a 1.78:1 ratio, so there may have been some cropping of the initial aspect ratio, probably 1.66:1, but this doesn’t seem to cause many complications with the framing of the films. Each of the films intentionally has a very dull, cool colour scheme, which is generally well represented on each DVD. On dual-layer discs, all of the films show fine stability in the transfers with no signs of any kind of artefacts. Funny Games is transferred anamorphically at its original 1.75:1 ratio. Although slightly soft and perhaps brighter than the typical Haneke film, on the whole it looks reasonably clear, colours are adequate and it copes reasonably well with the often dull and dark interiors, the image proving to be very stable with no macroblocking issues.
Artificial Eye only provided a poor quality screener of The Castle for review that presumably doesn’t reflect the retail release, so we are unable to comment on the specifications for that disc.
The video transfers on the French productions (Code Unknown, The Piano Teacher, Time Of The Wolf, and Hidden (Caché)) are exceptionally good, all of them presented anamorphically in the original aspect ratios. Despite being shot quite naturalistically, often making use of low-lit conditions – particularly in Time Of The Wolf, which often takes place in almost complete darkness – the transfers nevertheless hold up exceptionally well, showing little in the way of marks, scratches or print damage, and few signs of artefacting. Hidden (Caché) in particular - an apparently digital transfer taken directly from the DV-shot film – is simply beyond reproach.
The most recent film in the set, Funny Games U.S. was previously released on DVD by Halcyon Pictures following its previous owner Tartan going into administration. It must be presumed that the same transfer is used here. That transfer is just a little bit soft, showing fine grain, which is in keeping with the normal aesthetic in a Michael Haneke film and the DVD seems to handle it well with only minor issues. The progressive transfer is presented anamorphically at the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and looks stable throughout.
Further details on individual transfers can be found within the full reviews of each film, linked above.
The soundtracks on Haneke’s films are often vitally important in conveying the tone of the film, yet they are recorded and presented with austerity, often just centrally on the front speaker. The original German mono audio track on the Austrian films is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 and is strong and clear with only some minor background noise being audible on Benny’s Video. Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0 mixes are included for each of the French productions except for Code Unknown, which only has a Dolby Digital 2.0 mix. The 5.1 mix on each of the other films is strong and would seem to be truest to the director’s original intentions. Funny Games U.S. additionally has a DTS 5.1 option, which doesn’t enhance the soundtrack to any great degree.
Code Unknown has fixed subtitles, which are rather large and unsightly, but the remainder of the films have optional English subtitles in a clear white font.
Each of the films is well-equipped with extra features. In most cases this is limited to just an interview with the director, but although Haneke rarely gives a full explanation of what the films are about, he has much of interest to say about what instigated the film, what he was trying to achieve to a large extent, and the techniques he employs. Some of the releases have making-of featurettes, but they don’t reveal a great deal more about the films or his methods. Full details of the extra features contained on each disc can be found on the individual reviews of each of the films, linked above.
The only additional extra features to the set is on the disc for The Castle. It’s an almost hour-long documentary 24 Realities per Second (56:27) by Nina Kusturica and Eva Testor. Filmed around the time of the making of Time Of The Wolf in 2003, the filmmakers seem to have quite an amount of freedom to follow Haneke around scouting locations, shooting scenes and participating in interviews and photo shoots. There are no substantial interviews with the director himself, who remains as elusive as ever about his intentions when they are spoken about in a post-screening Q&A of Time Of The Wolf, but the essential character of what interests him in filmmaking and how he approaches his work is captured to some extent.
Michael Haneke’s films present a deeply disquieting view of society and the actions of individuals struggling to comprehend the contradictions of modern living, unable to communicate their sense of isolation other than through expressions of extreme violence. The apparent neutrality with which the director presents these views in his films and their flirtations with controversial imagery is designed to provoke a strong reaction, and they always achieve that aim. The films in this collection can variously amaze, frustrate, anger and fill the viewer with both distaste and admiration, often within the same film. It’s all part of a disorientation process that Haneke is playing on the viewer, never putting across a straightforward message, but expecting the viewer to pull together their own view from a variety of images and the responses they provoke. For this reason the viewer should always challenge what Haneke is presenting and question one’s own reaction towards it and, like them or not, Haneke’s films create a strong impression and force the viewer to think for themselves, which is much more than we are often accustomed to seeing in modern cinema. For that reason, if for no other, Haneke is an important director whose work will always merit attention. And when he is not pushing buttons in a hectoring, didactic tone and extends the scope of his cinema beyond his own limitations – which he does to his best without repeating himself in The Seventh Continent, the original Funny Games, The Piano Teacher and Time Of The Wolf – he can be an astonishingly good filmmaker. Infuriating though some of his work might be, Artificial Eye’s collection of the complete 10 films Michael Haneke has made to date (but not including his newest film, The White Ribbon) presents a solid body of challenging work from one of the most interesting and brilliant directors working in cinema today.