At this year’s Cannes film festival, the controversy surrounding Lars von Trier’s Antichrist came at the expense of Austrian director Michael Haneke, who won the Palme d’Or over von Trier for his latest film, The White Ribbon. Funnily enough, it is the controversy of Haneke’s films that have made him a regular nominee at the prestigious film festival. With the release of The White Ribbon approaching on November 13 I want to pay tribute to one of Europe’s greatest contemporary directors.
To anyone familiar with Haneke’s work, it is needless to say that there have been few violent acts that he has been afraid to show in the twenty years since his feature film debut. However, we are not talking the kind of gratuitous uber-violence à la Hostel here, but carefully placed moments of brutality that are often over before you can avert your eyes. The shorter the scene, the longer it lingers in your mind. Even after leaving the cinema.
In his most famous works, which include The Piano Teacher, Hidden and Funny Games, he predominantly investigates the origins of violence and terror whilst not shying away from depicting them in gruesome detail himself. He believes that through dumbed down violence in contemporary media we hardly notice it anymore; hence his extreme countermeasure.
Some critics have labelled Haneke a hypocrite for condemning the use of violence in the media whilst adding his fair share of it. However, he believes that one has to be honest when making films and if the reality of the issues that are tackled is a violent one, then so be it; there should be no compromises in order to please a greater audience. Whether people choose to see this as glamorizing violence or not, it has to be said that if his aim is to draw attention to the obscenity of reality, he succeeds without fail. Be it Isabelle Huppert’s genital mutilation in The Piano Teacher, the slashing of a throat in Hidden, or the slow-motion execution of a pig in Benny’s Video, the violence in Haneke’s films is daring and relentless, but what matters most to him is that we are always aware of it.
What lifts Haneke’s films into the territory of European cinema’s finest, however, is not just his distinct and overt way of examining the origins of violence but also his ability to find the perfect balance between an engaging story, artistry and wariness of elitism (often associated with arthouse films). There is a fine line between cinema where brutality and controversy serve a purpose (Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, for example) and films that provoke in order to make up for a lack of quality (Larry Clark’s Ken Park spring to mind). Haneke’s films belong to the former category, demonstrating that intelligent, provoking cinema is not a phenomenon of the past.