• Code Unknown [CU],
  • The Piano Teacher [PT],
  • Funny Games [FG].

There is almost a fade-to-white, an uncharacteristic but effective commentary. [PT]

Erika brutally reconciles, in herself, man-who-penetrates with woman-who-bleeds. [PT]

In men's absence, women assume men's implacability. [PT]

In Funny Games featureless, stillborn, identical, eggs are the perfect image for .....

....the drab conformist functionaries that human beings have become.

A killer’s wink indicts our constant need for entertaiment. [FG]

Bored with torturing victims, the killer returns to TV. [FG]

Are Funny Game's killers an allegory of the culture industry?

FG's killers want to replace their victims' smug contented smiles with twisted mouths and red eyes puffy from crying.

Haneke lingers on the overstocked refrigerator in the victims’ lake house. [FG]

Why would anyone fake fear?  Fear is iconoclastic, the feeling of everything falling apart, centerless.

Knowing the playing field is not level, black characters attack white ones again and again. [CU]

In an audition, Anne instantly begins to enact “terror”: An actress who pretends to die before our eyes... [CU]

... has in some sense “truly” died for us. Otherwise, the feelings evoked by her death would be a lie.

"I aborted while you were away." Anne uses her biology as a weapon against her sometimes lover, the photojournalist. It's a trick of domination which she has learned from men.

The photojournalist takes to the subway...

...snapping candid portraits of commuters. This black-and-white portrait is one of his "subway series."

The Piano Teacher 's irony is that the masochist must become the aggressor.

Sex takes on the same rigors as playing note-perfect music, doomed by ordinary physical limitations. [PT]

A movement beginning with harvesting eggs from lesser species... [FG]

... ends in homicide as a universal condition. [FG] In this sense, FG dovetails with another dark satire...

...John Waters’ Pink Flamingoes.


Films of Michael Haneke
Utopia of fear

by Justin Vicari   

“Something in reality strikes a chord in paranoid fantasy and is warped by it. The sadism latent in everyone unerringly divines the weakness latent in everyone. And the fantasy of persecution is contagious: wherever it occurs spectators are driven irresistibly to imitate it… — the bottomless solitude of the deluded has a tendency to collectivization and so quotes the delusion into existence.”
— Theodor W. Adorno [1]


Michael Haneke’s cinema is stark. His films have few stylistic flourishes. Toward the end of The Piano Teacher (2001), there is almost a fade-to-white, when the heroine Erika Kohut (played by Isabelle Huppert) staggers out onto the ice rink. This unexpected flirtation with a “romantic” cinematic device becomes an uncharacteristic, but effective, commentary on the action we’re seeing. At the moment when her fragile identity seems on the point of completely disintegrating, the screen itself is engulfed, blinded, blurred. But for the most part, Haneke abjures such commentary — except, sometimes, by omitting things. Minimalistically, he subtracts from, rather than adds to, the mise-en-scene. In Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys (2000), he often cuts scenes in the middle of dialogue, using brief intervals of black screen to separate these fragments. Indeed, this very discontinuity, expressive of an atomized social order, is referred to in the film’s title, the idea that human interaction has become impossibly disjointed and devoid of meaning, an “unknown code,” a series of “incomplete tales.”

Haneke depicts human behavior at its worst, but never to glory or wallow in this, rather to point up the universal conditions under which such behavior inevitably takes place. Deformations are imposed on human life by the “dog-eat-dog” terms of capitalist society, where only the fittest, and most ruthless, are able to survive. Haneke’s nihilism has an essentially moral component, a negation that is not pessimistic for its own sake but meant to produce in the audience a level of outrage that can become transformative. There is no safety net occupying the margins of Haneke’s films, qualifying their invidious nihilism as only one possible point of view among many. There is no indication that the world could be other than violent, chaotic, inhuman. We are always aware in Haneke that we are helplessly watching — like his camera that only watches, never underscoring, never intervening. But this feeling of helplessness fuels the films’ critique.

As a result, his films can be grueling. The systematic psychological and physical destruction of the family in Funny Games (1997) takes place seemingly in real time, uninterruptedly. Neither the authorities nor the filmmaker will step in to restore even a temporary sense of order or breathing room. Similarly, Erika Kohut’s devastating self-destructiveness in The Piano Teacher is a mechanism that, once put into motion, can not be stopped. One thinks of those little wind-up toys that hurtle spasmodically forward and will tumble off the edge of the table unless someone catches them. (“I’m just winding you up,” a film director tells an actor and actress to prepare them for a scene, in one of the many sequences about filmmaking in Code Unknown.) But this saving agency rarely occurs. When it does occur, startlingly, in Funny Games — one of the killers suddenly rewinds the film to make the action turn out differently — it is not in the service of rescue, but rather of greater destruction. The only certainty in Haneke’s films is that the world we know will come to a violent end, right before our eyes. The only questions are, how quickly and by what means.


The duplicity of human emotions — made ubiquitous and commonplace by the culture industry — has undermined the entire social order. Early in Code Unknown, the actress Anne (Juliette Binoche) goes to audition for the role of a woman trapped in a room by a serial killer. The audition is an improv, with the director filling in the killer’s role. She is told she is about to die. From off screen, the director says, “You fell into my trap.” Instantly, Anne begins to enact “terror.”

There is a moment where reality and fantasy conflate. What if this happens to be a real trap, if the audition itself has been used as a ploy (in the “real” world) to lure her to her death? Her fear seems genuine, even to the extent that it is tentative at first. She’s baffled, incredulous, “You can’t be serious, this can’t be happening.” In terms of the narrative, we have only recently met this character and engaged with her. And this moment of “sudden death” recalls Hitchcock’s sardonic, outrageous killing-off of the main character midway through Psycho (1960), a flagrant breaking of the unwritten laws of filmmaking that simultaneously inscribes the breaking of the written societal law in an act of murder.

Put otherwise, someone whom we feel is or should be familiar (in all senses of this word —  known; seen; acquainted with; unconstrained; part of a recognizable family structure)  gets suddenly and irrevocably removed from us. To add to the viewer’s discomfort, Haneke films this scene like a typical slasher movie, with the camera bearing down on the victim from the killer’s point of view. Haneke cuts away before we find out exactly what happens. Several scenes later, we see Anne again, alive and well, and can assume with real certainty that her earlier scene of terror was, in fact, only what it seemed to be on the surface: a harmless acting audition — no doubt precisely for a role in a slasher movie.

But have we really broken the unknown code, even after gaining this certainty? One of the more provocative statements posed by Haneke’s films is that representation is as real as reality itself — perhaps even more so, since representation is deliberate, pre-selected, chosen, while reality is ephemeral and subject to chance. The actress who has elaborately pretended to die in front of our eyes has, in some sense, truly died for us. Otherwise, the feelings occasioned in us by her “death” would be ineluctably a lie. Living with so many lies on a daily basis — lies that have the visceral feel of truth — becomes dislocating, maddening, and leads to further lies. To torment the victimized family in Funny Games, the killers spin various identities for themselves, mostly untrue. (They also use, as aliases, the names of famous cartoon duos: Tom and Jerry, Beavis and Butthead.) It is part of the killers’ sadism that they tap, sarcastically, into the need of their middle-class victims to be clear about identity as the key to the puzzle of social meanings. Being murdered for no discernible reason at all, by a complete stranger, is presumably more disturbing than being murdered for some specified, “comprehensible” reason, by someone whom one knows or thinks one knows — as if the end result for the victim were not ultimately and disastrously the same.

An awareness of one’s own vulnerability, coupled with the manifest intention of others to do harm, forms the first mortification of the flesh and spirit, the first scar, after which one already begins to die or become dead, precisely from the fact of this awareness alone. Indeed, in Haneke’s films, the brutalized heart, assaulted by the world, can never unmake any of its scars. It can only learn to play with them, wallowing, fixated, in controlled repetitions of the torture. The photojournalist in Code Unknown, a war correspondent who is involved with Anne, comes to crave his exposure to the killing fields; safely home in Paris, he misses the day-to-day experience of life in a war zone. Erika Kohut uses flirtations with rough sex and sadomasochism to attempt to repress the deeper and more painful wounds of her childhood and her abusive relationship with her mother, but she goes, so to speak, from the frying pan into the fire. We see that being saved from one horrendous fate does not preclude meeting an even worse one, as when the wife, escaping from the killers in Funny Games, makes a desperate decision on the road to flag down a strange car — which turns out to be the killers again. This trick, a staple of thrillers from time immemorial, takes on renewed urgency in Haneke’s fatalistic vision: given enough time, the wind-up toy will always find the edge of the table.


Some people “live in reality,” we are told by the killers in Funny Games, and others “in fiction.” Like a plague, “fiction,” entertainment, escapism — in the shape of these killers — are spread from home to home, family to family, wiping out everything in their path. Are these killers an allegory of the culture industry? Just as they constantly and sadistically urge the family whom they are torturing to “join in the game,” to have fun and (in effect) enjoy getting killed, so they also directly engage us, the audience. “You want a real ending, with plausible plot development, don’t you?” one of them asks the camera, his wink indicting our relentless need to be entertained as yet another part of the system that creates such dehumanized violence to begin with. “Why don’t you kill us right away?” the husband asks, hoping for mercy, and the killer answers by referring to “the entertainment value” of a slow death. “We’d all be deprived of our pleasure.” (In the very next scene, we see that the killer has already grown bored with torturing his victims and has now turned to watching TV.)

For all of these reasons it makes absolutely no sense to speak of heroes and villains in Haneke’s work (this is an idea that belongs to a continuous, ordered universe), not even flawed, villainous heroes or heroic villains — or, for that matter, the slyer, more modern and politicized dialectic of the disenfranchised and the privileged. Haneke’s films view society as combinations and conflicts of integers, animals or machines. There is a question as to whether his characters are even fully sentient, much less agencies of morality or immorality. What Haneke depicts is a condition of total war, “the war of all against all,” from which no one is spared from participating.

Though Haneke’s films could be called “behaviorist” in their dispassionate tracking of random or repeated actions, they do not suggest that behavior can ever be neatly tied to, or predicted by, the characters’ ostensible identities. The victimized family in Funny Games is well-off. (Haneke lingers on shots of their boat, their expensive golf clubs, the fully stocked refrigerator in their lake house.) When we first meet them, they are playing a silly guessing-game with their classical CD collection, the haut-bourgeoisie at home. However, their attackers are also wealthy, boys from rich families with a similar, if more sociopathic, sense of entitlement. Likewise, in The Piano Teacher, we feel sorry for Walter Klemmer, the young man from a privileged family who is drawn into Erika’s web. He eventually assaults her, but we see that he’s been driven to this brutal moment by her psychological warfare and her advertisement of her masochistic fantasies. Prior to this, he had attempted to treat her with respect and love.

The thorny knot at the heart of The Piano Teacher — the raging masochist, the passive-aggressive woman destroyed by finally getting the abuse she has craved — is a central metaphor for Haneke’s vision of the world. In a condition of total war, love has to become tough. Where it remains selfless and sacrificing, it (of course) is no longer fit enough to survive — but also, significantly, it becomes masochism. “Love isn’t everything,” Klemmer tells Erika after he has beaten and raped her. The ultimate act of masochism would be to die for someone else. This is certainly no longer within the realm of romantic or even particularly sexual experience, but occurs, rather, as a symptom of the very impossibility of authentic romantic-sexual experience. Erika thrives in a world of pure fantasy. The attractive student strikes her as a perfect candidate for her fantasies of being dominated, but the reality of it is not what she had expected. It turns out that abuse from an attractive man is as painful as abuse from any other.


Haneke’s matter-of-fact depictions of universal alienation recall the pessimistic philosophy of Theodor W. Adorno. (Haneke seems to acknowledge this connection by having Erika quote Adorno’s essay on Schumann at her first meeting with Klemmer.) Adorno had a keen sense of societal apocalypse, but almost what one could call an apocalypse of banality. The great catastrophe — capitalism — has already taken place, devastating entire nations for generations into the future, without necessarily killing anyone directly. Those who experience the catastrophe become like the walking wounded or the undead, trying to inhabit a barely inhabitable world, living lives that are no longer their own, no longer human, lives that have been profoundly deformed.

As part of this process of deformation, emotions are turned into commodities, mocked, made unreal. The lack of freedom in public life remorselessly invades private turf: any attempt to break away from the herd, to reclaim personal space and time, personal identity, is allowed for, a priori, and therefore nullified, within the confines of the herd itself. The two-day weekend or the two-week vacation — precisely as sanctioned islands away from the drudgery of work, and therefore circumscribed by that drudgery — guarantee that no one will have any fun. The family on holiday is no freer than the same family trapped in its work and school routine, and to underscore this, Haneke shows them being slaughtered like cattle during their vacation. In Haneke, worldwide destruction is not a sci-fi phenomenon, not a matter of special effects. Haneke’s films depict this destruction — as Adorno does — as an ongoing attrition that looks and feels no different from “normal” day-to-day life.

Even the potential antidote to this universal condition of deformity — rebellion — has been co-opted by the totalitarian system of post-industrial capitalism. “Rebellion” is itself just another mass-produced commodity, waiting harmlessly on the shelf to be purchased and consumed. Therefore, those films, for instance, which seem to make a point of radically questioning the system, nonetheless emerge from the heart of the system itself, which is inoculated, a priori, against such protest. Radical activity is already wholly circumscribed by the production-consumption nexus. The challenging, disturbing, threatening film gets consumed like any other, and the ideas within it remain embryonic, fantasies; nothing is spawned. The “dangerous” film, already a product and a mass-media event, is neutralized as a weapon precisely by appearing in the same theaters and video rental stores as Jurassic Park and Harry Potter. (Likewise, the raucous, atonal John Zorn music — used in the background of Funny Games — is, again, just another segment of the culture industry, however menacing and experimental, something that can be purchased in a store alongside the staid recordings of classical music that define the taste of the victimized family.) What would be truly radical would be art that never becomes available at all, in a mass-produced sense — but how would we even know such art existed? It would suffer from a lack of influence because of its invisibility, even as mass-produced art loses influence due to its visibility.

Though essentially disarmed, castrated by commodification, “taste” nonetheless remains as a stubborn, goading signifier of intellectual or social placement; seemingly, it exists to torture the ones for whom such issues of taste might still matter. “Anarchy doesn’t seem to be your forte,” Erika chastens Klemmer at one of their tense piano lessons; she’s already sublimating rampant sexual urges into music (and music criticism). “That’s the obstinacy of the complacent middle-class,” she tells another student, underlining the use of irony in Schubert’s song-cycle Winterreise.

Erika upholds the idea of art as rebellion. Since she is a live performer of essentially “dead” music, we think that she might escape the effects of commodification, and the duplicity of emotions promoted by the culture industry. “I have no feelings,” she says at one point, “and if I ever do, they won’t defeat my intelligence.” Instead, she ends up helplessly enacting the allegory of castrated rebellion. What she really craves, at a level even deeper than her championing of anarchy, is to be repressed, imprisoned, defeated, held in check. Her own self-destruction, her nullification, is the main ingredient in her radicalism. She offers herself up to be crushed (first in her fantasies, then in real life) by an imagined male figure who could be called, for lack of a better word, Nazi-like — as if by being willing to become a victim one could definitively prove that fascism exists. (This psychological double bind is similar to that of the black characters in Code Unknown, who need to view themselves as perennial victims of white racist society in order to derive their sense of identity, and along with that identity, the power to make others take note of them.)

In their first conversation, at a genteel recital, Erika coaches Klemmer not to be “disdainful” of Bruckner (historically, a notorious anti-Semite) in the same way that, later on, she coaches him to be physically abusive during sex. The corrosive irony of The Piano Teacher is, of course, that the masochist must become the aggressor, demanding abuse from a man who is at first completely willing to treat her well — a man who, in short, tries to love her. But Erika’s perverse machinations are a denial of the existence of love, or indeed, a bitter acknowledgment of that universal power of the culture industry to crush all opposition by co-opting it. For her, sexual pleasure (already identical to its affective opposite: pain) must take on the same chilly, demanding rigors of playing note-perfect music — an ideal which is frustrated by ordinary human physical limitations.

(Continued on page 2)

To topPrint versionJC 48 Jump Cut home