Focus: Michael Haneke

Funny Games and

The Seventh Continent by Michael Haneke

German-born filmmaker Michael Haneke is on the verge of being catapulted out of his role as the pin-up for European art-house cinema into the glaring limelight of Hollywood. He is currently remaking his 1997 film Funny Games in the US with Naomi Watts, Tim Roth and Michael Pitt adding their box office clout to proceedings. This follows close on the heels of his worldwide success with Caché, which won him best director at Cannes in 2005. The clever kids at Madman know an emerging market when they see it, and they’ve just released Haneke’s debut feature The Seventh Continent along with the original Funny Games on DVD to expand their existing directors suite.

It was the French old-wave master Jean Renoir who said, “A director makes only one movie in his life. Then he breaks it into pieces and makes it again.” In the case of Michael Haneke, this is true beyond question. There will be a bourgeois family. He will be called Georg. She will be called Anna. There will be a child. They will appear content. Tragedy will ensue.

Michael HanekeHaving studied philosophy, psychology and theatre at the University of Vienna, Haneke is an unabashed intellectual of the modernist era. His capacity to engage an audience in a rapt act of spectatorship while at the same time questioning the very nature and consequence of that spectatorship is second to none. The complex and immense psychological stakes of his films haunt viewers long after the popcorn gets swept off the floor.

His silver beard and floppy hair have the majestic assuredness of an Etruscan marble and his films reflect it. For a debut, The Seventh Continent is scandalously confident filmmaking. It is the first of a series of Austrian films that Haneke made (ending with Funny Games). If we take them as a guide, there seems to be something very rotten in that Alpine republic. The eponymous seventh continent is ostensibly our very own Australia. But that’s a fact devoid of meaning in the deracinated anti-landscape of this film. From the very beginning of the movie, Haneke refuses to locate us with respect to identity or place. We have only a micro sense of the world which Georg, Anna and their daughter Eva inhabit. In close-up after close-up we are inducted into the vocabulary of their world: routine, conformity, facelessness. In this world, Australia is not a real place, nor is it even a mythical place, it is simply a poster. There is a rupture in the semiotics: the signifier and the signified are unrelated. How can one find reason in such a world? How can one find purpose?

Seventh ContinentWell, Georg and Anna can’t. And therein lies the source of their eventual self-unravelling tragedy. What marks Haneke as a modernist filmmaker in all this is his capacity to remain at one remove from the action in the frame. As the tight societal structures that have bound the family together are unhooked one after the other, the camera’s tight structures never waver. Only at the very end does Haneke allow a flurry in the rhythm. But the camera remains a viewer, a voyeur. The Seventh Continent is lit almost entirely in the blue-greenish sheet of fluorescent bulbs and the clinical chill of this light gives the sense of a laboratory (both Georg and Anna work in white coats). Indeed, even when the shots are from the point of view of the character, there is something dispassionate about the gaze, as though the characters themselves are just as removed from their own reality as we are. In a world defined and shaped by the impersonal spectres of machines, mass-market consumerism, television and numbers, everything is a simulacrum and our watching of the film, merely an extension of this.

Funny GamesThis propulsion of the film beyond the frame and into the audience is taken even further in Funny Games. I can mark it as the most terrifying film I’ve ever seen—watching it alone is a risky outing. It could make a wickedly misanthropic double-bill with Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers—the latter being the best film about terrorism in a city, the former being the best film about terrorism in a country house (Straw Dogs notwithstanding). And for fans of the recent The Lives of Others, the stellar acting of Ulrich Mühe is also on display in Funny Games.

While The Seventh Continent operates in a way that makes knowing the ending no handicap to a rewarding viewing, I think part of the brilliance of Funny Games is the way it toys with audience expectations, so I won’t go into an analysis of the film for risk of spoiling it. Suffice to say, Funny Games contains some truly remarkable moments of cinema.

Back to the notion of the film extending beyond the frame, it is not often that an actor can turn to the camera without comic effect. However, Haneke uses this conceit to implicate us, as viewers, into the violence on screen. At the point when we are most vulnerable, he turns the lens around and we are suddenly forced to look at ourselves and examine what we enjoy watching. It is sickening and revelatory. It is a filmmaker viscerally conscious of his medium’s interplay with the audience.

It will be fascinating to see how Haneke adapts his original for an American setting. In the meantime, get hold of the original on DVD.