Monday, July 7, 2008
Originally published in the April issue of the Brooklyn Rail
Crying Over Broken Eggs
By Jesi Khadivi
Known for his glacially paced, emotionally violent films, Michael Haneke has become one of contemporary cinema’s most loathed and feted directors. The Austrian takes on issues that many viewers would prefer to ignore—violence, class difference, power, guilt and sado-masochism.
He wowed American audiences with his 2001 film The Piano Teacher, his adaptation of Elfriede Jelinek’s novel about a masochistic piano teacher who becomes romantically involved with her much younger male student. Teacher won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes. Caché (2005), a thriller about a wealthy couple tormented by mysterious home surveillance tapes and crudely scrawled drawings, won Haneke an even broader American audience. The film also won at Cannes and Haneke nabbed the Best Director, FIPRESCI Prize, and Prize of the Ecumenical Jury. Last October, MoMA celebrated his career with a retrospective that included all of Haneke’s theatrically released films plus his work for Austrian-German television, calling him one of contemporary cinema’s “most provocative and incisive film makers” and citing a cinematic style “at once musical and mathematical.”
For Haneke, the medium is the message. As with Hitchcock, many of his films toy with the passive voyeurism of film spectatorship. Unlike the British auteur, however, Haneke largely denies his audience visual pleasure. In a typically sadistic fashion, viewers will be punished if they take delight in what they see. And that’s the best case scenario. At his worst, Haneke borders on being didactic and preachy. His films are masterfully constructed but far from visually breathtaking; Haneke remains obsessed with the hidden mechanisms of film rather than the pleasures movies elicit. Many of his films are comprised of long static shots punctuated by brief eruptions of violence, tedious bouts of ennui punctured by flourishes motivated by desperation (A neck slashing suicide in Caché). Each film is a taut, beautifully constructed trap and Haneke feels like a cat playing with his prey before devouring it.
Haneke’s recent American English-language remake of his echt-disturbing 1997 German-language film Funny Games has generated a fair amount of controversy. Critics challenge Haneke’s use of violence and voices have been raised in a superior moral tone, ad nauseum. Funny Games’ plot is simple, timeless even. An eloquent, self-assured young man and his awkward, winsome sidekick show up uninvited at a bourgeois family’s country home and proceed to physically and mentally torture them, all the while displaying impeccable manners.
Most of the violence occurs off-screen and much screen time is devoted to lengthy deliberations and emotional abuse that leaves viewers fidgeting in their seat. The deferral of violence is painful and the classic villainous duo of sadist and buffoon heightens the discomfort.
The “action” begins when a nervous, well-dressed young man named Peter (Brady Corbet) comes to the family’s door. He needs some eggs. Ann (Naomi Watts) is happy to oblige. Peter breaks the eggs before he is out the door. Ann gives him more. He breaks her cell phone by dropping it in a sink full of water. Now Ann’s pissed. Approximately 34 minutes and ¾ of a carton of eggs from the film’s start, the golf clubs come out and the funny games begin. That’s a long-ass time to get some action in a thriller, especially within the lexicon of big budget American movie wherein heads roll within the first 15 minutes of the film. It’s impressive that Haneke preserved his pacing, but the film suffers in other ways. The acting is solid, not stellar. Naomi Watts shows impressive range as Ann, but she reads too friendly and cheerful to play high WASP (That is, until the strangers start beating her family with golf clubs and chairs). Tim Roth and Devon Gearheart give impressive performances, but the sociopaths killers fall flat. This is unfortunate, because the strength of the film relies on their performance. In the original the pair of villains have a creepy In Cold Blood meets Kafkaesque vibe. Peter is a bumbling decoy, and Paul the sadistic genius. The fearsome logic of Arno Frisch (the original Paul and Benny from Benny’s Video) had me trembling in my seat. His trim, dark long-legged physique and steely deadpan demeanor showed a deeply disturbed, repressed psychotic mind. Michael Pitt never becomes his character; he’s in it for the shits and giggles. Funny Games is only the latest example of how the actor shows excellent taste in directors and material, but consistently fails to bring the necessary depth to his roles.
While the look and pacing of the film are still fresh and engaging, other elements haven’t held up so well. It’s tiresome when Peter and Paul break the fourth wall and address the camera. One of Haneke’s great successes as a director is how effortlessly he builds meticulous environments and distills emotions and gestures. He reduces cultural compulsions to their bare essence, though the cheap mechanism of direct address in his films seems like overkill. In an art house German film from the late ’90s, the renowned “remote control scene” packs a bit more punch. It lacks the same gravitas in a Hollywood movie, whose audience is accustomed to trickery. After 11 years, Haneke’s conceptual flourish seems gimmicky.
Haneke said that he originally made Funny Games with an American audience in mind. He comments on the remake: “When I first envisioned Funny Games in the middle of the ’90s, it was my intention to have an American audience watch the movie. It is a reaction to a certain American Cinema, its violence, its naïveté.” Funny, because the “Americanness” of the violence is one of the least interesting things about the film. What was so riveting about the original Funny Games and what inspired my partner to demand that I “turn that damned film OFF” is how cultural repression and proper manners dovetail so seamlessly with violence.
The thought of letting a stranger, however well dressed he may be, into a German home on such a flimsy pretense is hard to believe. To demand the remainder of a carton of eggs after already breaking 3/4 of them in a culture where people discuss and formally agree to use du, the informal form of you, is virtually unthinkable. Manners are written into the German language. The unrelenting “darf ich...” (may I?) posed by the intruders makes Anna, Georg and Schorschi players in the game more than Ann, George and Georgie. Linguistically, the Germans are sanctioning their own demise.
While script, shot sequence, production design and score are virtually the same, something gets lost in cultural translation. When Funny Games is divorced from its cultural context, it takes on the air of a beautifully constructed, Germanically pretentious exploitation film. If you take Funny Games at face value it’s not very interesting, not much more than a film school exegesis on voyeurism, complicity and pleasure. Haneke is a director steeped in European history and aesthetics; he fails at telling an American story. I was hopeful about his first mainstream Hollywood film, even excited. If Haneke attempts another American film he needs to build an American story from the inside out, rather than fix a pedantic European hawk’s eye to the failures of American culture. Because without subtext Haneke will remain a pompous outsider looking in.