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The Auteurs Daily: Debating Haneke (and Brecht)

The Auteurs Daily

Michael Haneke

Here in Germany, where The White Ribbon has been in theaters for a couple of weeks now, Michael Haneke was on television last night. There's a strict format to Alexander Kluge's News & Stories: for 45 minutes, we hear both sides of the conversation but see only the interviewee in a just-close-enough-for-comfort head shot that never, ever budges. Settings vary, though, and the one chosen for Haneke was appropriately austere: an infinite black background and, balancing the frame on the Austrian director's right, a single bare light bulb.

We've seen and heard a lot from and about Haneke since The White Ribbon won the Palme d'Or in Cannes and we'll see and hear plenty more on through the end of the year when, on December 30, the film sees a limited release in the US. There's no real news to report from last night's program other than that US viewers will hear the voice-over in English but will read subtitles for the dialogue. Otherwise, Haneke laughed with surprising ease, particularly when the interviewer seemed to be overreaching for his interpretations of this or that detail in Ribbon, while, on the other hand, the director kept peering into the camera as if beseeching us to simply go see his film and not break our heads over questions that aren't obviously addressed. He had an easier time brushing off Spiegel interviewers Philipp Oehmke and Lars-Olav Beier as they scrounged for keys to the oeuvre in an unhappy childhood Haneke did not have.

The next big rollout for The White Ribbon will be in the UK. Haneke will fix his stare at us from the cover of Sight & Sound's next issue, while, in the Guardian this past weekend, novelist Hari Kunzru has presented something of a Haneke primer. He does not skimp. Before even beginning to walk us through the filmography, he relates the history of Austria as a country that, to put it politely, has not come to terms with, much less fully processed what all went down in the years leading up to and during the Second World War. Kunzru places Haneke in the company of a generation of Austrian artists furious at their nation's complacency: the Viennese Actionists, Thomas Bernhard, Elfriede Jelinek. Only then does he begin to consider the films and their critical reception.

Overall, a fine article and a recommended read. That said, I suspect that Kunzru, having taking on such a wide-ranging project, may be summarizing a bit too conveniently here:

"Where Anglo-American critics detect a culpable lack of sympathy, Germans have acclaimed Haneke as an inheritor of Brecht, skilfully alienating the spectator from the material in order to provoke a critical, intellectual response. Indeed some have praised him for finding a way to continue Brecht's project into the new century. Now that postmodernism's stylistic free-for-all has inured audiences to the formal 'alienation effects' used in Brechtian epic theatre, Haneke has found other ways to wrong-foot the spectator, a peculiar combination of shock and deadening that blocks off most easy ways to 'consume' his bleak stories."

To be fair, he adds qualification:

"However, Adorno's powerful description of the neurosis that comes with working through the past suggests that there may be something less controlled than either of these versions of the director - the cold sadist or the cold neo-Brechtian - allow. There is, in his films, an inability to deal with the pain of the world, a psychic wound whose display is not purely voluntary."

The White Ribbon

The passage touches on two points (among many) raised in a recent exchange at Perlentaucher. To oversimplify (a disservice to both writers, to be sure): in Ekkehard Knörer's review of The White Ribbon, he explains at considerable and (as always) thought-provoking length why he's not having it. Wolfram Schütte's reply is less a defense of Haneke than an attack on Ekkehard Knörer - not personally, at least outright, but as a sort of stand-in for what Schütte sees as a recurring pattern in, specifically, German criticism. The way Schütte sees it, Germans have not "acclaimed" Haneke at all, as Kunzru would have it; on the contrary, it's been a ferocious pile-on for years now. And while Schütte doesn't proclaim Haneke to be an "inheritor" of Brecht, he is reminded of historical arguments over an epic theater that treated audiences not as consumers but as co-producers of the work at hand.

The very next day, Ekkehard Knörer replied. First, Haneke has had his champions in the German press; Andreas Kilb's 1993 rave for Benny's Video in Die Zeit represents a significant moment in the establishment of Haneke's standing in Germany. Second, and more importantly, what Schütte claims in Brecht's, and by extension, Haneke's favor, is precisely what Ekkehard does not find in Haneke, whose films he sees as "totalitarian," self-enclosed and discouraging of an audience's participation as co-producers. They are "show trials."

Again, several points, not just these two, are discussed in that exchange, but isn't it interesting to see Brecht popping up all over lately? Jennifer Higgie, co-editor of frieze, has noticed it as well: "Brecht was a writer whose practice often flew high above the coal-face of his theory - which makes him, perhaps, an apt artist for our times. The character of Mother Courage, for example, a woman who both profits from war and whose family is destroyed by it, is a study in depth, compassion and contradiction - not the detached, Marxist mouthpiece some of Brecht's writing might lead you to assume he would create."

That word "contradiction" will leap out to anyone who's read the Knörer/Schütte exchange because in both his original review and in his response, Ekkehard holds up Lars von Trier as an example of a filmmaker whose works - as opposed to Haneke's, of course - live and breathe because they all but celebrate their inner contradictions. Haneke's machines may be smart, but as Oscar Wilde put it, "The wise contradict themselves."

In the New York Times, Stuart Klawans offers a quote from Haneke that might serve as proof that Haneke's intentions are the opposite of what Ekkehard argues he ultimately achieves: "I try to construct stories so that several explanations are possible, to give the viewers the freedom to interpret. I do it by everything I don't show, and through all the questions I raise and don't answer. That way, the audience doesn't finish with the film as quickly as if I'd answered everything."

Klawans, though, is interested in a different set of questions, namely, "how faithfully The White Ribbon prefigures Nazism. Does Mr Haneke shed much light on the events that happened later? Or does the film's allusion to those events serve mostly to give force and meaning to the filmmaker's imagined world?" He emails "several scholars" who "point to a gap between the facts of Nazism and Mr Haneke's fiction, which focuses intently on a punitive, sexually repressive Protestantism and its influence on the children of the village." Intriguing stuff follows.

Meantime, Haneke's been to Los Angeles, which, frankly, conjures a pretty strange mental picture. At any rate, for the AFI Fest Daily News, Marc Lee's interviewed him at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills.

The filmlinc blog's just posted video from a Q&A at the New York Film Festival.

Earlier: the Toronto and NYFF roundup.

Update, 11/5: "Like everyone else who has watched Hidden and The White Ribbon, I have pondered the meaning of leaving mysteries unsolved. Perhaps obtusely, I hadn't grasped something that has probably been evident to serious Haneke scholars for some time: could this not be a variant on Kafka?" The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw finds a way into the ouevre via The Castle."


The White Ribbon is the best movie I’ve seen all year!!
I’m looking forward to this one. I thought Cache was a masterpiece and a film that has not left me since I’ve seen it.
I understand how he gets the work to be so austere. What I wanna know is, how does he get his face to be so austere? It can’t be just the lighting…
My guess: he’s an admirer of Christopher Lee.
It’s great to have this one-stop post for relevant reading for Haneke and his critical reception. Much appreciated.
Meantime, Haneke’s been to Los Angeles, which, frankly, conjures a pretty strange mental picture. What’s this mean?
Yes, the mention of a Los Angeles visit – why a “strange mental picture”?

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