It was as a student at the University of Vienna that Haneke saw the movie that would change his life — a film, he later wrote in an essay, that "crashed into our seminar like a UFO fallen from a distant planet, and divided us into fanatic supporters and fierce opponents." The film was Robert Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar, the great French director's 1966 classic about the life of the titular donkey, whose brief time upon the earth is more than long enough for him to encounter the full spectrum of human kindness and cruelty. The film, Haneke goes on to write, "remains for me the most precious of all cinematic jewels. No other film has ever made my heart and my head spin like this one."
Not surprisingly, the influence of Bresson looms large over Haneke's own movies — in their visual austerity, in the absence of original music and, most of all, in their asking of a great many more questions than they answer about the motives of human behavior. Consider Haneke's first theatrical feature, The Seventh Continent (1989), which dramatizes a real incident in which a seemingly ordinary Austrian family committed group suicide after (and this is the thing Haneke says fascinated him about the case) first destroying every possession in their Vienna apartment. It is a startling film — a portrait of suburban ennui and madness that leaves American Beauty and Little Children looking as genteel as Leave It to Beaver — made all the more so by Haneke's persistent dissociation of people and objects, until the real stars of the drama seem to be an alarm clock, a fish tank and a package of frozen broccoli (all of which, like their owners, meet with a bad end). Haneke followed up with Benny's Video, and then 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994), in which another ripped-from-the-headlines incident — the 1993 murder-suicide enacted by a nineteen-year-old student in a Vienna bank — becomes the leaping-off point for a kaleidoscopic portrait of a lonely, disconnected society seething with unexpressed rage.
At the time, Haneke termed the three films a loose trilogy of "emotional glaciation" — a branding, he now says, that seems doomed to follow him for the rest of his life. What he meant, simply, was that the films grew out of his fear of the breakdown of human connections in this so-called age of communication — an age, Haneke says, in which "we talk a lot in order not to have to say anything."
"I get aggressive when I'm afraid, and I become afraid when I don't understand something," he elaborates. "Why don't I understand? Because there's no communication. Lack of communication is the cause of all these interpersonal problems. Xenophobia" — the subject of two later Haneke films, Code Unknown and Caché — "is a classical example of that."
Though it bears many similarities to the trilogy — it too features prominent supporting roles for a collection of inanimate objects, including a telephone and a bag of golf clubs — the original Funny Games has always occupied a unique place in Haneke's filmography. The first of his films to be screened in the Official Selection at Cannes (where tickets to the black-tie gala were emblazoned with warnings for the faint of heart), it was — and remains — his most directly confrontational, frequently breaking the so-called fourth wall through first-person asides in which Paul turns to the camera and implicates the audience in his actions. "What do you think? Do you think they have a chance of winning?" he asks us in the midst of forcing the characters on screen to bet on their own chances of survival. "You want a real ending, with plausible plot development, don't you?" he volleys a bit later.
By the time the film arrived at its now-infamous rewind, some viewers walked out in a huff. Even so, the movie established Haneke's international reputation as one of contemporary cinema's most uncompromising, original voices, going on to achieve wider distribution (including in the U.S.) than any of his previous films and leading directly to the series of French-language co-productions (including The Piano Teacher and Code Unknown) that have made him, alongside Pedro Almodóvar, one of the world's few "name" directors working regularly in a language other than English.
Not that Haneke has been nearly as universally embraced as his Spanish contemporary. His films' bold-faced provocations have earned Haneke criticism as a scold, a misanthrope and an all-around miserablist. The very night before our meeting in New York, at a MoMA dinner held in Haneke's honor, an Austrian cultural attaché and his wife seated at my table spent much of the evening regaling me with their own reservations about the director's work. "He doesn't tell us anything we don't already know," the woman said, echoing the sentiments of many who have lashed out at the director, whether in print or at audience Q&As. For his part, Haneke is the first to say that a movie like Funny Games isn't for everybody. "The intellectual people who already worry and think about [violent images] — for them, it might be too obvious," he concedes. It is also sometimes said that Haneke makes bourgeois films about bourgeois concerns, to which the director again pleads guilty as charged, noting that his chosen subject matter "doesn't apply to the whole world, but it does apply to all the rich countries. The people in Africa have other problems; they don't need to watch my films. I make films for a certain level of society, who can afford to go to the movies and who recognize themselves in them, even if they do not want to."
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