In Michael Haneke’s Words: Confrontation with the Unknown

“I like the multiplicity of books, because each book is different in the mind of each reader. It’s the same with this film – if 300 people are in a cinema watching it, they will all see a different film, so in a way there are thousands of different versions of “Caché (Hidden)”. The point being that, despite what TV shows us, and what the news stories tell us, there is never just one truth, there is only personal truth.”

“[on what interests him as a moviegoer] I’m interested in seeing films that confront me with new things, with films that make me question myself, with films that help me to reflect on subjects that I hadn’t thought about before, films that help me progress and advance. Those are the kinds of films that interest me. For me, personally, I think watching a movie that simply confirms my feelings is a waste of time. That applies not only to movies, but also to books and every form of art.”

Michael Haneke

I chose these two quotes from the great Austrian director Michael Haneke, since in both of them, there is an emphasis on the subjectivity of perception of art. The second quote goes one step further and examines the impact a certain film can have on a person watching it. Since Haneke explains his personal experiences, there is no possibility that myself as an author of this article can be completely detached when the subject matter is concerned. The films which confront us with the new understandings of life and art are those worth watching. On this, I cannot agree more with Haneke.

For example, the encounter with Yasujirō Ozu, a director from Japan, a culture rather alien to the European culture I was raised in, affected me deeply and made me question the position of an individual living in the postmodern Western society. The challenges and a confrontation which occurred while I was experiencing Ozu’s films, fairly simple in their subject matter, affected me deeply. Ozu chronicles the many transitions Japan went through after the defeat in the Pacific War, and these changes were not only political, but deep cultural and social changes. The transition from a traditional to a modern society, and the way Ozu portrayed it, showed me many truths about family relationships, aging, the transience of life, and ultimately the modern world we live in. It was a deeply personal and emotional experience for me, and made me question the role of one’s parents in life, the filial devotion and many more things.

Even more shocking was the encounter with David Cronenberg, a shocking auteur by any standards, who questions the role of technology and its effects on the life of modern man. Just like Marshall McLuhan’s media theory, developed in the 60’s, is still highly relevant for the understanding of media today, so are Cronenberg’s films. His body horror films confronted me with important understandings of mental illness and eroticism, in a Bataillean fashion. Cronenberg embarked on a journey of deconstructing the modern individual and his place in the modern society. He did the same with the mythologies of a nation which shaped the contemporary world to a considerable extent, the American mythology of a perfect family and a small community, in his A History of Violence. Practically every film made by Cronenberg deals with two subjects which, according to Michel Foucault, are crucial for the development of the modern self – madness and sexuality.

Michael Haneke’s films can be described as confrontations between the director and the viewer. Haneke’s obsession is the nature of truth, and the way we can acquire it, or we cannot, and my experience of watching Haneke’s films can be understood as a struggle to understand, to grasp the meaning behind the characters’ actions and the nature of the environment they are in. Haneke himself said that we simply cannot know anything which resides outside or daily experiences, since news footages show us only carefully selected fragments of the truth which lies behind a certain event. This puts the possibility of understanding Haneke’s films in question as well, or any great film, one might say. This is most eloquently presented in Caché and Code Unknown and we simply cannot fully understand what has “really” transpired before our eyes. This is Haneke’s intention, to understand that the truth is hidden, cannot be brought to light easily, more often than not, it can never be fully understood by the spectator of a certain event.

Haneke’s desire to shock his audiences, to wake us from our slumber and make us think is vivid in his every film, and the film which shocked me the most in that respect (it is not Funny Games, although that particular film is genuinely horrifying) is his The Seventh Continent. A bourgeois family for apparently no understandable reason destroys all its possessions, murders its child and ultimately commits suicide. The motive behind the act remains hidden. Haneke’s desire is to make us think, by showing us our own horrors and tossing them back at us to observe them and ask questions. The biggest question is, is it possible to find any liable answers to grasp our immediate realities and the world which surrounds us. It seems that Haneke walks a similar path as Nietzsche in his understanding of will to power as knowledge – we strive to attain Truth, which can never be attained, but the very effort to attain is what matters. In a word, will the truth always remain hidden? It may be the case, but by encountering and confronting great works of art, by struggling to understand, we make one small step forward to improving ourselves and our position in this world.

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