While some haters seem to think Michael Haneke is an over-pretentious, academic filmmaker who keeps ‘fooling’ everyone with movies that never actually come out and say anything or characters who act without explanation, I am of the opinion that the man is making quality films. He has a voice, however stoic, and he makes a powerful statement (while also allowing you to formulate your own).
I recently came across this post by John August, in response to David Mamet‘s long-standing pronouncement that films cannot successfully maintain a ‘message’ and simultaneously be entertaining. Or rather, films lose their (entertainment) value when the filmmaker pushes a message. According to Mamet (who I admire highly and will not refrain from gushing that I shook hands with after seeing a preview of Race last December), it is all about story; To purposefully make your movie “about something important” makes it not about the story, and therefore a lesser story.
While I can see the logic in this, I will also choose not to agree with all those people who think Haneke is doing this. I think he’s smarter than that. The man is giving you a story; in genre terms the film plays out like a mystery (in the same way that Funny Games would be, in the hands of another filmmaker, simply classified as a horror film). Specifically, we see, in (digitally manipulated) black-and-white, a period-piece about a small, rural village immediately before the outbreak of World War I (which subsequently led to the formation and rise of the Nazi party). Bad stuff happens in this village, because…well, you have to draw your own conclusions about that. To take the interpretative leap that this is a movie “about” Nazi Germany, or that it is a condemnation of strict religious communities is too simplistic. Haneke even says as much in interviews.
If you simply watch for the story, as most people will be doing in the course of the film, you will be drawn along wanting to know whodunit; who is responsible for the various acts that have transpired? The characters want to know. You want to know what the characters want to know. But, as anyone familiar with Haneke will no doubt know (or remember, as I did, after the story closes), that the story does not end with the end of the film. This film is “about” a specific group of people who make choices based on the options their particular society affords them. If one chooses to draw parallels with a historically adjacent society (Nazi Germany) or our own present-day rising social pockets of religious fundamentalism (Christian, Muslim, etc.), so be it. You bring what you know to the story. A good storyteller knows that.
I hesitate to contradict Mamet here, but if some filmmakers, as many have said, simply tell the same story over and over in a different way, Haneke is surely one of those filmmakers. Only his point is not a “message” per se, as much as an extension of the story outside of itself. As with great literature (I read somewhere that this film feels like it is an adaptation of some forgotten masterpiece of a novel, despite being an original work), the story serves a higher purpose than to simply entertain in the moment. I’m not sure if I’m contradicting Mamet or expanding upon his definition. Haneke is not so much pushing for the delivery of a particular message, as he is pushing for thought. If the film is working correctly (and I suppose even within Mamet’s ‘rule’), this thought comes not from some “message” pushed outward, but the viewer’s inward exploration of the psychology of the character(s). This command of attention is rare in Cinema and should be applauded, especially when done within the context of a specific story. This is the power of Haneke’s films; he asks us to apply the story to our own personal sense of the world. I guess that makes the movie a bit of a fable. Fables are merely lessons shrouded in entertainment. So, I guess I’m saying I either don’t agree with Mamet, or I don’t quite understand what he’s getting at…
SO, I’ve managed to ramble on in vagaries without giving you much of an idea of the film. Good. This will be winning the Best Foreign Language Oscar next Sunday, as it won the Palme D’or at Cannes last May. If any of this doesn’t give you enough reason to see it, then, well, you’ll just be missing out on a good story. And the chance to think about your own.