Michael Haneke (1942- ) Cerebral Austrian film director, twice awarded the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes, known for his thrillers and ‘mind-game films’ (Elsaesser), which question the relation between cinema and spectators
The films pertaining to the New Extremism have been interpreted as an act of aggression and provocation towards the spectator – critics have described these films as ‘unwatchable’, as generating unpleasurable reactions and discomfort. Many filmmakers have explicitly declared that their intention was to visually assault the viewer (Bruno Dumont for instance has been quoted saying that people need to be ‘woken up’, to be confronted with shocking events to remind them ‘that you still have a lot to do as a human being’, Dumont cited by Quandt in Horeck and Kendall, p.24).
These films are often incorporating elements of social critique, by focusing on characters who are isolated and alienated, unable to communicate and connect, and portraying the world as a merciless place where violent confrontation reigns supreme. Sex is often depicted as ugly, grotesque, mechanical, devoid of emotion, in contrast with what Linda Williams calls the ‘soft-focus erotic prettiness’ of the sex scene in mainstream cinema (cited in Palmer, p.68).
Lisa Coulthard in her contribution to the volume The New Extremism in Cinema argues that Haneke’s films ‘do not address violence directly so much as they create an environment where one expects violence to erupt any second’ (Coulthard 2011, p.180).
Many commentators have remarked on the importance of spectatorship, in particular the moral positioning of spectators, in Haneke’s films. Thus, Catherine Wheatley has stated that Caché ‘marks the culmination of Haneke’s techniques for positioning the spectator morally’ (Wheatley, 2009, p.154). Ben McCann and David Sorfa have similarly argued that ‘Haneke sees the contemporary cinema spectator as being in a position of culpable responsibility: there is no viewer who can claim innocence in the face of the cinema before them.’ (McCann and Sorfa, p.4) In the assigned reading, Thomas Elsaesser, building on Steven Shapiro’s ideas, describes this moral position as a ‘spiral of voyeurism and guilt’, self-disgust and liberation.
In terms of the class positioning of his films, Haneke has declared that many of his films are about middle-class, bourgeois protagonists, because this is the social position he himself occupies (class particularism). (Lykidis, p. 455) However, oftentimes he places these protagonists in dangerous situations, depicting their lives as teetering on the brink of moral collapse, threatened or under scrutiny. Alex Lykidis considers the French-language films of Haneke in particular to be a ‘more precise formulation of the dynamics of bourgeois crisis and anxiety’ (p.456).
His films often foreground the insecurity experienced by bourgeois characters when confronted with the other (the foreigner, the immigrant) and mobilise and call into question the anti-immigration rhetoric in France and in Europe more broadly (fortress besieged mentality, the perception of immigrants as unassimilable and dangerous).