Violence in Michael Haneke’s films always shows a tendency to stun the audience in terms of its representation.
Since his first feature film, The Seventh Continent, the Austrian director depicts a familiar environment for him: the suppressed identity of the European bourgeoisie and dull relations of modernity. The uncompromising structure of his films is fed by many factors. Nevertheless one of Haneke’s biggest issues is how violence is presented in conventional media. Through portraying violence with all its shockingness, he emphasizes this terrible phenomenon that we are increasingly being forced to accept as normal in this era.
It is a vain effort to hope for pleasure from a Haneke film for the audience, who adore the violence stylized with splattered blood and countless effects and normalized with shallow dialogues, and who do not take responsibility for its real-life repercussions. Although Funny Games, which he shot in 1997, is the perfect manifestation of his vision, the scope of this article will be limited to the films Caché (2005), Benny’s Video (1992) and Das Weisse Band (2009).
Caché is one of the first films that come to mind when considering violence in Michael Haneke’s films. Haneke’s way of using violence in this masterpiece, in which he harshly ridicules Europe’s suppressed culture of exploitation and indifference through an upper-class French family, is also quite unusual.
Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Anne (Juliette Binoche) contact the police after receiving suspicious videotapes monitoring their home. After inconclusive investigations, Georges becomes suspicious of Majid, the child of a family who served as the housekeeper in his childhood. In the shadow of Georges’ nightmares about the past and his inner turmoil, the story is dragged to a terrifying point where the answers are vague…
Michael Haneke’s films circle around uncertainty, alienation, and bourgeois despotism. Caché is like a distillation of these issues. Georges is a perfect character for the representation of a certain class. He constantly lies to his wife, his relationship with his child is superficial. When he was little, he had thrown Majid out of the house with a lie, and Algerian Majid’s family was brutally murdered in the 1961 Paris Massacre. Full of horror, Georges refuses to take the blame for what he did. “It’s not a tragedy, is it!” he shouts…
The structure of the film, which is based on the inability to grasp the ‘truth’, also shows itself in the demonstration of violence. The distance of the camera from the characters is maintained. As we are used to in Haneke’s films, fixed frames and long shots dominate the narrative. This choice has a critical function: Some things have to happen out of the frame. So, if we don’t turn our heads, does the violence that takes place disappear? When we see people full of blood on the news if we change the channel, would everything be alright? Haneke pokes these questions and examines the destruction in the human soul caused by ignoring guilt.
In Caché, physical violence is demonstrated in a pure form. We watch for a long time the flutter of the rooster whose head was cut off in Georges’ nightmare. Unable to withstand George’s psychological pressure any longer, Majid kills himself by slitting his throat in front of him.
These two scenes, which are very difficult to digest, take place in an atmosphere that gives an idea about Haneke’s films. Psychological violence is also evident: the police rudely break into Majid’s house despite the absence of any evidence. Georges yells at a black teenager on the street. When the tapes keep coming despite Majid’s death, Georges starts blaming his son. In these scenes, Haneke masterfully emphasizes his view on immigrant and minority groups in Europe.
In one of the interesting moments, we see Georges, who witnessed Majid’s shocking death, walking out of the cinema in the next scene… It says a lot about the demonstration of violence differently from conventional cinema. The audience realizes alienating effects that constantly manipulate the image, and the danger of what violence can turn into when it is edited.
Haneke’s films do not get along well with television. The corrupting effect of television appears in many of his films; in Caché, its role is to hide. In a scene, we witness the war in the Middle East in the background news. Georges and Anne can’t pay attention there. Because Pierrot, the sassy child of the poor family, is missing…
DAS WEISSE BAND: UNDER THE SAME ROOF
Das Weisse Band, 2009 Palme d’Or winner, takes the audience to a Protestant German village on the eve of World War I.
Trying to take a closer look at the seeds of Nazi Germany by questioning the nature of evil, Haneke creates a narrative that generates more questions than answers, similar to his previous film.
It opens with the words, “I don’t know if the story I’m about to tell you is entirely true.” In the events that the village teacher tells by going back to the past, we witness that the peace in the village is gradually deteriorating. The doctor who falls from his horse because of a hidden wire, the shredding of cabbage in the Baroness’s field, a fire in the barn at midnight… As we get to know people in the village, we witness the terrible evil in every house. And it is futile to wait for the events to come to a certain conclusion.
In the beginning, the narrator insists in his story, “perhaps what I have told may clarify what is going on in this country,” despite the questions that remain unanswered: This statement is like a summary of Haneke’s motivation for making the film.
We can’t get easy victims. The Baron of the village, in his speech to the people, mentions that the culprit is among them. The camera takes a close look at the villagers one by one. It becomes clear who Haneke is accusing: the doctor who sexually abuse his daughter, those who threw the Baron’s child into the river because of a small whistle, those who blinded a mentally ill child, the parents who overwhelm their children with psychological pressure, the priests who lacked compassion… They are all there.
The prevention of the fetish of violence, which is one of the main features of Haneke’s films, appears in Das Weisse Band. The camera listens motionlessly from behind the closed door as the priest beats his children with a stick. There is no need to show anything but the painful cries of children. It makes audience to think about the effect of the psychological and physical violence that pervades every moment.
BENNY’S VIDEO: COLD WATERS OF NOTHINGNESS
Benny’s Video, the second part of “Emotional Glaciation Trilogy”, is a lesson in the context of violence in Michael Haneke’s films.
The film opens with footage of a pig being killed with a shocker. We relive that shocking moment over and over. Benny is a typical Haneke character who has completely cut off ties with his family, spends all day on a video tape recorder, watches television frequently, and wanders on the edge of nothingness.
Taking advantage of his family’s absence at the weekend, Benny invites the girl he met at the videotape shop to his home and makes her watch the pig scene. He says that he stole the shock device, even though it has been years since the incident at his family’s farm. After a disturbing dialogue, Benny starts making dangerous jokes with his shock device and suddenly kills the girl for no reason.
In this scene, the screen-violence relationship that Haneke especially demonstrated in his first films becomes quite evident. He traps the audience in the view of a camera which is filming Benny’s room. Violence takes place outside the frame. For minutes, we hear the voice of the girl screaming in pain on the ground. Benny enters and exits the frame and strikes to kill her.
In the next scene, we watch Benny calmly eat yogurt… He throws a quilt over the girl and deals with his drawing assignments. Deprivation of the audience from the hidden pleasure of the violence becomes valuable in the scene where Benny cleans the girl’s blood: By showing the bloodied girl for a considerable time, it leads us to focus only on the horrific outcome of the murder.
When his parents know about the situation, they make plans to get rid of the body, either by dismembering the girl or somehow. Since his presence in the neighborhood is dangerous, his mother and Benny decide to take a tourist trip to Egypt. The burden of violence suffocates the audience as they follow the family enjoying the sun there, participating in entertainment, learning backgammon and watching TV silently.
Finally, when they think the suspicion has disappeared —probably the father took care of the body— they turn back. But the happy family is unaware of the game Haneke about to play: The camera that constantly records in Benny’s room also recorded their efforts to get rid of the corpse. The suppressed is back. Benny reports his family to the police. The film leaves the audience with the appearance of the duo at the police station…
Violence In Michael Haneke’s Films: Choir
But what is the reason of this terrible violence? Benny’s family is financially well off, and we see him spending time with his friends. There is no apparent problem. The film approaches the question through our relationship with the media. Benny, whom we see all the time watching TV, is a video maniac. Trying to make sense of his whole world through a screen has led him to a great nothingness. He goes to the party, ignoring the dead girl in his room. When his father asks why he killed the girl, he replies “I don’t know, to see how it is”.
Still, the film points too much more than the actions of a psychopath. It sets an entire community on fire, similar to what Haneke did in Das Weisse Band. Wide shots that overlook the city, shows the streets where Benny exists. Everyone has a share in the harmony of this choir. He is just a part of a group that skates in the same circle without stopping, reaching the same place as they turn…
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