January 12, 2018

Watch: Michael Haneke and the Illusions of Cinematic Reality

It's never been this fun to examine the Austrian director's grim cinematic realities.

The Michael Haneke quote opening the below video from Channel Criswell's Lewis Bond serves as a strong summation of the director's view of cinema: "It is the duty of art to ask questions, not provide answers. And if you want a clearer answer, I'll have to pass."

From The Seventh Continent  to Caché (and perhaps his best known American release, the English language remake of Funny Games), Haneke has never pandered to his audience. His work features some of the grimmest aspects of modern life in the West, prompting detractors to claim it verges on the sadistic. Bond argues however that Haneke isn't the one to blame. The films are a sustained critique of the truism that "film is truth." 

Because movies are an immersive experience, audiences believe that film is a "mirror of reality." Bonds continues to discover that Haneke's films are a challenge to that notion however. He sees Haneke's thesis as a claim to film having distorted our perception of reality. The director's films "expose the dangerous effects of an existence informed by media worship." The implication is that the illusion of film has dissociated our perception of existence (this is a side-effect of the narrative fallacy that drives all storytelling) and had led to a "trivialization of emotion" that wreaks havoc on our real lives. 

"It is the duty of art to ask questions, not provide answers." 

By confronting viewers with the shock of having a persistent illusion shattered, Haneke's methods are meant not only to tell stories, but to challenge the very notion of what the effects of artifice are on human perception. Haneke is, in a way, playing "funny games" in every film he makes, though it's not "funny ha-ha", to be sure. And with the release of his latest work, Happy End, Haneke continues an interest in the existential crisis Western affluent classes, who, though they have so much, are no happier or kinder.

In Haneke's work, the monied and complacent are often shaken by a confrontation with reality, either in the form of violence or in the existence of others (refugees, for example, in Happy End's Western European setting). Haneke's films do to his characters what he aims to do to his audience.

This thoughtful video essay is one of the more insightful and trenchant ones you're likely to see on the director. It's an instructive look at the methods of a director for whom film is more than just a storytelling device, and whose aversion to easy solutions and happy endings take cinema in bold and formally inventive directions. 

What do you think of the video essay? What's your favorite Michael Haneke film? Let us know in the comments below.     

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