It's that feeling that makes you squirm in your seats that Haneke is searching for in each of his films—but why?
Micheal Haneke is one of the most unsettling directors out there. His films, which are notoriously uncomfortable to watch, deal with difficult topics through a unique visual style that leaves the audience breathless and riddled with anxiety.
What makes these films beautiful and unsettling isn’t achieved by the normal tricks. Instead, Spikima Movies found that Haneke’s use of long takes, static shots, in medias res, and use of genre conventions create films that are memorable despite the discomfort the audience feels while watching.
Let’s break down these elements that make a Haneke film a Haneke film.
A long take can make a scene feel inescapable, forcing the audience to see through the perspective of the subject on screen. It’s forced observation, telling the audience what they are and are not allowed to look at. It’s torture through limited viewing.
Haneke is fully aware of this, and uses long takes consistently throughout his work to eliminate manipulation of the time frame by presenting events in real-time. The sequences are slow, yet Haneke’s formal approach to filmmaking helps sustain the tonal suspense of the long takes, keeping the image aesthetically pleasing and engaging.
In his 2001 film The Piano Teacher, Haneke gives us a seven-minute sequence of Erika’s (Isabelle Huppert) and Walter’s (Benoît Magimel) distressing sexual encounter. According to Haneke, this was essential that the film was on a higher level aesthetically to prevent its depiction of sexual acts from being perceived only as provocative. If the sexual acts are viewed as provocative, then the meaning is lost.
The long takes allow the audience to see an unbiased look at the complexity of human desire, and the key to Haneke’s film is that objectivity. The style creates control, forcing the audience to sit with the grief, pain, and sorrow of his characters in real-time as they watch the gentle strokes of truthfulness are brought forth through images that hold sincerity and neutrality.
The static camera plays a crucial role in portraying the key moments of each character as honestly as the film can. This approach generates an exotic dynamic in storytelling where the film denies the audience guidance to key elements within the frame.
Mundane shots confuse the audience before the film later reveals the shot’s significance. This forces the audience to reflect on the comment that preceded the unforeseen revelation. The audience is asked to stay with each passing moment, pulling them in closer to the often tragic images on the screen, demanding that the audience participates in the film if they want to understand the full story.
Other times, the film simply refuses to reveal anything at all, urging the viewers to discover what is in the frame and creating a story that might differ for each viewer.
The static camera is Haneke asking the audience to bring our ideas to the film, and reflect on why and how we are responding to the film’s subject. By narrowing this gap with realistic, immobile shots, the film becomes tougher to witness as irrelevant.
In Medias Res
Almost every single Haneke film opens in medias res, a moment in the middle of an ongoing narrative. Often, exposition is bypassed and filled in gradually through dialogue, flashbacks, or descriptions of past events.
Events are presented quickly and end often in the middle of conversations or events in Haneke films, and the opening sequence reveals the theme of the plot before telling us anything else.
This is most notable in Code Unknown in which scenes are repeatedly cut randomly and jump to another, unrelated scene. The editing is not only jarring but maintains tensions within the scenes.
A similar example of this is his film The White Ribbon, where bypassed exposition provokes confusion and misunderstanding that help maintain the stress of the scene.
There is a moment in The White Ribbon when a doctor tells the midwife that she should die, and the scene that follows immediately after is a funeral procession. This implies that the midwife died, and the audience is in a state of disbelief until it's revealed who actually died.
The timing of the cut and setting of the shot implies a different narrative that leaves the audience's minds wondering until the story reveals the truth. Blending this sense of trickery and anticipation with the introspection of misleading cuts, Haneke creates suspicion and, once again, anxiety within the audience.
Betraying genre conventions
Filmmakers that play within the genre conventions do this to create a false sense of comfort for the audience. Horror films like the Scream franchise play with the modern horror conventions to comment on popular society, and Haneke’s film Benny’s Videos leads the audience down a familiar path before taking an unsuspecting turn to reveal the film’s true intentions.
This is most evident in the sequence that has Benny (Arno Frisch) meet and invite a girl over to his place. This sequence follows the beats of the classic boy-girl spectacle, convincing the audience that the meeting will lead to some form of physical intimacy. Instead, Benny kills the girl, eliminating any sense of sexual potential that could exist in the film.
Haneke brings an unexpected twist to the narrative by revoking the concept of sexually realized subjectivity and replacing it with the idea of total control over one’s world through media and violence to find a true form of self-realization. For Benny, eliminating potential desirable objects only helps him grow into his isolated world that he deems as authentic.
We are not ready for these twists. It reminds us that Haneke is the god of the film’s world and we, like the characters, are observers trying to make it to the end. The boundaries between real life and fiction are blurred, taking away that distance that makes films focused on challenging subjects easier to watch.
Creating non-consumable work
What makes Haneke’s films so memorable are moments that ask the audience to stay and question why this scene or detail was so important. It is that forced participation with the work that is inescapable and shakes the audience to its core.
Haneke’s style comes down to his effort to avoid producing consumable entertainment which he believes is easier to forget. There is nothing wrong with consumable or digestible entertainment, but that is not what Haneke wants to do. He was to do justice to problematic topics, and urge the viewer to look at “ideal scenes.”
“Ideal scenes'' are those unforgettable moments, whether that is violence on or off-screen or the weight of a conversation in the context of the film. When the ideal scenes are done correctly, they can deliver a gut punch that elevates the film.
Another way Haneke delivers an ideal scene is by never giving a resolution to certain conflicts that are irrelevant to the story he wants to tell. In Caché, the culprit responsible for the mysterious tapes is never identified. The answers the audience wants to know are not important to Haneke, and the unsettled issues don’t have to be all-encompassing. The visual trickery is done to get a response from the viewer and ask them what the film means to them.
Haneke is a director who gives us a vague sense of meaning but wants the audience to find purpose and connection to the film themselves. It’s a bold choice that makes viewing his work unsettling and uncomfortable, and there is nothing wrong with that.
As a filmmaker, your vision and goals should be the focus of each project you take on.
Is what you are wanting to achieve being achieved? The work you create is a reflection of yourself and allows the audience to peek into the world you see. Take risks and make bold choices because they might just pay off in the end.
Which Micheal Haneke film makes you the most uncomfortable? Let us know why in the comments below!