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The Repression Artist

Dostoevsky famously railed against Turgenev not for attending an execution, but for being unable to watch the final, grisly moment when the condemned's head was chopped off. "No person has the right to turn away and ignore what happens on earth," Dostoevsky later fumed to a friend, "and there are supreme moral reasons for that."

I am reminded of this Russian literary dispute whenever I watch the films of Michael Haneke, the German-born Austrian director who has managed to achieve simultaneously the status of revered auteur (complete with a MOMA retrospective and Cannes acclaim) and reviled-Austrian-at-large. (Usually, one is first the provocateur, then the master, but Haneke, in a Teutonic coup, has managed to inhabit both roles concurrently). His genius, it seems to me, is to straddle without comprise this Dostoevsky/Turgenev divide: Philosophically, he is the former; formally, the latter. His heart, no doubt, is with Dostoevsky, but he does not (as Dostoevsky surely would if he survived long enough to wield a Hi-Def camera) force us to watch the beheading. Rather, he forces us to watch ourselves turning away from it. 

This is another way of saying that Haneke's great interest is in dramatizing repression: the plot of people, especially the high-minded bourgeois, looking away. (It's also another way of saying that for Michael Haneke, the modern cinema--stadium seating, plush red drapes, et. al--is the ideal venue for an execution.) His riveting and deeply unsettlingly 2005 film Caché (literally, hidden) fits snugly into this cinema of suppression. In it, Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil), a literary talk show host, is forced to come face-to-face with a past crime, when creepy tapes start arriving on his doorstep (showing that very doorstep being filmed). His dirty secret is this: As a child, he lied to his parents that an Algerian boy, who they had planned to adopt, had beheaded a chicken. This selfish, though ultimately forgivable, childish lie drastically affects the Algerian's life, and Georges, through the arrival of these tapes, is forced to meet this fact.

Yet the plot description, which neatly exhibits a skeletons-dredged-out-of-the-closet-theme, doesn't begin to approximate the mood of repression the film evokes. "Drama," Hitchcock said, "is life with the dull bits cut out." Haneke upends the maxim, casting his unrushed eye upon the "dull bits" with the same exactitude he does the "drama" (and in Haneke, we're talking, drama) so that the second all but grows out of the first. He'll spend as much time on a man uncorking a bottle of wine as a man slitting his own throat. The one act of violence in Caché, when it comes, does so at the pace of the ordinary--and therefore, with a lurching reality. After witnessing this act, Georges drives home, loads up on sleeping pills, draws his sleek curtains, and lies in bed, ensconced in his Parisian apartment. And this--a process as visually uninteresting as an upper-middle-class man preparing for sleep--becomes the most dramatic moment of the film. One gets to see all that Georges is trying not to.

Haneke again approaches the theme in The Piano Teacher, his brilliant 2001 film and another exercise in suppression, this time of a clearly sexual stripe. The wary beauty Erika Kohut (a riveting Isabelle Huppert) is a French piano teacher whose perverse sexual proclivities she tries--and sort of succeeds--to inflict upon a well-adjusted student (an equally brilliant Benoit Magimel), who, not knowing the depth of her neurosis (but, don't worry, he soon does!) has fallen in love with her. The object of repression here is sex, and Haneke treats it with the same tantalizing patience he does violence in Caché.

One of the must disturbing, and poignant, scenes in the film is when Erika sneaks off to the bathroom to cut herself with a razor. It is presented as matter-of-factly as Georges's drawing the curtains in Caché. She takes the blade from its hiding place, sits on the lip of the bathtub, spreads her legs, reaches down, and the blood slides down the side of tub. As she reaches to do it again, Erika's mother calls her to dinner. Erika quickly tries to clean herself and erase all evidence of what she's done. "Dinner! Dinner!" the mother calls. What's striking is how routine the act feels: that is, how routinely hidden. By making this self-mutilation so horribly everyday, Haneke ensures its obscenity. Unlike the classic Hollywood "reveal"--Orson Welles's "rosebud" being the most iconic example--Erika's secret is not a once-in-a-lifetime exposure, but a daily surfacing that must be pushed down. "Coming!" she tells her mother.

Haneke's latest, Funny Games, a shot-for-shot redo of his unbearably remorseless and violent 1997 Austrian film, is the filmmaker at his most Dostoevskian: Here, he really does force you to watch the beheading, and for that reason alone, it's an early frontrunner for most Reviled Haneke Film Ever (which, given that he has been booed at Cannes, is saying something). It is a brutal, manipulative film. It seems bent on humiliating its audience. A woman at the screening I went to left the theater repeating, "What a passive-aggressive asshole!" to all of us in the elevator. Many nodded in response. From the reviews, this seems a common reaction. Anyone naïve enough to like the movie, Haneke has needled thusly: "Those who watch the film to the end apparently needed it. Those who leave earlier apparently didn't."

I think there is much value in Funny Games--it is the most convincing simulation of a violent experience I've ever been subjected to--but the above provocation from Haneke reveals why it lacks the maturity and insidiousness of Caché or The Piano Teacher. The failure to stomach an actual beheading is not, after all, a moral failure; it is a digestive one. No one needs to witness a brutal execution to understand the injustices of capital punishment, just as no one needs to watch Funny Games to question the media's representations of violence. Haneke is too smart not to know this. It is simply that he is more invested in--and inspired by--how we turn away than what it is we turn away from (which is why Funny Games feels like a kind of enlarged footnote to Caché and The Piano Teacher). This not a knock at all. The truth is, despite his hot-button topics and extracurricular comments, Haneke is not really a political filmmaker. He is far more interested in reflecting the world than changing it.

Jacob Rubin is a writer in New York City. His writing has appeared in Slate and New York magazine and will be anthologized in Best New American Voices 2009.

By Jacob Rubin