Michael Haneke’s visual sociology

April 10, 2008 / The social blindness we take for granted is doing us more harm than we know.

Been watching some movies. Spoilers follow…

The first Haneke film I saw was Funny Games (1997). At the time that experience was dominated by dismay and a horrible feeling of complicity. Watching Funny Games—a violent and torturous exploitation of bourgeois taste and privilege—it was impossible not to feel like part of the problem. The total damage wrought by perpetrator on victim grinds down any presumption of hope you might have, while surreptitious glances at the camera expose the viewer’s role in the routine consumption of violence. For me it was a breathtaking and mind altering moment.

It became clear after seeing Caché (2005), and then Code Unknown (2000), that Haneke’s films push you around because, far from wanting to entertain you, he’s provoking you into an argument about the state of things. In good dialectical style, that argument is simultaneously about the subject matter (the film’s data) as well as about the representation of that subject matter (about ways of making arguments). The technique creates what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “a point of view on a point of view.” You watch a Haneke movie with a different part of your brain because you are dealing with stories that force you to adopt a participant’s point of view in order to understand what’s going on. Once you start forming thoughts about that “position taking,” you’re looking at the film’s data in a sociological way.

Haneke’s style is immediate and arresting. The long, long, point-of-view takes create an atmospheric intensity and eeriness reminiscent of David Lynch (the front of Fred and Renee’s house in Lost Highway, the back of the diner in Mulholland Drive). It’s not easy to pull this off—contrast with Gus Van Sant’s conceptual Gerry (2002) which features an agonisingly long close-up of the lost friends trudging through the desert that feels more self-conscious than illuminating. Similar scenes from Haneke maintain an edge that winds you up like a coil the longer they go. Where Lynch explores the inland terrain of phenomenology, existentialism and psychoanalysis (trauma of the individual’s being in the world), Haneke pursues the critical themes of social conflict, politics and history (trauma of the group’s relationship to society).

These are arguments are about how social life actually is—how we consume violence, how we fail to understand one another, and how privilege (of wealth, citizenship, ethnicity) can blind us to the fact that others even exist. In fact, Haneke’s main point in the three films could be boiled down to “the fact that we fail to see,” and each is masterfully crafted to force your eyes open. By denying you the omniscient perspective that you’ve (probably) come to expect from cinema, he pulls you into the same dilemma his characters face—incessantly watching the other across invisible, but very real, social barriers. Haneke’s films create a visual sociology of the shortfall between the modern world in theory, and the modern world in practice. But perhaps the most disturbing thing about Haneke is that his movies seem to amount to a long-running prequel to Children of Men.

It’s the end of the world as we know it.

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