It’s true, what Anthony Lane said in his fascinating profile of Michael Haneke in the October 2009 issue of the New Yorker, no one can mistake his films for entertainment. Quite the opposite, in fact. They’re drudgery, and magnificently unpleasant drudgery at that. I’ve taken it upon myself recently to host my own little Haneke retrospective in my apartment, at least as much as I can stomach.
In the past 3 weeks I’ve watched both Benny’s Video and The Time of the Wolf, which I’ve seen before, but it’s been awhile.
Nothing especially happens in either of them, except for one gruesome and prolonged murder (Benny), and, you know, the end of the world in the other. But it’s to Haneke’s credit that both movies are incredibly boring and leave the viewer with both a sense of abject terror and utter emptiness. Wolf might be Haneke’s most hopeful film, but that’s like saying Jerry Falwell is less hateful than Pat Robertson.
Such is life. Which is why I think Haneke appeals to me so much as a filmmaker, even though I can’t stand his movies. Pure philosophical drivel, each and every one. I couldn’t even get all the way through Funny Games when I tried to watch it, but in the context of Benny’s Videos, FG makes much more sense now. And I don’t feel like I need to see FG either, to get it, or to be able to talk about it.
Yet they’re also quite oddly compelling. Watching Benny’s Video (about a young teenager obsessed with violence in movies, and with a homemade video of a pig being slaughtered, which I never watched, but heard, who ends up committing his own murder “to see what it feels like,” which, apparently, is nothing), I kept thinking about Columbine by Dave Cullen, perhaps the most in-depth book ever written about teenage angst and psychopathy. But Benny is the opposite of Eric Harris, the true sociopath of Columbine, in that he feels nothing. Eric felt rage, and alienation, and got utterly gleeful at the idea of inspiring misery and violence in the world. Benny just feels…nothing. Which, to me, is the far more apt model for what’s truly wrong in our society today. Sure, rage is terrifying (see: Tea Party), but being completely numb is as well.
I used to think I didn’t understand Haneke’s films, but I realize now that I understand them perfectly, because frankly, there’s nothing to understand. And I don’t mean that as an insult. I think he’s an amazing artist, but what you see is what you get. There’s nothing deeper. Perhaps Time of the Wolf is about socialism vs. capitalism (socialism being the clear preference), I don’t know. Maybe, maybe not. That’s an interesting read of it, but I honestly don’t think that was his intent. It’s a boring movie about awful shit that happens to people and how they deal with it. He’s like David Lynch, except if David Lynch is the Jungian archetype, then Haneke is the Nietzschian version of that.
Or maybe that’s really stupid too. Haneke could almost be a documentarian of disaffected suburban youth (tellingly, the same actor who plays Benny plays one of the murderers in Funny Games, and I’m pretty sure that was very intentional). Maybe the slaughter of animals is equitable to the slaughter of 9-year-old boys or teenage girls. Haneke doesn’t say as much, or even say that one leads to the other, but he makes a pretty strong argument that if you have what it takes to murder a screaming, defenseless animal, then perhaps you also have what it takes to slaughter a human. It’s no accident that of the three hallmark traits of budding serial killers, animal torture is the biggest red flag (the other two being a victim of sexual abuse and bedwetting).
I’m rambling and I’ve said nothing. But I think I love Michael Haneke. His films are like great literature. They ask more questions than they answer, and that’s what true art is supposed to do, in my opinion. He should have been a therapist maybe.