Austrian director Michael Haneke has been making feature films for almost twenty years and yet only recently has he been recognised as one of the most challenging and compelling filmmakers in Europe. Having produced most of his early work for Austrian television during the eighties and nineties, Haneke came to broader public attention after directing La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher) in 2001, which won him three awards at Cannes. His most recent offering, Hidden, is set to bring him deserved critical acclaim. This unsettling film clothed as a psychological thriller poses some urgent questions which extend beyond the confines of its genre and encompass our very modes of seeing and interpreting.
Georges (Daniel Auteil) and Anne (Juliette Binoche) are a bourgeois intellectual couple living in Paris with their son. The film opens with an uncomfortably long, silent shot of their house, filmed from the street. This is only the first of numerous moments during which the audience is left uncertain of exactly what, or who, lies behind this camera-eye—and whose perspective it shares. In this case it transpires that we are watching, together with Georges and Anne, a video posted through their own door, precipitating fears of a mysterious voyeur. The plot is thus driven by their own descent into paranoia as more videos and sinister drawings follow. Similarities with the opening of David Lynch’s Lost Highway quickly dissipate as, rather than becoming entangled in a confusion of contiguous postmodern worlds, Georges gradually becomes convinced of the origins of the tapes in his own troubled history. The voyeur, he believes, is an Algerian farmhand who worked for his parents in his boyhood, and whose parents were killed in racist riots during the 1960s. Georges’s own lies and deception led to the boy being taken away from his home and into care. The campaign of voyeuristic tapes and drawings are thus, Georges reasons, an act of blackmail and revenge.
It is at this point that the film’s real subject begins to emerge. Haneke’s strategy comprises of a coldly distant, non-intrusive direction which allows the audience to form their own alliances and judgements in the accusations which accompany the disappearance of the couple’s son, and Georges’s subsequent confrontation of their supposed tormentor. The question which plagues viewers as they shuffle confusedly from the cinema following the film’s devastating conclusion is the extent to which their own prejudices have been revealed to them by this mirror-like quality in Haneke’s direction. The passivity and distance imposed by the camera and narrative structure has to be filled by the viewer’s own ideology, a troubling prospect for the white middle-class intellectuals who formed the majority of the Oxford audience watching this with me.
Hidden presents a bigger story than its plot suggests. Implicit in its tragic narrative is France’s brutal colonial history—a ghost that refuses to be exorcised as the rioting in its deprived and forgotten banlieues only last year demonstrated. More than this, though, the filmgoers of any nation which has colonised and oppressed, which has exploited and looked down upon its immigrants, will feel the quiet power of this movie. I say quiet, because the real stories in Hidden are the ones happening off camera, in the minds of its viewers. These are the stories of the immigrants who live, die and are judged without their voices being heard. In one harrowing, single-angle scene, the Algerian boy is dragged from Georges’ parents’ farmhouse into the back of a car. In attempting to escape he runs away from the authorities, off-camera. The steadiness of this shot, its refusal to slavishly follow its subject, its oblique depiction of the boy’s guardians turning away and retreat into the security of their house, is the perfect embodiment of Haneke’s professed credo:
My films are intended as polemical statements against the American ‘barrel down’ cinema and its dis-empowerment of the spectator. They are an appeal for a cinema of insistent questions instead of false (because too quick) answers, for clarifying distance in place of violating closeness, for provocation and dialogue instead of consumption and consensus.
Steven Spielberg’s latest blockbuster, Munich, provides an ideal contrast to Haneke’s aesthetics and the ideal object of his polemic. His film, ‘based on real events,’ stars Eric Bana (fresh from his virtuoso performances in The Hulk (2003) and Troy (2004)) as Avner, the idealistic Mossad agent chosen to lead a group of assassins in killing men suspected of involvement in the terrorist murders at the Munich Olympics of 1972. The title of the film proves to be slightly misleading, as, despite the dramatic action sequence which opens the film, and the subsequent flashbacks (apparently haunting the mind of our hero, although he wasn’t actually there), the events in Munich function simply as a way to kick-start the plot. Predictably, the Jewish agents engaged in their cold-blooded task form a neatly diverse selection of moral stances to the job they have been assigned, ranging from ‘let’s shoot the bastards and enjoy it’ to the dawning revelation that ‘maybe we’re no better than they were.’ Tormented by moral scruples and the suspicion that killing people doesn’t really help much, Avner eventually breaks with his Mossad boss (a mercifully good performance by Geoffrey Rush) and returns to domestic bliss with gorgeous but curiously mute wife and newborn baby.
Fortunately for a film that clocks in at two-and-a-half hours, Spielberg is a master of the action/suspense genre. Deploying skills honed in films like Saving Private Ryan rather than Schindler’s List, he endows Munich with some genuinely high-quality scenes, pulling out all the stops in drawing the audience into high octane gun battles and heart-stopping suspense. Occasional excesses, such as an overdone orchestral soundtrack, mar the moments in which, it seems, we are expected to feel sorrow or pity. There is even the odd echo of Spielberg’s finest moments from the ‘Indiana Jones trilogy,’ in which brief flashes of ironic machismo humour penetrate the moral searchings of the protagonists. The only problem is the apparent demand of the film to be taken seriously.
As is usually the case with historical films, Munich’s ideological encounter takes place in the present rather than in the past it depicts. It doesn’t take Spielberg’s self-conscious placement of the twin towers in the final frame of the film to tell us that what is really at stake is the West’s and specifically America’s response to September 11. The necessity of maintaining some kind of moral high-ground in the response to these attacks, and the acknowledgement that a violent response will not prevent further violence but only increase its likelihood, has occurred to most (several governments notwithstanding, admittedly), without having it patiently dramatised for us at the cinema. It is precisely the events in Munich, in the quiet bits between the bomb blasts and flying bullets, which reveal its weaknesses. In the one clumsy attempt at giving an authentic voice to a Palestianian militant, Avner (implausibly posing as a Soviet agent) conveniently discusses the Israel-Palestine conflict with a PLO member. Unlike Haneke’s Hidden, Munich relies almost exclusively on words to signal interpretative potential. This set-piece jars as the inevitable deadlock of two earnestly given view-points is dutifully expressed. In Hidden, words are always lies, attempts, as Harold Pinter has memorably put it, at ‘continual evasion.’ The title of Heneke’s film comes to refer to that which the bourgeois intelligentsia has buried or obscured in language. There is something, Haneke seems to be saying, which film can do that other media cannot. The bare image, carefully chosen, and recorded unblinkingly, can act as something like a conscience. The space and freedom to discover this yourself is clearly not an option offered by Spielberg.
Will Norman is a DPhil student in English Literature at New College.