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Violence, Representation, Responsibility. Films of Michael Haneke by Peter Brunette

You never show reality, you only show its manipulated image.
-Michael Haneke


Michael Haneke burst out of the festival ghetto onto the international
art-house scene in 2005 with his challenging and (to some) distressingly
open-ended French-language film Cache (Hidden) , and he solidified his
position as a major contemporary auteur by winning the Palme d’Or at
the Cannes Film Festival in zoog. He is a provocative figure who likes
to disturb people, most notably his audiences.
The overarching themes that unite Haneke’s films are not especially
novel: the alienation from self and others that contemporary society routinely
produces, the attendant loss of our common humanity (what he has
called “our social and psychological wound”) , the grinding attenuation of
human emotion, the increasingly elaborate systems of communication
that manage to communicate less and less, and the relationship between
reality and its representation. These are themes that have been around
at least since the 1g6os, in the films of the Italian master Michelangelo


Antonioni, among others, but they have been brilliantly updated through
the application of fresh and even iconoclastic cinematic techniques by
this surprisingly old-school art-film director.
Partly because these general themes are so familiar, one aspect of
Haneke’s films that has garnered a great deal of attention throughout the
latter part of his career has been the “subtheme” of the specific role of
contemporary media in producing such social alienation. Most important
of all, however, has been his complex and multifaceted exploration of
violence. At his press conference at Cannes in May zoog, Haneke baldly
stated, “All my films are about violence .” Though it takes a different
form each time, probably the most controversial aspect of this ongoing
investigation has concerned what Haneke considers the “consumable”
way in which violence is represented in Hollywood movies . In this arena,
he has consistently challenged critics and film viewers, in the name of
art, to consider their own responsibility for what they watch and to ask
themselves just what it is they are really doing when they seek to be
“merely” entertained by a studio-produced Hollywood thriller.
This has placed Haneke in a somewhat anomalous position, for many
ofhis films are too intellectual and self-consciously avant-garde to attract
his presumed target audience (those viewers who actually watch violent
thrillers), yet simultaneously too graphic and upsetting to please the majority
of the art -film crowd-those looking for something “life-affirming,”
preferably in a foreign language with English words on the bottom of the
screen. And then there is the radicality of his formal means, including
a purposely fragmented and confusing narrative and a liberal use of the
long-take in which “nothing happens,” as the proverbial criticism of this
powerful, if demanding, aesthetic would have it.
Haneke, now approaching seventy, is an extremely well-read European
intellectual who originally came from the theater and who has
also been trained in and profoundly influenced by classical music. Many
critics have taken up this latter aspect of his films in some detail (see
especially Frey, “Cinema,” “Supermodernity”; Vicari; Grundmann) ;
however, owing t o space constraints and the lack o f the requisite expertise
on the part of the present writer, this study will largely pass over the
fascinating musical connections that obtain in his films . Rather, it will
concern itself with an elaboration of the director’s recurring themes in

Benny´s Video

light of his formal cinematic techniques, primarily those that are visual
or (nonmusically) aural.
Michael Haneke was hom in 1942. His career is something of an
anomaly, since he had worked in Austrian and German television for
nearly two decades before making his first feature film, The Seventh
Continent (Der siebente Kontinent, 1989), for theatrical release. He has
since made eight or nine (depending on how you count them) highly
distinctive theatrical films that long ago captured the attention of festivalgoing
critics around the world but have only relatively recently come
to the attention of the larger art-film public, especially the most recent
French-language productions starring Isabelle Huppert and Juliette
Binoche. It is these films that this book will focus upon.
The earlier, quite fascinating, and only recently unearthed television
films-which, alas, are too numerous and too scarce to examine
closely here-often present themselves, surprisingly, in the guise of
somewhat old-fashioned modernist experimentation. In their formal
rigor, frank themes, and general harshness of tone, they are the polar
opposite of what in the United States would generally be considered a
“television film.”1 The full frontal female nudity and the self-consciously,
resolutely downbeat Weltanschauung unashamedly expressed in these
nearly thirty-year-old television productions underscore the vast gulf that
has always separated much European television from its unrecognizable
American cousin. In terms of Haneke’s career, what is important to keep
in mind, as he told the American critic Scott Foundas, was that for him
working in television “was not a matter of not having the opportunity
to make a real film. But rather, I wanted to find my own language.”
The other noteworthy element in these early films (which have never
been commercially released in any country or format) is a bitter, ongoing
sociopolitical critique of the middle class, a beloved target of most
German-speaking artists but especially, it sometimes seems, those from
Austria. His masterpiece of this period, the two-part Lemmings (Lemminge,
1979), is a brilliant, full-scale assault on bourgeois pieties, yet its
critique is also historically specific and attempts to account for the spiritual
emptiness of the generation-Haneke’s own-whose parents’ lives
were defined by the exigencies of World War II and Nazism. (He has
returned to this generational, sociohistorical vein in The White Ribbon

The white ribbon

[Das Weisse Band, 2009] , which takes place just before the outbreak of
World War 1.) Unfortunately, what is also occasionally on display in this
film, which is set in 1959 (part I) and 1979 (part II), is the less palatable
side of the director’s work and personality that occasionally comes into
view: the hectoring scold and unassailable moral arbiter.
It is probably a mistake to try to analyze Haneke’s work of any period
solely in terms of the aesthetic protocols of international art-film production.
Rather, the profound, never fully explained unhappiness that engulfs
many of his characters-in the television work and the later films-is
best understood in relation to the irrational violence and profound malaise
infecting the fictional characters of his countrywoman, the Nobel
Prize-winning writer Elfriede Jelinek, and other cinematic figures, like
the younger filmmaker Ulrich Seidl (Dog Days, 200 1 ; Import/Export,
2007), both of whom also concentrate on horribly lost souls who seem to
have no overt rationale for the ultra-intensity of their frustration, violence,
and inhumanity.
At least some of this bitterness may be traced to Austria’s particular
relationship to the events before, during, and after World War II, especially
regarding the never-resolved, little-examined dalliance with the
Nazi party and Adolf Hitler, who was born in Austria. Other countries,
like France and Italy, have had their own postwar devils to wrestle with,
in terms of the elaborate discourses of “victimhood” that have had to be
generated, retrospectively, by each society, but Austria has had particular
difficulty justifying its warm embrace of the Nazi Anschluss of 1 938
while also claiming bragging rights as Hitler’s “first victims.” As Haneke
himself has said, “In Austria today you still hear people proclaim that
‘None of us were Nazis.’ No one will admit to being a Nazi; they were
all victims of the Nazis” (Porton so).
In addition, the Austrian population and military suffered much
more immediately and severely than the French, who in effect dropped
out of the war within a few months. We see the psychological scars of
this suffering, and of the refusal to confront the compromised past, in
the work of Haneke and Jelinek and, at a further remove, Seidl and
other younger figures. (The autobiographical element has also to be
taken into account in trying to understand a film like Lemmings, given
the fact that the characters who populate the film are the same age and
live in the same town as the director who created them.)

The seventh continent

With his theatrical films, beginning with The Seventh Continent
( 1989 ) , Haneke switches gears. His general social critique about the
inhumanity of modern life is still paramount, but what now comes
more fully into view is a particular feature of that critique, his ongoing
exploration of the cinematic and televisual representation of
violence-a critique that is itself sometimes expressed in a violent
fashion. A family destroys all their possessions and then themselves,
graphically, in The Seventh Continent. In Benny’s Video, a teenager
from a cosseted bourgeois family kills a young girl he’s recently met
with a bolt gun used to slaughter hogs, while capturing the action on
video. The psychological pressures that lead a military cadet to kill
four people in a bank are explored in 71 Fragments of a Chronology
of Chance, while Funny Games presents two young men who torture
and eventually murder a father, mother, and their young son. In the
later French-language films, Haneke moves away from this focus on
violence and its representation in the media toward a more generalized
critique of contemporary, especially urban, life. The White Ribbon applies
the same critique, but this time to an historical period a century
in the past.
The films that focus on the representation of violence, however,
raise a perhaps unintended moral question: To what extent do these
films also participate in the “pleasures” of the violence they ostensibly
critique? An earlier model would be Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork
Orange ( 197 1 ) , which, intentionally antiviolence, has been thought by
many critics to revel in its very graphic depictions of violence.
It is perhaps appropriate here to cite some of the things that Haneke
and others have said on this subject, though the question will also be
considered on a film-by-film basis throughout this book One camp wants
to absolve Haneke of any responsibility. Christopher Sharrett has said
that one of Haneke’s most notorious films, Funny Games ( 1997), does
not “participate, for all its relentlessness, in the excesses it criticizes,”
though such an arbitrary boundary is difficult to establish. The critic
Scott Foundas says that movies like Funny Games and Benny’s Video
“are graphic and intense, but Haneke doesn’t (as his detractors would
claim) profit from their violence. Rather, he reclaims sensitivity to violence
(and to human suffering) from the exploitative wastelands of Jerrys,
Bruckheimer and Springer.” Others, however, like the New York Times

Funny Games

critic A. 0. Scott, speaking of the failed 2007 American remake of Funny
Games, has called Haneke a “fraud” who tortures not only his characters
but his audience as well.
By way of self-explanation, Haneke has said that “the society we
live in is drenched in violence. I represent it on the screen because I
am afraid of it, and I think it is important that we should reflect on it.
. . . I think that the things that are going well in society are difficult to
present dramatically. In my 20 years of working in the theater, I only
staged one comedy, and that was my single failure” (Badt).
Haneke’s focus, in other words, is on the ubiquitous presence of
violence in the real world and the representation of such violence in the
media. For obvious reasons, the latter is more sharply foregrounded in
his films, since they are inevitably part of that media. Representation is
always about “showing,” and thus the question that inevitably arises is
what can and cannot legitimately be shown, or “re-presented.” Asked
by Foundas how he is able to treat sensational subjects in what Foundas
describes as “a non-sensational manner,” the director’s surprisingly
moralistic reply is that while he respects the gravity of these events, a
lot of Hollywood films simply exploit them. “For example, if you take
Schindler’s List and you have that shower scene, I think it’s absolutely
disgusting to show that. One must not show such things.”
Instead, Han eke chooses to keep most violence offscreen: “I use your
fantasy. I think it’s one of the most important things for a filmmaker . . . .
The audience has to make their pictures, and whatever I show means
diminishing the fantasy of the viewer” (Foundas). The fact that most of
the brutality in the director’s films is offscreen is also used by his devotees
to exonerate Haneke of any moral failing in this regard. But just because
violence is not actually pictured, it is nevertheless always heard, and its
aftermath is seen, and thus it is always directly represented in his films
in some complex way that goes beyond the visual.
Haneke also knows that the question is more complex than merely
showing or not showing violence onscreen.
I’m trying as best I can to describe a situation as I see it without bullshitting
or disingenuousness, but by so doing I subscribe to the notion
that communication is still possible, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing

Unknow Code

this. I cannot make comedies about these subjects, so it is true the
films are bleak.
The new technologies, of both media representation and the political
world, allow greater damage with ever-increasing speed. The media
contribute to a confused consciousness through this illusion that we know
all things at all times, and always with this great sense of immediacy. We
live in this environment where we think we know more things faster,
when in fact we know nothing at all. This propels us into terrible internal
conflicts, which then creates angst, which in tum causes aggression, and
this creates violence. This is a vicious cycle. (Sharrett)
And whence comes Haneke’s obsession with violence and its representation,
when so many other directors are content to exploit it ruthlessly? “I
think that I am someone who is creative, and sensitive to every form of
suffering,” the director says, in an interview translated for this volume.
“That makes me think of Wim Wenders’s ffim The End ofViolence, which
begins by trying to define violence. I myself have asked that question,
and the answer that I found is that violence is the ultimate recourse of
power against the will of others who must then be subjected to it.” This
definition of violence is especially applicable to The White Ribbon .
Presiding over Haneke’s aesthetics is the notion that films can be
art and that true art requires a contract with the audience. Mainstream
cinema, on the contrary, emphasizes “the commercial aspects of the
medium . . . . I think what I’ m proposing is a very old contractual agreement-
that both the producer and receiver of a work of art take each
other seriously. On the other hand, today’s conventional cinema, or mass
cinema . .. sees the audience member as a bank machine, whose only
function is to spit out money. It pretends to satisfy viewers’ needs, but
refuses to do so” (Porton 51). Above all, Haneke feels that audience
members must be persuaded–or forced, if necessary-to contribute
to a film’s meaning themselves and to recognize their complicity in its
psychological dynamics. It is here that the director’s aesthetic mission
sometimes comes perilously close to aesthetic coercion.
The director’s formal techniques, especially in the earliest films of
the “theatrical” period, are complex and invigorating but simultaneously
difficult and off-putting to those with little experience with art films. Interestingly,
his use of techniques that might in another context be called


postmodernist is anything but, for much of the motivation for his transgressive
subject matter and his distancing techniques is modernist to the
core. This modernism is linked tightly to a now rather hoary concept of art,
which, like the word “truth,” is never far from his lips. Both mark him as
something of a throwback to an earlier generation, or perhaps a younger
member of the modernist group of directors that includes canonical figures
like Antonioni, Resnais, Godard, Bergman, and Tarkovsky.
Formal techniques, for Haneke, also carry a philosophical rationale.
If he sometimes maddeningly refuses to explain character motivation in a
conventional manner, for example, it’s because “every kind of explanation
is just something that’s there to make you feel better, and at the same
time it’s a lie. It’s a lie to calm you, because the real explanation would
be so complex, it would be impossible to have in go minutes of film or
zoo pages of a novel” (Foundas).
Similarly, many of his films rely upon a series of vignettes, fragments
that cut to black and often resist synthesis at a higher level. Again, the
result is a kind of counter-cinema that defies commercial considerations.
According to Haneke, films can never, by definition, show reality as a
whole, so fragmentation is the only honest way to proceed. One must
then “find the aesthetic means that will allow us to transfer this fragmented
look onto the screen” (Cieutat interview in this volume).
The fragments themselves often consist of a single long-take (with
the camera either stationary or panning to follow the characters), a technique,
originally championed by the celebrated French critic and theorist
Andre Bazin, that is notoriously bothersome to the generation raised
on the jumpy editing of MTV-and not only to them. This technique
represents an attempt to fashion a counter-cinema that would oppose
not only Hollywood filmmaking but its nefarious ally, television, with
which, having begun there, Haneke has a paradoxical relationship:
Perhaps I can connect [the long-take] to the issue of television. Television
accelerates our habits of seeing. Look, for example, at advertising
in that medium. The faster something is shown, the less able you are
to perceive it as an object occupying a space in physical reality and the
more it becomes something seductive. And the less real the image seems
to be, the quicker you buy the commodity it seems to depict.
Of course, this type of aesthetic has gamed the upper hand in

The pianist

comercial cinema. Television accelerates experience, but one needs time
to understand what one sees, which the current media disallows. Not
just understand on an intellectual level, but emotionally. The cinema
can offer very little that is new; everything that is said has been said
a thousand times, but cinema still has the capacity, I think, to let us
experience the world anew. (Sharrett)
This capacity to reexperience the world is thus reinvigorated by
the long-take aesthetic. “Code inconnu [Code Unknown, Haneke’s first
French-language film, released in zooo] consists very much of static
sequences, with each shot from only one perspective, precisely because
I don’t want to patronize or manipulate the viewer, or at least to the
smallest degree possible” (Sharrett).
Nor is Haneke naive regarding the question of manipulation, a subject
that always entails rethinking the role of the audience, though he
does seem to believe that manipulation can be quantified: “Of course,
film is always manipulation, but if each scene is only one shot, then, I
think, there is at least less of a sense of time being manipulated when one
tries to stay close to a ‘real time’ framework. The reduction of montage
to a minimum also tends to shift responsibility back to the viewer in that
contemplation is required” (Sharrett).2
But if even the most careful cinema is always manipulative, why
bother? What kind of solution to the world’s problems can filmmakers
hope to provide? “The point is that there are no solutions,” Haneke
bleakly insists.
The mainstream cinema tries to feed you the idea that there are solutions,
but that’s bullshit. You can make a lot of money with these lies.
But if you take the viewer seriously as your partner, the only thing that
you can do is to put the questions strongly. In this case, maybe he will
find some answer. If you give the answer, you lie. Whatever kind of
security you try to feed somebody is an illusion …. I want to make it
clear: it’s not that I hate mainstream cinema. It’s perfectly fine. There
are a lot of people who need to escape, because they are in very difficult
situations. . . .B ut this has nothing to do with an art form.A n art form
is obliged to confront reality, to try to find a little piece of the truth … .
These questions, ”What is reality?” and ”What is reality in a movie?”
are a main part of my work. (Foundas)

An essential part of this confrontation with reality necessarily entails the
self-exploration of the artist-some of it, notably in Funny Games, of a
self-reflexive variety. It is precisely this gesture, according to Haneke,
that leads us back to art, because, to be considered an art form, film
must challenge its own existence: “The question is, is film merely entertainment,
or is it more? If it is art, it has to be more. Art can be entertaining.
The Passion of St. Matthew is entertaining, [but] it is more
than diversion, it is concentration, [it] focuses your thoughts” So cinema
can change the world? “No, but it can make it a less sad place than it
already is” (Badt).


Brunette, Peter. The films of Michael Haneke. USA, UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS, 2010. Pages 1-10.

“Michael Haneke Documentary” Dir. Nina Kusturica

“Downcast Eyes Michael Haneke and the Cinema of Intrusion” by ASBJØRN GRØNSTAD*

The intense clarity of the image failed to satisfy us, for it seemed to hide as much
as it revealed; and while it seemed to invite us to pierce the veil and examine the
mystery behind it, its luminous concreteness nevertheless held the eye entranced
and kept it from probing deeper Friedrich Nietzsche
The feared dizziness of vision may be precisely its monstrous and intimidating
silence Régis Debray
‘I thought you should be here to see this.’1
In the age of globalization and frenzied visuality, the battle over the possession of history
no less than that over representation itself often takes the form of a contest of images.
When rendered invisible, odious historical truths can sometimes be elided and laid
to rest. The unearthing and re-visualization of deliberately suppressed events is obviously
a key task for historical scholarship especially within postcolonial studies, but
occasionally this subject is broached also by artists, writers and filmmakers. In this article,
I shall examine how the Austrian director Michael Haneke (b. 1942) re-imagines
and problematizes a long forgotten scandal in French postwar history – the massacre of
Algerians in Paris in 1961 – and how he brings his viewers face to face with the enduring

ramifications of this black chapter in the narrative of the nation. My focus will be on the
ways in which Caché implicates the viewer in the events described by the film and also
on the withholding or even obliteration of cinematic pleasure that Haneke’s games entail.
The filmmaker’s iconoclastic project, I argue, revisits the figure of intrusion so
prevalent in some of his earlier films like Funny Games (1997) and Code Unknown
(2000) and aligns his work with a counter-cinema tradition whose antecedents include
the likes of Luis Buñuel, Jean-Luc Godard, Laura Mulvey and Chantal Akerman.
If there is a contemporary filmmaker whose work appears to be premised upon the
rigorously entrenched modernist legacy of negative poetics, it must be Haneke.2 A film
critic and television director turned filmmaker, Haneke gained instant notoriety with his
second feature, Benny’s Video (1992) and has since become known as one of European
cinema’s most respected auteurs, winning the prestigious Grand Prize for The Piano
Teacher at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival. Resolutely anti-Hollywood and obsessed with
the representation of violence in the mass media, Haneke has self-consciously adopted
the catharsis theory as a kind of meta-psychological framework for a cinema which, by
his own admission (Haneke 1992: 89), aims to “unsettle the viewer” and “take away any
consolation” (Sharrett 2004). His films might in fact seem to be essentially about the
punishing and victimization of the audience. His overall project, as some critics have
pointed out, appears to be the reinvestment of shock-value in the image (Wheatley 2006:
34). Cinematic assaults on the viewer like Funny Games (1997) – in which the terrorization
of the bourgeois family evidently is meant to be taken as the metaphorical projection
of the position of the audience into the diegesis of the film – would appear to
consolidate this perception of the director as someone who is determined to let the
brutalization of the spectator be the guiding principle of his art. Regrettably, however,
the pigeonholing of Haneke’s cinema in terms of an updated Aristotelianism and an
ideology of controversy – in no small measure abetted by the director’s own ruminations
– has tended to eclipse the moral and philosophical density of his films. In short, the
almost manifesto-like and ultimately too crude description of the hanekesque has come
infelicitously to interfere with an awareness of the films themselves. Disastrously, and
– in the case of Haneke – ironically, media reputation has overshadowed the complex
arguments of the individual films; the image has been mistaken for its substance (a major
concern for Haneke, as we shall later see), thus obfuscating a number of pivotal issues
which underlie and deepen the rhetoric of the films in question. It is not uncommon for
imagemakers (and particularly those of the politically and aesthetically controversial ilk)
to be better rallyists than artists, but Haneke is too accomplished a film artist to ever
become the successful didacticist he seemingly aspires to be.
Haneke can certainly be seen as a descendant of rather illustrious intellectual forebears
– Eisenstein and his cine-fist (1998) (the Austrian once remarked that he wished
to “slap” his audience in the face; Sharrett 2004), Adorno and his critique of the culture
industry (1972), Debord and his indictment of late capitalist visuality (1967), and finally,
Godard and his relentless interrogation of the epistemologies of the image – but maybe
not in the way that most critics imagine. It would be unfortunate to read Haneke’s films
as visual enunciations of a reactionary, knee-jerk existential pessimism or as an incongruous,
confused condemnation of our present media-saturated society. Haneke is neither
Ulrich Seidl nor Oliver Stone. His poetics of negation is not limited to a denunciation
of mainstream cinema or the intimidation of the viewer; it easily surpasses the occasionally
facile rhetoric of his own extra-textual statements. But the images he creates
do make us uncomfortable, though not in the same way that Gaspar Noé’s or Lars von

Trier’s images make us uncomfortable. Where the labor of the transgressive in the latter
appears to leap out from a disordered and largely unmanageable visual world that is
yet all too clearly the projection of a deliberately iconoclastic artistic imagination, in
Haneke it seems that it is visuality itself that has become transgressive. In an unprecedented
way, the image in Caché has acquired a sense of human volition, and that is
perhaps the most unspeakable transgression of all.
The Problem of (what) the Image (wants)
Framed by two disturbing stationary shots of an urban street and a school building respectively,
the densely textured Caché is ostensibly a narrative about cultural guilt and individual
responsibility in the context of the aftermath of French postcolonialism. Central to
the unfolding of the film’s drama is the motif of the return of the repressed, the physical
manifestation of which is a succession of videocassettes containing a deeply disconcerting
recording of the house of the main protagonists, a bourgeoisie couple played by Daniel
Auteuil and Juliette Binoche. Caché, like most of the director’s previous efforts, seems
intent on victimizing the viewer by provoking a sense of constant anxiety and imminent
dread, which derive not so much from the diegetic actions depicted as from the oppressive
ubiquity of a visual regime with an inexhaustible capacity for deception and manipulation.
The film’s opening shot chillingly projects an image of the gaze itself, the act of
looking as a morally alert and probing gesture which demands something of the viewer.
This discourse on the indeterminate status of the image which Caché invites, is indicative
of an underlying and more profound epistemological concern discernible in all of
Haneke’s films. But in Caché, the problem of the authenticity, readability and communicability
of the image is further augmented by a growing suspicion that the optical ecology
within which the characters are immersed is not only amorphous but even anthropomorphic.
All the different types of mediated images that proliferate in this universe – the enigmatic
footage on the surveillance tapes; the grotesque, childlike drawings that accompany
the cassettes; the television news reports from Iraq and Palestine; the images from
his childhood that the Auteuil character dreams in his sleep; the telephoto shot of his son’s
school which concludes the film – behave as if they were animated beings with drives,
desires, and demands of their own. Preposterous as it may seem, this conception of the
image as a living organism – explored at length in a recent book by W.J.T. Mitchell (2005)
– may offer a renewed hermeneutic framework within which to grasp the increasingly
ambivalent and precarious relation between the viewing subject and the unknowable visual
codes that surround her.
The unflinching gaze which so ominously requests something from the viewer – and
which may even seem accusatory and capable of instilling guilt – is itself an emburdened
image. In its deafening silence, it is still expected to incarnate and transmit a sense of
the representational immensity of historical injustices that the culture has suppressed.
With T.J. Clark, one might say that the images in Caché have been called upon “to do
too much work – to stand for an ethics and politics” that can be stated “only by means
of them” (2006: 43). If the cinematic image is not a representation but an event, as
Steven Shaviro has suggested (1993: 24), it is at the same time an event which sometimes
conceals other and more subterranean events even as it is prompted by them. The
subtextual secret at the center of Caché is the massacre that took place in Paris on October
17 1961, a national tragedy that seemed to have been erased from cultural memory
virtually overnight. Protesting a racist curfew that the Parisian chief of police Maurice

Papon had recently introduced,3 thousands of Algerians took to the streets that day to
participate in a peaceful demonstration promoted by the National Liberation Front.
More than 7,000 policemen managed to stifle the protests by blocking access to the city,
in the process opening fire on the crowds and throwing victims into the Seine. While the
police at the time claimed that only two Algerians had been killed in the turmoil, historians
have estimated that up to 200 people were murdered. Astoundingly, the event
received very little media coverage, possibly to due to political censorship in France and
biased reporting abroad. Only in 1998 did the French government acknowledge that the
massacre had in fact occurred, and in 2001 a plaque was unveiled near the Saint Michel
bridge to commemorate the victims. Questions of responsibility and guilt, however, were
not addressed.
Haneke originally conceived Caché as a collaborative project with actor Daniel
Auteuil, based on an idea in which someone is confronted with their own guilt.4 In an
interview included in the dvd version of Caché, the director tells us that he only became
aware of the events of October 1961 after watching a documentary about the Algerian
War on the German-French television network ARTE. Making this publicly silenced
incident the understated pivot of his film, Haneke attempts in Caché to allegorize the
collective culpability for the massacre through an exploration of the psychology of guilt
as it affects the film’s principal protagonist. Georges Laurent, played by the taciturn
Auteuil, is the host of a popular television program about literature. As a little boy, we
gradually learn, he was responsible for the ejection of his adopted Algerian brother from
the family, a selfish act motivated by an unsavory mixture of jealousy and fear. This act
of betrayal has not been on the adult Georges’s mind in a long time, but he is forced to
revisit it when he starts to suspect that Majid, his long forgotten childhood brother, may
be the shadowy source of a succession of vaguely threatening videotapes that he and his
wife have received. In the movies, as David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997) has already
established, the arrival of anonymous recordings of your house is an ill omen.
Showing Seeing
From its very first shot, Caché identifies the chasm between seeing and perception as
a fundamental predicament of that hypervisual culture that has been so astutely dissected
in previous Haneke films such as Benny’s Video, Funny Games and, above all, Code
Unknown. The unswerving interest in this rupture, which is on the whole epistemological
in nature, is yet another example in the director’s work of a close thematic affinity
with a particular fixation whose provenance is undeniably modernist.5 This is how the
film begins: an immobile camera stares impassively though forebodingly at the entrance
of the Laurent home in a long, uninterrupted take, until we start to hear the low murmur
of voices on the soundtrack and the image abruptly starts to rewind. As it turns out, the
shot is not the real time recording of the façade of the house from the street, but rather
the playback of that recording on a VCR located inside the same house which features
on the tape. In terms of point of view, we are not just watching a static image of the
house; we are watching the Laurents watch that same image. Narratively speaking, an
additional level of mediation – adding another perspective – has intervened in the framing
of the shot. The film thus instantly propels us into the tense subjectivity of the protagonists,
who are watching themselves being watched by an unidentified and possibly
hostile observer who discloses very little, if any, information about himself or the context
for his act of surveillance. Haneke’s opening shot, which effectively creates a claus-

trophobic, somber mood for the narrative that ensues (not only are we confronted with
an inscrutable and encroaching gaze but we are also thrust into the consciousness of the
victims of that gaze), is in a sense a pure figuration of that meta-perceptual act that
Mitchell has named “showing seeing” (2002). An image is always the product of a process
of seeing, and it always shows us something – its spatial determination, an object,
material forms – but this process itself is more often than not hidden from view. Showing
seeing is different from showing what the act of seeing shows. Nor is showing seeing
reducible to an image of the process of seeing.6 Neither the look nor the object (or their
relationality) is constitutive of the kind of metaperceptualism implied in Mitchell’s
phrase. While each instance of seeing is part of a frenetically heterogeneous, infinite
multiplicity of discrete acts of looking, showing seeing entails that phenomenon capable
of picturing these separate acts while remaining outside their totality. Showing seeing
involves the wresting of specificity from the act of seeing.
From a theoretical vantage point, it is of course feasible to imagine a mechanism that
in turn shows the process of showing seeing, and so on, so that the whole relation becomes
a visual equivalent of sorts of the Derridean notion of deferral. This, however,
is not the point. What matters here is that the opening shot of Caché compellingly approximates
a condition which enables the performance of seeing. Lingering onscreen for
2 ½ minutes before its eerie tranquility is interrupted by the voices of the Laurents, the
transfixed view of their abode comes across as nothing less than the mediation of a lacuna.
“Well,” says Georges, as the first word uttered in the film. “Nothing,” his wife
replies, referring to the image we have just seen. Then the camera cuts to a shot of the
couple leaving the house to locate exactly where the camera might have been placed.
Upon their re-entering the house, Haneke cuts back to the previous view, which soon
begins to fast-forward. The tape, we are told, goes on in the same manner for two hours.
Not much happens. We see pedestrians crossing the street, automobiles driving by, people
on bicycles and motorbikes. What the camera captures is, in essence, the quotidian
rhythms of Parisian street life in the morning hours. The appearance of this footage in
the couple’s home raises a number of questions for which the subsequent narrative fails
to provide adequate answers. Who is the tape from? What does it mean? What is the
purpose of its existence?
Less explicit but equally salient is the divergent nature of the range of suggestions
which the image engenders. The shot, first of all, appears empty, despite the presence of
a hodgepodge of urban architectural elements – structures, buildings, traffic, vegetation
– cluttering the frame. Second, the camera seems fairly unassuming or even inert, like any
surveillance device, yet it simultaneously evokes a menacing vibe. An image devoid of
presence, it nonetheless insinuates something present off screen. And third, by refusing to
move as much as an inch away from this delineated space, the shot gives the viewer a
perhaps stronger sense of temporality than of spatiality, so that what Haneke in effect
shows us is an image of time passing. Lastly, the perspectival source of the image is overdetermined,
collapsing as it does two different points of view into one hybrid subjectivity.
The ‘Here’ and the ‘Elsewhere:’ Humanism under siege
Haneke’s films often features trespassers and intruders and the quintessential Haneke
image is one of intrusion. Poised between the thematic twin poles of the invasion-of-privacy
narrative and the criticism of the media, the director’s films straddle what are, indisputably,
towering social issues in early 21st century culture. In Caché, as in Funny Games,

Haneke re-appropriates the generic template of the domestic invasion story, epitomized
by Sam Peckinpah’s harrowing Straw Dogs (1971), and – in the case of the former – turns
it inside out. The house and those who inhabit it have become the culprits in Caché; the
intruders are not a gang of drunken ruffians, as in Straw Dogs, but people who are themselves
victims. The home is no longer a sanctuary but a place of pent-up animosity and
frightful secrets. And, most significantly, Caché redefines the scope of the story by transforming
what was, for Peckinpah, an examination of the psychology of masculinity under
siege into a meditation on the vulnerability of the Western European consciousness when
exposed to its own complicity in the affliction of the culturally dispossessed. Haneke thus
collectivizes this supposedly most private and apolitical of genres, which revolves around
the microcosm of the victimized family and the galvanization of the vigilant father-warrior.
It is no longer about the family but the ideologies which produce it, the political
economy of bourgeois culture. The disturbance in the Laurent household cannot be contained,
or even properly identified, because it belongs to the realm of the unconscious and
the everyday, not the tangible and the exceptional.
Hence, the real drama of Caché goes on behind the scenes, as it were. Where most
of the director’s fellow cine-provocateurs rely for their act of transgression upon the
performance of on/scenity, to invoke Linda Williams’s term (2004: 3), Haneke buries
it among the uncommunicative pixels of his unyielding video image. The film is not so
much about the depth of the object as about the depth of looking itself. What is most
terrible is that which is off-screen, that which cannot be shown or visualized on account
of its psychic banishment, its cultural silencing. Caché is an apposite title for a film
which strives to elucidate the logic of that nexus where the problems of the image and
visuality, repression, and memory interlock. Derived from the Vulgar Latin coacticare
(“store up”, “collect”, “compress”), again derived from the Latin coactare (“constrain”)
and from coactus (past participle of cogere, “collect”), caché comprises the meanings
of both “hidden” and “concealed.” In English, the word cache can mean either a hiding
place, something hidden in a cache, or a computer memory from which data that is
regularly used can be swiftly retrieved. The word is also homonymic with cachet, prestige.
Connotationally speaking, the title of Haneke’s film resonates with all these meanings,
converging upon a semantic space where memory itself has become the hiding
place for that which the gaze of intrusion desires.
Caché fever, then, is the name of the game in Haneke’s ethically animated universe
of unwavering glances and downcast eyes. His film allegorizes the moral paralysis of
a society besieged by the specter of crimes history has omitted. As a filmic gesture, this
allegory contains a double movement, as it not only foregrounds the return of the culturally
repressed but also introduces, however obliquely, the themes of immigration,
nationhood, discrimination and the globalization of labor in postcolonial Europe. Released
domestically mere weeks before the most pervasive social unrest France had seen
since the May 1968 riots, Caché and its delineation of fearful cultural asymmetries could
be taken both as an inauspicious harbinger of this conflagration and as its condensed
backstory, its symptom. The film that the reviewers of Sight and Sound voted best movie
of 2006 (James 2007: 32) would also seem to be the one most closely attuned to the
social turmoil simmering beneath the pan-national veneer of the ever expanding European
Union. But the ideologically seditious nature of Caché reaches far beyond its
serendipitous topicality.
The unmentionable transgression at the cold heart of Haneke’s film is the bracketing
and denaturalization not only of the lebenswelt of the European bourgeois but of the

normally incontestable repertoire of humanist values that this world encapsulates. Accomplished
mostly on the level of mise-en-scéne and framing, this unaffected critique
of Eurocentrism nullifies that aesthetic contract forged by Enlightenment thinkers and
conceived as a way of regulating the relationship between artistic production, cultural
subjectivity and regimes of power. Haneke’s critical agenda not only in Caché but in
several of his older films – certainly The Piano Teacher – in part resembles the
deconstructive project intriguingly attempted by Clyde R. Taylor in his book The Mask
of Art, in which he de-universalizes and re-historicizes the notion of Aesthetics and its
purchase on Euro-humanism. “The way aesthetic philosophy was constructed as a cog
in a developing concept of humanity”, he writes, “while that humanity was endorsed in
only one geographical and ‘racial’ population, has influenced all the available notions
of social uplift through the arts” (Taylor 1998: 290). The painstaking aestheticization
of everyday life and domesticity represents for the Laurent family the real fortification
against all the unpleasantness of the outside world. The walls of the living room are
adorned by magnificent bookshelves, which look imposing vis-à-vis the television set
from which emanates the latest news stories from ongoing conflicts in the Middle East
and other remote spaces. One could be led to believe that Haneke here quotes Godard
and Anne-Marie Miéville’s film essay Ici et ailleurs (Here and Elsewhere, 1974), which
both contrasts and conjoins images of the “here” of the domestic life of a French family
watching television with images of the “elsewhere” of the Palestinian Liberation
Organization. The political thrust of Caché is the dramatization of the ways in which the
“here” and the “elsewhere” inescapably interrelate.
Enclosed by all the towering literature, the presence of the Laurents’ television set
seems negligible and trivial, its testimony drowned out by the gravity and sheer intellectual
heaviness of the bibliophile space. In a home like this, the atrocities from the
broadcast are as much of an intruder as the mysterious videotapes themselves. But the
ameliorative middle class humanism which the books connote offers a welcome respite
from the barbarism of global events, cheapened as they are in this particular environment
by their association with the unrefined medium of television. The vigor of the
film’s rhetoric lies not so much in its severe disclosure of the smugness of the cultured
elite but rather in its implication that Western European humanist ideals and aesthetics
are in cahoots when it comes to bolstering cultural privileges at the expense of the disenfranchised
postcolonial subject. The state of marginalization in which the subaltern
finds himself is even inscribed on a formal level in Caché, in that the silence and invisibility
of the subject responsible for the tapes become a foil to his lack of discursive
representation in the culture at large.

Haneke’s Negative Aesthetics
What makes Caché a politically transgressive film is that, in the same breath, it obdurately
suggests that the Laurents’ complacency is a mere mirror image of that of the
spectator. Archaic notions of viewer identification do not apply to Haneke’s a-psychological
form of cinema. As the filmmaker himself has affirmed, he deliberately
endeavors to eschew characterization in favor of something he defines as “projection
surfaces for the sensibilities of the viewer” (Sharrett 2004). And the visual aloofness of
the director’s style, so frequently noted by critics and viewers alike, is nothing if not
illustrative of the glacialization of our sensibilities as viewers, our decreasing ability to
be shocked by images; the coldness of Haneke’s style becomes an exteriorization of

what Fredric Jameson once called the “waning of affect” (1991: 16). Unlike many other
contemporary filmmakers who seem to aim for the destruction of cinematic pleasure, the
Haneke of Caché does not make us cringe by showing nauseating images of violence (a
single grueling scene notwithstanding) or by portraying sexual behavior deemed deviant
by the mainstream. Caché violates the viewers’ sensibilities not by immersing them
in the hideous matter of alterity, in everything which contradicts their own values and
experience – in the abject, in short – but rather by rubbing their noses in the moral insufficiency
of their own politics. In this, Haneke may have committed the definitive
transgression: the moral indictment of current humanist culture and the denunciation of
an aesthetic tradition to which the film itself so demonstratively belongs. Such a grand
project may appear unrealizable, for how can we trust the philosophy of a film the enunciation
of which is contingent upon an aesthetics invalidated by it? Doesn’t this rhetorical
conundrum seem like an impasse? Not if we can appreciate the difference between
aesthetics and aestheticism, and not if we can accept the notion that aesthetic objects
should be considered and appraised at least as much as purveyors of theoretical thinking
and ideas as unadulterated works of art. The purity and impenetrability of the artistic
realm is precisely the illusion that Haneke seeks to explode in his renegade films. The
various tropes of intrusion, infringement, disturbance and invasion that recur throughout
his later oeuvre in particular are emblematic of this disregard for the ideologically
untouchable insularity of entelechical Euro-aesthetics. The social pertinence of the
contemporary art object as well as its epistemological legitimacy, Haneke seems to say,
is locatable in the work’s potential for transcending its own aesthetic autonomy. One way
to accomplish this would be to project the desire for the disruption of cinematic pleasure
onto the level of film form. Caché, for instance, is not just a narrative about intrusion;
the film itself enacts an intrusion upon the subjectivity of the viewer.
The signifiers of aesthetic affluence in the Auteuil/Binoche residence – what Christopher
Sharrett calls “the bourgeois appropriation and administration of the entirety of
Western culture” (Sharrett 2005: 61) – do not only represent a cultural fortress protecting
the sanctity of humanist values from the corrosive influence of the vulgar mass
media and of disagreeable events in faraway places. But perhaps equally important, the
Laurent library is at the same time also a tremendous pretense; more than anything, the
bookshelves are a form of embellishment and interior design. In George’s studio, the
books that decorate the room are even fake. That the social environment of this film
would be that of the façade is clearly hinted at from the very outset – after all, in the
opening sequence the camera lingers on the exterior of the Laurent home for several
minutes. From this accentuation of the surface of things another sense of caché emerges.
In a fictional world where appearances reign supreme, everything else is hidden. Not
just the crimes of the past, the sins of the former self, but the substance of domestic
objects – everything seems to have receded from consciousness.
But does such a starkly negative position leave anything at all to be salvaged? What
distinguishes Haneke the polemicist from the artist-misanthrope, his criticism from a
largely unhelpful cynicism? Perhaps part of the answer lies in his audacity to espouse
a philosophy of filmmaking and art long since judged to be obsolescent and irrelevant
by the non-committal postmodernist echelon of aesthetic trend mongers. Haneke openly
subscribes to a kind of cinematic modernism that many pundits in the literature and
visual art camps found to be outmoded even at the time (the late 1950s and early 1960s).
Existential, contemplative, ambiguous, and psychologically complex, the modernism of
figures like Bergman, Antonioni, Bresson, Resnais and Bertolucci (to name a few of the

usual suspects, some of whom count among Haneke’s most important influences) – may
seem turgid and even somehow formulaic to audiences weaned on the work of a master
collagist like Tarantino or on the shock tactics of a Noé or von Trier. Yet Haneke’s
poetics of negation marks the confluence of many of the values of cinematic modernism,
on the one hand and, on the other, what is inarguably the most ethically perceptive
and politically sincere response from the film establishment to the global transformations
that have taken place since 9/11. Haneke, Sharrett points out, evades “the snide
humor, affectlessness, preoccupation with pop culture, film allusions and moral blankness
of postmodern art” (Sharrett 2004). Caché and the films which precede it are exemplary
of an aesthetic that not only spurns psychologizing but also all the visually
boisterous bric-a-brac and stylistic histrionics which tend to define much of postmillennial
Conclusion: Toward a Philosophy of Inhumanism
While owing something to the films of Antonioni and Tarkovsky, as well as evincing a
philosophical and formal kinship with Angelopoulos (whose sobriquet “the last modernist”
could apply equally well to Haneke),7 the sensibility of this filmmaker’s glacial lens
is strangely reminiscent of the radical ethics adopted by the poet Robinson Jeffers in his
collection The Double Axe and Other Poems (1948). Deplored even by its own publisher,
the book incensed the literary world with its pessimistic portrayal of civilization
and its shortcomings and introduced the persona of the inhumanist to its unsuspecting
audience. In the preface, the author notes that inhumanism denotes “a certain philosophical
attitude” the tenet of which is “a shifting of emphasis and significance from man to
not-man; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of the transhuman magnificence”
(Jeffers 1977: xxi). The politics of decentering which animates The Double Axe
develops a morality that finds a particular resonance in Haneke’s work, concerned as it
is both with a dysfunctional social order and the ethical demise of the Western bourgeoisie.
Moreover, the gradual erosion of the viewers’ empathy with the main protagonists8
– effectively buttressed by the icy detachment of the film’s style – suggests the workings
of a psychology not unlike the inhumanism of Jeffers’s poems. It’s not that Haneke
struggles to exceed the limitations of historical subjectivity in order miraculously to
regain an illusory transcendental position that was never actually obtainable in the first
place, but rather that he – from within that experientially constrained vantage point –
tries to carve out a new ethical space which necessitates precisely an awareness of the
convergence of privilege and complicity. George in Caché refuses this insight, as in the
scene where he is accosted by Majid’s son and self-righteously rants at him:
You’re sick. You’re as sick as your father. I don’t know what dumb obsession he
fed you but I’ll tell you this. You’ll never give me a bad conscience about your
father’s sad or wrecked life. I’m, not to blame! Do you get that? If ever you try
to hurt me or my family, you’ll regret it.
If the crucial question that Caché brings up involves the problem of what the image
wants, to paraphrase the title of Mitchell’s book, it is one poorly grasped by George,
who remains defensive and dishonest throughout. Although the appearance of the
videotapes, Majid’s suicide, and the confrontation with his son may cause him to experience
guilt, the last thing on his mind is the assertion of responsibility for his own past
behavior and the role he played in shaping the course of Majid’s life. This contradic

tion, or repression, recalls the flummoxed reactions in the West to the events of 9/11,
as disbelief hastily turned into a war on terror and causing an upsurge of xenophobia in
the process.9 In this respect, Caché can be considered as much a parable on the psychological
mechanisms responsible for the new world order as a philosophical treatise about
the widening epistemic gap between seeing and perception.
What unites these two thematic emphases – the political and the philosophical – is
the overarching problematization of visuality and the semiotics of the image, a focus
which makes Caché not just an art house thriller but an instance of cine-thinking in the
Deleuzian sense.10 The film orchestrates a discourse among myriad visual media – film,
videotape, television, pictures – that to some extent permeates human experience and
consciousness on every level. Caché’s take on visuality is not quite that of the
Heideggerian world-picture or Debord’s spectacle, but it does suggest something hardly
more reassuring. In the film, the image has become a feral, elusive organism; one that
has turned the media of surveillance against its users, that has taken on a life of its own
(although nobody is paying attention, the television in the Laurent home keeps on flashing
footage of violence in Iraq and the Middle East), and that – most importantly – is
eminently capable of implicating the viewer in the cosmologies of denial and guilt which
these performative gestures of confrontation generate. The optical ambivalence at the
film’s core distresses an audience raised on the abundant distractions of mainstream
cinema that Haneke’s body of work is explicitly a reaction against (Porton 2005: 50).11
“The film also questions whether the image transmits meaning,” the director says with
reference to Code Unknown, “[e]veryone assumes it does” (Sharrett 2004). It is by asking
the theoretical question “what is an image and what does it want?” that Haneke’s
cinema of intrusion is able to arrive at a hard-won realization of the political limitations
of the traditional humanist project for the most urgent present-day concerns.
Ultimately, what is “hidden” in Caché is the memory of an historical event that the
culture at large seems unprepared to acknowledge and take responsibility for. Accepting
that spectacle does not represent the most suitable form in which to examine the
reality of collective repression, Haneke instead opts to explore the aftereffects of this
event by focusing on the capacity of the image to generate both reflection and guilt. In
this film, it is the gaze itself that acts as the intruder, and its threat portentously extends
to the viewer as well. In a sense, then, the audience in fact becomes the true subject of
the film. By implicating the viewers in the colonialist allegory that the film constructs,
and – no less significantly – by saying goodbye to the aesthetic ideology of cinematic
pleasure, Caché divulges a close affinity with the kind of negative poetics associated
with many modernist movements in the first half of the 20th century. In an age when most
of the images that enfold us seem dangerously seductive, those of Haneke self-reflexively
question their own predilection for trickery and domination by never failing to
make the viewer deeply conflicted about watching them.
1. Words spoken by the character of Majid in Caché shortly before he slashes his throat.
2. For a further discussion of the modernist leanings in Haneke, see Brigitte Peucker’s The Material Image:
Art and the Real in Film (2007). Peucker sees in Haneke’s apsychological style a consolidation of the
modernist tradition, which, she claims, the director draws upon to parody and subvert the theatricality of
the bourgeois melodrama that almost always constitutes the subject matter for his films. According to
Peucker, Haneke’s cinema is indebted to modernist precursors such as James Joyce, Jean-Marie

3. The October executions took place within the context of the Algerian War of Independence (1954-
1962), and the decision to set up a curfew was the result of repeated strikes against the Parisian police
by the National Liberation Front in the months preceding the massacre.
4. The 1961 massacre was also the subject of Alain Tasma’s 2005 made-for-television movie Nuit noire,
17 octobre 1961, and Philippe Faucon’s film about the Algerian War, La Trahison, was released the
same year.
5. Skepticism regarding the referential authenticity of the image is not something which arose only in the
era of digital photography. In no small part informed by the crisis of Cartesian perspectivalism that the
invention of the camera merely reinforced, modernism in the visual arts frequently gravitated toward
an interrogation of the epistemological trustworthiness of the image. This is also an obsession which
fuels Blow-Up (1966), directed by Antonioni, one of Haneke’s most beloved auteurs.
6. My argument here departs somewhat from Mitchell’s use of the term, which could be construed as
intimately related to his notion of metapictorialism, a capacity that he seems to imply that all images
might possess in principle.
7. Angelopoulos is a filmmaker who also shares Haneke’s interest in issues of immigration,
globalization, and the sociology of a changing Europe.
8. For a longer discussion of the permutations of empathy in Caché, see Gibson 2006.
9. As Gibson has shown, the word “terror” or inflections thereof occurs with astounding regularity in the
vocabulary of the Laurents. According to his interpretation, the film suggests that the protection of
“white bourgeois privilege” is what really fuels the war on terror. See Gibson 2006: 36.
10. An idea first developed in Deleuze’s two mid-80s film books The Movement-Image (1983) and The
Time-Image (1985), the notion of filmic thought has subsequently been explored in an ever growing
selection of scholarly works. It most generally involves the presupposition that films are capable of
doing philosophy and should be seen as a kind of manifestation of thought in action, graspable but
ultimately unparaphraseable by language. See for instance Alliez 2000; Mulhall 2002: On Film, and,
more recently, Frampton 2006. See also Deleuze 1986; 1989.
11. For an analysis of the ways in which Haneke’s oeuvre relates to “the distractions of visual culture,” see
Wynter 2006.
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*ASBJØRN GRØNSTAD, Dr.Art., Professor, Department of Media, Culture and Social
Science, University of Stavanger, Norway.