It’s just another day in the ordered life of an well-to-do family, the kind of family you grew up hating for being so perfect. The day’s activities are broken down into a polished routine, assisted by scores of luxury items and a small army of service workers whose faces you rarely see. Even the couple’s names are nondescript: Anna and George. They go about their comfortable lives with the kind of lifeless emotional detachment that has long baited moviegoers into feeling bad for rich people. Every need has been met, it seems, but one.
But this family, we soon learn, has bigger problems. Just below the surface of their idyllic life, a great evil is brewing that threatens to tear them apart. Sometimes, literally.
This is how many of Austrian director Michael Haneke’s films proceed. Amour, which was nominated this week for the Academy Award for Best Picture, The Seventh Continent, Code Unknown, Benny’s Video, Time of the Wolf, Funny Games, and Cache before it all share a familiar set up.
If this were the end of it, Michael Haneke would be an unremarkable director. An entire genre of plodding films has arisen from the concept that terrorizing, torturing, and killing everyday people is titillating. And of course, these characters’ ordeals are depicted in ghoulish detail that quickly moves from nauseating to just boring. The fact that we can become bored is even scarier than the films themselves, which some horror theorists point to in order to intellectualize their torture porn.
But Haneke is not just another filmmaker in this genre. He is the antidote to the genre itself.
In Haneke’s world, horror isn't something that attacks us from the outside. It hasn’t been living in the house we moved into. It hasn’t just shown up. The brutality that we find in Haneke’s films is what we brought into the theater with us. It has been a silent part of daily life for the subjects of the films, and more importantly, for the audience.
Instead of menace that rides into town, or violence that we encounter when we dare venture outside the borders of the civilized world, Haneke’s brutality is bound up in the lives of everyday people. It’s our shared history of racism, injustice, and economic inequality; it comes from our darkest desires, which we must shutter away to fit into society. It is the brutality that constitutes civilization itself. As in the family’s methodical self-destruction in The Seventh Continent, when this violence finally breaks out, it is completely consistent with the order which it underlay all along, not an aberration.
Likewise, in Benny’s Video, a violent young man finds as little reason to justify his own videotaped acts as those on the news with which he mixes them seemlessly. The violence that is required to make an ordered life for a family, by subduing for it a class of servants and stifling its aberrant desires, has not disappeared. It remains a silent partner throughout their mundane days, threatening to re-emerge at any moment. And its re-emergence constitutes the horror.
Violence typically occurs offscreen, because its depiction is beside the point. The viewer soon learns the difference between films that address violence and films that just show it. Haneke silently indicts the pornographic approach to violent cinema that flatters the basest desires of its audience. The most shocking acts of violence often take place off-screen in Haneke's films. Instead, the director trains his lens on the face of a character observing that violence. It's an old cinematic trick—focusing on a character's reaction rather than an act—employed in films as far back as 1928's The Passion of Joan of Arc to recent Spielgberg films. But Haneke uses the technique to portray violence in a disturbingly personal way.
There is one film that fits the conventional model of cinematic violence: Funny Games. Not coincidentally, it’s the only one to be re-made for American audiences. However, the family on screen is a decoy. Midway through the film we learn who the real subject is. One of the killers, having selected and terrified unwitting victims at random in the way of countless horrible slasher movies, suddenly breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly. And at once we learn that the film deals with everyday people towing along a great darkness that threatens to overwhelm them, but they’re not on the screen. In Funny Games, Haneke made a film about us.