71 Fragments of a chronology of chance – Haneke ice cold. (film review)

Someone close to me whose film tastes I admire greatly told me this film affected them very deeply, so out of respect I raced to the video store to rent it last week. What I also got on the disc was a thirty minute interview with Michael Haneke which was fantastically interesting – I almost enjoyed it as much as the film itself. If you do hire this film and your DVD has the option to watch this interview, grab it. Hearing Haneke talking about the elusive nature of beauty is a truly wonderful thing.

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I did enjoy the film as well, though I have to state from the outset that I wish I’d seen it before Gus van Sant’s Elephant. Haneke’s film was made before van Sant’s and it had to have been an influence. With respect to Elephant, which is a film I enjoyed very much, Haneke’s vision of a bunch of people accidentally turning up at the same time in the same place where a person they do not know will shoot them to death is a much deeper and more complex vision that poses some answers to the question we always ask when one of us goes mad and guns down others of us in a public place.  This has recently happened in America of course – and its aftermath has been as devastating as these senseless crimes always are. Haneke gives us an idea – that there is an underlying violence in our world that is affecting us whether we like it or not.

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In terms of the film making, I have two major observations.

The first is that the film is ice-cold. I mean freezing. Where Elephant is warm and we care so deeply for all the people involved by the time we get to the shooting, Haneke keeps us at arm’s length with his classic partial views and side-swiped narrative style. Haneke includes the gunman as one of the people he is watching as they get closer and closer to the place where their life will end, because his life ends there too, and because he walks among us and until he actually does the deed, is one of us. It’s not that we don’t care for these people particularly  its more that Haneke has put the spotlight on the violent nature of our societies; and that includes the emotional violence a daughter has for a neglected elderly father who is crying for companionship, or the societal violence we perpetrate as we walk by children feeding themselves from garbage cans. By focussing on this bleak side of humanity, it seems inevitable that one of the people in the bank that day will pull a gun and shoot everyone in there. The viewer feels that anxiety watching. This is Haneke’s point.  These people are one of us, and their violent act is just another of the violent acts we perpetrate on one another each and every day.

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The narrative is also very disjointed and left of centre, which also contributes to the cool we feel as we watch. The camera is often static – very different to Elephant where the camera is moved around as if the viewer is one of the school students. Haneke wants us to see these people’s lives not as if we were standing next to them, but as if they were already a cold hard fact.  Another cold hard fact to be piled next to the bodies in open graves on the killing fields of Bosnia to the victims of war in Somalia. We eat it all with our morning cereal. It’s all disembodied consciously and yet our subconscious can’t tolerate another second. Haneke is showing us how television violence can desensitize us and create emotional sterility.

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The other major observation to bring to this little review is the use of the drawn out shots. Haneke speaks about these in the interview that accompanies the film. There is one single shot that goes for ten minutes of a young man (who will turn out to be our killer – that’s not a spoiler, we already know this) playing table tennis against an electronic machine which feeds him the ping-pong balls.  This shot goes on and on, past all our discomforts till we fall into a kind of acceptance “space” that allows the film maker to do whatever he wants with what he is planting in our mind. We lose our conscious objection because the scene is so long. You get bored, frustrated, tired, irritated, angry, bewildered and finally you accept in a numb kind of giving up on the fight. Probably only leaving the cinema would be a proper battle against this moment.

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The other time Haneke uses the technique is when an older man, lonely in his apartment, phones his daughter, fights with her and speaks warmly to his granddaughter  This is another scene that takes ten minutes and is every bit as frustrating as the previous scene. The argument with his daughter goes on and on – this man is antagonizing her just to keep her on the phone, such is the depth of his isolation. Every time his daughter tries to hang up he asks for his granddaughter again, and so on. He is sitting in a chair in his dismal small dark apartment, the television is on and we can see war like images but we can’t hear the sound, and this man is sitting in the chair speaking in circles with his daughter. Again, this is meant to evoke a sense of passive isolation in the viewer, and for my money it works remarkably well. The best films are philosophical and Haneke (who studied philosophy in Vienna) must be sourcing Heidegger here when he states (and I poorly paraphrase) that we can never really know the other. The shot with the old man speaks to this idea so powerfully because of the intense alienation between himself and his daughter that is perpetuated simply by their attempts to get closer to each other.

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There is so much more to say about this film, and it is one of those that can have a book of analysis written about it. But I only have this post and it’s already gone on long enough. I’ll end here and say if you haven’t seen this film, you must, even if Haneke leaves you cold. The technique here is something to see and be sure to watch your response as a viewer and realise every single reaction you are having was planted there by Haneke.

Think about that.

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