Benny's Video, Michael Haneke
Still from 'Benny's Video' courtesy of Criterion

Life Is Killing Us: Metaphysics of Facts and Form in Michael Haneke’s Films

Michael Haneke’s films partly alienate viewers by demonstrating that his characters feel alienated from their lives, cultures, and themselves, so one form of alienation breeds another.

Michael Haneke: Trilogy
Michael Haneke
6 December 2022

Recently on Blu-ray from Criterion is Michael Haneke Trilogy, showcasing the Austrian director’s first three theatrical features. The trilogy combines the qualities of being aesthetically formal and intellectual while analyzing the kind of morbid subject matter that other film glory in: various forms of murder and psychosis.

By this approach, Haneke generates a kind of cold horror while alienating the viewer from events in a manner similar to Bertolt Brecht’s theories of dramatic distancing. Brecht used self-conscious devices to short-circuit our emotions and force us to realize we’re watching artificial constructions. He wanted to make us think about social realities as opposed to just enjoying a show and forgetting it. Haneke’s films partly alienate viewers by demonstrating that his characters feel alienated from their lives, cultures, and really from themselves, so one form of alienation breeds another.

All that sounds mighty intellectual, and it is, but Haneke’s films emotionally impact the viewer because they still work as thrillers despite the air of a lab experiment. In one of several bonus interviews, Haneke expresses regret that he once called these films a “trilogy of glaciation” to explore the emotional coldness of Austrian life. That term hung around his neck like an albatross. Perhaps out of respect for his feelings, or just because it’s a lousy title, Criterion doesn’t call it that. Calling it a trilogy of existential ennui or anomie sounds no tastier. “Trilogy of Death Served Cold” might work.

Another important point, as film scholar Alexander Horwath observes in an interview, is that even though Haneke seemed to emerge on the world stage in the 1990s, he belongs to the same generation as Werner Herzog and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. In fact, Haneke established himself in a long television career and made a string of television movies before circumstances encouraged him to think his latest project should head for theatres. The main circumstance: the network didn’t like his approach to the material. At that time, he had no intention of making a trilogy, but the success of the first film led to two more features exploring similar themes.

The Seventh Continent
(Der siebente Kontinent, 1989)

The opening scene in The Seventh Continent is symbolic. During the credits, Georg (Dieter Berner), accompanied by his wife Anna (Birgit Doll) and young daughter Eva (Leni Tanzer), drives through a car wash. Throughout, the lighting is tinged blue. After their enclosed world has been washed clean, though perhaps with iniquities intact, they drive by an alluringly colored billboard announcing, “Welcome to Australia”. The billboard must be an ad encouraging emigration from Austria because that’s where the family lives. The difference is only three letters.

Is Australia the seventh continent? If we don’t count Antarctica, it’s no more than the sixth. The titular continent seems to be imaginary, a state of mind. Therefore, the idea that the family is headed there feels less like an escape, never mind a mere relocation, than something more unsettling. They will drive through the wash more than once and drive through pouring rain by a highway accident where several covered corpses lie on the ground. The spectacle will cause Anna to burst into tears.

The Seventh Continent‘s story occurs on one day in 1987, one day in 1988, and a few days in 1989. The scenes are like impassive snapshots adding up to the routine of days. The opening shots in 1987, taken by a static camera, don’t even show the family’s faces, only disembodied hands or backs performing daily routines for the thousandth time in closeup: fixing breakfast, going to school, going to work, etc. The avoidance of faces in favor of objects and actions is reminiscent of the films of Robert Bresson, who’s considered a highly spiritual filmmaker.

Then the compositions begin to include faces, though often elliptically, as we gradually realize the parents have made a certain decision for the family. Of course, the child never grows older because it would have been impractical to film over three years, but that’s only one sense in which The Seventh Continent avoids naturalism. The precise imagery and pacing may imply “realism” but it’s really some kind of heightened expressionism, almost surrealism, via framing and editing.

The “case history” is inspired by a newspaper story that caught the attention of the Austrian public. In that sense, The Seventh Continent is a true story that Haneke does not try to explain. Hints of ennui about the repetitive consumerist future facing the family (aging, retirement, death) are all we get. His approach to these existential crises is clinical yet anti-psychological. As they used to say on Dragnet, we’re left with “just the facts, ma’am.” These are external facts presented in close-up, and the emphasis on shiny surface detail becomes its own mystery.

In an interview, Haneke says he told his producer that two scenes would cause viewers to walk out in a huff. One involves the death of fish, and the other the death of money. The last is the ultimate blasphemy. Even those who can forgive the sacrifice of animals for cinema may have a hard time countenancing the destruction of money.

71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance
(71 Fragmente einer Chronologie des Zufalls, 1994)

The second film in the trilogy, and by far the most famous, is Benny’s Video, and I’m postponing it because it’s more its own animal, and I have more to say about it. First, let’s address the third film, whose title sounds like a term paper.

Like The Seventh Continent71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance takes its kernel from a real-life story in the news. In this case, we open with an announcement of the incident: a young man killed three people and himself in a bank. Therefore, what’s going to happen is no surprise, as we witness the calm unfolding of many fragments or snapshots on certain days.

We drop into the lives of everyone involved, either directly or tangentially, beginning with an orphan boy who smuggles himself into Austria and lives on the street for a while. There’s also a traumatized silent girl fostered by new parents. By the time the violent incident is on its verge, we grasp who the victims will be.

When the event finally happens in a moment of anger and humiliation two days before Christmas, all tied in with our responsibilities as consumers in a mechanized world, it’s presented without showing any deaths. The greatest irony of the event is that the frustrated collegiate shooter has a “chance” to drive away from the gas pump without paying, and he’s probably inhibited from doing so by 20 years of training in good citizenship.

In an overhead god’s eye view, he goes back to his car, and we hear a bang amid the car horns – not unlike the offscreen bangs in Benny’s Video (stay tuned, coming up next!). We see one lengthy closeup of blood spreading, presented without sound as a kind of abstract image. This also harks back to shots of blood emerging from under the body in Benny’s Video.

During 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance‘s opening credits, the orphan stowaway is peeking out from a truck. We see his point of view, a high angle traveling down the highway, dozens of cars momentarily in proximity, everyone isolated but going in the same direction or two opposing directions.

Is this truly a “chronology of chance”? and if so, what does “chance” mean? Two college students play a game of pick-up sticks described as “against chance”. Is this “chance” a mysterious pattern seen from overhead, as inhabitants of one dimension look down upon another and perceive the future that those living through it can’t? That’s pretty darn close to theology. It may also strongly imply a determinism that’s the opposite of chance.

Even more so than in the other two films, everything in 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance is organized by news broadcasts of the world’s war violence, emphasizing Sarajevo and Yugoslavian refugees, violence between Israel and Palestine, etc., and even the Michael Jackson child abuse allegations. In this trilogy, these depressing yet businesslike narratives of horror and tragedy are part of everyone’s sonic landscape, taken for granted and presumably desensitizing, even though they intend to stir viewers’ emotional interest. Their nullifying and enervating quality serves the purpose of commercial sponsorship, at least in capitalism.

At the end of these 71 fragments, some of these news items are repeated to show how the 24-hour cycle gorges upon new “meat” and moves on, this latest event being consumed as no more important than any other. You can see how Haneke gets a rap for bleak modernism with his anti-melodramatic, anti-sensational approach to observing humans analytically and “coldly”. Yet, the undercurrents of something ineffable and latent remain – will he or nil he? This is partly what Haneke means by his desire for “ambiguity”.

71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance is the most ambitious film of the trilogy because it takes the widest canvas. It’s also the most hermetically sealed and intellectual, with the least room to breathe. Its strongest emotional pull is the scenes emphasizing the two children who have seen plenty of trauma and become numbed by it. They probably meet since they are fostered by the same couple, although we never see that. We understand that the kids will suffer collateral damage from the incident, but they’ve also learned not to be too hopeful or take things for granted.

Benny’s Video (1992)

Benny’s Video, the only film in the trilogy not based on an event, is the most famous and Dostoyevskian. Its lack of specific inspiration allows Haneke a greater freedom of imagination and construction. He states in an interview that its only direct connection to reality is that while reading about violent incidents involving young people, he several times noticed the statement that the perpetrator “wanted to know what it was like” [to commit the crime], as though they feared a connection with life or reality was missing.

It’s clear that Haneke thinks this is a modern condition created by mediated reality. The screens surrounding us have a diminishing psychological effect on our emotions or at least a problematic relation to them. At the same time, he’s not quite committed to believing that simplification, or he’d be in the wrong profession.

His privileged protagonist, Benny (15-year-old Arno Frisch), is somewhat disaffected and alienated but really displays only average teen sullen-ness when adults demand that he explain himself. When his father asks why he did what he did, Benny’s first and most honest answer is, “I don’t know.” His father clearly expects more, so he offers the “wanting to know” theory as though he’s been wondering about this himself. However, he adds “wahrscheinlich” (“probably”) to signal that he still doesn’t know, that it may only be handy post-mortem psychologizing.

Benny lives like a hermit in a stuffy room; the shades pulled down against the light. His room is full of expensive video equipment bought by his well-off parents. He watches lots of rented movies like the 1984 horror-comedy The Toxic Avenger. Before we see that or meet Benny, we see Benny’s video footage of a pig being killed with a bolt gun, and then the footage reverses to bring the pig back to life, as though even documentary footage can have its reality erased. What is depicted loses reality, despite our attempt to “feel” reality through imagery. We’ll learn that Benny shot this footage on the farm owned by his parents outside the city. This is another Haneke film with animal death, as in The Seventh Continent.

When his parents leave him alone for a weekend, Benny invites a younger girl (Ingrid Stassner) from outside the video store to his room and, after a while, shows off his pig footage and the bolt gun he stole. Among other things, this sequence demonstrates that Benny isn’t so alienated and disengaged with other young people as he is with adults. Adolescents accept that they needn’t explain themselves to each other extensively.

In the famously grueling yet understated scene, he more or less accidentally or impulsively shoots her in their ambiguous interaction after she calls him a coward for not pulling the trigger. He panics and ends up killing her with three widely spaced shots to silence her piglike squeals. The scene is both deadpan and elliptical. Occluded by its staging, the first shooting occurs below the frame, whereupon she drops out of the frame, and we see the rest of the event on Benny’s closed-circuit monitor, always filming. Virtually nothing is caught on camera except the sounds.

Benny goes into a fugue where he badly cleans up and hides her body in the closet, then resists the impulse to tell a friend and is thwarted from telling his sister. He clearly has a confessional impulse, so he dumps the revelation on his parents by showing them the video, and they decide with some anguish but pretty much right away to have Dad (Ulrich Mühe) dispose of the body at the farm while Mom (Angela Winkler) and son randomly visit Luxor, Egypt.

The decision leads to more home movie footage, this time standard vacation images. [In the deleted scenes, mother and son witness an eclipse invented by the filmmakers. Too on the nose?] They even visit a Christian church in Luxor. This ties in with the detail that in the school choir, Benny participates in a Bach motet, “Jesu, meine Freude” (“Jesus my joy”), with the opening lines “Trotz dem alten Drachen” (“despite the old dragon”).

In one of the most crucial scenes (I would argue) and the most open expression of tenderness and concern, Benny is distressed to witness his mother in the next bed have a complete emotional breakdown. When he reaches to comfort her–the opposite of the standard idea of a mother comforting a son–she turns her back and pulls away from him, as perhaps she has turned her back on other things. This moment resonates with the scene of Anna’s breakdown in the car in The Seventh Continent, another sign of life’s hopelessness.

I believe that Benny realizes what the viewer realizes, that his mother’s emotional existence has ceased here. This is the rest of her life: smiling pretense during the day, random despairing breakdowns at night. Her life has stopped at this event, for it will occupy her every day from this moment, and it’s the same with the father’s life and Benny’s life, no matter how much everything is cleaned up and put in the past. Benny’s parents have rationalized that they don’t want his life ruined.

Among early scenes in Benny’s Video is a subplot touched upon two or three times, in which Benny’s older sister explains what’s frankly a Ponzi scheme. Later, the father will say, “Who knew she was so enterprising?” The parents’ moral judgments and actions are displayed almost as mordant comedy.

Even though Benny’s Video is the one film of this trilogy that doesn’t telegraph its story, I’m giving away almost the whole plot, but I’ll try to talk around the ending while explaining its Dostoyevskian nature. I believe the scenes I described explain the “gratuitous” and pure act Benny finally performs, purer than the murder and required by no external forces. I would say this action liberates the family despite any material consequences, and the parents have reason to be proud of this decision. Benny’s Video is the most hopeful and least nihilistic film of the trilogy.

As in The Seventh Continent, there are scenes emphasizing purchases and how much things cost. As in 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, there’s a Donald Duck comic. Watching the films in close order underlines such echoes. More than the other films, however, Benny’s Video seems very “Austrian” in that it’s about society’s impulse to pretend bad things and our complicity in them never happened. Haneke says Austrian critics avoided discussing that element while foreign critics immediately latched on to it.

You shall know them by their actions. While critics emphasize the enigmatic, ambiguous, or unknowable nature of his characters’ psychology, Haneke clearly states that he has little or no interest in standard psychology, that what matters is the knowable, the empirical world of external facts, the surfaces, and actions. Those things he measures with calipers and a microscope. Only by paying close attention to the material can one glimpse or surmise what may exist of the immanent. Haneke’s paradox is that his work conveys a realist only in a metaphysical sense.