Director Michael Haneke's Harrowing Excavations Of Modern Society

Photo of Lindsay Parnell
8 January 2017

Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke has built his career exploring the skewed moral compass of modern society. In trenchantly documenting the decay of contemporary value systems, he has become one of the most respected auteurs in world cinema.

Haneke was born in Munich in 1942, the son of an Austrian actress and a German actor and director. After studying drama, psychology, and philosophy at the University of Vienna, he found work as a film critic and editor for a German television station.

Haneke made his directorial debut with The Seventh Continent (1989), an urban domestic drama about a middle-class family with sinister inclinations towards self-destruction. It introduced audiences to what would become the director’s defining preoccupation: the hidden violence and maddening isolation of modern society. It proved to be a key opus in Haneke’s brilliant exploration of the middle-class psyche.

Haneke’s Benny’s Video (1992), which cemented his status, is a brutal and highly orchestrated visual narrative about a teenager who scrutinizes and records his own life as well as the life of his wealthy parents with a handheld video camera. The distorted digital images added to Benny’s obsession with utterly violent films, creating an unbearable tension as the story takes a dark turn. Stirring and challenging, Benny’s Video demonstrated Haneke’s gifts with its complex and stylistically slick narrative.

The next decade of Haneke’s career included a return to TV film, his participation in a documentary, and various feature films: 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994), Funny Games (1997) —which he would remake in American in 2007 – Das Schloß (1997), and Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys (2000). But it was 2001’s The Piano Teacher, an adaptation of Elfriede Jelinek’s Nobel Prize-winning novel, that brought Haneke the highest critical recognition.

The film tells the story of a piano teacher, Erika, who lives in Vienna with her ageing mother. Erika’s life is one of sexual repression, mutilation, sadomasochism, and obsession. It earned Haneke his third Palme d’Or (previously awarded for Funny Games and Code Unknown) at Cannes.

Haneke received further critical praise and another Palme d’Or for 2005’s Caché (Hidden), and again in 2009 for his career-defining The White Ribbon. Centered on a series of bizarre occurrences in a Northern Germany village during the early 20th century, The White Ribbon is a savagely violent film set in a proto-fascist environment where ruthless punishments are inflicted upon the local children, resulting in many peculiar fatalities. Told with stylistic control and narrative expertise, The White Ribbon is the work of a true master.

Haneke’s Amour (2012) is the story of an aging couple whose life together is coming to an end. Presenting a dialogue between love and tragedy, violence and kindness, physical and emotional decay, Amour received critical adulation and earned the director his fifth Palme d’Or. It also won the Best Foreign Language Oscar at the 85th Academy Awards.

Embodying the limitless nature of imagination and shot through a philosophical lens, Haneke’s films challenge their viewers and prompt them to interrogate their notion of right and wrong. Haneke has truly added a new dimension to cinematic storytelling. Unlike any other filmmaker of his generation, he unflinchingly interrogates the repressed violence that underpins contemporary society.

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