Those uneasy about the state of the world should avoid two things: reading newspapers, and watching the films of Austrian director Michael Haneke.
The pleasure of the DVD release of four early Haneke films -- The Seventh Continent, Benny's Video, and 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance and Funny Games -- is how they expand an appreciation for the depth and rigor of Haneke's vision.
Haneke's most recent film, Caché, won him a Best Director prize at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, but he is as much a philosopher of his times as he is a filmmaker. What makes Haneke's work so disturbing is how immediately and relentlessly he attacks the sense of denial and false comfort that makes up so much of the First World's identity.
Every Haneke film confirms the central tenet of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks: We are not removed from the world's problems but actively engaged by them.
The television news montage is a frequent player in Haneke's films, a catalog of violence and civil war from Bosnia to Northern Ireland. The conflicts may shift, but for many of the world's residents, ceaseless war, poverty, upheaval and genocide are simply reality. The wealthy Europeans in Haneke's films may consider themselves removed from such problems, but Haneke's contention is that no one is immune.
71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994) offers a multifaceted portrait of the detachment and alienation of modern life by opening with a bank robbery that ends with four deaths. Haneke spends the rest of the film showing how a range of apparently disconnected people, including a homeless Romanian child and a lonely, abandoned old man, eventually find their lives impacted by that crime.
The way the younger generation has been contaminated and desensitized by the stream of dehumanizing imagery in the media crops up again and again in Haneke's films. The young actor Arno Frisch -- who would later make such a horrifying impression in Funny Games (1997) as one of the wealthy teenage killers who terrorize a vacationing family -- is first introduced in Haneke's dissection of contemporary, media-stoked soullessness, Benny's Video (1992).
Benny is the product of a "good" family who is nevertheless disturbingly consumed by life's approximation on videotape. Benny's time is spent at the video store renting films or holed up in his room watching a videotape of his parents vacationing in the country that includes the grotesque and sadistic slaughter of a pig.
That videotape, in which his entire family is implicated in an act of brutal but also routine violence, sets up a typically Haneke proposition: how we are engaged in active denial of how cruel and vicious our society can be. Benny is, after all, not some aberrant sociopath; he is a product of the world he lives in, where the primary exchanges between people are monetary.
Haneke's first film established the ideas that Haneke has been examining ever since. As in Benny's Video, the German family at the center of the despondent The Seventh Continent (1989) are defined by the banal, routine and primarily monetary operations of their lives. In this film based on a true story, that detachment and emptiness ultimately drives them to commit an act of incomprehensible violence.
Haneke's world is our world -- one where we observe atrocity and genocide on our televisions while eating dinner, pass by the homeless on our way to work, ignore clear evidence of wrongdoing because it is convenient or profitable.
But his films are not without hope. Seen together, they seem not so much the litany of psychological sadism some have seen, but pleas for a civilization that has lost its way.
Four Films by Michael Haneke. 5 stars. Kino on Video. $29.95 each. Now available.
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