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More easygoing in person than his movies would suggest, Haneke, 63, has reached a career zenith with Caché (opening December 23). In May, he scored the Best Director prize at Cannes, and the film swept the European Film Awards earlier this month. Caché builds on the bourgeois-snuff provocations of Haneke's early Austrian films, adding a slow-boil racial ingredient that yields horrific consequences by movie's end. As a dispatch from race-riven France, it's unnerving and undeniably timely.
"I wanted to make a film on guilt," Haneke explains, "specifically about an adult who has to confront something he did as a child." Haneke found his inspiration while watching a documentary about the 1961 massacre of Algerian immigrants in France. "I was shocked that something like that could've happened in a liberal country," he recalls. "And more unbelievable was that France hadn't addressed the issue for more than 40 years."
On the evening of October 17, 1961, French police gunned down Algerian immigrants protesting a government curfew. At the time, officials reported two protesters had died. Today, historians say as many as 400 were murdered throughout Paris. "In France, the Algerian experience is still taboo," Haneke says. Caché miniaturizes France's dirty past into a taut domestic nightmare. Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Anne (Juliette Binoche) are a literary power couple who grow increasingly unhinged when they start receiving anonymous videotapes detailing their daily lives. Gradually, the tapes lead Georges back to a long-repressed act of cruelty toward an Algerian boy.
"There's a mysterious quality to Daniel," Haneke says. "His acting style is extremely minimal. It's as if he's guarding a secret." Indeed, everyone in Caché may have something to hide, including Binoche's frigid wife and their son, Pierrot. "I write what the characters say and do, nothing more. It's why I often say my films are anti-psychological, because psychological explanations only reassure the viewer. In life, you don't know much about other people, even those close to you."
Caché opened in France a few weeks before November's riots, uncannily foretelling the country's worst unrest in 30 years. Haneke, who divides his time between Vienna and Paris, insists the movie isn't country-specific: "I don't want people to understand it as a 'French' film because the story could take place in any country with stains on the collective memory." He adds, "Germans have only started talking about World War II after years of refusing to confront it, while in Austria, some people still see themselves as the victims of that era." (Haneke's next project is a three-and-a-half-hour drama about Nazi youth.)
Like his 1992 hit Benny's Video, Caché interrogates the nature of reality by obliterating the borders between the movie and the videos within the movie. "Today we're surrounded by images that we take for reality, which is dangerous because we can be manipulated," says Haneke. "That's why we filmed Caché in high-def video, to create a 'video look.' What the viewer often takes for reality isn't reality, it's just another representation of it."
Haneke's obsessions converge in Caché's final scene, a chilling long take that's the most enigmatic conclusion in recent movie memory. "Using a fixed shot means there's one less form of manipulationthe manipulation of time," Haneke says. "I've always wanted to create the freedom one has when reading a book, where one has all the possibilities because you create all the images in your head." Resolutely cryptic, he refuses to decode the scene's meaning: "About half the viewers see something and the other half don't, and it works both ways." He adds, invoking his protagonist's own mental journey, "We always fill the screen with our own experiences. Ultimately, what we see comes from inside us."