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I don’t know why, but we’re all rather incapable of dealing with one another.
— dialogue from Michael Haneke’sLemmings
Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, soon-to-be major British filmmakers like Stephen Frears and Mike Leigh were developing their craft far from the eyes of most international moviegoers and film-festival programmers—on television. The same, it would appear, was true in Austria, at least in the case of Michael Haneke, eight of whose television films are included in the nearly complete MOMA retrospective “Michael Haneke: A Cinema of Provocation,” with seven of them screening in North America for the first time.
Haneke, whose debut theatrical film, The Seventh Continent, was released in 1989, spent the first 15 years of his movie career working exclusively for the small screen—not, he told me in a 2001 interview, for lack of offers to make theatrical features, but by his own choice. “I wanted to find my own language,” he said. Seeing the films now, finally, it’s obvious that Haneke figured things out rather quickly. In fact, to say that Haneke merely “got his start” in television is about as inadequate as saying that Picasso got his start in landscape painting. Rather, he created an entire body of work there, on a series of key themes that have continued to surface in his better-known recent films. Enlarging Haneke’s filmography nearly twofold, these are powerful, startling movies about the human failure to communicate, our astonishing capacities for physical and emotional violence, and how we are like wounded creatures screaming silently behind glass.
This branch of Haneke’s career is itself composed of two distinct halves: those films drawn from novels, and those based on original scripts authored or co-authored by Haneke. Of the former, which include versions of Peter Rosei’s Who Was Edgar Allan? (1984), Joseph Roth’s The Rebellion (1993), and Kafka’s
The Castle (1997)—the one telefilm made by Haneke after his big-screen career was in full swing—it is perhaps more fitting to think of them as “translations” rather than “adaptations,” so committed is Haneke to the idea of directly transposing the source material from page to screen, complete with omniscient third-person narrators and long passages of literary voiceover. The earliest of these films in the MOMA series, 1976’s Three Paths to the Lake, feels somewhat hemmed in by that technique (and by its overly literal title metaphor) as it tells the story of a spinster photojournalist reflecting back on the disappointments of her life.
The Haneke-penned Lemmings (1979), on the other hand, is pure cinema—and pure Haneke—right from the hypnotic opening tracking shot: a row of automobiles being thrashed by unseen vandals while Paul Anka’s “I’m Just a Lonely Boy” wails prophetically on the soundtrack. Told in two parts, it is set in Haneke’s own childhood town of Neustadt, beginning as a cruel story of youth and ending as an even crueler tale of middle-aged malaise as it follows a loose-knit circle of friends over 20 years of history and 200 minutes of screen time. It is a film with the span and depth of a great novel, but the sensory thrall of great cinema—very bold in its use of long takes and punctuated by moments of almost unbearable emotional intensity. Moreover, it is a film of enormous humanity, if one takes humanity to mean the study of humankind at its most exemplary and deplorable—of wives who grow tired of their husbands, of parents who gaze upon their children with a terrifying mixture of love and scorn, and of ordinary men and women who prefer suicide to the herculean task of trudging forth from one day to the next.
Even more impressive in some respects is Fraulein (1986), in which a potential wartime weepie—the story of a movie projectionist (played brilliantly by Angelica Domrose) reunited with her MIA husband 10 years after the close of World War II— becomes another throbbing, ingrown study of human frailty and suffering. Majestically shot in black-and-white (by Walter Kindler), it exudes a strange and transfixing beauty—a marital bed transformed into a vast, unnavigable ocean; small-town Austria photographed as though it were the Monument Valley of John Ford—and is the first (but hardly the last) of Haneke’s films to comment directly on our communal lust for cinematic illusion.
The rest you know, or most of it anyway. Haneke’s work from The Seventh Continent on was the subject of a 2002 MOMA show and is presently available on DVD. Starting with The Piano Teacher (2001), he has enjoyed regular commercial releases of his films in North America, culminating in the $4 million domestic gross of Caché in 2005 (and the subsequent announcement that it was due for a Ron Howard makeover). Collectively, Haneke’s work is a compelling counterargument to the myriad Antonioni and Bergman obituaries that bemoaned the extinction of movies able to make audiences linger outside the theater, arguing into the night. Still, there are those who continue to dismiss Haneke as a low-rent shock artist, and even the umbrella title of this series pegs him as a provocateur. That’s not entirely without cause, as anyone who has witnessed Caché‘s gasp-inducing throat-slitting can attest. But the most disturbing and violent moments in Haneke’s films remain the quietest—those hesitant, unfulfilled gestures toward human connection.