Talking Movies: Oppression’s Cold Embrace

Amour, directed by the Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke

Though the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences may not envision their award quite this way, the “Best Foreign Language Film” Oscar seems really to recognize the best film of the year made anywhere on Earth except those English-speaking countries, which for the Golden Boy, really means any place not Hollywood. Math king and possible robot, Nate Silver did not even bother to predict a winner in this category for 2013, largely because he had no data—other film organizations in the United States do not give an award for best foreign film.

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Subjective human speculation is not in Mr. Silver’s comfort zone, but he nonetheless would have had some basis for prediction. This is the list of directors who have been nominated for the award more times than Michael Haneke: Ang Lee, Frederico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa. Elite company, to be sure, and only Fellini has been nominated twice in four years, a feat reprised with Haneke’s win for Amour at last month’s Oscars. Haneke’s most recent film, along with 2009’s The White Ribbon, may be the most familiar to American audiences and may ensconce Haneke, for his remaining career, as a perpetual BFLF nominee, at least if there is any sense of justice among the 6,000 well-tanned and wheat-grass-nourished industry insiders who select the Oscar winners.

The White Ribbon
The White Ribbon‘s full title is Das weiße Band, Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte, which translates to, “The White Ribbon, a German Children’s Story.”

For Haneke’s characters, life is inherently estranging, and what they thought was their own comfort zone may in fact be a big source of that estrangement. In The White Ribbon, people who have known each other for generations stand watching a mysterious and unexplained barn burning; or in Cache, a comfortable middle class lifestyle is disrupted by threatening phone calls and videos clearly made by someone very well acquainted with the other person’s personal habits. Haneke is consistently interested in the ways in which people construct and then embrace the social, regional, occupational and class roles which may limit their life choices and, at least indirectly, oppress them. His films center on what happens when these same people then realize that they may—after all—not wish to be so oppressed.

Das Schloß
Das Schloß tells the story of land assessor’s attempts to reach and evaluate a castle in small-town Germany.

Haneke addresses modern alienation in a very social way—characters occupy spaces which are not superficially unique, but rather, are reflections of how comfortably we suppress  our own inner experience. This idea is perhaps most bluntly presented in Das Schloß, a film featuring Ulrich Mühe from The Lives of Others, about a land assessor’s attempts to reach and evaluate a castle in small-town Germany. The themes are familiar: devotion of a mindless but heroic sort to a job that doesn’t really need doing in a town which doesn’t particularly want it done. It is perhaps unsurprising that Haneke would choose to adapt an unfinished Franz Kafka story, since the completion of the narrative arc in his work always seems secondary to the atmosphere and the way in which characters build, embrace and then resist their own roles. In Haneke’s version, the character K., treading through deep snow early in the film, recognizes that, “the road got no nearer to the castle, but it did not lead away from it either,” an efficient summary of how one’s relentless commitment to the duties of a government job are some comfort against the ravages of a German winter and the hostilities of the German townspeople.

Michael Haneke
Director Michael Haneke

Haneke seems aware of the rather authoritarian vibe that overlays much of his work, especially for non-German audiences. Indeed he openly incorporates that stereotype into many of his films, only it is not as social commentary or ironic joke (Haneke is Austrian), but almost as a character in itself. 2001’s The Piano Teacher, based on the German novel by Elfriede Jelinek, tells the story of an unbelievably uptight music professor who has not only an obsession for Franz Schubert, but some surprising hobbies as well, such as trolling porn theaters, spying on entwined lovers at drive-ins and remarkably casual self-mutilation. Her inner recklessness mirrors her outer reserve. She shares an apartment (and a bed) with her repressive, judgmental and suspicious mother. She is pursued and eventually seduced by one of her talented but non-traditional students, one from outside the normal ranks of other super-obsessive music types, but her revealed desires are too frightening for him to handle, and in fact might raise an eyebrow even on Joffrey Baratheon or the Marquis de Sade. The inside turned out frightens both characters tremendously. If the outer details of expectation are the things that imprison us, then Haneke is very comfortable in this prison. As Isabelle Huppert, who plays the lead in this film, tells us, “A wrong note in Beethoven is better than a bad interpretation,” mistakes in the service of perfection being always preferable to a performer’s misguided creativity.

Haneke seems pretty consistent in supporting his characters’ embrace of their own oppression, whether that oppression comes as a stern dedication to music, to small-town community life, social class expectations, bureaucratic position, the insult of ageing, family life or love. His actors seem to embrace willfully the limits of their position and accept them as comfortable, or if not comfortable, at least familiar and somehow necessary. Internal desires and fears are always present in his films, but acknowledged and accepted only because they heighten our awareness of our limits and our love of the bars which imprison us. In Michael Haneke’s world, we somehow need repression. It’s ultimately bad, but we need it and choose it and sometimes it liberates us, if only because the alternative may be much worse.

Warren Sprouse teaches high school in Cedar Rapids. He sends his sympathies to the Cuban national baseball team.

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