Critically acclaimed filmmaker, auteur of disquieting cinema, Michael Haneke (Funny Games, Caché, The White Ribbon, Amour) has always been one of my favorite directors and one I consider to be deeply philosophical. His subtle, reflective films slowly pull the viewer in and out of their existentially comfy seat, only to suddenly "throw" them, perhaps in a Heideggerian sense, into a disturbing world.
So if Haneke is indeed a philosophical filmmaker, which philosophy does he adhere to? The somewhat dark subject matter and bleak atmosphere of his films might have us peg Haneke as a nihilist, but as Kevin Stoehr points out (2011), that would be simplistic. An Associate Professor of Humanities at Boston University and author of Nihilism in Film and Television, Stoehr has been exploring the various philosophical nuances in Haneke’s work and uncovered existentialist undertones, Nietzschean perspectivism, and even a case against nihilism.
In "Michael Haneke and the Consequences of Radical Freedom" (2011), Stoehr draws from Sartre’s Existentialism Is a Humanism, which we covered in episode 87. The choice between living authentically on the one hand, in a way that honors the radical freedom we’re all born into, creating our own selves and determining our own paths regardless of the concrete situations we find ourselves in, and living "in bad faith" on the other hand, "slaves" to the circumstances already chosen for us, is an issue that has concerned Haneke throughout his work. To choose a personal favorite, in Caché (2005), bourgeois intellectual Georges Laurent starts to receive threatening mail. This gets more and more disturbing, he begins to have nightmares, and his wife confronts him about something in his past that might have triggered the ordeal. However, through all of this, Georges turns down every opportunity to tell the truth or even admit it to himself. When his wife asks what’s the matter he replies "Nothing." When his aging mother inquires about his emotional well-being, sensing that something is wrong, he denies it. Everything is fine, he says, work is going well, his teenage son is struggling with puberty, "no great highs or lows."
According to Stoehr, Georges’s denial of there being anything wrong is a classic form of self-deception, equivalent to Sartre’s living in bad faith. Anyone who finds scapegoats in their upbringing, their social conditioning, or social pressures is guilty of inauthenticity. As the French philosopher writes:
If we define man’s situation as one of free choice in which he has no recourse to excuses or outside aid, then any man who takes refuge behind his passions, any man who fabricates some deterministic theory, is operating in bad faith … I am also acting in bad faith if I declare that I’m bound to uphold certain values, because it is a contradiction to embrace these values while at the same time affirming that I am bound by them.
Georges is the Sartrean "coward." As the plot unfolds we discover that when he was a little boy, Georges’ parents adopted Majid—an Algerian boy whose parents had been killed by the French in the Paris Massacre of 1961. Following an incident that is only partially revealed to us, Majid was sent away to an orphanage. There is a strong chance that Georges was to blame for sending Majid away, but he refuses to take responsibility. For the sake of maintaining his bourgeois status quo, Georges keeps lying to himself and seeks reassurance from his mother that the incident wasn’t as tragic as his nightmares reveal. This "slavish, weak-willed conformism," as Stoehr puts it, has tragic consequences.
Georges is jolted into authenticity through an act of violence. He is confronted with not only his own radical freedom but also that of Majid. Unlike Georges, who avoids making a decision of his own throughout the film, Majid chooses—authentically, radically. Despite the limited opportunities in his life (he grew up parentless and now lives in almost squalid poverty), Majid has developed into an emotionally mature adult who acknowledges his freedom. By contrast, although he makes his living as a talk-show host, upper-middle-class Georges doesn’t know how to communicate—to others or even to himself. Through his sudden act of violence, Majid manages to create a law and obey it; he breaks away from the limitations of his social contingencies and cuts into his own destiny, creating space for the Sartrean "spontaneity" of choice. As Stoehr (2011) points out:
Haneke’s works tend to evoke the kind of emotional estrangement that is often engendered by the impersonal conditions and forces of a modern consumer society … His movies address the ways in which our inauthentic, apathetic, and even nihilistic responses to the contemporary world can lead to violence against others and ultimately against ourselves.
We, as viewers, witness this spectacle of self-destruction from multiple perspectives. The opening scene of Caché is shot and presented from a fixed, central point: the comfortable, privileged viewpoint of the spectator. We are forced to judge the protagonists from a ruling position, but at the same time we are made aware of our role and responsibility as audience. We think we’re watching the film itself, but we soon realize it’s a video within the film—it’s the video our protagonists got in the mail, and we’re watching it with him. In addition, the stalker who sends these videos to Georges’s house has the same privileged position that we do: what we see, he sees. The rigid frame comprises crucial information (where our protagonist lives, hs address, what his car looks like) and we are forced to wonder what we could do with this information if we were after Georges and his family. As Stoehr (2010) writes:
…we are bound to consider the question: Whose perspective are we adopting, why, and how does this viewpoint give us any important knowledge that will prove relevant for the narrative that is about to unfold? We are forced in a way to consider the overall significance and truthfulness of a perspective as a perspective, along with its inherent limitations and possible moral implications.
Stoehr suggests that Haneke has consciously assumed Nietzschean perspectivism as a clear philosophical orientation. He recognizes the limitations of our subjective points of orientation, and suggests that our perceptions should be judged based on whether they are life-enhancing or life-negating. In an interview on Caché, the director (who also studied philosophy formally) says, "The truth is always hidden…. It’s like in reality. We never ever know what is truth. There are 1,000 truths. It is a matter of perspective."
If, within a Sartrean framework, we can see in Haneke’s movies the horrible consequences of self-deception and freedom-negation, from a perspectivist framework we can see the consequences of refusing to adopt other, perhaps more life-enhancing perspectives, the disastrous effect of clinging to one’s own tranquil and tranquilizing viewpoint. Characters end up suffering when they refuse to let go of the reassuring narrative—the status quo, the perfect picture that doesn’t reflect the changing, disturbing realities flooding the protagonists. In Caché, Georges has blood-drenched nightmares and serious marital problems, his arguments with his wife are filled with anger and he receives unsettling mail from a potential criminal, yet as we said earlier, he maintains that his life is going just the same, with “no great highs or lows.” We, the audience, know he is lying. But we’re also trying to figure out, along with him, the identity of his stalker, and with every clue we get we have to "try on" different viewpoints and see if it makes sense for different characters to have done it, and if they did, whether we should blame them. Was it Majid who sent the tapes? Was it Majid’s son? Was it Georges’s own son? What could have pushed any of these characters to do such a thing?
Needless to say, Haneke doesn’t give any answers. Instead, allusions to possible truths are interspersed throughout the movie, through little cinematic, graceful moments that form equally possible narratives told from equally valid perspectives.
For a more in-depth philosophical analysis of Haneke’s work, including the hermeneutic touches of his conception of truth, you can read Stoehr’s entire essay in Roy Grundmann’s A Companion to Haneke. The entire book is a wonderful resource of philosophy, aesthetics, and media studies. Stoehr’s work can also be found in Existentialism And Contemporary Cinema, a real treasure for Sartre fans who are also great film buffs. Finally, for more connections between Nietzsche’s views on nihilism and the work of not only Haneke but also Stanley Kubrick, check out Stoehr’s latest essay in Four by Three Magazine.
Ana Sandoiu is a writer, researcher & philosophy lover living in Brighton, UK. She also writes on her personal blog, On a Saturday Morning.