German-born Austrian director Michael Haneke makes political films that are great films full of weak politics. Watching something like Funny Games (either the 1997 or 2007 version) or Caché, you get the weird sense of two different people at work. First there's the genre-subverting, meticulous, unsentimental, and rigorous artist. This Haneke does all the work. Then, throughout his flicks and somewhat at random, a second Haneke – a ham-fisted, ingenuous, and simple-minded – drops in awkward political asides that are so egregiously thoughtless that many otherwise sympathetic and astute viewers assume that they're being insulted. It's even become something of a critical cliché to assume that all of Haneke's flicks are little more than elaborately constructed insults directed that the audience members and the only two positions one can take towards his work is to either side with him, taking up arms against a sea of philistines and by opposing offend them, or hate the director right back, declaring him just another insufferable hipster doofus pandering to the intellectual prejudices of those across the pond (and those domestic doofi who deserve them).
In the U. S. of A., this was more true with Funny Games (which I hope to get to later this week or early next) than with today's film, Caché. Not because Caché's political content is any more or less goofy, but because Funny Games hits us were we live (especially horror fans, some of whom – in a truly heroic gesture of genre-provincialist egotism – suggested that it was specifically constructed to insult the beloved мать ужаса). Games's target was media violence, our favorite luxury good and, for some of us, our livelihoods. Caché, on the other hand, involves European racism and the legacy of French colonialism in Algiers. Not having any dog in this particular fight, American audiences seem much more content to allow Haneke to jumble together all manner of haphazard moral equivalences and serve up a half-baked Buergenlandisches Erdbeerkoch of liberal white guilt, generic left-leaning isolationism, with a tart hint of class warfare.
In fact, the most strenuous objection anybody seems to have put forth to question the painfully simplistic platitudes of Second Haneke is the actual movie made by First Haneke, a flick more complex and morally ambiguous than Haneke 2 will allow.
We're going to talk specifics now, but I feel it fair to warn you that I'm going to uncharacteristically spoil the crap out of this flick. If you want to see it without me tramping my dirty footie prints all over it, this is where you should check out.
Georges and Anne are a model of bobo coupling. Georges, played with seething self-righteousness by the excellent Daniel Auteuil, is minor television celeb that hosts a critically well-received and mildly popular literary talkshow. Imagine a nation where a literary talkshow could survive on the tube – and people say that only supernatural horror can break the shackles of the mundane everyday world! Anne, ably handled by a Juliette Binoche who is given way too little to do, is an editor of pop poli-sci tomes on evergreen lefty topics such as anti-globalization. They live in a modernist two-floor townhouse in an upmarket section of Paris. They have a single child: Pierrot.
The film opens with the discovery of a videocassette that has been left on their doorstep. Somebody videotaped Georges and Anne's house for several hours. The tape comes with no threatening note. There's no hint of violent intent. The camera work isn't even that invasive. It is a static, almost stately establishing shot that more resembles the early work of the Brothers Lumière than it does the work of a voyeur or snoop.
The tape is the first of many. Again and again, there are shots of the family's Paris home or the country estate Georges grew up on. However, the subsequent tapes include child-like drawings depicting a boy vomiting blood or a rooster with blood spurting from its neck. Georges and Anne go to the police, but – as all police are in any movie that isn't a cop actioner – they are useless. After receiving the video of his childhood home, Georges claims he knows who is sending them, but he refuses to tell his wife on the grounds that he doesn't want to finger the guilty party until he's sure.
In truth, Georges is hiding the fact that the culprit is most like a young Algerian boy he wronged when they were younger. Much later in the film we learn that when Georges was still a boy, an Algerian couple helped his parents work the estate lands. They had a son named Majid. In 1961, Majid's parents went to Paris to take part in protest march. That march, an actual incident in from France's tempestuous 1960s, ended in the slaughter of an estimated 200 French-Algerian civilians, many of whom were herded into the Seine by the police and drowned. Majid's parents were among those killed. Back on the farm, Georges's parents decided that they would adopt Majid as their own. Georges, in a fit of juvenile jealousy, claimed that he'd seen Majid cough up blood. A doctor was called and Majid was given a clean bill of health. The still ragingly jealous Georges told Majid that Georges's parents wanted the rooster in the barnyard butchered. In a flashback scene that includes actual footage of a rooster being beheaded and, literally, running around with its head cut off, we see Majid believed Georges. Georges later told his parents that Majid, angered the Georges had the doctor summoned on false premises, had slaughtered the chicken in front of Georges and then threatened him with the same hatchet. As a consequence, Majid was sent to an orphanage.
Following hints left in one of the videos, Georges manages to confront Majid. Majid claims that he has not sent any tapes. Unconvinced, Georges threatens to do Majid harm if any more tapes arrive. Still wanting to keep his role in this secret, Georges tells his wife that he followed the clues, but there was nobody home.
Shortly thereafter, a tape of Georges and Majid's confrontation, including Georges's clear threat, arrives at the home. Faced with clear evidence that Georges has been keeping her in the dark, Anne demands to know the whole story, but Georges once again refuses to confide in her. The same tape showing Georges threatening Majid – or, as those unfamiliar with the backstory would see it: a tape showing a well-off white Parisian hassling and threatening a lower income Algerian man – arrives at Georges's television station. Georges's boss tells him that they've destroyed the tape and that he's not interested in Georges's personal problems, but, hey, by the way, we're still reviewing next season's line up and I'll let you know if you're picked up or not.
In what appears to be retaliation for the threat, Pierrot vanishes on his way home from school. The police, previous uninterested in the tapes, immediately set upon Majid and his son, a well-spoken and tightly-wound man in his early twenties. Both men are held through the night, but released because the police have got no hard evidence that links them to Pierrot's disappearance. That's because Pierrot was not actually kidnapped. He was hiding out at the home of a schoolie. When Pierrot returns to his home, his mother asks him to explain himself and he answers with vague accusations that suggest Anne is cheating on Georges with a coworker. In keeping with the theme of violated trust, Haneke violates the viewers' by never revealing whether Anne is or is not pursuing exo-domestic knookie. We have no proof, but doth she protest too much? Hmmmm.
In the meanwhile, Georges's gets a call from Majid. Come over, Majid says, and I'll explain everything. Georges goes and prepares to argue with Majid again. Instead, Majid cryptically states that he wanted Georges to be present and then, using a small razor or knife, opens up his own throat. Blood sprays and Majid falls dead. Georges leaves the scene.
Georges comes home and tells Anne the whole story. He confesses about what happened when he was six and Majid was just a boy. He tells her what happened at Majid's apartment. Anne tells him that he must go to the police.
Cut to the next day. Georges is headed into his office where he is confronted by Majid's son. Georges accuses the son of working up the video scheme, claiming Majid was too crazy and feeble to have pulled such a scam. The son denies that he had anything to do with the tapes. Majid asks Georges what it feels like to have a man's life weigh on his conscience and Georges responds that he feels no guilt. Majid's son replies that Georges's answer was what he expected. Is he confirming that he thinks Georges is a dickhead? Or is he making a veiled threat on the basis that he thinks a man's life wouldn't weigh on his conscience either?
That night, Georges dreams of the day Majid was dragged from the farm and shipped off to the orphanage.
The film ends on one of Haneke's trademark long, stable shots of Pierrot's school steps. Kids are leaving for the day. We don't see Pierrot among them, but the screen fades to black before all the kids finished leaving the building. Are we supposed to understand that Pierrot is missing? Was this what Majid's son was threatening to do? Has Pierrot run off again? Maybe he just didn't walk out of the school yet?
[Update: Eagle-eyed reader Sue points out that I missed not only Pierrot in this final shot, but I somehow didn't notice that he appears in the final shot with Majid's son! D'oh! While this raises a whole new set of questions, at the same time it makes my set of questions invalid. Read the comments for Sue's take on the flick.]
Visually, Haneke is an acquired taste. Either you'll find his affection for the extended, immobile shot a soporific affectation or you'll see how it converts even the most mundane of scenes into a sort of landscape painting. Similarly, his rejection of film scores and needle-drops – if I recall, no Haneke film includes any musical soundtrack (odd for a man who has also directed operas) – is either going to strike you as the obvious choice of somebody who meticulously creates soundscapes of everyday noise to accompany his living landscapes or it will simply add to the feeling that nothing is happening in this film. The only defense I can offer is that Haneke is very aware of his own style. In fact, the videos the Georges and Anne get are so similar to what Haneke might shoot anyway that a running visual gag throughout the film is deciding whether the shot you've been watching is going to be revealed to be another cassette or is "in action," so to speak. Still, having an artist intentionally do something you think is stupid doesn't make it less stupid, just intentionally stupid. While watching Caché, I thought, "This is pretty neat, but if I was even slightly in a different mood, I'd be asleep already." So forewarned is forearmed; you know what you like.
As to the politics, here's how Haneke 2 wants you to read this whole weird story. Georges is guilty of a great wrong. In this, he parallels the injustices France visited upon the Algerians during the colonial period. His behavior specifically parallels France's national attitude to the 1961 massacre that was, for years, unmentionable in the public sphere. Instead of enshrining the image a couple hundred French Algerian corpses clogging up the Seine, France chose to elevate the self-serving and heroically liberal image of the student uprisings as paradigmatic of the 1960s. In this, the nation parallels the easy liberality of Georges and Anne. Majid's revenge on them is just. Their union is based on a false sense of self and though Majid cannot ultimately harm them (he instead dies rather pointlessly), his campaign of terror can reveal the rotten core lies they've built their house upon. In this, Haneke 2 comes about one short hair's width away from outright endorsing terrorism as a weapon of oppressed people.
But Haneke 1's film doesn't actually jibe with this reading. First, is there any real parallel one can draw between the emotional life of a six-year-old child and the foreign policies of one of Europe's longest lasting nation-states. Is it valid, or even remotely useful, to understand the 1961 massacre through the metaphor of a child worried that a new child might steal his parents' affections? The link is arbitrary and forced. Even within the world of filmic morality, where it makes sense to spend a vast fortune and absurd amounts of time on obsessively revenging incidents from one's childhood (a considerable chunk of Argento's giallo-work and the popular Oldboy sell this premise without blinking), the actions of Majid seem asymmetrical. He's no avenging angel. He's just a stalker. The clumsiness of his plan is more tragic than his backstory – one almost feels bad for him when its revealed that the police saw right away that his suicide in the presence of Georges was just that, a suicide. Majid worked so hard, but it was just more than his quite limited mentality could pull off. Haneke 1 made Majid a born loser. He's no avatar of oppressed people everywhere. Instead, he's a guy who caught a spectacularly bad break and could never let it go. It ceased to be a moral issue because, long ago, the sin committed left the realm of violation and forgiveness and, instead, took on the force of a creation myth. Georges offers apologies, but apologies are no good here because to accept an apology would be to invalidate all those years of suffering and pain that made him who he is. Majid managed to get on with life, but it poisoned him. He passed this poison on to his son. And then one or both of them began terrorizing not only the presumably guilty party, but two innocents as well. Where Haneke 2 comes close to becoming a terror apologist, Haneke 1 creates a picture of the mentality that produces terrorism and it is irrational, pathetic, immoral, ineffectual, and ultimately self-destructive.
And, finally, Haneke 1 puts forth a more interesting moral quandary than Haneke 2 does: What is our moral obligation to those who want to destroy us? Especially if that hate is at the very center of their identity and displaces whatever moral framework of reconciliation might be used to close the chasm between us. Do we kill them? Is that any different then letting them destroy themselves in their mad effort to get us? Do our moral obligations to other people vanish the second we perceive a threat from them? Or should we hold ourselves to ethical standards even when doing so may pose an existential threat?
This moral thicket, the impossible imperative to love our enemies, is the genuinely provocative idea hidden inside Caché.