Why this might not seem so easy

Is Michael Haneke an ice-cold cynic who gets his kicks out of playing God? Or is he a radical humanist whose films expose the casual cruelty of the privileged? Whichever side of the fence you fall on, his austere, psychologically extreme films are the very essence of ‘challenging’ European arthouse cinema.

Born in Munich, this Austrian filmmaker has been pranking audiences for three decades, often with the aim to reveal the viewer’s complicity in violence. He’s a master provocateur who’s known for his mordant wit and forensic rigour. His films are the antithesis of the escapism offered by blockbusters. Instead, he employs distancing devices to remind viewers that his films are constructions. As a result, we’re lead to question what’s happening on screen critically rather than become manipulated emotionally. 

He leads us to contemplate the darker recesses of the human psyche and the volatile forces simmering below the surface of polite society.

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Working mainly in German and French, he collaborates often with the same actors (Isabelle Huppert is a favourite). Many of his central protagonists are named variations on George and Anne, which is typical of his taste for intertextual jokiness. It’s impossible not to feel ambushed by Haneke’s sly set-ups, but their clever and sinister scenarios bring such a shake-up of assumptions, it’s worth it.

The best place to start – Funny Games

Haneke’s early-career Funny Games (1997) is a meta home-invasion horror. It’s the perfect initiation into the kind of cunning ploys that Haneke takes relish in. His aim: to undermine bourgeois complacency.

Funny Games (1997)

A well-to-do Austrian couple (Susanne Lothar and Ulrich Mühe) and their son visit their lakeside summer house. When a young man knocks on their door to borrow eggs, neighbourly courtesy spirals into terror as the family is taken hostage. From breaking the fourth wall to ‘rewinding’ the action, the killers implicate the audience in their hunger for bloody spectacle. Much debate erupted over whether Haneke was interrogating genre violence or simply replicating it. 

What to watch next

Malicious games also advance the plots of Hidden (2005) and The White Ribbon (2009), though here with more socio-political import. In these masterpieces of creeping dread, the pranks are anonymous, but carry spectral traces of power abuses and trauma. Expectations of whodunnit mystery are established but not tied up. We’re left troubled long after the credits roll.

In Hidden, the media savviness of television intellectual Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and his publisher wife Anne (Juliette Binoche) is insufficient to interpret the meaning of video tapes showing their swanky townhouse under surveillance that start turning up in their mailbox. The return of Georges’s repressed guilt ties into a whole legacy of French colonialism, as cues lead him to Majid, an Algerian he had wronged in childhood.

The White Ribbon (2009)

The White Ribbon, his first of two Palme d’Or winners, takes us to a Protestant village in Germany just before war kicks off in 1914. In a nod to the fascism on the horizon, the narrator suggests its strange events could “clarify some things that happened in this country”. A strict moral code is enforced by corporal punishment while the powerful indulge in hypocritical abuses. It’s a black-and-white film, shot with ascetic precision. When the doctor is tripped by wire and thrown from horseback, a string of unexplained acts of violence follow. Social order is disrupted.

In the films of Haneke, the family is never a unit of happiness. It’s more like a tinderbox of volatile compulsions . Even romantic love is callously mortal, as death wages its war of attrition on the body and the memory. In The Piano Teacher (2001), based on a novel by Nobel-winner Elfriede Jelinek, Isabelle Huppert delivers one of her most searing performances as Erika, a Vienna conservatory teacher smothered by a possessive mother. Her severe demeanour veils sexual kinks, and new student Walter agrees to carry out her pre-scripted humiliations.

The Piano Teacher (2001)

“You can be a monster sometimes, but you are kind,” says retired music teacher Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) to her husband (Jean-Louis Trintignant) in Haneke’s second Palme d’Or winner, Amour (2012). Her comment pinpoints the uneasy duality that exists inside many of Haneke’s characters. After she suffers a stroke, the indignity of identity loss stages its brutal home invasion. There is a tenderness to the marital bond in this late-career film, which might suggest Haneke was mellowing, were it not for the extreme conclusions – high on macabre spectacle – to which it leads.

Happy End (2017) contains thematic echoes of many of Haneke’s previous films. A wealthy French patriarch in mental decline (Trintignant again) looks for a convenient way to kill himself, as a teen whose mother is in hospital after an overdose comes to stay with the large, variously amoral, family. The sardonic title flags up a Haneke wreaking havoc on viewers’ learned expectations of consolation.

Happy End (2017)

Where not to start

In an abrasive, conceptual manner, Haneke’s first features already investigated the themes that would occupy him throughout his career. His debut feature The Seventh Continent (1989), is a domestic horror inspired by a news story. A middle-class family in Linz commit suicide, fed up with the dreariness and existential futility of modern life.

Benny’s Video (1992), in which a boy desensitised to gore by video images experiments with killing somebody, and 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994), in which split storylines converge on a massacre in a bank, complete his so-called ‘glaciation trilogy’.

Time of the Wolf (2003)

Haneke enlisted Binoche to make the cryptic and challenging Code Unknown (2000) in Paris, another weave of strands of urban friction. The premise of a couple’s holiday home being occupied by strangers popped up again with his French-language Time of the Wolf (2003). This is a post-apocalyptic vision of a society struggling to cling onto civilisation’s vestiges in an unnamed European country.

Haneke is sometimes accused of retreading old territory – and he did so very literally with his 2007 version of Funny Games, remaking the 1997 original (many scenes shot-for-shot) in English in the United States. This time with Hollywood stars Naomi Watts and Tim Roth. His motivation was not financial, he has claimed, but so the film’s critique of the American entertainment machine could better reach its intended audience.