Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre, series, or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Geek obsession: The films of Austrian director Michael Haneke
Why it’s daunting: From the beginning, Haneke has been a polarizing figure on the international scene, a moralist whose cold appraisals of man’s basest instincts are a far cry from the gentle humanism that tends to win plaudits and awards. He isn’t given to cutting his dark visions with a sliver of hope, and the audience isn’t spared from his scolding—even at its most direct, in the case of 1997’s Funny Games and its 2007 English-language remake.
Why: Even after 15 years of lobbing grenades on the festival circuit, where the battle lines between his supporters and detractors had been firmly drawn, Haneke didn’t achieve a real breakthrough success—commercially, and to some extent critically—until his 2005 thriller Caché. And there’s a reason for that: It’s the most accessible and conventionally satisfying film of his career, while also crisply synthesizing his long-running themes and proving again that no director alive can suck the air out of the room quite like Haneke. For Haneke neophytes, it’s both the perfect way to ease into his work—the word “ease” being extremely relative—and a solid primer on what to expect from him.
With echoes of the first two reels of David Lynch’s Lost Highway, the film begins with a Parisian couple (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche) receiving a videotape that’s nothing but a long static shot of the outside of their apartment. As new tapes arrive on the porch—some wrapped in disturbing, child-like drawings—the images start to open up into a voyeuristic narrative that stretches back into Auteuil’s past. From there, Haneke deepens a precisely calibrated thriller with a sharp critique of bourgeois arrogance and a politically charged allegory on French-Algerian relations.
Alive with the threat of home invasion, dark secrets, and a malevolent voyeur, Caché sustains an air of such unbearable tension that something as minor as a joke at a dinner party leads to the film’s second-biggest jolt. (The biggest will be obvious to anyone who’s seen it.) It also ends on an image of such ambiguity that fans have looked at it literally frame by frame to figure out exactly what happens. Like Haneke’s other work, it’s blunt and unsparing, but it leaves something for viewers to mull over.
Next steps: Take a deep breath and steel yourself for a trip through the back catalog, starting with Haneke’s 1989 film debut The Seventh Continent, surely among the most auspicious, controlled, and spectacularly bleak first features ever made. (It made The A.V. Club Inventory “Not Again: 24 Great Films Too Painful To Watch Twice.”) Kicking off his so-called “glaciation trilogy,”—not the most inviting name for a trilogy, frankly—The Seventh Continent simply watches chilling dispassion as an average middle-class family sets about destroying itself. The early scenes depict their mundane, empty routines with obsessive detail; the later scenes find them dismantling their lives in an act that’s simultaneously rebellious and nihilistic. And typical of Haneke, it has one scene so shocking, it’s burned indelibly into the memory of anyone who’s seen it. (Two words: fish tank.)
From there, Haneke’s 2000 puzzle-picture Code Unknown would be a good next step, just as a reminder that he can mix things up while still exercising control over his effects. It’s also a great rejoinder to the current wave of everything-is-connected social dramas which make big statements, but reveal little more than their writers’ clever construction. The subtitle, Incomplete Tales Of Several Journeys, is the first indication that Haneke intends not to wrap his interlocking stories in a neat little bow; his mission is to show the breakdown of communication more than the coincidence and turns of fate that bind us all together. Starting with an incident of racial tension—a teenager throwing a crumpled bag on the lap of a Romanian beggar, an earnest young African who angrily confronts him about it, a woman (Juliette Binoche) who intervenes on the boy’s behalf—the film ripples off into individual stories that hint at the violence tearing away at the social fabric.
Haneke’s talent for getting the most out of his actors, who are placed under duress, is on full display in his 2001 follow-up The Piano Teacher, which collected three awards at Cannes—the Grand Prix (second place, essentially) and Best Actress and Actor for Isabelle Huppert and Benoît Magimel as a sexually repressed piano teacher and her handsome protégé, respectively. Huppert has always specialized in playing inscrutable women, but Haneke keeps chipping away at her, revealing her character’s deep-seated psychosis and the way it manifests in acts of sadomasochism and self-mutilation. What seems at first like a cut-and-dried case of repression, brought home by Haneke’s antiseptic style, becomes more complicated and ambiguous as Huppert involves herself with Magimel and her behavior grows disturbingly erratic.
By now, you should know where you stand on stand on Haneke: You either love him (properly, as he’s one of the best filmmakers in the world) or find him a sadistic schoolmarm. So it’s open season on the remainder of his filmography, including the 2009 Palme D’Or-winner The White Ribbon, a creepily insinuating black-and-white drama on the forces that created an historic evil; 1992’s Benny’s Video, his forward-thinking second feature, about a disturbed teenager who processes the world through images (the superb recent indie debut Afterschool owes much to that one); and 2003’s Time Of The Wolf, an uneven yet persuasive, and at times masterful, speculation about how humanity would break and reform in the wake of the apocalypse.
Where not to start: First off, never read anything Haneke has to say about his movies. All the accusations leveled by his biggest critics—that he’s scolding, academic, and self-serious—are generally borne out by his writings and interviews about his movies. And that tone also can be detected in 1997’s Funny Games and its nearly shot-for-shot English language remake, which exist to implicate the casual bloodlust of the moviegoing public. Both films are tense, brilliant, gut-wrenching home-invasion thrillers, but they’re love-it-or-hate-it propositions: Either you’ll want to run out and see everything Haneke’s ever made, or you’ll swear off his work forever. Better to start by dipping your toe into (relatively) more placid waters.