CRITERION REVIEW: Michael Haneke — Trilogy (1989/1992/1994)

The Austrian maestro of misery returns to the Collection with a triptych of violent ennui

Michael Haneke is one of cinema’s most daring provocateurs, with a filmography that includes the rapturous Amour, the unbearably tense The White Ribbon, and the fiendishly provocative Funny Games, Cache, and The Piano Teacher. Haneke’s hallmark formal restraint can feel just as physically binding for his audiences, with muted emotions infusing each moment with ever-building tension and dread…before exploding into morally-challenging violence. Throughout, meta-elements including fourth wall-breaking and the repeated use of character names across his films (Anna/Georg in Deutsch, Anne/Georges for Francophones) push Haneke’s work beyond the Brechtian; constantly aware that we’re watching a film, Haneke drives us to interrogate how we’re watching and why. To quote Haneke in interviews about Funny Games, “intellectuals [may say] ‘I’m not that stupid, you needn’t tell me, I know all that.’ Of course. We all know. But to know it as you watch is another matter.”

Haneke’s first three films, presented here in a new Criterion Box Set, make for a remarkable distillation of Haneke’s incendiary and incisive ethos. Across The Seventh Continent, Benny’s Video, and 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, Haneke first ruminates on the bleak and beautiful films that reappear throughout his enigmatic body of work: bourgeois apathy, the impact of violent media, and a fractioning sense of European identity in the wake of societal atrocities.

Haneke’s theatrical debut, The Seventh Continent, is a devastatingly bleak critique of middle-class boredom. Here, a disillusioned family of three rejects the pointless routines of everyday existence by embracing disturbing fatalism in destroying their belongings–and themselves. Evoking Chantal Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman, The Seventh Continent explores our emotional investment in the mundane to the point of repulsion. The Schober family’s lives are fraught with the banality of supermarket visits and car washes, with zero room for emotional introspection or relief.

The Schobers’ dedication to their final act, adding power tools and knives alongside their daily groceries, dually elicits dread and longing. However, Haneke pushes this relatable self-destructive desire to its brutal extremity. The Schobers approach the destruction of their possessions–including flushing their life savings down the toilet–with the same exacting and deadpan routine as everything else in their lives. What’s more, the destruction they wreak (rather than passing the items to others) underlines the bourgeois selfishness of their actions. Lacking any self-awareness beyond their own drive for destruction, it’s no wonder this extravagant attempt at liberation is devoid of any possible catharsis or absolution. Inspired by a real-life case that rejected the idea of mass suicide in favor of being an unsolved homicide, Haneke pointedly ends The Seventh Continent with the idea that society would rather choose to be willfully blinded by routine rather than confront any aspect of existential malaise.

In Benny’s Video, Haneke explores the motivations behind the actions of a seemingly normal and well-off teenager, Benny (Arno Frisch), who kills another teenager while his parents (Ulrich Mühe and Angela Winkler) are away for a weekend. Benny records the act and edits it into a matter-of-fact depiction for his parents–leaving his stunned father to deal with the consequences while his mother spirits him off to an Egyptian vacation in order to establish plausible deniability.

Through Benny’s smiling, enigmatic indifference, Haneke teases out elements of Benny’s life that may point to his possible motivations–but deliberately without coming to a final resolution. Death metal music and violence-ridden films are placed on an even keel as going to McDonald’s or discotheques, challenging the moral and value judgments placed on individual explanations for violent, norm-breaking behavior. Much like The Seventh Continent before it, Haneke directly interrogates our own drive to rationalize the horrific, and by doing so compartmentalizing and distancing ourselves from the repulsive and unexplainable.

71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance is the ambitious outlier in this set, substituting the contained anxiety of Haneke’s two previous films in favor of a disconnected sense of fear and dread on a global and temporal scale. Weaving multiple storylines into a telegraphed climactic mass murder-suicide at a Viennese bank, Haneke’s fascination with giving root to violent behavior is tempered by the cruel whims of fate and chance. His critical eye turns to individual attempts to make a difference in the world–questioning whether such aims are either self-indulgent or futile in the wake of life’s randomness.

Is a well-off couple adopting a refugee child to give him a better life, or is it so they can feel a smug responsibility for doing so? Is the self-seriousness we take in our goals–from perfecting our ping-pong backhand, to solving games of chance, to rebuilding relationships with others–enough to distract us from larger societal ills? In a world where nothing seems to matter and violence seems both random and inevitable, do we surrender to the bloody ends telegraphed for us, or is it newsworthy to try to change things? As you can predict–there’s no satisfying resolution to be had. But the fire the film stokes from its provocative apathy is palpable.

For all of the frustration and bleakness of Haneke’s films, that fire may be why I treasure Haneke’s filmography as much as I do. Haneke recognizes there’s no effort or lasting power to be earned in how a filmmaker resolves the tension of their work. What’s more, some inner tensions may be unable to come to such a resolution in the first place. Haneke’s films goad us into reckoning with that fear, that unknowability–and champion our individual ability to divine such resolution on our own…if we can.

Video/Audio

Criterion presents The Seventh Continent, Benny’s Video, and 71 Fragments in their original 1.66:1 aspect ratio in 1080p HD transfers. The Seventh Continent’s transfer was sourced from a 35mm interpositive, while Benny’s Video and 71 Fragments were sourced from the original 35mm negatives. The monaural soundtracks for each film were sourced from their original 35mm magnetic tracks. All masters were created in 2019, with color grading supervised by Haneke. Each film is presented with English subtitles for the film, which subtitles all languages spoken save where deliberately obfuscated as part of the filmmakers’ intentions. Special Features are subtitled in English where any other language is spoken.

A welcome improvement over past DVD releases of Haneke’s work, Michael Haneke: Trilogy presents these films in a stunning clarity befitting the disturbing stillness of these films. Minute details are well preserved, from the wear and tear of often-used items to the sleekness of countertops and panes of glass. Haneke’s deliberate choice to refuse soundtracks in favor of diegetic sound allows for silence and ambient noise to be well-represented in the provided audio mixes. The monaural tracks are well-balanced across any sound system, creating an uncomfortably immersive experience that places viewers within Haneke’s insidious control over sound and frame.

Special Features

  • Michael Haneke: Split across the three discs, Haneke discusses each film in the trilogy with Cinematheque Française director Serge Toubiana in an archive interview from 2005. Each sequence examines the genesis and production of each film, with the inception of each film providing critical insights into what might be further gleaned from their enigmatic final products.
  • Alexander Horwath: In a 2018 interview conducted by Criterion, film historian Horwath discusses the interlinked thematic concerns of Haneke’s trilogy, as well as the sometimes vitriolic response to the films upon their initial release.
  • Arno Frisch: A 2018 interview conducted by Criterion with the star of Benny’s Video and Haneke’s later Funny Games. Ostensibly shot in the same session as Frisch’s contribution to Criterion’s release of Funny Games, the actor discusses the experience of auditioning for and production on his debut feature film, his POV on Benny’s actions as his actor, and how Haneke’s methodology as a director impacted his acting style.
  • Deleted Scenes from Benny’s Video, intercut with discussions with Haneke and Toubiana, totaling 14 minutes. Most removed footage is from Benny and his mother’s video exploration of Egypt, as well as brief vestigial extensions of scenes that remain in the film.
  • Michael H. — Profession: Director: An extensive feature-length documentary that intercuts interviews with Haneke and his collaborators alongside the production and press tours of Amour, The White Ribbon, Cache, Time of the Wolf, and Funny Games, among others. Notably included interviewees are Isabelle Huppert, Juliette Binoche, Beatrice Dalle, Jean-Louis Trintignant, and Emmanuelle Riva.
  • Trailers for all three films, on their respective discs.
  • Booklet featuring an essay by novelist John Wray, which explores how, for all of their chaos and controversy, Haneke’s first three films act as an act of cinematic tough love. In their refusal to coddle the viewer with comforting explanations for sociopathic or violent behavior, they force the audience to reckon with their own rationalizations for what they witness.

Michael Haneke: Trilogy is now available on Blu-ray courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

Get it at Amazon: If you enjoy reading Cinapse, purchasing items through our affiliate links can tip us with a small commission at no additional cost to you.

Previous post Leave DC Animation Alone — LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES (A Review and a Plea)
Next post In CONSECRATION, Sympathy For the Devil