Michael Haneke’s most recent film, Happy End, opens with a cell phone recording of a woman in the bathroom getting ready for bed. She is shot from behind at a shadowy distance, the illuminated doorway a small rectangle in an otherwise dark frame. Text bubbles up on the screen as the unseen videographer narrates banal activities: brushes her teeth, spits, piss. Nothing bad happens, but the simple presentation of decontextualized looking—like the illicit watching in Haneke’s Caché (2005)—is menacing.
In the next scene, the cell phone records a hamster in its cage, the text-over commentary animated by the same bitter humor. This time events take a darker turn when the hamster keels over, having been fed its owner’s psych meds. Another scene, same camera: this time the woman from the bathroom lies unresponsive on the floor. Next we watch a surveillance camera of a construction zone, where half the site abruptly collapses onto its workers. And so on, for many more minutes, with no context at all, like clicking dutifully onward down a YouTube rabbit hole.
How ought we respond to death as a spectacle? Do screens hinder our capacity to attend to the world, or enhance it?
These snippets obviously raise questions of character and narrative, but they also prompt questions of ethics and form. How ought we respond to death as a spectacle? Do screens—whether cell phones or movies—hinder our capacity to attend to the world, or enhance it? What happens when we put life and death on screen?
Happy End, a pitch-black comedy set in the blinding sunlight of northern France, centers on the Laurents, a dysfunctional family whose members possess a seemingly limitless capacity for cruelty, to one another and outsiders. The Laurents, made idle rich by the success of the family construction business, have recently been reunited under the same roof. After her mother is put in a coma by a suspicious drug overdose, an unnerving and petite preteen Eve (Fantine Harudin) comes to live with her checked-out father, Thomas (Mathie Kassovitz), and his new wife, Anaïs (Laura Verlinden), in the sprawling mansion of her senile grandfather, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant). When she is not putting out legal fires at work or barking into her speakerphone, Georges’s other child, Anne (Isabelle Huppert), spends time there too, as does her sullen, underachieving adult son, Pierre (Franz Rogowski). The daily operations of the mansion are maintained by Rachid (Hassam Ghancy) and Jamila (Nabiha Akkari), whom Pierre drunkenly refers to as the family’s “Moroccan slaves.
Eve, it turns out, is the phantom cell phone cinematographer of the film’s opening. Her mother’s suspected suicide is in fact a case of matricidal poisoning; her hamster was a test run. We never see Eve’s deed, but only observe her mother’s body through the lens of the phone as Eve confesses to whomever is following her broadcast. In interviews, Haneke has noted the religious dimension of social media, how it provides us a ghostly space to which we turn for absolution (likes) or punishment (disinterest or worse). Happy End thus begins with a crime and a confession, horrors rendered banal and comic by Eve’s sarcastic, slang-inflected narration, and by their total inefficacy in eliciting any kind of reaction from her family or the authorities.
While Eve alternately acts out, breaks down weeping, and withdraws into unreachable silence, the adult Laurents look elsewhere. The film is structured less as a single developing narrative than as a series of interlocking scenarios, thus giving formal expression to the characters’ mutual indifference. Anne is tasked with protecting the family company from the prospect of being sued by one of the workers injured in the surveillance-captured accident; Thomas and Anaïs work at ignoring Thomas’s infidelity; Pierre can barely get out of bed. Georges is the most sympathetic adult, in part because, in his advanced age and deteriorating condition, he is subject to the same grinning apathy as the young, already deteriorating Eve. Georges evidently dislikes every member of his family, and his main preoccupation is finding some way to die.
For Haneke, technology contracts our ethical and political perspectives. But occasionally his films demonstrate a more compassionate ambivalence about our life with technology.
Beyond the mansion’s walls is Calais, until recently home to the Calais Jungle, a refugee and migrant camp that served as a kind of waystation for African and Middle Eastern undocumented immigrants who hoped to escape to the UK, either by ferry or the Eurotunnel, which has its French terminus in the town’s port district. You would hardly know it, though, as the reality of Calais is kept firmly, defensively out of sight, both for the Laurents and Haneke’s audience. Only once does a member of the Laurent family converse with someone from the camp, and yet Haneke films it from across a busy street, all human voices drowned out by traffic. In response to the worry that his technique of avoidance ended up depersonalizing these migrants, Haneke affirmed that this was his very intention: “that’s exactly how they’re seen by us: as an abstract danger, a depersonalised danger.”
In the film’s final scene, Pierre defiantly brings a group of black men to his family’s very fancy, very white seaside lunch party. While posing as benevolent or radical, the gesture is ultimately infantile and narcissistic, as his primary concern has nothing to do with these men and instead turns entirely on mortifying his mother. The room falls into appalled silence; Pierre’s mother remains calm but for a momentary outburst that causes Pierre a small but serious bodily injury, after which she sets up a separate table for the unexpected guests, ceremoniously inviting them to stay. As the luncheon recalibrates, Georges asks Eve to wheel him out of the room, down the ramp, and straight into the sea. His request for a child’s assistance in his suicide attempt is at once appalling and very tender; after Eve backs away, Georges simply sits in his chair, waist deep in the water. Then Eve pulls out her phone to capture the moment.
As he does so often, Haneke engages with contemporary technology to hold a mirror to his audience’s presumed indifference—to the marginalized, immigrants, the infirm. Compare the way this works in Happy End to Caché, which foregrounds a bourgeois psychodrama of menacing video surveillance so it can more quietly explore the social ramifications of France’s relationship with Algeria, and specifically the way the 1961 massacre of 200 Algerian protestors continues to ramify in the present.
For the most part Haneke’s films suggest that contemporary technology—especially video—reduces our human capacities for connection and contracts our ethical and political perspectives. His films often revolve around young people whose fixation with technology is analogous to their muted comfort with violence. In Benny’s Video (1992), a boy’s physical isolation and moral indifference increase in proportion to his relationship with screens, as he both consumes and creates footage of killings. In Funny Games (1997 and 2007), a giddy torturer rewinds the on-screen action to prolong and perfect the agony of the family he is torturing to death. Code Unknown (2000) plays with the uncertainty of whether the violence it depicts is “fake,” part of a film within the film, or “really happening” (though of course, still “just a film”).
Walter Benajmin wrote that, insofar as any filmed reality must be actively constructed through technology, “the equipment-free aspect of reality here has become the height of artifice; the sight of immediate reality has become an orchid in the land of technology.” By thematizing technology and artifice at the level of both narrative and form, Haneke thus rejects even the aspiration of providing any “sight of immediate reality” in his films, in order to make perspicuous that contemporary lived reality itself no longer has any equipment-free aspect, that we are daily living in the land of technology.
Of course, we have every reason to be vexed about the ever-deepening digitization and automation of every aspect of human life. In this past year, the very founders of our new land of technology have begun to rebel, to cry out in fear that these technologies and media are “ripping apart the social fabric,” as one former Facebook executive put it. There is, no doubt, cause for alarm. Sometimes, though, Haneke presents technology as though it were not only fundamentally evil but alien to our species, as though our relation to reality prior to the late twentieth century was utterly unmediated.
In interviews Haneke himself evidences more nuanced views, and he refrains from moral judgment. Perhaps, he muses, “it’s more productive to live than to view, but you can also do both of those things.” And yet his films’ anxiety about technology often reads as one-dimensional and dogmatic. To take one case: Happy End returns a handful of times to an unfolding instant message conversation that ranges from sadomasochistic to amorous to sheepishly pragmatic. Like the first shot, we do not at first know who is speaking on screen. Little ellipses palpitate on the left side of the screen while on the right an unidentified character dutifully types out their anguished sexual and romantic fantasies. It is uncanny, and perversely hilarious, to read such earnest, yearning language against the harsh glare of a screen with no human voice or gesture to interpret its tone or cadence. But when Haneke finally cuts away to show Thomas’s lover by herself in the dark, her face illuminated by her laptop’s unforgiving glow, its intended message—that technologies of communication actually keep us apart and alone—presents as didactic and punishing.
This critique of Haneke is not a bid for the merits of technology but rather a bid for more lived complexity in the cinematic handling of something that now reaches into the most intimate dimensions of our lives. This question of how to depict our life with screens presents a formal challenge that any filmmaker concerned with contemporary reality now faces, where this question is at once aesthetic and normative.
Technology sometimes provides opportunities for love or freedom where human relations have been significantly distorted, or where the world as we know it is simply gone.
While Haneke’s response to this challenge tends to be explicitly critical, there are moments in his films where he displays a more genuine, deeply-felt ambivalence about technology. These are also the moments of his movies that feel most humanly alert, allowing that these machines, these techniques of mediation, might actually hold open some space for care.
The most poignant and heartbreaking example of this is in Haneke’s Time of the Wolf (2003), an off-brand genre film. The setting is unbearably grim: in the aftermath of a never-explained disaster, a group of humans gather in an abandoned station to wait for a rumored train. The Laurent family (for Haneke it is always “the Laurents,” always some interchangeable Ann and Georges, Eve and Benny) tried to escape to their summer home but the father was killed by another family that got there first, so mother and children must go on without him. Once at the train station, hierarchies divide people, sex is exchanged for canned goods, animals’ throats are gauged, an infant dies. The baby is given a makeshift funeral in a field, and Haneke films the scene entirely from the knees down. Someone wails and prays, but we are given no human face for these mourning sounds. The short distance between camera and earth seems to measure the amount of space for love or solace that’s been left in the world. The rest is all pain.
One evening, the daughter Eva approaches a young man with a cassette player that she heard the night before. As she settles beside this stranger on the floor, surrounded by sleeping bodies, he instructs her to rewind the tape with her finger when she’s done, to save the batteries. She puts the machine to her ear, and we hear faintly the first and only music of the entire film. The moment is so delicate, shuttering with the sheer wastefulness of beauty and human tenderness. And it is technology that makes this moment possible: technology allows music to stay in the world, and it is thanks to this form of mediation that Eva is able to ask a stranger to meet her acute need for care. If technology had not been there to stand between them and mediate their intimacy, ensuring merciful indirectness, Eva would never have been able to seek it out. Technology allows Eva to locate a kind of love.
The Piano Teacher (2002) offers a quite different case of a character using technology to negotiate her relationship to human intimacy. Erika (Isabelle Huppert) is a piano teacher who enters into an unexpected relationship with a young student as she meanwhile struggles with a grotesquely toxic intimacy with her overbearing mother. Erika initially pushes the student away, mocking and insulting him, until she finally tells him exactly what she desires, namely very specific scenes of sexual and emotional cruelty. While the violence that ensues between teacher and student is gutting—not least because it is not clear whether Erika is being horribly mistreated or finally getting everything she wants—it is the bond with her mother that is more painful to watch. Enclosed in their cluttered apartment with their pushed-together twin beds, Erika and her mother follow a domestic routine of explosive fights and tearful reunions. One of Erika’s only paths out of this cycle is when she visits pornographic video booths. While it is possible to see these excursions as just more pathology, an alternate interpretation is that they offer Erika some very minor yet lifesaving reprieve, a sliver of independence. While Haneke tends to suggest that technology dissolves opportunities for human connection, in Erika’s case, where proximity with her mother has become lethally symbiotic, technology provides a deeply needed space of separateness. These moments are fleeting and imperfect, but they evidence an inarticulate form of protest, a grasp at independence.
In Happy End there is one moment of almost Dionysian release made possible through technology. Pierre has been failing at the family business, and has just been badly beaten up by the son of the worker injured at the construction site, then berated by his mother. But then he visits a dark karaoke bar and devotes himself wholly to a performance of Sia’s “Chandelier,” his already injured body literally ricocheting off the walls. The scene—a single unedited shot of a small stage backed by a mirror—is of course completely ridiculous: the karaoke audience is howling, Pierre is wasted, doing one-handed cartwheels while screaming into a microphone, and it all ends abruptly when he nearly breaks his leg. But the performance is transcendent, offering genuine respite for Pierre, however brief or empty, and providing a kind of formal recess for the film as a whole. Here, too, technology makes this levity possible. And while there is a trace of judgment that hangs around the camera’s patient, observational distance, it is not so much as to undermine the scene’s minor freedom.
No doubt the worlds depicted in these films are deeply damaged, and so the suggestion may well be that technology only provides opportunities for love or freedom when conditions get this dire, where human relations have been significantly distorted, or, as in Time of the Wolf, where the world as we know it is simply gone. It is also significant that these scenes are not sustained worldviews but only brief flickers of precarious possibility, the suggestion being that realizing this technological potential is rare and hard-won. Still, in each of these cases, Haneke demonstrates more compassionate ambivalence about our life with technology, an ambivalence that in turn opens up different kinds of opportunities for his audience.
In his approach to his films, Haneke always has one eye on what he is doing to his audience, conceiving his work as brutal pedagogy: as he puts it, “the question is not: ‘What am I allowed to show?’ but rather: ‘What chance do I give the viewer to recognize what it is I am showing?’” His films are always trying to do something for us by doing something—usually something awful—to us. Famously Haneke said once that he sought to “rape the spectator into autonomy,” as though only an assault could inaugurate us into genuine agency. But one obvious reaction to this kind of cinematic intervention is not to snap to moral attention but to withdraw in defensiveness or issue accusations of hypocrisy. And it is hard to see how being cinematically violated should “help us to locate and refine love in ourselves,” as Haneke claims his films aim to do. But in these more openly ambivalent scenes, there is more opportunity for this work, real chances for recognition, the kind that cannot come from being raped to attention. These scenes allow us to recognize that amongst the various purposes to which humans have put their tools and technologies, the uncertain work of locating and refining love might be one of them.