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“A Lie at Twenty-Four Frames per Second”: The Truth of Haneke

Damon Hannis

Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.

Pablo Picasso (Cumming 98)

In an interview given for Cineaste magazine in 2005 Michael Haneke laudably proposed that his defining ‘article of faith’ could be summed up within the dictum, “film is a lie at twenty-four frames per second in the service of truth” (Porton 51). His aphoristic deduction is both humorously and purposely derivative of an oppositional adage coined by Jean-Luc Godard, who famously surmised in Le Petite Soldat (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960, France) that “the cinema is truth twenty-four times per second” (5). For Haneke, cinema in its most general terms represents an artificial construct that engages in the recreation of reality through systematic modes of manipulation (Porton 51). He maintains that most pure forms of art tend to consider the audience a partner in the undertaking, proposing that there exists a contractual agreement between the producer and consumer in such circumstances that they take each other seriously. It is nevertheless the case, Haneke insists, that the great bulk of today’s mainstream cinema, or what he terms ‘mass cinema’ does not take the viewer seriously as a partner, and instead opportunistically denigrates its audience to the perfunctory mechanisms of a “bank machine”(51). In this sense it is perhaps more precise to advocate the notion that film is a lie “with the possibility of being in the service of truth” (51). Myriad critics have perceptively underlined the extent to which Haneke reproves mainstream cinema and television, invariably outlining his revulsion for the “consumable nature” of “pre-packaged” violence that such media forms verbosely regurgitate for mass audiences (Brunette 2). It is the guiltless complicity of violence promoted in mainstream cinema that valorises the acerbic tone of his criticism, and it is through breaking with the standard representational relationship between content and form in his work that he seeks to solidify this message with audiences. In his extensive appreciation of Orson Welles, Andre Bazin theorised that “whatever the film, its aim is to give us the illusion of being present at real events unfolding before us in everyday reality”, a process he reminds us that involves concealing the presence of a “fundamental deceit” (Orson Welles 77). It is the heterogeneous mould of this fundamental deceit that Haneke frequently explores and emphasises as an integral thematic concern in many of his films. In further elucidating his personal stance concerning cinema’s representational relationship to realism and truth, he succinctly states that “you should not lie with images, or manipulate for that matter (...) I think you should make visible the dramatic tricks you use” (Von Boehm).

Benny’s Video (Michael Haneke, Austria, 1992) and Caché (Michael Haneke, France, 2005) represent two salient examples from Haneke’s oeuvre that play with cinema’s purported claims of truth by eschewing what Thomas Elsaesser has referred to as an “epistemological position”(Elseasser 54). Haneke extols the surface virtue of the long-take, favouring extended shot duration and compositional depth as the principal means for interrogating the ambiguous vicissitudes of human nature. Whilst his enterprise often facilitates the essence of realism in the Bazinian sense, Haneke prudently repudiates the veracity of any such certainty, presenting the viewer instead with diegetic worlds that articulate the admission of artifice through the calculated disclosure of cinema’s fundamental deceits. I want to propose that Caché can be understood as a digital response to the analogue world represented in Benny’s Video, in so far as both films share several homologous formal and thematic considerations, which reflect almost two decades of significant social, political, and technological progress. It is the conscientious discrepancies that Haneke exploits between both films that a comparative analysis more thoroughly illuminates. What is of central concern then are the methods that Haneke uses in order to compel his audience to confront and consider the ostensible transparency of the cinematic image ‘in the service of truth’. In doing so, Haneke attempts to actively engage his audience with issues surrounding the increasing tendency toward political spectacle and the aestheticisation of violence across various forms of media, whilst expressing the impact that an increasingly digitalised world has had upon traditional viewing cultures.

Caché was conceived and directed seventeen years after Benny’s Video and is considered by many a divisive masterpiece that has since garnered Haneke international recognition and critical acclaim, the film was voted The Times’ film of the decade and secured Haneke the award for ‘Best Director’ at Cannes in 2005. The film concerns Georges (Daniele Auteuil), the host of a literary talk show, who lives with his wife Anne (Juliette Binoche), a literary editor, and son Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky), within an affluent area of Paris. Throughout the film Georges receives a succession of video tapes which depict surveillance footage of his home and family, accompanied by disturbing sketches depicting violent images that appear as if drawn by a child. Suspecting he may know knows the culprit, Georges approaches Majid (Maurice Bénichou), an Algerian who came to live with Georges’ family as a young boy, after his own parents were killed in the Paris massacre of pro-FLN Algerians, on 17 October 1961.

Caché opens with what is now considered one of the most iconic and frequently discussed sequences in recent cinematic history, securing a place alongside the likes of Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, USA, 1958), and Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1960), films that have continued to provoke discussion over fifty years after their release. The scene commences via a protracted long-take with the focus ostensibly fixed upon a nondescript house situated somewhere in a Parisian neighbourhood. The camera remains stationary and is positioned at a distance, creating a sense of unmotivated observation that causes the audience to immediately query who, what, and indeed why we are looking down an empty street, aptly titled ‘Rue des Iris’. The depth of space between the camera and the row of apartments it faces operates in implicating the viewer in complicit surveillance, which is facilitated both by the lack of specific spatial orientation, and the stationary camera set-up that remains in situ as the diegetic sequence continues to unfold in what appears to be real time. The audience are initially granted a clear indication of spatial and temporal continuity; throughout the sequence we hear ambient noises and natural sounds chiming in key with the images presented, such as the chirping of birds or the footsteps of people passing by, which serve to amplify the overall evocation of realism in the scene. Haneke then abruptly fractures this verisimilitude by choosing to have the film credits scroll across the screen. The names of the entire cast and crew are digitally imposed over the length of the frame in an unconventional additive method, which allows the credits to remain on screen for just over two minutes. By virtue of the digital text Haneke explicitly reveals the constructedness of the sequence, transforming the frame and its contents from one representational medium to another. In evoking the functionality of a computer monitor on which text freely sprawls from left to right of the screen, Haneke proposes a dialectical exploration concerning the digital nature of the represented diegesis, positing the seemingly realist images behind the text and into a form of temporary screen saver image.

In his useful exposition of the long-take, Brian Henderson stresses that most commentaries on the long-take “ignore the mode of cutting unique to it”, a contrivance he refers to as “the intra-sequence cut” (Henderson 319). He proposes that in long-take sequences such as used by Haneke here, rhythm is not achieved by the length of the shots themselves, but rather “within each shot, through movement (...) rhythm, that is, of the disposition/movement of actors and camera”(319). Haneke adopts this technique self-reflexively, in order to more clearly convey the artificiality of the rhythm imposed upon the sequence. He utilises the intra-sequence cut as we see a young woman, presumably Anna, leaving the house and exiting to the left of the frame, and just a few moments later as a cyclist traverses the horizontal plane of action then rides toward the camera, both movements that alter the visual rhythm of the otherwise stationary long-take. Instead of using the technique to cultivate the appearance of objective observation, or an implied focus on non-constructed events unfolding before the camera, Haneke foregrounds such staged tropes to further exacerbate the artifice of realism within the sequence. Bazin suggests that proficient use of the long-take and compositional depth “is based on respect for the continuity of dramatic space and, of course, its duration” (What is Cinema?35). Haneke on the other hand circumvents such conventionalism in order to destabilise the spectator’s point-of-view, thus forcing the viewer to intently engage with the text. After nearly five minutes of earnestly scrutinizing the street without any clear motivations, two unattributed voices are heard occurring in an on off-screen space, discussing the very images that the audience are focused on decoding. Following this we are then confronted with a startling pause in the image, an interim rupture in time and comprehension in which all sense of temporal continuity and spatial cohesion is sequestered by the aestheticised rewind lines, which cut across both the cinematic frame and the viewer’s own sensibilities. Haneke violently strikes the audience with an ontological shock, through which it is revealed that we have been viewing a pre-recorded video tape all along, and that which we perceived to be in the present, and verifiably so, was in fact a past representation of events that occurred before the point in time we now occupy. Our sense of spatial and temporal awareness is forced to adjust in tandem with the realisation that placing blind faith in the veracity of cinematic conventions, which led us to believe that we were involved in the act of watching someone else, when in fact we are watching with others in an entirely different time frame, has led us astray.

Caché was filmed exclusively in digital using High Definition cameras, marking Haneke’s first use of the modern format for an entire film. It is his conscious decision to move away from celluloid and toward the digital format that presents an interesting aesthetic and thematic difference between Benny’s Video and Caché. Benny’s Video was honoured by Cahiers du Cinema as one of the thirteen most noteworthy films released in 1993, and makes up the second instalment of what is commonly known as Haneke’s “Glaciation trilogy” (Frey ‘Michael Haneke’). Critics consider the film a scathing critique of mass media culture, one which offers an exploration into its desensitising effect upon youth culture, as compellingly embodied by the film’s disaffected antagonist and “child of the postmodern” (Wessely 115), Benny (Arno Frisch). The film commences with a disquieting long-take sequence that depicts a pig being reared into a killing pen where it is shot through the skull with a captive bolt pistol, a weapon designed to incapacitate livestock by damaging the brain prior to the exsanguination process. Unlike Caché’s opening sequence, here the image is perceptibly codified for the audience in that Haneke cultivates a shaky, out of focus, and grainy aesthetic that steadily marks the unedited material as belonging to a particular form of representational device. This amateurish quality of the film image evokes conventions of home video footage, which generally registers with audiences as appearing more authentic, or as being somehow closer to actuality in its re-representation of the everyday. In a similar way to Caché, we are given no clear indication as to who is recording this event, only that we are being asked to witness the occasion unfold through their point-of-view. This function presents an almost precursory example of the kind of destabilising effect that Haneke would later adopt in Caché. Moments after the pig is stunned, lines appear across the screen signalling that the image is in the process of being rewound, and as the sequence plays back a second time it is reframed in slow-motion. The sounds of the squealing pig and barking dog are protracted and distorted by the slow-motion technique, producing an altogether uncanny drone on the soundtrack that dramatises the abject nature of the images Haneke encumbers the audience with. In playing the scene back in slow-motion, the violent images are farcically aestheticised, thereby raising important ethical questions concerning the viewing process that will be taken up later in the film. Like Caché, the sequence is marked as occurring in the process of being viewed, not only by the audience of the film, but by a diegetic spectator, who we shortly learn is in fact the subject of the film, Benny. Video technology is utilised by Benny to unreservedly view and review the moment of the pig’s demise, an illustration Haneke uses to bolster his argument that youths are becoming increasingly desensitised to images of violence and death. Replaying the sequence slowed down coerces the spectator into a space of cognitive awareness through which attentiveness to viewing discomfort and the reasons for this become paramount to understanding the implications of the images, and their relation to the film as a whole.

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