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"A Lie at Twenty-four Frames per Second: The Truth of Haneke

In both Benny’s Video and Caché sound from off-screen space is often used as a tool to reframe spectator point-of-view; the use of such framing techniques makes us aware of a representational gap, which causes us to revise our most basic assumptions about each film’s respective diegesis. The opening sequences in both Benny’s Video and Caché not only readjust our sense of perception through off-screen sound, but concomitantly realign our perception of time, space and of medium. More importantly however, the opening of Benny’s Video records a real death, one that is clearly not construed or constructed to look as such for the camera, with the resulting responses from both Benny and the spectator deriving from this awareness. If as Haneke surmises, that film is indeed a lie in the service of truth, then perhaps choosing to use images that depict real violence or even death, presents a somewhat ethically ambivalent view, which complicates the nature of cinematic truth, a point we will return to later.

As we have seen, one of the more apparent differences between the opening sequences of Benny’s Video and Caché is formed by the way Haneke handles the destabilisation of the spectator’s viewpoint. The latter comes from the material consistency of image, whereas the former functions through a continuous division of video technologies such as camcorders, monitors, broadcast TV, adverts, movies, and 35mm film, all modes of viewing that the spectator differentiates but that Benny does not. In his informative analysis of Benny’s Video and Caché, Mattias Frey proposed that one of the ways we can better understand Haneke’s concern with the material nature of the cinematic image, is through a consideration of David Rodowick’s concept of ‘desubstantiation’, which in representational terms consists of “the disappearance of visible and tactile support from both image and text” (‘Benny’s Video, Cache and the Desubstantiated Image’ 32). Frey is primarily concerned with Rodowick’s argument concerning the effects of desubstantiation on the orientation of the eye, suggesting that “in an age when the digital photograph has lost its direct indexicality and has become so easily manipulable, we have a new relationship to all images” (32). It is this new and unstable relationship to images and the consequent impact it has on the representation of reality that Haneke begins to exploit in Benny’s Video, and follows through to the extreme in Caché. Frey usefully notes that “the eye and hand have gradually withdrawn their power and relinquished them to machines, so that the concept of interface comes to define, both figuratively and literally, the mechanic connectivity to digital culture” (32). In this sense, the voyeuristic positioning of the spectator and aesthetisication of death in both films grants the spectator access to Haneke’s overriding concern, that it is not necessarily what is represented on screen that is most disturbing, but the manner in which those disturbing images are mediated and consumed. In Haneke’s opinion “an art form is obliged to confront reality, to try to find a little piece of the truth (...)These questions, what is reality and what is reality in a movie are a main part of my work” (Foundas). This notion is evidently explored in both films, in that each presents a distinct break with established representational practices in order to expose a growing indistinction between images as remediated through the increasingly digitalised culture of the mass media, and their increasingly problematic connection to the realities of contemporary society.

What might be considered the pivotal sequence in Benny’s Video commences as Benny’s mother (Angela Winkler) and father (Ulrich Mühe) leave the teenager at home alone for the weekend. After repeatedly encountering the Girl (Ingrid Strassner) at his local video store, albeit from a distance, Benny decides to invite her back to his home. Once inside the apartment she is immediately entranced by all of the ‘cool’ video equipment that Benny’s wealthy parents have purchased for him. In the centre of his bedroom stands a home video camera complete with connecting monitor, which is trained on the outside street, functioning as a type of surveillance set up. The girl enquires whether the monitor feed is live, to which Benny responds by changing the channel to a camera that is recording them from inside his room. Continuing to show off his possessions, they then view the footage of the pig slaughter, only this time commentary is provided by Benny, who explains to the girl and to us the context of the tape’s creation. He then produces the pistol used to kill the pig, perhaps in an honest bid to impress the girl, and begins taunting her, calling her a ‘coward’ for refusing to fire it at him. As the young pair stand centre frame, our focus shifts to the monitor that is positioned just behind them, calling attention to the fact that we are looking through Haneke’s camera at what Benny’s camera is recording, producing a vertiginous mise-en-abyme effect. We initially see Benny fire the gun at the girl through Haneke’s camera, which here represents the diegetic world of the film, and then follow the remainder of the sequence through Benny’s monitor, which presents a re-mediatised version of the same events but from an inverted angle. Brigitte Peuker makes the important point that the film “provides us with a wealth of sociological detail deigned to suggest why this adolescent’s life might be devoid of feeling, and how, for him, perception comes to be mediated by the technology that surrounds him” (Peuker 180). In many instances, as is the case when Benny is doing homework, or just about to sleep, we see real television news coverage juxtaposed with aestheticised violence in the movies he watches incessantly, resulting in Benny’s perception of both becoming warped in a seemingly inexorable blur between reality and fiction. Haneke has stated that “all my films are about violence”, suggesting further that “the representation of violence is part and parcel of the history of moving images” (Haneke 577). Haneke’s articulation of violence is interesting here in so far as we are constrained just as much by what we do not see, as what we are able to. The sequence occurs in a long-take, with the murder taking place outside the remit of the camera’s gaze, and because we do not see the murder, the sound of the girl’s agonising cries for help are all the more harrowing. Her screams affect the audience by drawing attention to the inescapable cruelty of the image, which renders the audience helpless and refuses to curtail Benny’s lack of reason. Haneke offers a very similar exploration into audience affect during a controversial scene in Caché.

The sequence that sees Majid invite Georges back to his apartment in order to reassert his innocence regarding the tapes is one of Haneke’s most explicit representations of on-screen violence. As Georges enters the apartment Majid is quick to maintain, as he had done in their previous encounter, that he is not responsible for the video tapes, or the pictures. After their first confrontation we are retrospectively informed that the meeting was recorded on a camera situated inside Majid’s apartment, making the truth of the matter more difficult to ascertain. Majid explains that he called Georges over because he wants him to ‘witness something’, after which he reveals a blade from his pocket and proceeds to forcefully slit his own throat, committing suicide in George’s presence. His self-destructive act creates a sudden burst of blood that resonates with the graphic imagery depicted on the previously sent pictures. The sequence remains fixed in position for a total of two minutes, focused on Majid’s body slowly bleeding out, with only the disturbing sound of his death rattle to accompany the incredibly difficult images. Georges, who previously felt in a position of power over the softly spoken and unassuming Majid, is stunned into powerlessness, and we with him. Jacques Aumont et al in Aesthetics of Film outline that for Bazin, “filming in long-takes must logically be more respectful of the real” providing the viewer with a “surplus of realism (...) that is in a certain sense ontological, restoring to the object and the decor their existential density” (Aumont 59). In discussing Strohiem’s early use of the long-take, Bazin stated that his technique encouraged the audience to, “take a close look at the world, keep on doing so, and in the end it will lay bare for you all its cruelty and ugliness” (What is Cinema? 27). Here Haneke strains both of these notions to a violent extreme as the graphic nature of the suicide becomes not only a way to represent Majid’s repressed anguish and anger toward Georges, but also Haneke’s belligerence toward the spectator. Richard Porton has suggested that “to a certain extent the film is about the repression of historical memory and its relationship to the repression of personal memories” (Porton 50). In this sense, then, Majid’s sudden and aggressive eruption encapsulates the very real effects of the Paris Massacre of 1961, which involved an attack on 30,000 peaceful Algerian protestors at the hands French police. The vivid depiction of Majid’s blood, which dramatically stains his white walls, surfaces through an act that carries with it implications of cathartic release for a generation of victims, in so far as his blood becomes a metonymic symbol of that which has remained repressed in the French consciousness, entering into and confronting society with a violent truth. Haneke aggressively faces his audience with these issues, suggesting that “by virtue of the time allowed for becoming conscious of and contemplating the represented subject, our path toward solidarity with [the image] is portrayed without any moral stumbling blocks” (Haneke 576). The visceral dimensions of cinema are explicitly brought to our attention in this sequence as Haneke attempts to create what he has called “the ideal scene”, which is “one that causes the spectator to look away” (576). In her compelling argument towards an appreciation of affect theory, Anne Rutherford draws from the earlier work of Vivien Sobchack in order to call for a movement beyond psychoanalytical theory in film spectatorship, toward the often marginalised concepts of phenomenology and embodiment. She suggests that “the visceral dimension of cinema”, or what she refers to as “aesthetics of embodiment”, attempts a negotiation of “the pure potential of images to transform the viewer” (Rutherford). Her proposal is useful in understanding the way Haneke engages with his audience in order to “rape the viewer into being reflective, and into being intellectually independent and seeing his role in the game of manipulation” (Spiegel). In relation to Majid’s suicide sequence, Haneke’s persistence with the long-take forces the audience to uncomfortably locate themselves within the diegesis, whilst ensuring they never lose sight of their position as spectators of a film. What becomes most affecting for the audience is the close proximity of the graphic scene in relation to the spectator’s line of vision, coupled with the length of time Haneke forces us to contemplate the explicit nature and political resonances these images contain. As Haneke has remarked, “it’s one thing to know something, but another thing to feel it” (Brunnette 128).

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