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

Haneke insists that his visual approach represents a portending reaction against cine-televisual conventions, a sentiment that is aptly expressed during an early scene in Benny’s Video in which Benny edits a tape he has made documenting a party held by his sister. Benny’s mother enters his room, demanding that he stop watching the video and change the channel. As Benny complies with his mother’s request the camera performs a close-up of the news events on his monitor; “xenophobic assaults on asylum seekers” and “attacks in Serbia” are announced by the reporter. Benny’s father enquires whether there is any significant news, to which his mother nonchalantly replies, “No” (...) “Nothing”. Here the detached and imperturbable delivery of the news reporter is set in contrast with the images of violence and racial intolerance. This is in turn exacerbated through the distant manner with which the family respond to the images they view, and how they interact with one and other. Persisting in a half-hearted conversation held over the top of the news, they remain oblivious to the significance of these events, since such news stories do not directly impact upon their own lives. Haneke is visually proposing that whilst violent events depicting a loss of societal cohesion and ethical impetus are necessarily mediated through broadcast news, the manner with which such events are relayed implicates the broadcast media in the aggressive desensitisation and spectacularisation of violence. Caché responds to similar matters during the sequence where we witness Anne and Georges discussing the whereabouts of their son Peirrot. The television that is positioned centre of the frame relays footage depicting the escalating war in Afghanistan, and as is the case with Benny’s family, the Laurents remain unperturbed by any of the news footage. In ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ Walter Benjamin portentously foresaw a time when war would supply “the artistic gratification of a sense perception that has been changed by technology”, going on to suggest that,


Mankind, which in Homer’s time was object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it is capable of experiencing its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds with the politicisation of art. (Benjamin 242)


Benjamin’s avowal seems particularly appropriate in relation to both Benny’s Video and Caché, which reflect within their respective worlds prevalent issues in contemporary society that are profoundly troubling, a period in history that has witnessed the rise of politics as spectacle, and has heedlessly indulged itself in the aestheticised display of war. Haneke works ‘in the service of truth’ to bring to his audience’s attention such issues, and by refusing to condescend to the spectator, he allows the viewer to actively participate in the liberating process of interpretation whilst restoring a moral impetus to images of violence that might otherwise be lost in mainstream forms of media.


In his review of Caché the late Robin Wood referred to Haneke as “perhaps the most pessimistic of all the great filmmakers” (Wood). Wood usefully outlines that, “Haneke insists we be active participants, we are invited to think, to make connections for ourselves rather than have them explained for us”. Indeed in Caché there are many instances in which Haneke requires the audience to think and often revaluate their most basic assumptions concerning the stability and veracity of images, which ostensibly invite us to read them as authentic, or at least realist in nature. As previously discussed, one of the defining features of Caché is encompassed in Haneke’s refusal to clearly demarcate the line between the digital images of the film’s diegetic world, and the images taken from the surveillance cameras used to make the tapes, leading to multiple occasions where the viewer is left to make various causal connections for themselves. As Mattias Frey has astutely observed, the viewer in Caché is forced into the position that Arno Frisch occupies in Benny’s Video, in which the spectator is thrust into a hyperreality, a Baudrillardian nightmare in which the viewer no longer possesses the fundamental ability to delineate between multifarious levels of representation (‘Benny’s Video, Cache and the Desubstantiated Image’ 35). On the occasions we return to the stationary shot seen at the opening of the film, the spectator is given just enough clues in order to comprehend that what we are seeing is clearly some form of surveillance camera, apparently distinct from the diegesis as rendered through Haneke’s camera. However, just as the viewer is led to believe that they are beginning to comprehend the representational strategies at work here, Haneke ensures that we retain no such certainty, repeatedly intervening with shots that are never fully accounted for, even by the film’s close. During the sequence that presents Georges’ chat show in full flow, we listen as the participants exchange various ideas about literature, when suddenly the screen pauses, and we hear Georges, who is revealed to be watching the sequence in an editing booth. He remarks that the image should be cut exactly at the moment we experienced the pause, reasoning that the participant was being ‘too intellectual’ for a TV audience. The sequence is one of many instances in Caché where the spectator’s point-of-view is destabilised, and here presents a self-reflexive joke through which Haneke foregrounds the act of digital manipulation, showing the ease with which film, or television is able to seamlessly suture its own representation of reality together during the editing process.


The closing moments of Caché are, much like its opening, incredibly provocative in terms of the implications that Haneke explores here. It is the same shot seen previously in the film when Georges picks Pierrot up from school. Here, amongst a sprawling crowd of students traversing the stairs to the entrance of the school, we just about recognise a figure taller than the rest, Majid’s son (Walid Afkir). Haneke frames the sequence in a single long-take long-shot, meaning the audience are left to diligently scrutinise the frame for any meaningful action, and these last moments are often missed by audiences who assume the film has finished. We see Majid’s son speaking with Pierrot in the lower left corner of the frame, when upon finishing their discussion, they part ways, smiling as they go. In recalling the significance of Caché’s final ambiguous images, Robin Wood believed that they depict, similarly to Benny’s Video, a son’s betrayal of his father, provoking “the possibility of collaboration, revolution, and the renewal of the younger generation” (Wood). Whilst this is of course a valid and persuasive argument, Wood’s remarks represent a common desire in much of the criticism surrounding Haneke’s work to seek the imposition of meaningful closure on to what is an otherwise intentionally ambiguous text. What Haneke achieves more brilliantly in Caché than he manages in Benny’s video is the effective rendering of life’s unanswered vicissitudes, the unexplained camera angles, uncertainty of the video tape, and indeed the significance of the closing images, whilst inviting interpretation, are by the very nature of their ambiguity a more honest representation of reality than any imposed closure could afford the film. As Peter Brunnette concludes, “it’s perfectly obvious that we never fully comprehend the world or why people do the things they do, so why should we expect a film to lie to us and say that we can?” (Brunnette 129).


As we have but briefly explored, Benny’s Video and Caché represent discursive explorations into cinema’s purported claims of truth. In Benny’s Video, Haneke began with a consideration of the meaning and instability of representation, and of the ways in which cinema must always rely on its ability to manipulate the audience in order to reflect any essence of truth. With Caché, Haneke transposes many of the prevalent issues in Benny’s Video to the digital age, charting how in the seventeen years between the films we, the audience who look upon Benny pejoratively wondering how it is someone has become so detached from reality, come to the nefarious realisation that we now occupy very similar ground. Haneke has continued to be repulsed by the broad tendencies of mainstream media, which attempt to lull us into stagnant complacency, where like Georges we abscond from truth by swallowing sleeping pills and pulling the blanket over our heads. Doing so enables us to negate feeling any reprehensible or moral obligation, a position that allows us to shield ourselves from the realities inherent in the global impact of unnecessary wars, or of despotic dictatorships that unfairly oppress entire countries. These are just a few of the ‘spectacles’ that exist for most of us somewhere far off in the remediated, distanced, and ephemeral glow of our televisions screens, or computer monitors. It is in this sense that for Haneke, art must facilitate reality in the service of truth.


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