David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: michael haneke

Stefan Zweig

Paul Raymont reacted to Michael Hofmann’s incredibly nasty attack on Stefan Zweig by resolving to read more Zweig. I don’t particularly want to defend Zweig, but going after his suicide note was really a bit much:

Zweig left a suicide note which, like most of what he wrote, is so smooth and mannerly and somehow machined – actually more like an Oscar acceptance speech than a suicide note – that one feels the irritable rise of boredom halfway through it, and the sense that he doesn’t mean it, his heart isn’t in it (not even in his suicide).

It makes my attack on Michael Haneke look like a paean to his work. But I don’t think Hofmann’s assessment is too far off. I was easier on Zweig five years ago, but now I’m inclined to dismiss most of his work. What gets me is not his writing style or pretensions, but the shallow psychologizing that infects his fiction, a crude caricature of what Broch, Mann, and especially Musil were trying to achieve concurrently (and with only partial success; Musil is the only one who I would rate on that front, and even he runs into deep trouble at spots). But even among the second-rate writers, I rank him below Werfel and Schnitzler because of his lack of originality. The more from that period (or elsewhere) that I read, the less Zweig seems to offer. And what I said before still holds true: the best book I’ve read by him is his autobiography, The World of Yesterday, which is the work of a man surrounded by his literary superiors and quite aware of it. Contra Hofmann, who finds it smug and obnoxious, I think the autobiography does have a fair chunk of humility to it, with the smugness being a defensive posture.

So while Hofmann is busy thrashing Zweig for a multitude of sins personal and literary, the real problems get buried. Where Hofmann sees him as fake and commercial, I just see him as bland and conventional. Successful milquetoast writers do tend to annoy those with more fiery dispositions, but I think Zweig is too inoffensive to get to me. I feel the same way, though, about Hofmann’s beloved Joseph Roth (who, incidentally, had the poor taste to be friends with Zweig), the least innovative of the Germanic modernist writers. Still, the Zweig revival baffles me, though I’m less baffled when I see that Clive James is a Zweig fan. (Actually, it sounds like James wants to be Zweig.)

I notice, however, that Zweig has already had his posthumous revenge: Anthea Bell’s translation of Zweig’s Burning Secret has won the Schlegel-Tieck translation prize. The runner-up is Hofmann’s translation of Fred Wander.

Michael Haneke: The White Ribbon

I do not have to pay $3.50 to find out what it feels like to be a Jew.

     George S. Kaufman on Gentleman’s Agreement

I do not like Michael Haneke. I do not like his insufferably smug brand of moral superiority. I do not like his trite attempts to indict his audiences for complicity in his violence and sadism. Worst of all, I don’t think he’s a very good filmmaker. The White Ribbon may be the most sophisticated version of Haneke’s modus operandi, as well as the least unpleasant, but the stark artiness only makes the banality of his ideas all the more obvious. (It’s harder to see banality when you’re being provoked and annoyed.) The sophistication tactic worked well enough to win him the Palme d’Or at Cannes, but if you can still respect Haneke after listening to him prate on (in the documentary 24 Realities Per Second) about forcing truth upon the audience unwillingly and how he wants to “rape the spectator into autonomy,” then you are made of more forgiving stuff than me.

Haneke’s best works, his television adaptations of Kafka’s The Castle and Ingeborg Bachmann’s Three Paths to the Lake, show a low-key filmmaker with a gift for knowing when not to press the point. That gift was evidently lost by the time Haneke foisted Benny’s Video, The Seventh Continent, and Funny Games upon the world. The message is always the same: you are guilty, everyone is guilty. And he makes sure you hear it, loud and often.

There’s not much to The White Ribbon. Set in a small German village shortly before World War I, the movie chronicles a few years of assorted bad things that happen to the landowner baron, the farmers, and the other village officials. One child is kidnapped and tortured. A doctor’s horse trips over a thin strung wire, nearly killing him. And so on. The mystery is who is doing them.

All the adults in the village are uniformly rotten except for the schoolteacher narrator, who is merely devoid of personality and who thus serves as the point of viewer identification. His older self narrates the movie in deadening, portentous tones, making explicit what was already too obvious. The more powerful the adult, the more rotten they are, and so the doctor, the steward, the baron, and the pastor are the loci of evil. As for the children, well, if you’ve seen Haneke’s last film, Cache, you will have no trouble figuring out what’s going on with them. Actually, you won’t have any trouble either way. They’re rotten too. PS: They grow up into Nazis.

The black and white photography is beautiful but sterile, the product of a director who has never matured past his infatuation with the V-effekt. Some of the performances are good, though Haneke wastes talented Austrian Birgit Minichmayr in a disposable role, and Josef Bierbichler only has a few seconds over the course of the movie to convey incredible physical menace, which he still manages to exploit efficiently. Both were used to far better effect in the “popular” Wolf Haas adaptation The Bone Man last year:

I wasted my time watching this movie when I should have been watching more Haneke.

Rainer Bock is nicely evil as the doctor (only the kids get names) and the children are creepy, but mostly the actors are more lifeless than Herzog’s hypnotized cast in Heart of Glass. (Trivia: Bierbichler was the only actor not hypnotized in that film.) The only actor seemingly given license to put some energy into his role is Detlev Buck, who plays the withering and sarcastic father of the girl the schoolteacher wants to marry. He’s evil too, but he’s funny. The whole movie should have been about him, but since he’s too entertaining and we are here to learn, Haneke only gives him a few minutes.

Now, I’m not opposed to didacticism. I can tolerate and even enjoy the essayistic work of Alexander Kluge because the ideas are original, but with Haneke it’s just the same old sermon. With the Dardennes, you get redemption and transcendence, but Haneke just wants to see you suffer. Haneke is the pastor who ties his son’s hands to the bed every night to prevent him from masturbating. He’s going to make sure we have no fun. He is the abusive parent punishing us the audience, who then grow up to be Nazis or write nasty reviews or something. If Haneke had a sense of irony, he would make something out of this, but I don’t think he even realizes the parallel. He’s a fundamentalist preaching the evils of fundamentalists.

Michael Haneke at a screening

I’m not surprised that the cinerati have eaten up the self-abnegating experience of watching Haneke, but I am surprised that few people seem to have remarked on how derivative it is. Apart from the obvious lifts from Bresson, The White Ribbon is stylistically and thematically a remake of Carl Dreyer’s Day of Wrath, and a vastly less gripping one. Dreyer sucks you in; Haneke just harangues. Whenever the schoolteacher’s narration kicks in with all the dynamism of the drearier chapters of Atlas Shrugged, you’re reminded once more of how little enjoyment you’re supposed to be having, and how important this film is supposed to be.

For contrast, take Haneke’s Austrian superior Ulrich Seidl, whose Import/Export should have won Cannes in 2007 but was too unpretentious and vulgar to do so. Seidl doesn’t skimp on showing rank unpleasantness, but it’s in the service of, to put it succinctly, life. (I got some funny looks in the theater when I said to my friend that Import/Export was optimistic, but Seidl himself says he’s a humanist, and he is.) The villagers of The White Ribbon are Protestant, but Haneke is the very caricature of the dreary Austrian Catholic painted by Thomas Bernhard. He makes dead movies; they are dead on the screen and the audience is dead in their chairs.

Miklos Jancso: God Walks Backwards

A later film from Jancso, dating from 1991 and very topical at
that. It deals very specifically with the fall of Communism as
embodied by the Soviet coup against Gorbachev of that same
year. Jancso was nothing if not au courant; God Walks Backwards
is dizzying in its simultaneous immediacy and depthless irony.

Most of the film takes place in and around a mostly empty mansion
staked with television screens and cameras, as the old Communist
guard, newly-minted democrats, and hedonistic, cynical youth play out
the end of Communism as a farce. The democrats are hypocrites, denying
their past complicity to buy into the latest set of rhetoric that will
keep them in power. The hard-liners are clueless and pathetic; they
tremble just as the leaders of the coup did. And the youth walk around
with a video camera and a silent, naked woman in tow (sexist, yes, but
too true), shooting the action as though it were for nothing but their
own entertainment. Jancso’s long shots pass over the television
screens that present both the action in the mansion and the concurrent
broadcasts of the Soviet coup. A tank rolls into the yards with a rock
star on top (and that naked woman again), and these “democrats” kill
everyone, including the youth.

It is the most effective presentation of Debordian spectacle
in film that I have ever seen, revealing Michael Haneke as the amateur shock artiste that he is, and more remarkable given that Jancso
abandoned his more classicist leanings to adopt an uglier, harsher
contemporary style, all electricity and hum. (Though shot on film, it
often looks amazingly video-like.) There are the obvious points about
the inevitable hypocrisy of the transition from Communism to something
else and of the emptying of the assorted rhetoric. The fragmentation
brought by perestroika is there too, in more comprehensible form (to
me, at least) than in Kira Muratova’s The
Asthenic Syndrome
. For such a blatantly political and allegorical
film, Jancso never does bring a polemic to the table, and the final
self-reflexive scene, in which the actors and crew themselves are
subsumed first by decadence and then by machine gun fire, is Jancso’s
acknowledgement that such sincerity could never be: they too are an
instrumental part of the joke.

Ilya Khrzhanovsky: 4 (Chetyre)

The allegorical idea of the movie is simple: how we treat each other like meat, and how we procreate to generate more meat to exploit. Cloning, piles of rag dolls, dogs, and large warehouses of frozen meat are some of the ways it expresses it. Writer Vladimir Sorokin, who also used clones in his novel Blue Lard (as well as the conceit of Khrushchev and Stalin having sex) , is a superior scenarist, and Khrzhanovsky directs his grotesqueries with disjointed flare. Incidental noises are painfully amplified, camera movement is shaky, and colors are all wrong. It’s not profound, but it’s one of the most inventive and exuberant depictions of nihilism in recent years (though it ends with a somewhat anomalous, albeit hopeless, affirmation of individuality).

Khrzhanovsky is so aggressively creative that I would trust him to adapt a Celine novel; I think his visual–and moreover, his physical–senses would mesh. Moreover, Khrzhanovsky never overdoes it. There is never the sense that he is merely trying to shock or induce squirms, as with so much recent J- and K-horror and exploitation panderers like Gaspar Noe and Michael Haneke. It all fits together, and for such a gonzo movie, it’s uncharacteristically controlled.

But the reason for this entry is that Khrzhanovsky and Sorokin have planted many references to Andrei Tarkovsky in the film. Here are the four big ones I caught:

  • A careening, high-speed car ride through partly-lit tunnels, shot from the dashboard. (The hypnotic, silent car/train ride in Solaris, shot from the same perspective. 
  • Long scenes in damp subterranean rooms. (The various “trapped” rooms in Stalker, filled with water.
  • After the doll-maker daughter dies, her mentally deficient boyfriend announces, “I know the secret!” of how to make the faces for the dolls out of stale bread chewed by older, damaged clone women. (The bellmaker’s son in Andrei Rublev announces that he knows his dead father’s secret of how to cast the bell without it breaking.)
  • The dolls go up in flames at the end as a gesture of disgust with humanity and the world. (The old man’s conflagration of his earthly possessions at the end of The Sacrifice.)

Whether the two mean to create a gospel of flesh to contrast with Tarkovsky’s spiritual leanings, or if they are merely parodying him, the scenes are effective revisions. They underscore how carefully 4 was assembled despite all surface indications to the contrary. Sorokin used the technique in Blue Lard as well, in which he created imitation passages of various Russian writers ostensibly written by their clones. I suspect it indicates some latent idealism in Sorokin: a thread of reverence for artistic achievement, even as he condemns its constant exploitation. (The futurists, Mayakovsky especially, and Daniil Kharms are antecedents.)

Entertainment Through Stomach-aches: Suicide, Keith Rowe, Masayuki Takayanagi

Out of Nick Hornby’s 31 significant pop songs, there are four that I’d claim reasonable familiarity with, and two that I actually like. And the only one of those that I was curious to hear his thoughts on is Suicide’s “Frankie Teardrop,” which didn’t make it on to the cd that comes with the book, even though there was plenty of room left and I can’t imagine the licensing would have been too expensive. (I couldn’t have resisted, anyway.) Of course there’s a reason, which is that Hornby feels differently about “Frankie” than about the other tunes:

I need no convincing that life is scary. I’m forty-four, and it has got quite scary enough already–I don’t need anyone trying to jolt me out of my complacency. Friends have started to die of incurable diseases, leaving loved ones, in some cases young children, behind. My son has been diagnosed with a severe disability [autism], and I don’t know what the future holds for him. And, of course, at any moment there is the possibility that some lunatic will fly a plane into my house, or a nuclear power plant….So let me find complacency and safety where I can, and please forgive me if I don’t want to hear “Frankie Teardrop” right now.

I’m going to ignore the pathos (some would say bathos) here, other than to note that I’m not a fan, and just say that this is a pretty strong reaction to a shock-horror story complete with screaming about a Vietnam veteran shooting his wife, kids, and self over a minimal synthesizer pulse. It’s not pleasant, but even the first time I heard it I thought it was dull–listen to “Cheree” and “Rocket USA” off the album for better results.

What I don’t get is that the “song” works on the level of an exploitation flick (if you can believe it, Bruce Springsteen is supposedly a fan), so a more understandable response would be distaste, not repulsion or fear. I can see that Hornby might not want to hear it for the same reason I don’t want to watch Michael Haneke or Takashi Miike movies, but the thing shouldn’t pose the sort of moral threat he attributes to it. It’s possible there’s some past association or memory, or simply a visceral fear implanted by Alan Vega’s loud screeching, but this is a secondary effect; primarily, it’s like wanting to avoid the sound of jackhammers. I don’t want to listen to Suicide when I have a headache or when I’m stressed, but even less do I want to listen to DJ Scud.

Since it’s difficult to make music representational, the associations one has with it tend to be on the level of pure physiological or conditioned effect: major chords equal happy, sine waves equal pain, Yamaha DX-7’s equal 1980’s, etc., etc. This is why Throbbing Gristle‘s music never reached the disturbing heights it had pretenses towards: gross-out lyrics over thin synthesizers only at most have the association of mild nausea. If you want raw, elegaic emotion, Shayne Carter and Peter Jefferies’ “Randolph’s Going Home” has it in rare doses, but the sadness isn’t painful. Neither is “Frankie,” which is less effective emotionally as well.

Consequently, as you reach towards representation in less idiomatic areas, as clicheed associations become less accessible, physiology becomes paramount. Penderecki’s “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima” doesn’t make it onto the stereo too often because it induces acute nausea in me and others (those damn frequencies), but the work is effectively symbolic rather than representational; you could call it “Threnody for Your Long-Suffering Stomach” and its effect on me wouldn’t differ. The association with the historical event is secondary, and requires conscious effort to appreciate, an effort which would be easier to make if my innards didn’t feel so attenuated.

Keith Rowe has spent decades in the free-improv ensemble AMM, who always maintained that there was a strong political side to their work. Drummer Eddie Prevost has been the most vocal about it, but there’s one quote of Rowe’s on his solo album Harsh that addresses these particular issues:

I wanted the CD to become more of a statement about “harshness”, rather than merely a “recording” of a performance. A music that reflects something about the harshness of the lives of the majority of the world’s people, economic harshness, political harshness, cultural harshness. A music that presents questions about taste, the nature of performance, technique, an arena of problems rather than solutions. Where we find long sections of unrelenting, constant, enduring, unforgiving sound, the grinding functionality of unformulated techniques, often unpleasant.

This is actually fairly complicated. The album is pretty damn harsh (the three pieces are called “Quite”, “Very”, and “Extremely”), but those who are going to find it unpleasant are (a) going to be those least familiar with this sort of music and therefore least likely to pick the album up, and (b) are those least likely to make the representational connection with other sorts of “harshness” in the first place, since Rowe’s harshness will be so unpleasant for them. As for me, I like the disc (when I don’t have a headache), but the problems it presents to me are concertedly aesthetic.

In contrast, there is another solo guitar album that has a very different effect on me: Masayuki Takayanagi’s Inanimate Nature. From what I gather (I don’t speak Japanese), Takayanagi had prickly, outspoken political and aesthetic views not dissimilar to Rowe’s, but the “emotional noise projection” of Inanimate Nature is something else entirely. It doesn’t make me physically ill, but the album gives off such an ineffable bad vibe (without any noticeable abuse of volume or frequencies) that I’m usually in a noticeably worse mood after I finish listening to it. It presumably goes under the physiological rubric, but the impact is so primarily mental that for non-eliminativists it could easily move into the realm of the metaphysical. It’s a rare effect that deserves investigation and I think it’s a great album anyway, but please forgive me if I don’t want to hear Inanimate Nature right now.

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