For a year The Piano Teacher has been sitting on my shelf at home. Its one of the few films by Michael Haneke I haven’t seen and supposedly it is one of his best, yet somehow I can’t bring myself to watch it quite yet. If you have seen this film, or any other films by Haneke you will know exactly why. To say Haneke’s cinema is unsettling is a gross understatement at best. In fact some of the most confronting cinema I have seen in recent years has been his. But what else should we expect from a director who claims Salo is his favourite film.
Haneke 101 should probably be Funny Games (the 1997 original or the 2007 American remake) and Hidden. The dvd case for Hidden claims Haneke inherited Antonioni’s mantle as the director of alienation and this is certainly true in the case of this film. After Hidden I went on a Haneke binge consuming Time of the Wolf, Funny Games and Code Unknown. Each film was a devastating experience that left me almost shell-shocked. A friend recently told me the experience of watching The Piano Teacher left him physically speechless. Its rare cinema that has this power but Haneke’s consistently does.
Haneke’s films are ice-cold, clinical exercises which display the meticulous control of an auteur whose mark must be one of the most idiosyncratic in contemporary cinema. They almost never feature soundtracks, use static camera set-ups and lengthy unbroken takes. Notwithstanding they are never boring simply because you never know what’s going to happen. Watch the opening of Time of the Wolf, the metro sequence in Code Unknown or the climax of Hidden for proof of this. The unpredictability of these scenes will shock you, in my case I am still uneasy a year later.
Despite this troubling introduction I must admit I’m hard pressed to think of a better director working today than Haneke. I’m not at all alone in this view, as last week Haneke picked up the Palme d’Or for his new film The White Ribbon which chronicles a series of unusual events in a small German town before WW1. Easily my most anticipated film for 2009, with any luck we may see it in the upcoming New Zealand Film Festival. With words like chilling, austere and elegiac being bandied around I think we are in for another Haneke masterpiece.