I once called Michael Haneke "the thinking person's Hitchcock." I've also called him "the postmodern Hitchcock," which may be another way of saying the same thing. For Haneke, an Austrian/German director who often works in French with French actors, likes to take stories that Hitchcock might have told and intellectualize them. Not that he can't cook up a good scare when he wants to. On the contrary, his films are often quietly - and then not-so-quietly - harrowing. And they have this way of staying with you, like a bad cold. Hitchcock always delighted in the control he had over an audience, his ability to manipulate our emotions. Haneke obviously enjoys that too, but he wants us to notice the control he has, even share it with him. We're expected to participate in our own demise.
Or maybe we're participating in the demise of Hollywood storytelling, which tends to drop everything in our laps, like a cute little puppy. Either way, you can take the Haneke plunge by attending a retrospective of his work that's under way at the UW Cinematheque. "Michael Haneke: A Cinema of Provocation," which continues through March 9 at 4070 UW Vilas Hall, contains work Haneke's done in both film and television, and you don't have to watch very much of it to realize that he's a master at what he does. Some of you will have seen Caché, where Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche tried to track down whoever was sending them videotapes of the outside of their home. Or maybe you saw The Piano Teacher, where Isabelle Huppert completely plumbed the depths of a demanding woman's sadomasochistic misery.
Well, there's more where those came from, quite a bit more. If you're just hearing about Haneke for the first time, you will have missed Funny Games, which screened a couple of Fridays ago, but I highly recommend you track it down at your friendly local video store. Basically, it's "A Weekend in the Country with Loeb and Leopold." A family - father, mother, son - arrives at its summer cottage and is greeted by two obsequiously polite young men who, without ever letting on exactly what they're up to, proceed to insult them, harass them, kidnap them, torture them and murder them, all in the spirit of fun. And make no mistake about it, Haneke is playing games with us, too. One of the killers even winks at us a couple of times. And when things briefly go the family's way, Haneke simply rewinds the tape and starts over again.
We're never given an explanation for why these guys are doing this; Haneke doesn't like to provide explanations. But the deconstructive flourishes highlight the role we play in that role-playing game called the cinema. We're complicit in the violence we consume. "I want the spectator to think," Haneke once told an interviewer, the kind of remark that usually has me reaching for my revolver, shootouts always being preferable to sitting through a think piece. But as the pair of jokers in Funny Games know, thinking about violence - being aware of the role we play - is also a way of enhancing the experience. Take the title character in Benny's Video, which is screening Feb. 16. A kid who lives and breathes recorded images, Benny can't completely experience the murder he's committed until he watches it on playback.
Made in 1992, only a decade into the VHS revolution, Benny's Video might seem a little quaint today if Haneke didn't do such a beautiful job of tamping down the emotions, letting things go a little chilly. Benny's clearly a sociopath, murdering a young girl to see what it's like (on tape), but he's also every kid who's ever spent an entire day with his nose stuck in a videogame, his fingers twitching, his eyes glazed over. In a masterstroke, Haneke has Benny's parents help him cover up the crime so as not to interrupt their own privileged lives. Besides, what's the big deal? Yes, Benny ruined a few bathroom towels sopping up the blood, but at least he cleaned up after himself! And don't all teenagers step out of line, one way or another? The humor's there to be savored, if you care to or dare to, but I'll warn you, you may choke on it.
Another warning: The two Haneke films that are screening this weekend may not be the best entry points into his work. Who Was Edgar Allan? (Sunday, Feb. 10, 4 p.m.), a mystery (of sorts) set in that vaporous labyrinth called Venice, is too damp for my taste, all atmosphere. And The Castle (Saturday, Feb. 9, 7:30 p.m.), though an excellent adaptation of Kafka's uncompleted novel about bureaucracy gone wild, gives you no idea of what Haneke's capable of when negotiating our own heavily mediated era. He does something very provocative, though. He stops the film where Kafka's manuscript left off. And the result is an ending that seems complete in its lack of completeness, our need for closure left open-ended. Like Herr K., we never know who's pulling all the strings, but in Haneke's thought-provoking films we at least know there are strings and they're being pulled.
For a complete listing of all the films, see cinema.wisc.edu.