by Ara Osterweil
From Film Quarterly Summer 2006: Volume 59, No. 4
The first image in Austrian director Michael Haneke’s latest masterpiece, Caché (Hidden), is a long shot of a narrow urban street, leading to a fairly nondescript house. Filmed with a static camera, uninterrupted by editing, and lingering longer than most viewers are accustomed to, this mysteriously ominous glimpse of French street life immediately sets the mood that is the hallmark of Haneke’s work: discomfort, suspicion, anxiety. People come in and out of the frame, but nothing significant, or conventionally so, seems to happen. As our eyes eagerly scan the shot, we notice certain details—the gated entrance to the house, the indigo street sign that reads Rue des Iris. As any veteran viewer of this director’s career knows, everything visible matters. “Rue des Iris” may indeed conjure up an image of a street filled with flowers in the manner of Jacques Demy, but in Haneke’s oeuvre, it may more obliquely signify a “sadness of eyes,” or the pain associated with looking. Extended vision promises knowledge, but knowledge, as Haneke will soon demonstrate, may be inextricable from individual and collective culpability.
By inviting spectators to scrutinize and survey, Haneke invokes our own potential complicity in the act of spying of which the film’s very first shot is an example. Without any warning, the image on the screen begins to rewind, in a gesture that echoes Haneke’s reality-blurring techniques in his earlier thrillers Benny’s Video (1992) and Funny Games (1997). As it turns out, we have been watching a surveillance video that has just been deposited on the doorstep of the affluent Laurent household and is now being examined, with an unmistakable sense of violation and amazement, by the couple it is intended to terrorize, Anne (Juliette Binoche) and Georges (Daniel Auteuil). From this moment on, what is visible can never again be trusted. The status of the image—whether it be “live” or recorded, paranoid dream or repressed reality, damning or exonerating, credible or incredible, occulted or transparent—will never be anything but inscrutable.
Like Michelangelo Antonioni’s groundbreaking film Blow-Up (1966), Haneke’s Caché challenges naïve assumptions of ocular mastery. By depicting characters whose apparent (and, in Georges’s case, professional) command of audiovisual technology not only fails to protect them from the threat of violence but directly contributes to the arrogant self-delusion that makes them susceptible in the first place, Haneke connects his critique of visual mastery to a wider indictment of Western society, culture, and politics.
In Caché, Haneke’s assault on optics—one of the recurring motifs in his oeuvre—is aimed far beyond the sanctity of the bourgeois family, which was the director’s target in his early films as well as in Code Unknown (2000), The Piano Teacher (2001), and Time of the Wolf (2003). As more videos arrive, along with cryptic childish drawings that feature the slit, blood-red throats of humans and animals, the unknown code of terror becomes increasingly legible. Georges, the host of a prestigious literary talk show on television, begins to suspect that the perpetrator is not an out-of-control fan as originally surmised but a long-forgotten specter from his childhood. Severing the bonds of trust with his wife—who, in spite of her successful career in publishing and their supposedly equal marriage, remains exclusively responsible for all domestic tasks—Georges keeps his suspicions hidden. While Anne attempts to keep track of the whereabouts of their moody preteen son, Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky), Georges tries to track down an orphaned Algerian named Majid who, many years before, was almost adopted by Georges’s sympathetic parents.
As Georges’s memories of unspeakable betrayal flood into his mind, he becomes more convinced that the grown Majid is intent on destroying him and his family. However, in spite of the blood-curdling images that plague Georges’s dreams, he refuses to take either private or public responsibility for the role he played as a child in Majid’s abjection. As the audience gradually learns, Majid’s parents, who worked as farmhands on Georges’s provincial estate, were murdered in the notorious massacre of more than 200 Algerian protesters on October 17,1961 by Paris police (under the command of former Nazi collaborator Maurice Papon). Driven by jealousy and the possibility of being supplanted in his own home by a brown-skinned Other, seven-year-old Georges conducted a successful campaign to turn his parents against the innocent, abandoned Majid. Seized against his will and sent to an orphanage where he was deprived of the comfortable childhood promised to him by Georges’s wealthy parents, Majid, or so Georges insists, has been plotting revenge on his privileged usurper ever since.
Broaching post-colonial themes forty years after Gillo Pontecorvo brilliantly documented the resistance to the French regime in The Battle of Algiers (1966), Haneke indicates that the legacy of injustice remains an open wound in the national psyche. Although France officially bid farewell to its era of colonialism in 1962 with the hard-won independence in Algeria, the relationship between Georges and Majid is surely meant to be read allegorically: French society, and the Western world in general, has neither righted nor even ceased its ongoing subjugation of the non-white world. As demonstrated by the riots that rocked Paris in November 2005, much remains unchanged in French society since 1971, when the ban on Battle of Algiers was lifted, and French citizens were finally allowed to confront this account of the shameful aspects of imperialist history onscreen.
When Georges first confronts Majid, played with reticence and pathos by Haneke regular Maurice Benichou, in his impoverished apartment on the suggestively named Rue de Lenine on the outskirts of Paris, the seething, vengeful aggressor that the audience has imagined is replaced by a sorrowful, apparently gentle man who claims to have had nothing to do with either the tapes or the despicable drawings. In the presence of this soft-spoken, downtrodden man who betrays no obvious vindictiveness, it becomes harder for the audience to believe that Majid has orchestrated the psychological terrorism of the Laurents. However, when a videotape of this clandestine meeting is sent to Anne and Georges’s television producer, all bets are off. On the one hand, the footage, which shows Georges as a belligerent, threatening presence, is a potentially incriminating piece of evidence that calls into question the audience’s (and Anne’s) initial assumptions about the true identity of the victimizer. On the other hand, the very fact that a tape has been made by a hidden camera within his low-rent flat suggests the impossibility of Majid’s innocence.
In either case, the continued surveillance detonates its target, shattering the façade of marital complacency from the outside in. No longer able to trust her husband, Anne grows increasingly resentful of him and the secrets he refuses to confess. To make matters worse, Pierrot seizes the opportunity afforded by his parents’ predicament to stage his own adolescent protest. After not coming home one night, Pierrot—emboldened by the appropriated rage of white teenagers everywhere, as epitomized by the looming Eminem poster in his bedroom—accuses his mother of having an affair with her boss Pierre (Daniel Duval).
As Haneke’s thriller slowly unfolds, the questions posed about guilt and innocence become easier to answer, although not definitively. It remains unclear who is responsible for the tapes—perhaps Majid’s son Hashem (Walid Afkir), in spite of his claim to the contrary? The larger questions about responsibility are focused on Georges and the educated, liberal class he is meant to represent. By disavowing his childhood behaviour and thereby refusing to accept responsibility for Majid’s forced expropriation, Georges—whose wife has just edited a book on globalization which has been published to critical acclaim—has made himself vulnerable to his (and his nation’s) unrepented past. By extension, France has done the same. Haneke suggests that First-World talk of “post”-colonialism involves denial and attempted self-exculpation—an effort to defend against any acknowledgment of continuing internal and international oppression and injustice.
Although Caché is by no means a sequel to Pontecorvo’s film, Haneke’s exquisite excavation of the French-Algerian conflict as channeled through domestic nightmare heralds the return of the bitterly repressed. There is a famous scene in The Battle of Algiers that is echoed in the inverted logic of surveillance in Caché. The French Colonel Mathieu, who is in charge of the operation to destroy the Algerian independence organization, the National Liberation Front, reviews some footage shot at one of the checkpoints put in place to restrict Muslim occupants of the Casbah from entering, and possibly bombing, the European quarter. Although film audiences recognize one of the women who is allowed to pass through as a “terrorist” responsible for bombing a French discotheque in a previous sequence, Colonel Mathieu and the other military personnel fail to identify her because she is disguised in Western dress. Mathieu is aware of his epistemological dilemma. As he explains to his brigade, they could be watching the terrorists without ever being able to distinguish them from the rest of the Arab masses. Not only does the surveillance footage fail to make truth visible, it potentially makes truth indeterminate. Instead of isolating a guilty party, it extends suspicion to everybody. The tools of surveillance that the technologically advanced security forces rely upon—assuming racial otherness and subversive intent will be self-evidently conspicuous—become a source of confusion.
Haneke takes this several steps further. When Georges, the privileged white subject, is made the object rather than master of surveillance technology, he becomes stigmatized by the very technology designed to protect affluent people like him from criminal and racial otherness. Once he is under observation, not only is Georges incapable of deflecting the surveillance, but he is incapable of convincing his family and his colleagues (and the audience) of his innocence. Perhaps this sense of entrapment is the larger connotation of the slogan visible on one of Pierrot’s sporting posters, which reads (when translated)—“Victory at a price.”
In a conservative era when besieged liberal subjectivity may in fact require defending, Haneke has chosen instead to attack the self-righteous hypocrisy of the left-leaning educated classes. Although the name of the French postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard is dropped at a cocktail party celebrating one of Anne’s publishing deals, the ironies of the simulated world, which Baudrillard famously critiqued, are lost upon the Laurents. Encased with bookshelves that are stacked from floor to ceiling, their chic townhouse is a nearly exact replica of the studio set of Georges’s show. Illuminated behind that show’s pompous interlocutors, rows of books signify erudition to the domestic audience in spite of the fact that they are merely illusory projections of light. Conversely, in the Laurents’ home, walls of actual books form a battlement to prevent outsiders from calling the self-proclaimed bobo’s bluff. For Hashem, however, who accuses the literary celebrity of denying his father “a good education,” books may suggest the inequity of class and racial privilege.
For Haneke, who came to movies after a long career in television—the opposite trajectory of Pontecorvo, who prematurely abandoned his activist filmmaking career for work in television commercials—screens are omnipresent. Framed by a curtain of videotapes and other media paraphernalia, the recessed television screen is a centerpiece in the Laurents’ living room, transmitting otherworldly images of Mideast casualties that bear an uncanny resemblance to the hemorrhaging boy who has invaded Georges’s dreamlife. In spite of all of the barriers erected to insulate the Laurents’ bourgeois fortress from the threat of the Other, the television functions as a permeable interface between the internal and external worlds, broadcasting shadowy images that cast the family’s private drama of retribution in a more global light. Yet Georges’s ability to ignore images that displease him, as evidenced not only by his myopic disregard of the news, but also—in the scene in the television studio where he orders the tape to be cut before one of his guests waxes too theoretical—cannot save him from bearing witness to Majid’s chilling act of self-destruction. In a society that refuses to acknowledge the humanity of those it suppresses, Majid’s behavior suggests that the most powerful form of counter-attack available to the dispossessed is self-inflicted violence.
The enigmatic last shot of Caché crowns Haneke’s astonishing closing sequence of stunning long takes with a masterful, yet easily missed logical reversal. On the steps outside his school, Pierrot is glimpsed conferring amiably with Hashem. Like the identity of the Laurents’ stalker, these final images remain resolutely ambiguous. Is this the prelude to further violence? Or a friendship which symbolizes an end to an older generation’s mutual antipathy? A clue to the interpretation of this scene may lie in an earlier, self-reflexive sequence in which Georges deliberately re-enters the simulated world to distract himself from the violence he has just witnessed. At the movie theater, there are several cinema posters, which ever since The Bicycle Thief (Vittorio De Sica, 1948) have been used to signify the infinite regress of films within films. In a cinema showing My Mother, Bad Education, and Two Brothers, escape is elusive. The question that remains is which dyad of sons in Haneke’s spectacular tour-de-force rightfully deserves to be called brothers.
Ara Osterweil has a Ph.D. in Film Studies from the University of California, Berkeley. She will begin as Assistant Professor of Film at Muhlenberg College in the fall.