Sadomodernism

Haneke in furs

Emmanuelle Riva in Amour
Emmanuelle Riva in Amour, dir. Michael Haneke, 2012. Photo by darius khondji. copyright films du losange. courtesy of sony picture classics.

In almost every film Michael Haneke has made, an animal dies on-screen. The protagonists of The Seventh Continent (1989), his first feature, smash the tank of their family goldfish, which we watch writhe and asphyxiate. In the German-language Funny Games (1997), the preppy intruders who terrorize a family at their lake house begin by braining their German shepherd with a golf club. “Of course,” Haneke said in an interview, “all the rules that usually make the viewer go home happy and contented are broken in my film. There’s this unspoken rule that you can’t harm animals. What do I do? I kill the dog first thing.” In Time of the Wolf (2003), Haneke shot three live horses, then gouged the throat of one still shuddering on camera. In Caché (2005), a child axes the head off a rooster. The White Ribbon (2009) shows a horse tripping fatally over a wire and a pet parakeet impaled on scissors, cruciform.

Haneke does not let his human characters off easily, either. Across a range of European settings, his films investigate the violence he insists lies barely beneath the surface of everyday life. His protagonists are often variations of one bourgeois couple. Named Anna and Georg in the German films, Anne and Georges in the French ones, and Ann and George in their sole American outing, the 2007 remake of Funny Games, they sometimes have children called Eva and Pierrot, friends named Pierre, Annette, Mathilde. Their fate varies from film to film, but this continuity gives Haneke’s corpus a quality that critics have called “taxonomic”: it examines the possibilities of contemporary (haute) bourgeois life and consistently shows its protagonists to be at best trapped and ineffectual and at worst, much worse.

Haneke’s earliest feature films were the German-language Vergletscherungs-Trilogie, or “glaciation trilogy.” The first, The Seventh Continent, is based on the true story of a Hamburg couple who, for no ostensible reason, told their friends and family they were “emigrating” and then destroyed all their possessions and killed themselves and their young daughter. Benny’s Video (1992) is about a teenager who murders a girl with a bolt pistol in order to make a tape of it. The multi-strand 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994) follows several unrelated characters until a mass shooting at a bank unites them in death. Both versions of Funny Games center on two clean-cut young men and the family they randomly select to torture and kill for amusement. In the German version’s final shot, right after pushing Anna, bound and gagged, into the lake her cabin overlooks, one of the teens turns to smile conspiratorially at the camera. The gesture feels almost embarrassingly earnest. The point is clear: we, as viewers, are complicit.

This reproving attitude toward the viewer is at the center of Haneke’s work. In an essay written on the centennial of cinema, in 1995, Haneke explained his ambition to set right a dangerous “commingling and indistinguishability” of real and media death: “The question is not: ‘What am I allowed to show?’ but rather: ‘What chance do I give the viewer to recognize what it is I am showing?’ . . . Not: ‘How do I show violence?’ but rather: ‘How do I show the viewer his own position vis-à-vis violence and its portrayal?’” Haneke seems the opposite of Quentin Tarantino, another director whose obsession with violence has become his signature. Tarantino knowingly parodies genre clichés in order to repurpose the intense feelings that they inspire, while taking a typically American anti-intellectual, anti-academic position: “When people ask me if I went to film school, I tell them, ‘No, I went to films’”; “If I’ve made it a little easier for artists to work in violence, great!” Haneke, by contrast, commits to critical distance. His films are characterized by an austere, almost clinical aesthetic: static camera, long takes. You could count on one hand the number of times he has used music that doesn’t come from somewhere within a scene.

In the early 2000s, Haneke started working with famous French actresses, who starred in the features that brought him international renown. Code Unknown (2000) shows illegal immigrants from Romania and Africa fighting in the streets of Paris and then getting deported to their home countries; meanwhile Juliette Binoche listens to her foreign neighbors ferociously berate their child. In 2001, Haneke adapted Elfriede Jelinek’s novel The Piano Teacher, casting Isabelle Huppert as a repressed middle-aged woman who lives with her mother and has an affair with a much younger student. She reveals her masochistic desires to him, only to have him brutally rape her at what she thinks will be the scene of their consummation. In Time of the Wolf (2003), Huppert plays a single mother trying to protect her two children in the aftermath of an unnamed disaster.

Caché follows the host of a literary talk show as he receives a series of anonymous surveillance tapes of his home. The son of his Algerian childhood servants surfaces as a suspect and then slits his own throat; tapes continue to arrive. In 2007, Haneke accepted Hollywood money to remake Funny Games, casting Tim Roth and Naomi Watts as the husband and wife tortured and murdered at their Long Island summer home. In 2009 Haneke won his second Palme d’Or at Cannes for the German-language The White Ribbon. The film presents a series of brutal crimes committed in an German village just before the First World War, which, as the schoolteacher who narrates the film suggests, “may clarify some things that happened later.” He is clearly referring to the Nazi rise to power, which will take place as the children who are the prime suspects come of age. Haneke’s most recent film, Amour (2012), returns to the present, and Paris, to show the octogenarian Georges caring for his dying wife. A passion play that holds out no religious consolation, it continues Haneke’s tradition of testing his audience’s patience and, implicitly, our morals. The film unsparingly observes the details of caring for someone nearing life’s end, including the isolation, frustration, and bitterness this can inspire in the caregiver. In a piece for the New York Review of Books blog, “A Masterpiece You Might Not Want to See,” Francine Prose called it “excruciating” and “the ultimate horror film.” At the end, Georges suffocates Anne with a pillow, to end his misery and hers.

All these films raise problems we recognize from Europe’s recent past and present, but they resist even provisional answers. Haneke never solves the mysteries that his anti-thrillers set up. If his screenplays hint at reasons why a character might, for example, want to cut herself with a razor while masturbating on the edge of a bathtub, those reasons are never clear enough to let the audience shrug off her impulse as the result of, say, having a draconian mother. (In his adaptation of The Piano Teacher, Haneke cut references to the narrator’s childhood, which in Jelinek’s novel connected her sexual inclinations to her troubled relationship with her father.) Many critics have used a language inherited from Brecht and the politicized film theorists working in Paris around May ’68 to describe the discomfort that Haneke produces. They have stressed that his allegories of spectatorship as violence, and vice versa, implicitly extend their indictment of white bourgeois culture to include the mostly white bourgeois who watch them. But as the Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations that Haneke has recently added to his greenhouse of Cannes Palmes suggest, the bourgeoisie can’t get enough. “I am implicated!” they say after another attack by Haneke on everything they are and do. They sit down to celebrate the realization with $4 espresso at the Angelika Café. “I must change my life!”

Haneke has often said, referring to the unhappy ending of The Piano Teacher, that he aims “to rape the spectator into autonomy.” He abuses his audience in order to make us self-aware and liberate us from bad habits. Critics have mostly taken him at his word, repeating the sleight of rhetoric that conflates the act of analyzing and violating movie conventions with bashing in the skull of an animal, or raping and beating a woman. And so a pattern, which has come to characterize so much serious European filmmaking, emerges: from the auteur, punishment; from the audience, praise. Haneke has become one of the most brilliant practitioners of an aesthetic that, although it has produced great films, now threatens to dead-end. Ascetic in its forms and rigorously unpleasant in its subject matter, the films this unacknowledged movement has produced suggest that the only honest and decent thing for art to do is inflict pain. We might call it “sadomodernism.”


Contemporary sadomodernist filmmakers did not invent shock, nor violence, nor the self-conscious complicity of the director or viewer in producing them. Fritz Lang always included one shot of his hand in each of his crime films, to emphasize that his fingerprints were on these scenes, too. A moment in Code Unknown, when Haneke briefly appears as the director menacing Juliette Binoche’s actress character in the film within the film, recalls both Alfred Hitchcock’s cameos and what the feminist theorist Laura Mulvey called the “sadistic voyeurism” of his work. (Vertigo, about a man so brutally intent on making his beloved into the image of his desire that she kills herself, is only the most extreme example.) Among the great postwar directors are several who explicitly depicted sado­masochism in their films. In Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, Pier Paolo Pasolini transposed the Marquis de Sade’s novel of a violent orgy to Italy in the months after the fall of Mussolini.1 Then there was Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Notoriously cruel to the long-term partners in his creative circle (his real-life North African boyfriend, whom he physically and psychologically abused on-screen in several films, killed himself), he made numerous sadomasochistic works, including a one-hour coda to his TV adaptation of Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, in which the protagonist, Franz Biberkopf, is hoisted up in chains and flayed.

Working in postwar Italy and Germany, Pasolini and Fassbinder intended their over-the-top violence to break with mainstream nationalist cinemas tainted by Fascism. As Haneke, who was born in Munich in 1942, has put it, “In the German-speaking world, and in most of the rest of Europe, that type of straightforward storytelling, which the Nazis had made such good use of, came to be viewed with distrust. The danger hidden in storytelling became clear—how easy it was to manipulate the crowd. As a result, film, and especially literature, began to examine itself. Storytelling, with all the tricks and ruses it requires, became gradually suspect.” To distinguish themselves from this tradition, the New Waves of the 1960s and ’70s sought alternative forefathers in Lang and Hitchcock.

Extending their project, Haneke takes on another master of manipulation: Hollywood. In this, he echoes the position famously articulated by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in Dialectic of Enlightenment, which describes Hollywood as the propaganda wing of a system that drums up demand for what it hawks, and then cites this demand as proof that it has only been supplying a public service. For Adorno and Horkheimer, the studios’ integration with the rest of the industrial economy resembles the “ruthless unity” of Enlightenment thinking in general—which reduces the manifold diversity of the world to a system of words, concepts, and ciphers that can yield instrumental knowledge. Haneke, too, believes that while Hollywood’s products present themselves as harmless entertainment, their formulaism and the viewing practices they inspire enforce a culture of conformity as effectively as Fascist and Soviet propaganda did in Europe. In the classes he teaches at the Vienna Film Academy, Haneke regularly screens Air Force One together with Triumph of the Will and Battleship Potemkin in order to make this point.

The European argument conflating Hitler and Hollywood received a kind of confirmation in 1993 from an American filmmaker who managed to prove, in a single film, everything European auteurs had previously argued through technique. This was Steven Spielberg, who in Schindler’s List combined his mastery of conventional narrative with a story about the Holocaust—and notably, about a “good German.” The patently manipulative nature of the film demonstrated to European art filmmakers conventional cinema’s profound affinity with the shill of fascism and troubling refusal to engage with the complexities of the past. In Spielberg’s Germany, who would not have known to side with Liam Neeson? Jean-Luc Godard lambasted the film: “If [Spielberg] were really honest, he should have produced a T-shirt with Auschwitz on it and tried to sell it,” he said. Haneke recently attacked both Schindler’s List and Downfall, a German blockbuster about the last days of Hitler, at a roundtable hosted by the Hollywood Reporter. “It’s impossible for me,” Haneke said, “turning this into entertainment. . . . The mere idea of trying to create suspense out of the question of whether the showerhead gas is going to come is unspeakable.”


Sadomodernism expresses its suspicion toward conventional cinematic storytelling by denying audiences the pleasure of conventional narrative and/or subjecting them to pain. The idea is that, as de Sade’s narratives exposed the violence that reasonable subjects can rationalize committing, these self-consciously sadistic films can draw to the surface the hidden manipulations of conventional filmmaking.

The sadomodernist uses cruelty perpetrated on-screen to terrorize his audience, whom he dares: Look at this. Aware of the possibility that we might enjoy his dubious spectacle too much, the sadomodernist may also punish us, as Haneke does, on the level of form. He uses gestures of self-reflection to make us recognize our complicity in whatever horrible thing he has staged, and, at the same time, withholds the pleasures afforded by continuity editing and psychologically identifiable characters moving their stories through clear chains of cause and effect. At his most ambitious, the sadomodernist aims to ruin not only the pleasure that a naive spectator might take in his film, but any visceral enjoyment that spectacle itself might ever offer. This is challenging, however, when the stakes are constantly escalating. When you adopt the techniques of the dominant culture—by, for example, presenting the viewer with titillating violence—and the dominant proves adept at reabsorbing them, then what? (Thrown off his English when Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger presented him with his Golden Globe for Amour, Haneke joked, “I never thought to get an award in Hollywood by an Austrian!”) The more the masochistic viewer laps up his scenes of torture and asks for more, the more the sadistic director feels compelled to give her something that will hurt her for good—that is, both forever and for her own emancipation. “I want to make a film that leaves a mark on you,” the Danish sadomodernist Lars von Trier has said. If only the director could really blind us, as von Trier slowly, pitilessly blinds Björk’s character in Dancer in the Dark. We would never watch a movie again!

The sadomodernists may be punishing themselves as much as their audiences by adopting increasingly restrictive constraints for their art. Von Trier’s famous Dogme 95 Manifesto and “Vow of Chastity” imposed strict restrictions at the level of production on the filmmakers who signed it: on-location filming without props or sets; no nondiegetic or postproduction sound; handheld camera; natural light. Von Trier is one of a number of European directors who have shown unsimulated penetration in the name of realism. At another extreme we might put Béla Tarr or Alexander Sokurov, whose hours-long takes provide a double endurance test, forcing both director and viewers to strain through boredom to revelation. Few filmmakers enable you to doze off to two characters walking down a road, sleep for some time, and wake back up, only to see the same figures on the same road, smaller now, from the same camera setup, afresh.

Extreme violence to women is a defining feature of a French sadomodernism that critic James Quandt has called the “New French Extremity.” These sadomodernists, among them several notable female directors, combine shocking content with experiments in narrative structure and visual style that distinguish their work from straight pornography. Virginie Despentes and the former pornographic actress Coralie Trinh Thi made Rape Me, about a sex-and-shooting junket that two young women, who meet by chance, go on after one is gang-raped. (Trinh Thi told an interviewer at the Sunday Times that her film “was not for masturbation, is not porn.” Despentes agreed that it was “not erotic.”) Shot on digital video in two months with no artificial lighting, its low-budget look seems to resist conventional tricks for glamorizing the female body on-screen, while also offering a snuff-ish authenticity. Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl includes a painful scene of a chubby, awkward preteen cowering in the same room in which a near stranger is coercing her comely 15-year-old sister into anal sex. Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible centers on a revenge killing for a brutal rape. It unfolds through thirteen scenes shown in reverse chronological order. In the second we see the camera shaking with the blows of a man pounding in another man’s face with a fire extinguisher, continuing after he is dead; two scenes later we watch, for several excruciating minutes, his motive: a static-camera long take in which the female lead, played by Monica Bellucci, is raped and beaten into a coma in an underpass of the Paris Metro.

Haneke is chaste by comparison. The word he has used for the state that he wants to “rape” his spectator into, which the English-language press has rendered autonomy, is Selbstständigkeit. The same word that Kant substituted for fraternité, the third term of the French Revolutionary tricolon, when describing the foundations of the modern state for his Metaphysics of Morals, Selbstständigkeit does not mean brotherhood but rather independence or self-reliance (literally, the ability to stand on your own). In Kant, it constitutes the price of entry to the frat house where reasonable debate among disinterested white male property owners transforms abstract morality into actionable politics. When Haneke speaks of Selbstständigkeit, he is appealing to this old-fashioned idea of an enlightened public sphere, where intelligent, critical art might start a conversation that could lead to social and political change.

The sadomodernist’s hope that his work might speak to a broad audience is what ultimately gets him into the double bind that defines him. Still aiming to justify the scope of his ambition, he rejects the escape route taken by many of the other political modernist filmmakers working in Paris, London, and New York after the failure of May ’68: to give up on making movies that any movie theater might show in favor of joyously independent experiments. These filmmakers, among them Godard, undertook the positive project of inventing another cinema—at the price of confining their work to the universities where they earned their livings and the coterie spaces where they screened things for one another, which is where their kind of thing remained until the video artists of the 1980s and ’90s appropriated and monetized their techniques for the museum black box and white-cube gallery.

The sadomodernist wants to make films that can play in theaters. But this commits him to using the means of the pleasure he distrusts to produce the critical unpleasure he desires: he can only break things, and then break them again. Neither the sadomodernist nor his evangelists have explained what kind of community this hard-won autonomy is going to give us, to replace the naive pleasure we once took in being together at the movies.

The danger that a film may rape someone without producing autonomy, and become instead another version of the torture it intends to expose and analyze, is the trap of sadomodernism. This may be clearest in the case of von Trier. Several of his most famous films put their female leads through unendurable trials—Nicole Kidman gets raped umpteen times in the infuriatingly boring Dogville, while the Charlotte Gainsbourg character in Antichrist, after smashing Willem Dafoe’s testicles with a sledgehammer, cuts off her clitoris with a pair of garden shears. Publicity stills from his latest film, Nymphomaniac, show Gainsbourg sprawled and supine in an alley under falling snow, and then, in what seems to be a flashback, topless and getting felt up by two shirtless black men. It is as if von Trier can think of nothing more productive than to punish ethnic minorities and beautiful women for the way that mass media, from Classical Hollywood to internet porn, has objectified them. Von Trier is aware of his misogynistic bent; in his infamous rambling comments at Cannes in 2011, von Trier, seated next to a glowing Kirsten Dunst, joked that his next project would be a “four-hour film of very unpleasant sex.” Then, alluding to having recently learned, at his mother’s deathbed, that the Jewish man who raised him was not his biological father, he continued, “I really wanted to be a Jew and then I found out that I was really a Nazi, because my family was German, Hartmann . . . which also gave me some pleasure.” When he was asked if he would like to do a film on a larger scale, von Trier answered, “Yes. We Nazis like to do things on a big scale. Maybe I could do The Final Solution.”


Sadomodernism emerged among European auteurs at the same time that the New Waves washed out for good. By the time von Trier and Haneke began making their first features, Antonioni had completed his last and Bergman had announced his retirement. Fassbinder died in 1982, Truffaut in 1984, and Andrei Tarkovsky in 1986. The state television channels that had supported these provocateurs cut funding even before the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the era of continental integration, the “national cinemas,” as they were once called, no longer seemed to share unifying projects. Pedro Almodóvar and Emir Kusturica may have as much in common with Jia Zhangke and Tsai Ming-liang as they do with other filmmakers in Spain and Serbia. The sadomodernist, however, remains specifically European. Relying on an ad hoc assortment of production subsidies from various European countries, he articulates a distinct set of critical ambitions in manifestos and interviews, characterized by a rhetoric of opposition to Hollywood, which the festival circuit encourages him to stage—even as the survival of theaters that showcase his work, even in hyperprotectionist France, depends entirely on the business of American blockbusters, and he knows it.

What began as a set of antinationalist national cinemas—the New Waves attempting to take back their traditions from the Fascist and “quality” directors who reduced their heritage to set pieces—has become a kind of advertisement for the postnationalist EU. Haneke is an artist of considerable intelligence and formal mastery who has tried to make films under the conditions and contradictions of a European political project in what may turn out to be its final years. It’s possible that here, at the near-end of his career, Haneke himself has recognized the need for sadomodernism to, as the Germans might say, overcome itself.

Amour is in certain ways a departure. Jean-Louis Trintignant plays Georges, and Emmanuelle Riva his elderly wife Anne, who has been debilitated by a series of strokes. The film is painful to watch. We see a look of horrified shame seize Anne’s face the first time Georges tells her she has wet her bed. When she spits out the water that Georges has, pleadingly, poured into her mouth, we see him slap her in close-up and her eyes widen with rage; Haneke actually makes the camera shake a little, a gesture that his sparer films would have eschewed. When Georges finally suffocates Anne, it is not as clear as the audience would like that this act of mercy is for her only: Georges is exhausted. Haneke remains as sparing as usual with his soundtrack. The film’s most notable refrain is Anne’s repetition of the word mal, which, after her third stroke, she begins to call out for hours on end. The English subtitles translate mal as hurt, but a more colloquial translation would be pain. The cry captures the difference between Amour and Haneke’s earlier work. Rather than calling us coldly and cruelly to witness crimes, it compels us to participate in an act of mourning. It hurts, and it admits this. When a pigeon wanders through the window of the apartment, the intrusion briefly turns the meditation into a suspense film; we have seen how animals fare in Haneke’s hands before. When the bird comes back, however, after Georges has killed Anne, he throws a blanket down to net it, takes it, rustling, into his arms, and then lets it go.

The film feels, at times, almost like the admission of a mistake—or the discovery of something that has been overlooked in or shut out of the world his oeuvre has constructed. The great destroyer is not humans—the villagers, the teenage sadists, or even the bourgeoisie—but time. The title evokes not only the love between Georges and Anne, but also the cinephilia of the filmmaker who has created this couple, and the audience that has followed them throughout the years. Riva and Trintignant are themselves figures of this love at its passionate height in the early 1960s. Both bodies, now in their eighties, in their youth were luminous: think of her glowing back in Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour, her hands moving over the back of her Japanese lover in that grainy eternity! In Amour, the classical music, the oil paintings, and the heavy, Second Empire furniture that fills the couple’s grand apartment associate the film with the weight of the entire European tradition, the lateness of which Haneke thus acknowledges, even as he conveys and cultivates regard for it. To see all this on-screen, like seeing Riva’s body, registers a sense of loss, even as these images testify to the power of film to take the print of time.

It’s possible that what Haneke has both identified and practiced is “a sickness of tradition,” as Walter Benjamin once described the work of Kafka to his friend Gershom Scholem. Kafka’s genius, Benjamin said, was to write parables that had no moral to convey; he “sacrificed truth for the sake of clinging to its transmissibility,” using inherited literary forms even after their traditional contents had grown meaningless. In his strongest moments, and here at the end, Haneke seems to be making a kind of wisdom-cinema without its content, transmitting the formal know-how and the ethical and political projects of a European film culture to which he may have arrived too late.

  1. The director Liliana Cavani has outlived Pasolini, but she hasn’t lived down The Night Porter (1974), which tells the story of a chance reunion between a concentration-camp prisoner and her Nazi torturer at a hotel in Vienna. As sadist and victim revive their affair, Cavani uses sustained close-ups, matches on action, and sound bridges to leap from the present to sex tableaux staged at the camp, in blue-lit scenes that exude the clammy kink of an Otto Dix portrait. The early ’70s saw a small boom in American and Italian sexploitation films with sadomasochistic themes set in concentration camps. Most showed male officers torturing female prisoners, but the most famous, Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS, turned the tables, casting as the camp commandant a buxom nymphomaniac, who, between bounces on her magenta silk sheets, tests the effects of forced dildo penetration and whipping to death on women and men. Ilsa opens with a red title card with the words, “The film you are about to see is based upon documented fact. . . . We dedicate this film with the hope that these heinous crimes will never occur again.” 

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