Exploring Haneke’s Hidden themes

Earlier this week I was talking to a non-cinephile friend of mine who expressed an interest in delving into the beautiful and emotionally charged world of French film. A chance to share some of the best, under-appreciated cinema with someone excited me.

I recommended a few directors she should check out if she had a genuine interest (Godard, Renoir, Clouzout) — one of which was Michael Haneke.

Now, I understand that Haneke is Austrian, but I’m including his work here as his style is evocative of the best of French cinema.

This conversation led me to rewatch the movie Hidden again, which is — excepting perhaps The White Ribbon — my favorite Haneke film.

Hidden is a thriller about a bourgeois couple (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche) placed under surveillance by a stranger. Tapes of the couple’s front door mysteriously begin to appear, accompanied by violent drawings. Though neither the tapes nor the drawings seem to have any motivation, they begin to drive a wedge between the happy couple.

Hidden is a wonderful and disconcerting film that explores the nature of guilt and how a simple watchful gaze can bring it frothing to the surface. Haneke’s direction is brilliant, keeping the film’s tension pitched and taut throughout. In short — as you can probably tell — I like it.

As I was watching Hidden, I was struck by the silence and stillness of the film. This is a common Haneke motif, so “struck” is probably an ill-considered use of the predicate nominative, but nonetheless it resonated with me in a different way than it had on previous occasions.

Hidden was the third Haneke film that I watched, the previous two being The Piano Teacher and The White Ribbon, and in each I had appreciated his restraint — a restraint that seemed to place the characters and the story on a higher plane, allowing the audience to engage with the film on a conscious, intellectual level rather than on a subconscious, emotional one.

I used to think Haneke’s silence was merely a formal strategy designed to enhance the effect, a byproduct of his realist tendencies. It was something integrated into the story for dramatic and psychological effect, not a driving force of the story itself.

I now believe that I was wrong, or rather, intellectually lazy and negligent. Haneke’s sound design is not merely a post-script to the story; rather, it is a portal into his mind and the fountainhead from which the stories are sprung.

This came from watching Hidden on the first day of spring vacation, a day which, for most college students, full of hustle, bustle, travel and, most of all, noise.

Noise: We soak it up and let it rattle around in our minds, obfuscating our thoughts. Our ears take it all in, all the sounds of the city, all the rambling, unorganized notes that make up the songs of our lives. And we can’t take it. Our minds can’t make sense of it, so we retreat into ourselves, into our own thoughts and own perspectives. It isolates us.

What films like Hidden do is explore that isolation. Instead of bringing characters into their surrounding world, the films push the characters into themselves.

This is what lies at the base of Haneke’s work. He’s not trying to get us to look at life through a different person’s perspective. He’s not trying to get us to walk a mile in another person’s shoes. He’s trying to get us to view ourselves as we are, to see ourselves in our own environment.

Look at how the presence of a simple, stationary camera unravels the lives of a self-satisfied intellectual couple. Might the same be true of us? Are the bonds that hold our lives together likewise tenuous?

When our lives are reduced to fundamentals, when the noise that fills our lives is stripped away, what are we left with? Who are we as human beings?

Now that’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it?

Sam Colen is a junior majoring in economics/mathematics. His column, “’O Lucky Critic,” runs Fridays.