Sharks and Wires: The Importance of Unsolved Mysteries in European Cinema

For the past fifteen years or more, the European art cinema scene has increasingly come to be dominated by one outstanding and frequently controversial director: the Austrian Michael Haneke. Other directors have produced films just as distinctive and just as widely praised – Lars von Trier and Béla Tarr spring easily to mind – but nobody else has such a consistent record of rich, original, and provocative critical successes. Haneke’s films are precise, suspenseful, and explicitly and disturbingly violent. Yet the classic hallmark recurring through his half-dozen major films is not the way they very shockingly observe and confront human evil, but something seemingly much less significant: the fact that they frequently rest on unresolvable or open-ended storylines. Many viewers feel that Haneke teases them by refusing to answer the narrative riddles that he poses, and so his fame and his notoriety have come to rest not so much on his moral boldness as on the manner of his storytelling. Even some of his admirers claim that he ought not to play such games of befuddling the viewer, as this distracts attention from the intellectual and ethical points that form the centres of his films.

But Haneke does not, in fact, play games with his viewer. Instead, he adopts the same strategy that has been taken by a long and illustrious string of European directors before him. In the 1960s, the legendary Italian auteur Michelangelo Antonioni made films in which mysteries remained unsolved, and the story focused instead on the impact of uncertainty and anxiety on the people struggling to answer the questions. The approach has appealed to thoughtful directors ever since, and especially, for whatever reason, in Europe. This is because it does one very powerful thing: it places the audience in the same position as the characters, and then, crucially, leaves them there. We walk out of the cinema still feeling destabilised and with the problem still whirring in our heads, unable to tuck it away and go back comfortably to our daily lives.

The connection between Antonioni and Haneke becomes obvious with examples. Antonioni’s most acclaimed film is the 1960 classic L’Avventura. In it, a young rich couple, Sandro and Anna (Gabriele Ferzetti and Lea Massari), go on a boat trip to a rocky, uninhabited Mediterranean island, accompanied by Anna’s friend Claudia (Monica Vitti). Barely half an hour into the film, Anna, whom the film has been treating as the main character up to this point, disappears with no explanation. The effect is a little like the murder of Janet Leigh in Psycho – the film shocks the audience by killing off its main character very early – but more unsettling for the fact that we do not see anything happen to her. One minute she is there, and then the next minute we realise that she hasn’t appeared onscreen for an unusually long time. Just previously, one of the characters had thought they saw a shark in the waters off the island. It turned out they were wrong: there was no shark after all. But … are we certain of that? Sandro and Claudia go looking for Anna, and from this point on, the film simply observes the way in which uncertainty and fear bring to the surface a number of deep, disruptive tensions and desires in both these characters.

In the present day, Michael Haneke’s recurring preoccupation is with the disruption of stable and established lives by violence, and the way in which such disruption can expose hidden insecurities – both within individuals, and in their relationships with each other. Often the violence does not need to be explicit. His almost unbearably intense Caché (“Hidden”) concerns a middle-class Parisian couple named Georges and Anne (Daniel Auteuil and Juliet Binoche, both superb), who one day start receiving anonymous videotapes in their mail that show their house observed from the street. Soon these are accompanied by crude childlike drawings of wounded animals and children vomiting blood. There is no physical violence here, but the psychological violence perpetrated on the couple is enormous, and soon the stress and fear that they both experience is putting pressure on their relationship in ways that reveal hitherto unrecognised rifts and resentments. In the subsequent The White Ribbon, a series of mysterious acts of sabotage and arson in a small pre-First World War German village have a similar effect on the local people: relationships of all kinds break down in the prevailing atmosphere of uncertainty and mutual suspicion. The key cause of breakdown, in both films, is not violence itself but the fact that the violence is unexplained and seemingly arbitrary – just like Anna’s unexplained and arbitrary disappearance in L’Avventura. Like Antonioni, Haneke’s purpose is to show us the consequences for human relations when people must live in fear.

The point here is not merely that Michael Haneke has inherited concerns and methods from a former leading European filmmaker. He is not, of course, alone in making extensive use of Antonioni’s innovations. More important is that those who complain about Haneke’s unresolved storylines are missing his point, and that comparison with older directors in the same tradition can illuminate why this is so. Properly understood, the mystery of the anonymous sabotage in The White Ribbon – the fact that we never learn, for example, who stretched a wire across a track where a racing horse would trip on it – is not a distraction from the “ideas” of the film, but central to it. We are just as much in the dark as the characters, and so we share in their fear and we take on their hostility. That in itself is Hollywood standard, but allowing the uncertainty to prevail beyond the moment when the credits roll, beyond the moment when the viewer walks out of the cinema, is unusual and shocking. We could not so truly understand the observations that these films make about people under pressure, if we were not forced to remain under that pressure ourselves.

This article originally appeared in The Oxford Student on 30 October 2014.

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