Kino Video has compiled seven of their single disc releases showcasing the films of controversial Austrian director Michael Haneke and bundled them into one singular boxed set entitled, appropriately enough, The Michael Haneke Collection. Those who own the single disc releases will find no need to bother with this collection as the discs and their contents are identical, the only difference being the packaging (the discs here are in slimline cases as opposed to standard keepcases). For those not familiar with the cinema of Haneke, his world can tend to be a very grim place but there's absolutely no denying the power and the impact that some of his better films and even a few of his lesser movies can contain.
The Piano Teacher:
The first film in the set features lovely Isabelle Huppert as a Parisian piano teacher named Erika who specializes in the music of Schubert. As we get to know her, it soon becomes obvious that she's seriously repressed in the bedroom. This has a fairly serious trickle down effect into much of her personal life and while she's able to get some of her frustrations out through her playing, she's definitely in need of an outlet. Making Erika's life even more repressed is the fact that despite her age (she'd be in her late thirties one could guess) she shares an apartment with her mother (Annie Girardot). She has her own room in the apartment but chooses to share her mothers room, sleeping in a separate bed only a few feet away. When not near her mother and left to her own devices, however, Erika shows a different side. We see her perusing adult video stores and even entering a peepshow booth, later rummaging through the garbage cans and scouring for what previous male customers have left behind.
Soon, Erika meets a young man studying engineering at the nearby university. Named Walter (Benoit Magimel), this man is truly passionate about the piano and is quite a good player himself. He quickly finds himself rather taken with Erika, and after a few meetings, the two begin a strange relationship together and Walter, considerably younger than Erika, finds he isn't at all ready for the kind of commitment that Erika is expecting from him. She soon manages to trap Walter in a series of power games where she holds all the cards. It's obvious that Erika is starting to come out of her shell...
Fairly explicit and at times quite disturbing, The Piano Teacher is also extremely well directed and it's a film that resonates with the viewer for some time after the end credits run. At the forefront of the film's success is the fantastic performance from Isabelle Huppert. Before things start to spiral she's perfectly cast as the rather spinsterly looking Erika but once the shy demeanor begins to erode she's just as convincing as the controlling and manipulative woman who bubbles just below the calm, cool surface of the character. Despite what her character does, however, Huppert manages to bring a genuine sense of humanity to her part that allows us to feel for Erika. Even when it all starts to hit the fan in the later part of the movie, it's hard not to pity the woman just a little bit. Girardot and Magimel are also very good in the film, but they're really there to prop up Huppert's fantastic performance.
Despite a few slow scenes and a couple of minor pacing issues, Haneke keeps the film rolling along at a good clip and he more or less lets his actors do the bulk of the work. The story unfolds slowly and it requires us to concentrate and think on what we're seeing and as such it might not register with the attention deficit crowd that seems to make up the bulk of the movie going public these days, but for those who appreciate a twisted slow burn, The Piano Teacher is a completely rewarding top-notch arthouse thriller.
One of Haneke's better known pictures, Funny Games, follows Georg (Ulrich Muhe) and Anna (Susanne Lohtar) and their young son son Schorschi (Stefan Clapczynski). The three have recently arrived at their house on the lake and Georg is fairly preoccupied with getting his new boat in working order, the key to the success of the family's vacation plans. While Anna is in the kitchen, a strange man wearing white gloves arrives and asks her to borrow a couple of eggs. Things become even more curious when a second man arrives and begins obsessing over Georg's golf clubs.
The two men start referring to one another as Peter and Paul, and it soon becomes obvious that there's something wrong - these guys don't intend to leave. Georg comes back from his boat-related distractions and tries to get the two men out of the home but the conflict soon becomes violent and the family find themselves being held hostage by this pair of unstable criminals bent on forcing the three of them to join in on their funny games.
A strange mix of influences creeps into Funny Games. Obviously, seventies nasties like Last House On The Left are owed a debt but so too is the more recent French satire, Man Bites Dog. Haneke puts the viewer in the position not to identify with the family so much as in the position to identify with the antagonists. We're pulled along for the ride and almost made willing participants in the carnage that ensues as the killers talk right to the camera, addressing us directly. As such, we become involved in the madness and in some ways, it's almost as if we're provoking them to push the envelope and get nastier and nastier as the film progresses.
A common argument against the film is that we don't care about the family, but in a way that's part of the point of the picture. If we're to question why we're watching this and if we're to be forced to side with the antagonists why would we want to sympathize with the victims? If the killers are going to see them as nothing more than play things, should we be concerned with their well being if we're to see things from the killers' points of view?
Haneke avoids falling into exploitation movie territory by putting almost all of the violence off screen, but the audio effects used in place of gory visuals more than make up for the lack of actual on-screen bloodshed. Haneke employs a few other unexpected quirks in the picture, toying with our preconceived notions of what should or should not happen in a horror movie and just as importantly, how it should happen. Funny Games isn't completely successful, as there are moments where the film almost feels like its talking down to its audience rather than asking us to contemplate things for ourselves, but it's certainly a thought-provoking picture for most of its running time and it's a well made and disturbing examination of violence and its effects.
The full title of the third film in this set is Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales Of Several Journeys and there's a reason, that becomes fairly clear as the movie goes on, why Haneke chose the longer title for his picture. At its core, the film is really a series of vignettes about a random group of people and their attempts to make what they can out of life.
We follow an actress named Anne (Juliette Binoche) who finds some success in the performing arts but never quite makes it to the height of popularity she'd like. Anne's boyfriend, George (Thierry Neuvic), makes his living as a photographer but finds himself rather shaken by his last assignment where he traveled to Eastern Europe to document the war. George's brother is being groomed by their father to inherit and take over the family farm once the patriarch can no longer take care of it, but it's not what he wants to do with his life. A lady who illegally immigrated from Romania to France finds her life as a street beggar altered by her interactions with these people and with an African man employed as a teacher who enjoys fighting for the downtrodden.
From the opening scene where a small group of deaf children are playing a game of charades to the finale, which packs a bit of an emotional punch, Haneke is obviously trying to make a statement about the way that people communicate with one another or, in certain scenes, the ways that they do not communicate with one another when they should. Each of the central characters in the film interacts with one another in some way and these interactions and communications have a trickle down effect that obviously affects the other players - just as our actions in real life affect those around us.
The first part of the film is really just a few different glimpses into the lives of these characters and initially, there's really no story. That changes as the film progresses but much of the film remains simple looks, almost voyeuristic peeks, into the day to day activities of the cast of characters. While this grounds the work in the real world, it doesn't always make for riveting viewing. There are times where it almost feels like Haneke is intentionally boring us, trying to grind into our psyches the monotony of day to day life. It makes for interesting food for thought, though it's not what most of us would consider exciting entertainment.
Thankfully, even during these slower moments, the film always looks good. A scene where a tractor drives through a field isn't the most exciting thing ever shot but it is captured in such a way that it proves to be rather symbolic, its trail representing the divides between certain characters in the film. Moments like this stick with you and allow you to forget about the slower parts of the film and the random, disjointed narrative structure. It's a film that should be enjoyed as a few unusual slices of life rather than a standard narrative piece. Not for all tastes, to be certain, but rather well made and enjoyable in its own odd way.
Based on the unfinished story by Franz Kafka, Haneke made this film for Hungarian television in 1997. K (Ulrich Muhe) is a young man who arrives in a small village that surrounds a lofty castle. He heads over to the inn hoping to obtain a room for the night but the innkeeper tells him that the rooms are all full. He takes pity on him and offers him a mattress in the bar to sleep on. This doesn't go over well with some of the locals, however, and soon he's assaulted by two other men who, after the attack, are upset to learn that K has actually been hired to survey the castle and its lands.
K's two oafish assistants show up the next day. Having forgotten his surveying equipment they more or less just get in his way throughout the day. Later K hits it off with a woman named Frieda (Susanne Lothar) who works at the bar. He drills her for information about some of the castle officials who she knows, and then later they have sex behind the bar, unaware that K's assistants are peering at them the entire time. Frieda and K are found out and Frieda is fired from her job, leaving K responsible for her wellbeing. Still waiting to hear from the castle officials who hired him regarding what exactly it is he's supposed to be doing, and as the castle continues to refuse him an audience, be begins to grow frustrated.
When K is told that his services were hired by accident, he is forced to accept a position as a school janitor in order to make ends meet and take care of Frieda. He begrudgingly toils away at the job, periodically finding distractions with the local ladies, all the while hoping that he'll be granted entrance to the castle and that things will work themselves out.
Odd editing, fade outs to black screens and a minimalist soundtrack (all staples of Haneke's filmography by this point in the game) play a big part in the look and the tone of the picture, which is a fairly grim story in and of itself. Chronicling one man's struggle against a system that seems to be in place only to bring him down, The Castle is an odd and rather somber character study documenting the futility of K's attempts. In typical Haneke fashion, the film moves rather slowly but it does build nicely and the conclusion is an interesting and wholly appropriate one. The film fails to resonate as strongly as Haneke's theatrical films, at least the ones included in this collection, but it's definitely worth seeing, particularly for those interested in the always unusual way in which Kafka's work seems to be adopted for the screen. It would seem that Haneke's filmography and Kafka's writing have much more in common than just the themes we see on the surface, as their styles are linked in many different ways as are their rather bleak world views and thoughts on the shortcomings of general society.
Haneke's second feature film, Benny's Video, is not only one of his better known (and rather infamous) pictures, it's also one of his most successful and most unnerving.
Benny (Arno Frisch) is a young boy who obsesses over his video collection. One tape in particular, which features graphic footage of a man and his partner binding then and electrocuting a pig to death, holds a strange fascination for the boy. He watches it repeatedly, endlessly looping the footage over and over again and pausing just as the pig dies. He wakes up one morning and heads down the road to the video store hoping to find something new that gives him the same strange satisfaction as the pig snuff but he comes home empty handed.
The next time he heads back to the video store he meets a girl (Ingrid Stassner). They hit it off and he asks her if she'd like to come back to his house and watch some movies with him. She agrees, and off they go. As the two enjoy one another's company, she peruses his video library and eventually he decides to show her his favorite film. When it's over, we realize that Benny has actually stolen an electrical gun from a local butcher similar to the one seen in the video and that he intends to test it out on his new found friend.
Although it's minimalist in certain ways - there's not much of a soundtrack and the cinematography is deceptively simple and not particularly flashy at all - the film packs one hell of a punch. Interesting that Haneke uses an exceptionally violent and unsettling film to point his finger at the impact that violence in the media can have on viewers. We're forced to spend the bulk of our time with Benny as he goes about his business and experiences, first hand, the implications of what is happening to him, because of him, and around him. It's an ugly place to be and a very uncomfortable journey to make but the strength of the visuals and the unsettling power of the narrative cannot be denied. Haneke wants the audience to hurt, he wants us to feel something, good or bad, while watching the film and so he ensures that the picture hits with enough blunt force that we can't evade its impact.
Like in Funny Games, much of the violence takes place off camera, letting the audio effects disturb us. What we do see generally comes from the point of view of Benny's video camera. Benny's camera documents his own personal downward spiral, and in many ways it plays accomplice to him. Arno Frisch (who Haneke would use again in Funny Games) does an excellent job in the lead, and for a part with so few spoken lines he does a great job of portraying his feelings through body language, quirky movements, gestures and expressions.
The Seventh Continent:
Haneke's feature film debut is the story of Georg (Dieter Berner) and Anna (Birgit Doll), a married couple with a young daughter, Eva. Life is good for the pair, as Georg is doing very well at his job and the two are obviously very much in love with one another and as happy as they possibly could be with their child.
After time, however, Georg and Anna begin to realize how boring their typical, upper class existence really is. Hit hard with this realization, the family basically decides it's time to demolish everything that they've worked so hard to acquire, and so that's exactly what they do. They've become tired of their routine, and as such their typical family unit explodes leaving them to wonder if they'll ever be able to rebuild.
Told over the period of a few years, The Seventh Continent, like much of the director's output, is very much a minimalist film. There are no flashy edits or sweeping camera shots, in fact much of the picture is shot using close ups to give it an intimately claustrophobic feeling. The film definitely has a fly-on-the-wall feel to it that makes it seem as much like a documentary as it does a work of fiction. Haneke's use of very basic camera work and the lack of a real soundtrack completely ground the picture in our own reality, making the events that pan out all the more interesting.
Very much a critique of the European upper class society, the movie, in typical Haneke fashion, is quite grim and unrelenting. The first half plays through without many surprises but once the middle of the film arrives, it definitely takes on a very pessimistic vibe as we watch the family push themselves further and further away from everyone around them. It's almost as if they have no choice, they either explode or in a sense die like everyone else has, by giving in and settling for a life filled with nothing but the same old routine day after day after day. Haneke's film makes very clear the monotony of the routine, by showing us how this family, like so many families in the real world, does the same thing every morning when the alarm clock goes off. The difference between what Georg and Anna go through as opposed to what most of us go through is that they are ultimately forced to reject this lifestyle.
Like all of Haneke's film, The Seventh Continent isn't "feel good movie of the year" material, but it is very well made and if nothing else it will make you think. The repetitive nature of the first half of the picture and the periodical fading to black might bother those with short attention spans but the pay off is worth it, and the last half of the movie definitely delivers.
71 Fragments Of A Chronology Of Chance:
Hard to describe in terms of narrative, 71 Fragments Of A Chronology Of Chance is a film made up of seventy one different clips/shots/splices assembled in such a way that the seemingly random assembly soon turns into a few different short stories. We learn about a young couple who has taken in a foster child only to find she rejects their love. A young Romanian immigrant boy named Marian makes his way from the country to the city where he tries to live in the subways and make a living as a petty thief and reading comic books whenever he can. A husband and wife, unable to conceive, see the boy on television and are moved by his story, while a college student becomes disenfranchised with his schoolmates who are more interested in gambling than in learning. A woman upset with her father decides to prevent him from seeing her new daughter and a soldier steals sidearms from his troop and sells them on the black market for cash. It is, as the title implies, random acts of 'chance' intertwining to create a larger picture.
Like with The Seventh Continent, Haneke periodically cuts to black, using the darkness as a way of separating the different parts that make up the whole, with snippets of televised news reports tossed in seemingly at random to punctuate the mini-stories that comprise the film. Not everything that Haneke throws at us in this odd hodge-podge of a movie is important to the actual stories but it does serve to ground it all in reality by making reference to (at the time) current evetns such as Michael Jackson's molestation scandal.
As the movie plays out, there are characters that we're meant to relate to and feel for and characters we're not. Marian and the parents who are scorned by their adopted daughter are completely sympathetic and we feel for them while the gun thief is obviously not painted in such a kindly manner and we learn of the consequences of his actions in a rather unorthodox manner.
Like in his other films, Haneke likes to linger on strange, every day objects to the point where it becomes almost punishing for the viewer. This is obviously done on purpose, it's part of his technique and his aesthetic and it's used to interesting effect here. It works in the context of the film, which functions less as a traditional story than as an examination of the media's cold and callous presentation of certain events and how this can trickle down into a society which seems to be very quickly pulling itself apart.
The seven films in the boxed set are presented on DVD as follows:
The Piano Teacher: non-anamorphic 1.85.1 widescreen.
Funny Games: anamorphic 1.85.1 widescreen.
Code Unknown: non-anamorphic 1.85.1 widescreen.
The Castle: non-anamorphic 1.77.1 widescreen.
Benny's Video: 1.85.1 anamorphic 1.85.1 widescreen.
The Seventh Continent: anamorphic 1.85.1 widescreen.
71 Fragments Of A Chronology Of Chance: anamorphic 1.85.1 widescreen.
As you can see, two of the films in the set have not been enhanced for anamorphic displays, which is unfortunate. Equally disappointing is the fact that there is a fair bit of noticeable ghosting on these transfers, obviously created by a bad PAL to NTSC conversion. While this doesn't render the films unwatchable, it definitely is a problem and it does obscure some of the fine detail in more than a few scenes. Mpeg compression is present but not overpowering though color reproduction looks a bit flat in some scenes. Mild print damage is present in a couple of the older films as well, Code Unknown being the most obvious example. Overall, the films are all watchable but Kino could have and definitely should have put more effort into these transfers.
The audio options vary a bit from film to film in this set. Specifications are as follows:
The Piano Teacher: Dolby Digital French 2.0 Stereo with optional English subtitles.
Funny Games: Dolby Digital German 2.0 Stereo with optional English subtitles.
Code Unknown: Dolby Digital French 2.0 Stereo with burned in English subtitles.
The Castle: Dolby Digital German 2.0 Stereo with optional English subtitles.
Benny's Video: Dolby Digital German 2.0 Stereo with optional English subtitles.
The Seventh Continent: Dolby Digital German 2.0 Stereo with optional English subtitles.
71 Fragments Of A Chronology Of Chance: Dolby Digital German 2.0 Stereo with optional English subtitles.
In terms of the quality of the audio in the set, for the most part things are fine. The English subtitles are easy to read and free of any typos and the dialogue stays clean and clear from one film to the next. There are moments in The Piano Teacher and in Funny Games where the levels are a bit off and the background noise is a bit too loud but this isn't constant throughout either film, merely a minor, sporadic problem.
Extras are spread out throughout the set with each disc containing its own exclusive supplemental material. Here's what you'll find and where you'll find it:
The Piano Teacher: The main supplement on this disc is a twenty-two minute interview with Isabelle Huppert. Conducted in English, the actress talks about her work on the picture and about her professional relationship with Haneke. She comes across as completely down to Earth and very professional as she talks about her theories on acting and filmmaking and discusses the themes that are part and parcel to the story. Also included are the film's theatrical trailer, alongside menus and chapter stops.
Funny Games: Supplements on this DVD include an eighteen-minute interview with Haneke. Looking very much at ease, the director talks about the impact of violence on society and in the media, how it can affect viewers in certain ways, and how he tried to work with these principals while making Funny Games. Also included are the film's original theatrical trailer, a Haneke filmography in text format, menus and chapter stops.
Code Unknown: This disc is barebones save for a text piece reproducing a letter from Haneke to his producer (an interesting read that does reveal some of the director's intent), trailers the feature and for three other Kino releases, menus and chapter stops.
The Castle: This disc is barebones save for a still gallery, a filmography for the director, menus and chapter stops.
Benny's Video: The primary extra feature on this release is a twenty-minute interview with Haneke recorded in 2005. The director speaks about the mixed reactions that the film has received, what he was trying to say with the picture, and how he feels about the finished product and the impact that it carries. A text filmography, menus and chapter stops are also included.
The Seventh Continent: This disc starts off with a sixteen-minute interview with Haneke who talks about where he got the inspiration from for this picture and how he went about getting the project seen through to completion. He puts it into context alongside some of his other work and does a nice job of talking about this important early work in his filmography. Menus and chapter stops are also included.
71 Fragments Of A Chronology Of Chance: A twenty-three minute interview with Haneke is the primary supplement on this disc and he discusses the film and its origins in a fair bit of detail. Haneke comes across as slightly happier here than in some of the other interviews and he seems to really enjoy the chance to explain his take on this particular film to viewers. As usual, a filmography, menus and chapter stops are also included.
If the presentation of the films in this collection was better, The Michael Haneke Collection would certainly rate higher than it does as the movies themselves are quite good, some are even outstanding. Sadly, Kino's transfers leave a lot to be desired and the audio, while serviceable, is nothing to write home about either. The supplements add some nice contextual information to a few of the films but one can't help but feel that there could have been more effort put into this department as well. Consider the set recommended on the strength of the films alone, and hope that some day Kino will see fit to fix the botched transfers. Until then, fans are either stuck with these discs or are going to have to rely on superior imports from Europe to see these fine films.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.